“In Ambient Rhetoric, Thomas Rickert seeks to dissolve the boundaries of the rhetorical tradition and its basic dichotomy of subject and object. With the advent of new technologies, new media, and the dispersion of human agency through external information sources, rhetoric can no longer remain tied to the autonomy of human will and cognition as the sole determinants in the discursive act. Rickert develops the concept of ambience to engage all of the elements that comprise the ecologies in which we exist” (Cover Blurb, Ambient Rhetoric)
Punny title aside – I can’t help but find Rickert’s Ambient Rhetoric a little soporific. I’ll say it does plenty of work: little that moves forward the debate, but plenty that moves out the goalposts of demonstrability in rhetorical practice. But all in all, while it’s not dry, it’s hardly as cutting edge as its blurbs and glowing reviews might hint. Posthumanism is an eternal practice of humanism – okay. The Greeks were philosophically digital and technical – okay. Rhetorical meaning and practice are interpolated and interpellated within the vacuum beyond the permeable membranes of overt social structure – sure. Meaning has traditionally been negotiated in the space between subject and object – naturally. What does ambience do? What’s the mechanism of cultural permeation? What does it change? Rickert works to problematize the subject-object relationship (11-13), but everybody already knew this was problematic (even, yes, Descartes himself). Hence the entire historical practice of rhetoric as the interaction of the self and the social. Rickert wants to “dissolve the boundaries of the rhetorical tradition” – okay, but shouldn’t we first acknowledge why the boundaries of the rhetorical tradition were instituted in the first place, rather than basing this act solely on how we use the rhetorical tradition now?
As a necessary aside: Rickert’s Ambient Rhetoric reveals something much more challenging about the notion of rhetoric in general – the multivariate purposes of rhetoric throughout history. Rickert explores classical rhetorical forms – and medieval, pre-modern, and modern rhetoric – and then uses these to explore the network-social and posthuman nature of post-modernity; what I am astounded by, however, is the ways this reveals the caddywhompus formulation of contemporary views of rhetorical history. Since contexts are subjective – the subject is subjective to postmodern readings, and postmodernity killed the subject-object distinctions of ideology – we can no longer take rhetorical purposes at their stated face value. I.A. Richards’ interpretation of rhetoric as the study of “misunderstandings,” for example, reveals some of the rhetorical pessimism of modernity – which has doubtless carried into the postmodern readings of cultural rhetoric. It also reveals that “rhetoric” is, in itself, a disciplinary boundary object – and one which will trip us up until we recognize that “rhetoric” is a dozen things to a dozen discrete fields which have been enjambed within Rhet/Comp and Cultural Studies. Rhetoric, after all, isn’t the “study” of anything. Or it is. Where are we? And how does the disciplinary concern change ambience?
I can’t help think that rhetoric was at its prime when all the rhetoricians were priests and holy men, and when they had at least one common purpose. Not because they were right more often, but because the consistency allowed more vectors of “progress:” not forward progress (too Whiggish), but upward.
To wit: What did classical rhetoric do? To my reading, it didn’t reveal a desire for hyper-intellectual theory, but a need for contextualization of political, spiritual, and epistemological approaches to create engaged, introspective practices for leadership and citizenship. Similarly, medieval rhetoric served the needs of spiritually- and ethically-driven interpretation of social and political practice and knowledge. At the same time, non-Western rhetoric explored the spiritual and cultural intersections of the self, community, and state (and we might – for Rickert as well as network cultural scholars like Castells – consider the problems of Western ethnocentrism in rhetorical historical representation). Renaissance rhetoric explored and attempted to resolve humanism and the budding Reformation in contexts of the church and the subject-object concern through ethical and spiritual practice. The Enlightenment rhetorics did work to resolve the scientific and naturalist frameworks of epistemology in contemporary society to the politics of church and state.
What is the move, then, into the modern? It is (and here we might consider the linguistic turn more overtly) to reclaim rhetoric as doing work outside of pragmatic contexts, and through the desires of what I’ve previously regarded as Whig Historicism, resituate classical and pre-modern rhetoric as purely intellectual and interpellative of the self within mediation of spiritual meaning. Progress, under the Whig ideology, is a move away from the Body Politic/Spiritual as socially despotic – is this true? Is this good? Is this useful?
