On Cooper’s “Rhetorical Agency as Emergent and Enacted” (and Phillip K. Dick and porn)

Finally, finally I’m returning to my posts on scholarship review, this time with Marilyn M. Cooper’s “Rhetorical Agency as Emergent and Enacted,” which is in the February 2011 issue of College Composition and Communication. It’s taken me this long to get back to this in part because I’ve been swamped beyond repair with school stuff (indeed, I’m writing this post in 2-3 minute bursts yesterday and today in an effort to break up the marathon of grading, email catch-up, and other paperwork), but also because this is a long and complex piece.  It’s a lot more “theory heavy” than what I’m used to with the CCCs, and frankly, it is a piece I have some complicated and mixed feelings about, as my headline might suggest, and it’s made me think.  A lot.

Cooper’s essay, in the most basic and reductive of terms, is about the problem of agency– or, maybe more accurately, the “problem” of “agency,” since I think both of those issues are what is at stake here.  Here’s a quote that probably comes closest to defining her “thesis,” if you will:

We have for a long time understood an agent as one who through conscious intention or free will causes changes in the world. But I suggest that neither conscious intention nor free will—at least as we commonly think of them—is involved in acting or bringing about change: though the world changes in response to individual action, agents are very often not aware of their intentions, they do not directly cause changes, and the choices they make are not free from influence from their inheritance, past experiences, or their surround. I argue that agency is an emergent property of embodied individuals. Agents do reflect on their actions consciously; they do have conscious intentions and goals and plans; but their agency does not arise from conscious mental acts, though consciousness does play a role. Agency instead is based in individuals’ lived knowledge that their actions are their own. As Jane Bennett suggests, “agency is the … capacity to make a difference in the world without knowing quite what you are doing” (155).

Here and other places in the essay, Cooper argues agency is something that comes out of who we are as people, both in terms of our biology and neurology, but also in terms of our backgrounds and other life experiences.  Her “case study,” if you will, is Barack Obama, and specifically the speech he gave on race as a candidate for president in reaction to the controversies caused by Obama’s former pastor, Jeremiah Wright.  Here’s how Cooper puts it:

In proposing a neurophenomenological account of the emergence of rhetorical agency, I turn for an example to the speech on race Barack Obama delivered in Philadelphia during the 2008 presidential campaign (“More”). Notable for its rhetorical effectiveness, the speech—its motivation, composition, and reception—was much commented on, and thus I can make reasonable, if not definitive, hypotheses about why Obama responded as he did. I also contrast my approach to rhetorical agency with that of Carolyn Miller and that of Carl Herndl and Adela Licona, and I relate it to work on persuasion, ethos, and kairos by other rhetoric scholars. I conclude by arguing that responsible rhetorical agency is a matter of acknowledging and honoring the responsive nature of agency and that this is the kind of agency that supports deliberative democracy. But first, as suggested in my opening paragraph, I need to address the question of the subject in order to discriminate that concept from what I call embodied individual agency.

Okay, so just to (overly) simplify/sum up here:  As I am understanding it, Cooper is saying agency is a complex mesh of conscious and unconscious factors tied to the biology/chemistry of our human brains, agency is embodied in people (and I think she goes so far to say as only in people), and it has a deliberate, reasonable, responsible, and persuasive quality to it.  Obama’s speech is a bit of an extreme example of an agent acting in that it comes out of a specific kairotic moment, it’s very much tied to the human body walking around on the planet named Barack Obama, and also the less physically embodied but still concrete Barack Obama (the one who is a product of his upbringing, education, and the media’s interpretation of him).

If I am understanding this correctly (and I very well may not be understanding all this correctly).

On the one hand, this all seems problematic to me.

First, of course Barack Obama is indeed demonstrating his rhetorical agency through his speech (among other things), but it sure seems like that Cooper has set the bar pretty high.  Among other things, the requirement for intentionality and “reasonableness” strikes me as a bit extreme, and the role of persuasion versus brainwashing (she talks about this on page 437) is fuzzy.  Agency (or at least responsible agency as she describes it on page 442) requires intent, reasonableness, and persuasion, and persuasion in particular presumes a level of choice on the audience.  Then, on 443, Cooper writes this:

Obama said, “we have a choice in this country.” The words he put into the air were an invitation to responsible agency, an invitation to consider other alternatives to a politics of racial division. In concluding his speech with the offer of a choice, Obama emerges as a responsible agent. He strongly argues for the choice he would make, but as has been clear in his actions as president subsequently, he is open to other possibilities. He knows he might be wrong.

Well, wait a minute:  is Obama really offering a choice?  I don’t think so, because I assume he’s actually not “open” to the “other possibilities” here, e.g., further racial division. His “choice” is a rhetorical question, as in “we don’t want to choose racial division, do we?”  Mind you, I agree with Obama and I think his speech was effective in part because of the persona/agency that he had in that moment, but not because of choice, or even necessarily his ability so much as his potential to persuade.  And I don’t think it’s a given that Obama did persuade his audience, particularly those who did not already agree with him. I mean, I recall the usual right-wing suspects still criticized Obama on this (I do not believe this was the point in which Glenn Beck stopped calling Obama a racist), and plenty of folks in this country are still for the politics of racial division, right?

