Implications / Qualifications / Invitations

Thomas Rickert’s (2013) interpretation of chōra and kairos furthered the work of scholars such as Byron Hawk (2007) in re-theorizing invention in new materialist terms. A theory proposing that we are able to invent because we are embedded in the world at the affective, ambient level holds important implications for how we prioritize experiential learning and metacognition in and beyond the classroom. Rickert's description of emergence and withdrawal also provided a theoretical framework through which to further consider the various agencies and dynamics at play when communication networks form and reform in rapidly evolving organizational settings, such as those described in Clay Spinuzzi's (2008) object-oriented studies of workplace genres.

In Diffractions, I explained how Martin Heidegger’s notion of being in the world, or dwelling, enabled Rickert to not only bring rhetorical theory up to speed with new materialism but also to add to new materialist approaches to theorizing and studying rhetoric and composition through Heidegger's account of emergence and withdrawal. In accounting for the ethical dimensions of our relationship with things as co-agents, Rickert's employment of Heidegger's concept of dwelling ambitiously reimagined what it meant to be Quintilian’s “good man speaking well,” and in a way that reverses the trend of relying on negation to reject or circumvent the anthropocentrism inherent in representationalist theories of rhetoric and composition (e.g. Dobrin, 2011; Sánchez, 2005).

Yet in addition to serving as the lynchpin in Rickert's theory of ambient rhetoric and thus affording it the above potentialities, Heidegger is also its Achilles' heel—a point that, for all the strengths of Ambient Rhetoric, deserves some unpackaging here. Because the theory of ambient rhetoric proposes that we must ethically attune ourselves to being in the world, we find ourselves on the horns of a quasi-religious dilemma, in that to act rhetorically, we must act with a degree of faith in and reverence for the ambient agency of things. In demanding that we change ourselves and how we see the world in order to wield rhetoric ethically and effectively, Rickert's appeal toward the end of the book for an understanding of the theory of ambient rhetoric as dwelling with attunement to sufficiency reads more at times like it was selling a spiritual journey of personal transformation than a new materialist theory accounting for the distributed nature of rhetorical agency.

Of the affordances and limitations of Heidegger, Richard Rorty (1989) proclaimed:

When we read Heidegger as a philosophy professor who managed to transcend his own condition by using the names and the words of the great dead metaphysicians as elements of a personal litany, he is an immensely sympathetic figure. But as a philosopher of our public life, as a commentator on twentieth-century technology and politics, he is resentful, petty, squint-eyed, obsessive—and, at his occasional worst (as in his praise of Hitler after the Jews had been kicked out of the universities), cruel. (pp. 119–120)

Rickert acknowledged these limitations in Heidegger's work and life, and he went through pains to critique on the one hand Heidegger's naïve sentimentalization of agency in homely cultural artifacts—which lends itself to nationalism—and on the other to qualify Heidegger's over-attribution of agency to technology as a kind of apocalyptic jugernaut—which lends itself in turn to the naïve sentimentalization of agency in homely cultural artifacts. Nevertheless, Rickert remained reliant on Heidegger's concept of dwelling for the ethics of sufficiency he grafted onto his ontological theory of ambient rhetoric, but why?

As a descriptive project, Ambient Rhetoric appears less Heideggerian and more Rortian in how it pragmatically marshals advances in a range of disciplines under the banner of a repurposed Heidegger to reinterpret traditional rhetorical concepts and also introduce new ones, such as emergence and withdrawal. However, Rickert claimed to avoid reliance on Marxist-influenced materialisms in theorizing his own, which could be interpreted as odd given his previous work in Acts of Enjoyment (Rickert, 2007) to develop a postpedagogy grounded in Marxist-influenced psychoanalytic theorists such as Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guatarri, Jacques Lacan, and Slavoj Žižek, and particularly odd given how much their work complements that of Ambient Rhetoric. Take for instance Slavoj Žižek’s (1989) reformulation of ideology via Jacques Lacan as the unconscious fantasy embodying social relations, a fantasy constructed by surplus–enjoyment, the object–cause of our desire that perpetuates itself even as it masks the internal inconsistencies that make it necessary. Žižek described the dynamics of the ideological fantasy in terms similar to Rickert’s description of chōra and kairos: a network of relations that gives way to the materialization of subjective reality.

So why no mention of Žižek in Ambient Rhetoric when Žižek stands to afford at the very least a link—or explicit point of departure—from Rickert's earlier work to his latest? Why only give passing mention to Deleuze in terms of his influence on Jane Bennett and Debra Hawhee, and Lacan in terms of the similarities between psychoanalytic theories of language and Heidegger’s, with no mention at all of Victor J. Vitanza’s indebtedness to Deleuze and Guattari and Lacan? One might argue that Rickert is more interested in conversing with the most recent generation of this postmodern genealogy, but then why feature Heidegger so prominently? These omissions might be explained by the material constraints of publishing. Or it might be that in believing Heidegger's fourfold is a better description than Žižek's ideological fantasy for how things retain their own subjectivity within ecologies of agency, Rickert wanted Ambient Rhetoric to function in accordance with his understanding of kairos: a moment of complexity, a non-dialectical tipping point catalyzed by but no longer culturally and historically contingent upon all that gives rise to it.

If that is his goal, Rickert seems to meet it with success. It remains to be seen how the fields of rhetoric and composition will ultimately attune to Rickert's theory of ambient rhetoric, and in doing so, which of its many facets will emerge or withdraw as influential, but what is certain is that Ambient Rhetoric offers a richly nuanced contribution to the body of scholarship on rhetorical invention—one that encourages the field to reconsider classical rhetorical concepts through a new materialist lens, and one that ambitiously proposes both an ontology and an ethics, neither of which should be overlooked or oversimplified in our attempts to account in ever greater detail and dimension for the depth and range of agencies, affects, effects, and associations involved in rhetorical activity.

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


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


Subject-Object / Realism-Idealism / Emergence-Withdrawal