A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Systems Rhetoric: A Dynamic Coupling of Explanation and Description

Julie Jung, Illinois State University

Enculturation: http://www.enculturation.net/systems-rhetoric (Published: April 7, 2014)

In Feminism without Borders, Chandra Talpade Mohanty critiques “Western” feminist scholars’ tendency to explain gender oppression via a monolithic notion of sexual difference.1 When posited as explanations for women’s subordination, concepts entailed with a universalized understanding of gender oppression, such as patriarchy, presume a kind of stability that ignores the ways in which concepts mean differently in different contexts. It is through such deployments, Mohanty continues, that Western feminists both colonize and fail to recognize the complex “cultural and historical practices” constitutive of diverse women’s experiences in the “Third World” (34).2 Theorizing the relationship between explanation and description, Bruno Latour similarly explains why research into the social that begins with an explanatory framework is dangerous: “As soon as a site is placed ‘into a framework,’” he argues, “everything becomes rational much too fast and explanations begin to flow much too freely” (Reassembling 137). Indeed, explanation is antithetical to Latour’s actor-network theory (ANT), since to begin with an explanation prior to tracing a network’s actors—to begin a study of gender oppression, for example, by asserting patriarchy as its cause—is to stabilize through explanation the very thing ANT seeks to describe: the unpredictable processes of association that take place between human and nonhuman elements (“Technology” 130).

This same concern—that existing explanatory frameworks exclude too much—is manifested in rhetoric and composition’s renewed interest in methodology as a subject of scholarly inquiry.3 For scholars doing work in feminist rhetoric, the exclusionary effects of dominant explanatory frameworks are particularly problematic, given our explicit commitment to producing scholarship that recognizes that which has been silenced, dismissed, and ignored. Thus, for example, rather than “create a new system for research, scholarship, and practice in the field,” a system that could then be applied to explain feminist literacy practices, Jacqueline Jones Royster and Gesa Kirsch aim instead to “to bring visibility and animation to what teachers and scholars are currently doing” (17). By identifying patterns across their observations of diverse kinds of practices, Royster and Kirsch resist imposing a top-down definition of what counts as feminist rhetoric; instead, they work from the bottom up, offering descriptions of actual practices that in turn challenge what we currently understand feminist rhetoric to be.

As a rhetorician who has been very much influenced by the work of the aforementioned scholars, I support projects that sponsor productive revisions to dominant theories for purposes of identifying what those theories exclude. It is in this spirit, then, that I consider here the problems of privileging description in ways that discount the presence and influence of explanation. Specifically, I seek to make apparent how the field’s turn toward methodologies of description risks making invisible issues of epistemological accountability, an elision that downplays the importance of asking questions such as: why do I tend toward descriptive method X rather than method Y, and how might this tendency be yoked to an explanatory paradigm that allows me to avoid noticing my own privilege?4 For posthumanists, of course, answers to such questions that locate the origin of agentic responsibility solely within the individual human scholar acting intentionally are no longer sufficient. Yet, as I will discuss, answers that attribute agentic responsibility to systems, and thus posit epistemological accountability as a matter of retroactive response (we respond to the emergent properties of systems of which we are but one part), are also insufficient, for such an approach fails to consider how a given scholar becomes a part of one system and not another and, further, how ideological and social constraints, actualized both symbolically and materially, have a hand in shaping such processes of becoming.

To arrive at a different, more sufficient understanding of agentic responsibility in the intellectual space of posthumanism, I begin by proposing a methodology I term systems rhetoric. Simply put (for now), a system is a whole composed of parts. Systems rhetoric translates systems science theory into the register of rhetoric by conceptualizing explanations as systems constituted by the descriptions that sustain them. For my purposes here, I apply systems rhetoric to demonstrate the value of sustaining in relation multiple explanations of rhetorical agency. To borrow a maxim from complexity science, description at only one level of scale is insufficient. Accordingly, I want to show how different versions of systems science theory sponsor different descriptions of rhetorical agency, each one of which is doubly useful: [1] each offers a different way of thinking about how the concept of agency is and can be used; and [2] each sponsors a specific kind of critique that makes a new way of talking about agency possible.5 Tracking the emergence of various articulations of rhetorical agency in this way enables me to illuminate the process of conceptual interrelation through which a new posthumanist understanding of agentic responsibility—one that accounts for the influence of ideology and relations of power between human beings—becomes possible.6