I doubt it is necessarily true or useful in most cases. I’d argue this is useful, but ignores many of the ways non-ideological (in a problematic sense which could view any work as non-ideological under post-Foucauldian postmodernity, to be sure) practices of pre-modern rhetoric were deeply pragmatic, and designed to resolve and organize social concerns of the body politic, the citizenry, the body natural, and the body spiritual. Hyper-intellectualization of rhetoric lacked pragmatic value, and it is the reclamation of these rhetorics under a new body politic which formulates our modern theoretical and intellectual understandings of classical rhetoric.
I don’t mean to belabor the point, but how can we (Rickert) dissolve the boundaries of rhetoric when they are political, spiritual, personal, subjective, objective, sexual, animal, vegetable, mineral, essential, rational, historical, philosophical, literary, cinematic, and generally fictional? Which boundaries will we dissolve? Which will we ignore, step around, move beyond without comment? That is to say, what modern rhetoric does as much as anything else is obviate the pragmatism of rhetoric in the turn towards linguistic, affect, and discourse practices. The overwhelming theme of pre-modernity is the intersection of the body spiritual and the body actual, or the body spiritual and the body politic, or more simply the self and the other. Of course rhetoric was subject-object driven. What else could it be?
The modern abandons the necessity of the body spiritual, and denies in many ways the ascendancy of the body politic in the subject-object relation. The postmodern then views this relation, essentially, as inherently expressing ideology. Sure, useful enough. Bourdieu and Foucault, as I discussed in previous reading connections, then did us the favor of killing off the subject, leaving a vacuum which was populated by power and ideology. Ciao, body politic. Sayonara, body natural. Au Revoir, body spiritual.
And now we have not only postmodernity, but posthumanism. What have we done in our conceptualization of network society – and network theory – if not relocated the body spiritual within the God in the Machine? What is the network if not our new god?
Of course, all of this rhetorical use value is deeply ideological – what isn’t – but in building an ecology of rhetoric, we lose contexts as the purposes of rhetoric throughout history are simply lost to the networked ecology of marching progress.
If Rickert accomplishes anything permanently theoretically valuable with this text, it is in demonstrating that the network culture theorists are – essentially – neophiliacs: Whig Historians. As he notes, “one reason network culture is perceived as new […] even if it is less so than appearance suggests, is the experience of ‘overconnection,’ akin to ‘overdetermination,’ in which multiple connections are always ongoing and interactive, and none of them can be said to be primary” (103). This is the honest work of Rickert – though I question the necessity of ambiance to make this claim, to be sure – in exploring network theory not as theory, but rather as an ideology of novelty ascendant. Cavemen and smarter environments, et cetera (99).
If we believe that man’s relationship to the network is overly-connected or overly-determined comparative to man’s prior relationship to his gods, it can only be because the Po-Mos reduced the role of spirituality to discipline and punishment, ideology and power. It can only be because Nietzsche killed God, and Nietzsche’s troubled but undeniable relationship with postmodernity perpetuates the death of God as the ascendancy of ideology as fascism-against-self.
If anything, network society has created a perfectly deterministic society where mediation is indeed – as Rickert would note – ambient; however, this is not a celebration of the posthuman, but a rejection of its complexity. The posthuman anxiety is nothing new – it was Aristotle’s greatest fear. The posthuman desire is nothing new – it is the Augustinian goal. A call to view rhetoric as ambient is simply a call for radical relativism – nihil novi sub sole est.
We might also note that “Diffractions of Ambience” posits a language of ambience which is incongruous with actual ambience. We might note that this is simply the “ecologization” of object-oriented ontology, and still requires the embracing of objective agents doing work in the network. Reject that premise, and you reject under Rickert the very notion of continued human rhetorical progress. Problematic, to say the least.
