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Composition Forum 30, Fall 2014

Transcript for Experiencing Ambience Together: A Sonic Review of Thomas Rickert, Ambient Rhetoric: The Attunements of Rhetorical Being

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Kyle D. Stedman and Jonathan Stone

This is a transcript for the audio-based Experiencing Ambience Together: A Sonic Review of Thomas Rickert, Ambient Rhetoric: The Attunements of Rhetorical Being.

Part 1: An Everyday Introduction to Ambient Rhetoric: Concert Communities, Definitions, New Approaches

[Music: Szymon Pytel, “Night Walk”]

Jon: Welcome! My name is Jon Stone. I'm at the University of Illinois.

Kyle: I'm Kyle Stedman from Rockford University. We're here today to talk about Thomas Rickert's Ambient Rhetoric: The Attunements of Rhetorical Being, a book that came out recently on the University of Pittsburgh Press.

J: In 2013.

K: When I think of a normal book review that I see in a journal, that I hold in my hand in print, I expect it to walk me through each of the chapters, I expect it to praise the really good stuff and make connections to other scholarship on the topic. And I think we're gonna do some of that—we're trying to let people have a sense of what some of the important parts of this book are. But it's more than that too, right?

J: Exactly. I think what we're hoping to accomplish here is to attune listeners to the fact that this is a sonic experience, that you're listening to our voices rather than reading our words. And in fact, Kyle and I are both interested in sound and rhetoric, and so we're gonna try to bring our particular interests to this book and talk really about the ways that Rickert and his book Ambient Rhetoric provide tools for us to, like, to do the work that we love to do. And I think that's the conclusion—we're revealing the end in some way here!—the conclusion that we both came to is that the language, the approach, some of the theoretical concepts that Rickert comes to in Ambient Rhetoric really do lend themselves well to thinking through the ways that rhetoric is related to sound.

K: Right.

[Sound: crowd cheering at a concert, fading into the beginning of Pearl Jam playing Release live at Wrigley Field]

J: 2013 was a big year for me and you, Kyle.

K: Absolutely.

J: We went to a concert together.

K: We did. And even though this is a book review in a sense, we want people to get a sense of some of the important stuff here. I actually am really hoping we'll talk about Pearl Jam.

J: [Laughs] Yeah. Last summer Kyle and I had the opportunity to go see Pearl Jam at Wrigley Field, which was kind of awesome. This amazing opportunity to see this iconic band from the 90s—we both grew up in the 90s.

K: It was awesome in a lot of ways, and when I tell the story, I always say, “Man, it was just so amazing.” And yet I think there were a lot of ways that it didn't feel awesome in the moment. We both had some trouble getting there, there was, oh, by the way, that massive storm that kept us there until 2 a.m.! [Laughs]

J: Yeah. All the while being serenaded by this music that has meant so much to us, or it used to mean so much to us, as kids.

K: For sure!

J: And also being in this really iconic place: Wrigley Field. The stage was set up in center field, right underneath the green scoreboard that is so well known. Kyle and I got onto the field and looked around and there were thousands of people there, many in Pearl Jam shirts from like 1992 when they saw them at Lollapalooza in Phoenix, Arizona.

[Pearl Jam singing Release: “I see the world, feel the chill. Which way to go? Windowsill.”]

K: Totally.

J: And then also peppered by Cubs fans and baseball t-shirts and the workers at Wrigley, most of whom were probably over 60 years old—all of us were there to experience this concert.

K: And they, the band, brought that place very purposefully into part of the performance: after the very long—how long was it? 3 hours? Rain delay?

J: Well there was a rain delay. They had played for only like 8 songs and all of a sudden this huge storm was supposed to come. It actually didn't come for what, an hour and a half after they promised it would be there. It was a rain delay! Very baseball.

K: Very baseball! And after that rain delay they started the 2nd—I want to say 2nd half, but it was the second two thirds—by introducing a song written at the request of Ernie Banks, a legendary Cubs player, written at his request about Wrigley Field, about the Cubs. And they sang it in that place, they invited Ernie Banks to stage, Ernie said, “Here is the baseball glove that Eddie Vedder bought here when he was five years old when he was growing up in Evanston, Illinois around the corner,” and now he's taking it back. So it was interesting how all of these places were brought into the musical event, brought into the communication from the stage with the fans, and we couldn't forget it. It was clearly part of what was going on.

J: Right. And I've been to a lot of shows up in Chicago, living in Champaign, Illinois right now, and none are as memorable as this Pearl Jam show, mostly because the expectations that I had about the show actually weren't met! I went thinking I was going to have one experience and ended up having a completely different one. And that difference has meant a lot to me related to the meaning of the show afterwards.

K: And meaning is a word that gets us towards the book, isn't it?

J: Yeah! That's exactly what I was thinking about. We were thinking about an experience we both had together that lended itself well to thinking through some of the concepts of this book, and this Pearl Jam show really does that in a lot of ways because of the emphasis on the sounds that were happening there, the people, the relationships, the place—both the place being Wrigley Field as kind of a place in Chicago that a lot of people gravitate towards who are baseball fans, but also—and Kyle mentioned this—Eddie Vedder's kind of deep, embedded histories, the histories that he had. Familial histories with Chicago, with the baseball stadium.