A Methodology of Conceptual Interrelation
Systems rhetoric as I theorize it does not import systems science for purposes of naturalizing social relations.7 Rather, it is a methodology that attempts to make apparent how a theoretical explanation accrues persuasive force through its articulation with its constitutive parts—the descriptions that sustain it. Systems rhetoric juxtaposes different descriptions of a phenomenon (here, that phenomenon is rhetorical agency) that are coupled with particular versions of an explanation (here, it’s systems science) for purposes of foregrounding the relational contingency of theory-power itself: every theoretical explanation focuses attention on a particular phenomenon to the exclusion of others, and this focus generates certain descriptions that shore up the validity of the sponsoring theory by making the phenomenon worth noticing in the first place. This dynamic coupling of explanation and description manifests what systems theorists J. Scott Jordan and Marcelo Ghin term self-sustaining recursive reciprocity: “the micro-level work [description] gives rise to . . . the macro-level whole [explanation] which, synergistically, provides a sustained context in which the micro-level work can continue” (50).

In the context of systems rhetoric, the recursive reciprocity afforded by explanation-description couplings emphasizes that descriptions do not originate in observations of action. Rather, descriptions become possible when a phenomenon is recognized as being worth noticing, and, further, explanation is the condition of possibility for recognitions of worth. In other words, descriptions become possible precisely because they are dynamically coupled with explanation in two ways: [1] an explanation recognizes as valuable a phenomenon described in a certain way; [2] an explanation always fails to recognize how that phenomenon might be described otherwise. So, for example, a humanist theory of agency, which describes observations of human beings acting intentionally, will simultaneously and inevitably fail to produce descriptions of agency as something else. It is precisely because a theory of humanist agency fails to explain what happens in facilitated communication, for example—wherein the production of action exceeds the autonomous intentional human agent—that a different way of describing agency becomes recognizable as both possible and necessary.8 Every theoretical explanation thus introduces the conditions for its own revision.

The value of systems rhetoric as a methodology is that it exposes the underbelly of an ascendant explanatory theory by making apparent how it is neither a discrete element nor a closed system. It does so by tracking how, within a specific intellectual landscape (e.g., debates about rhetorical agency), a given concept’s conditions of possibility are inextricably connected to the perceptual limitations of another. Indeed, an explanation that fails to describe a phenomenon in a certain way will itself function as a description in a new explanation about that same phenomenon. Thus, for example, systems rhetoric makes apparent how a posthumanist theory of agency is indebted to descriptions of what humanist agency fails to see. This is so because, as Kellie Sharp-Hoskins argues, the very concepts that make a given scholarly project possible also impose a perspectival boundary, since every conceptual selection necessarily excludes others. Because they erect boundaries, conceptual selections give rise to dwelling places, intellectual spaces in which our work can occur. However, precisely because they erect boundaries, conceptual selections exclude viable alternatives, thereby incurring what Sharp-Hoskins terms “rhetorical debts.” Such debts are inevitable, she continues, since “it is not possible to proffer rhetorical work without incurring [them]: rhetorical debt is the condition of possibility for rhetorical work” (182).

Applying Sharp-Hoskins’ lexicon, systems rhetoric seeks to describe the persuasive appeal of an ascendant theory in terms of the rhetorical debts it owes to that which it excludes. In this way, systems rhetoric attributes a given theory’s explanatory power not only to the descriptions that sustain it and with which it is directly coupled, but also to those descriptions a given theory refuses to admit. Accordingly, systems rhetoric cautions against dismissals of seemingly passé theoretical models by making apparent how, for example, the humanist subject excluded from a posthumanist theory of agency is a conceptual selection that, in giving rise to a different kind of dwelling place, makes other kinds of rhetorical work possible.9

Systems rhetoric can thus be described as a posthumanist methodology: it attributes the rhetorical appeal of a given theory to something other than an explanatory strength inherent to the theory itself, and it locates the conditions of possibility for important intellectual insight in excess of an individual human scholar’s capacity to recognize intellectual work worth doing. As such, methods for doing systems rhetoric cannot be limited to mapping a given scholar’s citational practices, or her/his broader webs of influence, for such methods simply reposition intellectual agency as something a given scholar possesses. Furthermore, as a methodology that tracks conceptual interrelation, systems rhetoric recognizes that the conditions of possibility for intellectual insight exceed intentional human action and thus cannot be adequately accounted for by, for example, descriptions of collaborative authorship or researcher-participant reciprocity. Instead, doing systems rhetoric involves tracking how conceptual interrelations in the form of explanation-description couplings generate emergent perspectives that recognize other couplings as both possible and important. Finally, because it conceptualizes descriptions as always already materially inflected (given that a body must be present to perceive that which it describes), systems rhetoric couples language with materiality in ways that do not subordinate one to the other.

