Consubstantiating Ecologies: Inter-Machinic Rhetorics and Networked Microchip Communications
Sheller and Urry (2006) argue that, among other changes to the ways mobility is theorized in light of the microchip revolution, networks of humans, objects, and technologies should be foregrounded especially in relation to material infrastructures (215). They theorize hybrid systems of humans and nonhumans that function as systems, networks, and circulatory avenues of mobility which work partly through communications between different objects, machines, and technologies. For Sheller and Urry, structure cannot be separated from process or from system, especially when considering networks of mobility (212). Considering this, we might benefit from more sustained attention to the ways objects such as microchips, RFID tags, and GPS-connected devices circulate, distribute, and promulgate, especially as they coordinate toward defined, predetermined purposes. All the while, we might draw attention to the ways objects, machines, and technologies communicate with one another, both in ways that are readily appreciable by humans and in ways existing entirely outside of human perception. Indeed, global infrastructures, both material and procedural, function as unheralded collections of agents that, when assembled, allow for the functioning of an everyday cosmopolitan mobility that is a hallmark of the contemporary globalized public sphere. These machines, as they interact, connect, and coordinate among themselves, may even realize what James J. Brown (2014) calls the robot rhetor, any machine that “takes input, applies procedures, and generates output” (497). These inter-machinic rhetorics, I contend, can be framed as being at least partially connected to traditional rhetorical concerns such as identification and consubstantiality, with various impact and implications.
Mobility is never distributed evenly or uniformly distributed, of course, but instead privileges some actants at the expense of others. Cresswell (2010) comments that mobility always contains political dimensions and considerations, including those defined by groups in power that disenfranchise communities, especially on the basis of race, gender, class, and sexual orientation. He mentions that the United Nations and the United States maintain the power to define what counts as acceptable mobility and movement, and to define what doesn’t. He also discusses RFID tags and chips in contexts of mobility, including their use in airports, livestock, and cross-border identification (28). Here, we witness rhetorical exchanges between tags, chips, Readers, machines, as well as human agents themselves, all of which contribute to forming the taken-for-granted material infrastructures necessary to maintain systems of air transport, highway coordination, or agriculture livestock management. This perked my interest: what would inter-machinic rhetorics look like? What would it mean to examine in-depth the ways chips, tags, Readers, sensors, and other technologies to communicate with one another in ecologies at least partially beyond human experience? What happens to classical notions of rhetoric, such as identification and consubstantiality, when no human agent is involved in the rhetorical exchange, but only machines?
The rhetorics that connect consubstantial machines are of course partially readable by human agents, but never in the same way or through the same lenses as other machines who “read” the rhetorics circulating through spaces such as the highway, the factory, or the airport terminal. Machine capacity for communication and for expression is not limited to human use or to perceived productivity and benefit as defined anthropocentrically, but rather is capable of forming ecologies of machine-only networked consubstantiality that we humans take for granted and perhaps are not even capable of accessing.
These inter-machinic rhetorics (in the contexts covered here, at least) are less concerned with traditional definitions of rhetoric such as persuasion, eloquence, or identification, but rather are more attentive toward coordination and toward maintaining consistency of motion within a system. For example, the RFID tag embedded in a cow’s body passing through a livestock exchange gate finds a willing audience in RFID Readers that scan it for its nested information. Clearly, the RFID tag does not readily need to persuade the Reader to accept its information; if it does, it does so instantly and generally without question, assuming no defects in the agents involved in the machinic rhetorical exchange, either the tag or the Reader. Here, the rhetorical exchange that occurs can be characterized as involving relatively little persuasion, relatively little identification, and certainly very little eloquence. Rather, the rhetorical exchange here comes somewhat close to enacting what Laurie Gries calls “constant assembling” (333). Gries’ conception of rhetoric highlights how “rhetoric is and always has been about the act of assembling,” meaning that in our case, the act of coordinating an assemblage of sensory, information-embedded objects which communicate with one another through inter-machinic networks of coordination is differently rhetorical, is a rhetoric that is coordinative far more than it is persuasive, and finally achieves differently something akin to what Kenneth Burke (1969) called identification and consubstantiality. As Jones, Karnowski, Ling, and von Pape remind us, we are still only capable of partly imagining the impacts that mobile technologies will have as they interact with one another (4). This speculation, however, is well worth the consideration, as anyone who has ever lost luggage at an airport can attest to.
Burke, K. (1969). A rhetoric of motives. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Brown Jr., J.J. (2014). The machine that therefore I am. Philosophy & Rhetoric 47(4), pp. 494-514.
Cresswell, T. (2010). Toward a politics of mobility. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space (28), 17-31.
Gries, L.E. (2019). Writing to assemble publics: making writing activate, making writing matter. College Composition and Communication 70(3), pp. 327-355.
Jones, S., et al. (2013). Welcome to Mobile Media & Communication. Mobile Media & Communication 1(1), pp. 3-7.
Sheller, M. & J. Urry. (2006). The new mobilities paradigm. Environment and Planning A, Vol. 38, pp. 207-226.