My undergrad semniar in rhetorical theory is coming to a close–it has been a great semester, even if it involved more lecturing that I would have wanted. My students are currently working on research projects; the following is a quick response to a student question on the relationship between Marilyn Cooper’s essay “Being Linked to the Matrix” (an amazing survey of how ecological and network theory is surfacing across disciplines) and Jennifer Edbauer-Rice’s essay “Unframing Models of Public Distribution”:
Cooper is working against what we call an anthropocentric tradition that tends to conceptualize power purely in human terms. To simplify: do guns kill people or do people kill people? The traditional answer to this question is the latter, that people kill people. Guns are just a convenient tool.
A more ecological, or networked, philosophy would argue otherwise. It would argue that the tool impacts the way the person considers their options. Thus, while the ultimate “decision” to kill might reside in the individual, that decision has been shaped by contextual factors beyond their power/knowledge. Think of the Staples floorplan discussion in Weinberger–the store is organized in such a way as to unconsciously influence a shopper’s decision making process (for more of the guns vs people argument, see Bruno Latour, Pandora’s Hope, 174-215; for more of the Staples argument, see Sunstein and Thaler, Nudge). In academic terms, this is a debate over agency.
Why is Cooper bringing this up in a book on technology? Because historically humanists have been suspicious of technology (see Heidegger’s “The Question Concerning Technology”). Technology often operates as a scapegoat for social problems. Cooper wants us to realize–like Walter Ong–that writing is a technology, one that profoundly enables yet “nudges” our thinking in rational, individualistic, and anthropocentric directions. These directions have been amplified by Platonic/Kantian/Modern philosophy. If we begin to move away from these philosophies, if we being to rethink on individualistic orientation in favor of an ecological one, then we might be able to produce agents more connected and concerned with their surrounding world. Digital communicative technologies afford us a medium to implement and practice these changes.
You’ve got a handle on the Edbauer essay, she is interested in how publics are constructed through rhetorical activity.Think of splicing Cooper and Edbauer across this passage (from Cooper):
Writers are never separate from the rhetorical situation in which they write. They do not study the situation as something apart from them and then create in a vacuum a text that will change the situation; instead, they fully engage in the situation and respond to it. (27)
This gives us a starting point. Texts are responses to environments, not just isolated problems. Do you begin to see where I am going with this? The problem with Bitzer’s model is that it freezes time, and isolates “exigency.” Edbauer is interested in how things move, not what things are. Or, to be more exact, she is not exclusively interested in what things are. Rather, see is trying to trace down the complex, networked pathways through which things become–transforming/transformed by the other things they encounter; mutating and attracting, repulsing and inspiring. My best practical example for this is the 99% meme on Facebook. What started as a single photo quickly became a series of photos that, of course, inspired the conservative 52% counter-meme.
To rip Cooper and Edbauer together quickly: Things become by circulating through networks. There is no pre-relational essence that determines what something is.