Tracing the Missing Masses: Vibrancy,
Symmetry, and Public Rhetoric
Pedagogy -Nathaniel Rivers
1 [T]ell the humanists that the more nonhumans share existence with humans, the more humane a
collective is. -Bruno Latour, Pandora's Hope
1.1 Following Bruno Latour’s sociology of a few missing masses—which puts the nonhuman back on
sociology’s radar—and Jane Bennett’s political ecology of things—which acknowledges the vibrancy
of all matter—I want to bring even more (nonhuman) objects into our analyses of public rhetoric:
pantiles, proteins, power stations, plasterwork, and pilasters.
1.1.1 our analyses of public rhetoric should embrace equally the nonhuman, not simply as artifacts of
rhetorical production, or as vessels of cultural meaning, or even as containers for rhetorical action,
but rather as active participants in what Latour calls an object-oriented democracy
184.108.40.206 Humans and objects are equal partners in the rhetorical dance
220.127.116.11.1 For scholars committed to an ecological understanding of public rhetoric, it also reminds us
that any analysis of those publics must add. Tress the nonhumano ignore nonhumans or to
render them invisible in the analysis of public rhetoric is to miss the important work they do.
1.2 Stop ignoring stuff: Objects are finding their place in rhetorical discourse
2 Actor Network Theory (ANT) is the methodology that Latour proposes to create such balanced or
symmetrical accounts. Latour explains his use of actor in Actor Network Theoryin this way: “To use
the word ‘actor’ means that it’s never clear who and what is acting when we act since an actor on
stage is never alone in acting” (46). To practice ANT is to trace the actors and to see the social as an
emergent effect of the labors of many untold actors. Furthermore, ANT is predicated upon a refusal
to decide, in advance, what constitutes the social. Latour eschews explanations of activity that treat
the social as a causal mechanism rather than as an effect of so many actors and so much activity:
the social is not explanatory but is rather what is at stake in the “entanglements of humans and
nonhumans” (Reassembling 84).
2.1 Yay! We get ACT! It places equal importance on human and object actions; it endows objects with agency.
2.2 we must account for humans and nonhumans in symmetrical ways: as actors acting but never alone.
2.2.1 For every human action there is an equal non-human action
3 asks students to trace how nonhumans compose publics with Bennett's thing-power and Latour's
symmetry in mind.
3.1 I take-up this pedagogical challenge for two reasons
3.1.1 First, attending to the nonhuman makes for compelling student work.
3.1.2 Second, teaching is enculturation: where better to make the case for symmetrical understandings of
rhetoric and public life?
18.104.22.168 "in more or less successful ways" is not convincing language - however - the wording does accommodate human and object fallacies.
4 To balance our accounts of society, we simply have to turn our exclusive attention away from
humans and look also at nonhumans. -Bruno Latour, “Where are the Missing Masses?”
5 Publics are emergent; they cannot be traced with a narrow, a priori definition of who or what
constitutes a public. We must therefore account for how publics are themselves ever products of
nonhumans and humans in (oftentimes agonistic) relations.
5.1 reducing cities to the ideas we can build into them, irrespective of the city’s thing-power,
circumscribes cities, public life and public rhetoric as largely human affairs.
5.1.1 we ask students to look through or beyond an object to the decisions made by a human agent. We
needn’t look behind the brick or the pipe to recognize that they can make us do unexpected things.
The challenge, then, is cultivating vulnerable ways of seeing nonhumans as actants.
22.214.171.124 The classroom is where new theories of materialism will gain viablity and be perpetuated
126.96.36.199 The urban landscape is a function of productive strife as competing interests collide to produce and
reproduce the shape of cities. As architectural historian Noah Chasin suggests in the film, architects,
developers, city, state, and federal agencies, the public, and preservationists all work “against and
with each other.”
188.8.131.52.1 The architecture adds to the spice (or kills it) to the flavor of the city.
184.108.40.206.2 architecture, positioning of business, repelling and attracting peoples of racial, idiosyncratic, and social status
5.1.2 Cities have their own personalities that are a result of and act on human and non human denizens
6 Matter matters but only as an extension of a uniquely human will. Yet while this is certainly the
material language of the city
7 Infograph: Metaphoric Menu
7.1 Things/Animals matter
7.1.1 on the less vegetarian side, the menu advocates a human having an object's experience with objects
220.127.116.11 In this experience, the human is NOT the primary actant
7.2 For a metaphorphically "meaty" meal
7.3 What grocery store item is more silent about its origins than a shrink-wrapped steak?
8.1 writing about a base or trivial topic
8.1.1 The fully trained rhetor must be able to speak about and to everything, and this begins by tracing
the actors at work in a vital rhetorical ecology. This work, however, would be tempered by humility
and a sense of wonder pushing the rhetor to respect the fact that everything always exceeds our
grasp: by virtue of their vibrancy, things can never be reduced to us or by us. This vibrancy is of
course why we need rhetoric in the first place and why it exists at all. The irreducible strangeness of
all objects demands that we engage them even though they will always exceed and even resist us. A
vibrant and symmetrical public rhetoric sees this strangeness as both the source of rhetoric and the
call for it, and so must trace humans and nonhumans alike if it ever hopes to be fully public and
intensely rhetorical. We humans are not the only ones here, and we are far from being the only
beings who matter. All matter matters, and so all matter is rhetorical.
18.104.22.168 Every atom is significant, no mater what is wearing it
8.1.2 your training is incomplete if materialism is not part of your academic diet