K: He called the stadium the crown jewel of the planet at one point. And he was kind of building up, saying, “This is not only one of my favorite cities to play in, but this is the crown jewel of the planet itself.”

J: Alright, at the risk of making this too much about Pearl Jam and not enough about Ambient Rhetoric, what was rhetorical about this experience? There was something about this experience that lended itself well as we were both reading Ambient Rhetoric to thinking through some of the concepts that Rickert introduces there. Concepts like ecology, attunement, embeddedness—just this idea of ambience itself, because that night it seemed like the concert we were experiencing was way more than just the typical experience of going and listening to a band that you like play songs.

K: Right. And it clearly wasn't rhetorical in kind of the classical sense, unless we're saying, “What were the rhetorical strategies that the band used to help us create the meaning that they wanted us to?” That doesn't quite fit here, it's more complicated than that. There's histories, and material, and emotions, and all these things that were in this big, crazy, messy ecology that led it to mean the experience that it meant for us.

J: Right. If anything, the rhetoric kind of inhered around this idea of expectations. There were certain expectations about what seeing Pearl Jam at Wrigley Field would be like. Something else was going on that was causing us to have a reaction in certain ways. And certainly it wasn't just us. We were there, being with thousands of other people with similar expectations, but also having an experience that couldn't have been anything else, but was completely different from what we expected.

K: Right. And that experience wasn't designed by anyone, right? It was undesignable. It was a sense of—if we can turn to some of the book's language—I think it was a sense of the world disclosing itself to us, and by the world, I mean all those things we were talking about. So even with that whole story we haven't said anything yet about what this has to do with rhetoric itself, so let me turn to an interesting quote from really early in Rickert's book. This is from the Preface—or the Introduction. There's an Introduction and a Preface, and this is the Introduction. He writes that “[Rhetoric] must diffuse outward to include the material environment, things (including the technological), our own embodiment, and a complex understanding of ecological relationality as participating in rhetorical practices and their theorization” (3). Help me unpack that a little bit, I think it's important.

J: Yeah, there's a lot there, isn't there? But I think this will also help to kind of structure our review because these are the things I think that we're the most interesting in and excited about. I think what's most interesting in this particular definition is not necessarily the way that it's different from classical rhetoric, but the way that it builds upon it. The way that it encourages a broader understanding of what we mean when we talk about rhetoric. Rickert is really good throughout the book in bringing in all kinds of other things that are often overlooked in the typical—I guess it's Aristotelian?—approach to rhetoric, that rhetoric is the ability in any given situation to find the given ways of persuasion.

K: And to kind of control that, right? To kind of kairotically assume control over what people experience, as if we could.

J: So in other words, the rhetor has this almost god-like control over the environment, rather than the environment participating in—or the human rhetor being just one part of a complex group of associative things and people and places.

K: Yeah. And tell me if this is a stretch, but the way you're talking, it sounds very sonic. It sounds like the sounds that I make in any place, in any time, are always enmeshed in the other sounds around me, right?

J: Right.

K: So no matter how much we try to get rid of the material traces of everything that we're involved with, we're still there. We're still enmeshed. We're still part of an ecology.

[Music: Szymon Pytel, Night Walk, along with some ambient bird sounds and an airplane sound from Garage Band’s sample library]

And I think what we're seeing, the reason us two are interested so much in this, is because ambient rhetoric is bigger than just sound, right? It's bigger than just music. It's more about the way that everything about a world discloses itself to us and changes us, partly through human action and partly through nonhuman . . . is action the right word?

J: Sure.

K: But I think it also especially applies to sound, and I think that's why parts of this especially have gotten us really excited.

J: Exactly. And I'm even having fun listening to us—although we're both kind of nervous, I think—trying to talk about these concepts out loud.

K: Seriously.

J: But we're working on it, you know? There's some new vocabulary here that Rickert provides for not just scholars of sound, but he provides vocabulary, concepts, and kind of . . . it's an ambient theory for scholars of rhetoric who are pushing on the boundaries of some of these traditional ideas about what we generally and typically hold up as our theories of rhetoric.

K: Yeah, I don't think it's an accident that the couple of other reviews that I've seen of this book are both nontraditional. I'm thinking of Trisha Campbell's review in Enculturation . . .

[Campbell's voice overlaid with itself: “I'm going to offer you a new experience / something else. Remediation review.”]

. . . and the interview Nathaniel Rivers had with Rickert in a couple of breweries in St. Louis in Kairos.

[Rivers: “I'm here with Thomas Rickert. I'm of course Nathaniel Rivers.”]

