M.09: Sound and Ambience: Investigating Thomas Rickert’s Ambient Rhetoric

Reviewed by Daniel L. Hocutt, University of Richmond and Old Dominion University, VA (dhocu001@odu.edu)

Chair: Sean Conrey, Syracuse University, NY

Speakers: Sean Conrey, Syracuse University, NY, “The Politics of Listening for Phoné”
Geoffrey Carter, Saginaw Valley State University, MI, “A Dark Ambient: Attuning Thomas Rickert’s German Musical Influences”
Robert Leston, CUNY, New York, NY, “Music and Millieu”
Sarah Arroyo, California State University–Long Beach, CA, “Responsefrom Thomas Rickert”

I read Thomas J. Rickert’s (2013) Ambient Rhetoric: The Attunements of Rhetorical Being as the concluding reading of a focus-changing new media seminar titled “Theories of Networks” at Old Dominion University. At the time, Rickert’s work helped me pull together theoretical strands of cultural-historical activity network, actor-network theory, ecological theory, and rhizomatic theory in the beginnings of what I hope will one day become a cohesive whole (although given the ubiquity of ambience, grasping a sense of wholeness is surely a work in vain). As I read and discussed Rickert’s work with my peers and our instructors, I recognized in ambience the beginnings of a way to see the world of rhetoric as the connected world—human and non-human, biological and nonbiological—to which I need to be attuned. I also recognized in my growing understanding of the networked world that ambient features connected well beyond anything I previously imagined or considered possible. Ambient rhetoric rocked my world.

I have to admit, the way the panel was written in the mobile app, I thought Rickert was going to be present. He wasn’t; instead, Sarah Arroyo ably narrated Rickert’s response to the panelists' video presentations. In his written remarks read by Arroyo, Rickert made his apologies for not being able to attend CCCC and thanked the panelists for their work. He emphasized the importance of expanding our understanding of ambient rhetoric and praised the way each video presentation used sound and music, significant inspirations to his own exploration of ambience, to demonstrate attunement. Given the focus on sound and imagery in the session, Rickert’s narrated remarks were brief, encouraging attendees to remain focused on the panelists and their work.

The three panelists, all present and sitting at the head table, each played a 15- to 20-minute video that illustrated and visually narrated their ideas. The entire session was intentionally orchestrated to represent ways ambience can work. We walked into a dimmed presentation space with ambient music playing in the background. As we waited for the panel to begin, the mood was decidedly chill and hip. Just before the panel began, Kyle Stedman (@kstedman) tweeted “Mood music. Moodlighting. Ambient rhetoric. It's #m09, folks. #4c15.”

Sean Conrey rose, welcomed us, and offered a little context to the panel. He then introduced his video with a few words and (after a moment of struggling to get the video to start), let his video, "Listening to Phoné," do the talking. And it was beautiful. Beautifully directed and designed, beautifully and artistically produced, and beautifully narrated. The short film related musical phoné (phrases in which meaning is conveyed by sound, not words) to the work of Diane Davis, George Kennedy (with a nod to composer John Luther Adams), and Rickert’s ambient rhetoric itself. The results were visually stunning, and I can’t wait to share the video with my students. Conrey enjoys etymologies, and this appreciation was reflected in the way Conrey defined terms like phoné and vulnerable during the video. His mixing of words, narration, music, and moving images was masterful. He referred to these three presentations as “premieres,” and they were worthy of being premiered.

Geoffrey Carter invoked John Cage-like musical silences by relying on the conference center wi-fi, which didn’t quite do justice to his Vimeo video, "A Dark Ambient: Attuning Thomas J. Rickert’s Krautrock Influences in Ambient Rhetoric.” Carter’s presentation was a remarkable video mashup, with many of the musical sources coming from Rickert’s own influences and writing. Carter described his video as a footnote on a footnote from Ambient Rhetoric, and he was right. The footnotes in Rickert’s text reflects on important influences, including krautrock, a German electronic musical genre from the 1970s. Carter’s video expanded on the history and influence of krautrock as an example of found, participatory, and ambient music—even music that isn’t considered music, like the sound of a broken truck transmission or speaking into a rotating concrete mixer. Although his video stuttered and paused as it struggled to buffer, the result made us more aware of the ambience. As one attendee noted, the result of paused and stuttering video was an audience aware of the performativity of the piece and the ambient rhetoric of the space and time.

Robert Leston apologetically explained that he had planned simply to read his paper without using the visual medium because his video and words didn't match up, but as one participant noted, what disjuncture there may have been between word and motion picture turned out to work in the presentation's favor. The presentation, “Music and Milieu Work in Progress,” was a narrated video. Leston spoke most directly to Rickert's focus on attunement to the ambience of sound as music, from the beating of one's heart and the breathing of the concert hall in John Cage's 4'33" to the stylings of deconstructed guitar. One of the most striking images repeated throughout the video was of strange looking starfish-like sea creatures eating something red and using their incredibly long tentacular arms to reach out for others in what appeared to be a hostile act of subsuming the other. As Leston admitted, it wasn't always clear what those images meant since they weren't thematically matched to the spoken word—but the result was that we looked for evidence of ambience in the action on the screen, itself an act of attunement to the many rhetorics at work in the piece.

As fate would have it, Conrey and I ended up seated next to one another on our flight from Tampa to Atlanta. I had chatted with Conrey and Arroyo after the session, so when Conrey saw me as he walked down the aircraft aisle and noticed his seat next to mine, he asked if I believed in destiny. This reminded me of the rhetorical intentions in the world to which humans are not, or are no longer, attuned to recognize, so I find it hard to say that I don't believe in destiny. Whether we were indeed fated to chat longer and exchange contact information and commit to email dialogue, or whether our continued conversation was the result of pretty good odds that CCCC conference goers might leave on the same plane from Tampa on the final afternoon of the convention, seems somewhat moot. It happened, and I hope we both were attuned to the possibilities that our meeting will lead to fruitful conversations about Rickert, music, the body as rhetoric, and a thousand more topics in the realm of ambient rhetoric.


Rickert, Thomas. (2013). Ambient rhetoric: The attunements of rhetorical being. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Created by JenniferNagy. Last Modification: Thursday 31 of December, 2015 22:22:00 UTC by ccccreviews.