Reading Notes: Ambient Rhetoric

Ambient Rhetoric rocked my world. It opened new paths of exploration and generally knocked me out of my growing comfort with network as a metaphor for rhetoric.

One idea in particular rocked me to my theoretical core, while a (what I thought to be) tenuous connection to trickster turned into some remarkable parallels between Rickert’s (2013) theory of rhetoric and what I’ll refer to as Hyde’s (1998/2010) trickster theory.

In chapter three, Rickert augments Mark C. Taylor’s description of the writer “caught in a network of complex, coadaptive threads that disrupt any sense of autonomy or boundary” with this mind-blowing claim: “a subject (rhetor, author, speaker, etc.) emerges as a node because of the network; the nodes do not exist prior to the network” (p. 104).

“The nodes do not exist prior to the network.”

Throughout the semester, I’ve thought of a collection of nodes constituting, initiating, pre-existing their network. I’ve thought of nodes collecting connections to create the network. But I’ve been plagued by questions of origin. If nodes precede the network, how do connections get made?

router cables - photo

Network. CC licensed image from Flickr user ken fager.

When I envision a network model, I think of an intranet or LAN. I think of the wires, the infrastructure, the framework that has to precede the connections. But I couldn’t figure out the relationship of the framework — the wireframe of switches and cables, of routers and hotspots — to the connections. I knew the connections initiated the network, but in the system I imagined, in which nodes preceded network, I couldn’t figure out what the framework represented. Rickert responded to my problem with this statement: “We might reflect back from networks the insight that ‘actuality’ was already networked, and the ‘new’ logistics of complexity we are learning are not so much new as disclosed differently to us. Inhabitancy, or dwelling, has always been networked…” (p. 102).

Without the framework, connections can’t be made. Without the framework, nodes can’t exist. Nodes can only exist once the framework is in place. “The nodes do not exist prior to the network.” The framework is the network, and the nodes exist only in relationship to the network. Applying this statement to my object of study, Google Analytics, suggests that the user, visit, and session dimensions I measure with metrics via the Google Analytics data model through the activities of collection, collation, processing, and report are already always networked and existing, and that, further, aspects of these measurements are withdrawn from human understanding for future discovery as already existing network qualities. In short, Google Analytics as a network is simply the best understanding we have of user relationship with websites. We will push the boundaries, embrace the chaos of discovery, and learn more about these network qualities as time passes.

Blows my mind.

And then there’s the trickster. Hyde (1998/2010) uses coyote trickster as a model of trickster behavior and suggests trickster follows a “no way” way — without specific instinctive habits, trickster coyote learns all its “ways” of being through trial and error and mimicry (pp. 42-3). I found in Ambient Rhetoric an analogous recognition of a “third way” that helps break rhetoric out of constricting binaries. For example, Rickert (2013) writes that new media writing, or Ulmer’s electracy, “is choric in that it too is a third kind, following but neither process from nor a hybrid of orality and literacy” (p. 68, emphasis added). Later, Rickert describes Latour’s actants as hybrid entities, influenced by Heiddegar and Harman, “the jointure of the two [that] creates a new relationship and in so doing transforms person and gun into a singular actant with new capabilities, a ‘hybrid actor,’ and these capabilities in turn affect relations to others” (p. 205). The concept of a third way that is “neither process from nor a hybrid of” a binary opposition parallels Hyde’s (1998/2010) statements about coyote’s “no way”: “Whoever has no way but is a successful imitator will have, in the end, a repertoire of ways” and “Perhaps having no way also means that a creature can adapt itself to a changing world” (p. 43) and “Having no way, trickster can have many ways” (p. 45). Rickert frames ambient rhetoric like Hyde frames coyote trickster: as a way to escape restrictive binaries and forge a new way in the world.

As I read Hyde and understand trickster, Rickert’s ambient theory parallels trickster theory in its desire to reveal (and revel in) complexity. Trickster “disrupts the mundane and the conventional to reveal no higher law, no hidden truth, but rather the plenitude and complexity of this world” (Hyde, 1998/2010, p. 289). Ambient rhetoric seeks to move beyond the complexity of the network metaphor, to “proceed via ecological relations of tension, balance, and flow” (Rickert, 2010, p. 129) and make a “further addition, a complexification, centered on ambience” (p. 128) to the network metaphor. Both of these statement point not toward adding complexity, but to revealing existing complexity in the world.

And this connection, between trickster theory and network theory, I could never have imagined. It, too, is revealed by attunement to ambience.


Hyde, L. (2010). Trickster makes this world: Mischief, myth, and art. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. (Original work published 1998)

Rickert, T. (2013). Ambient rhetoric: The attunements of rhetorical being. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press. Pittsburgh Series in Composition, Literacy, and Culture

[ Feature image: Management of Complexity: Visualization. CC licensed image from Flickr user Michael Heiss ]

One thought on “Reading Notes: Ambient Rhetoric

  1. Glad Rickert rocked for you 🙂 I love your connections to trickster theory, as it is something I know little about. It is an education each time it appears in your RNs.

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