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Composition Forum 41, Spring 2019

Review of Byron Hawk’s Resounding the Rhetorical: Composition as a Quasi-Object

Thomas Girshin

Hawk, Byron. Resounding the Rhetorical: Composition as a Quasi-Object. University of Pittsburgh, 2018. 310pp.

In Resounding the Rhetorical: Composition as a Quasi-Object, Byron Hawk builds on the new materialism in writing studies to describe a distributed, performative, model of composition by turning to sound studies. Along the way, Hawk posits new ways to understand several terms foundational to the field, including composition, process, research, collaboration, publics, and rhetoric. This is a speculative and ambitious project, reimagining what composition might be when viewed from the perspective of sound as its model, a move away from writing per se and to the composing process generally, in any medium.

The theoretical underpinnings for Hawk’s project stem from the work of Bruno Latour, Martin Heidegger, and Michel Serres—and theory plays a big role in this book—but Hawk is quick to point out that he is not drawing on theory in a traditional way, which views or analyzes some data through a theoretical lens. Rather, Hawk argues that the role of theory in his book is as a “warrant,” a way to justify a particular relationship between his claims and the evidence from which they derive (10). As Hawk develops further in Chapter 3, neither theory nor data is privileged, but rather, the two coexist improvisationally, like musicians in a band each giving the other some element to play off of.

The work of the first two chapters, then, is to develop this warrant to serve the reader in the subsequent chapters. Chapter 1, Composition as a Quasi-Object, introduces the reader to two related terms: coproduction and quasi-object. A quasi-object is that which is brought into being through coproduction. Coproduction, then, is the process, and the quasi-object is the product, except that, for Hawk, process and product are not really distinguishable. Hawk takes noise as his example. Noise, he argues, is meaningless, but also the condition of meaning. It is, he writes, “the ground of invention” (27). All the possible determinations: sounds, utterances, words, meanings, variations, movements, etc., taken together, are noise. Noise is the material out of which meaning takes shape. Quasi-objects emerge out of this noise, coproduced through an organic interaction among any of its activated processes. Composition, Hawk argues, “is a function of circulation and the ecological coproduction of quasi-objects—a loosely or tightly knit network composed through a series of circulatory movements and actions” (13). This is perhaps reminiscent of earlier moves toward complexity in the field, such as Ann Berthoff’s Reclaiming the Imagination, except that while Berthoff argued that writers formed concepts from chaos, Hawks suggests that writers themselves are concepts formed from that same chaos, or noise. Hawk draws on Serres, especially, as a path to reconcile two more recent perspectives on complexity in the field: network perspectives as exemplified by Sid Dobrin’s Postcomposition, and ambient perspectives, as exemplified by Thomas Rickert’s Ambient Rhetoric. Sound, Hawk argues, models a perspective that collapses the sorts of distinctions Dobrin and Rickerts’ works imply, because it allows us to better understand how meanings change depending on context and over time, without suggesting that meaning is produced by pre-existing entities (21).

Chapter 2, Process as Refrain, further develops the properties of composition as a quasi-object, by turning to Deleuze, Heidegger, and Latour. Hawk begins by tracing new work in the field reframing the distinction between process and postprocess. Postprocess, Hawk argues, is not really a paradigm in the traditional sense, but is rather a concept or dynamic model. Hawk builds on Thomas Kent’s postprocess model, which characterizes writing as public, interpretive, and material, with his own quasi-object model, which characterizes composition as vital, ecological, and relational. In keeping with his musical lexicon, Hawk argues that process is rooted in “refrain.” It is refrain, or repetition and difference, that distinguishes object from context, gives meaning to objects, and allows for continual reinterpretation. Refrain is not simply repetition, which suggests the recurrence of the same object, but rather a strand of similar objects, objects that fit together. He gives the example of the spider web and the fly. A spider web wasn’t designed to catch flies, per se, and a fly was not designed to be caught by a spider web. Rather, through the rich interconnectedness of things, these two objects impact one another within a self-defined set of possibilities. Not predictable, really, but limited. Composition, Hawk argues, likewise works through this kind of refrain, a repetition of the new, recognition and re-interpretation both.

