Book Review: Thinking with Bruno Latour in Rhetoric and Composition

        One could certainly be forgiven for asking the customary question in response to the title of this book review: what does a French sociologist and anthropologist, with no training in composition and seemingly no knowledge of rhetoric studies’ existence as a discipline, have to contribute to the field of academic and classroom work known colloquially as rhetoric and composition? Our discipline has, of course, long moved on from defining itself in terms of continental French theory, and few would be persuaded that we need add another to the long line of thinkers we’ve at times differed analysis of linguistics, philiologies, and language-based philosophies to. Nevertheless, Bruno Latour is here to stay. He is the “hot new thing” in rhetoric and composition: he has been for a while now. To answer the question of why this is, one might consult the impressive body of Latour-influenced literature in rhetoric and composition academic literature. One might also consult 2015’s publication, from Southern Illinois University Press, of the edited collection Thinking with Bruno Latour in Rhetoric and Composition.

        Surveying the fields of writing studies, communication, and rhetorical studies, Paul Lynch and Nathaniel Rivers identify and map the impact Latour and Latourian-influenced thinking has already had on scholarship over the last few decades. Latour is known for his pioneering work in the realm of science studies, and also for his controversial assertions concerning objects, agency, and networked existences that culminate in his expansive writings on what he terms Actor-Network Theory (or ANT- the pun on the tiny insect is not lost on Latour here). Lynch and Rivers, in their introduction titled Do You Believe in Rhetoric and Composition?, outline the various ways in which Latourian methodologies and modes of thinking (of which actor-network theory is but one among many) might hold potentials to mobilize changes in not just college classrooms and academic hallways, but popular democratic discourse and deliberation as well. And though the frames of mind championed by Latour– expansive, all-encompassing, versatile, fluctuating, malleable, distributed, ecological, widespread, even radically co-constructive— have been with rhetoric forever, Lynch and Rivers remind us that “rhetoric reading Latour is like remembering something we thought we always knew, like a not-quite repressed memory edging forward in our minds” (2). There is something haunting rhetoric, something not quite forgotten, but rather something lapsed, something neglected, something buried but not erased.

        This something, perhaps, is what some might call “big rhetoric,” drawing on Edward Schiappa, or alternatively “The Strong Defense” in the parlance of Richard Lanham. For Lanham, truth is determined through the playing-out of social dramas. Rhetoric, mobilized in this conception, is not “ornamental,” but rather is “determinative, essentially creative” (156). Lynch and Rivers concur with this conception, laying out a foundation for rhetoric and rhetoric studies which allows rhetoric to no longer be subject to the good and to the truth, but rather lets the good and the true become subjects of rhetoric as played out through politics, social dramas, and human interaction (3). It is here that Latour is brought in: his social dramas include humans, just as typical conceptions of rhetoric do, but in addition include nonhuman agents. People, in Latour’s conception that is extended by Lynch and Rivers, are not the only actors to engage rhetorically. Nonhumans, or objects, do as well: differently. The strong defense becomes the strange defense (3). Rhetoric is bigger.

        Lynch and Rivers assemble a network in which rhetoric becomes concerned not with “words or things,” but rather with “words and things.” They conceptualize all constructions– of rhetoric, of truth, of reality– to be a product assembled by humans, but not solely by humans. Objects, nonhumans, microbes, atoms, chemical reactions, magnetism, wind patterns– all participate in a collective, and they participate rhetorically, using rhetoric and being used by rhetoric. The strange defense of rhetoric grows toward “escaping the constraints of binaries we neither created nor honor,” allowing rhetoric to “mutate byond the human/nonhuman divide” (4). For the writers assembled in this collection, rhetoric is conceived as a gathering (all Heideggerian connotations present and encouraged) in which rhetoric’s new thing, rhetoric’s new object, are things and objects themselves. Rhetoric enters the world through objects, media, things, yes; but also rhetoric enters the world by the objects, the media, the things themselves. For Lynch and Rivers, the fully suasive act will “gather human and nonhuman in a stronger– and strangers– articulation” (5). They tell us that Kenneth Burke’s conversations in his rhetorical parlor have shifted. In the Latourian parlor, the furniture matters just as much as the human voices sitting in it. They develop an understanding, an ontology, in which “the world can be productively understood as a rhetorical machine fueled by both persuasion and technology, each shaping the other.” It is here that we recall how agency is not something we own, but rather is something we enact, something we create, something we locate, develop, transcribe, and distribute.  Latour’s importance for rhetoric, then, is revealed to be multifaceted, plastic, and continually being probed. Latour’s concern with technologies as rhetoric-producing objects connects, in his mind, with composition in that “truth production is a process of sentence production” (qtd. in Lynch and Rivers, 9). Truths are assembled by many actors, not all of them humans (few of them, actually), but are no less true for being produced, or for by who produces them. In fact, for Rivers and Lynch, truths become even more true when they are persuasively argued and carefully scripted. They rely upon the collective, the network, the assemblage to produces them and reproduces them. They rely on those entities to maintain them as well, and could not exist independently.