And I think there's something about these ideas that are attracting people who want to see rhetoric intensified—that's Rickert's word, right? He wants to see rhetoric intensified, not abandoned—or persuasion intensified, not abandoned (161)—I want to make sure I say that right. So there's something that draws us to play, draws us to go beyond this traditional word stuff. And I think that's the thing that rhetoricians are particularly good at saying—“Oh, you know we want the multimodal, and we want all these interesting new ways of creating experiences for people!”—but I think we don't have a lot of that. So there's something here that's an invitation to that.

Part 2: Sonic Languages, Sonic Spaces, Sonic Moments

[Music: Brian Eno, Ambient 1]

J: You bringing up the Nathaniel Rivers interview has me thinking about the conversation that they have at the very end. Remember that? When Rickert talks about how music was a really important part throughout the whole book. And really, it's wonderful the ways that he kind of sprinkles in music.

K: Absolutely. There were even places where the insights of punk and of, you know, 70s rock and all these other things were put alongside philosophy. And Rickert a couple times throws in a sentence defending that, saying, “Of course these people have insights into the way the world works, the way the world reveals itself, and the way we attune ourselves to that” [Transcriber's note: That's not an exact quote from the book.] I think that's the way he would put it. Of course everyone has insight to that, including, and maybe especially musicians.

J: It doesn't just stop there either. Rickert also, besides this attentiveness to sound, and the use of some sonic examples, which we'll get to in just a moment, he also uses this sonic language throughout, which I think is no accident. Even the word attunement itself is resonant and asks us to think about the ways things sound together, or are attuned together. Another term that he uses frequently is the word key, as in “the key of G,” but he'll say, “an ambient key” or “a rhetorical key,” as a way of talking about not necessarily a singularity or a monotone, but the ways that rhetoric itself is multitonal and chordal and, you know, it has these structures that work outside of just a singular, linear space.

K: And I think even if you don't think of yourself as a musician, if you don't think of yourself as someone who has all the musical words, I think you know when a key changes in a song.

[Music: Mariah Carey singing Can't Let Go, right before the key change: “I try and try to deny that I need you but still you remain on my mind”]

[Music: Smashing Pumpkins, Sinfony]

I'm also thinking of a couple of other musical metaphors in chapter 2, which was about a new way to think about kairos. At one point, Rickert writes, “I return to ancient Greek thought to restore a materialist tonality that has been waylaid in history” (76). That's again thinking about . . . the tonality is the whole musical language that goes into a piece. A certain major tonality will have a very different feel from a minor tonality or even some other kind of tonality that isn't Western. Later in that chapter he even describes kairos as a kind of “harmony” (81). So again, he's constantly—I think purposefully—trying to remind us of the ways that this, again, is bigger than music but includes music, and maybe especially includes music.

J: Yeah, and not just music, I think. There are several musical examples, but there's also just this idea of sound and soundspace and place in particular. There's a fantastic example early on about the famous caves.

[Sound: drips of water that sound like they're in a cave. everythingsounds, Cave Drips]

K: The cave paintings!

J: Yeah, the cave paintings of . . . what is that cave again?

K: I want to say Lascaux, is that how you say it in French? [Quietly] I don’t know.

J: This new discovery that that space wasn't just a place where there was visual art represented for the first time, but actually that space as a resonant space was just as important to understanding that particular culture that produced it. And the other one, and this is more contemporary, is early on he talks about the iconic drum sound on Led Zeppelin's When the Levee Breaks and the space that that particular recording was made.

[Music: the Led Zeppelin drum sounds he just mentioned]

This Headley Grange in East Hampshire, England. The sound of the drums was achieved not just for the space but also by the very careful microphone placement throughout the room that created this sound.

K: Right! And that's a material affordance of the place. And it's not something that was designed in a classical, rhetorical sense, right? Like yes, there's a sense in which where the mics were placed and how they decided to do it showed the rhetorical purposefulness of the subjects who were trying to create the sound they wanted, right? But it's also an example—and this I think is what Rickert wants to say—that it's an example of that space in a sense speaking for itself! It's disclosing itself! Not completely; there's still parts of it that we don't always understand or we can't control, that withdraw from our understanding. But if we pay attention to what that space can say, what that space can add, what that space can mean to us, then that—I don’t know—I guess he would say that's an example of us attuning ourselves to the ambience of the space and its potential.

J: Yeah, this discussion reminds me of a movie I just saw called Muscle Shoals.

K: I haven't seen it.

J: It's about this recording studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama that has produced hundreds of amazing records. You know, you get people like Keith Richards from the Rolling Stones talking about just the specialness of the place, how he would go there and there was just something about the place. And they'd talk about the soil, and they'd talk about the river that passes through it. And not just like the great producer or the great room that they play in or even this band that, you know, worked in this area, but literally that it had to do something about this place.

K: Yeah, and I really think that's a good intro to move into talking a little bit about chapter 1 and chapter 2. Chapter 1 is about the chōra, the Greek concept, and 2 about kairos. Let's talk a little bit about the chōra first, and the way he wants us to revise it. And I actually have a quote here that I think might help us get going on that. On page 55 he says that “ambience can never be understood simply as presence. Place is not simply an immediate environment; it includes the background by means of which things show up as what they are.” What does that quote do for you?

