Craft, Plentitude, and Negation: Delivery in Post-Consumer Rhetorics
In an article about the writing of William S. Burroughs, Marshall McLuhan describes how “men’s nerves surround us; they have gone outside as electrical environment” (in Skerl and Lydenberg, p. 69). Further, McLuhan describes Burroughs’ books, Naked Lunch and Nova Express, as “a kind of engineer’s report of the terrain hazards and mandatory processes, which exist in the new electronic environment” (ibid.), a characterization Burroughs himself makes (Naked Lunch, p. 224). This bit of literary criticism by McLuhan points not only to the production and reception of messages, but to the production and reception of environment as well. Having turned our insides out, we are confronted with a new awareness of our nervous system, its processes, circulations, effects, stimulations, affective registers, and speed.
So, while Porter is absolutely right, there are dimensions left out of his treatment of digital delivery. My only critique here is that the ideas haven’t been pushed far enough. With posthuman, post-consumer, electronic, environmental thinking we can neither so easily separate representations from being nor compartmentalize the rhetorical canons themselves. Rather, there are continual crossings of channels, modes, and heuristic categories. I want to call attention to a few ways these categories are crossed and repartitioned in new ways, not just severed and fragmented. Indeed, the repartitioning and reworking of what were once separate domains is precisely how I want to look at the notion of “craft” in an expanded, almost Burroughsian sense.
Like real bodies, corporate bodies must ingest raw material and process them into useful enzymes, proteins, aminos, peptides, or vitamins. All these organs are already on display with the mosquito mouth of every oil rig, Molycorp’s great baleen mouths sifting for neodymium and scandium at the Mountain Pass mine in California, the GIS-perfect rows of corn that hashtag the Iowa landscape, and the twirling windmill lungs helping to oxygenate the electrical blood that feeds the whole shebang. Let’s not also forget, as Shawn and Kristi Apostel (2009) have argued, these bodies shit, too. In China, Ghana, and other developing countries, residents are appropriated like intestinal bacteria to smelt out the lead and gold from refuse heaps of sloughed off e-waste. These are all part of the delivery systems we use and which Burroughs points us to. But they are the part of the delivery system we do not like to focus upon. It is understandable the ease with which we – and the corporate bodies with which we are entangled – might want to become ghostly.
Now, it would be easy to launch at this point into the tired, dystopian environmental scenarios that mutate from the DNA of Frankenstein and Blade Runner. I do think there are dire consequences for not paying attention and for slowing turning into ghosts of a ruined world. However, I do not mean to launch a regressive environmental screed against industrialization and technology. It is not a question of a binary between one or the other. Our ecology has already become technology, or more accurately, our environment is continually becoming ourselves – both in the literal sense, as well as in the form of our externalized organs. To argue against technology is to argue against who we have become.
While it is legitimate, perhaps necessary, to question who we have become, we must also accept who we are. I am neither entirely critical of nor entirely sanguine of that. As Colin Beavan writes in his book, No Impact Man, environmentalists of recent years have done much to pivot away from the austerity-minded, smaller versus bigger, back-to-the-land thinking of “the old environmentalism of the 1970s” (p. 216). Contemporary environmental activists like Wes Jackson’s The Land Institute are developing technology in ways that impact the environment differently with the understanding that existence itself implies impact. And, of course, there is the kind of thinking about environment and environmentalism exemplified by scholars like Timothy Morton who said that ecological thought is “a matter of how you think. Once you start to think ecological thought, you can’t unthink it: it’s a sphincter – once it’s open there’s no closing” (p. 4).
So, it is not a question of switching to “green” technology or retrofitting current systems to work in ways that pollute less, recycling, or eschewing electronic hardware altogether. To get at real change, we need to move beyond solutions structured by binaries.
Indeed, there are rumblings that this project is already be underway. However, because the thinking about this is not dialectical, the style of engagement allows for an understanding of how the more traditional concerns of Porter or the Apostels are linked with readings of Burroughs’ manual for an electronic age. Put more simply, I argue that we can better follow the swirl of what Felix Guattari called the three ecologies: the natural, social, and mental. Technology spans all three, touching and affecting each in different ways. Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter (2010) outlines the political ecology that might inform a more robust digital delivery. Reading John Dewey and Jacques Ranciére through a Latourian lens, Bennett outlines a potential alternative to our current political ecology as well as extending Latour’s call for a reassembling of the social. She writes
Theories of democracy that assume a world of active subjects and passive objects begin to appear as thin descriptions at a time when the interactions between human, viral, animal, and technological bodies are becoming more and more intense. If human culture is inextricably enmeshed with vibrant, nonhuman agencies, and if human intentionality can be agentic only if accompanied by a vast entourage of nonhumans, then it seems that the appropriate unit of analysis for democratic theory is neither the individual human nor an exclusively human collective, but the (ontologically heterogeneous) “public” coalescing around a problem” (108).
