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 technĂȘ 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.

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