Summary and Keywords
Posthumanism is a philosophical perspective of how change is enacted in the world. As a conceptualization and historicization of both agency and the “human,” it is different from those conceived through humanism. Whereas a humanist perspective frequently assumes the human is autonomous, conscious, intentional, and exceptional in acts of change, a posthumanist perspective assumes agency is distributed through dynamic forces of which the human participates but does not completely intend or control. Posthumanist philosophy constitutes the human as: (a) physically, chemically, and biologically enmeshed and dependent on the environment; (b) moved to action through interactions that generate affects, habits, and reason; and (c) possessing no attribute that is uniquely human but is instead made up of a larger evolving ecosystem. There is little consensus in posthumanist scholarship about the degree to which a conscious human subject can actively create change, but the human does participate in change.
As distinguished from posthumanism, humanism is credited with attributing the conscious and intentional human subject as the dominant source of agency most worthy of scholarly attention. Since its inception during the Renaissance, humanism has been constituted in various ways throughout history, but as a collective body of literature, the human is typically constituted through humanism as: (a) autonomous from nature given the intellectual faculties of the mind that controls the body, (b) uniquely capable of and motivated by speech and reason, and (c) an exceptional animal that is superior to other creatures. Humanist assumptions concerning the human are infused throughout Western philosophy and reinforce a nature/culture dualism where human culture is distinct from nature. In contrast, a posthumanist scholar rejects this dichotomy through understanding the human as entangled with its environment. A posthumanist scholar of communication typically integrates scholarship from a variety of other disciplines including, but not limited to: art, architecture, cybernetics, ecology, ethology, geology, music, psychoanalysis, and quantum physics.
Posthumanism as a Term
The term posthumanism emerged in humanities oriented disciplines in the late 20th century, along with other “post” movements. As such, scholars writing about posthumanism share many assumptions with scholars writing about postmodernism (e.g., Baudrillard, 2013), poststructuralism (e.g., Derrida, 1978), and postcolonialism (e.g., Spivak, 1999); in particular, posthumanism shares their critiques about the historical and theoretical inconsistency of the category “human.” Posthumanism surfaced as a response to the centralization of humanity and claims of human exceptionalism in Western lay thought and academic scholarship. Many communication studies subfields discuss posthumanism and use this philosophical perspective to shape the creation of scholarship, including rhetorical studies, media studies, and organizational communication. As a philosophical perspective, posthumanism has structured the way scholars conduct research in both the humanities and social sciences. Communication scholars influenced by posthumanist ways of thinking utilize research methods that align with posthumanist assumptions about human communication and communication environments.
In the field of communication, a scholar employing a posthumanist perspective will conceptualize communication through a variety of complex relationships between humans and nonhumans. This perspective assumes that both humans and nonhumans create change and influence behaviors in different combinations and to varying degrees. Rather than focus on how humans solely control, constrain, and create change—characteristics of a humanist perspective—a posthumanist perspective considers a wide variety of environmental factors that affect change in combination with human action, including cultural, technological, biological, and physical influences. The amount of attention paid to conscious human social action versus other environmental considerations has oscillated throughout history, across disciplines, and between scholars. Posthumanist scholarship attempts to account for nonhuman environmental influences in ways that humanism typically ignores.
The invention of the term posthumanism is a response to social and intellectual trends of the late 19th and 20th century. As a result, it is similar to other “post” terms that also emerged during this time period. Posthumanism most closely shares features with and is at times indistinct from postmodernism. However, increasingly these terms are used separately and made distinct. In short, postmodernism refers to critiques of objective reality, cultural progress, universal truths, and oversimplified explanations of knowledge production identified with modernism, and posthumanism refers to critiques of human exceptionalism, freedom of choice, individual autonomy, and oversimplified explanations of social change identified with humanism. Since issues of knowledge production, humanity, and social change frequently overlap, many of the same scholars are referenced in postmodernist and posthumanist literatures.
Although the term posthumanism is a relatively recent invention, posthumanist sentiments and theories are evident throughout the communication tradition, including with the emergence of rhetoric in Ancient Greece. Both humanism and posthumanism have roots in Ancient Greek rhetorical pedagogy and theory, even though the terms humanism and posthumanism emerged sequentially in history. Ancient Greek texts have been used to explain both philosophical perspectives. The prefix “post” of posthumanism, insinuating “after,” does not mean that a posthumanist conception of the human emerged after humanism; rather, it indicates that posthumanist perspectives of humanity exist in tension with humanist perspectives. The entangled histories of humanism and posthumanism are not linear, as noted by Katherine Hayles’ famous assertion that “we have always been posthuman” (Hayles, 1999, p. 291). In other words, the term posthumanism has arisen to organize ideas into a coherent philosophical perspective that have been present throughout the history of communication studies. While these ideas are not necessarily new, the term posthumanism arose in contemporary humanities fields as a way to critique perceived inadequacies of a humanist perspective. Additionally, there is notable historical variety with regards to forms of humanism and posthumanism. Therefore, the distinction between posthumanism and humanism often arises as scholars of one perspective distill the other for the purposes of critique.
The Emergence of Humanism
The term humanist surfaced during the Renaissance in the 14th century. Renaissance Humanism, which spanned three centuries leading up to the Enlightenment, was sparked by an interest in the study of Ancient Greco-Roman scholarly writings, particularly those of Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero. The earliest humanists were part of an elite class of devout Christians in Italy who collected and translated ancient manuscripts for pleasure. These interests later expanded into an educational movement that existed alongside scholasticism, the dominant form of education during the middle ages. While rhetoric was a primary subject of education during classical antiquity, after the fall of the Roman Republic it was not readily accessible to the public due to the feudalistic dark ages, except for a few elites through their relationships with the Catholic Church (Kelley, 1991).
Humanist scholars during the Renaissance sought to recover ancient Greco-Roman literary and oratorical texts that were only accessible to Byzantine intellectuals (Reynolds & Wilson, 1968). New translations of these texts made the classical works accessible to a broader audience and created a revival in the study of rhetoric with particular emphasis on human ingenuity (Kelley, 1991). What developed out of this recovery was an interest in “the perfection of civil societies” as achieved through the individual orator’s command of language, “the primary medium of agency” (Stormer, 2004, p. 257). Renaissance Humanism maintained an “innate commitment to truth, reason, and civic virtue, [which] established the modern civic precedent that one’s humanity is defined by the moral and socially virtuous application of one’s rhetorical abilities” (Vivian, 2003, pp. 6–7). Renaissance Humanism also inspired great cultural achievements in art and literature that now characterize a group of subjects that have been institutionalized in colleges and universities as the humanities. This group of subjects—“the humanities”—is distinguished from the sciences, which also expanded considerably during the Renaissance and Enlightenment.
