Dustin Edwards, University of Central Florida
(Published October 4, 2017)
Over the last two decades, scholars have increasingly explored the significance of circulation for rhetorical theory, practice, and pedagogy.[i] Broadly understood, circulation describes how texts, objects, bodies, data, affects, and so on flow through time and space (see especially, Gries). While the scope of circulation research is nuanced and varied, circulation is often positioned as a concern for rhetorical delivery and as a condition belonging to the temporal logic of futurity. Circulation, understood through a delivery-futurity frame, shows that writing matters, that it has reach, and that it can travel and enter networks far beyond its point of origin. While this focus has been productive, I endeavor here to pay specific attention to how circulation informs rhetorical practice in other ways, and particularly how it may be considered through the canons of invention and memory. My aim here is not to disregard the importance of constructing texts to achieve circulatory success (however that may be defined). What I do want to do, though, is shift the conversation about circulation to include a broader range of rhetorical activity. Circulation is also about navigating and inventing from what’s already there, kairotically surfing and plucking from mobile archives to make anew. We write to circulate, but we also write with, from, and because of circulation.
In this article, I challenge the tendency to position circulation as an exclusive concern for delivery and instead frame it as a viable inventive resource for writers with diverse rhetorical goals. To do so, I first connect circulation more rigorously with the canons of memory and invention, framing circulation as a tactical field of encounter that necessitates navigation, adaptation, and reconfiguration. From here, I build a theoretical framework I call tactical rhetorics—what might otherwise be understood as the political art of “making do” (de Certeau) with dynamic and emergent flows of circulation. Through this frame, which is grounded in mêtis and its web of aligned concepts, I explore the inventive and kairotic dimensions of circulatory navigation, adaptation, and forging. Anchoring my discussion in a particular case, a video performance called “Feminists Read Mean Tweets,” I then pay close attention to how tactical rhetorics can perform political work through intervening in the public circulation of discourse and culture. I close by recapping what a tactical rhetorics approach offers for circulation studies.
Circulation Beyond Delivery
While scholars have noted that achieving widespread circulation requires one to be inventive (e.g., Gries; Ridolfo and DeVoss; Porter; Sheridan, Ridolfo, and Michel), such an understanding is different from what I’m pursuing here. The focus for these scholars deals more with the potential for circulation. Under this frame—what I call the delivery-futurity frame—when bringing circulation into the invention process, one would want to consider how the design, production, and distribution of writing might impact its circulatory potential. Invention here looks forward at circulation: How can I design my writing so that it may spread? How can I appeal to my audience to gain widespread circulation? How might I build participation into the design of my writing? When would be an appropriate and well-timed occasion to release my writing?
Renewed concerns for rhetorical delivery are highly relevant to such questions. As Laurie Gries notes, having “forethought about delivery” is important if rhetors want to “accelerate the spread” of their work (286). The notion of rhetorical velocity is another helpful partner in this regard, for it calls on rhetors to look “beyond the moment of delivery” and anticipate how their texts may achieve circulation (Sheridan, Ridolfo, and Michel 75; see also Ridolfo and DeVoss). In his theory of delivery, James Porter also considers how writers and designers might conceive of circulation as an issue related to the future uptake and life of textual objects. Porter asks, for example, how a document may have a “life of its own” once delivered (213). Gries understands this temporal dimension as “futurity,” which she defines as “the strands of time beyond the initial moment of production and delivery” (14). In such scholarship, delivery, futurity, and circulation begin to cluster together—held conjointly not in lockstep sequence, but in relational and interdependent affiliation. This clustering has opened up new lines of inquiry for theory, pedagogy, and research. Namely, a delivery-futurity focus allows writers to theorize how their texts may come to matter via a process of circulation.
Yet, circulation can also be theorized as already-in-motion fields from which rhetors can invent anew. To be sure, scholars working with delivery have considered circulation from an already-in-motion point of view. For example, Collin Gifford Brooke works to recalibrate delivery not as a “transitive, instrumental process of transmission,” but instead as performative, intransitive, and ongoing (177). Brooke’s model suggests our notions of how to deliver texts are already influenced by cultural, social, technological, and material conditions. We are delivered as much as we deliver. In an age of new media, Brooke argues we might benefit from seeing “discourse as circulating rather than something we circulate” (192). In addition to Brooke’s model of delivery, Ridolfo’s work with “textual diaspora” pushes the rhetorical possibilities of leveraging texts already in circulation further. Looking particularly at the circulation of Samaritan manuscripts, Ridolfo recognizes how “cultural stakeholders may theorize and strategically leverage their material in diaspora” (n.p.). Ridolfo’s body of work effectively opens up the canon of delivery—his theories of rhetorical velocity and textual diaspora respectively point to both transitive (to circulate) and intransitive (circulating) senses of delivery.
