Part II: Field atomization

This post continues the previous post. Though it’s not strictly necessary to read both to catch the tenor of my argument, it might help.

As I mentioned in my last post, my efforts to think through the atomization of rhetoric has led me to atomize atomization. Where previously I was discussing the problems of modal atomization, this post will take up field atomization. Rhetoric atomizes by (sub-)field when it bifurcates into rhetoric of science, rhetoric of medicine, rhetoric of public policy, rhetoric of religion, etc. While McNely and Teston’s addresses modal atomization much more explicitly it does make oblique reference to field atomization. At least that’s how I read the following paragraph:

Our observation is that rhetoric as an academic discipline and professional practice suffers from a kind of insidious atomization—a context-stripping particularity that reduces rhetorical practice to departments, domains, specialties, sub-disciplines, colloquialisms. And yet we simultaneously recognize that such atomization has been historically productive; atomization has fostered new approaches and understandings that, for so long, have been othered or invisible. Atomization in part yields feminisms, body studies, LGBT studies, Critical Race Studies. Atomization gives us rhetorical criticism, writing studies, technical communication. Atomization is crucial to the viability of studying and doing rhetoric.

And yet atomization separates, bifurcates, siloizes. Atomization necessitates a particularized and specious division of multivalent, polymorphous, polycontexts.

I take McNely and Teston to be arguing that field atomization is “crucial to the viability of studying and doing rhetoric,” whereas modal atomization is not. (And I certainly hope they’ll correct me if I’ve misread them.) And here’s where I insert the brilliant insight of Greg Wilsion (@baconred) who recently argued in response to Brian that this type of field atomization serves a valuable tactical purpose. Below an excerpt from that conversation:

@bmcnely That those insidious understandings that groups have serve a purpose for that group. Even atomized rhetoric serves a purpose

@christateston Your right. I think disciplining requires a tactical approach (atomization) that defines a (seemingly) coherent set of tools,

As I think about this conversation, I’m struck by a further, perhaps necessary, atomization of atomization. Perhaps field atomization needs to be dived into at least two sub-types: disciplinary atomization and object atomization, where disciplinary atomization is a tactical decision to help foster a community of inquiry and object atomization defines the limits of those entities the inquiring community studies. Clear as mud? How about an illustrative example?

I have a very peculiar relationship with field atomization. I’m a rhetorician of technoscience and medicine. In so labeling myself, I have made a tactical decision to distinguish myself from rhetoric of science or rhetoric of medicine—the traditional subfields that deal with similar content. I explicitly and intentionally use the term technoscience to signal my alliance with a different approach—one allied with science and technology studies. But more to the point, the use of the term “technoscience” is an argument against object atomization, or perhaps more accurately, against a certain logic of object atomization. Rhetoric of science is typically rhetoric in science. It explores the symbolic action of practicing scientists through reading and interrogating the professional discourses they produce. My use of “technoscience” presupposes an object of study that extends far beyond these traditional boundaries. My favorite exposition of this argument (which I have appropriated in multiple places) comes from Steve Fuller:

[A] legitimate bone of contention can be summed up in the following proposition: practicing scientists are only a fraction of those who contribute to what science is. The other contributors are not just those people who use science more or less as scientists intend, such as technologists, physicians, and policymakers. [Science and Technology Studies] also takes seriously the rest of the population who consume science by reading The Tao of Physics, watching “Tomorrow’s World,” and eating fat-free muffins.—Steve Fuller, The Philosophy of Science and Technology Studies

So, I would argue that traditional rhetoric of science atomizes its object more (or at least differently) than rhetoric of technoscience. To reiterate the peculiarity of my disciplinary argument: I tactically atomize rhetoric in order to argue that our objects of study should be less atomized. Ironic, to say the least. Nevertheless, the tactical and practical elements of atomization cannot be ignored. (And I’m certainly not suggesting that McNely and Teston ignore them.) Obviously, a given project cannot study everything. So at the very least a temporary practical atomization is required to operationalize research. (Damn, is that another form of atomization: practical?)

OK, let’s see what we’ve got here:

Modal atomization: the practice of separating spheres of inquiry by representational mode. (Actually when you think about it, we also have media atomization, and genre atomization, at least.) I know I don’t like modal atomization. I’m not fond of media atomization. Genre atomization might be useful.

Field atomization: Disciplinary or object divisions which might also be tactical and or practical.

That gives us around eight different logics of atomization currently at work in rhetorical studies. (And there are probably more.) To be honest, I don’t really have more of a conclusion than that. Exploring this topic has been very useful for me, and I hope it’s been useful for you. Apologies for the aporia.