Tag Archives: Ambient Rhetoric

Coda: Rickert’s Wonderful World of Oz Meets Pocahontas

First, an aside: I couldn’t stop myself from thinking of this scene from The Wizard of Oz in an entirely new way. While it’s clearly made with the human worldview of home in mind, I began to think of the technology of the sepia tone, the production tools, the stage scenaries and props, a plot filled with concepts of place in terms of time and dreams, the natural (i.e., the tornado). Thanks a lot, Rickert.

I get it. There’s a pattern here; I think I finally see it. When I started reading Rickert’s Ambient Rhetoric, I thought this was a logical next step to our discussions of ecology, ecosystems, affordances, agency, and ANTS, to bring us full circle to Rhetorical Situation where we began. I had no problems buying into Rickert’s premise that the subject-object binary and rhizomatic network pathways so common to discussions of Internet network theories might need some additional theorizing to be really useful. After all, that’s what FrankenTheory building is all about, right? Taking the theories of others and repurposing them or resisting them to fit an application or case study we see as worthy of analysis?

Cave paintings

Cave paintings

So I enjoyed this text and found innumerable ways to connect it to AND frame our semester’s worth of reading. Rickert’s visit to antiquity – from cave paintings to Aristotle to Plato, to (dare I say it?) the 1970s ambient musician Eno and Microsoft Windows’ early operation system music all created a foundational premise for his argument that was quite engaging. I drank in his discussions of complex systems as evolving environments where – like Deleuze’s rhizome metaphor – the human subject is no longer “all that” given the way our networked lives have evolved to become, well, cyborg like. His discussion of the Earthrise image and the rhetorical nature it reveals, the importance of distinguishing between things and objects – it all really makes sense to me. In fact, I found Rickert articulating so well what I’ve envisioned for many years now: humans and our worldviews err in seeing ourselves through the lens of the “I” for it ignores the almost spiritual balance of existence. I’m avoiding using the words “ecosystem” and “ecology” because Rickert problematizes them in significant ways in Chapter 8, but if delivered through the ambient, these terms may be rendered “safe,” revealing (as he argues) ways these concepts and theorizing “place” as ambient “can be transformative … when it affects our mode of being in the world, making our relationship to the earth not that of subject to depicted object but that of mutually sustaining assemblages of humans and nonhumans fitted into an ecologically modulated world” (218).

I thought of the many movies I’ve watched over the last decade or more with an ecofriendly message – Wall-E, Avatar, Fern Gully, and the one that started it all, Pocahontas – and thought how even the rhetorical moves embedded there remained somewhat human-centered. Even when the messages (as Rickert points out) encourage an eco-consciousness, they still localize the human agency as primary, with rhetoric in persuasive mode rather than a transformative ontological relationship (163).


Even though Pocahontas’ “Color of the Wind” comes close to how I started envisioning Rickert’s approach to ambient rhetoric as “one in which boundaries between subject and object, human and nonhuman, and information and matter dissolve” (1), it soon became clear that it missed one of the features of an ambient rhetoric in terms of how “rhetoric’s comportment toward objects in turn shapes rhetoric itself” (204). As Rickert observes, ambient rhetoric:

  • Can’t be separated from “material being,”
  • Emerges from the environment,
  • This emergence and relationship aren’t simply due to human direction, and
  • In “grappling with these entangled, mutually coevolving and transformative interactions among persons, world, and discourses,” we will need “a new appreciation for…their complexity” (163).

In other words, environmental messages miss the mark when it comes to successfully achieving a rhetoric of ambience. I can already see the benefit of this revisioning to comp/rhet, and thought again and again of how this book takes the call to remap the canon of rhetoric made by Prior et al. in a new direction.