With the expansion of the sciences during the Enlightenment, humanism and scientific philosophy were increasingly at odds. But by the 20th century, humanism acquired meanings from both the Greco-Roman tradition and ones derivative of scientific methods based on Cartesian rationality, though these meanings were diverse and even in conflict with one another. For example, while the Greco-Roman tradition emphasizes the virtues of civil responsibility through the artistic merit of eloquence in rhetoric, Cartesian rationality emphasizes reason as the only necessary component of persuasion and casts rhetoric as aesthetics that is prone to confuse or obscure fact from falsehood. Because of these cultural and intellectually disparate directions, humanism has taken on diverse meanings to layperson and scholars alike. Humanism has been articulated in different historical contexts to have surprisingly different meanings (Davies, 2008). Foucault (1984) contends, “at least since the seventeenth century, what is called humanism has always been obliged to lean on certain conceptions of man borrowed from religion, science, or politics” (pp. 43–44). Contemporary understandings of humanism tend to be secular, replacing the Christian theology infused in writings during the Renaissance with the scientific method. The effect of this more secular understanding of humanism is that it became infused with a narrative of (scientific) progress based on rationalism and the scientific method. This emphasis on rationality and science as the basis for progress belies the belief that humans are uniquely capable of reason and therefore are the pinnacle of advancement or progress.
However, despite these diverse meanings of humanism, humanism consistently emphasizes human interests, human free will and foregrounds the exceptionalism of the human subject. Notable Greco-Roman rhetorical scholars claim this specialness emerged from the unique human abilities of communication. As Isocrates (2000) insists, “the power to persuade” through “the art of discourse” is what distinguishes humans from “other living creatures” that would otherwise be better in “swiftness and in strength and in other resources” (p. 253). These sentiments carried over two centuries later as Cicero (1923) pronounced that “men excel beasts” through their “splendid possession” of speech (1.4.5). It was argued that without a system of language democracy would not be possible, and it is through rhetoric that humans could decide how to live together, found cities, make laws, and establish institutions, to organize in ways that were seen as superior to other living creatures.
Given this tradition, humanism is typically portrayed as a diverse collection of works that together understand the human as: (a) uniquely capable of and motivated by speech and reason, (b) autonomous from and able to control nature as a result of the mind’s intellectual faculties, and (c) an exceptional animal that is superior to other creatures. Humanist assumptions concerning the human are infused throughout Western philosophy and reinforce a nature/culture binary in which human culture is distinct from rather than a part of nature.
The Emergence of Posthumanism
Theories of posthumanism emerged with humanism during classical antiquity, and as a result they share some similarities. Posthumanist scholars are interested in many of the same issues from Renaissance Humanism, including ethics, reason, civic action, and education; however, they approach these subjects from less human-centric perspectives than humanist scholars. In this way, posthumanism is not a dismissal of Renaissance Humanism, which emerged in a particular historical moment to revive classical forms of education related to rhetoric. Without Renaissance Humanism rhetoric might have become “mere technique without content or memory, an endless trail of uninspiring handbooks, or a tool for deconstructive language games” (Crusius, 2001, p. xvii). Posthumanism, then, is a response to a perceived over emphasis on humanity and the individual’s capacity to create change that is typical of humanist scholarship. Posthumanists continue to “think about the ways in which human beings have lived, do live, might live together in and on the world,” as the humanist tradition initiated, but they situate the human within and as a part of complex environmental systems (Davies, 2008, p. 141).
Whereas a humanist perspective frequently assumes the human is an autonomous, conscious, and intentional actor with exceptional capabilities, a posthumanist perspective assumes the human’s ability to act is distributed across a dynamic set of relationships that the human participates in but does not completely intend or control. The “post” indicates a rethinking of the individualism and superiority of the human in our worldly relations, a position that is both intrinsic to many ancient and contemporary understandings of rhetoric and increasingly critiqued in contemporary communication studies. Posthumanist philosophy conceptualizes the human as: (a) moved to action through a variety of environmental interactions, affects, habits and sometimes reasons; (b) physically, chemically, and biologically formed by and dependent on their environment; and (c) possessing no attribute that is uniquely human, but is instead made up of a larger evolving ecosystem. There is not consensus in posthumanist scholarship about the degree to which a conscious human subject can actively create change, but posthumanist scholars agree that human participation assists in the creation of change.
These assumptions regarding the human are evident in early writings of or about rhetoric. Many of the same canonical materials used to inspire Renaissance Humanism also include posthumanist conceptions of the communication process and of the human. This is most apparent in discussions of agency and invention, two prominent concepts in rhetorical studies.
The topic of agency has been debated throughout the rhetorical tradition. A general definition of agency is the ability to create change. Conversations regarding agency discuss the degree to which free will and freedom of choice exist and to what extent human action is constrained and facilitated by larger human structures and nonhuman relationships with humans. Humanist conceptions of agency assume a speaking subject can independently move others towards action using traditional rhetorical techniques of reason, passion, and character (Geisler, 2005; Leff, 2003). This perspective champions free will, freedom of choice, and autonomy to act with consideration of demands placed on them by exigencies and audiences. In juxtaposition, a posthumanist perspective of agency affirms “a decentering of the all-powerful, choice driven, radically free subject and an attention to the larger structural, material, or discursive objects that limit and/or constitute the subject” (Gunn & Cloud, 2010, p. 54). Both perspectives consider the human, but differ in terms of emphasis.
Rhetorical materials portraying posthumanist conceptions of agency date back to Homeric writings, four of which are explained below: Homer’s epic poems document communication as the sharing of the body, demonstrating that humans are not autonomous individuals; Mentor/mentee relationships in Ancient pedagogical practices understood the transference of virtuosity through erotic physical practices; Plato’s aversion to writing attributes power to nonhuman subjects such as ink, scroll, and alphabets; and Longinus’ philosophical thesis on the sublime constructs rhetoric as a mode of displacing the self through ecstatic experiences.
