Rhetoric and Posthumanism

Mehdi Mohammadi

“Posthumanism first appears as antithetical, nearly impossible, for rhetoric”,[1] as the former ventures beyond anthropocentric narratives, yet the latter, as Diane Davis and Michelle Ballif point out, “has been defined as the study of human symbol use which posits at the centre of ‘the rhetorical situation’ a knowing subject who understands himself (traditionally it is a he), his audience and what he means to communicate”.[2] Nevertheless, the juncture at which they intersect, despite their seemingly divergent foci, resides in the way posthumanism encourages a reassessment and expansion of what constitutes the human, which in turn influences how we understand and study rhetoric: “Posthumanism opens up the human”[3] through deconstructing earlier definitions of the Anthropos, in the words of Mays, Rivers, and Sharp-Hoskins, with “the posthuman turn in rhetoric” emanating “from the propensity of posthumanist terminologies to unpack and reexamine the human”.[4] This reappraisal leads to “the grounds of a posthumanistic rhetoric, which would expand beyond the locus of entelechy and in the end, at least in principle, include elements made not only of logology or by the human animal alone, but also other blurry, nonsymbolic objects, entities, and technologies that enter every situation and speech act”.[5]

In the realm of rhetoric and writing, the incorporation of nonhuman participants is succinctly encapsulated by Scott Sundvall, contending that rhetoric and writing studies (RWS) “no longer privileges or prioritizes the human”[6] and that thanks to new materialism, object-oriented philosophy, and critical animal studies, “the future of RWS hinges upon our ability to dethrone anthropocentrism and human exceptionalism and acknowledge that communication and rhetorical actors extend beyond the human mark”.[7] This is also articulated in John Muckelbauer and Debra Hawhee’s words, when analysing the film eXistenZ, that human characters “exist simply as sites of information exchange—material entities produced by and teeming with swarms of others (codes, identities, technologies, knowledges, and so forth)”.[8] Sundvall’s dislodging humans from the centre chimes with Nathan Stormer’s underscoring of the distribution of cognition and praxis across networks that include both human and nonhuman elements. Stormer defines posthuman rhetoric as “the view of rhetoric in which the individual is not the necessary theoretical center of rhetorical study”.[9] He expounds on “prosthetic thinking” which is “to see rhetoric at work within networks articulated in performance; it is to see rhetoric in which the ‘human’ may be absent or only one element among many; it is to make rhetoric a perspective on action and not a capacity possible only for ‘full’ human beings”.[10]

A plethora of rhetoric scholars have thus formed a tapestry of thought that redefines rhetoric in the posthuman era, challenging traditional notions, integrating nonhuman elements, and advocating for dynamic, ecological approaches, attaching importance to the material, affective, and digital dimensions of rhetoric. In Diane Davis’s posthuman rhetorical framework, laughter serves as a disruptive force against traditional humanist structures, as it “detonate[s] to touch off tiny explosions at the limits of ‘the thinkable’”.[11] This disruption confronts established binaries and meanings, embodying posthumanism’s stress on multiplicity and interconnectedness. Laughter acts as a means of ‘response-ability’, Haraway’s ethical obligation not only to respond but to acknowledge the entanglement of various entities and the consequences of one’s actions within these networks, engaging with the ‘other’ in ways traditional discourse cannot, thereby making “room for an/other sens/ibility”[12] and allowing for “reading/writing/thinking [of] the unreadable/writable/thinkable”.[13] This represents the unpredictable and non-linear nature of communication, key to posthuman rhetoric, by breaking the conventional fabric of meaning and embracing chaos and spontaneity in communicative processes.

While Diane Davis provokes a re-evaluation of foundational truths in rhetoric, Byron Hawk and Andrew Mara shift the focus to the integration of nonhuman actors, presenting a complementary perspective within the broader context of posthuman rhetoric. They argue for the inclusion of nonhuman actors in understanding complex systems, stating that “posthumanism’s focus upon the complex interactions of human and nonhuman actors can help researchers avoid either overvaluing the human (humanism) or the nonhuman (antihumanism)”.[14] The approach unsettles traditional anthropocentric perspectives by acknowledging that “attempts to understand human beings as autonomous, isolated, or determinative do not fully account for the complexities of living, writing, and working in a variety of biological and mechanical systems”.[15]