Other scholars make more stark divisions between circulation and delivery. Douglas Eyman, for example, argues circulation is “distinct from but effected by delivery” (n.p.). Eyman grounds his discussion in both economies and ecologies of circulation. Drawing on a Marxian notion of circulation, his interest lies in how the process of circulatory movement can increase value for objects as they move throughout rhetorical ecologies. Other scholars share a similar distinction between circulation and delivery. In her reworking of the rhetorical situation, Jenny Edbauer eschews the canon of delivery altogether, working instead from Michael Warner’s notion of reflexive circulation and Margaret Syverson’s conception of writing ecologies. Both concepts, Edbauer contends, help to describe the means by which rhetoric moves and changes as it encounters elements within social and cultural fields. In her turn to pedagogy, Edbauer recognizes how rhetoric and writing students might attune themselves to a capacious view of public circulation: it’s something both encountered and generated. Circulation is readily linked to delivery and futurity, but it also emerges as an already-in-motion discursive field.
As this work suggests, scholars don’t paint a monolithic view of circulation. Still, the delivery-futurity frame remains strongly etched into much of the scholarship that considers the role of circulation. It’s a common touchstone for many circulation scholars—even if the relationship is redefined, extended, or complicated. While I no doubt see such a focus as important for writers today, I simultaneously want to consider circulation as a tactical field from which rhetors can invent anew. To do so requires that I work to momentarily detach circulation from its common posture of futurity and position circulation through another of rhetoric’s canons: memory. It also requires that I find a rhetorical theory of invention that sees generative value in navigation, adaptability, and intervention. As such, in what follows, I trace scholarship on digital invention, particularly as it relates to navigating and adapting materials from digital archives. I specifically attempt to describe how recent excursions of choric invention, coupled with emerging work in media archeology on “archives in motion” (Parikka), are a useful grounding for my approach. Yet, because I wish to trace a more overtly political and cunning orientation to intervening in circulation, I supplement my discussion with another trajectory of invention: mêtis.
Invention, Memory, and Circulation
At its base, positioning circulation as a source for invention would seem a fairly conventional claim in invention studies. Since the social turn in rhetoric and composition, scholars have discussed the inherent social nature of meaning making (see, for example, LeFevre), understanding that all invention is made possible via a thick web of other (circulating) texts. In recent discussions, scholars have stressed the importance of following, traversing, and navigating circulating materials through work on the chora. While the chora resists easy definition, Marc Santos and Ella Browning describe choric invention as “prioritiz[ing] the unpredictable, affective elements of personal experience across particular places and times as central to the inventive process.” As Thomas Rickert reminds, choric invention attempts to break from rhetorical invention theories that are heavily indebted to mind/body dualisms. According to Rickert, “a choric rhetorician will attend to memory, networks, technologies, intuitions, and environments (places)” (267). Put otherwise, choric invention does not divorce a rhetor from her material environment, or the places and spaces she’s traversed. Rather, choric invention is attuned to moving through digital-material environments—spaces in motion—where rhetorical invention takes place.
For Rickert, such digital-material environments can be understood as forms of expanded and externalized memory. He writes, “The radical expansion and externalization of memory in cultural discourse, electronic networks, and databases creates an ocean of information, which in turn requires navigation” (268). Often depicted as a vestige of oral culture, memory (memoria) was a revered art, or technê, central to invention. Yet, for all of its utility in classical rhetoric, memory has become, until recently, something of a relic of rhetoric’s past. Similar to delivery, scholars have increasingly shown revived interest in memory. For instance, Collin Brooke reframes memory as practice by arguing that memory can be understood as “persistence.” For Brooke, persistence involves “retaining particular ideas, keywords, or concepts across multiple texts, be they websites, journal articles, or chapters of the same book” (157). But it also involves “forgetting,” for there is always an overabundant amount of information that one traverses. Brooke likens this act of “practicing” memory to an act of bricolage—taking bits of information from disparate sources to forward a new rhetorical object (157). Memory, in this case, is not as static as the word storage might imply; the rhetorical act of relying on and redeploying information from digital archives is, once again, a practice tied to invention.