Posthumanist agency is embedded in our earliest Western portrayals of the communication process by conveying an intimate relationship between body and expression. Communication was not always conceptualized as guided by reason or rationality; it was also described as a physiological transference among bodies. The Iliad and Odyssey document this archaic communication process through two words that appear most frequently in the texts and that are difficult to translate, phrenes and thumos. In the Iliad and Odyssey, communication appeared to take “place when one person breath[ed] their words [thumos] into the phrenes of another . . . the passage of words physically—bodily” (Wiseman, 2007, p. 15). Phrenes were likely situated in the chest and were the locations where thumos were trapped. Thumos were a “substance frequently ‘poured’ into the phrenes” (Wiseman, 2007, p. 8).
Thumos shares similar features with breath and blood, was an instigator of action and a source of solutions. In the Iliad, it is Ajax’s thumos that desires confrontation, “mine own thumos also within my breast is the more eager to war and do battle” (Illiad 13: 73–74) and Hector who follows the impulse of his thumos, “Listen to me, you Trojans and strong-greaved Acheans, while I speak what the thumos within my breast urges” (Illiad 7: 67–68). These notions of communication were heavily reliant on corporeal experiences, with the body as a vessel through which communication, more than linguistic, was physically passed to other bodies and acted independently of rather than dictated by the human.
This model appeared to have been in “widespread use” in not only Greek culture, but “other cultures of the same period” (Wiseman, 2007, p. 16). The body was not perceived as a totality that was controlled by the human mind; it was “an aggregate of organs and limbs” which seemed to possess autonomy and even in some cases an agency of their own (Wiseman, 2007, p. 9). Descriptions of what might today be called emotions were physiological sensations occurring in different organs of the body. Rob Wiseman (2007) calls these processes of communication “an aspect of a larger, integrated set of beliefs about the make-up of the human body, the way it functions, and the life-substances supposed to animate it” (p. 59).
In a similar process, it is speculated that physiological transferences of arete occurred through erotic relationships between mentors and mentees. Arete, the ancient Greek word for virtuosity, “was thought to be transmitted from erastes [man or senior partner] to eromenos [boy] by way of semen” (Hawhee, 2004, p. 107). Akin to the physical sense of thumos, bodily fluids appeared to contain an agential quality separate from human control that transferred virtuosity from an older, wiser Athenian male to a younger one. This relationship, called pederasty, was one of generous friendship, painful discipline and hierarchized eros. As a corporeal style of education, it transformed bodies by forging alliances with other bodies, becoming more than their mere combination: a phusiopoietic emergence of flesh (Hawhee, 2004, p. 191).
We are exposed to these relational pairings in Plato’s Phaedrus, where Socrates flirts with the younger Phaedrus. It is also here, and in the Seventh Letter, where Plato notes his firm opposition to documenting “in written symbols” that which one’s “reason has contemplated” (343a). Plato’s personal letters indicate his belief that once one puts their thoughts into writing, they are unable to control how the writing is received. He fears the agency of language generally, but specifically when words fall “into the hands of those who have no concern with it” or when those words “are unable . . . to argue in their own defense when attacked” (Phaedrus 275e). The communication cannot adapt to the reader to appropriately guide their soul (Seventh Letter 343a). The inability to attend to who is being addressed “or whom to avoid” influences the person’s behaviors through nonhuman force (Phaedrus 275e). Like thumos, written communication acts on its own.
This posthumanist form of communication is consistent with a sublime conception of rhetoric that is typically attributed to Cassius Longinus of 1st century ce, but officially unknown. In the writing Peri Hypsous, which is “literally translated On Height, but more commonly On the Sublime,” sublime rhetoric is described as an ecstatic phenomenon, something that cannot be proven or reasoned (O’Gorman, 2004, p. 71). It is a desirable experience that humans are unable to resist. When successfully enacted, the sublime decenters a human sense of self. The sublime relies on ekstasis, an etymological parent of ecstasy, which creates the experience of displacement. Through ecstatic experiences, the audience is moved beyond logos through “rhetorical height (hypsos), nature (physis), and desire” (O’Gorman, 2004, p. 72). Sublime not only requires the human’s participation, but also nature’s participation to be experienced.
In experiencing an ecstatic movement, language, reason, and a sense of autonomy are lost and given over to “a capability and force which, unable to be fought, take a position high over every member of the audience” (Longinus, 1991, p. 4). This style of communication is achieved through the audience’s elevation beyond their sense of self. In true sublimity, Longinus (1991) writes, “our soul is naturally uplifted . . .; we receive it as a joyous offering” (p. 10). There are no rules to govern or judge this experience through reason. The communication becomes detached from accuracy, practicality, and the human. Sublime rhetoric presents a desired experience that the body cannot resist and a compulsory encounter that transcends the subject.
Rhetoric as sublime transcendental logos contrasts a rhetoric grounded in argumentation and intension. O’Gorman (2004) acknowledges that the sublime’s treatise is “something more than an articulation of the humanist tradition” since rhetoric has an autonomy of its own, “an end in and of itself” (pp. 74–75). This posthumanist form of communication is consistent with the Homeric thumos and phrenes, the transference of arête through eros, and the ungovernable written word. Early communication processes were portrayed as more than humanity’s reasonable and intentional use of language, offering more nuanced acts of agency than traditional humanist perspectives of intentional and autonomous human action. Within rhetoric’s classical tradition, the nonhuman shapes and participates in rhetorical action, and also in invention processes.
Traditionally, humanist scholars have configured the rhetorical canon of invention as a discursive art. The mind develops common constellations of themes, taxonomies, images, and arguments to be deployed in a rhetorical exchange. The ancient Greeks refer to these common constellations as topoi or commonplaces. The literal Greek translation of topos is spot, location, position, or a place (Mortensen, 2008; Rubinelli, 2006). For students of rhetoric, a topos is a place to find something, “seats for arguments” in the mind of the rhetor (Cintron, 2010, p. 100). Summarizing its different permutations, Rickert (2007) states that topoi are often understood as “nonbiological” constructs, a perspective that assumes human inventions are generated and conceptualized outside of nature (p. 251). What is invented through pure human genius gets remembered in the mind’s commonplaces for future utterance, similar to how an object could be placed in a designated location for its later retrieval. This perspective of topos highlights humanism’s tendency towards human exceptionalism and separation from nature. It is the human’s unique mental capacity for invention that enables rhetorical possibility, and this capacity is independent from nonhuman influences.
