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2009 Symposium Poster

Materializing Communication and Rhetoric

The fields of communication and rhetoric have been constituted largely within a modernist paradigm focused on language, meaning, and representation. Critical theory within this tradition has often been focused on the problematic relationship between discourse and reality, leading to dead-end debates over truth and falsity and a textual politics of deconstruction and ideological critique. Other theorists have reacted to the modernist quandary with quests for authentic origins and political strategies grounded in identity and difference. Such approaches can become mired in an endless epistemological and deconstructive detour without ever reaching the moment of constructive and strategic knowledge, or they may retreat into essentialist positions that close off the potential for broader knowledge claims and wider political interventions.

However, some scholars within communication and rhetoric, as elsewhere, have begun to work across disciplinary boundaries in order to find new approaches that move beyond the modernist impasse. One important thematic that has emerged in such work is materiality. Theorists focusing on this issue recognize the importance of the physical infrastructures of communication, the machinic assemblages and interfaces that constitute the nodes of social and technological networks, the situatedness of communication within embodied contexts and practices, the mobility (or immobility) of populations, and the materiality of aural and visual signals themselves. Such approaches reanimate an older understanding of communication as the overcoming of barriers in order to facilitate the movement and interaction of people, goods, and culture. In a materialist paradigm, the flows of discourse and the effects of statements are not ignored, but they are understood as components of corporeal assemblages that organize populations, technologies, and territories.

The focus on materiality comes from a range of disciplines, including critical geography, mobility studies, post-structural philosophy, media studies, sociology, science studies, and cultural studies. We suggest that a focus on technologies, infrastructures, and flows—as material assemblages within power geometries—will move theories of communication and rhetoric beyond the modernist impasse, positioning them to better grasp the shifting logics of the global digital environment. By bringing local faculty and students together with a group of international scholars whose work addresses such concerns from multiple perspectives, we hope to create an invigorating few days of dialog and insight.

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