“Back (Again) to the Rough Ground: Rhetoric, Technical Communication and Mobility Studies”
Ehren Helmut Pflugfelder, Rhetoric and Composition/Technical Communication,
Purdue University, USA
What I hope to discuss in the next 20 minutes:
1. The relationship between mobility studies and rhetoric/technical communication/professional writing
2. My own project in negotiating the connections between the two
3. Detailing specific concepts that allow the two fields to talk to each other
Few scholars in either rhetoric or technical communication/professional writing have taken conceptions of mobility into account in their work. Among the small number of studies include Miles Kimball’s “Cars, Culture, and Technical Communication” (2006), Jason Swarts’ “Mobility and Composition: The Architecture of Coherence in Non-places” (2007), Jeff Rice’s “Urban Mappings: A Rhetoric of the Network” (2008), Rylish Moeller’s “ReWriting wi-fi: The surveillance of mobility and student agency” (2009), and an article I recently co-authored with Michael Salvo and Joshua Prenosil, “The Children of Aramis” (2010). This limited amount of research takes seriously movement as not simply a unique feature of discourse, but as an integral part of how rhetoric occurs. However, more often than not, when rhetoric scholars address mobility or transportation issues, they do so either metaphorically or because the site is convenient. That is, some scholars use mobility, movement, or transportation as a location or topic that allows other issues to emerge. Rhetorically informed studies have slighted the role of movement, though happily, I believe we appear to be better positioned to address mobility issues and have productive conversations with those in the social sciences now than at any time before.
My own research rests upon the assumption that one way to respond to problems surrounding transportation and mobility is through recognizing how all mobility technologies are inherently rhetorical. Basically, I try to answer the questions “how is transportation rhetorical” and “what might a rhetorical understanding of transportation mean for large technical projects, mobility studies, and the field of rhetoric?”
In the last year and a half, I have been focused on theorizing about and performing empirical research around a technical mobility project – the design and development of an autonomous, all-electric, personal transport vehicle (PTV) initially planned for a large-scale implementation at Purdue University called Electric Purdue on Demand (EPOD). Senior-level Mechanical Engineering students worked on the EPOD along with the EPOD Club, a group of undergraduate students (mostly in engineering-related fields), in order to have several prototypes completed for halftime events at the 2012 Super Bowl – an ambitious plan, to be sure. Even more ambitious was the project’s goal of implementing several hundred of these PTVs and the coordinating infrastructure by 2020. I assisted the EPOD project, at first as head of the Marketing & Logistics Working Group, and eventually as a consultant.
In getting back to my question, “how is transportation rhetorical?”, I am looking to understand how transportation itself is rhetorical – I am not especially interested in the discourse about transportation and its rhetorical features. My focus here is on locating how movement is involved in rhetoric and how rhetoric plays a role in regimes of human mobility. In this conception, rhetoric is not simply a layer of meaning applied to movement through material forms (like similar misunderstandings of design or style), but always part of how the material “speaks.” In these locations, rhetoric happens through movement and always includes movement. For rhetoric, this attention to movement, mobility, and materiality could focus on a number of practical concerns such as composition through mobile phones, representations of mobility in writing, travel writing, concerns over agency in mobile networks, metaphors of mobility, etc. The research I offer here explains how rhetoric can illuminate both what is at stake in our continued pursuit of mobility technologies and how the field of rhetoric can tackle large-scale technological projects. From interfaces, to logistics, to the production of technical projects, and the use of transportation systems, technical communication, seen through a rhetorical lens can suggest strategies for the implementation of mobility technologies. Further, I try to suggest how rhetoric can tackle the material, not just the linguistic or the semiotic – something the field has struggled with for some time.
I thought that at this point it might be useful to offer a definition of rhetoric. I generally start with Aristotle’s definition, if only because I tend to rely on Aristotle a lot in my work.
“the ability, in each particular case, to see the available means of persuasion”
Rhetoric is generally understood as a method for producing and analyzing language (at least historically limited to language), but we’ve recently been busy recognizing the application of rhetoric to visual arts and visual analysis and even more recently as material production and analysis (which is what I largely attend to here).