While Brooke worked to reanimate the rhetorical act of practicing digital memory, others have endeavored to animate the digital archive itself. In Digital Memory and the Archive, for example, media archeologist Wolfgang Ernst explores how digital archives differ from the more traditional sense of an archive:
Although the traditional archive used to be a rather static memory, the notion of the archive in Internet communication tends to move the archive toward an economy of circulation: permanent transformations and updating. The so-called cyberspace is not primarily about memory as cultural record but rather about a performative form of memory as communication. [...] Repositories are no longer final destinations but turn into frequently accessed sites. Archives become cybernetic systems. The aesthetics of fixed order is being replaced by permanent reconfigurability. (99)
Though one can quibble with Ernst’s interpretation of “traditional archives”(especially the claim that such archives are static), his take forcefully describes both the immense mutability of and the increased access to digital archives. It also describes how digital archives are far from stable; they are in a constant state of change. As David Beer argues, digital archives are more like digital data flows—or, “infrastructures of participation” made possible by an “unbounded archive” that is subject to revision (60). Along related lines, Jussi Parikka describes digital archives not as static sites of storage but as dynamic “archives in motion” (120). Crucially, in addition to storing digital memories (photos, videos, notes, and so on), Parikka describes archives in motion as sources for production. According to Parikka, digital archives hold “appreciation of repositories as potentials for novel repurposing, remixing, and remediation” (134). As Parikka’s discussion suggests, archives in motion allow for materials of all kinds to be navigated and encountered—and thus redistributed or repurposed—by everyday writers.
To link circulation to digital memory is to grapple with the dynamics of archives in motion. Such archives—otherwise understood as moving data flows—impose the need for rhetorical navigation. From an invention standpoint, the chora, which places significance on traversing and navigating digital-material environments, is one rhetorical concept that may help explain how rhetors navigate and compose in already circulating environments. While choric invention is a useful starting place for connecting circulation with memory and invention, I turn to another concept, mêtis, to more fully develop a coherent frame of inventing from circulatory encounters.
The Semantic Web of Mêtis
Mêtis is often translated as wily, cunning, or adaptive intelligence. It is frequently described as being embodied in transient circumstances of conflict or struggle—or, as Marcel Detienne and Jean-Pierre Vernant put it, mêtis is activated in a “world of movement, of multiplicity and of ambiguity” (21, my emphasis). Mêtis, Detienne and Vernant note, is polymorphous from its very origins, referring to both a kind of informed intelligence, a way of knowing, and the Greek goddess Metis who, in Greek mythology, was swallowed by Zeus in an effort to procure her superior cunning. Both of these points, mêtis as a kind of intelligence and Metis as an embodied figure, help paint a clearer picture of the significance of mêtis. Put otherwise, bodies enact mêtis in always-in-motion material environments.
Although mêtis has made poor showings in rhetorical histories, it has recently experienced something of a revival. A range of scholars have discussed mêtis in relation to different projects—e.g., disability rhetoric (Dolmage), performative pedagogy (Kopelson), corporal rhetorics (Dolmage, “Metis”; Hawhee), posthuman and material rhetorics (Ballif; Rickert), and adaptable professional communication tactics (Johnson; Pope-Ruark). Many disparate projects find utility in mêtis because, as Detienne and Vernant note, mêtis appears within a “semantic web” of other concepts that, taken together, bring mêtis more fully into coherence. Some scholars pull out certain mêtic traits and leave others dormant, thus leading to a range of scholarly applications. I follow suit here, exploring how technê, kairos, and tuche relate to mêtis and, in doing so, I show how mêtis’s web of meanings can constitute a responsive rhetorical mode of encountering circulations.
A consistent, albeit contested, connection to mêtis appears in work on technê. Though typically defined as “art” or “craft,” many scholars define technê along different axes. Janet Atwill sees technê as an art of “intervention and invention” (48)—technê is that which “intervenes in an already existing procedure, method, or calculus of value,” which, in turn, allows one to transform “what is” to “what is possible” (70). Notably, Atwill argues that “the significance of technê often lies in the power of transformation that mêtis enables” (56). In other words, the art of rhetoric (as a technê) is made possible by mêtic intelligence. In Atwill’s schema, mêtis (a cunning and adaptable intelligence) brings forth a technê (a flexible and practical knowledge). Although the connection between mêtis and technê is a subject of much debate, following Atwill, I see the two as allied terms that work in concert.
Kairos and tuche are other related terms that inform mêtis. Both deal with temporality, though with subtle differences. Sheridan, Ridolfo, and Michel explain that kairos includes both “temporal and spatial dimensions” (6). In other words, while scholars typically use phrases like “the right moment” and the “right” or “appropriate” time to describe kairos, they also trace its meaning to the art of weaving or archery. For Sheridan, Ridolfo, and Michel, this second meaning helps to show how kairos is “the opening or gap that allows passage to a goal or desired destination” (6). In this way, many kairotic factors are out of the rhetor’s control. Tuche is often defined as chance or luck. Much like mêtis, tuche appeared as a Goddess in Greek myth; Tuche is a daughter of the sea and a sister of Metis (Detienne and Vernant). Jay Dolmage describes tuche as “luck, happenstance, metaphorized as the wind itself, calling for both navigation and artisanship” (Disability, 162). Tuche, then, is often paired with kairos. As Dolmage puts it, “kairos is also the idea of invention only within shifting contexts, only in the world of tuche—of the winds of chance” (Disability, 165). The line of thinking goes something like this: one applies mêtis to seize the moment (kairos) in a world of chance (tuche).
