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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:

Mindmap #14: Concept Groupings 2

Last week’s concept groupings focused on theories; this week’s focuses on theorists (although, to be honest, I’ve not been adding individual theorists for the last few theories). I also added and linked in Social Network, Ideological Determinism, and Ambience as the final three theories we’ve addressed in the class. I wanted to have the full picture of all theories/theorists before I finished concept groupings. And here are the results!

Mindmap visualization

The Entire Mindmap: Concept Groupings on the Left (Popplet)

End of Semester Conclusions

At long last, mapping is complete. What appears above is the final mindmap of theorists and theories as they exist in my head. Coming to the end of the experience, I’m reflecting on what I’ve learned about networks and network theories through this map.

Hierarchy vs. Rhizome: While a chronological mapping of theorists’ ideas might suggest primacy among certain theorists’ ideas — earlier theories are more influential than later theories, meaning later theories are built on the hierarchical foundation of earlier theories — the map reflects a far more rhizomatic relationship among theories. I’ve been as likely to connect theories based on chronological influence as conceptual influence, regardless of chronology. Foucault reflects certain ideas from Ambience as easily as Ambience reflects certain ideas from Foucault. The relationship among theories is conceptual, and concepts are eternal, always already existing (according to ambience theory).

Ambience, a Ring to Rule them All: Ambience is a fantastic closing theory because it sums up the direction theorists have taken throughout the semester. While ambience sometimes seems to present a certain level of mysticism, its focus a post-network ecological relationship among rhetors and rhetoric, audience and affect, environment and ideas acts as a contemporary summing up of all that we’ve read and reflected on all semester. And it also suggests an openness to what will come in network theory, a willingness to concede that we can’t possibly know, or even imagine, that which is withdrawn and hidden at this moment when it comes to network theories and understandings. I connected Ambience to every other theory in my mindmap.

RhetComp Got it Going On: We may be fractious and divided, but we rhetoric and composition teachers and scholars propose some cutting-edge theory (as English studies theories go, anyway). While we’ve not proposed string theory or chaos theory, we’ve willingly addressed the consequences and contributions of advanced scientific theories on rhetoric and composition. I drew as many lines to my Composition/Rhetoric node as to my other concepts; those lines represent theories that either directly or indirectly addressed rhetoric and/or composition, or theories that emerged from a rhetoric and composition background. We really do study all the things — and we like it that way!

The Order of Things: My minds races from idea to idea, drawing connections whenever possible. My internal dialog often seeks to organize the chaos. This has been reflected in my desire to tie things together in the mindmap in concrete shapes, especially columns and diamonds. Popplet affords such preferences when “snap to grid” is enabled — however, because I intended meaning to exist among placements in the map, I never opted to allow Popplet to put content in columns. I did that myself in several places. I struggled to keep the mindmap manageable; this last week, I struggled on my 24” monitor to see everything in the map in order to connect items on the outskirts. It’s time to let the mindmap rest.

Reflections: The Order of Things (above) is really about on-the-fly reflection and my unwillingness to allow ideas to remain chaotically (maybe rhizomatically) related for long. As a writer, I’m an editor on the fly. As a scholar, I’m a reflector in the fly. I seek to place concepts in relationship to one another as soon as possible. The danger, of course, is that by so quickly (and very un-ANT-like) categorizing theories, I overlook potential connections that I missed the first time around. This brings me to the value of the mindmap, sometimes hated though it was. A mindmap enables both node-level focus and network-level attention. I never quite escape the big picture. While I remain locally-focused when adding nodes, connecting nodes forces the shift to global view. This helps me tame the organizer in me.

A Final Thought: Like Dumbledore’s pensieve, the mindmap encourages objective reflection, a moment of god-like oversight. Truth be told, after our readings this semester, I’m beginning to believe that objectivity is false. In fact, I’m beginning to believe the subject/object binary is false and limiting. Which suggests that the mindmap might simply be my response to the already-always-existing relationships between already-always-existing theories. And my place is neither objective nor subjective, but ambient, connected to the mindmap and its ideas in an ecology of meaningful relations. I, too, have a place in the mindmap.