Key to this research is an understanding of Aristotle that does not see him, as so many others have, as a rhetorician dismissive of rhetoric’s scope. Reading Aristotle as a phenomenologist, as Martin Heidegger does, helps us recognize that Aristotle was the first philosopher (and rhetorician) to take seriously the importance of motion. In Physics, Metaphysics, and Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle distinguishes between two types of motion, energeia and kinesis.
He explains that energeia is actualized movement which is perfect, that is, movement without limit, such as seeing, understanding, thinking, living well, and being happy. All of these movements include the end of the movement within the state of being that is the movement and all energeiaenergeia is movement with “no upper or lower limit to the time it may occupy, and that it is somehow equally and fully present throughout any such period” (Ackrill 148). In the movement of “living well,” one can be said to have “lived well” at any moment up to the present. For easy reference, I tend to consider energeia motion as more of a state of being than a series of physical movements in the world, though of course energeia can be associated with and be part of more dynamic movements. movements can be said to “have been” at the same time they “are.” For example, one can be said to have lived well even while one is living well. An
Distinct from energeia is kinesis, which is imperfect and includes movements with limits, such as learning, being cured, thinking, house building, etc.. Aristotle argues that kinesis motions cannot be said to have happened until they are complete. For example, one cannot be said to have built a house until the action of building a house is over – in other words, kinesis motions are typically defined through their manipulation of physical objects or movement among things in the world. I prefer to think of kinesis forms of movement as movement in the world that accompany states of being, though that have determinate steps or sequences of sub-action which determine the focus, length, and completeness of the entire action. For Aristotle, the distinction between energeia and kinesis does not lie in the specific kinds of movement that I have used as examples here, but in the essence of the movements themselves. The determining concern is not whether movement takes place among or with material forms, but whether or not movement has, as part of its own coherence, a limit with regard to time and space. Kinesis motions have a limit, while energeia motions do not (Ackrill 146).
Aristotle on walking. Tries to claim it’s a kinesis, but that doesn’t hold. Movements that are temporary, yet endemic to being are both.
1) as energeia, or movement within beings as they continuously take shape, such as the development of a posthuman identity
2) as kinesis, or movement in the formation of technical projects, such as the building of transportation devices
3) as mobility, or movement through space, such as the transportation of people and goods throughout the world.
At the heart of all interfaces, there exists some form of metaphor (HCI studies operates on this assumption, too). Why I’m interested in metaphor: all material interactions are designed around some form of metaphor, whether that metaphor is intentionally created or not, it exists. For example, desktops, trash cans, paper clips in email, tiny disk icons. Interfaces are deeply rhetorical, and not simply smaller, insignificant parts of a larger structured argument.
Aristotle’s definition of metaphor:
Rhetorical conceptions of metaphor have typically defined it as a trope and a figure of speech that, in the least developed understandings, embellishes language, and in the most developed, functions as a complex communicative act. In either case, nearly all theoretical analyses of metaphor begin by referencing Aristotle’s work and his definition in Poetics: “Metaphor consists in giving (epiphora) the thing a name that belongs to something else; the transference being either from genus to species, or from species to genus, or from species to species, or on grounds of analogy.”[i]taking the place of another word, or 2) one word adding information to another word, his perspective is more complex. However, Aristotle’s stance on metaphor is frequently misunderstood as 1) one word (and its related concept)
Focus on the word epiphora
The translation of epiphora is a bit of a puzzle when used in a definition for metaphor, and there are multiple versions that appear in published translations of Aristotle’s Poetics: “giving,” “movement,” “transfer(ence),” and “application,” though “application” is perhaps the most accurate of the lot.[ii] Each of these possible translations suggests a unique form of movement and offers us distinct ways to read the relationship between the two terms or things that are necessary for a metaphor. Instead of choosing one particular translation, it may be more accurate to recognize that epiphora is a somewhat vague action – a notion that seems more than plausible given modern scholars’ inconsistency. Epiphora describes the movement that occurs within a metaphor, though the specific nature of this movement (i.e., addition, replacement, transference) is unclear.
