The atomization of atomization

This entire blog post started in the same place that many of my endeavors (intellectual and otherwise) begin: with a joke. Just this past April 16 around 3:00 CDT, I was working in my home office and I thought I’d take a little twitter-break. So I fired up Tweet Deck and the first item in my @rhetors list was:

@bmcnely But, you see, “semiotic” makes us look smarter and it ensures that our work is unreadable outside of our field. It’s a win-win!

Now, I can appreciate a good pot-shot at semoticians as much as the next guy, but since Quinn’s (@warnick) a friend, I felt I had to get involved. Little did I know this all would spiral out of control into a legitimate academic discussion. Along the way, I traced the discussion thread back to its origin with a pointed (though appropriate question form Brian McNely (@bmcnely):

I’m troubled by how often rhetoricians use the term “semiotic” in place of “rhetoric” itself. The latter encompasses the former for me…

I’m speaking here of situations when “semiotic” is being used not to evoke semiotics, but as a general term for symbolic action.

Brian and I got to debating about whether or not semiotics encompassed rhetoric or rhetoric encompassed rhetoric. (Obviously, I was the semiotics fan). Eventually it all came down to the same argument for different causes—our shared desire to as Christa Teston (@christateston) put it, “make connections between discourse + everydayness.”

Now, that’s all back-story. It helps to explain the state of mind I was in (thinking about semiotics and rhetoric and the nature of the field. And then, I read Brian McNely and Christa Teston’s collaborative blog post on the atomization of rhetoric. and a series of follow-ups chronicled by Christa:

And so all that got mashed up in my head with the semiotics discussion and this, finally, the actual meat (apologies to vegetarians) of this post is what came out of that. (All that to say, this is a continuing conversation that owes a lot of intellectual credit to Brian, Christa, Greg Wilson (later), and others.)

Ok, now for real: The atomization of atomization

The first thing I want to do, as my title suggests, is to atomize atomization. In fact, I think there are at least two different types of atomization present rhetorical theory. Certainly, McNely and Teston’s post discusses each of them (with more focus on the former), if not by name. First rhetoric has a tendency towards modal atomization—that is atomization by representational mode, e.g. visual rhetoric, rhetoric of speech, rhetoric of writing, tactile rhetoric, etc. Secondly, rhetoric has a tendency to atomize by field or object, e.g. rhetoric of science, political rhetoric, rhetoric of medicine, corporate rhetoric, etc. Let me just on each of these in turn.

Modal atomization

McNely and Teston tackle this one head one:

“Instead of considering the rhetoric of images or the rhetoric of alphabetic text, therefore, we propose an approach to rhetoric, proper. We eschew the “of”–an indication that rhetoric is part rather than whole. We no longer need the “of” if we are to learn from our atomization and challenge ourselves toward holistic theorizing. We argue for is rather than of.

The visual is rhetoric. There should be no rhetoric of the visual.
Writing is rhetoric. There should be no rhetoric of writing.
Bodies are rhetoric. There should be no rhetoric of bodies.”

And I couldn’t agree more. However, I argue that recourse to multimodal semiotics is one of the best means available for realizing this goal. Some of the most well-known theorists who argue for this position are Gunther Kress and Theo Van Leeuwen. Semioticians, their Multimodal Discourse ( is a fantastic exercise in modal parity. In any event, I hardily agree with McNely and Teston here. Rhetors can deploy resources from a variety of different modes, including but not limited to linguistic, visual, oral, gestural, musical, etc. Which is why, by the way, I would argue that some rhetoricians use “semiotics” when they mean all symbolic action. The semiotic argument is that all symbolic action involves the deploying of signs.  (Semioticians provide us with quite a few different modal taxonomies  and which specific one should be used is beyond the scope of this post and likely depends on the intellectual goals of a particular project.)

The reason I think the recourse to semiotics is so critical here is because semiotic theory provides a ready framework for treating the modes with parity. Writing or perhaps language is so often treated as first among supposed equals in rhetorical theory. Visuals are ancillary. Gestures are passé. Indeed, we have all sorts of up to the minute thoughts on tropes, figures, techne pistes, enthymemes, dialogism, etc but sustained attention to gestures, for example, seems practically lost to rhetoricians writ large. This is especially so in “rhetoric and writing” or the branch of rhetoric that makes its home in departments of English.

Certainly some of our more plastic theoretical constructs can and have been extended to nonlinguistic modes. The image of a doctor in an advertisement is a form of ethos. A pictorial representation of the solar system model of an atom is a form of metaphor. But what would it mean to have gestural epistrophe? Or perhaps visual syllepsis? Rhetorical theory is designed largely for linguistic action. We don’t really have much in the way of theoretical mechanisms for describing alternate modes. On the contrary theories of representation or semiotic articulation work the same regardless of mode.

In my own research, I endorse a particular brand of semiotics, viz., Peircian. In contrast to Saussure’s dyadic approach, Peirce’s irreducibly triadic semiotic provides scholars with a model than can account for representational, hermeneutic, and ontological dimensions. For a quick and dirty explanation here’s an excerpt from my recent “Agency and the rhetoric of medicine: Biomedical brainscans and the ontology of fibromyalgia” (TCQ)

Peirce’s basic semiotic construct …. theorizes representation as an irreducible relationship between sign, object, and interpretant(5)—one can explore how networks of signs and objects (ontological or hermeneutic) coordinate in and between texts.

(5)An interpretant is the hermeneutic component of representation. It is the lens through which an individual sign user interprets the sign’s object (referent). Interpretants are constellations of acculturation and personal experience. An individual’s historical, cultural, and personal experience with a particular sign-object relationship configures his or her understanding of the sign, the object, and the relationship. (For a more complete accounting, see Witte, 1992, or Peirce, 1978.)

The explicit inclusion of the ontological works well for me here in a way that rhetoric misses. Rhetoric does not seem to have much in the way of native theory to account for the ontological or perhaps more accurately the relationships among the discursive and the ontological. The postmodern turn renders the ontological at best inaccessible and at worst nonexistent. The ludic position treats discourse as the only reality. More useful constructs are closer to some sort of neo-Marxist base/superstructure analogy where ephemeral discourse floats over the top of brute reality. These two options give us either a) no reality or b) correspondence epistemology- neither of which are continuing to bear intellectual fruit.

The best thing we have in rhetorical theory to account for the relationship between discourse and reality is context. Of course context is so often simply intertextuality and thus we are still left in the realm of discourse unimpinged on by reality. Now, perhaps context includes the material and surrounds discourse rather than supporting it. In this state of affairs we run the risk of a dangerous structuralism wherein the reality predestines the discourse and all subjects are mired in inescapable interpellation. One further question: what are the mechanisms by which the discourse impacts and influences the context? Here, is perhaps, where rhetoric is weakest. Historically, the presupposition is simply that it does—i.e. that humanist agents can and do effect change. More recently rhetorical theory has done an excellent job of overcoming this issue, but not with rhetoric. Contemporary “rhetorical” explanations of agency (my own included) are derived from poststructural theory, critical/cultural studies, science and technology studies, etc. I’ve wandered away from my main point again, so allow me to return:

In short, rhetoric seems to atomize reality: there’s discourse and reality, and never the twain shall meet. But certain semiotic schemata provide what Latour would call a nonmodern model—i.e. one that rejects the discourse/reality dichotomy and treats our artifacts of inquiry as messy assemblages of nodes all quasi-objects/quasi-subjects.

I originally set up this essay to be a two parter: 1) modal atomization and 2) object atomization. But I’ve been so very long winded that I’m going to save part 2 for another day.

To be continued…