Taken together, technê, kairos, tuche, and mêtis describe a world in which people are able to adapt to changing and unpredictable fluxes. Dolmage perhaps puts it best, using a story of navigating and steering a ship in uncertain seas to illustrate how all of these concepts work in concert:
kairos requires mêtis, a way to be even more mobile, polymorphic, and cunning than the world itself. Like an experienced sailor, the person with mêtis perceives the world of tuche (swirling seas), harnesses kairos (a prevailing wind), and has the ingenuity required to think of cutting and building the tiller itself, to steer the ship instead of simply being blown around the sea. Further, the building of tillers as a form of folk knowledge and industry could be an example of utilizing mêtis to create a technê. (165)
Dolmage’s passage illustrates a world always in motion, a world where one works within what is given in inventive, agile, and adaptive ways.
To relate this to my earlier discussion of memory and invention in digital environments, scholars such as Ernst, Beer, Parikka, and Rickert consider how digital archives move in networked environments, participating in the making of a dynamic and mobile flow of discourse. Archives here are nowhere near static; they are in flux and always on the move. How does one manage—invent and compose out of—such externalized memories in motion?
One answer lies in mêtis. For Detienne and Vernant, the sea is the most “mobile, changeable, and polymorphic space” (222). Yet, time and again, they show how such a moving space can be negotiated and navigated via one’s metic orientation, their seizing of kairos, their adapting to tuche, their building of a technê. At risk of stretching this analogy too far, I want to consider how we might think of navigating circulation along similar lines. Like Dolmage’s articulation of the changing tides of the sea, Jenny Edbauer describes public rhetoric as “a circulating ecology of effects, enactments, and events” (8). And like Dolmage’s story of the sea, Edbauer’s notion of an ecology with circulating elements suggests that rhetors are always enmeshed in a material world and that their interventions in that world are made possible, constrained, and otherwise affected by moving elements. Rhetoric, as she puts it, is encountered. Mêtis is a way to tactically navigate and invent from flows, to adapt and repurpose materials as they are encountered.
Tactical Rhetorics: A Framework of Circulatory In(ter)vention
In The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau likens his notion of tactics to the “rhetorical tricks” of mêtis. Indeed, de Certeau’s tactics are largely synonymous with mêtis. They are the “tricks of the ‘weak’ within the order established by the ‘strong’” (40)—clever, resourceful, cunning, and necessarily in a position of defense. Responsive and temporal, tactics, de Certeau tells us, play on and with a terrain already imposed to “make do” with what’s given, resembling the “artisan-like inventiveness” of bricolage (xvii). Tactics are opposed to strategies: they work within—and against—already established systems of power.
Tactics also have a political edge to them. Consider, for example, the emergence of “tactical media” (e.g., Raley) and “tactical urbanism” (e.g., Watson) as modes of activism and political action. Whereas tactical urbanism emphasizes hacking public spaces, tactical media draws attention to clever (re)use of media technologies and distribution channels. In an early manifesto of tactical media, David Garcia and Geert Lovink explain how those practicing tactical media must cunningly use the available means of dominant culture to temporarily “revers[e]…the flow of power” (n.p.). This position, as Rita Raley notes in her book-length study of tactical media, is deeply rooted in Michel Foucault’s understanding of resistance. As Foucault writes in the History of Sexuality, “Where there is power, there is resistance, and yet, or rather consequently, this resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power” (95). For Foucault, as well as those practicing tactical media, “there is no single locus of great Refusal […]. Instead there is a plurality of resistances” (95-96). In other words, it is within systems and networks of power (behaviors, practices, discourses) where change is made possible through sporadic but ongoing instances of resistance, not revolution.
I argue that rhetoric, as tactical, as mêtis, conveys the kind of informed knowledge needed to navigate and intervene in circulation because it denotes inventive adaptability, appropriate timing, and a cunning ability to deal with conflict. I use tactical rhetorics as a kind of shorthand to represent a metic mode of invention and intervention, a generative framework for traversing and remixing circulatory encounters. The notion of intervention is important here. Within an already circulating ecology of materials, rhetorical intervention—the prospect of rerouting, changing, or challenging circulating discourse—becomes a crucial, yet undertheorized, practice in a digital age.