Interactionist view of metaphor
Just as tension is produced when two concepts are explained as one in a metaphor, it is the mix of the “ordinary” and the “strange” together—the attempts at resolving the tension now created—that produces meaning. Such an “interactionist” theory of metaphor acknowledges that whatever the movement that occurs to bring two onama together to interact, the result of their interaction (not necessarily their resolution) is meaning that has not existed previously.
Smart Gauge with EcoGuide dashboard interface. Located just behind the steering wheel, the “Smart Gauge with EcoGuide” featured two LCDs on either side of the speedometer.
The metaphor that Efficiency Leaves serve to enable is: “more leaves are more efficient driving,” which is certainly a metaphor that traffics on the assumption that both the color green and images of plant life are enthymematic for environmental responsibility. Of course leaves and ecological driving habits are not the same thing, so the tension produced by this logical impossibility creates new knowledge that a particular approach to driving will better the environment.
energeia is always difficult to pinpoint, one possible form might be that in tending to our crop of Efficiency Leaves, we believe that energy-efficient driving techniques actually produce positive environmental results – not “living well,” but “driving well”
the kinesis that results from this understanding is likely to be a range of driving techniques, such as a light touch on the accelerator, use of cruise control, and long, slow braking zones (more energy efficient for vehicles equipped with regenerative braking).Logistics:
Greek references to logistikos
We might be surprised to learn, too, that Plato offers a definition of logistikos in Gorgias, hidden in plain sight in one of the most studied Socratic dialogues. In the dialogue, Socrates asks Gorgias what his art is, and Gorgias replies that it his art is rhetoric and that he is able to make others into rhetoricians, because rhetoric is teachable. Gorgias admits that rhetoric does not treat all kinds of discourse, yet explains that rhetoric allows men to be able to understand about which they speak. In a well-known section of the dialogue, Gorgias explains that rhetoric has discourse as its main content, while the other arts have as their content the production of something through external action or something worked by hand. Socrates elaborates that, of course, the other arts are “for the most part of making things and that call for little speech,” as their work occurs in silence.[iii] He argues that in painting or statuary, for example, artists may have no reason to speak, so we very well might call these other arts “silent” arts. Rhetoric, Socrates suggests, is an art like arithmetic, calculation, geometry, or draughts (a game like checkers) in that they all require a language, or what we might call a symbolic system, as an integral part. These arts “perform their whole task by means of speeches and that call for practically no physical work besides, or very little of it” in order to be completed – but yet they are not silent, so we might call them the “language arts.”[iv] Logistikos is here defined by Socrates’ character as “one of those arts that exercise their influence entirely by speech” which “differs from arithmetic insofar as computation examines the quantity of odd and even, both in relation to themselves and in relation to each other.”[v] Gorgias agrees to all of this, and most importantly, also agrees with Socrates when he argues that these other arts – arithmetic, calculation, geometry and the like – are not rhetoric.
Unfortunately for us, Aristotle does not use the term logistikos often – only a handful of times throughout the corpus of his work. In book one of Rhetoric (chap 10, sec 7), book eight of Eudemian Ethics (1246b), and in several places in Virtues and Vices (1249a, 1249b, 1250a
In Nichomachean Ethics, he suggests that the soul has two parts, the rational logos (λόγος) and the irrational alogos (ἄλογος), and of the rational part, we have two faculties, scientific epistemikos (επιστεμικος) and calculative logistikos. Explaining that “since calculation is the same as deliberation, and deliberation is never exercised about things that are invariable,” Aristotle basically argues that logistikos, or “the Calculative Faculty” deals with variable objects in the world and is a separate part of the rational half of the soul.”[vi] In Aristotle’s understanding, logistikos is an art, but also a human faculty that is never divorced from the variable situations, contexts, and worlds in which it is a part.
Logistics as the art of establishing and recognizing trajectories through interfaces
Logistics is not a “silent” art, as Plato’s Socrates suggested about statuary, nor is it an art that only speaks through language, but an art that requires a language for some forms of expression and not for others.
