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.



Annotated Bookshelf: Ambient Rhetoric

Rickert, Thomas J. Ambient Rhetoric: The Attunements of Rhetorical Being. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013.


Yes, of course I’m listening to Brian Eno as I type this, while the morning’s coffee slowly dilutes within my bloodstream and the spring sunlight beckons me to go where my pollen-clogged nostrils don’t want, a little bit of outside already inside me. In Ambient Rhetoric, Thomas Rickert wants to draw our attention to the ways in which the surrounding world, the material ecology of our embedded existence, not only informs or situates rhetorical acts, but is constitutive of suasion as a fundamental affectability that “is lived in the attunements that illuminate our being-together-in-the-world” (15). As such, he aims to undo the familiar subject/object binary in favor of a more primordial and choric ontology that, following Heidegger and others, articulates being as inexorably tied to place and dispersed in dwelling, wherein rhetoric would be interested in “not just inventional places, then, but the invention of the places (from the myriad loci) from which invention will be realized” (67). “Rhetoric emerges from our being-in-the-world,” explains Rickert, “as a response to the way the world attunes and speaks us, but a response that allows for new forms of revealing that transform, at least potentially, how we are in relation to the world” (189). Such a concept subverts the traditional humanistic view of rhetoric that underscores an intentional, conscious subject attempting to intervene in and influence a pre-existing situation; “rhetoricity cannot be rendered as solely the result of human doing” Rickert argues (216), emphasizing our ontological weddedness to the world at large, in which humans dwell, and in dwelling, are. Such a mode of being is neither passive nor necessarily provincial, however, for Rickert’s “dwelling is rhetorical in an ambient sense: disclosure and attunement emerge out of a worldly affectability, so that dwelling’s coming to manifestation is a matter of ongoing differentiation” (248), allowing the world to move being as beings move (by being) the world, in ways both known and mysterious.

One further thing worth noting, however, is how frequently Rickert’s examples—Earthrise, a Schwarzwald cabin, an idyllic Canadian island—are rather inert; even Eno’s music is based largely on loops and ephemeral clips. This is thought-provoking, at least insofar as Heidegger’s work, whatever its development, never abandons a focus on temporality: It’s Being and Time, after all, not Being and Topos, Sein und Zeit, not Sein und Site. In his conclusion, to some degree Rickert acknowledges and addresses this limitation, noting “that a commitment to place is not a static, isolating proposition. It is a recognition that movement, activity, and building are what disclose and create a place” (273), making it “important to balance an attendance to what is present with an attendance to what withdraws and to what the future brings so that we are open to whatever further disclosive possibilities may become manifest,” whatever further places may appear together in the same spot” (280). Taking this call, how might we begin to consider temporality as a part of ambiance, specifically considering Heidegger’s notion of time. not as a series of nows but as a unity of past-present-future? How does a sense of time affect a sense of space—let alone spacetime—which becomes the condition of possibility for rhetoricity in its choric dimension? A possibly fruitful direction might be to compare the painfully deferred resolution of Tristan und Isolde‘s opening chord to Eno’s short burst, and the way in which an ambiance of anticipation and desire emerges from the resulting lack in the former.

This post is one entry in an ongoing annotated bibliography of my bookshelf. If it’s useful to any person other than myself, all the better.