In my classes, I have been using more and more science and mathematical terms lately. I do so only partly as a discursive move to tap into the cultural caché of STEM, practical fields, and a scientific-empiricist mindset. But I also do so because I think it is right. While language arts have rich and deeply reflexive vocabularies, methodologies, and historically situated conceptual frameworks, and such apparatus is often derided as obscuritanist, overly contextual, and riddled with abstraction, hewing to this tradition too closely elides the deeper roots of an educational program rooted in the artes liberales. If we are to take rhetoric as a major, if not master, term in a liberal arts education, then where and how might it intersect with dialectic and grammar? What exploits might we find and use to foreground common or similar patterns of thought and resposne across disciplinary lines, especially those lines that separate science and humanistic inquiry?
So, my freshman composition students are (eventually) exposed to rhetoric as a kind of calculus. I don’t think this is very original, since rhetoric has been associated with change for a very long time. However, to derive a series of copia, one can easily use sigma notation to explain the idea of making a series of iterations for variables a (audience), c (context), and p (purpose). My students are introduced to the algebraic equation R (rhetoric) = a + c + p, so to move from algebra to calculus seems pretty straightforward to them.
But this post isn’t necessarily about my teaching and even my example isn’t perfect since sigma notation is a shorthand for sums of iterations. What is important for copia is not the sum of them all, but the writing out of all the iterations. Rather, what I am after here are the exploits between rhetoric as a humanistic tradition and math and science as part of that shared tradition. I think many folks can see what is at stake here as the “crisis of the humanities” is felt, partly because of its obscuratanism but also partly because of cultural and political pressure. If the humanities and humanistic inquiry is to thrive again, its relevance to and shared history with what is pragmatically valued must be allowed to shine through.
And this brings me to what I really want to talk about. Physics. And Pooh. Of course, this is very tongue in cheek and what I think Gregory Ulmer would call “applied poetry,” but it works on a few levels. The title plays off the titles of two previous books, Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics and Benjamin Hoff’s The Tao of Pooh. But it also reappropriates the appellation “pooh” as waste, refuse, and excrement — what many might think of rhetoric — by way of applied poetry. Why? Simply put, by approaching rhetoric this way, we are quickly led down an historical path by which we can begin to suggest that composition, as informed by rhetoric, is to language study what quantum mechanics is to physics. Indeed, if my hunch is right, even these two are converging.Now, that is a bold statement. Yet, let’s look at two nascent influences on rhetorical inquiry and see how this might be so.
Given the ontological turn in rhetoric, I compare Karen Barad’s Meeting the Universe Halfway with the thought of Gilbert Simondon, especially one of the few (until December2016) translated works of his, “The Genesis of the Individual.” I do so because both thinkers explain how communication and physical reality are not just related, but intertwined and co-determinative. For Barad, this is a form of “entanglement” while for Simondon, it is a matter of “individuation.” These are two different approaches to theorizing the physical as rhetorical, though neither theorist explicitly uses the term “rhetoric.” Instead, each presents the world as change in ways useful for rhetorical scholars.
Barad’s book centers on Neils Bohr and his experiments with quantum phenomena as both wave and light. As Barad puts it, representationalist theories of the world are inadequate discursive practices when compared to performative ones (see p. 28). We can think of representationalist theories as ones centered on identity, signs, and the world as text, including the problem explained by Frederic Jameson’s “prison house of language.” Performative ideas, on the other hand, are exemplified by Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, where static notions of identity are continually troubled through their constitution in a series of activities like citation of previous acts. As Barad paraphrases Butler, “identity [is not] an essence, but… a doing” (62). Further, this doing is not a doing of a liberal humanist subject, but, quoting Butler, “one of the powerful and insidious ways in which subjects are called into social being from diffuse social quarters, inaugurated into sociality by a variety of diffuse and powerful interpellations” (62). Barad extends Butler’s ideas, though, to encompass matter and material reality more fully. As she writes, “To restrict power’s productivity to the limited domain of the social, for example, or to figure matter as merely an end product rather than an active factor in further materializations is to cheat matter out of the fullness of its capacity” (66).
