The Anthropomorphism of the Grape: A Wine Tour (with Jane Bennett & Bruno Latour)

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).

Posted in Affect, Agency, Circulation, latour, new materialism | 1 Comment

4C14: Copies of my talk and presentation

It is CCCC’s time. I’m thrilled to participate in session K08 this year. In this blog post, I share the following:

  • an outline of my talk
  • a PowerPoint file of my presentation

Edwards – Remix as Tactical – 4C14 Talk Outline

Remix as Tactical (1)

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Tactical Rhetorics and Circulation — A New Research Project

Exigence, Synthesis, and Gap

This project builds upon the work I did in the Public Spheres seminar. In that project, I explored the ways in which rhetors get their voices heard through reappropriation rhetorical tactics. Although my work thus far has yielded a productive theory to account for and predict reasons why rhetors use these rhetorical tactics (drawing on de Certeau, Judith Butler, and Kenneth Burke), I have yet to systematically study how such rhetorical practices actually circulate–how they get picked up, reappropriated, and spread further–in digital spaces. To this end, in my public spheres project I did not give enough attention to the notion of circulation. Based on the literature I have reviewed here, I am seeing circulation discussed from a few different perspectives: as tied to the making of a (counter)public (Warner; Farmer); tied to affect/affective energy and ecologies (Edbauer; Chaput; Carter); as being fluid, fleeting, and unlocated (De Certeau; Warner; Chaput; Edbauer; Gries); as something that can be theorized, negotiated, and anticipated (Sheridan, Ridolfo, and Michel; Carter; Jenkins et al; Porter).

Although much theory has been developed to discuss how circulation is very much tied to resisting, inverting, or acting against dominant discourse (e.g.. Warner, de Certeau, and Farmer), with a few notable exceptions (most notably Gries and Jenkins et al), I have not encountered much work that builds upon the local, practical knowledge of rhetors who already use tactics of reappropriation, bricolage, poaching, remix, and so on. The work is either theorized in the abstract with no application, studied in historical contexts, or discussed in illustrative yet non-systematic ways. In other words, theorists of circulation often do not interview participants and/or do not conduct systematic studies to account for circulation. To this end, I have not seen any studies that work with organizations to account for how their rhetorical tactics are circulating in public space.

What would be useful, therefore, is a study that draws data from rhetors who use what I’ve been calling “tactical” rhetorical approaches to get their voices heard to effect some sort of change or claim some sort of agency: why do you use such approaches? how do you conceive of circulation? how do you think about timing, audience, genre, constraints, and so forth? Given this data, it would be illuminating–in ways that I hope would enact reciprocity–to track how their texts get circulated. In the long term, then, (and here I’m thinking dissertation stage) accounting for such circulation would be useful in at least two ways. First, the data would hopefully productively add to, complicate, and test theories of circulation. Second, and what is most appealing to me, the design of such a research project would *ideally* allow for reciprocity. further data, and collaborative theorizing of knowledge. After tracking circulation, in other words, research participants could reflect upon the ways in which their texts have circulated. Questions could follow: How did particular conditions or, to borrow Latour’s term, actants impact circulation? Did it match your expectations?

Given this, for this project, I have two goals 1) interview rhetors who use reappropriation tactics to distribute their work and 2) begin to build a methodology to trace–account for–their circulation.

Here’s a Google Doc of my annotated bib for this project. My annotated entries are also accessible through my blog.

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Warner — “Publics and Counterpublics”

Note: this entry largely focuses on Warner’s notion of circulation.

In his well-known Publics and Counterpublics, Michael Warner explores the historical and cultural ways in which (counter)publics form through the circulation of discourse. As Warner puts it, his book is more like a collection of essays that span years of his thinking on issues related to (counter)publics–i.e., the construction of the private/public divide; sexuality, normativity, and queerness in publics; and the historically, socially, and economically situated conditions of circulation. Although a central argument in this book is (intentionally) difficult to pin down, Warner, in his words, offers several “case studies” that help comprise “a flexible methodology for the analysis of publics” (15).

For my purposes, I will examine how Warner discusses circulation, which I see as being a cornerstone to his public sphere theory. For Warner, a public requires circulation; in other words, through the circulation of discourse, ideological constructions of “the public” or “a public” are made possible. As he puts it, “a public may seem self-organized by discourse but in fact requires prexisting forms and channels of circulation” (106). Further, by virtue of publics requiring circulation, they will automatically delimit their reach. Warner writes, “reaching strangers is public discourse’s primary orientation, but to make those unknown strangers into a public it must locate them as a social entity” (106). In other words, although popular notions of “the public sphere” may suggest reaching all or most people, the historical, social, and economic conditions of circulation (and therefore the stylistic discourse such circulation offers) foreclose on that very possibility.

Warner further discusses circulation in a few other key ways: 1) positioned as reflexive (in a state of revision and re-circulation); 2) produced by ideological conditions; 3) marked by a temporality (occurring in “punctual rhythms”); 4) tied to logics of print; and 5) having an affective quality.

A big Q I have at this point: for Warner, is counterpublic circulation different than public circulation? It seems like his notion of poetic world-making is more tied to counterpublic circulation.

 Warner, Michael. Publics and Counterpublics. New York: Zone Books, 2005. Print.