My goal in the remainder of this article is not to describe accurately a diverse body of scholarship broadly labeled “systems science theory.” Instead, the versions I describe in this article—Newtonianism, First-order, Complexity Science, Second-order, and New Materialism—are conceptual selections designed to serve my purposes. Each offers a scientifically supported theory that explains how things happen and by whom—or what. Put differently, each assigns value by focusing attention on the relationship between agency, causality, and responsibility.

My selected examples for illustrating the affordances of systems rhetoric are situated primarily in pedagogical spaces, given the ways in which issues of rhetorical agency come to the fore in the context of teacher-student relations. Such a focus highlights systems rhetoric’s indebtedness to existing scholarship that theorizes writing (and thus complicates theories of agency) via theories of systems, including early groundbreaking work (Coe; Cooper, “Ecology”; Syverson) as well as more recent uptakes (Cooper, “Rhetorical”; Dobrin; Dobrin, Rice, and Vastola; Hawk, Counter-History; Roderick). My descriptions of relations between human subjects in pedagogical spaces, for example, emerge from what is excluded in systems-based scholarship seeking to shift the field’s “intellectual focus” away from “(writing) subjects and the teaching and management of those subjects” and toward the study of writing itself (Dobrin 7). These same descriptions, however, are directly coupled with Jessica Yood’s recent “reality check” targeted to scholars who, in focusing on theories of systems, fail to admit for scrutiny the human interactions through which such theories are produced, tested, and revised. Any systems theory, Yood argues, is an emergent property of a system that includes the messy exchange of ideas between human beings. To ignore this element is to suggest that “ideas just happen,” which in turn renders insignificant their “means of intellectual attainment.” By highlighting the importance of coupled interactions between human ideas in the production of intellectual work, and by conceptualizing intellectual agency as a phenomenon that exceeds the autonomous human scholar, systems rhetoric enacts, and thus lends persuasive force to, Yood’s “ecologically oriented” model of scholarship.

What follows, then, are my selections of different systems theories arranged in such a way as to bring into relief how one theory’s perspectival constraints can function as conditions of possibility for its revision. 

In response to the motivating question, “How do things happen?” Newtonianism confidentlyexplains:“I make things happen.” Here matter is discrete and moves in predictable ways when force is applied by an external agent in charge. Newtonianism thus posits a description of agency as the unidirectional exertion of intentional force. Both autonomous and deterministic, Newtonian agency is aligned with linear causality: change is predictable because any change in input will produce a proportional change in output. So, for example, if a rhetor intends X, Newtonianism predicts that X will affect the rhetor’s audience as intended. In the scene of the classroom, by way of example, Newtonianism posits student learning as a direct and proportional effect of one’s intentional actions as teacher.

Newtonianism is thus the condition of possibility for noticing actions undertaken by discrete actors deserving of praise or blame, as well as those needing to be empowered or held accountable. As such, a Newtonian theory of agency is a rhetorically effective selection if, for example, one is developing a teaching awards portfolio in which she must describe how she has made students learn. It’s also the theory that legitimizes policy making such as No Child Left Behind, since Newtonian agency reduces the complexities of teaching and learning to a simple issue of changing the quality of input: if one teaches better, one’s students will learn better.

And yet, of course, as teachers we know effective teaching is not unidirectional, that, in fact, we rely on our students’ input to rethink what we teach, why, and how. Accordingly, what Newtonian agency fails to notice because it cannot explain—that is, the phenomenon it makes worthy of description—is the plural I, the collaborative and interdependent nature of human agency.

First-order Systems Theory
First-order systems theory excludes (and is thus indebted to) Newtonianisms’s autonomous and deterministic agent, replacing it with the less predictable “we” of interdependent action. Broadly speaking, first-order systems theory (sometimes called “early cybernetics” and typically associated with mathematical modeling and information processing) focuses on developing efficient actions for purposes of restoring equilibrium and stability. A system with no single controlling agent is guided by a feedback loop, through which actual output is measured against desired output, and changes are made to correct for any discrepancy between them (see Clarke and Hansen 2-6). First-order systems theory thus answers the question, “How do things happen?” by asserting, “We make things happen.” On this view, agency is distributed among participating elements, and causality is circular: when, for example, a rhetor’s intention misses the mark, he revises future attempts to communicate based on his audience’s feedback (see fig 1).

In the space of the classroom, a first-order explanation for teaching and learning notices and makes worth describing how we as teachers listen to our students in order to improve. So, for example, while I might have intended to teach X, I realize after evaluating my students’ work that they didn’t learn what I intended, an insight that directs how I will revise my lesson plan in order to do better next time.
Fig. 1

In short, a first-order theory of agency makes it possible to notice and describe situations that challenge theories of autonomous agency, acknowledge possible relations of influence, or demonstrate one’s commitment to learn and grow through reflection. First-order systems theory also fails to explain—and thus makes worthy of notice—how that which happens is more complicated than human beings acting with conscious intention.10

Beyond First-order
Beyond first-order, systems theory does not posit that I or we cause things to happen; rather, it argues that things happen, and systems theory tries to understand how. And indeed, one of the things that happens is the agent herself, recognized here as an effect rather than the origin of action. This, then, marks a crucial shift away from trying to control complexity—and the attendant focus on intentional human agents—to trying to understand how complex phenomena happen.

