Part Two: Making a Move on Ontology

Here are links to parts one and three of this essay.

Instead the purportedly “big” new materialist rhetoric is instead tiny, minimal even. Rhetoric is not so huge as to cover civilization. It does not take over after psychology explains coming to salience. I don’t believe there is a “realm of rhetoric,” neither in consciousness nor in the agora. I certainly don’t think “everything is rhetoric” or even that all things practice rhetoric.

Walsh asks if rhetoricians “have to make the move to ontology,” as if the discipline of rhetoric did not already have an implicit if not explicit ontology. If we are moving to ontology, where were we before? Is there not a theory of being that necessarily underlies the conceit that rhetoric-as-practice arises within conscious humans in the agora? Instead, I would argue that one thing a new materialist rhetoric does is question the existing ontology of rhetoric. However it doesn’t replace that existing ontology with a new answer. Instead it replaces it with an investigation.

Of course this is just my version of new materialist rhetoric—by which I don’t mean to suggest that others haven’t said similar things but only that I don’t mean to speak for others here. For me, rhetoric is minimally a capacity that might arise between two or more humans/nonhumans. Such encounters do not occur in an ontological vacuum, even if they occur in the vacuum of intergalactic space, so there are always larger ecological considerations. However the point is that in any given encounter, a capacity for rhetoric might arise. What is the capacity for rhetoric (as opposed, for example, to the capacity for thermodynamic exchange or electro-magnetic influence or tripping over a stick)? In the simplest terms I define it, a la Latour, as an encounter where one is “made to act.” As we know this “made to act” does not necessarily mean compelled to act. Instead it means something more along the lines of becoming linked into a network of actors that provide new inputs and new ways to act (e.g., distributed cognition).

I suppose one could begin by trying to establish two categories of being—those who can have this capacity and those who cannot. Similarly we can try to establish two categories of being—those who have agency/will and those that do not. But rather than deciding that in advance, I view new materialist rhetoric as a speculative realist/ “second empiricist” (again a la Latour) investigation into where and how these capacities and agencies arise.

To that, I would echo the point Jenny Rice makes in her response to the interview. “This is perhaps how I might explain what makes rhetoricians different from what Latour calls in the interview the ‘immense domain where people have made the voices of voiceless entities heard.’ Rhetoricians do not merely make voices heard; we are also on the lookout for ways to create new capacities for engagement” (436-7). For me this means that one of the principle aims of a new materialist rhetoric is to experiment with the development of new rhetorical capacities, insights that arise from realist/empiricist investigations. I think DeLanda puts this best when he differentiates between creating signification by “knowing that” and significance by “knowing how.” As he writes:

It is, of course, conceivable that idealists or empiricists could incorporate these two distinctions (know-that/know-how, signification/significance) into their theories of knowledge. But a realist for whom the world is filled with objective tendencies and capacities waiting to be actualized by skillful interventions, tendencies and capacities that provide a myriad of opportunities and risks, is in a much better position to take advantage of these insights. This, among other things, is what makes realism a better strategy to confront the political, economical, ecological, and technological problems of our time.

So this “big rhetoric” is really quite small. It’s just looking at one encounter at a time, trying to describe these capacities… and thinking about how we might turn them to practice