Spam and the Rhetoric of Objects

Photo Credit: Screenshot of Daniel Tankersley’s “The Forest”
What would an object-oriented rhetoric look like?  This question is being asked by a number of scholars, and that is largely due to Scot Barnett’s review essay in Enculturation, “Toward an Object-Oriented Rhetoric.” In addition to this essay, Scot organized a Rhetoric Society of America conference panel addressing the topic.  Scot’s essay has been examined by many, including Graham Harman, whose work serves as Scot’s focus.  That review suggests that an object-oriented rhetoric would attend to rhetoric’s “missing masses.”  Beyond examining the rhetorical actions of humans, an object-oriented rhetoric would account for objects as well, and it would no longer consider human activity as the focal point of the rhetorical situation. In his response to my post at The Blogora about object-oriented rhetoric, Ian Bogost suggested that OOR can (should?) address “the rhetoric of objects”:
“Do things like traffic lights and kohlrabis persuade one another in their interactions? What would it mean to understand extra-human object relations as rhetorical? When Bruno Latour suggests that trees also might use us ‘to achieve their dark designs,’ does such a use count as rhetoric? It’s a question related to what I call alien phenomenology, but more specific in nature: one that would address how speculation can provide insight into the coaxings of withdrawn objects.”

Given that rhetorical theory has often considered human activity to be its central concern, I think these are interesting and necessary questions.  Rhetoricians usually focus on accounting for how humans persuade other humans, and this is an understandable focus.  But how might we apply the terms, concepts, and methods of rhetoric to objects.  As Bogost asks, how might we study how objects persuade one another?

This brings me to Daniel Tankersley’s “The Forest” (pictured above), an art installation that I saw in February during the Future of Digital Studies conference in Gainesville, Florida. Tankersley explains “The Forest” this way:

“The Forest is produced in collaboration with spambots. These automated bits of code, created by a programmer unknown to me, post strings of text to my online guestbook. My site replaces certain combinations of letters with small graphics. The result is a machine producing a constant stream of quasi-pictographic digital writing. In a way, the text is a mirror, reflecting the preoccupying thoughts of everyday web surfers whose search terms provide fodder for the bots to regurgitate.”

“The Forest” scrolls through thousands of posts to this “guestbook” to show us that bots have been communicating in this space for quite some time, and as we scan we can begin to learn Tankersley’s algorithm for textual manipulation.  For example, any instance of the string “hi” is replaced with a small, smiley-faced heart. Tankersley’s guestbook plays host to various spambots, and he uses that steady stream of text to collaborate with his guests.  When I spoke to Tankersley about “The Forest,” he told me that he was fairly certain that there was some “communication” happening between spambots.  He didn’t provide specifics, but he did say that upon watching the activity for a while he could see patterns and communications.

So, what would rhetoric bring to this discussion? Are these spambots persuading one another? How would we talk about the various interactions in “The Forest” with the tools of rhetorical theory? Would such an endeavor be fruitful?  My sense is that it would be fruitful, and here’s why: the average Internet user considers spam to be little more than an annoyance. For this reason, we use software to protect our blogs and email accounts from spam.  We filter out the noise of spam.  We consider spam to be in the realm of “object,” and thus we look only for ways to eliminate it. We are dismissive of spam.

But spam is playing an important role in our various Internet communications.  We spend time, effort, and resources trying to eliminate it, and we have set up complex systems to prevent the spamming of many digital spaces.  We now have services like Disqus, which creates a central profile for blog commenters.  That central profile not only prevents spam, it also pulls all of a user’s comments together into one space.  If I were to use Disqus (I have an account, but I don’t really use it), my profile would show comments on blogs and websites having to do with baseball, rhetoric, composition studies, new media, and more.  All of these “flecks of identity” (Fuller uses this term in Media Ecologies) are collected in one place.  My identity is no longer as “distributed” as it once seemed, and I am now defined by these various internet postings.  Spam is not the sole cause of this situation, but it is certainly an actant. Spam has spawned any number of technologies, and the effects of those technologies are far reaching.  Our dismissal of spam as noise or annoyance might prevent us from seeing this.