To illustrate tactical rhetorics in action, I relate the framework to a public video and performance called “Feminists Read Mean Tweets.” This video, produced and compiled by the independent media company Mic, imitated a playful circulatory meme to draw attention to a deadly serious issue. The video imitated the style of Jimmy Kimmel Live’s “Celebrities Read Mean Tweets” video series, where celebrities repeat messages that everyday people posted about them on Twitter. As celebrities read the short, sharp blasts about their appearances or perceived lack of talent, R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts” plays softly underneath their voices. The video series has since motivated a panoply of offshoots: college professors read mean tweets, female athletes read mean tweets, fraternity members read mean tweets, pornstars read mean tweets, you get the point. The video, in effect, has not only circulated at massive rates but also has become something of a rhetorical meme,[ii] spawning appropriative iterations from different social groups, each a little different in message but all resembling the style of Kimmel’s initial production.
Enter “Feminists Read Mean Tweets.” Modeling Kimmel’s initial circulating video, women who publically identify as feminist, including Soraya Chemaly, Emma Gray, Negin Farsad, Elizabeth Plank, Liz Winstead, and others, appropriate misogynistic words that have been directed at them in order to make an argument about the very real dangers women face in online spaces. Though still maintaining an irreverent tone, the messages each woman repeats are far from joyful. From comments of slut shaming to threats of death and rape, the video is a more serious statement than Kimmel’s initial production.
“Feminists Read Mean Tweets” offers something of a double logic of appropriation. On the one hand, those featured in the video appropriate Kimmel’s popular segment as a way to invent from and generate traction for their cause. On the other hand, they also appropriate already circulating messages directed at them to show violence, encouraging others to make similar reappropriative performances. As the video explains, “it’s so much easier to show people this exists than try to explain the climate of what it is. And I think it’s very important to allow these people to reveal who they are, rather than us having to explain it.” While an already-in-motion stream of discourse exists around the “Celebrities Read Mean Tweets” meme, this example steers against the current and pushes the conversation into a new, perhaps uncomfortable, direction. We see, then, that this video serves a larger purpose than achieving widespread circulation—it repurposes circulating messages to critique patriarchal values and offer support for other women facing similar forms of harassment in online spaces.
Tactical characteristics of navigation, adaptation, and forging can be seen in this example. Mêtic inventiveness privileges the ability to adapt to and invent from material situations as they unfold, where one’s mêtic intelligence is set into motion to navigate “whatever comes up” (Detienne and Vernant 44). It is understood that those involved in the composition of the video did not generate their argument from out of nowhere. The so-called “mean tweets” were encountered and saved for future reuse, as was the format of the already circulating Kimmel video. Indeed, much of the content for this video was already available. At one point, a woman featured in the video mentions her practice of saving screenshots of harassment, which she then re-presents on her social media feeds. Similarly, we can assume that others in the video are recalling mentions from already circulating Twitter exchanges or reading from their own records of archived vitriol. These circumstances—circulatory encounters—were put to new use, navigated and adapted with a clever sense of cunning.
Carolyn Miller evokes imagery of navigation and, more particularly, of hunting, when describing how mêtis relates to invention. Inventive thinking, when tied to mêtis, concerns the “epistemology of the hunt,” which includes those clever, resourceful, and inventive tactics that operate in a world of becoming (138). As she puts it, “hunters may know what they track or may unexpectedly discover new game, but they do not, presumably, create their quarry” (141). Grounding this language in terms of circulation, we can see how “hunting for novelty” takes place within an already mobile archive of circulating material. Tactical rhetors may not know what to expect, but they won’t be totally surprised either—they will track, follow, and intervene when necessary.
Tactical rhetorics also nods toward a bricoleur composing sensibility, a forging-together out of readymade materials. Claude Levi-Strauss notes the French word bricoleur is derived from the old verb bricoleur, which often concerned actions one would take in response to unforeseen movement. This older meaning was used to describe the world of sports, designating how a sportsperson would navigate and respond to a ball moving in an odd direction or the wind taking a sudden change in direction. In its newer sense, a noun, the definition of bricoleur evolved to mean a “handy-person”—those who use their hands to work with what is available, indeed, with what is “at hand.” Both meanings—responding to movement and using what’s at hand—are instructive for tactical rhetoricians. So, too, is Frank Farmer’s figure of the citizen bricoleur. For Farmer, the citizen bricoleur “is a title that is meant to enlarge our commonplace ideas as to who counts as a citizen and indeed what citizenship means for our time and place” (160). Included in this understanding is a broader range of discursive practices and cultural identities than “critical-rational debate” and “private citizen”: “punks, zinesters, anarchists, grrrls, and others who pitch camp on the outskirts of public esteem” (160). The citizen bricoleur practices a micro-politics of resistance, working within what’s given to “challenge orthodox” ways of doing and making.