From Complexity Science to New Materialism
Unlike the first-order goal of achieving equilibrium and stability, complexity scientists examine how disequilibrium generates stability through self-organized adaptations. Indeed, in complex systems, order requires flux. As biochemist and complexity theorist Stuart Kauffman explains in the context of living cells, spontaneous order emerges out of the chaotic “flux of matter and energy” characteristic of “complex metabolic whirlpools” termed (by Ilya Prigogine) dissipative structures (21).11 A diversity of elements continuously interacts and, under the right conditions, “‘catch[es] fire’ [and] achieve[s] catalytic closure” (114)—interactions among elements yield end-products that bring about their continued interaction. According to Kauffman, this catalytic closure, which marks the emergence of self-organization, occurs naturally, leading him to describe it as “order for free” (71). Paradoxically, this critical threshold of optimal conditions, this entry point to stability, is also a bifurcation point, where many possibilities for system formation are possible but only one is chosen, and it is impossible to predict which one it will be. Crucially, self-organization occurs absent any external agent in charge: elements interacting on a local level generate systems that have emergent properties, wherein wholes cannot be reduced to the sum of their parts. This is why descriptions of complex systems at one level of scale are insufficient: a complex system cannot be understood by reducing it to its component parts, since it’s the interaction among parts and not the sum of their individual properties that produces macrolevel behaviors attributable to the system as a whole. To begin to understand a complex system, then, one needs to generate descriptions of localized interaction occurring at different levels within the system.

Not surprisingly, complexity science responds to the questions, “How do things happen?” and “How do my students learn?” with, “It’s complicated.” What happens is more complicated than multiple human agents intending to make something happen, since happenings are emergent properties of complex systems. Concepts such as feedback and revision thus require more robust theorization, for they can no longer be explained in terms of the difference between intention and effect. Agency, now disarticulated from conscious intention, is described in terms of localized interaction, and it is coupled with the concept of nonlinear causality: it is impossible to accurately predict what will happen because there is no proportional relationship between input and output. Complexity science thus asserts that although I can spend months developing what I think is a great graduate seminar, I cannot predict how my students will respond to it. Further, complexity science argues that my students learn for a whole bunch of reasons and in ways I can neither predict nor completely discern.

A complexity theory of agency is an effective selection for teachers who want to describe effective teaching in terms of adapting to the unpredictable macrolevel behaviors generated by students’ localized interactions, which is very different from teaching as if one is the agent in change; those who want to describe assessment as needing to occur at multiple levels of scale (e.g., holistically graded semester portfolios); or those who want to describe syllabi recycling as a legitimate course development strategy, since time is irreversible and everything will be different the next time around anyway.

Although theirs isn’t a specific critique of complexity science, scholars doing work in new materialist theory have taken it up and extended it in important ways. Specifically, they enmesh complexity and cultural theories in order to bring politics to the table. While it is a diverse body of scholarship whose contours are still being defined, in general new materialism

track[s] the complex circuits at work whereby discursive and material forms are inextricable yet irreducible. . . . The material realm is not reducible to culture or discourse. . . . For critical materialists, society is simultaneously materially real and socially constructed: our material lives are always culturally mediated, but they are not only cultural. (Coole and Frost 27)

A new materialist blending of cultural and complexity theories is evident in Jane Bennett’s discussion of the “agency of assemblages” (36), wherein she combines Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of assemblage—“a connected collection of animate and inanimate bodies, actions and passions, and enunciations and statements constantly in motion” (Hawk, “Reassembling” 78)—with the key term of complexity science, emergence:

The effects generated by an assemblage are . . . emergent properties, emergent in that their ability to make something happen . . . is distinct from the sum of the vital force of each materiality considered alone. . . . [A]n assemblage is never a stolid block but an open-ended collective, a “non-totalizable sum.” (24)

Bennett couples an agency of assemblage with William Connelly’s concept of emergent causality, which he describes as a “mode in which new forces can trigger patterns of self-organization in a thing, species, system, or being, sometimes allowing something new to emerge from the swirl of back and forth between them” (179-80). On this view, what happens is both non-deterministic and contingent. As such, explanations of agency based on the linear logic of cause-effect no longer make sense. As Byron Hawk explains, in an assemblage “objects combine with many elements in the environment to create conditions of possibility that enable potential futures, not necessary ones.” A posthumanist public rhetoric, then, would not attempt to find solutions to problems; rather, it would focus on “the articulation or assemblage of the conditions for the emergence of solutions”(“Reassembling” 83, 90; emphasis added).

