Rhetorical Demands and Proletarianization

Many of my thoughts about both Stiegler and Aristotle are inevitably filtered through the texts we have been reading in Marback’s 8007 this semester, which have lent some clarity to other lines of inquiry I have been pursuing over the last semester (primarily in a conference paper written for JB’s theory class last semester). In brief, I have been looking at (of course) kairos in terms of technology in regard to an overheard conversation in a coffee shop. Long story short, it was apparent the effect that the technologies used during the communicative exchange were as essential to the exchange as were the two people involved. This got me thinking about how technology (and especially networked technology) has as much or more (and this is where Marback’s class comes in) *agency* (we will bracket this for later discussion, but used now for lack of a better term) as the embodied agents. Of course, then, what struck me about Stiegler was the concept of proletarianization via the externalization of knowledge, embodied or mental, and his reference to Plato’s concern for the technology of writing as the first step in this process: “We discover that the Platonic question of hypomnesis constitutes the first version of a thinking of proletarianization , insofar as it is true that the proletariat are those economic actors who are without knowledge because they are without memory: their memory has passed into the machine that reproduces gestures that the proletariat no longer needs to know — they must simply serve the reproductive machine and thus, once again, they become serfs” (Stiegler 35).

This focus on tertiary retention — the memory/knowledge given over to the machine — was very apparent in the overheard conversation (in fact conversation stopped when the network became inaccessible), and it seems that no matter how much agency we think we have as rhetors, the technologies we use have as much or more, especially now that we are always jacked into the network (not to get too Johnny Mnemonic about it). This giving over of oneself to the machine echoes past claims of exteriorization (such as McLuhan’s extensions of man — becoming sexual organs for technology — and Bellar’s attention economy — becoming producers even in our “free” time). However this idea is manifested, it seems unavoidable that we give something of ourselves to technology (or technology takes something from us) and we are therefore beholden to technology. A sort of distributed cognition where we share our ability to do things and to communicate with others (we could perhaps call this agency) with our technologies — think how lost we are without our cell phones or our Internet connections, which are now one in the same.

In Stiegler’s view this loss of savoir-faire and savoir-vivre has an economic impact, contributing to the rampant consumerism that in turn leads to an economy with an incredibly short attention span and falls into risky short-term speculations. In terms of rhetorical agency, however, we do not either a.) function as independent, rational agents in control of ourselves, or b.) function as “zombies” in the thrall of some particular ideology, but rather, at least in part, as caught up in a feedback loop with technology that influences our agency, that we exert an influence on, that in turn exerts an influence on us, and so on. I think this transfer of (power? agency? control?) is important to think through as we become more and more dependent on networks and networked technologies.

Aristotle’s Rhetoric in this sense (in terms of Stiegler) can be read as an initial technologizing of the “art” of rhetoric and thus of speech itself. His taxonomic approach to the types of persuasion, proofs, examples, enthymemes, audience members, emotions, etc. (“there are five different types of …”) is a systematization of the “art”, thus really creating a technology that anyone can pick up and use to effect. He does give lip service to style, sure, but even this is systematized — e.g., certain types of meter are okay to use, but other types are too poetic; certain types of words are okay in certain cases, etc. So from the very beginning, rhetoric is set forth as a technology for developing effective, persuasive oration, and mankind therefore externalized one more piece of knowledge — beginning with writing/memory and then to rhetoric/speech — again creating a feedback loop in which we turn to rhetoric to develop a speech, which dictates how we begin, which turns us back to the technology, which dictates how we proceed, and on and on.


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