Still Life with Rhetoric: A New Materialist Approach for Visual Rhetorics. 
    --Winner of 2016 CCCC Advancement of Knowledge Award and 2016 CCCC Research Impact Award

While visual artifacts have received increased attention in recent years, rhetorical theories and methods have yet to catch up with images circulating and functioning in a digitally saturated climate. Today, as Shepard Fairey’s now iconic Obama Hope image makes evident, images often circulate and transform across media and genre at viral rates. In addition, images reassemble collective life as they enter into diverse relations, take on roles far beyond their intended function, and  spark a firework of activity across the globe. While Obama Hope, for instance, was designed to garner support for Obama during the 2008 election, it has become, among many other things, an international environmental and political activist, a popular cybergenre for launching social and political critique, and a source of political enchantment for people both within and beyond U.S. borders. Considering such wild abandon, how can scholars account for visual rhetorics in a digital age?

Still Life with Rhetoric responds to this dilemma by introducing a new research approach and method for studying visual rhetorics. A new materialist approach is influenced by contemporary scholarship coming out of both rhetoric and composition and communication such as Louise Wetherbee Phelps’ and Kevin Porter’s work with discourse and time; Jenny Edbauer Rice’s work with rhetorical ecologies; Collin Brooke’s work with new media rhetorics; Carole Blair’s work with material rhetoric and consequence; and Cara Finnegan, Robert Hariman’s, and John Lucaites’ work with circulation. This approach also draws heavily on Bruno Latour’s work with actor-network theory; Deleuze’s and Guattari’s work with the virtual and actual; Jane Bennett’s work with vital materialism; and Karen Barad’s work with agential realism. Working under this influence, I develop a unique theoretical framework for studying rhetoric as a distributed, generative event that unfolds with time and space as things circulate, transform, and enter into diverse relations. 

I also forward a new research method called iconographic tracking. This method employs novel digital and traditional qualitative research strategies to explore how new media images actualize in diverse forms and genres, circulate in physical and cyber space, and affect a wide range of material consequences. To model how productive this approach and method can be for visual rhetorics, I present research findings from a four-year-long case study in which I which I investigated how the Obama Hope image went viral, became a cultural icon and national symbol, and engaged in a broad spectrum of collective activities in a very short time. 

Still Life with Rhetoric is unique in that it offers theories and methods to account for the futurity of rhetoric—the strands of time beyond the initial moment of production when things become rhetorical as they circulate with time and space. For it is only with an eye toward futurity, I argue, that rhetoricians can actually account for how new media images help constitute and reconstitute collective existence in the 21st century.

Circulation, Rhetoric, and Writing. Utah State University Press. 2018. 

Book Cover Description:

While it has long been understood that the circulation of discourse, bodies, artifacts, and ideas plays an important constitutive force in our cultures and communities, circulation, as a concept and a      phenomenon, has been underexamined in studies of rhetoric and writing. In an effort to give circulation its rhetorical due, Circulation, Writing, and Rhetoric introduces a wide range of studies that foreground circulation in both theory and practice. Contributors to the volume specifically explore the connections between circulation and public rhetorics, urban studies, feminist rhetorics, digital communication, new materialism, and digital research.

 Circulation is a cultural-rhetorical process that impacts various ecologies, communities, and subjectivities in an ever-increasing, globally networked environment. As made evident in this collection, circulation occurs in all forms of discursive production, from academic arguments to neoliberal policies to graffiti to tweets and bitcoins. Even in the case of tombstones, borrowed text achieves only partial stability before it is recirculated and transformed again. This communicative process is even more evident in the digital realm, the underlying infrastructures of which we yet to fully understand.

 As public spaces become more and more saturated with circulating texts and images and as digitally networked relations come to the center of rhetorical focus, Circulation, Writing, and Rhetoric will be a vital interdisciplinary resource for approaching the contemporary dynamics of rhetoric and writing.

Contributors: Aaron Beveridge, Casey Boyle, Jim Brown, Naomi Clark, Dànielle Nicole DeVoss, Rebecca Dingo, Sidney I. Dobrin, Jay Dolmage, Dustin Edwards, Jessica Enoch, Tarez Samra Graban, Byron Hawk, Gerald Jackson, Gesa E. Kirsch, Heather Lang, Sean Morey, Jenny Rice,    Thomas Rickert, Jim Ridolfo, Nathaniel A. Rivers, Jacqueline Jones Royster, Donnie Johnson Sackey, Michele Simmons, Dale M. Smith, Patricia Sullivan, John Tinnell, Kathleen Blake Yancey

Abstracts of Select Scholarly Articles/Chapters

2019. Co-authored with Phil Bratta. “The Racial Politics of Circulation: Trumpicons and White Supremacist Doxai.” Rhetoric Review, 38 (4).                                                                   

This article presents the racial politics of circulation as a critical concept for elucidating how whiteness, nationhood, and doxa intertwine to reinforce and amplify white supremacy within a context of white nationalist postracialism. As a case study, my co-author and I investigate how two popular slogans associated with Donald Trump drive the production and circulation of digital doxicons called Trumpicons and how such Trumpicons, in turn, feed back into a socio-political loop of white supremacist logics. In studying how Trumpicons become embroiled in such racial politics of circulation, the authors disclose how new media images contribute to an affective economy of whiteness in contemporary American culture.

