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Composition Forum 42, Fall 2019

Review of Casey Boyle’s Rhetoric as a Posthuman Practice

Madison Jones

Boyle, Casey. Rhetoric as a Posthuman Practice. Ohio State UP, 2018. 232pp.

Casey Boyle’s Rhetoric as a Posthuman Practice focuses on the possible deviations from humanist traditions and changing habits of mind brought about by emerging media (9). He introduces practice as a way to understand how bodies are transformed by new technologies from stable categories to an understanding that “no body is itself an individual and distinct but is both a part of and a part from multiple arrays of practices” (5). In response to emerging technologies, Boyle frames rhetoric as a practice, a productive repetition which calls into question assumptions about both rhetoric and the body. By placing posthumanism in conversation with rhetorical theory, he provides “a framework for for rendering explicit rhetorical practice as an exercise in developing sense and sensibility for emerging forms of embodiment” (20). By practicing rhetoric, Boyle suggests various means to productively engage the transformative possibilities of posthumanism while also situating rhetoric as “a practice that exercises serial encounters within ecologies to inform bodies” (27, emphasis original).

Importantly, Boyle uses the practice of rhetoric to challenge the ways that humanism has constructed and disciplined the human body along the lines of “the so-called able-bodied, rational European male” (think, for instance, of Aristotle’s distinctions between the abilities and capabilities of men, women, and enslaved people in Politics 1.12-13 and 3.4, or the emphasis on rationality as the distinction between humans and animals in The Nicomachean Ethics) in conversation with disability studies scholars such as Alison Kafter and posthumanists like Donna Haraway (8). The increasing transformations of the technosphere, argues Boyle, erodes these problematic ways of constructing, categorizing, and valuing (or not valuing) bodies. By undermining these categorical conceptions of the human(ist) body, Boyle demonstrates ways that repetitive exercises in digital writing can transform rhetorics and the bodies that use them.

The book is divided into two sections and a coda, with section one (chapters 1 and 2) focusing on theorizing rhetorical practice and section two (chapters 3-5) practicing rhetorical theory. Far from dividing theory and practice, this layered approach establishes rhetoric as part of the continuous exercise that takes place within these ecologies. In chapter 1, Boyle presents three exercises which illustrate the differences between humanist and posthuman approaches to practice in relation to the field of writing studies. This chapter serves as a (re)orientation toward an ecological perspective, where rhetoric comes to “depend on ongoing material relationships more so than an individual’s conscious awareness of its available means” (22). Through repetitive practice, Boyle reframes habits from their traditional association with stasis, “that which we seek to change through reflective practice,” as “habit/habitat [...] an ecology that itself is creative but becomes accelerated when practices are exercised” (58). Chapter 2 builds from these moves to expand on and develop the serialized logic of posthuman practice. Through a discussion of the viral image “Water the Flowers” and a reading of Plato’s Gorgias which considers how Socrates insists on “subject/object or form/content distinctions” in his attack on rhetoric (73), Boyle describes how posthuman practices come “to know information (and/as practice) as transduced rather than transmitted (62, emphasis original). He likens the process of transduction to Aristotle’s enthymeme, “a co-operation between a speaker and audience” rather than “points along a line through which communication is transmitted” (83).

The second section puts theory into practice. In chapter 3, Boyle discusses glitches as an example of how to interrupt “the otherwise stable subject” (112). He introduces the concept of “metastable orientation” (115, emphasis original), building from Simondon in response to Richard Lanham’s influential concept of bi-stable oscillation. Rather than support a stable subject, Boyle draws from Simondon’s metastability to suggest “a system’s tendency to persist in a precarious equilibrium for indefinite periods of time until some kind of shift changes the dynamics of that system” (113). Glitches provide one way to develop “a heuristic or practice that cultivates sense-abilities to our embodied and ecological media conditions” (115). In chapter 4, Boyle (re)turns to Michel de Certeau to discuss how the repetitive practice of topoi offer disruptive means to engage with place-based theories of writing. In his emphasis on topoi, Boyle moves away from other digital rhetoric scholars, such as Gregory L. Ulmer and Jeff Rice, who engage the concept of chora, rather than topoi, as the central inventive theory for digital writing (more on this at the end of the review). In the chapter, he demonstrates “how we might practice topoi as a temporal exercise, one of differential participation” (147), in order to understand how “we can and should become sense-able for how any given place becomes informed through repeating and multiple mediations” (135). To illustrate his points about topoi as a rhythmic and productive repetition, he discusses urban exploring (or Urbexing), which complicates notions of inside/outside (such as leaving the city) associated with exploration, and participating through repetitive exercises like sharing photos perched atop skyscrapers and in other hard-to-reach places. In chapter 5, Boyle introduces “transindividual practice” as an ethical response to examples of the “exploitation of the less advantaged by the privileged” (159) in digital networks. From so-called “Homeless Hotspots” at SXSW to the Detroit Community Technology Project, Boyle demonstrates “how rhetorical theory and practice can respond to homelessness by developing a capacity for variability” (162). Throughout this compelling chapter, he responds to this issue through Braidotti’s concept of nomadism and through the rhetorical practice of copia, “the rhetor’s capacity to generate words and subject matter when needed” (175), which “becomes a machine, ultimately, a practice, offering to ‘attune’ a rhetor toward ‘extrahuman’ dispositions” (179). In the coda, Boyle brings together the theories and practices he suggests in the previous chapters to demonstrate how they provide a “process [which] operates through serial and analogical movements, and through those movements activates a sense and sensibility for becoming affective within any given ecology of practice” (192). Through the practice of posthuman rhetoric, Boyle demonstrates that bodies can become reoriented toward ethical, beautiful, and just possibilities.

