FOR MY ENG 191 STUDENTS

Please post 2 brief paragraphs on the following.

REFLECT on a discussion we have had in class.  What stood out?  What did you learn?  How did the discussion contribute to your understanding of rhetoric and/or writing?  How do you view the discussion differently knowing what you know now??

(filter bubbles, SCSU issues, Sherry Turkle and technology, Jon Ronson and psychopaths, Ken Robinson and education, the rhetoric of comment sections, etc.)

** Feel free to include additional commentary re: class discussions, in-class activities, and/or homework assignments that stood out to you as helpful.  What resonated about that assignment/discussion/activity?   (peer review, opposing view mini-paper, etc.)

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Postmodern fragments?

Marilyn Cooper reminds us that in a postmodern world, intellectuals have constructed a new model of human beings as subjects.  These new subjects “are assumed to be so fragmented that they are incapable of coherent intentions or actions, and agency is merely a position into which they are interpellated” (Cooper 423).  For rhetoric to exist, however, and for rhetorical theory to be of any importance, individuals must possess agency.  Cooper defines agency in terms of neurophenomenology; agents change their structure in response to the world around them and to the imagined potential results of their actions.  Human beings assimilate into their surroundings but do so with unique intentions, goals and histories.  In Cooper’s words, “individual agents are determinate, but not determined” (428).  Agents can be responsible by listening to others in a mind that is open to new ideas, and recognize the fact that truths exist in minds other than one’s own.

Agency exists, and it is indeed necessary for rhetorical theory.  Individuals act with particular intentions and goals as they assimilate into their surroundings, and when individuals come together to form groups they are, in some cases, able to exert rhetorical influence, even as “the system” works to minimize the effects of rhetorics that challenge the dominant ideology.  The belief that 21st-century subjects are inherently fragmented informs scholarly arguments that suggest late capitalism is entrenched and utterly secure.  I argue, however, that by unifying with other individual subjects to form collectives, by filling public spaces and pressuring politicians, and by speaking in a wide range of voices that span across the political spectrum, fragmented subjects are able to make coherent, effective rhetorical decisions.

As our postmodern subject position becomes increasingly apparent it is vital to examine the potential of poly-vocal rhetorics, and to strive for an understanding of the possibilities and limitations of collective agency.  Rights of nature advocates employ a rhetoric that, while still very new, has shown itself to be an effective means of shifting discourse away from the dominant ideology of late capitalism and influencing important political decision-making processes.

 

Works Cited

Cooper, Marilyn. “Rhetorical Agency as Emergent and Enacted.” CCC 62.3 (2011): 420-444.

Rights of Nature Advocates and Late Capitalism

“Postmodernism is the consumption of sheer commodification as a process.”

  • Frederic Jameson (Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism)

Debate over what constitutes a proper attitude towards nature – or an “environmental ethic” – has amplified over the past half century, thanks in large part to Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring (first published in 1962), which is credited with helping jump-start the environmental movement.  Despite a widening debate and increased environmental activism, however, the values and ethics that most significantly influence how nature is actually treated are still those of late capitalism.  In late capitalism, legal systems tend to regard natural communities as commodities whose primary function is to fuel rapid economic growth.  As a matter of course, what qualifies as growth is also dictated by the values and ethics of late capitalism.  As Barry Brummett remarks in his assessment of the power of late capitalism:

“The market context seals off its base of power in late capitalism.… This may be cause for despair, but late capitalism has figured out how to seal off its roots from being dug up, and that’s the way it is.… The market context is the frozen floor of meanings upon which rhetoric dances; it is largely impervious to rhetorical means to change it” (Brummett 125).

Late capitalism has indeed grown deep roots, and Brummett does hedge his claim by saying “largely impervious” not “wholly impervious.”  What struck me, however, was not simply the implication of late capitalism as a perpetually victorious ideology, but that this claim takes place in the middle of a rigorous defense of rhetoric.  What are the ramifications for rhetoric, I wondered, if Brummett is right?  Is it possible through effective discursive practices that late capitalism be re-produced with different features?  What are the stylistic features of rhetorics that attempt to replace the market context with a different “frozen floor of meanings?”

