Rhetoric and the New Materialisms

Overview | Readings | Participants | Schedule | Resources

Diane Davis, University of Texas at Austin
Thomas Rickert, Purdue University

Kenneth Burke suggests in the Rhetoric that rhetoric’s basic function is “the use of words by human agents to form attitudes or to induce actions in other human agents.” Traditionally, and for the most part still today, the study of rhetoric concerns the concrete material effects (social, political, economic) of symbolic action, the power of language (or discourse more generally) not merely to reflect or represent “material reality” but to frame, alter, even constitute one’s perception of it.

What’s new in the “new materialisms,” however, is a non-naïve (deconstructed) attunement to the force of matter, not as symbolic action’s passive construct but as an actant in its own right. Post-Newtonian materialisms attend to complex interrelations between matter (bodies, things, environs), typically conceived as discrete chunks of nature, and an array of “non-natural” (cultural, technological, discursive) factors. That is, new materialisms tend to be uninterested in the metaphysically ingrained standoff between nature and culture: they attend and attune to rhetorical enactments irreducible to human symbol systems, demonstrating the dependency of symbolic meaning on distributed and intra-active relations among human and extrahuman “agents.”

At their best, new materialisms nudge scholarly conversation toward the ways in which matter matters, not instead of symbolic meaning but as a dynamic condition for it. In this seminar, we’ll address the growing impact this work is having on rhetorical theory’s self-understanding. We’ll contemplate the persuasive force of matter, what Barad (after Derrida) describes as an originary synthesis of matter and meaning, and ask: How might acknowledging this synthesis shift our understanding of language, of world, and the relation between the two? Or between mind and body? Nature and culture? If cognition itself must be reconceived as ecologically looped through material and nonhuman scaffolding, how might this new understanding of understanding impact rhetorical theory, practice, and pedagogy?

We’ll address selected precursors to new materialist thought before reading representative thinkers such as Barad, Bennett, Latour, Grosz, Kohn, and others, as well as a few texts by rhetorical scholars engaged in new materialist rhetorics. We will crowd-source a bibliography of new materialist and related work in the field and will hold breakout sessions in which participants workshop their new materialist projects for collaborative feedback. We’ll close by contemplating some of the definitional, methodological, political, and ethical issues new materialisms raise for rhetorical study and sketching possible future directions for new materialist rhetorics.