Given the new materialist ontological orientation being explored in rhetoric, composition, communication, new media, and digital humanities, this project, the Sub-Verse playfully enters the fray in an electrate sense that also admits to its literate roots. In other words, while hearkening to Ulmer’s Applied Grammatology, I’m not seeking a break or rupture with literate practices, but a playful wrangling with them, much like that found in Derrida, Deleuze, Avital Ronnell, and others who accompany the cultural shift we are now beginning to take for granted. Even Latour plays with literate apparatum and apparitions, and so let’s take his social world and inhabit it in ways others might find, if not familiar, at least something more than an uncanny valley.
In this world, with its new ontolog(ies), we find that relations are key. Galloway and Tacker, Phillip Gochenour, and Yuk Hui’s treatment of Gilbert Simondon are all very concerned with relations as prior to entities themselves. This is a conceptual challenge for many in the Western world, since both language and culture prioritize the essence or existence of things before thehy can enter into relations. So, at once we have the challenge of thinking relations without things (references without relata) and, concomitantly, the challenge to network theory of thinking edges without nodes. This would seem to leave us atopos or utopos, a no-place inhabited by everything and nothing, a foggy haze without possibility of orientation since there are no referents, no others to mark our passage, no marks to other us.
Yet, we might be wrong in that frustration. We certainly float in the conceptual void, permeating it diffusedly, at one with the world, until someting grabs us. Suddenly we are not just in relation, but out of that relation — activity! We are taken, ontologically. We move from a space of pure relations and potentials (from Deleuze’s virtual) to an actual event, marks, referents, others, and orientations precipitating out of the solution. That solution is being taken. Inversely, and crucial for rhetoric is that the solution is to be taken, to exist as taken form. We have already been seized. We are already abducted. We have all the power in a radical passivity accompanying our existence.
I am talking here of course about preconditions for language, semiotics, communication, and mediation, not the processes of these things. First comes ontology — how we are taken and so formed — followed by the available means of language, semiotics, communication, andmediation. Aristotle was profoundly correct and profoundly wrong to focus on the endekhomenon. Correct in that we can only utilize that which is available to us — that which has already been taken and precipitated out, which is part of the solution — but also wrong in not giving endekhomenon ontological status. For Aristotle, these remained on the rhetoric side of the counterpart with dialectic.
Let’s not confuse this taking with ecocomposition, but learn from ecocomposition to further the point. Sid Dobrin’s contribution about the place composition occupies doesn’t go far enough. It is true that compositon “takes place” and is both an occuping and an occupied place, a place for occupation. But this sense of place isn’t ontological. Rather, it is external to ontology. It is the place ontology inhabits, prior to and extending beyond the beings who occupy it. It sets up an problem whereby we must see beings and places as mutually reinforcing, but ultimately separate things. This is a barrier to thining relations first because it posits a place — composition — and its occupiers — teachers/ administrators/ professors — who do an activity — occupy composition. Ultimately, it is a tautological conception altogether different from Gregory Bateson’s depiction of bison and the North American prairie ecosystem; there is no one without the other. They are part of a complex solution, or actualization in Deleuze’s terms, to having been taken, ontologically. Being taken, the available means are used on scales from the microscopic to the evolutionary.
The full phrase in Aristotle is to endekhomenon pithanon, typically translated as “the available means of persuasion” (see Kennedy 1991, p37, n34). Already, by the time we get to this phrasing within the opening sentence of Book Two of Chapter One, we have heard Aristotle emplaced us with “Let rhetoric be [defined as] an ability, in each particular case, to see” what it is rhetoric focuses upon, to endekhomenon pithanon. Much has been made of this preface since its grammar points us toward the ultimate class of objects with which rhetoric belongs: dunamis, “an ability,” a capacity. Similarly, Kenndy’s translation points out the root of the word theorein, or to see, from which we get our word, theory. These have traditionally been the wheels upon which Aristotle’s definition moves. Kennedy himself works sequentially through the phrase, beginning with esto de and only arriving at the meaning of to endekhomenon pithanon as the last sentence in a twelve-sentence footnote. Similarly, in a short commentary for Philosophy and Rhetoric Eric Doxtader (2013) quotes this phrase and focuses on its dynamic and seeing aspects. However, Megan Foley (2012) unpacks this phrase much more carefully and fully through two of the main terms of the “Great Triangle” by the eminent J.T. Kirby (1990). Those terms, Peitho and Bia, Foley argues, are not so much antithetical as they are dependent upon one another for meaning.
Foley notes how “rhetoric is the name for the force of language” (174). As such, rhetoric’s pervasiveness (peitho) always admits some degree of force (bia). While one can have force without rhetoric, one cannot fully theorize rhetoric or persuasion without accounting for some force being applied. Something is taken. This force (bia) can be seen in two ways. In the first instance, it is the force which works “‘para phusin,’ or contrary to that body’s nature” (175), an external force that makes some thing into an other thing or causes it to act in some way contrary to its immanent being, absent the introduction of bia. The other instance, Foley explains, works through kata phusin, or in accordance with that nature of the thing which force is applied to. Here, this “dunamis activates potentialities that the body had already, rather than forcing it to actualize forms against the grain of its latent potential. By this definition, bia, or force, makes a body do or become something that it is incapable of doing or being on its own” (175). Force can, through para phusin, sunder a window to glassy dust, or, through kata phusin, solidify liquid when one opens a supercooled container. Extending this even further, as Foley follows Agamben, there is an “aporia in the character of potentiality itself” (176). Or, as Foley also notes in Derrida’s meditation on endekhetai, the question of what is possible or available concerns “the possibility of the impossible” (176).
More simply put, a potential is not merely the ability to do something; it is also the ability to not do so. Any positive conception of potentiality, or of availability in our case, requires its refusal. Foley puts it this way: “If potentiality did not contain an element of impotentiality, everything potential would actually happen. If possibility did not contain an element of impossibility, everything possible would come to pass” (176). Following from this, Foley reasons that “if potentiality by Aristotle’s own definition must contain impotentiality, then every actualization harbors an element of force” (177). The impotential if forced into actualization. Something gets taken.
Through such careful work, Foley shows how Aristotle’s definition forwards “a doubled emergence of generative force” that is not just dunamis as ability and potential but also endekhomenon as possibility and availability. It is this latter aspect that I think modern discussions of rhetoric have missed in favor of the former.