Dissertation Progress Update

Last week, after attending to the feedback from my chair, I finally finished editing my first two dissertation chapters to a point where I felt comfortable sending them off to the rest of my committee. As part of that process, I took a step back and tried to give my readers a brief overview of how I see the project shaping up—a prefatory synopsis which I thought it would be good to share here, too:

In the first chapter, “Burke and Lacan on the Symbolic Mechanisms of the Unconscious”—sexy title, I know—I investigate a parallel between Lacanian psychoanalysis and Burkean rhetoric, in that both, at roughly the same midcentury moment, developed a “symbolic” theory of the unconscious/an unconscious theory of the “symbolic”. At the same time, I show that both Lacan and Burke, in these same texts on the unconscious, make acute reference to the emerging field of cybernetics—the former using cybernetics to explain the unconscious, an inhuman machinery at the heart of the human, while the latter denigrated “thinking machines” over and against the human as a privileged subject. Rhetoric might therefore look to Lacanian psychoanalysis as a way of rethinking those concepts Burke introduced to rhetoric as a way of moving beyond the discipline’s traditional humanist leanings toward a posthumanist frame of distributed ontology, nonhuman agency, and decentered signification.

My second chapter, “Purloined Messaging Between Rhetoric, Psychoanalysis, and Cybernetics”—really killing it with these clever chapter titles—further refines and develops Lacan’s cybernetic reconceptualization of the Freudian unconscious as a way to rethink our field’s historic reliance on traditional ontological frameworks, as especially exemplified in the humanist figure of the “letter.” Having identified some of the issues with how Burke incorporated psychoanalytic terminology into modern rhetorical theory, I expand here on the Lacanian alternative through a careful elucidation of the analyst’s reading of Poe’s “the Purloined Letter.” Contrasting the post-Poe letter with rhetoric’s more conventional epistolary practices—exemplified especially by reflective pedagogies that aim to foreground consciousness and human agency—I attempt to show how Lacan’s rethinking of the letter (as a signifier) provides rhetoric with a theory of communication that aims toward a posthuman compositional praxis of distributed and nonhuman agency, foregrounding a rhetor’s envelopment in material ecologies and autonomous signifying networks.

Like Lawrence and his match, or Moon Watcher and his nuclear warhead, we have Lacan and his letters: With a conceptual flash cut, my third chapter—tentatively titled “Freudian Typos and Rhetorical Para-Praxis”—will continue along the path of the letter, shifting ever so slightly toward the graphemic, alphabetical material that makes up any given written word. This section of the dissertation will outline a theory of “Freudian typos,” a form of computerized parapraxis that reveals what I call our emerging “digital unconscious.” Again, this will develop the idea first set out in my discussion of Burke that Lacan’s reimagining of the Freudian unconscious, misread by our foremost twentieth century rhetorician, can help push rhetorical theory beyond humanist conventions toward a posthuman praxis better suited to contemporary communicative media. Toward this end, my final chapter will follow Lacan’s own trajectory toward what he called the “sinthome”—a compositional praxis that revels in its own breakdowns, interruptions, and ambiguities; that is to say, a form of writing based on decentered human subjectivity, one which enjoys its material embeddedness not as a limitation, but as an inventional possibility.


Abstract for “BH + DH: Book History & Digital Humanities” Conference

So here’s a new thing I thought I’d try: Instead of simply sending off abstracts to conferences and waiting in equal parts silence and anticipation, I might as well share my idea on here first, and see what sort of feedback I get.

When Marshall McLuhan wrote his groundbreaking work of media theory The Gutenberg Galaxy over a half-century ago in 1962, humanity had only just begun to explore space the year prior, and was still a ways away from our first giant leap toward the steady footing of the moon. At the time, computers were still conceived as monolithic, massive, and maniacal, much like the artificial intelligence HAL (one small step typographically to the left from IBM) in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Viewed from the vantage of the iPhone epoch and the dawn of digital sociality, scholars interested in the intersection of Western cultural history and media theory should begin to look anew and askance on McLuhan’s foundational text, which is decidedly, in form and content, a book about books. In my brief presentation—tentatively entitled “Beyond The Galaxy & Through the Babbage Black Hole”—I will return to McLuhan’s elementary insight that “the medium is the message” to interrogate the emergence of novel subjectivities in a post-print, ebook era. Putting McLuhan in conversation with the work of cyberneticians and computer scientists, I will suggest that digital networks no longer support the linearity and self-consciousness that characterize a traditional humanist subject structured by book technologies; rather, insofar as new media are organized by acephalic feedback and entropic communication, so too are (post)human networks, in terms both of the social and the individual.

Update: This abstract was accepted.