So, how does a spambot persuade, and how does it play a part in the rhetorical ecology of the Internet?  This is a question I am only now beginning to research, but it will require that I examine how spambots work.  It will also require that I examine how software like Disqus works.  But while I am by no means an expert in spam or the filtering of it, my sense is that the rhetoric of spam is very much driven by ethos. Spambots are designed to drive traffic to particular sites, and the tools designed to limit spam are an attempt to kill the ethos of spambots and of particular sites. Spambots learn whether or not to trust one another.  They are drawn to the spaces and networks that other Spambots have discovered. “The Forest” is one example of this – it serves as a kind of honeypot by inviting spambots who, in turn, invite other spambots.

Beyond this, spam intersects with ethos at a different point as well.  Ethos, in addition to referring to a speaker’s credibility, also refers to a space or dwelling. In The Ethos of Rhetoric, Michael Hyde explains that

“discourse is used to transform space and time into ‘dwelling places’ (ethos; pl. ethea) where people can deliberate about and ‘know together’ (con-scientia) some matter of interest.  Such dwelling places define the grounds, the abodes or habitats, where a person’s ethics and moral character take form and develop.” (xiii)

Carolyn Miller, in the same book, suggests that dwellings (ethea) play a major role in shaping the rhetor’s ethos:

“Those who dwell within a rhetorical community acquire their character as rhetorical participants from it, as it educates and socializes them.  The community does this at least in part by supplying the Aristotelian components of ethos—the judgment (phronesis), values (arête), and feelings (eunoia) that make a rhetor persuasive to other members of the community.” (198)

Spambots are part of our dwellings and, therefore, do important work in shaping them.  Technologies like Disqus completely refigure rhetorical activity online, and legitimate blog comments can easily become casualties of war, erroneously caught up in spam filters.

Closer attention to the rhetorics of spambots would help us understand how they persuade one another, and might also help us better understand our various Internet dwellings.  I suspect that a closer analysis of spam will reveal a great deal about rhetorical activity in general, whether that activity is being carried out by computer programs or humans. “The Forest” offers a particularly striking example of how humans, spambots, and various other actants collaborate to construct our various rhetorical dwellings.  Any full understanding of how persuasion happens will have to examine these collaborations, and such work will be much easier to do if we let go of the hierarchy between human and object.

But this approach also makes important ethical assumptions. Object-Oriented Philosophy is an attempt to account for relations between all objects in the world.  Included in this plane of objects are humans.  Thus, the relation between human and object (or human and world) is not necessarily a priveleged one for the Object-Oriented Philsopher. Graham Harman’s Prince of Networks describes Bruno Latour as an object-oriented philosopher because of his insistence on granting “full democratic rights to all actants in the cosmos” (35). If we insist on full democratic rights to all actants, we are putting forth a fairly radical ethics.  We insist that all actants – human and otherwise – escape any easily determined interpretation. Objects constantly escape our grasp, and they exist outside of how we perceive them. Accepting this would be another step toward an ethics that is not reduced human subjectivity or intention. The point is not that this approach is more ethical, but rather that it attempts to provide the richest possible account of rhetorical situation.


  1. Posted August 26, 2010 at 12:29 am | #

    As always, I enjoyed your blog post, Jim. I hope you and anyone else reading this will forgive me for alluding to personal correspondence that is not fully represented here. I imagine that anyone can keep up well enough.

    Although I’m not widely read on OOR, I’m on board. I guess I still wonder about the ongoing goal. In an email, you suggested that “the ongoing goal is to develop new methods. Those methods should not be about pointing
    out what we missed. They should recognize the missing masses, assume
    that we need to account for them, and then build methods that examine
    the world in a new way.” I wanted to follow up on this point.