In the scholarship discussed above, Kauffman’s footprint is clear. And given new materialists’ concerns with political issues, it makes sense that agency’s corollary concept—responsibility—would come to the fore in their scholarship. What is responsibility, what constitutes ethical action, if agency is an effect of assemblage? This is a question Marilyn Cooper explicitly takes up in “Rhetorical Agency as Emergent and Enacted.” Working to develop a theory of agency that supports the aims of deliberative democracy, Cooper draws on a range of systems theorists, including Kauffman, to yoke responsibility to embodiment: “By virtue of [our] embodiment,” Cooper explains, we as agents “exist in interaction with the surround” and our agency emerges from that interaction (440). Despite the influence of the surround, much of which is enacted nonconsciously, Cooper nevertheless argues that “we need to hold ourselves and others responsible for what we do” (437). She develops this point further through a critique of Carolyn R. Miller’s theory of agency, which describes agency as a kinetic force that cannot be attributed to an individual human body: “[D]eeds are always done by someone, and replacing the doer of the action, the agent, with some amorphous force like kinetic energy leaves us with no basis for assigning responsibility for actions” (438). For Cooper, then, agency is emergent, but responsibility for the exercise of that agency belongs solely to the individual human body that acts.12 While Cooper’s handling of complexity science is deft, I find Bennett’s discussion of responsibility in relation to agency more in line with the complexity science upon which both she and Cooper rely. “In emphasizing the ensemble nature of action and the interconnections between persons and things,” Bennett argues, “individuals [are] simply incapable of bearing full responsibility for their effects.” However, while an agency of assemblage does “attenuate the blame game,” she continues, it does not “thereby abandon the project of identifying (what Arendt called) the sources of harmful effects. To the contrary, such a notion broadens the range of places to look for sources” (37).

Bennett’s version of new materialist agency would be an effective selection for those who want to notice how humans, nonhumans, and matter interact to produce effects beyond the intentions of the humans involved; or if, following Bennett, they want to “broaden the range of places to look for sources” of harmful effects (37). This version of agency, then, would be an effective selection if, for example, one wants to describe students’ failure to learn as something other than a problem to be blamed on underprepared students, disinvested teachers, or flawed school policies. Instead, following Hawk, the situation of students’ failure to learn would be described as a radically inclusive material assemblage in which interactions among people, objects, feelings, and signs allow new solutions to emerge.

In emphasizing the unpredictable possibilities afforded by the flow of assemblages, new materialist engagements with complexity science offer a way to think about agency as an emergent effect of interaction rather than a quality that human beings (and only human beings) possess prior to it. It is the assemblage that acts, and it does so in excess of intentional human action. However, this excess does not obviate the necessity for human beings to think intentionally about the assemblages of which they are a part. Pondering what constitutes ethical action in a complex world, Bennett observes: “Perhaps the ethical responsibility of an individual now resides in one’s response to the assemblages in which one finds oneself participating” (37). While I certainly find value in thinking about human agency in terms of thoughtful and ethical response, I am concerned that Bennett’s conceptualization of agentic responsibility does not take into account the conditions by which certain interactions become possible in the first place. Specifically, her phrasing, which highlights the unpredictability and, in some ways, the passivity of emergent situatedness, downplays how dominant ideology prevents (though, of course, not consciously) some bodies from being included in assemblages where that dominance might be challenged. Why is it, I wonder, that some bodies don’t seem to be flowing in certain ways? To answer this question, I need a different route to new materialism, one that excludes—and is thus indebted to—the constant motion of assemblagic agency.

From Second-order Systems Theory to New Materialism
Like complexity scientists, second-order systems theorists try to understand complexity, not control it. While much of second-order systems theory focuses on biological systems, I am more interested in how it’s been taken up in social theory, which leads me to sociologist Niklas Luhmann and his emphasis on observation.

That we live in a world of overwhelming complexity is a given in Luhmann’s theory of social systems, but this is not cause for despair. Rather, Luhmann argues that it is this very chaos that impels selection, or what N. Katherine Hayles describes as “mak[ing] a cut”: observers make cuts that reduce complexity by differentiating this here from that out there, that noise (“Making” 137). This here is the system, constituted by a selection of relations that in turn qualifies elements as belonging to it, and that out there—that everything else—is the system’s environment. Importantly, system elements qualify as elements only to the extent that “they are viewed relationally, and thus refer back to each other” (Luhmann 21). Thus, elements become elements only through their participation in a relation that constitutes them. Systems are therefore always contingent, since relations could have been selected otherwise.13 System sustainment depends on a system’s ability to observe itself as itself, which necessitates an observable boundary that regulates the system-environment difference (Luhmann 17, 33).

