Friday, January 26, 2018

#MeToo: The Post-Humanity of Rhizo-Rhetoric

So is #MeToo expanding rhetoric beyond the humanist focus on the individual to the posthumanist inclusion of the human/nonhuman swarm and ecosystem? I think so.

But let me point out that this expansion does not dismiss the individual and her unique experience. Each individual experience has its own meaning, and our traditional rhetoric gives us a rich set of tools for reading that experience. I am exploring the idea, however, that a different constellation of meaning emerges at the hyper-text scale of #MeToo, and that I, at least, don't have the set of tools required for reading that text. Somewhere George Siemens said that "literacy is the ability to engage in the dominant discourses of the current age." #MeToo is one of the dominant discourses of the current age, and I think I'm missing a big part of it. I suppose that makes me illiterate, so there is plenty of room here for me to learn. Cool.

Byron Hawk claims that Deleuze captures this shift in rhetoric from the simple individual human to the complex posthuman swarm in his concept of expressionism, which Hawk opposes to expressivism. According to Hawk, expressivism "is centered on the individual body" and leads to a social-epistemic rhetoric that "is centered on a dialectic among distinct, pre-existing elements in the world" (158). This rhetorical focus on human individuals in dialectical opposition to each other leads to a rhetoric that operates "from an opposition between human intention as active and material context as static and passive, thus privileging human action" (158). Expressivism rather unconsciously assumes traditional rhetorical elements and arrangements: humans engaging other humans through texts for the purposes of persuading, informing, and entertaining. Humans are the only actors on stage, and everything else is inert scenery and prop, interesting mostly as a backdrop to human agency. Much of the discussion about #MeToo has assumed this arrangement and focused on political and social positions assumed by various people, winners and losers in the discussion, and probable outcomes and consequences for people.

Hawk says that Deleuze undermines this focus by "seeing any body, organic or inorganic, not as a whole but as a constellation of parts that participate in multiple systems" (158). From this point of view, a text "can be only the expression of a world, of an entire system, of life, not just one element or function within it" (158).

#MeToo, then, is the expression of the world, of an entire system, not just one element within it. I cannot think of #MeToo as a collection of individual tweets, a bag of marbles. Yes, I can look at the bag of marbles and, for instance, divide them into big ones and littles ones, or red, green, and blue ones. I have the rhetorical and analytical skills to do that, and I will generate some useful knowledge that way, but if I exclusively focus on #MeToo at that scale, then I miss the larger and, for me, the more important text. #MeToo is the world struggling to understand how it organizes and interacts with itself, especially in terms of the relationships between women and men.

This larger text is problematic for other readers as well. In her article for The New Yorker entitled "The Rising Pressure of the #MeToo Backlash", Jia Tolentino explores the tendency of people (men and women both) to flatten #MeToo into a single, simple text with a single, simple message which they can then position themselves for or against, just as the traditional rhetorical strategies have taught them to do. Tolentino complains that this strategy undermines the real power of #MeToo:
This is an unprecedented moment of flux on an impossibly complicated topic; this movement is not even three months old yet. The fact of a hashtag flattens these stories, makes them seem unified, but they are profoundly individual. If we stop looking for straightforward collective agreement, we might find we need it less than we think.
I, too, must stop looking for straightforward collective agreement. I really don't need it. Instead, I'm trying to see #MeToo as a fractal: a swarm of self-similar and coherent pieces but not identical pieces. #MeToo has a swarm message that we want to reduce to a simple, political slogan, and in many ways, it doesn't matter if the slogan supports or opposes #MeToo. While they have utility in narrow applications, all slogans undermine and distract us from the swarm message.

But we so much want attractive slogans delivered by attractive voices. An Ozy story "Aly Raisman Is the #MeToo Hero that American Sports Needed" by Nick Fouriezos follows the typical rhetorical strategy of reducing the 156 witnesses in the trial against women's gymnastic physician Larry Nassar to one attractive voice: Aly Raisman. This is traditional Western journalism based on traditional rhetoric that gives us a single, identifiable voice to deliver a single message that we can agree with, disagree with, or ignore. Fouriezos' strategy is quite obvious. He characterizes the testimonies of 156 witnesses (a swarm) as "a public bloodletting only made possible by the decision from Judge Rosemarie Aquilina to give every victim the voice they had been denied." His treatment of Aly Raisman, however, is largely positive. Her voice is clear, courageous, and convincing. And her voice is clear, courageous, and convincing—make no doubt—but so are the stories of the other 155 athletes. Fouriezos mostly misses that swarm text, as do his readers. I want this larger, swarm text, this hyper-text.