At the time I became interested in these questions I began an inquiry into the rhetorical styles of a group of citizen-activists in Decorah, Iowa.  I was intrigued as to how this diverse group of people spoke to me using such similar terminology, and with such similar passion and clarity about the issue of extracting natural gas via the process of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” (an issue which I knew almost nothing about).  They seemed to use the same phrases, make the same arguments, and reference the same stories.  They knew something about Ecuador’s constitution.

I took steps towards answering the above questions not only through research, but in spending time with citizen-activists in Decorah.  They introduced me to the idea that rights of nature advocates enter the arena of politics with arguments based on ideals that exist mostly outside of the market context.  I want to tell the stories of these arguments and attempt to discern their stylistic features; in so doing I hope to explore questions regarding the possibilities for poly-vocal rhetorics in postmodern America, a nation imbued with the ethos of late capitalism.  Further, I will strive not to reduce rights of nature advocates (hereafter RoNA) to the subjective intentions of individuals, but instead attempt to outline the aesthetic and discursive features of the group as a whole.

A rhetorical analysis of RoNA as a subculture is a worthy scholarly pursuit because it leads to pertinent questions about where agency exists within late capitalist societies, and what type of rhetorical styles, if any, appear to be creating space for such agency.  To achieve such an analysis we look at the ongoing debate over fracking, which has become a powerful force in motivating RoNA; indeed, there would not be nearly as many people who identify with this subculture if not for the fracking boom.  My thesis paper also analyzes the fracking debate online, in particular how both camps utilize Facebook to craft a recognizable style.  Hopefully, these chapters work together to present a clear idea of RoNA as a rhetorical movement.

Late capitalism’s growing presence in decision-making processes is increasingly evident.  In academia we see evidence of this trend in what is sometimes referred to as the “adjunct crisis,” as universities increasingly look to hire cheaper and less experienced labor (Boldt).  The business model is more prevalent than ever before, and globalization suggests its proliferation.  RoNA employ a rhetoric that has proven effective in arguing for other models – an environmental ethic, for example – to be given consideration in legal settings.

Arguing that nature has rights poses a direct challenge to the dominant ideology of late capitalism.  And, as Darrel Enck-Wanzer argues in an article titled, “Trashing the System: Social Movement, Intersectional Rhetoric, and Collective Agency in the Young Lords Organization’s Garbage Offensive,” scholars interested in analyzing the rhetoric of a particular movement should try to understand not just the discourses of a particular group, but to assess the contextual discourse at large.  Enck-Wanzer suggests that a “movement is a measurement of the discourse itself; to talk about social movement is to talk about the ways in which a discourse represents a shift away from or challenge to a dominant social imaginary as evident in narratives, ideographs, and other rhetorics” [author’s emphasis] (177).  RoNA shift the discourse by arguing that natural resources have rights, a direct threat to late capitalism’s notions of private property, of natural resources, of corporate rights.  It is still early going for this movement, but such a rhetorical maneuver is important for rhetorical scholars to consider, particularly those grappling with questions of where and how much agency exists in our postmodern world.

Works Cited

Boldt, Josh. “First-Year Commodity: The Adjunct Professor Labor Crisis in Composition Departments.” Order of Education

Brummett, Barry.  A Rhetoric of Style. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, Print.

Enck-Wanzer, Darrel. “Trashing the System: Social Movement, Intersectional Rhetoric, and Collective Agency in the Young Lords Organization’s Garbage Offensive.” Quarterly Journal of Speech. 92.2 (2006): 174-201.

When does technology help? When does it hinder?

People often point to the Arab Spring as an indicator of the unifying power of social media, and there is no doubt that social media sites played a serious role in helping organizers make announcements and plan rallies.  But too often in America we are lured by the ease of “participating” in important decision-making processes via the Internet.  Special interest groups have proliferated to such an extent that they now resemble a formal industry, thriving off donations from average Americans who have no say in how the money is spent.  Thus, we may feel that donating to a campaign fund or advocacy group contributes towards a public good and/or our own desired political ends.  Our donations, however, also serve to prop up professional money-making enterprises concerned primarily with their own flourishing.  We may even believe that signing an on-line petition or posting a politically charged meme on Facebook connects us to an ongoing political struggle.