In sum, the book opens up productive and important directions for possible future engagements between writing studies and posthumanism, especially concerning the affordances of new technologies for transforming practice. However, a project this expansive necessitates limitations, and I will devote the remaining space of this review to considering two issues I found as a reader, in hopes that these might become locations for future scholarly work building from Boyle’s ambitious and laudable project. Given the book’s focus on decentering of the human by technology via scholars like Haraway and Cary Wolfe, and its engagement with rhetorical ecologies, one of the areas which was given surprisingly little attention in the book is nonhuman practitioners, specifically in conversation with animal studies scholarship. For instance, human dependence on the blood of horseshoe crabs for detecting deadly bacteria in medical equipment might suggest ways that the human body is routinely dependent on practices connecting humans and nonhumans. Beyond examples like this, the book tends to discuss nonhuman ecologies as a means for understanding mostly human networks of practice. That is to say, for a book on posthumanism, Rhetoric as a Posthuman Practice largely engages with the networked human body, albeit through a rich deconstruction of the category of humans and humanism.

The recent work of rhetoricians such as Debra Hawhee and John Muckelbauer—who, following George A. Kennedy’s landmark essay A Hoot in the Dark, consider the rhetorical capabilities of animals—have opened many channels for the sort of project that Boyle undertakes in Rhetoric as a Posthuman Practice. This reviewer can’t help but feel like there were many missed opportunities as a result of not deeply engaging this body of work. For instance, I expected the discussion of human rights, and the subsequent engagement with Cary Wolfe, to include mention of how Wolfe articulates the practice of extending human rights to animals as an example of the problem of humanist approaches. Wolfe’s point that such an approach to animal rights always ends up producing diminished versions of “the human” would lead to productive connections to Boyle’s larger points about sense, disability, practice, and the cultivation of ethical relations (Boyle 8-9, Wolfe, 45-47). While it is likely beyond the scope of Boyle’s project to deeply engage how nonhuman animals might offer other lines of flight beyond the borders of humanism, his intervention opens up productive spaces for future scholars to take up questions of nonhuman agents in relation to posthuman rhetorical practice.

The predominant issue I draw with the book lies in its characterization of the ancient Greek concept of chora, an influential concept in theories of digital rhetoric and place-based composition, especially through the work of media theorist Gregory L. Ulmer. Chora is the rough equivalent of space, as topoi is to place (though working with these terms requires care to avoid anachronistic interpretations). As a reader, I found Boyle’s critique of choric scholarship surprising, given the project’s focus on reshaping humanist approaches to rhetorical practice, that the book so resolutely turns away from choric methodologies. While Boyle demonstrates how some scholars set topoi in a binary opposition to choric invention, with topoi negatively associated with print media and chora positively with the digital, Boyle’s treatment of chora oversimplifies its important history both as a concept and an inventive technique for the practice of posthuman rhetorics (128). Boyle works along the same lines as many rhetorical theorists who draw upon chora (Ulmer, Hawk, Rickert, Rice, Arroyo); yet he departs from these thinkers by emphasizing commonplace topoi over choric invention in his articulation of posthuman practice (24). While Boyle does acknowledge how chora and topoi are connected and related, gesturing to Rickert’s Ambient Rhetoric, he focuses on topoi and commonplaces to undercut the “recent resistance to topoi as being too static, too tied to print media” (24). Yet, in doing so, he forwards the persistent chora/topoi binary that he assigns to these scholars in a sweeping move, arguing that each connects topoi negatively with print-based media and chora with digital.

However, the scholarly conversation he critiques is, in fact, more nuanced than its portrayal in the book. While Ulmer does emphasize chora as a central inventive technique for digital rhetoric, he does not reject topos outright but merely demonstrates that the latter has dominated rhetorical theory. In fact, Ulmer’s recent work directly engages with topologies as a productive technique (Ulmer 2019). As a reader, I expected Boyle to discuss Ulmer’s Heuretics as one potential place to locate a history of posthumanism in relation to writing studies scholarship. Ulmer’s work with chora seems to represent one way to achieve the kinds of posthuman ethics, or if not, then one rupture in the membranes of humanism, that Boyle argues for through the repetition of topoi. The relations among chora and topoi, for instance, suggest a kind of metastable oscillation he discusses in chapter 3. Instead, Boyle bases his critique of Ulmer and others on the notion that “arguing against the inventiveness of topoi has itself become an inventive topos” (129), but this point overlooks the complex, and admittedly convoluted, history of chora as a theoretical term. Though Boyle is right to argue that chora has become a commonplace in place-based writing studies scholarship, there remains further work to be done discussing the relations between chora and topoi in digital rhetoric. In fact, Ulmer directly discusses the paradox of chora becoming a topic in Electronic Monuments (120).

