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.

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