that both defining rhetorical agency and determining its fundamental principles are critical to understanding how rhetoric is enacted in the twenty-first century.
Keywords: Rhetorical agency, human agency, invention, rhetor, audience, postmodernism, marginalization. embodiment, wearable technologies, subjectivity, intentionality, interactivity
In defining agency, Jeremy David Johnson notes that, “At a basic level, agency describes an ability to act” (197), while Carolyn R. Miller states that “Traditional rhetoric presupposes—even celebrates—agency, as the power of the rhetor, of invention, of eloquence itself” (142). However, Marilyn M. Cooper points out that when agency is viewed through a postmodernist lens, rhetoricians must either accept “the loss of our responsibility for the way our world turns out” or decide that “some notion of human agency in bringing about positive changes can be rescued” (420). Cooper claims the former view makes individual rhetorical agency “increasingly impossible,” and it is this impossibility that Miller suggests “signals a crisis for agency, or perhaps more accurately, for rhetoric” (420; 143). Cheryl Geisler acknowledges this crisis, pointing to the “tension” existing “between what rhetorical agency, in fact, is and what it, in value, ought to be” (9). Rhetoricians, while agreeing that this tension exists, have not yet resolved it, as various scholars have differing ideas on how to approach rhetorical agency.
Therefore, Geisler identifies the key topics involving rhetorical agency, locating its reimagining as a “central” concern “in order to address the ideology of agency” (10). In moving “beyond [the] traditional political contexts” of rhetorical agency, scholars are focusing more on the “specific local and or historical conditions that undergird [rhetorical action]” (10, 14). Thus, rhetoricians are contextualizing rhetorical agency in the following ways: investigating how marginalized groups with a lack of access to “mainstream public forums” enact individual rhetorical agency; how rhetorical agency works within the “interplay of audience and [visual] media”; and how digital technology affects individual rhetorical agency (10-11). In rethinking agency, rhetoricians acknowledge that both defining rhetorical agency and determining its fundamental principles are critical to understanding how rhetoric is enacted in the twenty-first century.
According to Johnson, “Rhetoric has traditionally relied on the agency of human subjects to explain persuasion” (197). Jessica Reyman points out that this viewpoint is “rooted in human subjectivity and intentionality and result[s] in purposeful actions by human agents and their intended effects” (116). In other words, the traditional view sees agency as “the activity of a subject pursuing an intention”, and it is this view that creates the “ideology of agency” that postmodernists push against(Wells, qtd. in Geisler 10; Gaonkar, qtd. in Geisler 10). As Johnson explains, the postmodernist view finds agency not located in but “flowing through the agent,” resulting in the “dilemma of how to understand the postmodern subject’s ability to take purposeful political action without merely recuperating the humanist individual” (199; Herndl, qtd. in Geisler 10). It is this dilemma that rhetoricians respond to in their attempt to define rhetorical agency and determine its ideology.
While Cooper agrees that a “robust theory of agency is needed to buttress claims for the efficacy of rhetoric,” she finds that this theory “requires the death not only of the modernist subject but of the whole notion of the subject” as agents may lack an awareness of internally and externally influenced actions that may or may not affect the world around them (423, 421). Therefore, she defines agency as “an emergent property of embodied individuals” in which agents, not subjects, “do reflect on their actions consciously; they do have conscious intentions and goals and plans; but their agency does not arise from conscious mental acts, though consciousness does play a role” (421). For Cooper, agency is not a possession; rather, it is the “capacity to make a difference in the world without knowing quite what you are doing,” an approach that differs from Miller’s and Johnson’s (Bennett, qtd. in Cooper 421).
Miller suggests that “Interaction is necessary for agency because it is what creates the kinetic energy of performance and puts it to rhetorical use. Agency, then, is not only the property of an event, it is the property of a relationship between rhetor and audience” (150). Johnson draws on Miller’s idea of agency, proposing that rhetorical agency takes place “as a result of social interaction,” a,concept some may find “difficult (and perhaps perverse)” as this view “seem[s] to remove agency not from the rhetor so much as from the audience” (Miller, qtd. in Johnson 199). He suggests that the rhetor is still present, but that this view highlights the “social dynamic of agency,”and it is in this interaction between rhetor and audience that agency occurs: “Agency flows through a system, causing interactions that affect the parts of the system. Humans observe environmental changes and respond . . . to reshape the environment” (199, 200). Thus, in his view, “agency and responsibility are tied via interactivity,” and this interactivity is increased through the digital aspect of rhetoric (Johnson 200).