Second, Cooper says agency means being human and having consciousness and awareness, though all of this is slippery territory to define.  She discusses in several places the role of emotions and personality in agency, and she even makes reference to skills like playing chess or driving a car (both skills programmed machines can now complete as well or better than humans) as being examples that involve “less and less conscious decision making and more and more refined discrimination of situations” (434).  A bit later there, she quotes some folks who define agency in part as the ability to stop what we’re doing.  So, Jim Johnson and door openers need not apply here, not to mention slaves, servants, a variety of other disempowered workers who don’t have a lot of choice about “stopping,” etc.

Anyway, besides these problems, it seems to me people assign all kinds of agency (or something akin to agency) to machines and technology all the time.  People have been messing with the idea of “is it a computer or is it a human” for decades; in fact, just the other night, I saw this clip on The Daily Show, an interview with Brian Christian, the author of the book The Most Human Human:  What Talking With Computers Teaches Us About What it Means to Be Alive (which is basically about artificial intelligence):

Indeed, it seems to me that we have to have a lot of trust in the power of technology of all sorts for agency to function.  I’ve never met Barack Obama and I am pretty confident that he is a real live human being who has the agency characteristics that Cooper describes, but for me, that agency has only been mediated through some kind of technology– television, radio, etc.  For all I know, Obama could be a robot.  While we’re at it, while I’ve seen Marilyn Cooper and I understand she is a real and (I am told) nice person, she’s only being mediated to me in this instance through the technology of print.  So, does that mean she has agency– or, maybe a different way of putting it, does that mean she has agency to me? Could she be a robot?

You can see how this could just go on and on.  There’s just this ever-present but still increasingly fuzzy space between humans and “non-humans” with consciousness and awareness that seem to me to make this idea of agency being cleanly and clearly defined as being human and about intent as just not the whole story.

On the other hand: there is something to be said for the inevitable importance of actual humans as agents ultimately, even if we assign a sort of pseudo-agency to auto-pilots, spell-checks, search engines, etc.  If a door opener opens and no one is there, then it doesn’t really have agency.  And second, to be crude about it, meat does matter.  An electric door opener and a doorman might perform the same function, but the physical presence of the human doorman does indeed make a difference.

Maybe this is on my mind lately because I’ve read a couple of things lately about robots and other automated means of teaching (here, for example), and I’ve been reading Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? the book that served as the basis of Blade Runner that is really quite excellent.  The main character in the book (which is the one that Harrison Ford plays in the movie) lives in a post-apocalyptic world in which real animals are scarce and people make up for their needs to have connections with animals with, essentially, robots.  Thus the electric sheep– Deckard has one as a “pet,” a key character trait absent from the movie.  Those who have seen the movie and/or read the book will also recall that the plot basically revolves on Deckard going around and figuring out who is or is not human and the inevitable challenges/fuzzy lines of all that, and “retiring” the rogue andys aka androids.  Anyway, here’s a quote I highlighted on my Kindle (it’s in the first few chapters) that stuck with me, in part because of Cooper’s article:

He (Deckard, that is) thought, too, about his need for a real animal; within him an actual hatred once more manifested itself toward his electric sheep, which he had to tend, had to care about, as if it lived.  The tyranny of an object, he thought.  It doesn’t know I exist.  Like the androids, it has no ability to appreciate the existece of another.  He had never thought of this before, the similarity between the electric animal and an andy.  The electric animal, he pondered, could be considered a subform of the other, a kind of vastly inferior robot.  Or, conversely, the android could be regarded as a highly developed, evolved version of the ersatz animal.  Both viewpoints repelled him.

The robots are all around him, even indistinguishable from the real for him.  And that make him, well, sad.

And then there’s the porn issue– specifically, I am thinking of  the live sex demonstration back in late February in a Northwestern University human sexuality lecture hall class.

Generally speaking, I agree with Deb “blogos” Hawhee’s critique of this both as a “pedagogical” activity and as one that eroticizes violence.  But it seems to me that where J. Michael Bailey (the professor in question here) crossed the line was not in introducing the idea of “kinky sex” in a class on human sexuality, but actually bringing in real live bodies/human agents to an audience to perform.  In other words, I am sure that if had Bailey shown a movie where people were performing the same sex act with a power tool that was performed live in the classroom, this would have been a non-issue.  I will even go so far to say that if Bailey had invited these performers/weird sex enthusiasts to the lecture hall class, shown a movie of these people doing whatever it is they did, and then had a discussion with these performers/agents after the movie, it wouldn’t have been a big deal.  But those human agents acting right then and right there– that matters.  Live bodies do matter.

One thought on “On Cooper’s “Rhetorical Agency as Emergent and Enacted” (and Phillip K. Dick and porn)”

  1. Thanks Steve. I probably wouldn’t have paid attention to this article without your post. I just read through it and your concerns seems valid to me. I don’t think Cooper manages to address the problems she identifies, though I agree with her that these are problems worth addressing.

    I also agree that Latour (and a broader field of speculative realism that would include Jane Bennett), some kind of evolved autopoietic theory (that is developed beyond Maturana and Varela via Luhmann and others), and the emerging insights of cognitive science are all useful avenues for theorizing agency. I agree with Latour in thinking of agency as relational. This is a point that Cooper takes in but then seems to back away from. The operational closure of autopoietic systems does not mean that agency is internalized.

    I won’t clog up your blog much longer, but I would venture that Cooper’s work here suggests a continuing assertion of a modernist, democratic citizen who is capable of responsible rhetorical action. The final paragraph seems to say this quite clearly. This is something that simply is not available from the philosophical perspective that she is exploring here.

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