Rickert’s journey through Latour, Heidegger, Foucault, and others clearly qualifies as a FrankenTheory, finding and resolving a gap in the scholarship that – by pulling interdisciplinary threads – offers a richer theory. At the heart of this is the object/subject dichotomy and, as he argues, its continued control of our theories and applications of rhetoric. Rickert’s Ambient weaves together theorists of sociology, psychology, classical rhetoric, linguistics, and more as a means of exploring how these often stumble over a continued reliance on this either/or scenario. As the Borg would say, Rickert is taking the “biological and technological distinctiveness” of others’ theories and rhetorical history and adding it to his own to deal with our culture’s (and our field’s) “standard technological quandary where we are either masters of technology or by technology mastered” (204).

His turn to the technological has ramifications for the way MOOCs are currently being theorized as places of learning and places for teaching. His exploration of the image Earthrise as ambient was just the start. His argument that even the network metaphor is insufficient for the task is compelling, pointing out that it still relies heavily on a binary conceptualization of our complex system of inhabiting (122), a flaw he asserts is addressed by his theory of ambience.

Figure 2. Optical array and its variation following the observer position (from J. Gibson, 1979)

Figure 2. Optical array and its variation following the observer position
(from J. Gibson, 1979)

While looking for appropriate images to supplement my post this week, I came back across Maury’s recent post on her 3rd case study, which embedded an image from Gibson’s 1979 work on affordances and the visual similar to that on the left. I found these images to be especially productive in terms of thinking of what Rickert was framing in his book on rhetoric and ambience as the “I” centeredness of rhetoric’s history of discourse and meaning (and the way we often continue to theorize rhetoric and networks in a technological era of MOOCs and communications’ technology). Earlier in the term, I considered Latour’s actants as a way to frame discussions about Composition MOOCs, but Rickert layers in Heidegger seem to carry it a step further: “things make claims on us that help constitute not just the various kinds of knowledge we produce but also our very ways of being in the world” (229). In the case of a MOOC, many scholars (who resist dismissing education MOOC technologies as pedagogically blasphemous) would likely agree with this, and certainly Gibson’s theory of affordances would align neatly here. I can see how conceptualizing the online environment of a MOOC as an ambient place, where learning happens not merely at the direction of the human teacher/student, but also when theorized and discussed in terms of ways the diffusion of knowledge through such a complex system must always already be seen in terms of Foucault’s traces. Indeed, at times I wondered in the marginal comments in my book at whether ambient rhetoric is Foucault’s trace metaphor reborn. What would happen if we discussed learning / teaching / collaboration / writing in a MOOC in terms of “dwelling”? How might that open up the discussion about MOOCs as place and the technology’s impact on design as actant / ambient / attunement? In fact, Rickert’s chapter 7 provided me with a host of new ways to discuss the tensions of the place of MOOCs in education. His exploration of the concept of “dwelling” as an “ecological attunement to the environment” (223) may suggest students and teachers (human actants) are less well served when seen through the “worldview” of a God’s eye perspective and its resulting treatment of objects / subjects and their interpretation (224-25). In fact, Rickert’s theory of ambient rhetoric highlights the cultural lens that may have been at the heart of one of my arguments that a “nostalgic” approach to face-to-face pedagogy is at the core of some of our field’s tensions when it comes to online pedagogy practices.

Really, Rickert’s work brought together for me much of our semester’s trajectory. His theorizing is thick with name dropping, clearly demonstrating how to build a FrankenTheory to fill the gaps made visible by those who have come before. Throughout the work, he builds upon Heidegger’s theories of rhetoric in interesting pathways, reinforcing his view that an ambient rhetoric is preferred over traditional rhetoric in the way it becomes “a responsive way of revealing the world for others” (162). His book brought to mind rhizomes and networks, hardware and ANT. For me, even our final mind map took on new meaning as I read his argument that “the complex cannot be…analyzed through…the component elements but rather enters a new state of order … that transcends the initial state” (100). As we watched our mind maps grow in complexity, we might also say we have been“haunted by increasing points of connection but also by their interactive emergence into new forms” (101). Thus, after reading Rickert, I found myself wondering if being asked to reconceptualize and recreate our semester’s worth of work in Popplet might have been the plan all along.