From a posthumanist perspective, however, invention occurs through complex relationships between the human and the material world. It is generated from a receptacle of “complex ecologies of systems and information” (Rickert, 2007, p. 253). Rickert (2007) proposes chora, an ancient concept of place and change developed in Plato’s Timaeus and theorized by contemporary rhetorical scholars, as an alternative to topos. Chora was also a common term for place in Ancient Greece; rather than being a spot, chora referred to a territory that was constantly changing, similar to a mother’s womb. Chora, as a rhetorical form of invention, indicates a “movement to invention,” emerging “in and through space” (Rickert, 2007, p. 270). Chora shifts our attention from a mental, language-centered notion of invention—indicative of a humanist perspective—to a mind/body/environment notion of invention. This perspective of chora is posthumanist in that it recognizes humans as enmeshed within and influenced by their environments, as opposed to humanist perspectives that recognize humans as distinct from and superior to their environments, particularly through linguistic capacities of invention. In short, posthumanism recognizes rhetorical invention as a capacity emerging from interactions between human and nonhuman agents, while humanism recognizes rhetorical invention as a uniquely human capacity. A posthumanist perspective of rhetorical invention is enacted through sophistic kairos, Athenian pedagogical practices, and the peripatetic tradition of philosophers.
Kairos is a rhetorical concept that emerged around 4th century bce and is attributed to the sophists, traveling teachers of rhetoric. It refers to the ability to adapt to contingent circumstances during rhetorical performances. The earliest uses of kairos reference it as a physical quality, such as an overloaded wagon’s “weight, density, and porousness,” “a critical, fatal spot on the body” pursued by the archer’s arrow, and in weaving “the place where threads attach to the loom . . . a woman who weaves . . . [and] that which is tightly woven” (Hawhee, 2004, pp. 66–67). Kairos “as opening, as weaving, as timing, and . . . as critical, delimited places on the body” highlight rhetoric as a somatic blending in constantly shifting conditions (Hawhee, 2004, p. 67). A person does not merely adapt their arguments to audiences; the environment must also co-adapt. As Rickert (2004) explains, “time, situation, and environment are all co-adaptively enmeshed” (p. 904). In this sense, kairos becomes “an experience or encounter” (p. 912). The environment is not a determining force of rhetorical possibilities, but participates in rhetorical possibilities: “one invents and is invented, one writes and is written, constitutes and is constituted” (Hawhee, 2002, p. 19). Kairotic invention is generative of the situation’s contingencies or possibilities, rather than a capacity of the mind or psyche. Whereas a humanist perspective might characterize humans as distinct from an environment to be surveyed as a resource for rhetorical invention, this posthumanist perspective characterizes the environment as a participant in—not mere resource for—rhetorical invention.
Athenian educational systems cultivated kairotic timing in students through imitation and habit. In the process of becoming citizen-actors, young male Athenians would learn rhetoric along with athletic exercises. “Pedagogically,” Hawhee (2004) explains, rhetoric and athletics “shared modes of knowledge production, an attention to timing, and an emphasis on habituation, imitation, and response” (p. 6). A ready wit is created through bodily habit, not a mode of the mind. Isocrates (2000) emphasizes this point in his Antidosis, stating that physical training and philosophy are “corresponding and united” and should be “coordinated together” pedagogically (pp. 180–183). Such was the case in ancient gymnasiums, the site of citizenship production.
Gymnasiums were the locations of Athenian education and provided a space for a variety of activities. The width of the colonnades allowed both the practicing of gymnastics and the instruction of philosophy and rhetoric. Rhetoricians often walked around the periphery of the building during their lectures, so as not to “collide with runners or javelin throwers practicing their form” (Hawhee, 2004, p. 122). The ancient practice of walking demonstrates the importance of the thinking-body in motion. Through motion, the thinking-body interacts with diverse environments and enables diverse rhetorical possibilities. Environments influence human thought.
The history of walking is well documented in the Greek philosophical tradition. This activity is how Aristotle’s Peripatetic School received its name. Aristotle gave his lectures walking up and down the colonnades of the Lyceum, and his successors were named the Peripatetic Philosophers. The sophists, too, were well known for their mobility, not only in contemplation through walking, but also in traveling from town to town to acquire work. Their fluid exposure to heterogeneous spaces allowed them different modes of thought; walking is an intelligence-generating motion that shapes the intellect through the various places that are visited. This practice demonstrates that the environment where one moves provides potential rhetorical possibilities and resources for invention. Peripatetic philosophers enact posthumanist sensibilities by using movement to influence their rhetorical capacities
Posthumanist communication scholars pay attention to human and nonhuman relationships, which take on different communicative forms. Media scholars participate in this tradition by studying the way communication is formed and delivered, not merely what message is communicated. Historically, the word media has meant “medium” or “between.” Communication is between at least two things, and the medium shapes the message. Media scholars argue that how communication takes form and is delivered is just as important, if not more, than the message itself because the form of the message also influences patterns of behavior. Different forms of media encourage specific ways of thinking and acting, thus enabling and constraining rhetorical possibility. Media are not passive channels through which humans communicate, but actively influence the communication process. Media affect the characteristics and patterns of how people interact and think of themselves in relationship to others. Joshua Meyrowitz (1994) labels this Medium Theory, as derived from the work of Harold Innis and Marshal McLuhan. In our known Western history, there have been three dominant forms of media: oral, print, and electronic.
Oral cultures, such as Archaic and Ancient Greece, require one’s physical presence in the majority of communication acts, and these acts privilege sound and sight. In oral cultures, memory primarily functions through the physical body of the person rather than through written or photographic techniques that can externally document a person’s thoughts or historical experiences. In addition to drawing, painting, and sculpture, oral rhetoric primarily assists a person’s ability to remember. If a message is presented in a compelling way, such as through poetic rhythms, rhymes, repetition, vivid description, and mythic narrative, a person will be more likely to remember it. While some elite classes of people in Archaic and Ancient Greece could read and write, the majority of people living in these oral cultures were illiterate. Knowledge was rarely different from person to person because new ideas were difficult to think and recall. This created a strong sense of collectivism and a weak sense of individual autonomy. These oral cultures were more likely to attribute social and environmental changes to divine beings incarnate in nature rather than through their own actions (Vico, 1968). This also created slow cultural and intellectual change. When it exists as the dominant cultural form, the medium of orality privileges collectivism as opposed to individual autonomy, which is more typical of print cultures.
