About a month ago I took a rather unexpected tour of a wine vineyard just outside of Sedona, Arizona. Despite the hot temperatures and my general lack of knowledge about wine, I quite enjoyed the tour. Here’s why: the tour guide’s discussion of the wine making process—from planting the right kind of grape, to utilizing the fresh spring of water that nourishes the grapes, to the smoke pillowing the sky from the recent forest fire, to the animals who feast on the ripe grapes, to the nets used to keep the animals away from the sweet scent of the grapes, to the barrels used to house the wine, to the machine used to cork, bottle, and label the wine—reminded me of two books that I have read recently: Bruno Latour’s “Reassembling the Social” and Jane Bennett’s “Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things.”
I don’t know much about wine—especially how it’s harvested, made, and stored. This tour helped shed some light on that process, the logistics of which I’ll probably forget within a month. But what I think I will remember for some time is how much the final outcome—the taste and smell of the wine I buy in the store—is affected by the minute details of the ecosystem that makes up the wine vineyard, cellar, and bottling facility. In Latour’s vocabulary, this ecosystem encompasses both human and non-human actors—i.e., the human decision to plant the grape near the creek and non-human net that is used to protect the grape’s exterior. What’s more, the ecosystem is also affected by non-human (and often non-technological) forces, or what Jane Bennett might call a vital materiality—i.e., the microclimate of the vineyard (the colder air by the creek, the cold desert nights, the hot days, and so on), the genetic makeup of the grape, the scent of the ripe grapes, the smoke in the sky, the fibers of the oak barrel, the oxygen left in the barrel.
All of these factors—and a vast constellation of others—contribute to making of wine. The climate, the grapes, the winemaker, the chemical makeup of the sky, the yield of the fruit, the age of the barrel, the amount of humidity present in the cellar. I could go on. Taken together, these small agencies, what Bennett aptly calls an agentic assemblage, affect and are affected. They are dependent on space, time, and location. Because we can characterize this assemblage as moving, acting, and affecting, we can say that this year’s yield will be different than last year’s. For example, due to the palpable ash taste, the smoke-filled grapes of 2014 will likely be made into next year’s brandy instead of next year’s cabernet sauvignon. And this was brought on by a multitude of agencies; in other words, humans in this example are but one type of actor in a “swarm” of others.
My point in sharing my trip to the vineyard—yes I have one!—is to relate the analogy of the agentic assemblage of this year’s yield of grapes at one small vineyard in central Arizona to rhetoric and composition, and more specifically, to the circulation of writing. Circulation, like wine, is made possible by an assemblage of actors. This assemblage, this coming together, is a complex process. It is what Laurie Gries might call a rhetorical becoming “in which rhetoric unfolds and alters reality in unpredictable, divergent, and inconsistent ways” (n.p. in press). In the remainder of this blog post, I want to stretch—perhaps even a little too far—the analogy of winemaking to that of the making of writing. My purpose in doing so is to offer a palpable example of how ANT- and new materialist-inspired theories can inform the study of circulation in new media environments.
Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green have recently offered the phrase, “If it doesn’t spread, it’s dead,” as an aphorism for understanding the weight of viral media in today’s writing landscape. I take it that understanding how a new media message takes shape—that is, to trace the process of its becoming—can contribute a kind of productive knowledge needed for rhetors interacting and intervening in the circulation of discourse in public spheres today. To do so, asks us to “devise new procedures, technologies, and regimes of perception that enable us to consult nonhumans more closely, or to listen and respond more carefully to their outbreaks, objections, testimonies, and propositions” (Bennett 108).
But how, if I can stretch my analogy further, can winemaking help us achieve Bennett’s call? Winemakers understand the complexity of their work. They realize they have an essential part to play, but they also realize that their labors are only part of the process. On my wine tour, the guide proclaimed, “our grapes grow strong and have thick skins,” which is kind of anthropomorphized expression that helps illuminate how the agency of another actor—the grape—is entangled in the complex ecology of making, storing, selling, and serving wine. One pivotal moment did not, of course, define the wine that’s circulating in grocery stores and restaurants. The body, the flavor, the aroma, the alcohol content is made possible by an agentic assemblage that flowed through moments of time and space.
New media writers similarly might think of other small agencies that impact the circulation of writing, whether distributing a message or intervening in the rhetorical velocity of a message already in circulation (Ridolfo and DeVoss). When we start thinking about how, and why, certain discourses circulate, it is naive to think that humans alone play the most important—or worse, the only—role in the viral spread of communication. Algorithms, time of day, images, hashtags—these elements, these actors, play a pivotal role in the (in)effectiveness of writing in motion.
Certainly, paying attention to these small agencies can offer a kind of knowledge that can be of use to new media writers, but as the wine example makes clear, we are likely never able to fully anticipate how a message will circulate, how it will affect, or how it will produce effects.
Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2009.
Gries, Laurie. “On Rhetorical Becoming.” The Object of Rhetoric: Assembling and Disassembling Bruno Latour. Eds. Paul Lynch and Nathaniel Rivers. SIU P, forthcoming.
Jenkins, Henry, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green. Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture. NYU P, 2013.
Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford UP, 2005.
Ridolfo, Jim, and Dànielle Nicole DeVoss. “Composing for Recomposition: Rhetorical Velocity and Delivery.” Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy 13.2 (2009).