J: I just keep going back to Pearl Jam, you know? [Laughs] It's hard not to, cause it just reminds me of not just Wrigley, not just the experience of listening to one of my favorite Pearl Jam songs, Release: when we first got there, it's still daylight outside, the music starts. All of a sudden I'm transported back to the first time I heard that song. You know it was like my first CD player at home. And I know that other people are having that same experience of place—and not just physical space, but place in time.

K: And I think that's what chōra does for him. He doesn't want to just talk about place. He wants to talk about the ways that Ulmer, the ways that Kristeva have helped us see new ways of thinking about chōra, draws attention to that stuff you were just talking about.

J: Yeah this idea of chōra is interesting in that, you know, it shines the spotlight on place, but it also demands of us to think really carefully about what place is and how it's meaningful.

K: Absolutely.

J: Yeah so this reminds me of some work I've been doing in vernacular music. For example, the vernacular music that comes from the African American tradition is oftentimes focused on activity—so you have work songs that help to keep the time of certain activities that were done on a cotton plantation or something like that.

[Music: “Lightning” Washington and Group, Good God Almighty]

They also are often embedded within those locations: they talk about things like the heat of the sun, the materiality of the cotton, the pain of experiencing the work. All of those ambient additions to just the song itself as an artifact.

[“Lightning” Washington and Group singing, “ Saw the captain riding. Good God Almighty. Saw the captain riding. Oh my lord lord” ]

What's really interesting about these is they index not just the African Americans' experiences in the prisons or on Jim Crow plantations, but also, as scholars like Amiri Baraka have noted, they index the experience of slave life itself. So in other words, chōra, if we're to understand it correctly, we need to understand it both in terms of current place but also place in time, if that makes sense.

K: Yeah. All of the places that have built up to that moment. And you know what I would even say—you're more the expert on those folk songs than I am—but I do know that the Lomaxes traveled around and brought their giant recording equipment with them to record, sometimes onto aluminum, right? Just the idea of how both the cultural situatedness of that idea, of this white father and son team traveling around to African American prisons, but also the materials they were bringing and the ways they were recording and how—I would assume anything you listen to now, you could hear echoes of that machinery that they used, those materials.

J: Yeah, absolutely. That's one of the really fascinating things about the sonic archive.

K: Sonic moments like that have that complex of a meaning. I think that's part of what Rickert is trying to draw our attention to with the whole notion of ambience is that there are so many ambient things going on in any situation that it would be silly to assume that we can identify exactly the affordances of any single place, any single choric moment. I think he really applies that to kairos too in the next chapter, where he really has an issue with . . . here's a quote from page 85. He doesn't like when contemporary theories of kairos rely on an “opportunistic frame, one that reinscribes it in a narrative of subjective control or advantage.” And I think his issue with that narrative of subjective control is that we assume that a moment comes to us and then we dive in and take advantage of it, when I think that he would say that really kairos needs to be understood almost . . . I don't know if this is too mysterious, but almost as if kairos has its own sort of agency. As if the kairos is something that is already there. Here's another quote: “in some way, the kairos does what it does to us, with us, and alongside us.” It's on page 90. There's something related there to what you're saying: that to understand this, we have to understand the ways that it was kairotic beyond anyone's control.

J: So wait, are you saying that a rhetor's decision is somehow willed by kairos? Is it fate?

K: Well, Rickert really specifically says it's not! He even has this, No I am not going for “some new objective determinism” (91)—even though it sort of sounds like it here and there, right? But I think he would probably say, even though we're not controlled by kairos—it's not fate, it's not that everything we say is predetermined—it's still more complicated than the idea of us reaching in and taking control.

J: Right. He uses these words on page 91: he says that it's a “highly nuanced set of relations among language, environment, and people,” and which I think is part of what's fun about it is it does seem to almost emerge as, you know, serendipity in some ways. That there's this kind of interesting . . . kairos has a serendipitous flavor sometimes.

K: What that makes me think of is, I was writing a blog post the other day about R.E.M. And maybe that's a little related here.

[Music: R.E.M., Time after Time (AnnElise)]

I was thinking about my personal history with R.E.M., my personal history with the materialities, how the first two albums that I got on CD of R.E.M. were actually their first two albums, Murmur and Reckoning. But I had been an R.E.M. fan for years before I ever got those, and all the ones I'd had before that were on tape. So all of a sudden I had these two, they were on a different medium, they sounded different, they were from different producers, they from the early 80s and I was listening in the early 90s, there were all these things differently. And as I was writing this blog post, trying to tease this out, trying to figure out what my history was and what all this mattered, I turned to Ambient Rhetoric. And I was looking for an interesting quote that would help me understand this circumstance. And I found this one where Rickert says, “ambience puts place, language, and body into co-adaptive, vital, and buoyant interaction” (107). And in this serendipitous way that word buoyant got me thinking. Started thinking about what it means to be buoyant, to be afloat in water. And then I started thinking about the second R.E.M. album, Reckoning, which I learned, through reading Wikipedia, I never noticed on my own, that a lot of the lyrics do talk about water. And on the spine of the record, it said “File under Water”; some people originally even thought that was the title of the album: File under Water.

