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Ambience and Rhetoric Go Walking Hand-in-Hand

Thomas Rickert, a Professor of English at Purdue University. Image hosetd on website for Purdue University.

Thomas Rickert, a Professor of English at Purdue University. Image hosted on website for Purdue University.

Welcome to the final section of reading notes for the Spring 2014 semester. The focus in on Thomas Rickert‘s book, Ambient Rhetoric.

So what exactly is ambient rhetoric? How is this different from classical rhetoric? Or the remapping of rhetoric done by the creators of CHAT? What does attunement have to do with theories of networks and networks of theories? Why does Rickert unleash this new theory about a very old subject? What does this have to do with the bandwagon of other theories trailing like Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs in the Forest of Theories?

How my brain feels when looking back on all the theories my classmates and I have dipped our academic toes in. Image hosted on the website Mashable.

How my brain feels when looking back on all the theories my classmates and I have dipped our academic toes in. Image of Hansel and Gretel hosted on the website Mashable.

According to Rickert, “Computer and telecommunications technologies are not only converging but also permeating the carpentry of the world, doing so in networks and technological infrastructures, houses, and buildings, manufactured goods, various sorts of content, and more. Information is not just externalized; it vitalizes our built environs and the objects therein, making them ‘smart,’ capable of action…We are entering an age of ambience, one in which boundaries between subject and object, human and nonhuman, and information and matter dissolve” (1). If the communications technologies are reshaping the “carpentry of the world,” it seems only right that our understanding of and perspective on rhetoric change also. We even get to include strains of Actor-Network-Theory, Ecology, and Castells’ Social Network Theory as we move through it and as the boundaries begin to blur actors together.

But what is ambience? Isn’t that just a type of music? Or readying the room to create the mood for a date? Well, yes but also more than that. Much more, actually. Ambience “refers to what is lying around, surrounding, encircling, encompassing, or environing. Labeling an environment ambient, then, at the very least picks out its surrounding, encompassing characteristics…ambience can mean the arrangement of accessories to support the primary effect of a work…It begins to convey more elusive qualities about a work, practice, or place. Often these are keyed to mood or some other form of affect” (Rickert 6). The example Rickert gives is the cave paintings of Lascaux and how the locations of the paintings within the cave had auditory purposes as well as visual. I found it fascinating when Rickert talks about how the paintings had been discovered quite a long time ago, but the understanding of what the paintings were for and what they meant happened more recently. It makes me wonder what changed in the flows of human knowledge that we can now better understand the purposes of paintings created thousands of years ago instead of simply seeing them as just paintings.


So if ambience deals with the environment and affordances of

[all the stuff]

[and more here too]

A conversation with the author himself, just to add more insight.

And so ends Theories of Networks reading notes.

Slow clap from Joffrey Baratheon. Image hosted on tumblr Game of Thrones Gifs.

Clapping from Joffrey Baratheon. Image hosted on tumblr Game of Thrones Gifs.


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

It Has Been a Long Semester, So I Leave My Final Reading Notes with This:

Reading Notes: Week 16

Connections to Quotes

Rickert claims that the focus on a rhetor’s intent as a key component of rhetorical theory allows “No leeway for accidental persuasion of for persuasion at odds with or in spite of intent or event the artistry of rhetorical work” (loc. 1125). This claim made me think of how often we unwittingly engage in accidental persuasion (especially when we aren’t fully attuned to the ambient space of the situation). For instance, I was unaware that my boss had told one of our consultants that work he had been doing for a project counted as his hours for the week (who ended up not working his typical shift). So, when I jokingly (passive-aggressively?) asked him if he was going to work his shift the following week, I expected him to laugh and say “yeah…” However, he freaked out and was persuaded that he had misunderstood my boss’s message rather than assuming it was a miscommunication between my boss and me. As Rickert explains, this reaction was the result of the ambient rhetoric rather than a rhetorical intent.

Additionally, this quote made me think of this episode of Kids in the Hall:

Another quote: “the realization that place and making are conjoined” (loc. 1303). It seems we’re seeing more and more evidence of this as there is a recent focus on designing spaces that encourage creativity and innovation (Google offices, educational spaces, etc.). Increasingly, “makerspaces” are popping up, further evidence that people are recognizing how space contributes to making. The prevalence of these spaces is obvious by looking at the Directory of Makerspace Locations.

Additional Resources

Interview with Thomas Rickert:

Transcript of another interview (the environment is intentional, but I prefer to read the transcript than watch them chat in a bar for an hour and twenty minutes):

Overview of embodied cognition:

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s definition and history of embodied cognition:

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s overview of Heidegger’s “being in the world”:


Rickert, T. (2013). Ambient rhetoric: The attunements of rhetorical being. Pittsburgh, PA: U of Pittsburgh Press. Kindle.

MindMap: Week 15


For my final mindmap, I had to abandon Popplet. I enlarged all of my nodes, printed the Popplet, and began color coding the lines. I think my biggest frustration was that I wanted color coded lines so that the connections were easier to trace (I also wanted to be able to multicolor the different nodes, but my mind cringed at the unsightly mess that would ensue).

Because last week I began organizing by distinguishing between human and nonhuman agency, that’s what I began with in revising my mindmap again. I removed the nodes that identified agency, though, so I didn’t really feel like I had a starting place, and so I just began drawing arbitrary lines between the many nodes that allowed for human or nonhuman agency.

The challenge of where to begin also plagued me as it came to my next two categories. By groupings and individuals, I meant “does the theory analyze based on groups or individuals”? I realized that the majority of the theories we’ve read this semester break analysis down according to groups rather than individuals. As Latour demonstrated, this is probably due to the challenges of trying to make any sort of statement based on one individual.

I also wanted to account for the theories that considered the potential multiple levels of networks (e.g. CHAT, Spinuzz), which I differentiate from theories that consider the multitude of aspects that form networks (e.g. Latour, Rickerts).

Next, I identified which theories considered systems as hierarchical and which considered them rhizomatic. I did identify starting places for these connections, namely with Deleuze and Guattari as the starting place for rhizomal structures and Althusser as the starting place for hierarchical structures. This is due to their explicit focus on these structures rather than their chronological appearance in either the class or the scholarship.

Finally, I drew connections between the approach used to analyze the networks: whether we begin externally and branch outwards or externally and dig in. I saw this as more than analyzing and individual or a group–instead, I saw the distinctions as a focus on analyzing activities or behaviors  vs. cultures and/or ideologies.

Basically, my revised mindmap is a collection of binaries, but the binaries are not necessarily consistent. There are parallels and oppositions for almost all of these theories. Revising the mindmap and seeing these connections and distinctions definitely helps me think through my Frankentheory a little more and how the ones I’ve chosen help fill in each other’s gaps.

Final Reading Notes: Rickert, Ambient Rhetoric, Hip Hop

I have had several discussions about ambience over the years. The reason being that before I came to English Studies, music was my life. We often discussed ambience in regards to which space would produce the best sound. It is easy for a violin to be drowned out without the right atmosphere. We used to […]

Coda: Rickert’s Wonderful World of Oz Meets Pocahontas

First, an aside: I couldn’t stop myself from thinking of this scene from The Wizard of Oz in an entirely new way. While it’s clearly made with the human worldview of home in mind, I began to think of the … Continue reading