        The genre of the book review is, regrettably, unable to satisfactorily summarize all of the essays in an edited collection. With that in mind, I’d like to select the most productive and generative individual essay within Thinking with Bruno Latour in Rhetoric and Composition, and explore it a bit further.

        Marilyn M. Cooper, in her essay “How Bruno Latour Teaches Writing,” details the methods in which Latour, a sociologist and anthropologist, has self-professed himself as envisioning his work primarily as grounded primarily in writing, writing instruction, and in teaching languaging in its various possibilities. Cooper recalls Latour comparing writing to a laboratory, a place for trials, experimentations, simulations: a place for a “collaborative construction project in which humans and nonhumans participate as actors” to create, discover, and most importantly experiment. Writing is, and always has been, an experiment, a trial, an ecology: it renders virtualities actual, as Deleuze and Guattari might say. We do not teach writing this way, however: we teach it as a flat, blank slate, rather than a living, breathing organism, or better yet, a network of organisms. Cooper sets out to move Latour into her rhetoric and writing courses, and into her conceptions of rhetoric itself as well. She notes how, for her, truth is always provisional; it is always truth for now. She also transforms our conceptions of what knowledge itself is to account for a more Latourian approach: she forgoes knowledge’s traditional status as cohesive object, as static boundary, and foregrounds “knowledge as a mode of existence,” knowledge as a flow, knowledge as an assemblage of connections in movement.

         The real value of Cooper’s essay, though, comes in its concluding pages, in which she mobilizes her understandings of networks, assemblages and collectives to echo an argument Latour sets out in his highly controversial and highly influential essay Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam? Moving from Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern. Perhaps, Cooper says, we should teach our rhetoric and writing students to think of their work as experimental, like a scientist in a laboratory might, as “producing new knowledge, not reporting what is known?” (193). She asks what would happen to the FYC classroom, the technical writing classroom, the creative writing classroom, if students and instructors alike “thought of the facts they discover as provisional, part of a trajectory of knowledge, and not as final truths?” (193). In Cooper’s classrooms, students design their own research projects, identify their own hypothesis, test their own conceptions, make their own discoveries about the world. They never work alone, instead working independently-together with the rest of the classroom, both in person and online in digital spaces that allow the sharing, circulation and networking of resources, materials, ideas, comments, shares, even suggestions. Latour and ANT tell us that a student cannot compose alone. Why do we pretend they can? They are always in a network; they are always forming assemblages; they are always part of a collective. If students are encouraged to not only report on what they find (research), but also to produce something new (rhetoric) in a collaborative, connected, distributed and ecological process, don’t they discover far more about writing, about language, about rhetoric than they would with traditional approaches? When students generate and compose new knowledge, they form new connections, mobilize new networks, they  bring rhetoric and identities into new collages. They discover, and they experiment. And experimentation, to me, is what rhetoric is all about.

Works:

Lynch, Paul and Nathaniel Rivers, eds. (2015). Thinking with Bruno Latour in rhetoric and composition. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Lanham, Richard (1993). The electronic word: democracy, technology and the arts. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Print.

Schiappa, Edward. Second thoughts on the critique of big rhetoric. Philosophy and Rhetoric 34(3).

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