Print cultures are formed when reading and writing are the dominant form of mediation. Print cultures shape patterns of interaction through the visual and linear, rather than oral and immersive, forms of message communication. Whereas in oral culture there is a lack of exposure to materials that can be read, print culture utilizes technologies like the printing press, which was invented during the Renaissance, to create a wider distribution of materials to read. Increased access to reading materials creates increased literacy. When more people read and write, more public and personal forms of communication are carried over large distances. This exposes people to different ways of thinking and living, and allows for memory to be extended by externalizing it in written form. During the enlightenment, the expansion of memory to writing created the opportunity for self-reflection and the linear documentation of ideas supported the rise of logic. More complex thought and accounts of history were preserved, and with the printing press, their mass distribution (Meyrowitz, 1994). Because human communication no longer necessitated a physical congregation of people and because of growing literacy rates, the print culture of the Enlightenment contributed to the emergence of individualism, autonomy, and intellectual authorship that is typical of humanism.
Currently, the majority of the West is living in an electronic culture—described as the third wave of media. Electronic media take various forms, such as televisions, phones, and computers. Similar to orality, these media engage the aural senses and, with digital technologies, increase the tactile senses (Hansen, 2000). As Meyrowitz (1994) shares, “[w]hile written and printed words emphasize ideas, most electronic media emphasize feeling, appearance, [and] mood” similar to oral culture (p. 58). However, as opposed to oral culture, with electronic media neither space nor time exists as a constraint in the distribution of information. Messages can be sent over vast distances instantaneously, archived immediately, and redistributed as quickly as they are dispersed. Media scholars argue that Enlightenment logic is not as effective in contemporary society because thought processes are systemic rather than linear: “There is a decline in the salience of the straight line—in thinking, in literary narrative, in human-made spaces and organizations” (p. 58). In electronic cultures, people tend to develop associative and spatial patterns of thought; they can make decisions and adapt to different environments at a quicker pace than other mediated cultures; electronic media instill instinctual behaviors, or habits, that become nonconsciously performed by bodies; people can become exposed to different ways of thinking and behaving more rapidly, creating the opportunity for more flexibility and contingency with regard to belief systems (Hansen, 2000; Ott & Mack, 2010). Media studies scholars are attentive to the way electronic media shape nonconscious human action; human action is never fully controlled, conscious, or rational, as a humanist perspective suggests.
The all-encompassing form and diversity of electronic media make it more obvious that human communication patterns are shaped by nonhumans, and this has impacted the way posthumanist scholars understand the human body. Many posthumanist scholars of media do not see media as a tool of the human but instead see media as incorporated into the technology of the body. Electronic tools and machines are not just external in nature but are rather “extra organs growing into existence” with the human body, problematizing “the distinction between subject (organism) and objects (environment)” (Amin & Thrift, 2002, p. 78). The human body is conceptualized as cyborgian, a hybrid of biological and technological forms that extend beyond physical flesh. The posthuman cyborg is understood “in terms of complex, structurally embedded semiosis with many ‘generators of diversity’ within a counter-rationalist (not irrationalist) or hermeneutic/situationist/constructivist discourse” (Haraway, 1991, p. 213). In electronic cultures, humans become aware of how they are enmeshed in networks, and this troubles humanist configurations of time, place, and purpose. Whereas humanist conceptions of time and place rely on the measurablity and distinction of time and movement in space, electronic media can act simultaneously and collapse these distinctions. Electronic media guide human action through nonrational forces, such as affects, and challenge humanistic ideals of rational purpose. In short, media scholars demonstrate how media participate in the production of human “knowledge.” For posthumanist scholars of communication, media are extensions of the human rather than tools that the autonomous human uses to express independent ideas.
The Posthuman Body
Donna Haraway’s (1991) famous “Cyborg Manifesto” is a landmark piece in posthumanist literature that positions the human body as a technology that is both organism and machine. It was written in an electronic culture as humanities disciplines were increasingly engaging issues of power, particularly as they related to oppressed people. Haraway writes that a common mode of feminist scholarship essentializes identity categories in order to critique the oppressive treatment of non-white, middle to upper-class, heterosexual men. She argues this type of feminism is guilty of “unreflective participation in the logics, languages, and practices of white humanism” (p. 159). Feminists and other humanities scholars who essentialize identity are critiquing oppressive power structures and belief systems by conceptualizing the human as cultural. These scholars treat human beliefs as active cultural creations, while nature is passive and malleable. Haraway is critical of the tendency to position humans as separate from, superior to and able to control nature.
Haraway’s (1991) “Cyborg Manifesto” presents an argument that critiques the essentialism of women, the common separation of nature and culture, and dualisms more generally, including those between “mind and body, human and animal, idealism and materialism” (p. 153). By drawing from feminism, socialism, and materialism, Haraway argues human identity cannot be essentialized because the human is “a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction” (p. 149). The cyborg is both a biological animal and a built machine, with biological, cultural, and technological differences that trouble unified understandings of self. As cyborgs, humans function through both social and biological networks, such as the World Wide Web or the body’s veins and arteries. Previous scholars have made similar arguments concerning dualisms and networks, but Haraway’s prose and timing during the late 20th century, when Western cultures were becoming increasingly dependent on electronic media, was particularly timely. Haraway’s writing became a rallying point for a Renaissance of posthumanism and conceptions of the posthuman body.
The posthuman body has been theorized in a variety of ways, but the work of French theorist Gilles Deleuze and his collaborations with Felix Guattari have been particularly resourceful in contemporary conceptualizations. Deleuze and Guattari (1987) understand the body as an evolving machine. The body is not a discrete object or singularly bound unified being; it is impressionable, technological, and fluid. Summarized by Elizabeth Grosz (1994), a material feminist scholar, Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of the body is “a discontinuous, nontotalizable series of processes, organs, flows, energies, corporeal substances, and incorporeal events, speeds and durations” (p. 164).