At the very least, Boyle’s critique of choric invention would have benefited from further elaboration and a deeper engagement with the term’s influence on posthumanism through its poststructural roots in theorists like Jacques Derrida and Julia Kristeva. He fails to fully address the ecological relationship shared between topoi and chora in the practice of choric invention, which Plato theorizes in the Timaeus as a “third kind” (48e4), an interval between chaos and order. Because chora is, in a sense unknowable or unnamable—Plato argues that we can only understand the concept through a “bastard reasoning” (52b)—to name it is to typify it, to place it in a topoi. This is in line with Boyle’s critique of chora becoming commonplace, but far from being lost on Ulmer and those who build from his work, the ironic and ecological relationship between chora and topoi is what made it an appealing and inventive concept for poststructuralists like Derrida and Kristeva in the first place.

For instance, Derrida’s Chora L’ Works documents a famous experiment with New York Five member Peter Eisenman where the pair attempts to create a garden that will serve as a bridge between deconstruction and architecture. The task is, as Rickert (2007) argues, “inventing the impossible” and ultimately fails to be realized, except in writing (266). This irony is at the root of the project, “asking about the possibility of giving place to something that seems to have no place” (264). To build a material monument, a place, representing chora would require transforming it into a topos, just as representing chora through a term renders it part of a topology of language. Most importantly, Boyle’s characterization of this body of scholarship as embodying “a positivistic notion of technological innovation” seems unwarranted (129). These scholars return to the ancient concept chora, not to advance “the new,” nor to outright discount topos as a method, but to draw novel methodologies from older and other ways of theorizing invention.

Boyle is right to criticize choric scholarship which lapses into a simplistic chora/topos and print/digital binary, as the terms have a relational ecology which is richly complex and ironic. If nothing else, his critique points to a need for further scholarship tracing the relations between these concepts, but this aspect of his project would have benefitted from a richer account of chora as it comes into contact with posthuman rhetorics. In a sense, the problem with Boyle’s critique of chora is similar to the problem he critiques in other scholars’ treatment of topoi: as techniques and inventive concepts, both share a complex and often convoluted history which cannot be taken for granted. Thus, just as Boyle argues against Rice’s treatment of topoi as print-based, fixed, static, and “based on expectation” (Rice 2012, qtd. in Boyle 126), so too does chora offer enduring and novel problems for thinking about the ecologies of place, invention, and the practice of writing in an era of emerging media practices.

Works Cited

Arroyo, Sarah J., Participatory Composition: Video Culture, Writing, and Electracy. SIUP, 2013.

Derrida, Jacques and Peter Eisenman. Chora L Works: Jacques Derrida and Peter Eisenman. The Monacelli Press, 1997.

Hawhee, Debra. Rhetoric in Tooth and Claw: Animals, Language, Sensation. U of Chicago P, 2017.

---. Toward a Bestial Rhetoric. Philosophy and Rhetoric, vol. 44, no. 1, 2011, pp. 81-87.

Hawk, Byron. A Counter-history of Composition: Toward Methodologies of Complexity. U of Pittsburgh P, 2007.

Kennedy, George. A Hoot in the Dark: The Evolution of General Rhetoric. Philosophy and Rhetoric vol. 25, no. 1, 1992, pp. 1-21.

Muckelbauer, John. Domesticating Animal Theory. Philosophy and Rhetoric, vol. 44, num. 1, 2011, pp. 95-100.

---. Implicit Paradigms of Rhetoric: Aristotelian, Cultural, and Heliotropic in Rhetoric, Through Everyday Things. Eds. Scot Barnett and Casey Boyle, U of Alabama P, 2016, pp. 30-41.

Plato. Timaeus and Critias. Trans. A.E. Taylor, Routledge, 2013. Print.

Rickert, Thomas. Ambient Rhetoric: The Attunements of Rhetorical Being. U of Pittsburgh P, 2013.

---. Toward the Chōra: Kristeva, Derrida, and Ulmer on Emplaced Invention, Philosophy & Rhetoric, Vol. 40, No. 3, pp. 251-273.

Rice, Jeff. Digital Detroit: Rhetoric and Space in the Age of the Network. SIUP, 2012.

Ulmer, Gregory L. Heuretics: The Logic of Invention. Johns Hopkins UP, 1994.

---. Electronic Monuments. U of Minnesota P, 2005.

---. Konsult: Electrate Justice. Rhetorical Speculations: The Future of Rhetoric, Writing, and Technology. Ed. Scott Sundvall. Utah State UP, 2019.

Wolfe, Cary. What is Posthumaism? U of Minnesota P, 2009.

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