[R.E.M. singing, “Ask the girl of the hour by the water tower's watch”]

In a very R.E.M. sort of way, that very confusing, Southern Gothic [Transcriber's note: see Niimi for more on R.E.M. as a Southern Gothic band, which was the source of this subtle reference], purposefully obscured, underwater sort of meanings, in some ways connected to the things I was already thinking about in Rickert.

So I'm trying to decide, was that kairotic, in the sense of me taking advantage of that moment? Was it choric in the sense of me stepping into the space of this blog and stepping into the space of this book and controlling it to say the things I wanted? It didn't feel that way to me! It felt more like I stepped into an interesting connection, and one that I love. That's my favorite part of that blog post, even though I don't even totally understand it.

Part 3: Backgrounds, Production, Symbolicity

[Music: Irokez, The Rise]

J: So, Kyle your blog reminded me immediately of, you know, a dozen experiences that I've had that are similar.

K: Of course!

J: And you and I have had kind of serendipitous, overlapping musical experiences, beyond just Pearl Jam. One of the things that he mentions on 108 that gets me thinking as well is back to the whole 90s alternative music scene . . .

[Sound: drum intro to Smashing Pumpkins, Cherub Rock and guitar intro to Nirvana, Heart-Shaped Box]

K: Butch Vig!

J: Yeah, he talks about Butch Vig and Steve Albini and the ways that they're known as producers for producing a certain kind of sound on the records.

K: That Nirvana sound, that Smashing Pumpkins sound.

J: Right. Yeah. And Brian Eno is actually really well known for this as well, as being the fifth member of Coldplay over the last several years, and producing, helping Coldplay kind of blend into the background of any given situation, cause you can hear Coldplay anywhere!

[Music: Coldplay, Life in Technicolor]

[Laughs] So it's interesting to me whereas Butch Vig and Steve Albini are more about bombast [K: Yeah.], Eno has been—and I think that Rickert writes about here in the book as being—kind of a master of the background music.

K: And background music on purpose.

J: Exactly.

K: You know, I listen to a lot of classical music—I was a music major for a while in undergrad before it turned into a minor, and it was a very classically oriented program—and I still listen to most classical music in the background, as stuff I'm not paying attention to. And yet I sometimes kind of imagine these composers looking over my shoulder, saying, “Hey, I didn't write this for you to have it on in the background! I wanted you to pay attention and know what the moves I was doing meant!” And here's Brian Eno, the way that Rickert describes him, really fascinatingly making music on purpose for you to listen to in the background.

J: Right. Or as part of an environmental experience. Of course there's this whole chapter on the Microsoft boot-up sound, which is fascinating because we've all heard it.

K: The way Eno writes it out is “Boong-bliiiing-tink-tink-tink” (qtd. in Rickert 134).

J: That's right!

K: We should almost do it in harmony: it's [singing] “Boong-bliiiing-tink-tink-tink!” And I'm sure we can insert the Microsoft sound wherever we want, like here!

[Sound: Eno’s Windows 95 startup sound plays, also known as The Microsoft Sound]

You know? Because of the magic of recording. [J: That’s true.] Eno wants to set up an environment where you're surprised by the connections between the sound he makes and what that means to you and your environment. And he even wants to be surprised by that too! I love this idea: Rickert says, “Eno is simultaneously composer and audience, actant and recipient” (110), all at the same time.

J: Yeah, and he invites us to participate along with that as well. What does this have to do with ambient rhetoric?

K: Well I think this fits into everything we've been saying earlier about decentering the human agent and attuning ourselves—I'm using the word attune pretty purposefully, it's a Rickert word—attuning ourselves to the ways that all of the ambient features of an environment—the affect, the material, the emotional, the cultural, the historical—all of that—are all part of what governs what can be communicated, said, experienced, in that moment. And I think ambient music, in the Brian Eno tradition, it kind of draws attention to that. It says, “Hey, there is more to this experience right now than just what I'm sending you. You have to pay attention to the rest. Because I'm purposefully asking you to pay attention to the rest!”

J: Yeah, and I agree there, although I was going to play devil's advocate and ask, you know, in these particular cases, well aren't they all still composed? Doesn't Butch Vig and Steve Albini and Brian Eno all have a very specific way of going about producing the kinds of sounds they are interested in, in very controlled environments? And then I was reminded—and I don't know if this completely answers the question—but a couple years ago, right when iPhones kind of hit the market, or maybe a couple years after, Eno produced an iPhone app called Bloom. I'm just reading from Wikipedia here: “The software plays a low drone, and touching the screen produces different tones, which play in a loop. If the screen is left untouched, the software will create its own music” (“Bloom”).

[Music: Sounds from the Bloom app, captured from Shazbat70’s YouTube recording]

Just this really interesting user-generated music that relies on a framework that Eno built, but, you know, he leaves it in the hands of the user to actually produce the sound.

