Toward a Theory of Experiential Circulation

Note: This is a rough transcript of a talk I’m giving today for the RSA chapter at Syracuse. Some of my slides are included below.


I’ve spent much of my time the last few weeks trying to solidify my understanding of the various conversations surrounding rhetorical circulation, tracing its evolution from recent conversations back into its roots at the turn of the century (this century, that is). My goal at the moment has simply been to have a better sense of how circulation has been defined and taken up in various pockets of the fields of composition & rhetoric and communication studies — but in the long run I’m trying to map some of the ways we’ve parlayed these definitions into pedagogies. That is, I’ve wondered how teachers of writing take up practices of rhetorical circulation in their classrooms and how those practices frame rhetorical possibility (i.e. agency). I’d like to start then by briefly outlining some of the working definitions of circulation — ones that see discourse as “in motion” (Gries), “fragmented” (McGee), and “constitutive” and “reflexive” (Warner) — and look to some patterns of how these terms have been applied in the classroom. [Note: I’d would have liked to include Trimbur’s contribution to this conversation, but in the interest of time and space, I’ll have to save that for another forum. I did discuss his work on circulation briefly here.]

There are two notable contributions to the study of rhetorical circulation since 2013. Most recently, Laurie Gries culled together a helpful array of sources from visual studies, digital humanities, and rhetorical theory to succinctly define it as a subfield in Computers & Composition. Circulation studies, she argues, is “an interdisciplinary approach to studying discourse in motion” where “…scholars investigate not only how discourse is produced and distributed, but also how once delivered, it circulates, transforms, and affects change through its material encounters” (333). Although Gries’s concern is methodological — that is, she is develops a specific method, called iconographic tracking and demos it with Shepard Fairey’s Hope RSA@SU.006poster — it ultimately argues that rhetoric is “a distributed process whose beginning and end cannot be not easily identified. Like a dynamic network of energy, rhetoric materializes, circulates, transforms, and sparks new material consequences, which, in turn, circulate, transform, and stimulate an entirely new divergent set of consequences” (346).

Another recent contribution — this one in communication studies — is a special forum in the last 2012 issue of Rhetoric & Public Affairs. The forum, made up of eight brief essays, make use of two texts in particular as the authors contribute to various theories and application of circulation studies: Michael McGee’s “Text, Context, and the Fragmentation of Contemporary Culture” (1990) and Michael Warner’s “Publics and Counterpublics” (2002). For McGee, “rhetors make discourses from scraps and pieces,” fashioned from fragments (279). Although this theory obviously still has currency today, the two essays in this forum that cite McGee at length frame his work as limited, either because it denies certain fragments — the sound bite — as a legitimate component for public address (Foley 620) or for “reinforcing a Eurocentric perspective on history and belies a commitment to modern/coloniality, which elides global heterogeneity” (Wanzer 647).


Warner’s “Publics and Counterpublics” is used more  generously, especially from Atkinson who forwards Warner’s view of circulation: “[t]he public created from circulation is … notional and material; it exists because its members attend to a text that circulates for a definite period time and within a particular space, and because they imagine it to circulate for a definite period and within a particular space” (676). For Warner, the reflexive circulation of discourse “among strangers” is constitutive — there no thing that comes before it, which is why it’s different from terms like “communities” or “cultures.”

RSA@SU.011Importantly, within much literature on pedagogies of circulation I’ve reviewed so far, most authors either implicitly or explicitly imagine their classrooms not as publics as Warner imagines them, but as “protopublics” — spaces where we consider (among other things) “the different subjectivities students might try out for different publics at different points in their formation or disintegration,” as Rosa Eberly put it 15 years ago175; emphasis mine).

For example, ten years after her article, Mathieu and George describe an advocacy project where a student addresses her boyfriend and his friends’ harassment of the homeless. In a footnote, they confess: “If one were to follow Michael Warner’s definition of a public, this example would not count as public writing, because, according to Warner, a public relies on an address to strangers (74–87). But we agree with Rosa Eberly that writing classrooms constitute ‘protopublic spaces,’ and as such, we believe that addresses to other students can constitute effective protopublic discourse” (147).

Another example comes two years later from Rivers and Weber, where students develop a more comprehensive but imaginary local rhetorical campaign, also developed out of the protopublic, “which allows students to practice the skills of public advocacy and safely produce texts that could become public” (207; emphasis mine). In less explicit examples, students translate scientific discourse to journalistic discourse (Trimbur) and study press releases and practice writing them to anticipate circulation (Ridolfo and DeVoss).

My thinking is that although these essays provide rich examples of ways to approach circulation in the classroom, I wonder if, by envisioning the classroom as a protopublic — that is, as encounters within the walls of the classroom — they go far enough to frame rhetoric as “a distributed network of becomings in which divergent consequences are actualized with time and space” as Gries has suggested (346). If we were to reimagine pedagogies of circulation to go beyond studying it or practicing it in protopublic classrooms, what would it mean to teach it as materially experienced, where students would experience their discourse as in motion (Gries), made from scraps (McGee), an encounter with strangers (Warner), or as commodities (Trimbur). Would public blogs accomplish this? Tweet jams? Student publications? Zine fests?

As my last post indicated, I also wonder how theories of experiential learning (Dewey) would help develop these approaches. I also wonder if more public approaches are ethical or sustainable. Finally, I wonder how we’d know we’ve succeeded.

Works Cited

Atkinson, Nathan S. “Celluloid Circulation: The Dual Temporality of Nonfiction Film and Its Publics.” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 15.4 (2012): 675–684. Print.

Eberly, Rosa A. “From Writers, Audiences, and Communities to Publics: Writing Classrooms as Protopublic Spaces.” Rhetoric Review 18.1 (1999): 165–178. Print.

Foley, Megan. “Sound Bites: Rethinking the Circulation of Speech from Fragment to Fetish.” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 15.4 (2012): 613–622. Print.

Gries, Laurie E. “Iconographic Tracking: A Digital Research Method for Visual Rhetoric and Circulation Studies.” Computers and Composition 30.4 (2013): 332–348. ScienceDirect. Web. 15 Nov. 2013.

Mathieu, Paula, and Diana George. “Not Going It Alone: Public Writing, Independent Media, and the Circulation of Homeless Advocacy.” College Composition and Communication 61.1 (2009): 130–149. Print.

McGee, Michael Calvin. “Text, Context, and the Fragmentation of Contemporary Culture.” Western Journal of Speech Communication 54.3 (1990): 274–289. Print.

Ridolfo, Jim, and Danielle Nicole DeVoss. “Composing For Recomposition: Rhetorical Velocity and Delivery.” Kairos 13.2 (2009): n. pag. Print.

Rivers, Nathaniel A, and Ryan P Weber. “Ecological, Pedagogical, Public Rhetoric.” College Composition and Communication 63.2 (2011): 187–218. Print.

Trimbur, John. “Composition and the Circulation of Writing.” College Composition and Communication 52.2 (2000): 188–219. Print.

Warner, Michael. “Publics and Counterpublics.” Public Culture 14.1 (2002): 49–90. Print.