Subject-Object / Realism-Idealism / Emergence-Withdrawal

"Rhetoric," Thomas Rickert (2013) explained, "takes its bearings from a materiality that always in advance affects us, making persuadability a matter not only of an a priori relationality among animate beings but also of an a priori relationality and exposure to world" (p. 163). If he's going to treat our material surroundings as agents in the composing process, then Rickert needed to do away with representationalist theories of rhetoric that configure humans as the sole proprietors of meaning-making. Rickert read Kenneth Burke as having recognized the embodied nature of semiotics as an acting-with material objects to make meaning, but in tying meaning-making to symbol-making, both meaning and symbol are still called into existence primarily by humans, for whom the material world functions as an inert tool. Rickert contended that Martin Heidegger, on the other hand, appeared to allow for at least the possibility of dissolving the subject-object split, as humans are not joined to, and at the same time separated from, the world by semiotics, as with Burke, but wedded to the world at a more ontological level.

Rickert argued for Heidegger's foundational role in the theory of ambient rhetoric because whether we assume language is a direct representation of the world or all we know of it, we still position humans as subjects and objects as other, and this just doesn’t synch up with theories of distributed cognition for which we are finding more and more supporting evidence in everything from smart homes to Neolithic cave art. In other words, we can’t explain the agency inherent in the complex ecologies we shape and are shaped by, let alone our own agency within that shaping, unless we abandon the idea that we and the meaning we make are constituted by language.

Furthermore, Rickert believed Heidegger’s concept of the fourfold adds to Bruno Latour’s (2005) actor-network theory and Jane Bennett’s (2010) vital materialism in accounting for the dynamic of emergence and withdrawal. For Rickert, what makes an object a thing is not only the way it emerges as an agent in an assemblage but also how it withdraws, refusing to disclose itself and participate in the act of meaning-making at the level of semiotics. In so doing, the thing is never reducible to what it might possibly signify. "The arrogance of human beings," Rickert warned, "comes from forgetting this, from equating our knowledge and practical handling of something . . . with what that thing is" (p. 212). Regardless of whether or not a thing has measurable use or exchange value, Rickert insisted it remains an active part of the assemblage on an affective level, the level of ambience, and although we can attune ourselves to this dance of emergence and withdrawal within the larger assemblage, we can never completely know a thing, never completely map its meanings, never exhaust its agentive potential.

The thing at the moment of emergence, the kairotic moment, is particular, material—not objective but possessing its own subectivity—and given to assigning and being assigned signification. But that assignation, that measurement, can only account for the subjectivity of the thing in its moment of emergence, because when it withdraws, it is operating again at the choric level—wavelike, immanent: ambient. Such illusiveness is as intriguing as it is problematic in considering the utility of Rickert's theory of ambient rhetoric.

McBride, T. L. (2014). Powerlines [Photo]. Gainesville, FL.


Ambience / Attunement / Chōra / Kairos
McBride, T. L. (2014). Powerlines [Photo]. Gainesville, FL.


Implications / Qualifications / Invitations