In Chapter 3, Research as Transduction, Hawk introduces his case study for the book, Sonic Dropper Studios in Dallas, Texas. Again he emphasizes a methodological approach based on the possibilities composition as a quasi-object brings forth. A complex approach to composition requires complex methods, he argues, because attempts to simplify end up leading to “messy” incongruities (79). When the objects of study are complex, Hawk argues, the methods should be likewise. Hawk’s prescribed methodology continues the development of composition as a quasi-object, suggesting that unlike the traditional relationship between theory and object, in which an autonomous observer applies theory to an object of data in order to interpret it, when research is understood as transduction, the theory and object coproduce one another. The relationship between the object of study and the theory is one of proliferation—theory coproduces new versions of an object, rather than an interpretation of a stable, preexisting, object. Drawing on this understanding of his engagement with his case, Hawk works to produce an exhaustive catalog of the coproductions available in the studio, including everything from the network cables to the placement and material of the walls to the recording technology, to name just a few. All of these, Hawk argues, have a hand in both “translat[ing]” and “inscrib[ing]” the “energy of the [sound] waves” (87). To close the chapter, Hawk posits the recording studio’s relationship to sound as a metaphor for composition research generally. Research, he argues, is a type of “transduction,” which he defines earlier as a “‘connection or homology between physical and social circuits’” (Henrique, qtd. in Hawk 32-33). In other words, research can take one kind of “energy,” say, sound, or interview, or space, and translate it into a parallel response or translation, what Hawk calls “new descriptions” (104). The purpose of research, Hawk suggests, is not to explain away data, but rather to lead to new possibilities, new unknowns, to coproduce further research.

In Chapter 4, Collaboration as Coordination, Hawk builds on his quasi-object approach to research in an effort to reframe invention as a collaborative enterprise. Continuing the primary research introduced in the previous chapter, in this chapter Hawk traces an ecological view of collaboration from early work such as Marilyn Cooper, Karen Burke LeFevre, and Louise Wetherbee Phelps, through Margaret Syverson’s return to ecology after the social turn had “play[ed] itself out,” to improvisation in music, and the capacity of emerging technologies to recapture the “gesture,” which Hawk, building on Brian Rotman, argues has been foreclosed by the strict textuality of pre-digital writing (119). Having established this quilting point, Hawk returns to the recording studio, describing the methods through which the band New Magnetic North exhibits this ecological collaboration, what Hawk comes to call coordination. In Hawk’s view, the way the musicians interact with one another, the recording technology, the space, and the audio engineers, is a powerful example of collaborative invention-in-relation: the production of sound waves to be captured in an MP3 depends in large part on all these people and things, these quasi-objects, coordinating with one another, feeling out where each stands and how they will interact with one another. Like sound waves themselves, this coordination is a kind of bouncing off, an improvisation in the moment. Hawk builds on this notion of collaboration as coordination to reframe genre not as typified responses to recurring situations, but rather as a recurring set of gestures, an ecology of genres all open to one another.

Chapter 5, Publics as Spheres, begins to articulate what distribution looks like when viewed from the perspective of composition as a quasi-object. Drawing on Michael Warner’s Publics and Counterpublics, Hawk again takes his representative cases from music. Given current methods of distribution across mostly digital networks, Hawk argues for a radically temporal notion of public sphere, a sometimes fleeting gathering of users around a specific text, image, or sound composition. For Hawk, publics emerge following pathways traced through “digital ecologies” (163), or actor-networks. Like a drop of water on a spiderweb, a public is both discrete and interconnected. Hawk traces how two musical acts, the band Ned and the Dirt and the hip hop artist Boyfriend, develop diverse face-to-face and digital publics, which emerge from their extensive digital networks. The gathering of an audience for a show, for example, depends not only on the physical presence of the musical act, but also the network of fans and followers online, marketing and press leading up to the show, and the distribution of the music in digital format, all of which contribute to the gathering of that audience.