So, an observer makes a cut, a contingent selection of relations, that both constitutes the elements belonging to the system—of which the observer is one—and creates a boundary that separates system from environment and regulates the difference between them. Luhmann describes the observation of difference as an “ordering perspective”: “systems are selected not as a bunch of objects,” he writes, “but as ordering perspectives from which a relationship between system and environment is accessible” (136). What compels selection, then, is the impetus to reduce complexity such that a particular version of the system-environment difference can be observed.

To reduce the complexity of this discussion somewhat, consider what a pedagogy system might look like. Using Luhmann’s theory, one cut would result in a pedagogy system that selects particular relations that constitute elements such as “teacher,” “student,” “learning,” and “writing,” a selection that in turn constructs particular understandings of what teachers, students, etc. are. Through this ordering perspective, the overwhelming complexity of pedagogy is reduced to something more manageable; indeed, it is just such a reduction that helps teachers accomplish our day-to-day teaching tasks, for it enables us to focus on doing the work of teaching without having to make conscious distinctions about who we are as teachers, what we do, with whom, and why. Revising this system would require a different cut; it would mean observing a different distinction between what pedagogy is and what it isn’t, which would require a re-conceptualizing of the relations between and meanings of elements like teachers, students, learning, and writing.

In terms of agency, in a second-order pedagogy system teachers and students don’t influence each other through feedback loops as mutually affectable but distinct elements (as in first-order agency); rather, in a second-order pedagogy system teachers and students constitute each other through a boundary that makes observable distinctions between what pedagogy is and what it is not. Put differently, if I’m going to continue observing myself as the teacher I am, both my students and I will need to continue identifying with the same pedagogy system, a cut that was probably made long before any of us entered this particular room, and, further, our continued belonging will be contingent upon whether we are hailed by the same version of relation constitutive of teacher and student.14 This is why a Luhmann-based version of agency might be best described as enmeshed. I could use adjectives like intersubjective or consubstantial, but I want to retain the connotation of dysfunction: no clear sense of boundaries can be a problem. On this view, my observations of student learning, for example, are about me wanting to see myself participating in a particular kind of teacher-student relation.

Second-order agency is an effective selection if one wants to notice how she helps sustain the systems of which she is a part; how boundaries assert agency by maintaining system stability in contexts of ongoing change; or how one’s reality is self-referential in nature: what “is” is what—through the work of distinction—one observes it to be. Most important for me, though, given my desire to travel a different path to new materialist scholarship, is the way in which a second-order theory of agency fails to explain why certain observations are possible and desirable, why others aren’t, and how asymmetrical relations of power influence such distinctions.

To do this work, I look now at how new materialist theory conceptualizes observation as part of an intrasensory system of perception that exceeds a discrete biological model of human perception. How, it asks, are certain kinds of observations, certain selections of difference, even possible? To answer this question, I turn to Sara Ahmed’s theory of perception and its attendant concept of orientation. Briefly, Ahmed theorizes acts of perception as histories of enmeshment between objects and perceivers. “[T]he history of ‘what appears,’” she asserts, “[is] a dynamic history of things being moved around” (“Orientations” 243); she is specifically interested in the conditions that make perceptual emergence possible, in terms of both the object as well as “the act of perceiving the object, which depends on the arrival of the body that perceives” (“Orientations” 240). The arrival of this perceiving body she conceptualizes in terms of orientations—starting points from which “the world unfolds” (“Orientations” 237). According to Ahmed, our history of repeated interactions with objects that occupy the spaces we inhabit orients us to similar kinds of spaces, and our habituated contact with certain objects in said spaces makes those objects matter to us. So, for example, my daily repeated interaction with the coffee pot orients me to kitchens upon waking up—both in my own home and the homes of others—and has made coffee pots, and coffee beans, objects that matter very much to me.

Furthermore, our histories of orientation—once sedimented as embodied habits—affect the spaces toward which our bodies tend and the things we notice in them. “Some objects,” Ahmed explains, “do not even become objects of perception since the body does not move toward them: they are ‘beyond the horizon’ of the body, out of reach” (“Orientations” 245). Perception is thus both anticipatory and normalizing (Connolly 187): we anticipate moving toward certain kinds of spaces and engaging in predictable ways with particular objects in those spaces, and when we do perceive them and interact with them in ways we anticipate, both these objects’ presence and our ways of interacting with them are normalized: those objects belong there in that space interacting with me in this way. This means, then, that the formation of new relations of mattering requires disruptions in our “conventional habits of perception” (Connolly 191): we must develop new embodied habits by engaging in repeated kinds of actions with objects in different kinds of spaces.

