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Boyle, Casey. Rhetoric and/as Posthuman Practice. CE, July 2016. Posted 08/06/2016.

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Boyle, Casey. “Writing and Rhetoric and/as Posthuman Practice.” College English 78.6 (2016): 532-54. Print.

Casey Boyle examines the Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing, issued by the Council of Writing Program Administrators, the National Council of Teachers of English, and the National Writing Project, in light of its recommendation that writing instruction encourage the development of “habits of mind” that result in enhanced learning.

Boyle focuses especially on the Framework‘s attention to “metacognition,” which he finds to be largely related to “reflection” (533). In Boyle’s view, when writing studies locates reflection at the center of writing pedagogy, as he argues it does, the field endorses a set of “bad habits” that he relates to a humanist mindset (533). Boyle proposes instead a view of writing and writing pedagogy that is “ecological” and “posthuman” (538). Taking up Kristine Johnson’s claim that the Framework opens the door to a revitalization of “ancient rhetorical training.” Boyle challenges the equation of such training with a central mission of social and political critique (534).

Boyle recounts a history of writing pedagogy beginning with “current-traditional rhetoric” as described by Sharon Crowley and others as the repetitive practice of form (535). Rejection of this pedagogy resulted in a shift toward rhetorical and writing education as a means of engaging students with their social and political surroundings. Boyle terms this focus “current-critical rhetoric” (536). Its primary aim, he argues, is to increase an individual’s agency in that person’s dealings with his or her cultural milieu, enhancing the individual’s role as a citizen in a democratic polity (536).

Boyle critiques current-critical rhetoric, both in its approach to the self and in its insistence on the importance of reflection as a route to critical awareness, for its determination to value the individual’s agency over the object, which is viewed as separate from the acting self (547). Boyle cites Peter Sloterdijk’s view that the humanist sense of a writing self manifests itself in the “epistle or the letter to a friend” that demonstrates the existence of a coherent identity represented by the text (537). Boyle further locates a humanist approach in the “reflective letter assignments” that ask students to demonstrate their individual agency in choosing among many options as they engage in rhetorical situations (537).

To develop the concept of the “ecological orientation” (538) that is consistent with a posthumanist mindset, Boyle explores a range of iterations of posthumanism, which he stresses is not be understood as “after the human” (539). Rather, quoting N. Katherine Hayles, Boyle characterizes posthumanism as “the end of a certain conception of the human” (qtd. in Boyle 539). Central posthumanism is the idea of human practices as one component of a “mangled assemblage” of interactions among both human and nonhuman entities (541) in which separation of subject and object become impossible. In this view, “rhetorical training” would become “an orchestration of ecological relations” (539), in which practices within a complex of technologies and environments, some of them not consciously summoned, would emerge from the relations and shape future practices and relations.

Boyle characterizes this understanding of practice as a relation of “betweenness among what was previously considered the human and the nonhuman” (540; emphasis in original). He applies Andrew Pickering’s metaphor of practice as a “reciprocal tuning of people and things” (541). In such an orientation, “[t]heory is a practice” that “is continuous with and not separate from the mediation of material ecologies” (542). Practice becomes an “ongoing tuning” (542) that functions as a “way of becoming” (Robert Yagelski, qtd. in Boyle 538; emphasis in original).

In Boyle’s view, the Framework points toward this ecological orientation in stressing the habit of “openness” to “new ways of being” (qtd. in Boyle 541). In addition, the Framework envisions students “writing in multiple environments” (543; emphasis in Boyle). Seen in a posthuman light, such multiple exposures redirect writers from the development of critical awareness to, in Pickering’s formulation, knowledge understood as a “sensitivity” to the interactions of ecological components in which actors both human and nonhuman are reciprocally generative of new forms and understandings (542). Quoting Isabelle Stengers, Boyle argues that “an ecology of practices does not have any ambition to describe things ‘as they are’ . . . but as they may become” (qtd. in Boyle 541).

In Boyle’s formulation, agency becomes “capacity,” which is developed through repeated practice that then “accumulates prior experience” to construct a “database of experience” that establishes the habits we draw on to engage productively with future environments (545). Such an accumulation comes to encompass, in the words of Collin Brooke, “all of the ‘available means'” (qtd. in Boyle 549), not all of them visible to conscious reflection, (544) through which we can affect and be affected by ongoing relations in rhetorical situations.

Boyle embodies such practice in the figure of the archivist “whose chief task is to generate an abundance of relations” rather than that of the letter writer (550), thus expanding options for being in the world. Boyle emphasizes that the use of practice in this way is “serial” in that each reiteration is both “continuous” and “distinct,” with the components of the series “a part of, but also apart from, any linear logic that might be imposed” (547): “Practice is the repetitive production of difference” (547). Practice also becomes an ethics that does not seek to impose moral strictures (548) but rather to enlarge and enable “perception” and “sensitivities” (546) that coalesce, in the words of Rosi Braidotti, in a “pragmatic task of self-transformation through humble experimentation” (qtd. in Boyle 539).

Boyle connects these endeavors to rhetoric’s historical allegiance to repetition through sharing “common notions” (Giles Deleuze, qtd. in Boyle 550). Persuasion, he writes, “occurs . . . not as much through rational appeals to claims but through an exercise of material and discursive forms” (550), that is, through relations enlarged by habits of practice.

Related to this departure from conscious rational analysis is Boyle’s proposed posthuman recuperation of “metacognition,” which he states has generally been perceived to involve analysis from a “distance or remove from an object to which one looks” (551). In Boyle’s view, metacognition can be understood more productively through a secondary meaning that connotes “after” and “among” (551). Similarly, rhetoric operates not in the particular perception arising from a situated moments but “in between” the individual moment and the sensitivities acquired from experience in a broader context (550; emphasis original):

[R]hetoric, by attending more closely to practice and its nonconscious and nonreflective activity, reframes itself by considering its operations as exercises within a more expansive body of relations than can be reduced to any individual human. (552).

Such a sensibility, for Boyle, should refigure writing instruction, transforming it into “a practice that enacts a self” (537) in an ecological relation to that self’s world.


Author: vanderso

I'm a recently retired associate professor of English in Southern Indiana. I've been teaching writing for twenty-five years, but I feel I have much to learn about how people really learn to write. In this blog, I'll be sharing research and thoughts and hopefully gathering information from others about the process of learning to write.

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