Coda: it seems only appropriate that I conclude my final reading post with a rerun…

"The A Team": Dr. Romrigo

“The A Team”: Dr. Romrigo

Works Cited

Rickert, Thomas. Ambient Rhetoric: The Attunements of Rhetorical Being. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013.

Reading Notes: Althusser and Hall, Tip-Toeing Toward Ambient Rhetoric

Several interesting take-aways from this week’s reading – although I will only focus on a few that really struck me as intriguing points of intersections. Indeed, I really seem to have more questions than connections this time around, and so this post seems quite fragmented. But, here we go….

First: Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk “Changing Educational Paradigms” immediately came to mind while reading Althusser (and, to a lesser extent, Hall) this week. And so, I’ll begin by sharing this:

It’s fitting, I think, to jump next into Althusser’s input on the State-then-Educational System as ideological conditional “apparatus.” The concept of reproduction is key to both Althusser and Hall (and I suspect Rickert as well), but in slightly different forms – and I think in interesting ways. Althusser is, he asserts, promoting a “theory of ideology,” and advances a number of theses. But it’s where (i.e., which border node) Althusser seems to connect to Hall in terms of behavior and ideology that I found particularly worthy of note.

Production Line: Peeps

Production Line: Peeps

Althusser’s Marxist perspective frames his text in terms of the role of production in “social formation” (1). In order to keep this social formation in place, production plays a pivotal role, but this must be “reproduced” within the population in order to maintain it. To do this, he argues that this society must “reproduce (1) the productive forces, [and] (2) the existing relations of [the dominant mode of] productions.” Further, “what distinguishes the productive forces from the means of production” [emphasis mine] is “the reproduction of labour power.” But it isn’t simple addition to the labor pool; it’s reproduction that is key. And according to this author, reproducing the “infrastructure” or the economic base isn’t enough – the superstructure of state and ideology are what support the entire structure / system.

Interestingly, just when I think this is going to be a political / Marxist critique of ideological systems, Althusser insists that he is making a distinction between the “repressive state apparatuses” or RSA (the government or police forces) and the “ideological state apparatus” or ISA (the church, education, family, and even culture and literature). It is the ISA which is at the center of his theories in this chapter. Interestingly, he distinguishes between the two, in part, by referring to the scale of their function, with the ISA functioning “massively.”

(So I wondered at this point, what would Althusser think of educational MOOCs, which by this publication weren’t even a glint in a programmer’s eye?)

The turn toward the Educational system (supplanting that of the Family-Church influence) struck me as an interesting line of thinking given our graduate-level learning is currently focused on Theories of Networks, and we know that theories cannot be ideology / bias-free. When Althusser comments on what / how students learn (“’rules’ of good behavior” as well as “submission to the rules of the …ruling ideology”), I hear him channeling good old political Marxism, with ruling classes and the working classes at odds, but with class struggles taking place at these ISA sites.

(Would Foucault see these sites as nodes of differance?)

In other words, it isn’t enough to reproduce the working class system; the “relations of exploited to exploiters and exploiters to exploited” must also be reproduced. Thus, the nodes of the network PLUS the network relationships themselves are informed and multiplied.

Althusser’s a bit of a tough go for me at this point, but several of his points seem to provide potential connections into Hall’s article worth highlighting for future comparison to Rickert:

  • An individual’s “ideas are his material actions inserted into material practices governed by material rituals…themselves defined by the material” conditions / apparatus from which those ideas emerged.
  • “individuals are always-already subjects. Hence individuals are ‘abstract’ with respect to the subjects which they always already are.” (This reminded me a bit of the Hall comments about the relationship between individuals and society when it comes to mass communication methods and coding/decoding.)

Hall takes it from here: writing about mass communication studies as overly “linear” and lacking “a structured conception of the different moments as a complex structure of relations” (478), his statement strikes me as a possible push back to Althussers’ superstructure / linear materiality of these important relationships within complex systems involved in a “production process” (Hall 479). While Althusser focuses on ideological (re)production, Hall’s focus is on the systems of mass communication and coding/decoding messages passing through those systems (mainly television). Perhaps we might consider this a layer deeper – at the “genetic” levels” – of these infrastructures.