Barad cites Bohr’s physics on quantum phenomenon as a guide to this extension, noting the problems that appropriations of quantum theory for New Age philosophy, as the book titles for this post’s title, exemplify, indeed, as my use of the titles exploit. Yet, to get to Barad’s point rather quickly, “the point is not merely that knowledge practices have material consequences but that practices of knowing are specific material engagements that participate in (re)configuring the world” (91, italics in original). In order to say we know something, to actually demonstrate a learning outcome, articulate a perspective on the world, persuade another that there is a different way of seeing things, or that another path might indeed be a viable alternative — or that the common sense appraoch is valid even, is “about making specific worldly configurations” (91) such that “the nature of observed phenomenon changes with corresponding changes in the apparatus” (106, italics in original). Elsewhere, “the measurement [of phenomena] necessarily disturbs the object” (107) and, crucially as it is “Bohr’s conclusion: observation is only possible on the condition that the effect of the measurement is indeterminable” (113, italics in original). For Barad, this undoes the Cartesian distinction between subject and object since “every measurement involves a particular choice of apparatus, providing the conditions necessary to give meaning to a particular set of variables, at the exclusion of other essential variables, thereby placing a particular embodied cut delineating the object from the agencies of observation” (115).
This, I think, has enormous and weighty implications for writing assessment, teacherly feedback, and writing program administration, among other things. And this dynamic is not entirely new to those conversations. However, with austerity measures, a subaltern status, and pressures for direct assessment outcomes, such an explanation for more nuanced, detailed, and laborious procedures may be warranted; indeed, it may be what little can keep standardized, high-stakes testing or computerized, “dummy-proof” assessments at bay.
At first glance, there is a lot in common between Barad and French theorist Gilbert Simondon. Barad draws on Gilles Deleuze only slightly and Simondon was a big influence on Deleuze. However, Simondon isn’t so much after the perception of reality as the process of reality itself. Comparing the two we might look to see where Barad never quite reaches orbital velocity, escaping the gravitational pull of semiotics and her own critique of representationalism. After all, even a measurement that disturbs the measured isn’t that far off from Kenneth Burke’s insight that any selection of symbols as a representation of reality is also a deflection of that reality.
Simondon appraoches the ontological by way of attempting to discover a principle of individuation. In short, how to individuals come to be? An individual may be one of a class of things, but it is still a uniquely individual entity and a being in and of itself though it may also have generic characteristics. An individual is never exactly the same as others of its class. His critique of Western approaches to this question rests on the procedure of taking account of any given individual’s genesis “in reverse” (298) and accounting backward from the individual itself, thus deflecting away any parts or components that may play a role in an individual’s development, but which do not appear in that individual once it reaches its status as already formed “thing.” Again, we have resonance with Burke’s selection-reflection-deflection process. On this basis, Simondon rejects essentialist and hylomorphic descriptions of individuation. He instead posits a three part process — what I think can be likened to “phase states” — of 1) an intial supersaturation, 2) adoption of a structure under the laws of entropy, and 3) successive equilibria to resolve entropic problems. Thus, “individuation is not to be thought of as the meeting of a previous form and matter existing as already constituted and separate terms, but a resolution taking place in the heart of a metastable system rich in potentials: form, matter and energy pre-exist in the system” (304, italics in original).