Posthuman rhetoric also recognises the profound impact of technology on human communication, an aspect Collin G. Brooke addresses by reinvigorating “the dialectical character of the rhetorical canons”,[16] seeing them as dynamic and dialectical rather than static and fixed to describe new media interactions in “Lingua Fracta located in between technology and rhetoric”.[17] This serves as a metaphor for the ever-evolving landscape of digital communication, representing the complex, dual nature of new media rhetoric that connects and divides, unites and fragments, and forms patterns that are discernible at multiple scales of interaction. He emphasises interfaces as central to rhetorical activity and acknowledges the co-evolution of human and technological aspects of rhetoric. Embracing concepts like posthypertextuality and rhetorical ecologies, Brooke demonstrates how digital media reshapes communication practices and debunks established norms.

Sidney I. Dobrin’s Postcomposition, extending Brooke’s dynamic view, critiques the rhetorical studies’ historical focus on the subject, noting “any decentring of subjectivity or the writing subject as composition studies’ primary object of study needs to account for how theories of the posthuman and posthumanism inform postcomposition”.[18] He proposes a posthuman approach to rhetoric, where writing is integrated with broader systems, transcending the orthodox perimeters of anthropocentrically biased approaches so that “the posthuman (…) should be seen not as outside of writing but as an integrated part of writing, of the whole, shifting like the postmodern subject, certainly, but able to flow and redefine as the surrounding environment demands it or imposes it”.[19] Dobrin discusses the limitations of traditional approaches to composition and the necessity for newer, more dynamic theoretical frameworks that can accommodate the complexity of writing as a system since “the current hyper-circulatory condition of writing now demands more complex theories than composition studies has previously provided, theories that can evolve within a context of new rhetorics—like ecological or posthuman rhetorics”.[20]

Following Dobrin’s ecological approach, Thomas Rickert introduces “ambient rhetoric”, focusing on rhetoric’s material and affective dimensions. His concept involves a responsive way to reveal the world to others through affective, symbolic, and material means. He suggests that these all-encompassing environments in which rhetorical activity occurs are not just passive backdrops but active participants in the process of communication and meaning-making. This approach to rhetoric seeks to re-attune or transform others’ perceptions of the world, laying stress on the role of rhetoric in harmonising us to the common affordances of beings. He explains that this revealing “emerges from the orientations and stances we take on our being-in-the-world”[21] and that it is not derived “solely from the symbolic but from language as co-responsive to the world, including material being”.[22]

In Rhetoric as Posthuman Practice, Casey Boyle’s perspective on posthuman rhetoric underlines the vital role of the transformative impact of “today’s pervasive information-communication technologies” that “challenge the implicit paradigms framing our notions of bodies and with it the practices that follow”.[23] He interrogates long-established demarcations, adapting Theodore Schatzki that “all activity is an embodied materially mediated array of activity”, breaking down the dichotomy between the knower and the known, suggesting a more integrated understanding of action and knowledge and that practice should not solely depend on reflection, as is common in current critical rhetoric or humanism. He argues, “in a posthumanist account”, against the kind of agency that “relies on an individual’s or a group of individuals’ conscious and critical abilities” since Boyle believes that this agency “can only ever be a partial and perhaps even dangerous approach to problems confronting a wider ecology”.[24]

Finally, completing this short survey, Alex Reid explores the concept of posthuman rhetoric, a framework emerging from the intricate dynamics of digital media ecologies. He elaborates that this approach stems from Vitanza’s ‘Third Sophistic’ rhetoric, which reexamines long-standing theories, citing Thomas Rickert in writing that “rhetoric has a material dimension, and it is an embodied and embedded practice; rhetoric is an emergent result of environmentally situated and interactive engagements”.[25] Casting the spotlight on an ecological perspective, Reid sees human cognition and agency as products of interactions within complex systems, involving both humans and nonhumans. This view, as Reid observes, sees “rhetoric as a nonhuman activity, one that is not centred on us in which humans can participate but do not necessarily participate”.[26] Such a perspective is key to grasping how digital environments shape rhetorical capacities, highlighting the interdependent nature of human and nonhuman communication in today’s digital age.

