Session J.05: Stop, Collaborate, and Listen: Performing Public Rhetorics in a Digital Age


Presenters: Shannon Butts (University of Florida), Scott Sundvall (University of Memphis), and Jacob Greene (Arizona State University)

Today’s digitally networked environments open a new world of opportunities and possibilities to those with material access. This world, though, comes with an overwhelming amount of noise, but as the panelists of “Stop, Collaborate, and Listen: Performing Public Rhetorics in a Digital Age” (J.05) argue, this noise, coupled with the affordances of digital tools presents new and exciting rhetorical opportunities for students and scholars alike. In their own ways, each panelist calls us to find value in the sounds, sites, and movements that surround us every day in the public sphere.

The panel began with Shannon Butts introducing the term “rhetorical inertia,” which prompted attendees to consider the forces acting upon and ultimately impacting a message’s rhetorical momentum. Scott Sundvall followed with a call to rethink the possibilities living in what we might initially consider “noise pollution.” Jacob Greene concluded by examining the impact everyday sound has on our understanding of specific spaces.

Shannon Butts, “Stop: Rhetorical Inertia and Moving Matters”

Kicking off the panel, Shannon Butts from the University of Florida, Gainesville, took us back to our high school physics classes where terms like inertia and force dominated discussions and lectures. Recalling the works of scholars like Laurie Gries, Butts introduced the term “rhetorical inertia” to better conceptualize the movements and impacts of the forces on rhetoric in public settings. Though digital tools have been historically positioned as forces to maintain rhetorical inertia, she explains their equal potential for halting such momentum. The #MeToo movement, and its erasure of women of color, served as Butts’ site for analysis. The initial momentum of the movement was propelled with great force into the public sphere by the hashtag’s continued use –including its presence in Tweets, retweets, and replies; however, the public nature of Twitter allowed women of color to critique the blatant exclusion of their narratives in the larger discussion. The force of this critique, Butts argued, disrupted the movement’s rhetorical inertia, causing a pause in an effort to promote greater inclusivity and accountability. As her analysis of the #MeToo movement showed, the idea of stopping rhetorical interia makes assessing and challenging the cultural and material forces at play in a given rhetorical situation possible. Butts concluded by suggesting that we first stop by adjusting our site and identifying instances of static or blockage; second locate by “mapping what matters” and understanding the discourses already in circulation in that space; and finally make moves that apply rhetorical forces appropriate for that location.

Rhetoric is an abstract concept to be sure, especially when you consider its movement in the public sphere. Though physics and rhetoric are not often connected, I found it the perfect framework for understanding the relationship among numerous agents in a given public rhetorical situation. In fact, this approach provides a more precise way of understanding concepts like Latour’s Actor-Network Theory (ANT) as it sketches the movements and impacts between different agents. Butts’ research provides a means for visualizing rhetorical ecologies in a way that will help scholars and students alike unpack and discuss the often-complex interactions of message, medium, speaker, and audience.

Scott Sundvall, “Surveillance as Performative Rhetoric and Writing”

Following Butts, Scott Sundvall from the University of Memphis explored what’s possible when we stop and listen carefully to what might be considered “noise pollution” and background noise. His talk, “Surveillance as Performative Rhetoric and Writing” examined what we might consider “pollution” or “distraction” and how we can actually use these objects as a tool for collaboration. More specifically, his presentation focused on new media approaches to noise pollution, considering the roles of both human and nonhuman agents. Sundvall drew upon scholars like Timothy Morton and Bruno Latour to situate instances of noise pollution as objects and to emphasize their importance in the composition process. Rather than removing, rejecting, or devaluing distractions, writers should, Sundvall argues, embrace their unique affordances as key components of invention and collaboration.

The beginning of Sundvall’s talk was fascinating and worthy of continued discussion, but because of the presentation’s delivery style, I had a difficult time following along after the first two minutes. To illustrate his point regarding “noise pollution,” Sundvall layered a video of him speaking to the camera on top of his ongoing in-person presentation—meaning that there was an equally loud video playing synchronously to his talk. I could have appreciated this tactic if it had only consumed a minute or so of his talk, but it quickly became the focus with more noise, like music, added as the presentation progressed. As someone with an attention disorder, it was difficult for me to focus on the talk itself with so many equally prominent elements competing for attention.