2019. “Swastika Monitoring: Using Digital Research to Track Visual Rhetorics of Hate.” Future Matters. Eds. Rick Wysocki and Mary Sheridan. Computers and Composition Digital Press.

This chapter introduces a public humanities project now called The Swastika Counter Initiative that I am designing to help create reliable data about low level incidents of the United States. In this chapter, I show and discuss some of my preliminary research findings, specifically identifying—with the help of geographical maps, graphs, and word clouds—the locations and places in which swastikas are showing up, the most common texts surfacing alongside swastikas, and the rising and falling trend of swastika incidents across the United States. In articulating my efforts to track circulating swastikas, I especially hope to model how writing and rhetoric scholars can make our work publicly matter within a cultural climate of increasing incidents of discrimination, harassment, and intimidation.

2019. “Writing to Assemble Publics: Making Writing Circulate, Making Writing Matter.” College Composition and Communication. 70(3): 327-355.

In this article, I weave new materialist theories about assemblage, community, agency, and rhetorical responsibility to argue for pedagogies that foreground writing to assemble publics and offer direct rhetorical training in campaign organizing. In describing three student activist campaigns, I demonstrate how this pedagogy challenges students to create socio-material assemblages that entice    bodies into collective action—a challenge that demands tactile agility, creative activism, and often metanoic revision.

2013. “Iconographic Tracking: A Digital Research Method for Visual Rhetoric and Circulation Studies.” Computers and Composition, 30 (4): 332-348.

Drawing on recent scholarship in the disciplines of rhetoric and composition/writing studies and communication, I advocate for generating new methodologies and methods for studying rhetorical circulation. I introduce iconographic tracking--a research method that employs traditional qualitative and inventive digital research strategies to investigate the circulation, transformation, and consequentiality of images across genres, mediums, and contexts. As evidence of what this method can afford, I present findings from a four-year long case study that employs iconographic tracking to trace Shepard Fairey’s now iconic Obama Hope image. To help readers understand some of the theories and philosophies that undergird the method of iconographic tracking, I also briefly introduce a new materialist approach to rhetorical study. In practice, I point in new directions for visual rhetorical study and circulation studies at large.

2011. “Agential Matters: Tumbleweed, Women-Pens, Citizen-Hope, & Rhetorical Agency.”Ecology, Writing Theory, and New Media: Writing Ecology. Ed. Sid Dobrin. Routledge.

In this article I draw on recent developments in distributed cognition, posthuman studies, and new materialism to advocate for adopting a new materialist sensibility toward agency that recognizes the dynamic vitality and agential capacity of rhetorical discourse. I specifically draw on Karen Barad’s notion of intra-action, Bruno Latour’s notion of actancy, and the research method of iconographic tracking to make visible how mutual rhetorical transformation emerges among diverse entities as discourse circulates, transforms, and experiences material engagement. As such, I demonstrate how ecological perspectives of agency embodied in the notion of actancy can open up new research potentials for rhetorical studies.

2010. “An Inconvenient Tool: Rethinking the Role of Slideware in the Writing Classroom.” Co-authored with Collin Brooke, Composition Studies, (Spring 2010) 38.1. Reprinted in Best Writing from Independent Composition and Rhetoric Journals: 2010 (Parlor Press).

This article illustrates the downfall and renaissance of PowerPoint in the business and design world and argues that progressive slideware methods of presentation and delivery warrant reconsideration of PowerPoint’s potential in the composition classroom. In conjunction with theorizing constraint writing, my co-author and I illustrate various uses of slideware presentation methods and genres in the invention and revision of ideas. We ultimately argue for repositioning delivery in 21st century composing processes. 

2009. Practicing Methods In Ancient Cultural Rhetorics: Un-Covering Rhetorical Action In Moche Burial Rituals.” A Brief History of Rhetoric in the Americas: 3113 BCE to 2012 CE. Eds. Damian Baca and Victor Villanueva. New York: Palgrave-Macmillan.

This article excavates the rhetorical actions of duality, concealment, and inversion in the  ancient mortuary practices used to bury Moche elite rulers in the northern coast of Peru between 100 and 800 CE. Although Moche studies scholars demonstrate what purpose this rhetorical genre may have served, this article argues that we must practice self-restraint in assigning rhetorical meaning to rhetorical acts without knowing the actual consequences that emerge in response to these actions during their initial production. I advocate and even laud the move in the field of rhetoric and composition to embrace and theorize the genre of these rich Pre-Columbian rhetorical traditions; however, rather than jump quickly into identifying the purpose and meaning of these ancient rhetorical traditions, I suggest we move slowly and carefully and let them make visible to us their rhetorical function.  

Thoughtjam is a weblog I produced in graduate school to post summaries and responses to scholarly texts in the discipline of rhetoric and composition/writing studies. No longer active, this blog now serves as a resource for my own scholarship as well as for others in the field.