Or let's call it a rhizo-text to match rhizo-rhetoric. Let's see if rhizo-text works.

To approach this larger rhizo-text, Hawk uses Heidegger's discussion of tool to reconceptualize technê, especially as handicraft, or craft or art, in rhetoric. For Hawk, technê is not something that a human does to a text through the use of various tools (pens, paper, typewriters, word processors, Twitter, etc); rather, technê is poiesis, "the arising of something from itself, … a bringing forth" (176). Technê is a constellation of agents that includes humans but does not privilege humans. Hawk says:
Technê as handicraft or as rhetoric and poetics is set in the context of physis: nature, the ecology as a whole, including humans, is the ground and thus highest form of technê, which is simply one aspect of co-responsibility. This recognition is a key to moving beyond instrumentality and humanism. Heidegger asks, “Does this revealing happen somewhere beyond all human doing? No. But neither does it happen exclusively in man or decisively through man” (["Question Concerning Technology"] 24). A human does not create by itself. It enters into a situation, and the new form taken by that constellation plays out its own potentiality. (176)
So I begin to see #MeToo rhetorically as millions of agents (in this case, overwhelmingly women and Twitter) entering into a new situation arising from their own interactions. The text written by this new constellation—this #MeToo—is playing out its own potentiality, which arises from its own DNA, its own experiences, knowledges, skills, and trajectories, and equally from the ecosystem within which it finds itself.

It's easy for those of us who engage #MeToo to credit only the humans who are writing it, but we miss much if we do not also credit Twitter and other social media. #MeToo could not have emerged at all and it would not be emerging as it is without nonhuman agency. #MeToo, then, is a posthuman document, as Hawk explains using the work of N. Katherine Hayles':
Hayles characterizes posthumanism as locating thought and action in the complexity of distributed cognitive environments. … For Hayles, “modern humans are capable of more sophisticated cognition than cavemen not because moderns are smarter, . . . but because they have constructed smarter environments in which to work” (How We Became Posthuman 289). Posthumanism does not usurp the human, then, but situates it in the development of distributed cognitive environments. Hayles writes, “No longer is human will seen as the source from which emanates mastery necessary to dominate and control the environment. Rather, the distributed cognition of the emergent human subject correlates with—in Bateson’s phrase, becomes a metaphor for—the distributed cognitive system as a whole, in which ‘thinking’ is done by both human and nonhuman actors” (290). (176, 177)
This reorganizes our conception of rhetorical voice as the expression of a single human or group of humans exercising her or their will upon a text and thereby upon another group of humans. That view, though at times useful, is too limiting. Rhizo-texts are written rhizomatically and must be read rhizomatically. Deleuze and Guattari address this very issue in the first paragraph of the first chapter of A Thousand Plateaus:
The two of us wrote Anti-Oedipus together. Since each of us was several, there was already quite a crowd. Here we have made use of everything came within range, what was closest as well as farthest away. We assigned clever pseudonyms to prevent recognition. Why have we kept own names? Out of habit, purely out of habit. To make ourselves unrecognizable in turn. To render imperceptible, not ourselves, but what makes us act, feel, and think. Also because it's nice to talk like everybody else, to say the sun rises, when everybody knows it's only a manner of speaking. To reach, not the point where one no longer says I, but the point where it is no longer of any importance whether one says I. We are no longer ourselves. Each will know his own. We have been aided, inspired, multiplied. (3)
They are trying to explain here that the two of them are a swarm and must be read as a swarm, and they make clear that their swarm includes not just other people but other things, non-humans. They proliferate and run like oil on pavement, or seeds in a stream, like rhizomes.

And here is a point I must address: a single writer is a swarm, just as a million writers are. In this #MeToo series of posts, I've been contrasting the million voices of rhizo-rhetoric to the single voice of traditional rhetoric. This is misleading. A single voice is also a swarm, but it's easy to see how traditional rhetoric could create a fictional unity of that voice.