As bricoleurs, those featured in the video “made do” with a circulating archive as a way to critique and challenge instances of abuse and the larger systemic nature of gendered harassment, forging an alternative vision of safety for women online by repurposing and altering circulating texts.[iii] As one person in the video notes, “I try to make lemonade out of lemons or comedy out of misogyny, and I’ll take screenshots of it and put it up on Twitter or put it up on Facebook.” Here, then, we see that a tactical rhetoric invents from what’s available—and often, as bricolage denotes, by piecing together bits and pieces of circulating material. Such a forging-together appears across the stories of mêtis. As Michelle Ballif mentions, in Greek myth the god and metalworker Hephaestus embodied an understanding of an artisan who forges new meanings out of given elements. Jay Dolmage argues Hephaestus’ connection with the crab has symbolic value: a “double and divergent” orientation that allowed him to move backward and forward to “harness fire and invent metallurgy” (121, “Breathe”). To recall Hephaestus (and Dolmage), the tactical rhetor moves like a crab when composing new work: looking backward and forward at the dynamic flows of circulation to forge new possibilities out of given elements.
A tactical orientation to circulation need not disregard delivery and futurity; indeed, it is attuned to seizing kairotic encounters. Debra Hawhee describes kairos as a conceptual tool to invent from forces of encounter, not a rhetorical mode of premeditation but a mode of response to what she describes as “rhetorical cuttings, interventional piercings of particular moments to produce discourse” (24). Connecting this understanding with the god Kairos, Hawhee describes the god’s stance in a particular visual depiction. “His excellent balancing skills are key,” she writes. “Kairos must remain in the middle, ever ready for a moment of intervention. The god thus illustrates what I would call a ‘rhetorical stance’; he is on his toes, prepared for action and attuned to the forces at work at a particular time. The god Kairos stands as a figure of in(ter)vention […]” (25). Hawhee’s argument breathes new light on an understanding of rhetorical stance: to seize a kairotic encounter, one must possess mêtis to appropriately intervene at the right moment. The rhetor must work from and with a force of encounter, “hooking-in,” as Hawhee argues, “to circulating discourses” (24). In other words, a rhetorical framework attuned to a broader understanding of circulation would not only pay attention to how one might create an object worthy of circulatory success, but also how one might effectively intervene in the flow of moving materials. This is a rhetorical stance of what Hawhee calls invention-in-the-middle, a key aspect of what I am calling tactical rhetorics.
As “Feminists Read Mean Tweets” illustrates, tactical rhetorics necessitates good and appropriate timing. The video was responsive, adapting already circulating materials to make an argument. As a collective, the participants in the video gathered their voices to show online harassment in a particular moment in time. In other words, this intervention did not occur on the fly; it was carefully planned, looking both backward and forward at circulation. This can be understood as both a tactical and strategic rhetorical process. Tactical, because it depends on items already present in a circulating field: it recycles genres and texts already in motion. Strategic, because it anticipates and makes possible its own circulation: it was uploaded to YouTube, composed with appropriate metatags, distributed on various social media platforms, and produced with a sense of audience participation (notably, the end of the video calls for viewers to “share [the video] with women you love to encourage them to speak up”).
Examining the release of “Feminists Read Mean Tweets” provides telling evidence that the intervention was initially distributed at a rhetorically savvy time. Released in 2014, amid the GamerGate controversy, the video spoke to a cultural climate wherein many women had experienced massive amounts of online harassment. Furthermore, as depicted in the video, a Pew Study released in the summer of 2014 described the staggering amount of women who had reported experiencing various forms of harassment online that year. In an online article that describes the “Mean Tweets” video, Elizabeth Plank explains that women who identify as feminists—and especially queer women, trans women, women of color, and fat women—are disproportionally targeted when it comes to instances of online hate. The video, in effect, is a response to the growing problem of abuse on platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.
The “Feminist Read Mean Tweets” composers acted quickly to release the video—not in an impulsive way, but in a studied and goal-directed way. Karen Kopelson argues that mêtis involves “mastery over” kairos, denoting an ability “not simply to seize the moment but to seize it with forethought, preparedness, and thus with foresight as to how the events should unfold” (130). While the video spread widely in 2014 and was featured in news outlets such as The Huffington Post and Buzzfeed, the video is now set to unlisted, a security feature on YouTube that allows only those with the direct link the ability to view the video. In other words, it’s not easily found through YouTube’s search. Such a delivery decision strikes me as quite deliberate, as many of the comments on the video direct further harassment towards both women in the video and feminists in broader publics. If the video was publicly available and searchable, it would likely run the risk of further misogynistic response and harassment. One needs only to search "feminist" on YouTube to understand how harassment intensifies when content is coded as explicitly feminist. Because three years have passed since the original release of “Feminists Read Mean Tweets,” those featured in the video may not have the time or emotional labor to respond to (or even read) new commentary. We might read this tactic as forward-looking approach to circulation, an attempt to limit further comments of violence by making considered decisions about how the video may circulate. While it would be easy to write off tactical rhetorics as purely opportunistic, playful tricks to win the day, those applying their mêtis often work in reflective, situated, and forward-looking ways.
