The framing of this concept is typically human oriented, as the connotations of “social” and “rhetorical” remain human centered. In Naming What We Know, (see this post for an introduction to the book) the contributors tackle this first principle by including several subconcepts. These subconcepts can be viewed through a limited humanist lens, however, I read them with an eye for the posthuman.
In the first contribution by Kevin Roozen, he includes a paragraph focused on the way that the social nature of writing “goes beyond the people writers draw upon and think about” (18). This paragraph references various artifacts, tools, technologies and places that writers “act with” as part of the writing activity. Roozen concludes the paragraph with the statement that “all of these available means of persuasion we take up when we write have been shaped by and through the use of many others who have left their traces on and inform our uses of those tools, even if we are not aware of it” (18). This attention to the stuff of the world marks a distinctly posthuman approach to the concept that writing is a social and rhetorical activity.
Other contributors include knowledge-making and the expression of meaning in this definition of writing. To approach writing as a social and rhetorical activity is to acknowledge the invaluable purpose of writing as a communicative tool but also as a commitment to engaging in the process of understanding the world and those who reside in it. Those who study writing also study the hermeneutic potential of meaning-making through placing words in context with other words. Dylan Dryer draws on Saussure’s structuralist framework to argue that words are also social; they are always in the company of other words. To consider this element from a posthuman perspective emphasizes the material nature of words, the entangled and complex relations of words to other words. Dryer articulates this relationship through the gathering of words to form sentences that are then gathered within a context or situation: “The relations that imbue a sentence with particular meanings come not just from nearby words but also from the social contexts in which the sentence is used” (24). I have found in teaching freshman composition classes that students often miss this key in the way that language functions. They view words as isolated, static components that serve the writer to convey the things they want to say, neglecting the powerful entanglements that shape the responses of the audiences and the material consequences of such language.
Andrea Lunsford’s contribution to this concept reflects on the digital shifts that have reshaped the onto-epistemological relationship between writer/audience/context. If “writing is both relational and responsive,” as she contends, then the meditation of these relations and responses by technology require study and understanding. “The advent of digital and online literacies,” she goes on to say, “has blurred the boundaries between writer and audience significantly” (21). Audiences can no longer be assumed to be those we intend when we write because we often invoke them in the act of writing. Connected to this invocation of audience is Collin Brooke and Jeffrey Grabill’s discussion of writing as a technology focuses on the material interaction of the kinds of digital writing that we are constantly immersed in in the 21st century. The technology available in the form of screens, waves, and pixels enable us to use writing to “make material some version of the thoughts and ideas of its composer” (33). Subsequently, “the audience for such writing must similarly devote material resources to understanding it” (33). The cascade of intra-actions that emanate from such mate(real)ities influence those mate(real)ities.