So even if this unified voice is a fiction, what's wrong with that? In some senses, nothing is wrong with it. It is, if nothing else, convenient. As D&G wryly note, they use their own names—unifying, signifying labels—"purely out of habit … because it's nice to talk like everybody else, to say the sun rises, when everybody knows it's only a manner of speaking." And yet, everything is wrong with it. These signifying labels, these fictional singularities, "prevent recognition [and] render imperceptible, not ourselves, but what makes us act, feel, and think." Thus, the Fouriezos article gives us a unified voice in Aly Raisman, but it prevents recognition of and renders imperceptible the 155 other voices. It gives us a text rather than the rhizo-text. It gives us the human rather than the post-human.

Let me end this post where I began it by noting that I am not denigrating the human or humanistic rhetoric. This is the tradition I was trained in and have practiced for most of my life. The humanistic tradition has its profound insights, its utilities, its affordances, and its limitations. All my posts in this blog have been generated from that rhetorical perspective and can be read from that perspective. So I am not denigrating; rather, I am expanding. In part, I am expanding because texts such as #MeToo force me to confront their rhizomatic nature while traditional articles, essays, poems, and posts do not—even though their rhizomatic nature is present. I see a thousand plateaus before me, and I want to walk there awhile.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

#MeToo: The Ecology of Rhizo-Rhetoric

I'm examining the new kinds of documents that I see emerging on the Net, and I'm focusing on #MeToo, as it is currently the strongest and most visible of the kinds of documents I'm thinking about, but it certainly isn't the only one. In my last post, I looked at #MeToo as a hyperobject as Timothy Morton defines them. In this post, I want to begin thinking of #MeToo in terms of rhetoric. After all, I'm defining #MeToo as a text, and rhetoric should have something to say about any text.

As I recall from my years of reading rhetoric, most rhetoricians do not approach writing and communication from the view of complexity. Most in fact try to reduce writing to the simple or complicated domains, with fairly simple models and heuristics for producing useful texts. However, by the late 20th century, rhetoricians and literary theorists were beginning to push rhetorical thought into the complex domain. For instance, in his book A Counter-History of Composition: Toward Methodologies of Complexity (2007), Byron Hawk traces the emergence of complexity in modern thought, particularly in modern rhetoric, through the concept of vitalism. For Hawk, vitalism begins with Aristotle, takes a turn in rhetoric toward Romantic expressivism, and eventually flowers in the 20th century through the science and philosophy of complexity. Hawk does an admirable job of showing how a rich concept can influence science, philosophy, and rhetoric and how each of these disciplines can feed into and off of the other. Even if you are not so interested in rhetoric, his argument illuminates the history of an idea the informs much of modern thought.

I don't intend to recount Hawk's book, but I do want to explore several of his ideas in terms of #MeToo. The first idea is that complexity rhetoric, or what I have called in previous posts rhizo-rhetoric, is ecological rather than atomistic, or complex rather than simple.

Hawk starts his discussion of vitalism with Aristotle's concept of entelechy, which seems to lay the intellectual groundwork for ecological thinking for Hawk. For Hawk and Kenneth Burke, whom Hawk quotes, entelechy is "essentially a biological analogy. It is the title for the fact that the seed ‘implicitly contains’a future conforming to its nature, if the external conditions necessary to such unfolding and fulfillment occur in the right order. Were you to think of the circumstances and the seed together, as composing a single process, then the locus of the entelechy could be thought of as residing not just in the nature of the seed, but in the ground of the process as a whole" (Burke, The Rhetoric of Religion, 1961, pp. 246-247). Entelechy, then, embeds both seeds and rhetoric into a complex ecology, into a rhizome, and this idea that all things unfold through the interaction of internal resources and external environments begins to lay some groundwork for me to understand #MeToo.