Implications and Predictions
As Geisler notes, “more complex understandings” of how rhetorical agency takes place must include the “social conditions” through which it takes place, particularly how the individual’s interaction with digital technologies “shape rhetorical action” (14). Johnson agrees, stating, “As wearable technologies spread, and as digital interactions become increasingly ubiquitous, the confluences of material and symbolic, and of human and nonhuman, mean that human agency is increasingly inseparable from technology” (200). Thus, in contextualizing individual rhetorical agency within social and digital practices, rhetoricians can move closer to an agreed-upon theory of agency.
Cooper, Marilyn M. “Rhetorical Agency as Emergent and Enacted.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 62, no. 3, 2011, pp. 420-449. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/27917907.
Geisler, Cheryl. “How Ought We to Understand the Concept of Rhetorical Agency? Report from the ARS.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, vol. 34, no. 3, 2004, pp. 9-17. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40232429.
Johnson, Jeremy David. “Ethics, Agency, and Power: Toward an Algorithmic Rhetoric.” Theorizing Digital Rhetoric, edited by Aaron Hess and Amber Davisson, Routledge, 2018, pp. 196-208.
Miller, Carolyn R. “What Can Automation Tell Us about Agency.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, vol. 37, no. 2, 2007, pp. 137-157. JSTOR, doi10.1080/02773940601021197.
Reyman, Jessica. “The Rhetorical Agency of Algorithms.” Theorizing Digital Rhetoric, edited by Aaron Hess and Amber Davisson, Routledge, 2018, pp. 112-125.
Overview Sentence: The concept of “agency” has always been complicated by ill-defined loci and issues of identity and power. In the digital age, these issues proliferate as our concepts of agency shift to incorporate non-human agents.
Keywords: Rhetorical agency, access, agent, embodied, dispersed, articulated networks, protean, kinetic energy, non-human agents, algorithms, algorithmic cultural cultivation, ecology of agency
Rhetorical agency is an inherently complicated matter even in a realm of limited technology and resources. By definition, agency is an act performed with the intention of producing a desired effect. The concept is complicated when applied to rhetoric because of the varying identities and material conditions of rhetors and the impact that comes with those identities. Cheryl Geisler, in “How Ought We to Understand the Concept of Rhetorical Agency? Report from the ARS,” addresses how scholars handle this variable. She recounts that participants of the conference were willing to move away from “characterizing rhetors in terms of what they lack” and “[move] us toward a richer understanding of rhetorical agency by examining how rhetors without taken-for-granted access do, nevertheless, manage to exercise agency” (11).
Marilyn M. Cooper’s “Rhetorical Agency as Emergent and Enacted” further deconstructs the image of the “agent” by encouraging us to note that “[i]f we accept that we live in a globalized world in which not only economies, cultures, and languages but also environmental crises are increasingly intertwined in complex systems, and we accept the death of the subject—the death of the centered, conscious, rational self—the possibility of agency seems increasingly impossible” (420). In a general sense, Cooper invites us to abandon the very idea that individual agents have any control over change. She argues, “Agency is an emergent property of embodied individuals” (Cooper, 421). Similarly, Geisler uses the advent of early media as a non-traditional context to create a picture of how rhetorical agency is “dispersed, as a series of articulated networks that connect speakers and hearers in multiple, sometimes contradictory ways” (Wells qtd. in Geisler 11).
The idea that rhetorical agency is a shared phenomenon derives from the ancient Greeks, according to Karlyn Campbell, in “Agency: Promiscuous and Protean” (3). She explains, “The life of the male citizen was judged by his contribution to the collective, and whatever agency citizens had was derived from and linked to the survival and well-being of the polis” (Campbell 3). However, this relationship is complicated by sacrifices made for the well-being of the communal agency, particularly those by citizens of different classes and genders: “[A]gency is constrained by externals, by the community that confers identities related to gender, race, class, and the like on its members and by so doing determines not only what is considered to be ‘true,’ but also who can speak and with what force” (Campbell 3). To avoid the essentialism that might naturally occur within discourses addressing identities and agency, scholars have posited a conception of these identities, rather, as serial to how one relates with the external world: “Individuals in a serial relationship have no set of attributes in common except their shared relationship to an external object, event, or, in other cases, to a law, an institution, a norm, a stereotype and so on” (4). This relates to what Geisler says about characterizing rhetors according to how they obtain agency rather than by what constrains them. Ultimately, we can conclude that part of what makes agency so protean is its motion between agents. Agency itself, in this view, is created by the cumulative actions of agents and the relationships between agents and the external world.