We might also note that Rickert’s reading of kairos and chora as environmentally-influenced transformative grounds for subject identity might be read as a gross over-simplification of (and modernization of) classical rhetorical purposes. If words should mean things other than what words mean, I’d advocate for new words. But that’s just me. I understand the appeal of ambience as implying ubiquity. Ubiquity, however, is not an indication of either truth or quality. Arguments that we have constructed environments in modernity and beyond which have led to “rhetoricization of the world in the most concrete and material way” (36) ignores not the ways that that may be untrue, per se, but rather the ways that is a completely classical, pre-modern notion – called, conveniently enough, “god.” The material, concrete world has been the structural ganglions of the social mind ever since man first decided that God created the world to communicate his pleasure – and special relationship – with man… and used that godliness to assert his own authority and dominionism.
As we come to the end of this semester, and as network theory has (arguably, and extending from Rickert) over-extended itself into the overconnected, overdeterministic realm of hyper-theoretical practices making broad, sweeping claims about the nature of society, civilization, humanity, and discourse, there are questions left unanswered (and perhaps unanswerable). Is rhetoric ever post-human? Is society ever post-human? Are networks post-human? How can we be sociobiological, neurobiological, and also Cartesian in our interpolation of the self, society, and the “network?” Where is invention situated in an ambient or networked ecology of rhetoric?
Can postmodernism (and post-modernity) ever tell us what the post-human networks would (could) ever look like? The question is prima facie absurd. Rhetoric is essentially an actively human practice (regardless of your definition of rhetoric as practice, discourse, mediation, or anything else, few would argue that there is subhuman rhetoric (e.g. “bird rhetoric”), and I’ve yet to see a compelling model for anything but an anthropogenic rhetoric (e.g. a superhuman rhetoric). With the exception of the analogue transhuman or the truly taxonomic posthuman, posthumanism lands cleanly in the purview of droll arguments that start with “kids these days” or “the thing about all this new tech is…”
To put it another way, it seems to me that the rhetoric of posthumanism is exclusively the purview of anxieties and desires about posthumanism itself.
Okay. So maybe there are some things we might use postmodernism for after all.
So, I find little need (or value) in ambient rhetoric as new practice. Not because it isn’t true or valid (it is, and is), but because it denudes little which currently obfuscates meaning – and perpetuates an obsession with tomorrow as a necessary course correction for today. Hypocritically, I have just mocked my detractors for their obsession with newness. I can live with it.
However, we might want to (if, you know, it wasn’t the last week of the semester) consider Rickert’s first book, Acts of Enjoyment, where he uses postmodernity and Lacanian psychoanalysis to apply some of the concepts which would find their way into Ambient Rhetoric to prove that ambience can be “useful…”
…if that use is pragmatically directed towards the present, actualized subject. Irony. However, Rickert himself provides a context for moving beyond the subject-deconstructive postmodern concern through Carter’s notion of “reconstructive postmodernism” (“On Belatedness and the Return of the Subject” 1-32) which allows the self to exist as the subject by allowing the subject to experience the enjoyment of meaning and rhetorical practice. This is a “radical positivity,” which in many ways offers both extension and counterpoint to Zizekian “radical Otherness” and “radical negativity” (“Mirroring Subjects and Objects” 75). Plus, who doesn’t love drowning in Zizek and the perversion of Western meaning?
That is to say, I would argue that Rickert’s ambient rhetoric cannot “do work,” but it can do the work of showing the radical negativity which Rickert’s pedagogical practices can reverse, obviate, or restructure into a productivity not only of meaning, but of practice – work of reinterpellating ideology away from the subject (at least long enough for the subject to experience meaning) in order to allow the subject their own objectivity.
Philosophically, it’s interesting. Over the course of this semester, we’ve killed God and replaced God with the Network-as-God. And now we’re killing that, too.
Posthumanism is strange, man.
Rickert, T. J. (2007). Acts of enjoyment: Rhetoric, Žižek, and the return of the subject. University of Pittsburgh Press.
Rickert, T. (2013). Ambient rhetoric: The attunements of rhetorical being. University of Pittsburgh Press.
Rivers, N. A. (2014). Circumnavigation: An Interview with Thomas Rickert. Interviews.