To read #MeToo, then, I must frame it in a complex ecology, a rhizome, that considers both the text itself and the ecosystem of the text as a single process. #MeToo, of course has its internal resources, its DNA, arising from the experiences of millions of women and men and their abilities to express those experiences, but the unfolding and unpacking of that DNA happens within an ecosystem that seeks to express its own DNA and that may or may not support #MeToo. The environment is a co-creator of #MeToo, and this is made very clear when we learn that the MeToo meme was actually created a decade ago by a black activist named Tarana Burke who, according to Ebony magazine, started MeToo "as a grassroots movement to aid sexual assault survivors in underprivileged communities 'where rape crisis centers and sexual assault workers weren’t going.'” I don't know why #MeToo emerged now instead of 10 years ago. Perhaps because Tarana Burke is not a well-known movie star with thousands of Twitter followers. Maybe because Twitter was just created a decade ago and was not yet the force in social networking that it has become. Perhaps those reasons and many more, but the main point for me is that ten years ago the environment was not right for #MeToo. The #MeToo seed had fallen on dry, barren ground, and it did not emerge even though there were just as many millions of women who could speak to the issue. In 2017, the seed fell into fertile soil and sprouted. Then exploded.

Hawk says of this ecological frame for rhetoric:
The basic logic of entelechy is that the overall configuration of any situation, including both natural and human acts and forms, combines to create its own conditions of possibility that strive to be played out to completion. The combination of the four causes in nature is not just a push from behind but also a pull toward the future, the striving to develop potential. In more contemporary evolutionary terms, an ecological situation produces the structural conditions for certain types of plants or animals to develop and thrive and they strive to fill those gaps, to enact that potentiality. Humans as an efficient cause cannot be abstracted from this larger contextual ground set up by the other causes and the ecology or potentiality they enact. A human might have an internal, psychological, or intellectual motive, but a huge variety of cultural, linguistic, and material factors help create and enact that motive. As part of nature, humans can help realize the situational potential via the technê available to them through the complex ecological arrangement, and it is in this larger movement that rhetoric operates. (126)
First, note that an ecological understanding of rhetoric undermines the traditional concept of writing as an individual who through innate knowledge and skill creates texts that engage others, usually to meet some purpose of the writer, some need of the reader, or some issue in the world, or all three. Writers write to act on the world and to make things happen, and if I consider individual tweets and texts, then this can be a useful frame for thinking about #MeToo. For instance, consider Alyssa Milano's original tweet that kicked off the current #MeToo text:
I can describe this single tweet as Alyssa Milano writing a message to persuade her followers to express their own sexual harassment and the extent of sexual harassment in our society. Obviously, millions did, and the #MeToo text emerged and morphed around the world, far exceeding Milano's expectations. But this original tweet is neatly captured and usefully illuminated by a traditional rhetorical analysis that frames the communication as a writer writing to some reader about some issue to make something happen. You can easily model this with the communications triangle that I use in my college writing classes:
A writer, a reader, a subject, all joined by a text—in this case, a tweet. You can even change the terms to pull from different strains of communication theory:

I do not dismiss the immediate, though limited utility of framing writing like this, but for me, this frame is woefully inadequate for reading and understanding #MeToo. It's first problem is scale. It is too focused on the single tweet from Alyssa Milano, the single artifact of a single writer. #MeToo is much bigger than this one tweet. If this was the only tweet in #MeToo, then we would have no #MeToo, and I would be looking at other hyper-documents. I'm discussing #MeToo because it is a swarm of millions of tweets, texts, messages, articles, television discussions, and acceptance speeches that push #MeToo into the higher scale of hyperobjects. This higher scale makes #MeToo interesting and gives it its power, and the single Milano tweet is interesting to me only because of this higher level text. Indeed, I did not follow Milano on Twitter at the time of her tweet, so I would never have seen it had #MeToo not emerged.

The communications triangle also focuses too much on the individual writer. Yes, Milano wrote the first tweet in October 2017, and her voice is an integral, necessary part of #MeToo, but it is hardly sufficient to account for or to embody #MeToo. Milano's voice has been subsumed by the general hum that is #MeToo. While focusing on a narrow instance of #MeToo can be illuminating, it is ultimately distracting. Researching the behavior of a single neuron in the human brain can reveal much, but it doesn't reveal mind or consciousness, both of which emerge at a hyperscale above the single neuron. This is the scale at which I become aware of #MeToo, but traditional rhetoric inadequately frames this scale for me. I need a larger frame, a more ecological frame.