Deleuze and Guattari (1987) describe the body as a space that is simultaneously smooth and striated. Smooth spaces are associated with open potential and free movement, while striated spaces are associated with limited possibilities and restricted movements. Smooth spaces are unpredictable in how they circulate with the body, and they disrupt a sense of selfhood; whereas striated spaces have defined boundaries, closed intervals, and relatively predictable patterns. They subordinate the smooth. Smooth spaces can become occupied by striated spaces through organization, structure, and order. Striation regulates the free-flowing movement into mapped territory that can be measured, positioned, and made property. Smooth nomadic motion becomes striated by arrangements of space—the more regulatory and repetitive the interactions, the tighter the striation.
Some striation is needed for communication to function and a sense of self to be maintained. There is a productive tension that exists between smooth and striated spaces: “Perhaps we must say that all progress is made by and in striated space,” explain Deleuze and Guattari (1987), “but all becoming occurs in smooth space” (p. 486). The posthuman body evolves through interactions with smooth spaces and is able to communicate through striated interactions. The striation is a “subjection of free action” but also a rendering intelligible (p. 491). Bodies that become repetitively disciplined by striated spaces may end up blocking new intensities and flows or assimilating into the same striation.
The posthuman body is a mixture of both smooth and striated spaces where some movements are suppler and others more rigid. How the body plays and is disciplined is integral to the process of becoming a subject. As an example, it is widely accepted that gender becomes stabilized through the reproduction of norms (Butler, 2004). Bodies are intelligible through the striations that shape both their physical display and behavioral performances. However, if bodies cannot perform gender differently than what is socially expected of them, it is a sign that the gendered striated spaces have become too rigid and habitual. Gender does not become striated through the body’s sex (a problematic term on its own), but through other striated spaces such as those related to family, work, religion, and recreation. As bodies navigate between the disciplines enforced through striations of gender and the possibilities offered by transgressing these striations, they negotiate how they become subject.
The posthuman body is not who we are but what we are becoming, what spaces—forces, knowledges, and potentials—we participate in that are available in our surroundings (Deleuze, 1995). In this way, the posthuman body is not an autonomous subject, but an amalgamation of subjectivities that are constantly changing depending on interactions in space. Bodies move through spaces shaped in locally specific ways out of the physical forces, cultural beliefs and values, and technological possibilities made available in a rhetorical process, “an art of living” (Vivian, 2000, p. 317). As bodies in motion, the spaces that we move through—simultaneously physical, cultural, and virtual—offer different opportunities to perform selfhood, what Judith Butler (2004) describes as “improvisation within a scene of constraint” (p. 1).
Working from the writings of Benedict De Spinoza, Gilles Deleuze (2005) suggests that the body should be understood in terms of its relationship to movement and rest, “by the affects of which it is capable” (p. 59). The body grows with and adapts to the different phenomena with which it interacts. Bodies are constantly affecting and being affected by their interactions. Affect emerges from the event of relational intensity—an event that is intensely felt and shaped by interactive experiences (Massumi, 2002).
Affects are shaped in part by our body’s participation in the rhythms of their surroundings, in standard routines and their disruptions. Bodily rhythms of breathing, heartbeats, sleeping, seasonal changes, and larger astronomical processes are smooth rhythms of time, while mechanical clocks, cyclical economic patterns, work, religion, and health-related events, among others, are striated rhythms of time. As smooth and striated rhythms intersect, they create affects that are resources for reason. Richard Rogers (1994) uses a neurological perspective to describe how these rhythms affect the body: “rhythms become encoded in the pathways of the brain and nervous system. Neural pathways provide the biological basis for consciousness; the harnessing and repression (canalization) of the body’s drives constitutes the subject” (Rogers, 1994, p. 234). No rhythm exists on its own: “our individual rhythms, and rhythms in general, clash with, merge with, and influence others, sometimes reinforcing, sometimes diminishing, sometimes augmenting, sometimes fragmenting, and sometimes destroying other rhythms” (Dawes, 2005, p. 58). These rhythmic patterns and practices shape the contours of our affective experiences.
A posthuman body and its capacity for reason, then, is constituted by the spaces with which it interacts and the rhythms that create its affects. These interactions form premises for what comes to be understood as reasonable. Different patterns of interaction form different logics, and what is perceived as knowledge can be different across groups of people. From a posthumanist perspective bodies are more affective than they are rational, and they rarely behave according to their rationalized interests. This contrasts humanism’s tendency to overemphasize the ability of rational thought to shape future action.
Posthumanism Versus Transhumanism
The growing body of posthumanist scholarship regarding the body and technology coincides with increased technological developments of the late 20th and early 21st century. As digital technologies evolve in complexity and availability, particularly in medicine and health fields, science fiction authors and scholars alike are imagining how the human body might be understood as technological, revising notions of the human body as discrete. Science fiction has popularized the idea of the cyborg as body modification and imbued the term “cyborg” with a sense of human improvement. In contrast to Haraway’s (1991) cyborg, this trend intensifies humanist themes of human superiority through narratives of social progress. Narratives of human improvement recentralize conceptions of the logically minded human that can create and control technology for human benefit. Indeed, the idea of humans surrendering their agency to sentient technology, such as artificial intelligence, is a common theme of science fiction and lay discourse that exemplifies anxieties and fears of humans losing control (Rushing & Frentz, 1989).
The perspective that technology will enhance social progress and advance humanity is often called transhumanism. The “trans” in transhumanism describes an evolutionary “beyond” of the human, as in “beyond-human.” The humanist tendencies embedded within transhumanism distinguish it from posthumanism, and because of their simultaneous popularization, there is a coinciding overlap of vocabulary, as with different understandings of the word “cyborg” (Keeling, 2012). Both early posthumanist and transhumanist scholarship use the terminology “posthuman;” however, with different emphases. While posthumanists use posthuman to refer to a more diffuse understanding of human bodies, transhumanist scholars also have used it to mean an evolved kind of human and a more technological, advanced, improved humanity. As a result, many conflate transhumanism with posthumanism. However, posthumanism attends to the dispersion of human agency, whereas transhumanism attends to the concentration of it (Wolfe, 2010).