Chapter 6, Rhetoric as Resonance, continues to develop this sense of the emergent public sphere, this time turning to the work of Diane Davis, Thomas Rickert, Laurie Gries, and Heidegger to examine the gradual coproduction of a public around the album The Shape of Punk to Come by Swedish punk band Refused. Much of this chapter turns on a particular construction of rhetoric as both linked to human intention and also beyond it. Part and parcel of this view of rhetoric is a shift from locating the seat of agency in “the autonomous human self” to “seeing the human as a function of larger systems that coproduce it but without overdetermining it” (52-3). Rhetoric, according to Hawk, is a way of relating to future publics, a way of opening up spaces in which new positions can be taken up, coproduced by some rhetorical intervention. Hawk will return to this view of rhetoric as he considers audience further in the concluding chapter, but here he emphasizes the potential for rhetorical interventions to be received in unpredictable ways. His case in point is the band Refused, which “gained worldwide cult status fifteen years after breaking up” (220). The Shape of Punk to Come was the band’s latest release prior to, and in fact precipitated, their breaking up. For Hawk, the band’s success afterward on the strength of their digital circulation—shared videos of their performances, for one—reveals a central characteristic of rhetoricity, which is an intentional opening to possibility, but without ever mastering or controlling those possibilities.

In Conclusion, Resounding, Hawk “re-sounds” the major inquiry of the book, which is to reconsider the sonic elements of rhetoric, elements which have always been part of rhetoric’s orality but which have been pushed away by the field’s preoccupation with text since the rise of print as the dominant medium in modern culture. Hawk articulates a version of rhetoric and composition with sound at its center as the logical continuation of possibilities suggested by the work of such theorists as Latour and Heidegger. He returns to Ede and Lunsford’s work on audience as a way to suggest that while the author cannot predict, or master, the possibilities for how a work will be taken up, his aim in this book is opening up as many potential future interpretations, or coproductions, as possible. The book ends with something like a set of instructions on how to read it. The reader should not, Hawk argues, allow the apparent linearity of its text-based structure to obscure its thematic circularity. The scope of the evidence and methods, and the range of theories, lends the book a “centripetal force [that] spins on a constantly changing center, only to sling them back out again through a centrifugal force toward some potential futurity” (235). In other words, Hawk argues, while at first glance the book may appear to be formally traditional, its content disrupts any attempts to read it in a traditional way.

As Hawk implies here, this is a challenging book, both in its highly metonymic style and in its proposition to reframe writing studies with sound at its center. In continuation of a trend away from the dialectic in composition and rhetoric since Victor Vitanza’s Negation, Subjectivity, and the History of Rhetoric, Hawk’s work is less intent on superseding the status quo with a new way of thinking about rhetoric and composition than it is on a kind of pastiche gathering of metonymic possibilities. When we gather together these theories, these objects, these ideas, Hawk seems to be asking, what then becomes possible?

Because of this wide-ranging metonymic approach, the book sometimes reads as a sort of extended glossary of terms necessary to rethink rhetoric and composition sonically, or else a kind of grammar of the quasi-object. Tracing such a wide berth, necessarily quilting in such a wide swath of theoretical terminology, sometimes pushes the text into some awkward linguistic contortions. Some of these are the result of what appears to this reviewer as Hawk’s earnest effort to thoroughly and effectively represent complex ideas, such as when he defines rhetoric as “a coproductive function of circulation in excess of human intention, which collapses rhetoric and persuasion into the rhetorical, a process of world making that extends relationality into future publics” (187). Yes, that’s not an easy sentence to follow (and there are many more like it), but one can clearly see the weight of centuries of rhetorical tradition against which this sentence sets itself. At other times, however, Hawk’s writing lacks clarity, such as when he writes “Heidegger [...] potentially at least, puts sound at [the] center” of the fourfold (234). The ambiguous use of “potentially” here is not typical of the work as a whole, but is somewhat reflective of the book’s style.

Ultimately, Hawk’s book is an engaging call to reexamine the limits of composition, particularly as the field continues to intersect with developments in the new media. Hawk’s articulation of composition as a quasi-object builds usefully on trends in posthuman, complex, and emergent rhetorics as it both returns to and soars away from the practical commitment at the root of our field. His work will prove germane to work in rhetoric and composition exploring a dynamic, posthuman, model of composition.

Return to Composition Forum 41 table of contents.