K: And isn't that the nature of any so-called interactive experience? I'm thinking of Second Life or something: there's so much opportunity for me to step in there in an interactive way and make new things in the way that I want. But it's still within the parameters of the creator. And part of me wonders if Rickert would say that that is what any rhetorical situation is like: that we're always within parameters. We're always within the parameters of the choric, kairotic situation that has been given to us, sometimes even more than we think we are.

Let me also add that one reason the Eno stuff was so intriguing for my work was because I'm really interested in the historical ways people have understand music and rhetoric.

[Music: the Prelude from J.S. Bach’s English Suite No. 4 in F Major]

And I find that when you look at this European history, going back to the 15, 1600s, of people applying what they knew about rhetoric then to musical composition. I feel like the results always feel unsatisfactory to me, as a rhetorical scholar; there's always kind of this overly simplistic application of a rhetorical term to music, and it always seems like, “Now I used this figure of rhetoric! [J: Sure.] So therefore it was rhetoric! And therefore that's what rhetoric is: it's just applying figures and understanding the figures! Ha, ha, we're done!” So I've been in search for a while now of how do I put into words . . . you know this, the complex contemporary ways we understand rhetoric. So I think that when I read Rickert, especially in these chapters 3 and 4, where he starts bringing up Eno, I started thinking, “This is it!” There's something here about reminding us that persuasion is still part of rhetoric, but it's bigger, it's “intensified” (Rickert 161), like we mentioned earlier, where Rickert says it's . . . we have to include more than just what these old theories thought. And that helps me a lot, it's really intriguing.

J: I'm gonna take us on another tangent. So one of the concepts that I think is really interesting about, that Rickert brings up over and over again, is this reliance that traditional rhetoric has had on this notion of symbolicity. I was just thinking about, again, this idea of these producers, Steve Albini and Butch Vig, and the ways that their job is to produce this, almost a symbolic reflection of what the band sounds like. You get this idea of what, for example, the Smashing Pumpkins sound like live: Billy Corgan's voice is banshee-like [laughs].

[Music: Smashing Pumpkins, I Am One excerpt, with Billy Corgan screaming, “Nothing! Nothing! Nothing!”]

There's a certain affect that you get accustomed to seeing them live. That almost completely disappears, especially on the famous Butch Vig production Siamese Dream, where you get this very clean, very melodic. . . .

[Music: Smashing Pumpkins, Today]

Siamese Dream is kind of known for its over-production.

K: Yeah. I remember being on a Smashing Pumpkins listserv in the mid-90s and one of the questions going around was, “What color do you associate with each album?” because you know that's what we talked about. And I remember the prevailing answer with Siamese Dream was silver, it was metallic, it's been over-produced to that level of perfection. And by the way, it's my favorite album. Of ever.

J: Wow. It's up there for me too, it really is. That disparity between the production-quality album and then seeing them live. Even like, they've been putting out these albums again, and one of the things they often will come with are these, like, extensive alternative takes and that kind of thing. And what you start to realize is that a certain song—say Today by Smashing Pumpkins to take a well-known example—has achieved a certain iconic, symbolic status in our minds that even slight differences in that experience are jarring, right? There's something interesting there related to the ways that symbolicity as rhetoric kind of ends up blocking or hiding some of what's actually present, what's behind the production curtain.

K: What this is reminding me of, when you're talking about the meaning beyond the symbolicity, is it's making me think about some of Rickert's reliance on Heidegger, and this idea that—the interesting quote from Rickert, riffing off of Heidegger is, that “We do not add meaning downstream; our experience is one where something is always already interpreted as something” (172). I'm still quoting here: “In other words, what we do is always in the form of historically enculturated practices, most of which remain tacit, or ambient, in our everyday doings.” That's on page 172. So I'm thinking about that Smashing Pumpkins sound, whether it's live or whether it's listening to Siamese Dream, and how my reaction to it, or the way it changes me, or the way it moves me in some way—it's emotional but it's more than emotional, right?—that is something that hits me in a moment, it all comes to me and I don't stop and think, “Oh, that's an interesting sound there! I wonder how they got that drum sound? Or I wonder how they did the guitar? Is that five guitars overlaid of each other, or is that fifteen at that moment?” And sure, I can stop and think that, but the immediacy of it comes before that. There's something that's straight-ahead and right-away. And that's something we've talked a little bit about before, trying to wrap our heads around how that concept of the totality of meaning, that Heideggerian, the message hits us, it's ontologically present in the world but also we make sense of it phenomenologically, and what that has to do with ambient rhetoric.

[Music: Smashing Pumpkins, Today]

Part 4: A Pedagogical Detour, An Ambient Disclosure

[Music: Fureon Nectarmoon, Z-Geist]

J: Speaking of this Heideggerian approach, one of the things we haven't talked a lot about here is the ways that the ideas that we're talking about are all related to—and I don't know if these are Rickert's words, or if they’re Heidegger’s words, it's kind of a combination; it's hard to tell the difference sometimes! [laughs]—of an “ecological understanding of human flourishing” (Rickert 15).

