RSA 2022 Abstract:

“The Post-Human is Not Post-Political: Disciplinary Change Towards A Rhetorical Algorithm Studies” 

The CFP for the 2022 Rhetoric Society of America conference asks us to consider what “change” entails in rhetorical practice in light of contemporary concerns. For the field of rhetoric, particularly digital rhetoric, recent technological changes have challenged the traditional understandings of “human” and “nonhuman” agency. Such changes demand paradigm shifts within the field to account for the political and social effects of technology. Furthermore, the relationship between digital technology and democracy entails that taking into account these changes is necessary for digital rhetoric and political rhetorical theory if we are to address ethical implications of rhetoric as a field. Such a methodological paradigm shift is already underway in the growing corner of digital rhetoric that Kevin Brock and Estee Beck have described as rhetorical code studies. In particular, scholarship on the role of algorithms as rhetorical agents has explored ways that expanding our methodologies to account for rhetorical agency informs how our field can understand the influence that algorithm processes have on every aspect of our lives.

Drawing from both posthuman rhetorical theory and from research in critical algorithm studies (CAS), this presentation seeks to explore what kind of critical methodologies might be employed to take an ecological approach to understanding the rhetorical effect of algorithms. The end goal is to argue for how changing relationships between technological development and practices of democracy in “the age of the algorithm” demand corresponding disciplinary changes. In particular, drawing from Karen Barad and Judith Butler’s theories of performativity, it understands algorithms as “performative utterances’ ‘ that challenge notions of rhetorical agency for nonhuman agents. As a case study, I focus on autocomplete algorithms on search engines as an example of nonhuman rhetorical agents. By unpacking the conditions under which autocomplete functions on Google prompted antisemtic and Islamophobic text inbetween 2016-2018, I argue that, first, understanding algorithms as performative challenges and informs our perceptions of human and nonhuman rhetorical agency. Second, in light of this particular case study, I underscore that performativity does not exist in an ideological vacuum but, rather, that a posthuman approach to rhetoric emphasizes rather than devalues, political implications for our field. Finally, the presentation concludes by considering how rhetoric as a field might be informed by critical algorithm studies (CAS) and, in turn, what disciplinarily unique contributions rhetoric offers to the interdisciplinary conversation around “algorithms’ ‘ as topics of social concern. 

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