By way of a summary, what makes the current period an opportune time for posthuman rhetoric to gain traction is the confluence of technological advancements, expanded rhetorical agency to nonhuman entities, and critical re-evaluations of anthropocentrism and traditional ethics, compellingly demonstrating the relevance of posthuman rhetoric for our contemporary era. Alex Reid, for example, finds it a pertinent framework in response to the seismic shifts in technology and communication that characterise the contemporary era, signifying a pivotal transformation in human interaction with technology. Additionally, Edward Hahn references Byron Hawk, Raul Sanchez, and Sidney Dobrin, accentuating their collective call for an urgency of a departure from traditional, subject-centered theories towards embracing the complexities of digital culture and posthuman rhetorics, arguing that “the unprecedented dynamism of today’s digital culture requires the field – if it wants to remain relevant – to stop formulating subject-centered theories of writing, rhetoric, and pedagogy; to resist placing normative demands on writers and writing; and to rethink universal ideals like justice and democracy”.[27] This meshes rather seamlessly with the scope of rhetorical agents having been expanded, including nonhuman entities such as AI, algorithms, animals, and ecosystems as potential communicators, in accordance with Cecilia Åsberg that even “newly mapped microbiomes also belie humanist assumptions of self-contained individuality”.[28]

Along those lines, Veronica Hollinger’s insights historicising posthumanism in After the Human imply that the emergence of such a new rhetoric is particularly kairotic due to “our increasingly intimate coevolution with the products of the technosphere”,[29] or, as Jay David Bolter argues, because “bodies are open to forms of technological modification and intervention”.[30] Moreover, the disruption of anthropocentric ethics, drawing from Washington, Kopnina, Taylor, and Piccolo, that “anthropocentrism is ethically wrong and at the root of ecological crises” or that it is “misguided or even misanthropic”,[31] further undergirds the kairos in the contemporary discourse.

Finally, in terms of the urgency to address environmental issues, Debra Hawhee, in her A Sense of Urgency (2023) argues that “ascribing memory to glaciers or figuring them as witnesses does more than animate or even anthropomorphize them. It expands the act of witnessing to nonhuman or elemental entities”. She quotes John Durham Peters in saying that “things, after all, can bear witness”, which characterises a posthuman rhetoric, and adds that this “posthuman rhetoric matters for a world in which care can extend through, to, and beyond the human”.[32] Moreover, Jennifer Clary-Lemon in Nestwork (2023) perceives the profound implications of the rift between humans and nonhumans particularly alarming “in a time of biodiversity loss, what some scientists are now calling the sixth extinction”.[33] The urgency of this environmental crisis warrants a shift towards a posthuman rhetoric, one that acknowledges and integrates the perspectives and experiences of nonhuman entities.

To conclude, and prior to presenting a definition of posthuman rhetoric, I wish to briefly differentiate between the ‘Rhetoric of Posthumanism’ and ‘Posthuman Rhetoric’. The distinction is crucial because, despite their apparent similarity, they can represent two distinct conceptual frameworks within rhetorical studies. It clarifies that our focus extends beyond merely analysing how posthumanism is discussed (Rhetoric of Posthumanism) to how rhetoric as a practice and theory evolves in a posthuman context (Posthuman Rhetoric). Stefan Herbrechter, in “The Rhetoric of the Posthuman”, accentuates the significance of rhetoric as a tool for comprehending and articulating the complexities of the posthuman condition and proposes to rigorously engage with the “rhetorical or tropological usages of the posthuman figure”.[34] A rhetoric of posthumanism thus suggests a deeper engagement with rhetorical practices and theories that could help understand the changes in how we use language under posthumanist conditions.

Posthuman rhetoric, on the other hand, is an evolving paradigm in rhetorical studies that surpasses conventional human-focused frameworks. It views rhetoric as an emergent, ecological phenomenon, deeply interwoven with a broader network of interactions influenced by diverse forces and participants. These include technological advancements (social media platforms, algorithms, AI, and virtual reality), social and cultural norms, environmental factors (geographical, ecological, and spatial elements), economic contexts (wealth distribution and market dynamics), and historical and political contexts. This approach reconceptualises rhetoric as a dynamic process that is deeply intertwined with the material and discursive constructions of our contemporary condition. It suggests that cognitive and communicative practices are inherently posthuman and are being shaped by networks that are simultaneously physically tangible and real, socially constructed, and technologically mediated. Posthuman rhetoric thereby extends the scope of rhetorical study beyond traditional human agency and subjectivity. It integrates the significant roles of technology, animals, ecological systems, and other nonhuman organic or abiotic elements, acknowledging their influence and participation in the rhetorical process, proposing a more inclusive model where agency is seen as a distributed, networked, and collaborative phenomenon, reflecting the complex interplay of diverse agents, human and nonhuman alike “in terms of interactions between meaning and matter wherein nonhuman elements actively participate alongside symbol-using animals to effect change”.[35]

[1] Chris Mays, Nathaniel A. Rivers, and Kellie Sharp-Hoskins, Kenneth Burke + the Posthuman (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2017), p. 1.