With these insights in mind, I return to my previously discussed second-order observation of traditional pedagogy—which, as you recall, selects particular conceptualizations of the relations between “teacher,” “students,” “learning,” and “writing,” and thus leads me to certain understandings of what teachers and students are. Ahmed’s new materialist perspective lends complexity to this observation by inducing me to theorize the observation itself as both an effect and a reproduction of sedimented object-perceiver enmeshments. The observation, and the system it selects, emerge from particular histories of interaction between pedagogical objects, both my own histories of interaction and those I’ve inherited, and these histories of contact orient me to occupy some spaces over others, to regard some objects but not others as belonging in those spaces, and to recognize some objects but not others as objects that matter. To observe pedagogy differently, I must disrupt normalized habits of perception, a revisionary process that begins with my willingness to interact repeatedly with objects occupying different kinds of spaces.15

In principle this seems easy enough. Yet in her most recent book, Ahmed restates the suspiciously easy-to-forget aphorism that the act of inhabiting certain spaces is easier for some bodies than others, since being perceived as belonging and mattering in some spaces requires that one “go with the flow” while in them. To be unable to do so, or to refuse to do so—to point out, for example, the ways in which we are not, in fact, “over” the kinds of institutional injustices identity politics lays bare, or that the rhetoric of “diversity” with its “promise of inclusion can be the concealment and thus extension of exclusion” (On 183)—is to be perceived as going against the flow. Transformative diversity work, Ahmed argues, involves the hard, fatiguing labor of pushing against crowds moving in the opposite direction, of obstructing flow. Such labor is transformative because it disruptshow people typically inhabit institutional spaces. The orientation to engage in such work, this unfolding of a new world, begins, she continues, with feeling as if you have hit a brick wall:

When you don’t quite inhabit the norms, or you aim to transform them, you notice them as you come up against them. The wall is what we come up against: the sedimentation of history into a barrier that is solid and tangible in the present, a barrier to change as well as to the mobility of some, a barrier that remains invisible to those who can flow into the spaces created by institutions. (On 175)

Obstruction, then—both the feeling of it and the feeling of being it—has revisionary potential, for obstruction brings into relief the ways in which a politics of perception and the relations of mattering that it authorizes reproduce normative privilege.

Significantly, with Ahmed the concept of intention, which disappeared beyond first-order, returns here, but in revised form: now human intention is conceptualized as an ideologically inflected embodied tendency to act. Bodies whose histories of mattering orient them toward the intellectual space of identity politics, for example—a space in which working intentionally to contest normative privilege matters very much indeed—will thus likely tend toward explanations that both notice and value descriptions of agency understood as intentional human action. Such a tendency, Ahmed tells us, will recede from view with the sedimentation of habituated action. What we might call an agency of obstruction emerges when previously unperceivable tendencies become observable and contestable through actions that obstruct the force of normative habit, such as when, for example, bodies oriented toward the intellectual space of posthumanism describe phenomena such that they cannot be explained only in terms of intentional human action—a tendency that is itself obstructed when other bodies feel the force of institutional barriers such that they cannot be described in terms of generic humans interacting with other kinds of objects on a level playing field.

Accordingly, Ahmed’s new materialism is an effective selection if one wants to notice how and why elements within systems (collectives, assemblages, ecologies, networks, webs, etc.) can be blocked as well as flow: not everything is circulating, because not everything can.

Rhetoric and composition’s renewed interest in methodologies that describe actions and practices bespeaks a need to address how our existing explanatory frameworks have excluded too much: what we know is keeping us from recognizing and understanding what is. This temporary decoupling of description from explanation sponsors an important and timely shift in orientation. But actions and practices are about movement, and sometimes we need a blockage in flow so that we can make apparent that which has gone unperceived. While explanation-description couplings are contingent, they and the scholars that select them are at least partly responsible for the effects they produce.

This article seeks to make apparent how a decoupling of description from explanation can elide such responsibility, for such a decoupling suggests that descriptions can be proffered in the absence of explanation. But descriptions emerge in particular ways for different reasons. Perceptual emergence, Ahmed argues—of both an object and the body that perceives it—is a function of our repeated interactions with objects that occupy the spaces toward which our bodies tend. A specific object, then—like a theory—matters to us in part because our histories of orientation make it matter. And we tend toward spaces that harbor such objects because we ourselves have been able to belong there, have mattered there. As such, when we decouple description from explanation, we render invisible a history of relations of perceptual and spatial mattering. We fail to consider, for example, how an explanation—a theory object—makes a description not only noticeable but worth noticing. We fail to consider how some bodies arrive at and belong in spaces where certain kinds of theory matter. We fail to imagine how the world unfolds for bodies unlike our own. And finally, to close by way of this article’s ostensible subject: we fail to ask why some bodies occupying the intellectual space of rhetoric and composition might be oriented toward a theory of agency understood as intentional human action, and why it’s possible for other bodies occupying that same space to be oriented otherwise.