These types of connections, however, are largely illusory.  Scratching checks to special interest groups renders one voiceless and does not influence how that particular group will proceed.  Further, “participating” in politics from the comfort of an individual internet bubble isolates us from the vital task of negotiating meaning in a public forum via dialogue.  In his article, “Rhetorical Pedagogy and Democratic Citizenship” J. Michael Hogan writes,  “Not only do blogs and chatrooms lack the personal accountability of face-to-face interactions, but they tend to attract only like-minded participants and reinforce rather than challenge existing beliefs” (79).

Human communication is incredibly complex.  While there is serious debate amongst psychologists and communication specialists, we can safely say that a significant percentage of communication occurs non-verbally.  Geoffrey Beattie, for example, has argued that unconscious hand movements made during speech add meaning to narratives.  We should not, when considering how to respond to the important issues that face us as communities, substitute online discussion forums for the complex negotiation of meaning that occurs between human beings in a shared space.

Thus, we (concerned citizen-scholars) must make a distinction.  On one hand, we can see the people-organizing potential of social media and how access to global information can help raise awareness of serious issues.  On the other, we see that stifling forms of political “participation” are fostered by idealizing the internet as a tool that will lead to an informed electorate, and that the isolating nature of discussion boards, blogs, and mainstream media news consumption too often serves to divide and distract.  As Hogan points out, Americans were told that television would broadcast “public interest” programs and even allow citizens to somehow speak directly to their leaders; alas, television has instead become a public-interest desert, filling the airwaves with meaningless trivia, endless sports coverage, celebrity gossip, and entertainment masquerading as serious news.  Hogan goes on to compare TV to the Internet:

“In the 1990’s we heard similarly optimistic predictions that the Internet would revive grass-roots democracy by providing ordinary citizens with unprecedented information resources and a powerful new tool for interacting with their fellow citizens.  Instead, the Internet has become too often a refuge for for purveyors of political misinformation, bizarre conspiracy theories, and the rhetoric of hate.  Even mainstream political websites reek of ideological parochialism and rhetorical excess.”

Coming together in public spaces to talk is what drives action, and in the age of the Internet we need to think seriously about what constitutes the kind of public spaces appropriate to discuss matters of social importance.  Nancy Fraser critiques Habermas’ well-known analysis of public spheres and notes that Habermas makes unrealistic assumptions about public spheres as places that are equally accessible to all groups, or equally hospitable to all points of view.  Fraser argues that public spheres “consist in culturally specific institutions” which “may be understood as culturally specific rhetorical lenses that filter and alter the utterances they frame; they can accommodate some expressive modes and not others” (Fraser 69). This type of social arrangement of the public precludes equal participation.  Participation, Fraser says, “means being able to speak in one’s own voice, thereby simultaneously constructing and expressing one’s cultural identity through idiom and style” (68).  While the Internet does offer a platform for cultural expression, those expressions are not likely to be heard by political leaders who are charged with deciding matters of great social importance, and it is a platform not equally available to all groups.

What is needed, then, is an understanding of how digital tools are used to to both promote and suppress democratic action.  Access to global information can raise awareness of issues previously unnoticed by mass publics, and social media sites can indeed help organizers run successful “grass-roots” movements.  Yet, digital tools are frequently used to divert attention, divide and conquer, and generally silence the democratic instincts of average Americans.  I hope this paper can help determine to what extent the rhetorical style of collective bodies is influenced by digital technology, and analyze ways in which digital tools are used to promote and suppress democratic activity.

Works Cited

Beattie, G. Visible Thoughts: The New Psychology of Body Language. East Sussex: Routledge, 2003.

Hogan, J. Michael. “Rhetorical Pedagogy and Democratic Citizenship.” Rhetoric & Democracy: Pedagogical and Political Practices. Ed. Todd F. McDorman, David M. Timmerman. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2008.

Fraser, Nancy. “Rethinking the Public Sphere” Social Text 25.26 (1990): 56-80.