Crystals, as individuated forms exemplifying a class of very simple things, point to how communication and mediation are necessary ingredients in the individuation of things even as inert as chemical compounds. As Simondon writes, the principle here is one of “mediation, which generally presumes the existence of original duality [form, matter, energy] of the order of magnitude and the initial absence of interactive communication between them, followed by a subsequent communication between orders of magnitude and stabilization” (304). Within crystalline formation, there are orders of growth, magnitude, and stabilization according to processes within a given system: its boundaries, liquid saturation and dissolvement, evaporation, etc. For simple systems such as crystals, what we might in the humanities call “context” — the material agents of evaporation, transpiration, saturation, etc. fade away in the focus on the particular crystal in and of itself which exists for our admiration and wonder. However, for living beings, according to Simondon, we have “a veritable theater of individuation” (305). Individuation is not concentrated at the boundary, growing like a crystalline lattice through successive layers, but “a more complete regime of internal resonance requiring permanent communication and maintaining a metastability that is the precondition of life” (305, italics in original). Rather than a cybernetic automaton, the living individual “results from an initial individuation and amplifies this individuation” (305) since living beings bring about individuation by themselves and not entirely from an external milieu or context. What separates the living and the inert is not processes of individuation per se, that is the adaptation of being to its milieu, but by the living being’s “modifying itself through the invention of new internal structures and its complete self-insertion into the axiomatic of organic problems” (305). It is an autopoeisis, or
analogous to that of quanta in physics and also to that concerning the relativity between the levels of potential energy — that it is fair to assume that the process of individuation does not exhaust everything that came before (the preindividual), and that a metastable regime is not only maintained by the individual, but is actually borne by it, to such an extent that the finally constituded individual carries with it a certain inheritance associated with its preindividual reality, one animated by all the potentials that characterize it (306).
Once again, we can see similarities between Barad and Simondon in that certain apparatus of observation release certain and specific potentials. Rhetoric, or a rhetorical approach to understanding the processes of communicative formation, are the very “Pooh” of language when concieved of as the formative outcomes measured by direct assessments. It is what is often excreted and ex-scribed (Davis 1998) from assessment, consideration in teacherly feedback, and administration of writing programs because of external pressures for students to tow the line of objective measures, normative language use, and other inputs that default to entropy, thereby lowering energy states for and inhibiting writing that might be in any way “consequential” (Brandt 2016) in any real sense. Taking a given piece of writing as an individual and subject to individuation replete with its entanglements requires that we think about how we encounter it and give it consequence. What is the prompt, how is that explained in class, what attendant lessons feed into and support it (or don’t), what resources or capacities are drawn on by individuals and their continual becoming as writers, what measures do we use to activate that writing or sense of writerliness, and how can we take the requisite care and critical perspective to render the very best understanding of what students write are all questions that urgently need to be addressed when programs and individuals or groups are entrusted with the task of promoting growth in writing and literacy in general. We cannot default to lower entropic states where student outcomes are a measure of following a generic template or script, where knowledge of one form or citation style magically translates into all other forms, or where normative outcomes are the only window on how students from marginalized or non-Western backgrounds perform in our classes. We owe it to our students to think in ways that work against entropy in the measurement system and allow them the capacity to write in ways consequential to them, their audiences, and their purposes. Writing and assessing writing is based on a quantum rather than Newtonian mechanics. This has been true since at least 1972 with Young, Becker, and Pike (I cite Teresa Enos’ entry here in her honor, just days after her death).
Yet we cannot take Barad and Simondon as high priests of rhetorical theory. They are influential for thinking about it, to be sure, but while they point out how writing assessment is so very dependent upon the apparatus of measurement, the other purpose of this post is to discern both differences and similarities. An analysis is in order here. Suffice to say at this point, that Barad’s explanation may not quite get us out of Jameson’s prison. And Simondon leaves us with all manner of unanswered questions about the very specifics he raises, including the relation between individual and milieu, the materiality of communication between these things, and how mediation takes place in an ontological and not just an epistemological sense. These questions aside, looking at writing studies and compostion in the long tradition of the ex-scribed of English departments may allow us to reclaim the “pooh” of language study in much the same way s as “fag” and “nigger”” has been reclaimed by those to whom those terms once applied.