1 I wish to thank anonymous Enculturation reviewers and colleague Chris Mays for their careful readings and incisive critiques of an earlier version of this article. I am also grateful to members of the Composition and Rhetoric community at Miami University for their thought-inducing responses to a much breezier articulation of this argument.

2 I use scare quotes around the terms Western and Third World to draw attention to Mohanty’s critique of how they normalize Western feminism (see 18-19). For Mohanty’s analysis of her own use of these terms, see 227-28.

3 See, for example, CCC’s special issue on research methodologies (Yancey) as well as Nickoson and Sheridan; Schell and Rawson.

4 In their application of ANT to a study of technologies that allow parents to observe their premature babies in a neonatal ward, Oudshoorn et al. speak to this concern: “The emphasis of actor-network theory upon the symmetry between humans and nonhumans tends to obscure asymmetries between human actors” (103).

5 I am grateful to my colleague Angela M. Haas for making me aware of how my focus on systems theories informed by Western science excludes other systems theories, such as that articulated by indigenous activist Winona LaDuke in All Our Relations. While my desire to resituate systems science in the register of rhetoric necessitates that I exclude for now other kinds of systems theory, I acknowledge my indebtedness to these theories and my obligation to re-observe my current argument through the different explanatory frameworks they provide.

6 Although I focus in this article on rhetorical agency, my application of systems rhetoric is meant to model how the methodology can motivate appropriately complex inquiry into other kinds of complex phenomena as well. Understood as a theoretical project, systems rhetoric attempts to recast systems science as rhetorical theory.

7 For arguments against using Science to explain social relations, see, for example, Haraway; Hayles, How 50-83.

8 Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson describes facilitated communication, “a process whereby a trained and caring learning partner . . . provides emotional and physical support for a person who does not speak” (160), in order to theorize a posthumanist agency manifested in what she terms mediated rhetoric, where “language [is] used for the benefit of the disabled person [and] is (co)constructed” with the facilitator, thereby “operat[ing] across the boundary of self and other” (161, 162).

9 For an example of the sort of intellectual exchange that systems rhetoric would aim to reframe, see Lundberg and Gunn’s response to Geisler.

10 For a discussion of the limitations of Thomas Kent’s “human-centered dialogic model” of communication (82), which from my perspective resembles a first-order theory of agency through which a posthumanist model can emerge, see Hawk, “Reassembling” 76-77.

11 Although a review of the literature connecting complexity theory to research in rhetoric and composition, particularly as it is taken up in relation to Mark C. Taylor’s The Moment of Complexity, is beyond the scope of this article, noteworthy contributions include Dobrin, Rice, and Vastola’s Beyond Postprocess, Hawk’s Counter-History, and a special issue of JAC (Complexity). Given the field’s extensive engagement with Taylor’s Moment, I opt to focus instead on the work of two less frequently discussed complexity theorists, Stuart Kauffman and Niklas Luhmann, both of whom Taylor cites. For a historically situated account of the emergence of complexity as a theory, see Yood.

12 As further support for this claim, consider the following excerpt, in which Cooper discusses the relationship between agency and responsibility in the context of her analysis of a speech delivered by President Obama:

Though Obama did have assistance from his speechwriter in composing this speech, I still argue that Obama is the sole rhetor and the agent of its composition and delivery because he had final authority over the text and is held solely responsible for whatever the speech says. The speechwriter, Jonathan Favreau, is also an agent, but his action is like that of an editor who assists in shaping the meanings in the speech; he is not the source of the meanings. (445-46 n12; emphasis added)

That Obama, like all human beings, is himself a “self-organizing system” (436) interacting with the surround does not change the fact that for Cooper the individually embodied Obama is solely responsible for the speech’s meaning.

13 But cuts don’t come from nowhere, as Hayles explains: “[A] system looms not as an inevitability, but rather emerges as a historically specific construction that always could have been other than what it is, had the accidents of history been other than what they were” (“Making” 160-61).

14 For an excellent example of how teachers and students can fail to be hailed by the same version of relation, see Yoon.

15 I read Riedner and Mahoney’s Democracies to Come as an effort to do just this: they attempt to re-observe “pedagogy” by advocating that teachers engage in the actions of social protest with students and community members outside the space of the classroom.

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