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Sheridan, Ridolfo, Michel — “The Available Means of Persuasion”

In their book, David Sheridan, Jim Ridolfo, and Anthony Michel examine the ways in which rhetoric circulates in public, multimodal spaces. The authors, conversant in public sphere theory, digital rhetoric, and composition pedagogy, provide concepts and considerations for understanding the complexity of composing public digital writing. Perhaps the most important concept in their book is the Greek concept kairos; the authors spend much time unpacking how, when, and by what means to distribute writing in networked public spheres, using terms like “composing for recomposition,” “rhetorical velocity,” and “kairotic struggle” to theorize such concerns. Their pedagogical aim strives to create “the conditions within which students—as members of various and overlapping publics and counterpublics—can theorize their own situated decisions about public participation” (17).

In terms of circulation, the authors claim to put circulation “at the center” of rhetorical theory (61). To do so, they take up issues “related to production, reproduction, and distribution” (63). Here, the authors expand their notion of kairos, explaining that rhetors can be “kairotically prepared” by attending to the following concerns: the rhetor’s position, potential collaborators, audience, exigency, genres, modes, media of delivery, media of reproduction and distribution, other compositions (69). The idea is that rhetors anticipate (another keyword for the authors) circulation by working through the above concerns. Central to the authors’ argument is the notion that rhetorical agency needs to be situated as something that is partly out of the individual rhetor’s hands (as such, they draw on Edbauer, Warner, and others).

Sheridan, Ridolfo, and Michel’s work is very practical and pedagogical, offering concrete concepts and examples that can be imported into the classroom so students might begin to theorize how their texts will circulate in multimodal, public spheres. Although my initial study isn’t so much directed toward the classroom, I think their work has several implications for my research. Given my interest in how subversive groups theorize circulation, I’d be extremely curious to see if Sheridan et al’s theory matches the expectations of those I interview. To this end, I think they provide useful concepts and terms to help frame my interviews.

In terms of methodology, I was hoping to get more out of this book (especially for my long-term project). Although their eighth chapter claims to be a case study, it reads more like an “illustrative case” than a systematic case study: no coding scheme, no inter-rater reliability, no explicit mention of method/ology.

Sheridan, David, Jim Ridolfo, and Anthony J. Michel. The Available Means of Persuasion: Mapping a Theory and Pedagogy of Multimodal Public Rhetoric. Parlor Press, 2012.

Posted in Agency, Circulation, Digital rhetoric, kairos, pedagogy, Public Rhetoric, Theory | Leave a comment

Porter — “Recovering Delivery for Digital Rhetoric”

In this article, James Porter provides an updated theory of delivery by combining historical recovery work with contemporary digital scholarship. To develop his theory, Porter first situates delivery as techne, a form of rhetorical knowledge. His reasoning to do so is to “aid invention as well as the design and evaluation of writing” (221).  After situating delivery as techne, Porter offers a five-part framework for deliver: 1) body/identity; 2) distribution/circulation 3) access/accessibility; 4) interaction/interactivity; and 5) economics. These five topoi are positioned as delivery concerns rhetors should contemplate as they write and/or design their texts.

Porter’s distinctions, drawing on Douglas Eyman’s work, between circulation and distribution are especially useful for my purposes. Along similar lines as Sheridan, Ridolfo, and Michel, Porter presents circulation as theoretical concept that can be, at the very least, anticipated. For Porter, then, distribution choices–and to be clear these are positioned as choices–can impact how texts circulate, or in Porter’s words, how distributed messages are “recycled in digital space” (214). Especially interesting, for me, is Porter’s discussion of “re-distribution,” a concept that might help provide a unit of analysis for tracking circulation: that is, at what point and under what conditions do circulating texts become redistributed?

Porter, James E. “Recovering delivery for digital rhetoric.” Computers and Composition 26.4 (2009): 207-224.

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Jenkins, Ford, Green — Spreadable Media

In this timely and fundamentally rhetorical book, media scholar Henry Jenkins, digital strategist Sam Ford, and digital strategist Joshua Green explore how media spreads in social media contexts. As the authors routinely point out, their central argument is “if it doesn’t spread, it’s dead” (1). They use the term “spreadability” to help theorists, designers, and writers think about production, content, and distribution considerations that are necessary for successful circulation in web spaces.

By making use of concrete examples (such as particular YouTube videos and memes), the book offers strategies for designing for spreadability. These include: listening vs hearing (177), considerations of distribution (198), and savvy content decisions (i.e. the use of humor, “shared fantasies,” parody, unfinished content, and so on).

This is an extremely practical book that appeals to a diverse audience. It speaks to both scholars and producers of media, offering suggestions, examples, and theories for digital writers who want to “spread” their media in digital, transnational contexts. What is useful for my purposes is Jenkins et al’s attention to the distribution channels and social media habits that make up digital circulation. In other words, they offer concrete examples of why media spreads–or doesn’t spread–in Web 2.0 spaces such as YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. In so doing, the authors speak of the specific, situated concepts relevant to digital circulation.

The authors had a very interesting chapter that explored how companies track users’ activity in social media networks. They note that successful companies don’t merely collect and quantify user data but they “do something about it” (178); in other words, based on the collected data, they respond and interact with users. This makes me think about the inherent interaction that is possible in today’s circulation. In Warner’s formulation of a public, then, circulating discourse is always in a state of reflexivity: simultaneously recursive and forward moving. Of course, this adds another difficult layer into tracking circulation: how does the initial rhetor or group of rhetors respond(s) to and interact within what Warner would call the “circulatory field”?  This question makes me think that a big part of studying circulation, then, would involve tracking how rhetors participate in the circulation of their message post initial distribution.

Jenkins, Henry, Ford, Sam, and Joshua Green. Spreadble Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture. New York: NYUP, 2013.

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