The premise of the video, though playful, is designed to challenge oppressive conditions in public life. A tactical approach to circulatory intervention can be an especially resistant rhetorical practice in contexts of asymmetrical power; it can signal opposition, demonstrate conditions of oppression, and work to spark change. We see this at work in mêtis, which is often put to work in situations of conflict, giving so-called “weaker” opponents the opportunity “to turn the tables on those with greater bie (brute strength)” (Dolmage, “Metis” 9). Although strength here typically signifies physical might (i.e., having the bodily strength to overpower the other), rhetorical scholars have picked up mêtis as a concept to describe how those from historically marginalized social positions—women (Ballif), people with disabilities (Dolmage), those who are marked or identify as LGBTQ (Kopelson), and indigenous people (de Certeau; Powell), to name a few social groups—have outwitted the ones they oppose (or the ones who oppose them) by subversively “making do” with what’s available.
Indeed, as Detienne and Vernant note, mêtis, like sophistry, captures the ability to “turn an argument against the adversary who used it in the first place” (42). Thus, it is telling that Karen Kopelson’s discussion of mêtis turns to Judith Butler’s notion of resignification to talk about an opportunity for agency in metic encounters. Butler’s project, what she also refers to as a critical mimesis, “does not engage in the fantasy of transcending power altogether…[but instead works] within the hope and the practice of replaying power, of restaging it again and again in new and productive ways” (Olson and Worsham 741). As Butler argues, those from marginalized subject positions have historically enacted a sense of agency by recasting an original subordination into one of temporary empowerment. For example, in Excitable Speech, Butler shows how one, paradoxically, can perform agency through a process of radical resignification. Using hate speech as her exemplar, Butler writes, “the terms by which we are hailed are rarely ever the ones we choose […] but these terms we never really choose are the occasion for something we might still call agency, the repetition of an imaginary subordination for another purpose, one whose future is partly open” (38). In other words, by reusing a discursive utterance, by reiterating it for a new purpose, one can upset the original power of oppressive discourse and turn it into a moment of resistance.
Put otherwise, Butler’s work with resignification details a kind of agential opening. Despite not originally authoring discourse already in circulation, tactical rhetors can perform, at least temporarily, some sort of agency by redeploying, and thus reframing, dominant narratives, texts, and histories. It must be noted that such acts are not assimilatory. Audre Lorde’s argument that “the Master’s tools will never dismantle the Master’s house” perhaps rings a clear critique. However, as Kopelson notes, Butler’s radical resignifications, acts of critical mimeses, are “more than mere imitations or extensions of hegemonic authority” (124).
It could be argued that repetition—the redeploying of misogynistic tweets—isn’t doing much in the case of “Feminists Read Mean Tweets.” The women featured in the video are simply re-reading the inflammatory remarks already in circulation. Yet, in both the off-handed quips and the embodied performances—the raise of an eyebrow, the change of intonation in the voice, the pursed lip—this restaging, as Butler might put it, is not repeating for lack of a purpose: it’s repeating with a difference, and for a difference. As pointed to both in the video and in the YouTube description of the work, the women composing the video know this well. As one woman notes in the video, “my male coworkers absolutely don’t get the same sort of comments, and I think sometimes it’s actually eye-opening to see the kinds of things we [women] deal with on a daily basis.” Further, the video’s description reads: “While many have tried to describe what it’s like to be the target of constant, horrible abuse online, sometimes it’s easier to just show, not tell.” This showing—restaging what’s already there for another purpose—is an important tool of the tactical rhetor. It is an act of revealing that casts oppressive conditions into a new light.
We live in a world inundated with flows of information, a dense and dynamic archival sea filled with textual and material debris. As such, attention to delivery and futurity is just one part of today’s “hyper-circulatory condition of writing” (Dobrin 8). Tactical rhetorics shifts the frame of focus for the study and practice of rhetorical circulation. Not only do tactical rhetors keep their eye forward on futurity, imagining how a particular intervention might play out, but they also keep their eye on the backflow of circulation, adapting and forging anew from what’s already in motion. Indeed, writers find themselves ever in the middle of many circulations—both visible and invisible movements that impinge upon the work they may do. But out of these circulations, tactical rhetors make anew out of what’s given to craft identities, forge possibilities, and disturb boundaries.