    I don’t know if you’ve had an opportunity to read it yet, but some of my thinking here goes back to my post on “Counting.” There seem to me to be two basic “attitudes” toward complexity: one that suggests that it always exceeds our abilities to apprehend and appropriate it, and one that puts faith in “counting” it, in pursuing methods that break up the flow into discrete units.

    It seems to me that OOR is interested in “counting” the non-human, in taking things beyond the human as objects of study. In terms of a broader rhetorical conversation, this seems like an important step. As you suggest in the last line of your post, one of our goals should be striving to provide the richest possible account of rhetorical situation. I am fully on board with this – it seems worthwhile to study everything we can take into account and to recognize that our situations are informed by much more than we normally account for and perhaps could account for.

    And yet I still wonder how different these methods are. Maybe we simply need to do the work and see where it takes us. And yet, for some reason (and maybe this is just my problem and not rhetoric’s), I keep getting stuck here. Are we coming up with new ways of counting, or are we simply counting more things? Again, I don’t mean to suggest that counting more things isn’t important, but I wonder if it’s also possible to say that it isn’t really a game changer in the broader scheme of things.

    I’m thinking here of the quote from Jenny Edbauer in Scot Barnett’s review essay that you link to: “writing is distributed across a range of processes and encounters.” I’m wondering about the difference between exploring those processes and encounters in greater detail vs. simply recognizing this insight. I wonder if this can be framed as a difference between knowledge and attitude. Clearly we can create more knowledge of the ways in which objects inflect our rhetorical situations (and how they participate in extra-human rhetorical situations themselves), but I wonder if our fundamental attitude changes. The attitude I have in mind would be one of humility, and it would be characterized by what Krista Ratcliffe calls rhetorical listening. It would be based on the recognition that our situations are complex and that any gesture toward “understanding” this complexity would necessarily be incomplete.

    To return to the question of methods, I see that object-oriented methods could produce new knowledge, but knowledge seems to be somewhat beside the point, perhaps at cross-purposes here. Do these methods bring about new attitudes, new ways of positioning ourselves in relation to the world, new ways of responding to it? Perhaps these questions are entirely unfair at this point. Again, maybe we need to do the work and see where it takes on. Nonetheless, I’d appreciate hearing any thoughts you have on what you think these methods look like and where they take us.

  2. Posted August 26, 2010 at 7:23 am | #

    I’m not sure where these methods will take us. But I am sure that what seems uncontroversial to you and me is very controversial to many in our discipline. You noted at the beginning of your post that you’re “on board,” and I think it’s important to recognize that this puts you in the minority. My argument that spambots persuade one another would be met with skepticism and dismissal in many circles (again, I’d encourage you to scan The Blogora for comments regarding the OOR panel at RSA).

    The discipline still carries a deeply embedded notion that rhetoric is about the conscious and intentional strategies of humans attempting to persuade other humans. This is not the only reason that rhetoricians will be skeptical of OOR. For instance, others who fully accept the premise that persuasion happens outside the realm of the human will resist OOR and OOP because they want to guard disciplinary boundaries. Nonetheless, the big point is this: there’s a lot of work to be done to get rhetoricians to grant that this approach is a) worthwhile and b) within the scope of what rhetoricians do. But that’s on us. The people interested in this line of questioning will have to prove that it matters and that it does something valuable. This is a difficult and necessary step.

    I do not suggest that this is approach is groundbreaking or earth shattering. However, I think that some in OOP do come off sounding this way. Harman’s Prince of Networks (a book I thoroughly enjoyed) can come off sounding like a manifesto. It celebrates Latour and the approach of OOP in a way that probably turns many off. That tone is not always rhetorically effective, and I will make every attempt to avoid it. I don’t think OOR is going to radically reconfigure rhetorical studies, but I do think it can lead us to questions that are not central to our contemporary disciplinary conversations.

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