[Music: David Jefferson, Raining Guitar]

Let's just move towards understanding us as not just being, but being together, which I think is being with, being in the world. On page 15, Rickert gets into this. I'm going to just read at the bottom here. He says, “The later Heidegger . . . engages things and technology so as to suggest a profoundly ecological understanding of human flourishing.” This is the part I think is really interesting: “one that tethers building, doing, and sociality to a dynamic sense of emplaced attunement. This reimagines human agency less as a form of potent mastery than as caretaking, shepherding, sparing, or cultivation.” This idea of caretaking, and shepherding, and cultivation, seems useful as we begin to think about—well, we've already been talking about. We've been talking about these producers who put so much work and care into their own work. But also I think it's reflective of the kinds of things that I think about as being useful in my own worK: how do I make the rhetoric of my own work powerful? Well I really have to care. There has to be this care that goes into the stuff that I'm working on. But also with my students I take this approach as well.

K: It also reminds me of Brian Eno, who once described his composing as a kind of gardening . . .

[Brief clip of Eno speaking, from his Composers as Gardeners: “A gardener doesn’t really work like that.”]

. . . that sense of cultivating something, caring for it, getting down and thinking about what it means and what it means to you and what it can mean to other people.

[Extended clip of Eno speaking: “An architect, at least in the traditional sense, is somebody who has an in-detail concept of the final result in their head, and their task is to control the rest of nature sufficiently to get that built. Nature being things like bricks and sites and builders and so on. Everything outside has to be subject to an effort of control. A gardener doesn't really work like that. . . . But what I think about, I suppose my feeling about gardening, and I suppose most people's feeling about gardening now, is that what one is doing is working in collaboration with the complex and unpredictable processes of nature. . . . One is carefully constructing seeds, or finding seeds, carefully planting them and then letting them have their life. And that life isn't necessarily exactly what you'd envisaged for them.”]

K: It starts to sound really important to think about ambient rhetoric this way.

J: Yeah, and we can take this idea into our classrooms. This is the move [laughs] to the composition classroom that we've all been waiting for!

K: [Laughs] Not that we have to, but we are teachers, right? Let's go there.

J: And it's important. This idea of care. I think that one of the things that I try to help my students understand, before they can make an argument, before they can really get into some of the nitty-gritty of producing well-composed essays, they've got to care about what they're writing about.

K: Totally.

J: We can figure out ways of encouraging students, or cultivating students around places, things, issues—whatever it might be that they can genuinely start to care about, put down roots in, to attune themselves with. I think that kind of work deemphasizes the traditional product-oriented or even process-oriented approach that we take in our writing classrooms and puts it instead upon this idea of attunement and care.

K: And let me tell an example that it makes me think of. I remember a student once who wanted to write an argument paper trying to convince other students to ride their bikes to campus, you know, as an ecological—and it's funny the word ecological coming up here, but you know what I mean! Save gas, blah blah blah.

[Sound: ambient rain and thunder, from the Garage Band sample library]

And as we were talking about it, I felt like none of the student's arguments were very convincing, and I kept saying, “Who do you think is really going to change their practices based on what you've said?” And finally asked her, “Well do you ride your bike to campus?” And she said, “Well, no. You know, it rains a lot, we're in Florida, of course. . . .” Had all these basic reasons that she hadn't even convinced herself. And you know, when I thought of that, this way that I think, using your phrase there, that she wasn't attuned to what she cared about, she also wasn't attuned to the larger situation going on here.

[Music: Michael Giacchino, Parting Words, which isn’t a track about Toronto Island, but it is a track about a fictional island on television, and if this part means more to you because of the musical connection, all the best. If not, that’s okay too. That’s how sonic rhetoric works.]

Really, that reminds me of where Rickert ends up in chapter 8. He tells this great story of these folks on Toronto Island who were resisting the plans to build a bridge so that cars could come onto this island that currently didn't have cars on it. And I feel like Rickert does this—for me, pretty amazing job of helping me see ambient rhetoric in action, in a way that I wish I could have told my student then. Because, here's what he said: he said that the Toronto Islanders, in a way that they somewhat did, but somewhat could have done better, they “need to move from the idea of 'countering' to what we might describe as enlivening: making their unique way of life real, palpable, and valuable to others and to themselves” (259). In other words, those folks living on Toronto Island, they didn't need classical argument, they didn't need to stand up in a courtroom and be like, “Okay, if I invent this well enough, and arrange it well enough, and use the right style, and memorize and deliver it, then people will be convinced!” That just wasn't enough! They needed to let people know what the entire island was like, in what ways the island disclosed itself to them, and the ways that that affected what their lives were like, and how they lived there, and all the complexities of what that means to live somewhere.

So if only I could have told my student that: “Hey, what are all the complex ways that cars and bikes are wrapped up in the way that you live, the way that you enact your life as a student? Could you in some way invite people into that kind of living in an ambient sense, with attention to everything that you can find, and everything that does disclose itself to you? Always knowing that you can't know everything, that there will always be some things that are withdrawing.”

