Making Waves Within Webs: Rhetorical Agency in a Complex World — CCCC 2009 – Session O.11

  • Kristen Seas, “Ripple Effect: A New Perspective on Rhetorical Agency”
  • Lars Soderlund, “Kairos and Emergence”
  • Marc Santos, “Social Bookmarking as Distributed Research”
  • Jeremy Tirrell, “Decorum and Emergent Ethics”

I was particularly interested in this panel, in part because I taught the session chair in a few technical writing / new media classes when she was an undergraduate, but also because the Emerging Social Software SIG on the previous night had done a lot of thinking about social bookmarking, so I was also looking forward to the talk by Santos.  I’m not a rhetorician, so I learned quite a bit from these panelists.

What follows are my rough notes, lightly edited.  My own comments are in square brackets.


Kristen Seas, “Ripple Effect: A New Perspective on Rhetorical Agency”

Taylor: We are living in a moment of unprecedented complexity. The Moment of Complexity.  Another way of articulating our postmodern condition. Post-humanist shift in perspective.  Capture the birth of network culture, but explains how discourse itself serves as a dynamic structure. Network culture is not about the solitary individual in apassive world; it revolves around relationships.

The framework of complexity – a complex adaptive system: self-organizing structures, non-linear reloationships that change over time to alter the structure itself. Ecosystems; non-linear connections and feedback loops that can throw off other elements in the system.

An open, changing system adapts to its environment; the tipping point is an emergent phenomena; unpredictable but  not random changes. Humanities should invest in seeing how complexity help us to understand human systems / cultural processes.  Text and context no longer distinguishable; meaning emerges as a function of the information sharing patterns, shaped through rhetoric.

Rhetorical traditions rely on assumptions that are incompabible; we presume rationality, intentionality. These presumptions hold us back from realizing that meaning is emergent and affective, not just logical.  No member of the system has exclusive agency over what is communicated. Who or what produces the message?

Postmoderm rhetoric acknowledges that individuals who speak or write cannot control the individual meanings denoted or connoted by the words they choose (whether those choices are conscious or otherwise).  

Draws on Cooper, “Ecology of Writing”; Syverson, Wealth of Reality; Edbauer, “Unframing Models of Distribution” and Rickert “In the House of Doing”  

Agency: something the subject possesses, exercised willfully and consciously, acting deliberately to achieve a determined goal. Authorial Control – writers possess the agency to invent texts consciously, willfully intervening in a response world of readers.

PoMo crisis: subjects are the outcomes of agency, writers are effects of discourse, “Death of the Author” assume a post-humanist subject, relational, collective interdependence with the world and others.

Compexity theory does not negate agency or the human subject’s ability to engage in agency; complexity theory affirms the agency of the writer. Taylor suggests using the subject as a screen, subjects filter the information from the noise; reflect that meaning into the world; screening is not a conscious, controlled action.

Agency is an emergent phenomenon. Emergency is the movement from noise to information.

Agency is Emergence. Ability to radically change the world is not solely up to us or our audience. We give up our control, but we still act. Agency is not a property that we possess, but a dynamic that emerges among us all.

Lars Soderlund, “Kairos and Emergence”

Opened with the “Obama phenomemon” but Obama the phenomemon emerges from his interaction with his followers and the culture.  From the audience perspective, what gets the audience ready for a speech where the connections are made? What makes an audience ready to buy into it?

What happens to an audience before kairos? What factors propitiate the emergence of the kairotic moment? Contemporary theory focuses on what happens in the moment of the communication, rather than the moment before.  Persuasion happens not when the speaker speaks to the audience, but it’s something that happens between them.  The “middle voice” describes the cooperation between the audience and the speaker. What forms audience receptivity?  

Audience member’s receptivity emerges is an emergent property between the extreme poles of absolute novelty and redundancy. Audience member’s assent relies on the audience member being familiar enough with the issue to understand it, but not so familiar that the message is boring.