From http://www.richardcassaro.com/2011/10

From blog page: Richard Cassaro, 2011

First, Hall defines codes as “the means by which power and ideology are made to signify in particular discourses” (483). So if Althusser is concerned with ideologies’ reproduction through dominant systems like government-run educational institutions, Hall jumps into the deeper end of this pool on the subject of another object of similar charges – mass media. Rather than Althusser’s theorizing of the ideology itself, Hall’s focus is on the communication process – specifically explaining the four stages of communication: production, circulation, consumption (or use), and reproduction. Interestingly, Hall’s comments bear a similar tone to Althusser’s when he says that messages are imprinted by “institutional power-relations” at each of these four stages, essentially “reproducing a pattern of domination” (477). Each of these moments, he argues, should be seen as “different moments” in a “complex structure of relations” (478). Relations which, at least according to Althusser, are marked by public behaviors commensurate with some form of conditioning – or as Hall would assert, a coding and decoding.

Hall pushes back against theorists who linger too long over the outcome of behavior in this media-ideological brewing pot (480). Instead, he fixes his gaze on the communication Production-to-Reproduction scale and the naturalization of some meanings due to wide distribution. This, he says, has an “ideological effect” of “concealing the practices of coding which are present.”

(Is this, then, what Althusser would see as the process used by the ISA? And what would Foucault say or add to this?)

QR Code

QR Code

These codes become wrapped in Hall’s nuanced meanings of connotation and denotation as they infuse the “structure of discourses in dominance” where meanings can be mapped into hierarchical and “dominant or preferred meanings” (483). This power of relationship ties between coding and decoding bring to mind our early discussions of Hardware Theory, and the compartmentalized nature of that communication system.

(I wonder – how have digital spaces impacted this, especially as Hall asserts that dominance = a “pattern of ‘preferred readings’” that are distributed through these systems of mass communication?)

So Hall’s discussion of coding and decoding and the relationships between those two acts as independent yet co-limiting, creating a system of dependence and even perpetual balance which he calls “a fundamental alignment and reciprocity” (481) is at the root of “class struggle in language” (482), reflections of how ideology affects discourse at the connotative level.

Final note: Hall’s argument is situated in the midst of mass communication systems (like television) being theorized as ideological influences upon public behavior. He insists that it isn’t the behavior we need to study – it’s the system by which messages are coded and decoded in discourse that deserves closer study. Also of interest is his approach to the “subjective capacity” of television’s power to mediate / transfer messages and meaning (485). Althusser states that “actors…and their respective roles, are reflected in the very structure of all ideology,” but does that mean they are no longer individualized in his theorizing? Hall seems to think such individualization vs. subjectivity when it comes to successful decoding has been misrepresented. He argues that miscommunication happens – not because individuals “misinterpret” the messages intended meanings, but because there is a lack of reciprocity between the first and fourth stages of the communication process.

The idea of how knowledge (and ideologies) are transmitted and/or infused into a network or community is one that carries with it all sorts of sharp edges. Educators can either be facilitators of knowledge creation and transfer, or we can be ideological reproductive agents. According to Ken Robinson, our traditional system of education is a mass production line from K-16.

Are MOOCs treated with such critical suspicion in part because their structures violate this system?

And so, the final connection: Hall writes about the influence of the media to shape and transmit the “structure of discourses in dominance” (483). His “definition of a hegemonic viewpoint” as one which “defines within its terms the mental horizon … of possible meanings of a whole sector… of society” (486) seems to serve as the “how” to Althusser’s argument that ISAs (education) create that horizon. Class struggle for both authors begin, then, with communication networks.

Works Cited:

Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatus.” Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, Monthly Review Press 1971. Web (www.marxists.org).

Hall, Stuart. “Encoding, Decoding.” The Cultural Studies Reader, 3rd ed. Simon During, Ed. New York: Routledge, 1993.