Hawk looks to artificial life studies to expand the frame of rhetoric from the single writer to a swarm of agents, both human and not:
In a paper delivered in 1992 at the third Workshop on Artificial Life, Mark Millonas wrote, “The notion that complex behavior, from the molecular to the ecological, can be the result of parallel local interactions of many simpler elements is one of the fundamental themes of artificial life. The swarm, which is a collection of simple locally interacting organisms with global adaptive behavior, is a quite appealing subject for the investigation of this theme” (quoted in Mark Taylor 153). … Essentially the study of life through artificial means extends the shift from examining characteristics of living beings to examining functions of living systems. (156, 157)
For me to read #MeToo, then, my rhetorical strategies must shift from framing the "characteristics of living beings", or individual writers, to framing the "functions of living systems", or swarms of writers. I have to see a complex, powerful document such as #MeToo as emerging from "simple locally interacting organisms with global adaptive behavior".

Many may object to characterizing the millions of people, mostly women, who wrote #MeToo as "simple locally interacting organisms with global adaptive behavior". It sounds demeaning—like ants in a pile—but I think that is a trick of scale.

Each individual #MeToo writer is simpler than #MeToo in two ways. First, they are simple in comparison to the complexity of the larger scale document that emerged from the aggregation of each tweet. An individual ant is a complex, capable creature at its own scale, but it is more simple and less capable in comparison to the ant colony. Likewise, the #MeToo writers are complex, capable people at the human scale, but they are more simple and less capable than the hyper-human scale that #MeToo works in. No single #MeToo text, not a tweet from Alyssa Milano or a speech from Oprah Winfrey, can match the power and force of a million tweets. #MeToo is a hyper-text that functions at a scale above the human, a hyper-human scale, a cyborg scale, and no individual human can measure against it.

But there is no need to measure against it. This is not an exercise in comparison, and it certainly isn't a denigration of individual people; rather, #MeToo is a celebration of the kinds of powerful texts emerging in a posthuman world.

Then each #MeToo document (tweets, text messages, posts, and more) is simpler than the #MeToo text. This is especially true of individual tweets. Most of the tweets are simple responses to Milano's call to retweet, and each can be characterized in simple terms of a stimulus-response as we might characterize the firing of a neuron in response to some stimulus. The responses, in turn, stimulate what becomes a cascade of responses across Twitter, and #MeToo emerges. I do not dismiss the benefits of learning about an individual stimulus-response pattern. Understanding stimulus-response is necessary for understanding the functions of the brain, for instance, or for understanding Twitter, but it is insufficient for understanding consciousness or #MeToo, both of which emerge at a scale beyond stimulus-response and create characteristics not inherent in the stimulus-response pattern. Mapping the trajectory of a single stimulus-response is enlightening and helpful, but it is not sufficient to map the trajectories of millions of stimuli-responses. One thing happens when a single neuron fires, but something else altogether different happens when millions of neurons fire.

Reducing #MeToo, or mind, to a single stimulus-response is both misleading and denigrating. First, it denigrates by denying the validity or even the possibility of emergent properties at the hyper scale. Many will deny the possibility of meaning emerging at the hyper-human level of #MeToo, and will insist that #MeToo is no more than, at best, a group of concerned women expressing their individual outrage or, at worst, a group of liberal fanatics bitching and moaning about not much. Even though the first opinion supports #MeToo and the second attacks it, they both undermine the real power of #MeToo which emerges at a scale above the individual.

Then, reducing #MeToo denigrates by glossing over the complexity of the individual interactions that we render simple. For instance, the term stimulus-response treats the complex behavior of an individual neuron as if it's no more than one billiard ball bumping into another. A single neuron firing is itself a complex event within a complex ecosystem. An individual neuron is a network of many parts, and it has the intelligence to collect data from its environment, to assess that data, and to change its internal state to respond to that data. It has many of the same complex characteristics at the neuronal scale that we humans have at the human scale. In other words, a neuron only looks simple from the great remove of the human scale. As Olaf Sporns proves in his 2010 book Networks of the Brain (not network singular), a neuron firing is a damned complex network in its own right, and we misunderstand it if we treat only as a simple mechanism. Likewise, a single woman retweeting #MeToo is a damned complex network in her own right. She is not just one more woman championing or complaining in a tweet but a complex constellation of experiences and knowledges, some too deep for words. To reduce these women to a simple group or to a simple response misleads and undermines our understanding of #MeToo.

This ecological approach drops both Hawk and me at the doorstep of post-humanism, which I will discuss in a next post.