Not your pro-con response to issues, but the degree to which they are new to you. Gorgias: persuasion depends on novelty.  Not subject to the traditional methods an audience would use to determine the “rectitude” of an issue.

You have to be new, but not too new; the audience has to have enough familiarity to have an in, after which they can be persuaded. If there is too much redundancy, no information is conveyed. Not enough redundancy, it’s not convincing. [Hilarious moment when loud mellow music from the next panel blasted through the partition; Soderlund shifted to a mellow voice that the audience of rhetors immediately recognized was a response to the music.]

Jeremy Tirrell, “Decorum and Emergent Ethics”

Ethics in a milieu of complexity. What happens to ethics when morality and agency are destabilized?

Andy Clark, cognitive scientist. Being There, Natural-Born Cyborgs.  The “soft self” – a contingent identity that emerges from interaction with a complex network.  It’s no more problematic to hold the concept of the distributed identity than to hold to a “skin bag” identity.  There are always forces, regardless of where we’re drawing the magic circle, that challenge a clear definition of ethical responsibility.  

Wikipedia… complex identities predicated upon text distributed across this network. Knowledge is produced by frequently competing “collaborations” that lead to conflict. A structure that functions as a designer environment, permitting the participants to add value [Well, not all the participants DO add value.]  Soft security – rarely stomping things out, usually there’s negotiation and mediation.  Wikipedia administrators create a goal-driven framework that works architecturally, to limit damage, works socially in offense, to get vandals out of the way of those who are doing good.  “Great Famine” page – otherwise known as the “Great Hunger” or “Irish Potato Famine.” Arbitrators don’t rule on content issues, but rather rule on conduct. Arbitrators deal with who was uncivil to whom.

User identities are constructed only through textual fragments, but their identities are coherent enough to be ethically culpable. One user’s defense is not that her information is correct, but that she is a valuable member of the community.  Banning a user would not prevent the human behind the user name from editing the page, because you can edit as an anonymous user.  But the threat to the user’s public identity is perceived by the user as real.

 Cicero on decorum, seemliness, harmony, beauty, balance.  Décor is a useful term for explaining what makes for ethical conduct in the system.  Ethics in Wikipedia: are you participating in keeping the system self-sustaining and healthy?  (What if the system is monstrous? Groupthink, dehumanization, immoral system.)  Nazi policies were not self-sustaining; aggressive expansion, keeping certain participants in the system from adding value; the system self-destructed.  What about right and wrong?  We sidestep that issue by discussing self-sustainment.

Made the jump to the sustainability of the economic system; environmental policy. It’s the job of the system to make us able to participate in the system in such a way that sustains the system.

Marc Santos, “Social Bookmarking as Distributed Research”

Classroom application? As teachers, reform the goals of research.  Traditional perspectives present researchers as a human activity (autonomous subject, original product). Teleological relationship between the research that gets done and the scholarship that’s produced.

Research = “re search”.  Think of research as “saying again” to a new audience. [But isn’t that the concept of publication?]  Glenn Gold “We search”.  Incorporate sharing, interacting, as part of the practice. L

ess an individual activity as a civic participation. Sharing is a powerful concept, underlying mantra of new media and digital culture.  Richard Lanham draws on “The Tragedy of the Commons.” The WWW is the “comedy of the commons” because our use does not consume it, users add to it.  Individual benefits, and cooperative ownership.

Expressed joy that we can call Fesh’s “The Web is Using Us” “canonical”.

Presented an overview of delicious.com for those in the audience who are unfamiliar [more than I expected, though my preference for geeky talks affects my expectations.  I carefully choose which rhetoric talks I attend, since I have no background in that field.]

The internet not only provides with more data, but also the data to help us make sense of that data. Demonstrated how his exposure to the term “webology” led him to the Journal of Virtual Worlds Research. Santos’s students developed some meta-tags so they could find each other.