By building a framework like tactical rhetorics, I don’t mean to suggest that the lived experiences of those using such intervention procedures are similar or even comparable. Rather, such a frame seeks to highlight mutable and shifting rhetorical practices that compose out of circulatory encounters. A tactical framework for circulation studies would especially emphasize the following:
- a mêtic invention sensibility, where rhetors hunt, track, and (re)claim found material already circulating;
- a kairotic mode of doing, where rhetors act, respond, and intervene in timely and appropriate ways;
- a bricoleur composing repertoire, where rhetors deploy rhetorical techniques of all kinds in their efforts to effectively “make do” with what’s available; and
- an ethical sense of purpose, where rhetors cunningly leverage and redeploy already circulating material in an effort to disturb and resist dominant regimes.
A tactical rhetorics approach compliments the rich line of scholarship on delivery and futurity, which would emphasize:
- a savvy understanding of redistribution mechanisms, practices, and economies, where rhetors make use of multiple channels of circulation depending on a desired outcome; and
- an appreciation of unpredictability, where rhetors understand that, once redistributed, circulating discourse can amass a rhetorical life of its own.
Before closing, I must acknowledge that the framework of tactical rhetorics is not without its problems. Composing out of circulation certainly poses obstacles in an age where copyright discourses and laws increasingly lock down potentials for textual re-use. We might turn to Martine Courant Rife’s work, among others, to grapple with the legalities involved in redeploying already existing work. Rife similarly draws on mêtis to describe the kind of cunning knowledge needed to respond to threats of chilled speech in networked environments. Of course, part of such response means knowing the basics of Fair Use, but it also involves probable thinking, contextual research, and flexible negotiation. Legal and cultural discourses regarding copyright and ownership are themselves always changing, especially in digital spaces, and so require inventive thinking.
In addition to legal issues, tactical rhetorics undoubtedly involves ethical concerns. Namely, tactics risk becoming institutionalized or coopted by oppressive forces. Exploring how de Certeau’s tactics can get coopted, Miles Kimball asks, “What happens when individual tactics become institutionalized into strategies for controlling discourse and events?” (6).[iv] While the “Feminists Read Mean Tweets” example featured rhetors from historically marginalized social positions, such cunning tactics can also be put to work by those who mean to further marginalize. In a similar respect, mêtis, with its ties to trickery (dolos technê) and cunning, may invoke, for some, negative connotations that rhetoric has been up against since its origins. Otherwise put, mêtis may paint rhetoric as disruptive and malicious tricks to win the day. However, the kind of mêtis I invoke here has an ethic—it is not disruptive trickery for its own sake, but what we might think of as being a trickster[v] with a cause.
Finally, it may seem odd to pair mêtis —a fully embodied rhetoric—with digital circulation, for the digital is often depicted as somehow disembodied and immaterial. But as we see in “Feminists Read Mean Tweets,” the women in the video are in many cases subject to harassment simply because of their embodied presences in online spaces. Yet, through this video performance they call attention to their embodied selves—draw on the power of their bodies—to confront online harassment and imagine more just social futures. To posit digital rhetoric as mêtis is to insist digital rhetoric is embodied and material. It is to insist digital rhetoric requires attention to one’s emplacement in the digital-material world. It is to insist practitioners of digital rhetoric must muster their embodied cunning to adapt to the dynamic flows of networked life. It is to insist intervening in the circulation of digital publics requires a mêtic orientation to the world.
[i] Circulation informs work in public writing and rhetorics (Edbauer; Hawk; Sheridan, Ridolfo, and Michel; Trimbur), civic and community rhetorics (Bradshaw; Ridolfo), ecological rhetorics (Dobrin; Mays; Rivers and Weber), digital rhetorics (Brooke; Eyman; Porter), visual rhetorics (Gries), transnational feminisms (Dingo; Queen), and affect theory (Chaput), to name a few.
[ii] Limor Shifman argues viral content should be understood differently from memes. For Shifman, virals denote a single unit that spreads at rapid rates, whereas a meme is “always a collection of texts” (56). In other words, a viral object transforms into a meme when many people appropriate, imitate, and alter the viral object for other uses.
[iii] Scholarship on remix is undoubtedly helpful in this regard (e.g., Johnson-Eilola and Selber; Dietel-McLaughlin; Dubisar and Palmeri), as such work explores how material already in circulation can be fodder for future compositions.
[iv] Kimball’s edited special issue on “Tactical Technical Communication” is an invaluable resource that I encountered late in the publication process. Of particular note is Jared Colton, Steve Holmes, and Josephine Walwema’s discussion of de Certeau’s tactics in light of social justice and ethics of care.
[v] See Malea Powell’s work with metis. Drawing on Joseph Bruchac, Powell notes metis is a Lakota word that refers “to a person of mixed blood” (8). Reading Bruchac’s story, Powell constructs a “mixed-blood rhetoric,” which is bound up in an understanding of the trickster. As Powell reminds, trickster figures have worked to reveal that which is difficult to see or grasp—conflicting ideologies, unjust social conditions, and otherwise different ways of being, acting, or doing.
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