chapter  4
25 Pages

Agential Matters: Tumbleweed, Women-Pens, Citizens-Hope, and Rhetorical Actancy


Since the 1980s, ecology has gained much capital as a metaphor and a model in the study of rhetoric and writing. Ecology is predicated on the belief that biological and social worlds are jointly composed of dynamic networks of organisms and environments that exist on multiple scales and are interdependent, diverse, and responsive to feedback. In simplest terms, to consider something as ecological is to recognize its vital implication in networked systems of relations (Bennett, Syverson). In less simple terms, thinking ecologically acknowledges the dynamic complexity of these networked systems, the interrelated, laminated layers of activities that constitute them, and the mutual transformation that occurs among intertwined elements. Within the fi eld of rhetoric and composition, thinking ecologically has pushed the fi eld in many diverse, productive directions. Among some of its most provocative uses, an ecological perspective has helped introduce new models for writing (Cooper); develop new research approaches for composition and genre studies (Syverson) (Dobrin and Weisser) (Spinuzzi); revise rhetorical theory by challenging our notions of the rhetorical canons (Brooke) (Prior et al.) and the rhetorical situation (Edbauer); and craft new conceptions (Phelps) and histories of the fi eld (Hawk). Alongside this work, scholars have also been challenging us to rethink agency. Rhetorical agency has been traditionally conceived as the capacity for a human rhetor to effect change through persuasive use of language. Or as Marilyn Cooper has recently put it, “we have long understood an agent as one who through conscious intention or free will causes changes in the world” (“Rhetorical Agency” 421). Yet, in the past couple of decades, agency has been reconfi gured in response to postmodern critiques of the autonomous, humanist agent; recent developments in social and cognitive sciences; and the emergence of posthuman perspectives. An ecological sensibility toward agency grounds much of this important work.