[2] Diane Davis and Michelle Ballif, “Guest Editors’ Introduction: Pushing the Limits of the Anthropos,” Philosophy & Rhetoric 47, no. 4 (2014): 346-353, Penn State University Press, https://muse.jhu.edu/pub/2/article/562405.

[3] Mays, Rivers, and Sharp-Hoskins, Kenneth Burke + the Posthuman, p 1.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Mays, Rivers, and Sharp-Hoskins, Kenneth Burke + the Posthuman, p.151.

[6] Scott Sundvall, ed., Rhetorical Speculations: The Future of Rhetoric, Writing, and Technology (Denver: University Press of Colorado, 2019), p. 18.

[7] Ibid.

[8] John Muckelbauer and Debra Hawhee, “Posthuman Rhetorics: ‘It’s the Future, Pikul’”, JAC 20.4 (2000): 767–774.

[9] Nathan Stormer, “Articulation: A Working Paper on Rhetoric and Taxis”, Quarterly Journal of Speech, 90.3 (2004): 275.

[10] Ibid.

[11] D. Diane Davis, Breaking Up [at] Totality: A Rhetoric of Laughter (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2000), p. 9.

[12] Davis, Breaking Up [at] Totality, p. 15.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Andrew Mara and Byron Hawk, “Introduction”, Technical Communication Quarterly, 19.1 (2009; special issue on “Posthuman Rhetorics and Technical Communication”), p. 2.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Collin G. Brooke, Lingua Fracta: Toward a Rhetoric of New Media (Cresskill, N.J.: Hampton Press, 2009), p. xiii.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Sidney I. Dobrin, Postcomposition (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2011), p. 60.

[19] Dobrin, Postcomposition, p. 65.

[20] Dobrin, Postcomposition, p. 142.

[21] Thomas J. Rickert, Ambient Rhetoric: The Attunements of Rhetorical Being (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013), p. 187.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Casey Boyle, Rhetoric as a Posthuman Practice (Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2018), p. 27, quoting Theodore R. Schatzki, “Introduction”, in: Theodore R. Schatzki, Karin Knorr-Cetina, and Eike Von Savigny, eds., The Practice Turn in Contemporary Theory (Psychology Press, 2001), p. 11.

[24] Casey Boyle, Rhetoric as a Posthuman Practice, p. 27.

[25] Alex Reid, Rhetorics of the Digital Nonhumanities (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2022), p. 27.

[26] Reid, Rhetorics of the Digital Nonhumanities, p. 4.

[27] Edward Hahn, “Writing in the Age of Humans: (Post)Rhetoric-Composition and Vichian ‘Ingenium’”, Rhetoric Review, 32.4 (2013): 420.

[28] Cecilia Åsberg, “The Timely Ethics of Posthumanist Gender Studies”, Feministische Studien, 31.1 (2013): 7.

[29] Veronica Hollinger, “Historicizing Posthumanism”, in: Sherryl Vint, ed. After the Human (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020), p. 16.

[30] Jay David Bolter, “Posthumanism”, in: The International Encyclopedia of Communication Theory and Philosophy, 2016; available online at: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/9781118766804.wbiect220 (accessed 11/12/2023).

[31] Helen Kopnina et al., “Anthropocentrism: More than Just a Misunderstood Problem”, Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 31.1 (2018): 109–27.

[32] Debra, Hawhee, A Sense of Urgency: How the Climate Crisis Is Changing Rhetoric (University of Chicago Press, 2023), p. 37.

[33] Jennifer Clary-Lemon, Nestwork: New Material Rhetorics for Precarious Species (The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2023), p. 2.

[34] Stefan Herbrechter, “Rhetoric of the Posthuman”, keynote address at the “Ethos, Pathos, Logos” Conference, Ploiesti, October 2012; available online at:  https://www.academia.edu/14188272/Rhetoric_of_the_Posthuman (accessed 11/12/2023).

[35] Amanda K. Booher and Julie Jung, eds., Feminist Rhetorical Science Studies: Human Bodies, Posthumanist Worlds (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2018), p. 29.

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