Part 5: Returning to Wrigley and Rhetoric

[Music: Pschadelik Pedestrian, Pacific]

J: Alright, well we've had a conversation. [K: Yeah!] It's been a good one, We've tried our best to emphasize the pieces that have caused us to do the most thinking, but I think what's most useful here is that this is a book that's going to be a wonderful tool for rhetoricians in the future. And maybe we can end by going back to . . . Rickert-ian? [Laughs]

K: Ricker-tian.

J: Rickertian!

K: I think so.

J: I think so too. A Rickertian definition of rhetoric.

K: Yeah, well he defines it a couple times.

J: He does.

K: And uses pretty similar language whenever it comes up. I've got one here at the bottom of 186; see how that goes. He says that “[he has] claimed that rhetoric is a responsive way to reveal the world for others”—that sounds kind of positive and friendly, right? We're doing this together?

J: Makes me care.

K: And what are the means it involves? Well it involves “affective, symbolic, and material means” (186). This is not just symbolic. This is very purposefully beyond the symbolic.

J: Exactly.

K: And it involves those means “in our attempts to reattune or transform how others inhabit the world in a way that leads them to act (or not)” (186-87). That sounds like it's kind of on the borderline of persuasion [J affirms.], but it's more than persuasion, right?

J: I think Rickert would like that, actually, that rhetoric is more on the borderlines of persuasion than persuasion itself. He goes on on that next page 187 to talk about the ways that rhetoric “is responsive in a number of ways keyed to language itself.” And again, “not just everyday symbolicity, but the rich chorography of background relations that emerge with a culture and give place to the terms we use.”

K: And you emphasized place there, I think in a really important way.

J: Yeah, He goes on, “both symbolicity and the chorographic background emerge through reciprocal relations with other beings—people, culture, and material things” (187). And we're back to Wrigley Field.

[Sound: crowd cheering at the Wrigley Field concert, fading once more into the beginning of Pearl Jam playing Release live]

K: Of course! “People, culture, and material things.” Like we said, we can't get away from them.

J: Thinking now again back through these ideas that Rickert introduces, the reason that we came to this example was because it didn't have a clear, very easily drawn-out meaning behind it. [K: Yes.] Certainly we were changed, certainly we were moved, certainly we were affected in ways that were profound and very memorious. I'll never forget that experience.

[Music: Tom La Meche, Novembre, which—holy smokes—is in the same key as Release, which we swear is a serendipitous example of the world disclosing itself to us in an ambiently rhetorical way.]

And this maybe goes back to this idea of what a sonic rhetoric leads us [K: Yeah?] towards are these moments of dissonance and harmony, and this—and maybe you can help me riff on this a little bit, cause I'm riffing here at the end. . . .

K: No, I like it.

J: But again, just this idea that the sonic—well, rhetoric in general operates at this much greater level than the discursive and the symbolic, but that it is indeed embedded within the places that we inhabit, the people that we interact with, the things in our pockets—you know, I have several pictures that night from my phone that I took.

K: And I think the combination of all that is part of why we love this study, why we love this field. Both of us are gonna be students of music and players of music no matter what area we're in, but I think it's important that we decided to work in rhetoric, and to insist that other parts of ourselves, that embodied affect, got invited into it as well.

J: Exactly.

K: I think that's why sonic rhetorics are important: it is a reminder of how we can invite everything in more than just words into our lives.

J: Yeah, well, and just to go off that a little bit, if you start to look at the ways that sound scholars are dealing with in rhetoric, we have folks who do work in music—and Kyle and I tend to be interested in music, I'm interested in archival work and history—but we also have people that are interested in social movements, we have people who are interested in sound and glitch, we have fantastic work coming out on sound and deafness.

K: Sound art.

J: Sound art, and we also have wonderful work in soundscape, and embedded sonic environments. All of these . . . sound itself is wide open for the kinds of study that are invited by Rickert and an ambient approach.

K: I love that word “invited by.” We're essentially invited to do this kind of work through this book. It's almost a “Hey, please, take the next steps.” And sound is a clear part of that.

J: And rather than closing off sonic studies as one kind of rhetorical work, it literally and radically opens it up.

K: I think that's a good place to end!

J: I do too.

K: We'd like to thank Composition Forum for inviting us to do this review. We'd like to thank the University of Illinois for allowing us to use this studio to record this in.

J: Thanks also to Thomas Rickert. [K: Right!] Shure microphone, also. Shure microphones!

K: Can I say like, “Jon Stone exclusively uses Shure microphones”? [Laughing] “And whatever cymbals.”

J: That's right!

K: Now I need to find a mastering engineer who can make this as loud as possible. We need to enter the loudness wars full throttle. Ready to take on the world with this sound.

J: Yeah. Alright folks, turn it up. We'll see you next time.

K: Rock and roll.

[Pearl Jam, Release: “I hold the pain: Release me! Oh!”]

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