Transposing this to rhetorical delivery, we might then ask who are the “publics” coalescing around the problem of getting a message out, circulating it, and even transmuting it across media platforms. We may also ask who the nonhuman subjects are – as Porter does to a limited extent – but take it further: who else is linked to those nonhuman subjects in roles of maintenance, supply, or servitude whether willing or coerced? What do these publics do? Where do they get their fix? How do they shit and who is their shit good for? Such questions may not only broaden who we consider when delivering messages and ideas, but refigure the idea of delivery itself.
Bennett argues further that achieving this will likely require a changing of perspectives via transgressive assemblages, much like the example she cites from Ranciére about the plebians interruption of the Roman Republic. In that example, there is an assemblage that is not so much oppositional “in the manner of the Scythian slaves” (p. 105) as parallel with their own speeches, imprecations, consulting of oracles, and representatives. In this way, “the plebs managed to repartition the regime of the sensible” (p. 106). Such a repartitioning is necessary for us as a public to see the alien mugwumps and alien objects who carry our messages and how delivery is distributed and open up space for a re-identification of alien allies. Burroughs may not be the most rhetorically or pedagogically effective manual to use at this point. But he has pointed the way.
Economist Juliet Schor (2010) has similarly argued for the establishment of a more decentered, autonomous, yet parallel set of economic markets that are now possible through social media sites like Ebay, Etsy, and Dawanda as well as through community links to farmers markets, craft goods, and local products. By switching, as much as possible, to local and craft markets linked electronically, she argues that we may reap a host of benefits in the form of downshifting, alternative transportation, and community involvement, all part of what she calls “the new plentitude.” Underneath the surface of her data, I think there are signs of rhetorical delivery in the materialist way I have suggested here. According to the American Craft Council in Minneapolis, whom I would like to thank for their generous research assistance, sites like Etsy have grown from $181 million in sales in 2009 to $314 million in 2010, has about 14 million members, and serves about 2.2 million U.S. citizens per month. But the materials sought out and used by individual craftspeople, from specialty hops and grains to wools and dyes, pigments, and heirloom seeds are the material. No longer aiming for a catchall variety of seed like Yellow Dent #5 corn, we now also aim for Black Aztec, Mandan Bride, and Country Gentleman varieties. It is not a rejection of capital, but a shift in the space of commodification. It is a material diversity which has an impact and yet avoids the paradox because its impact is different. These are repartitioned regimes of the sensible, telling new tales and offering new lessons.
From this vantage point, crafts become more than simply objects, processes, heuristics, or knowledge. Craft becomes spatialized with the potential to rework our material networks. Such action cannot come by negating the status quo, but must build upon it, non-dialectically. As Schor argues, true wealth is found in lots of time at parks, public gatherings, in working around 21 hours per week, and perhaps even taking in a pint at the local watering hole and reviewing it online later that day. So, we must accept how things are even as we admit faults beyond any individual. Craft, then, is not only an aesthetic object, form, or activity, but a political and social actant. It doesn’t replace art or posit heuristics, but is a dynamic and fluid category enmeshed with our material lives. As theorist, Peter Dormer, calls it, craft is “the workmanship of risk” (p. 150).
With contemporary rhetorical delivery, we need to confront our expanded means on 1) visual display, 2) embedded coding, and 3) material support of circulation, but we also need to remain open to happenstance. How might each of these engage risk in productive, perhaps even transgressive, ways? By looking at the material support of delivery and circulation, what kinds of risks, transgressive or not, are we willing to take? Who and what do we identify or want to identify as engaged in each of these? Who gets left out?
Both the workmanship of risk and attention to who is enmeshed in one’s delivery are increasingly important considerations as we think about and teach rhetoric. But, finally, any consideration of one canon from my perspective can’t be channeled solely to a single one. As we think about and teach delivery in new ways, we need to also cross our wires, so to speak, and admit that rhetoric as a whole is changing as both exigency and response.
Changes in how we approach delivery will affect how we approach style and arrangement. Ben McCorkle (2012) points out in Rhetorical Delivery as Technological Discourse how paragraphs spatialize the printed page but are grounded in earlier, oratorical markings of texts (pp. 115-16). Like Porter, he traces this into contemporary rhetoric with attention to design and the more visual features of print. But he also traces how delivery has crawled out quite a bit from its subordination in the belletristic tradition. McCorkle notes how Hugh Blair theorized the text as primary to the speech. As a result,
with so much attention placed upon how the stylistic effects played in the minds of the audience, the notion that handwritten texts imitated printed ones on a material level – what we might call a nascent or invisible form of delivery – was not given overt treatment. Rather, these rules got hidden, conflated with principles of style and arrangement, and were theorized as “natural” forms of persuasive writing (112).
So, we are caught in a swirl of objects, aliens, nightmarish creatures, and ghosts. Once ascribed to our inner workings and psyche, this menagerie is more and more externalized in very real and material ways, across distributed networked systems. But we might take some comfort in that if we can see with different eyes or read a different set of manuals on them. Rather than modernist eyes who see only orcs and ringwraiths and who long for the comforts of a quiet home, rather than the corporate/ Hollywood eyes of Monsters, Inc. who make a world of monsters that are just like people, we might look out with more child-like eyes and see Wild Things on a distant shore, knowing we can dance with them, be hailed by them as their king, but still return to find our dinner waiting.
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