Jacob Greene, “Listen: Embodied Sound and Place-Based Invention”

Concluding the panel, Jacob Greene of Arizona State University opened his presentation by critiquing the rather passive approach current scholarship has assigned listening. Like Krista Ratcliffe, who he cited in his presentation, Greene advocates for greater instances of intentional acts of listening, especially to the “mundane” sounds we regularly encounter. Greene supports his call by examining the affordances of listening to a traffic intersection, later noting that how we listen to a space greatly impacts how we can perceive and subsequently interact with/in it. “Background noise,”  or sounds that we may not initially perceive as having inherent rhetorical qualities, are deserving of our consideration as these sounds are usually the ones that subtly construct the meaning of space, place, and public. Listening, then, gives us the ability to embrace the “rhetorical ambiguity” of a situation, pushing us to thoughtfully consider the potential (but overlooked) affordances of a specific space. Such reconfigurations create new spaces through the possibilities of new emerging audiences that can form and new meanings that can be made.

Greene extended upon Ratcliffe’s appreciation for listening in a way that effectively accounts for nonhuman agents. While Ratcliffe talks about a “stance of openness” when we listen rhetorically, so too does Greene with his concept of rhetorical ambiguity. Rhetorical ambiguity does not initially ask us to consider the cultures that inform the difference we might encounter (like Ratcliffe’s rhetorical listening) but encourages us to consider how cultures influence our views of sounds that shape our perceptions of space. Much like Ratcliffe’s rhetorical listening, Greene’s approach serves as an effective way to slow down and carefully consider how sounds do, could, and/or should influence the public rhetorical ecologies we function in.


I attended this panel not just because of its subtle nod to Vanilla Ice, but also (and mainly) because, as a researcher, I’m interested in how digital tools can aid public pedagogies. Overall, I was impressed by the ways in which the panelists thoughtfully synthesized theories of digital rhetoric, public pedagogy, and contemporary rhetoric. Their insightful presentations provided original ways to understand how digital tools can foster a deeper appreciation for the rhetorical possibilities already existing, but often overlooked, in the public sphere.

The research presented on this panel has, too, great pedagogical possibilities that are flexible enough to cater to different teaching locations, institutions, and student demographics. For example, Greene’s discussion of listening to traffic intersections could be easily developed for both urban and rural institutions alike. For me, the idea of slowing down and listening to our surroundings—human and nonhuman—could serve as a helpful framework for instructors as they help students navigate various considerations, ideologies, and perspectives for composing in both academic, professional, and/or public settings.

On a closing note, I also want to take this opportunity to encourage all future presenters to be more aware of accessibility regarding attention disorders. Sundvall’s presentation, from the content I was able to grasp onto, was fascinating, and I wanted the opportunity to consider the presentation—including the argument, methodology, and conclusions—in its entirety. Unfortunately, the presentation delivery excluded me and others with similar disorders from the conversation. Possible considerations for future presenters include 1) providing trigger warnings for attendees if a presentation, at any time, layers content synchronously on top of the ongoing talk; 2) providing a handout that clearly identifies the main argument, methodology, and conclusions of the presentation; and/or 3) providing a complete transcript of the presentation.

About Author

Lacy Hope

Lacy Hope is a PhD Candidate at Washington State University where she examines the intersections of digital technology, public discourse, and capitalism.

1 Comment

  1. Scott Sundvall on

    Thanks much for this review, Lacy. I think you encapsulated our panel quite well! I want to apologize for the confusion during my presentation, but I wanted to note that the confusion was intentional and part of the performative point. And the delivery served as the performative instantiation of the otherwise content, so it was not possible to properly relay the points in a handout. It’s because I also suffer from attention deficit disorder that I was drawn to this idea (in context of “attention economy” [Lanham]). Nonetheless, I obviously did not make that clear in my presentation, so I apologize for the confusion regarding the confusion. I also apologize to anybody else who came to our panel who was confused by the confusion. You were meant to find it somewhat confusing and difficult to focus on one aspect of the layered presentation, but you were not meant to find that concept itself confusing. Again, I apologize and will be more explicit about such in a preface to my presentations next time.

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