Because of the conflation of many key terms and perspectives, as well as the diversity of perspectives within both posthumanism and humanism, criticism of humanist or posthumanist scholarship is not uniform. Scholars critiquing posthumanism may actually be addressing scholarship that leans towards transhumanism. Shared terminology and a lack of consensus among posthumanist, transhumanist, or humanist scholarship can lead to conflating perspectives and generalizations of specific ideas to broader perspectives. For these reasons, studying and responding to these perspectives should be highly contextualized.
Posthumanism in Contemporary Rhetorical Studies
Contemporary rhetorical scholars attend to posthumanist forms of agency and invention through Marxism, psychoanalysis, technology studies, and feminism, the latter discussed in the section “The Posthuman Body.” A Marxist approach to agency emphasizes how a capitalist economic system produces systemic forms of income inequality and oppression that restrict opportunities for social movement (Greene, 1998; Gunn & Cloud, 2010). A psychoanalytic approach demonstrates how choice is never fully conscious. A person does not always—or perhaps ever—behave because of a conscious decision-making process. Most behaviors are unconscious habits, desires, and drives. Conscious explanations about behaviors are created after the actions, rather than before them (Gunn & Treat, 2006; Lundberg & Gunn, 2005). A technological approach to agency shows how technology participates, directs, and constrains human action. Various nonhuman participants come to shape human possibility through habits and kinetic energy (e.g., Anderson, 2004; Miller, 2007). There are at least three other emerging areas of posthumanism within rhetorical studies: aesthetics, animals, and affect.
In the late 20th century, many rhetorical scholars were conceptualizing rhetoric as epistemic, that is, as a process that creates knowledge. These rhetorical scholars sought to demonstrate that the pursuit of foundational knowledge and universal truths was misguided. They argued that knowledge could not be found because it was rhetorically produced (Scott, 1967). However, the claim that “rhetoric is epistemic,” is itself an epistemological claim: a foundational knowledge claim about how knowledge is rhetorical. Responding to this oversight, Steve Whitson and John Poulakos (1993) asserted that epistemic understandings of rhetoric overemphasized language and failed to account for the sensuous elements that appear to be knowledge. Working from writings of Nietzsche, they argued that “the epistemic endeavor is a derivative of something greater: primordial desires, irrepressible passions, and blind drives, all of which characterize, more than anything else, the make-up and the life of human beings” (p. 132).
Whitson and Poulakos (1993) suggest that aesthetics, meaning sense, is a different way to reject foundationalist pursuits of truth and knowledge. Knowledge and the language it depends on are artistic illusions formed by human needs and desires. These needs and desires temporarily “satisfy the perceptual appetites or aesthetic cravings of audiences” (p. 136). Eventually these cravings are forgotten and language begins to appear as though it accurately reflects reality, rather than it being a participant in reality. Claims of truth are therefore demonstrations of the power of illusions rather than a validation of an epistemological certainty. Whitson and Poulakos (1993) encourage scholars to expand purely epistemological understandings of rhetoric, replace the concept of truth with art, and consider the “unrecognized aesthetic impulses” that epistemology relies upon (p. 132).
In new millennium, the study of sensation has received increased attention, from an interest in food to sound to touch. Debra Hawhee (2015) offers an overview of the communication field’s history with the topic of sensation. From a posthumanist perspective, the study of sensation collectively seeks to understand how sense influences action and creates the appearance of knowledge. This study recognizes how one’s senses (or lack thereof) enable and constrain one’s perception of what is real or true. Scholars studying sensation acknowledge that nonhuman animals may have other senses such as the ability to detect electromagnetic fields, chemicals in their atmosphere, or temperature that enable different perceptions of reality and knowledge—perceptions that may be inaccessible or even incomprehensible to humans. As Chiew (2014) notes, because posthumanism “aims to destabilize the basic premises of human exceptionalism . . . human ways of knowing and being in the world do not have privilege or priority over the myriad variety of ways that nonhuman entities—such as computers, animals, plants, microorganisms, minerals, and fossils—encounter and apprehend the world” (p. 52).
Nonhuman animals have been present in discussions of rhetoric and rhetorical education since antiquity (Hawhee, 2017). However, the discussion of nonhuman animals as capable of enacting rhetoric did not receive pronounced attention in the contemporary study of rhetoric until the publication of George Kennedy’s (1992) “A Hoot in the Dark.” In this essay, Kennedy challenges the human-animal boundary of communication practices and the assumption that rhetoric is a purely human experience. In his pursuit to find “some universal rules of the rhetorical code,” he argues that rhetoric is a form of energy driven by a basic instinct to survive (p. 3). Using physics and evolutionary biology, Kennedy argues that all animal life that can adapt to changing environments participates in rhetoric. The rhetorical energy of adaptation can be found in emotional, physical, encoded, and experienced (decoded) communication practices of human animals as well as nonhuman animals.
Kennedy (1992) offers eight theses to support his posthumanist definition of rhetoric: (a) “Rhetoric is prior to speech” both historically and biologically (p. 4). Rhetoric existed before the human species and is present in all animal life. It is genetically transmitted and open to cultural variation. (b) Rhetorical intentions do not determine interpretations, though they can guide them. (c) Rhetoric exists prior to intentionality. The ability to communicate is basic to rhetoric, but an understanding of the communication comes after rhetoric. (d) “The function of rhetoric is the survival of the fittest” (p. 10). Rhetoric is used to adapt to environmental changes. All species share the ability to adapt to their surroundings for survival. This commonality creates the parameters of a general rhetoric: “what nature has favored in particular environments” (p. 9). (e) Rhetoric is constantly evolving through “selective variation” based on mistakes, novel combinations, chance, and play. An animal is either more or less successful at adapting to environmental changes. (f) The rhetorical canon of delivery is prior to the other four rhetorical canons: invention, arrangement, style, and memory. Whereas in traditional rhetoric delivery refers to “facial expression, gesture, and tonal inflection,” the Latin derivative of delivery is actio, meaning action: “Physical motion in response to some exigence occurs in the earliest and most primitive forms of life” (p. 12). Movement and sensation happen simultaneously to create feelings and then these lead to invention, arrangement, style, and memory. (g) Rhetoric is prior to marking. Markings include written symbols, bodily scents, and the marking of territory, among other forms. Marks are the imprints of a presence. An energy must impel a marking into existence. Finally, (h) the rhetorical canons “are phenomena of nature and prior to speech” (p. 14). They are found in nonhuman animal communication as well as human animal communication. Animals invent ways to adapt to their environments, arrange rituals, develop aesthetic sensibilities related to fitness and sometimes beauty, and share this knowledge with future generations, whether explicitly or genetically. In sum, the study of rhetoric is “distinct from the study of speech or language” because it is a prior phenomenon (p. 20).