Lack of cohesive, compelling delivery: early electric vehicles
In the early part of the 20th century, there were three main strategies of automobile development and coordination, and these strategies centered upon different assumptions: fossil fuel internal combustion, external combustion steam, and battery-electric. Each of the design methodologies for these propulsion types relied in part upon vastly different constellations of actants – not only for their creation and composition, but also for their sustained use as a public technology. Internal combustion vehicles brought into action gasoline stations, hand cranks, hydrometers, and gearboxes; steam focused on clean water, burnable fuel, and flash steam boilers; electric cars energized central charging stations (which provided electricity to municipalities), exchangeable storage batteries, and charging plugs. All motorized vehicles worked in coordination with drivers, pedestrians, roads surfaces, existing horse and train transport, etc. While popular histories of the automobile tend to suggest that internal combustion became the dominant propulsion network simply because it provided drivers with a larger range of operation, in the early years of the twentieth century, each logistic of technological mobility could lay claim to local success.
For example, in the 1900 census, citizens registered 1,681 steam, 1,575 electric, and only 936 gasoline vehicles. And while gasoline-powered autonomous transport would shortly emerge as a dominant system, individual geographic locations showed preference for different interface networks. In 1900, 65% of registered vehicles in Chicago were electric, in 1902, 88% of Portland, Maine’s vehicles were steam-powered, and in 1904, 61% of Cleveland’s automobile-owning residents favored gasoline cars.[vii] Different urban locales enabled different technes to flourish, if even only for a short time.
Users were not simply electing to opt-into one interface or another, but different networks of coordinated interfaces, each with its own suggested trajectories. Though many automobile historians will point to the storage battery’s limited range as the determining drawback to early electric vehicles, in reality, “we use energy in the system context.”[viii] Instead of blaming an actant in a complex network (the battery), we can instead determine that the logistics of the early electric vehicle – the co-ordination of interface networks – was apparently less-than convincing, at least when compared to other logistics options.
All of this gives us the opportunity to rethink Michel De Certeau’s Practice of Everyday Life, and especially his chapter on walking on the city and where he explains:
“There is a rhetoric of walking. The art of "turning" phrases finds an equivalent in an art of composing a path (tourner un parcours). Like ordinary language, this art implies and combines styles and uses. Style specifies "a linguistic structure that manifests on the symbolic level . . . an individual's fundamental way of being in the world"; it connotes a singular. Use defines the social phenomenon through which a system of communication manifests itself in actual fact; it refers to a norm. Style and use both have to do with a "way of operating" (of speaking, walking, etc.), but style involves a peculiar processing of the symbolic, while use refers to elements of a code. They intersect to form a
style of use, a way of being and a way of operating.” (de Certeau 100)
Though de Certeau is often vague and playful at times, I find his comments on a rhetoric of walking inventional, that is, they allow us to see more in his claims than he was willing to say within the framework of his theory-building. Specifically, I think that de Certeau was right on about there being a rhetoric of walking, but even moreso, there’s a rhetoric of movement/mobility in general. There is a rhetoric of being transported. What I have tried to explore here are some of the salient concepts in rhetoric that are attentive to the production of technical projects – I’ve limited myself to talking about interfaces and logistics, but there are further connections, too.
If you have more questions about EPOD or any of the concepts I’ve talked about, I’m happy to answer them.
[i] Aristotle, Poetics. in The Complete Works of Aristotle, edited by Jonathan Barnes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), 1457b7-1457b10.
[ii] John T. Kirby, “Aristotle and Metaphor,” 532-533.
[iii] Plato, Gorgias. in Plato: Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper (Cambridge: Hackett Publishing, 1997): 450c8-9.
[iv] Plato, Gorgias. in Plato: Complete Works, 450d4-6.
[v] Plato, Gorgias. in Plato: Complete Works, 451b5-c4.
[vi] Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics. in The Complete Works of Aristotle, ed. Jonathan Barnes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), 1139a.
[vii] David A. Kirsch, The Electric Vehicle and the Burden of History (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2000), 172.
[viii] David A. Kirsch, The Electric Vehicle and the Burden of History, 24.