Understanding agency as a dispersed series of articulations not only removes the role of responsible agent from rhetorical interaction but also reconceptualizes the relationship between audience and rhetor. Carolyn Miller investigates how dispersed agency looks in digital technologies in “What Can Automation Tell Us about Agency?” She suggests that we should “think of agency as the kinetic energy of rhetorical performance” (147). Conceptualizing agency as kinetic energy over potential energy affords an understanding of agency as a “property of the rhetorical event or performance itself,” rather than “a possession or property of an agent” (Miller 147). In practice, the agency lies in the rhetor “adapt[ing] to the social context and to the audience’s knowledge, values, conventions, and expectations,” thus “the speaker’s power in effect derives from the power of the audience” (150).
Today, agency as a factor in or result of culturally constructed and agreed upon values and conventions is further complicated by the introduction of non-human agents into the social arena. Computer algorithms, such as those used by Facebook, Google, Amazon, and other tech megaliths are, according to Ted Striphas’ “Algorithmic Culture,” performing the function of cultivating our culture. Striphas says we are seeing “the enfolding of human thought, conduct, organization and expression into the logic of big data and large-scale computation, a move that alters how the category culture has long been practiced, experienced and understood” (398). Aaron Hess elucidates the results of algorithmic cultural cultivation in his “You Are What You Compute (and What Is Computed for You): Considerations of Digital Rhetorical Identification,” by exploring how our devices “fundamentally alter the nature of identity” (1). On a basic level, users are often not aware of “how the ‘behind the scenes’ logics of online production and algorithmic methods inherently affect online identification and speech” (Hess 5). On a deeper level, Hess contends, the cookie data collected about users’ behavior “structures future interactions with [sites]” (9).
Implications and Predictions
Jessica Reyman directly attributes agency to these computer processes in “The Rhetorical Agency of Algorithms”: “Through trending topics, filtered content, and customized searches, the knowledge economy of the social web is largely constructed through algorithms that operate quietly behind the scenes” (Reyman 113). Reyman explains, “Algorithms are more than a tool for rhetorical activity; they themselves participate in meaning-making, affecting human communication, understanding, and behavior on both small and large scales” (115). She argues that, for these reasons and others, algorithms themselves should be understood as rhetorical agents, but firmly places them into the ecology of agency, which as we have come to know is “relational and dynamic” (115). Jeremy David Johnson raises questions about these new non-human agents in “Ethics, Agency, and Power,” arguing that “[r]esponsibility for algorithmic action is distributed and shared in the same way agency is dispersed” (197), as is algorithmic power (203). Going forward, rhetorical agency may eventually no longer be able to be discussed or conceptualized without taking non-human decision-making into account.
Campbell, Karlyn Kohrs. “Agency: Promiscuous and Protean.” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, vol. 2, no. 1, 1 Mar. 2005, pp. 1–19. doi:10.1080/147914204200032134. Accessed 20 Mar. 2018.
Cooper, Marilyn M. “Rhetorical Agency as Emergent and Enacted.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 62, no. 3, Feb. 2011, pp. 420–449. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/27917907. Accessed 20 Mar. 2018.
Geisler, Cheryl. “How Ought We to Understand the Concept of Rhetorical Agency? Report from the ARS.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, vol. 34, no. 3, 2004, pp. 9–17. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40232429. Accessed 20 Mar. 2018.
Hess, Aaron, and Jeremy David Johnson. “Ethics, Agency, and Power: Toward an Algorithmic Rhetoric.” Theorizing Digital Rhetoric, edited by Amber Davisson, Taylor and Francis, 2018, pp. 196–207. Kindle File.
Hess, Aaron. “You Are What You Computer (and What Is Computed for You): Considerations of Digital Rhetorical Identification.” Journal of Contemporary Rhetoric, vol. 4, no. 1/2, 2014, pp. 1–18. Alabama Communication Association.
Miller, Carolyn R. “What Can Automation Tell Us About Agency.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, vol. 37, no. 2, 2007, pp. 137–157. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40232521. Accessed 20 Mar. 2018.
Reyman, Jessica. “The Rhetorical Agency of Algorithms.” Theorizing Digital Rhetoric, edited by Aaron Hess and Amber Davisson, Taylor and Francis, 2018, pp. 112–125. Kindle file.
Striphas, Ted. “Algorithmic Culture.” European Journal of Cultural Studies, vol. 18, no. 4-5, 2015, pp. 395–412. SAGE, doi:10.1177/1367549415577392. Accessed 20 Mar.