In these eight theses, Kennedy (1992) provides detailed examples from ethologists—animal behavior scientists—of how animals, to varying degrees and across species, fulfill each of these principles. Animals of all kinds share in the rhetorical process, which Kennedy labels a natural phenomenon—not a distinctively human one. Kennedy understands rhetoric as prior to, but leading towards, meaning and language. This is significant because rhetoric and language have only recently been a central focus of rhetorical scholars. It wasn’t until the height of the Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries that language became “the core of rhetoric” and retained this position into the late 20th century through “the view of literary theorists that rhetoric is a quality of the use of language” and in theories of public discourse “in which cultural and political values find expression” (p. 1). By distinguishing rhetoric and language and by locating rhetoric in nature, rhetoric is not viewed as the sole domain of the human.
Animal studies is an emerging area of interest in the contemporary study of rhetoric (Doxtader, 2011; Gordon, Lind, & Kutnicki, 2017). This body of work attempts to understand the animality of the human and the ethics that emerge from human-animal relationships. From a posthumanist perspective, it is unclear how fully we can understand the communicative practices of species that possess different sensibilities. Nonhuman animals may have ethical insights unbeknownst to humans. By crafting built-environments based solely on human interests, humans destroy entire ecosystems that both humans and non-human animals depend on.
Diane Davis (2010) joins Kennedy (1992) in theorizing the rhetorical process as prior to human meaning. She similarly removes the human-centered imperative in rhetoric. However, rather than think about rhetoric as a kind of energy, Davis (2010) understands rhetoric as the imperative to respond, or response-abilities: “an originary (or preoriginary) rhetoricity—an affectability or persuadability” (p. 2). In other words, Davis understands rhetoric as an obligation to respond, to be affected, and, by extension, to be persuaded. Persuasion often works without cognitive action because there is always a prior rhetoricity built into our relationships—what she calls our solidarity. She exemplifies this affective notion of rhetoric through the concept of identification as theorized by Kenneth Burke (1969).
Burke (1969) was influenced by the work of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud in his writings on identification; however, Burke departs from Freud in his assumptions about human identity. Burke portrays humans as naturally discrete individuals, separate from one another from birth. For Burke, identities are the product of symbolic interaction between humans. Identification happens when two people have a shared world-view. Freud, on the other hand, argues there is “already an affective identification with the other . . . who is not (yet) a discrete object or image or form” (Davis, 2010, p. 125). So, while Burke understands identification as a function of shared meaning, Freud understands it as a condition for shared meaning. Agreeing with Freud, Davis (2008) suggests that identification depends on a pre-symbolic “primary identification,” an affective identification that precedes the symbolic (p. 125). Davis refers research on mirror neurons to demonstrate her point. Mirror neurons are what prepare the body for its next movement in a motor sequence:
“What’s so interesting about them is that they act as both sensory and motor neurons, firing in association not only with the execution but also with the observation of an action. This means that the same mirror neurons fire in my brain whether I actually grab a pencil myself or I see you grab one, indicating no capacity to distinguish between my grasping hand and what is typically (and hastily) described as a visual representation of it: your grasping hand.”
(Davis, 2008, p. 131)
Through the example of mirror neurons, she suggests an affective identification already precedes the symbolic representation of actions. “The ‘centrality’ of each individual nervous system can hardly be characterized as ‘divisive,’” Davis explains, “when it doesn’t manage consistently to distinguish between self and other” (pp. 131–132). Identification exists before any sense of autonomy. Humans are always exposed, open, and able to be affected by others, and this prior rhetoricity is nonhuman. Rhetoric is possible between any creatures that have the ability to be affected by each other (Keeling, 2017).
Jenny Edbauer Rice (2008) elaborates on the concept of affect in her review of Critical Affect Studies (CAS) for rhetorical scholars. CAS is the interdisciplinary study of affect and its power in everyday life. Affect is an experience that is prior to meaning. Rice (2008) argues that rhetorical scholars should attend to affects because they can become attached to meanings and used politically in ways that may be injurious, devastating, or fallacious to both humans and nonhumans. For example, affect is often used in commercial campaigns to support a capitalist economy and attitude toward consumption. The global economy is shaped by our desire to consume, and we become dependent on this way of life. Attention to affects offers a more complex understanding of pathos, emotional appeals. These appeals do not come from individual humans, but from our interactions and environments, both natural (ecological) and built (technologies).
Posthumanism typically invites interdisciplinary research. The “post” references the way humanism extends beyond its traditional domain of arts, letters, philosophy, and history by combining humanist and traditionally nonhumanist subjects of study. Posthumanism increasingly indicates the consideration of and collaboration between the humanities and nonhumanities, such as economics, sciences, engineering, and mathematics. In the modern study of communication, scholars have been interested in how nonhumanities fields communicate with each other and to the public, but increasingly, contemporary communication scholars are interested in how theories of these fields can inform an understanding of communication as more nuanced and complex than mere human-to-human interaction. Additionally, this interdisciplinary emphasis encourages communication scholars to become attentive to questions of scale, including human spatial and temporal scales, and to contribute to discussions of, for example, global warming and the microtemporality of computation.
By attending to the more-than-human—such as the environment, nonhuman animals, and technology—posthumanist scholars attempt to understand the complex material relations that produce communication. Posthumanist scholarship accounts for the ways in which human agency is constrained and created through relationships—ways that are not accounted for by humanist scholarship. A posthumanist ethic contextualizes the human as a co-participant in, as opposed to creator, curator, and master of, a “real” world. By understanding the human and agency as disperse, diffuse, networked, and nonconsciously influenced by nonhuman participants, a posthumanist perspective is useful for recognizing the agency of nonhumans in shaping human experiences, as well as for establishing an accountability among humans to nonhumans in their ethical relations.
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