The “digital” has been contested as shorthand inverse of the “material” just as much by now as it has been critically insisted to be one and the irreducible same. In the former instance, digital has been confused with “virtual” and imagined in aesthetic terms lifted somewhat wholesale from William Gibson’s Neuromancer; in the latter, the digital has, in more of Gibson’s words, “everted”—turned inside out—and been further proven to have always been starkly so ("Google's Earth"). But these characterizations of “virtual worlds” vs. “just vectors and wires” have been covered many times over, to the degree that even scholarship in the newest veins of new materialism merely doth protest too much. Perhaps then a shift in, if not so much a dramatic break with, the ways we so far discuss digital materiality is in order. Some new material in new materialism is due for the digital.

This fourth issue of Trace, “Writing New Material for Digital Culture” explores newer new materialist approaches to the digital. For new materialist and object-oriented philosophies have continued to play a prominent role in discourses on digital media. Theorists such as Bruno Latour (2005), Jane Bennett (2010), and Ian Bogost (2012) prompt us to conceive of the material world as a “vibrant” network of objects endowed with agency, intention, and desire. Scholars in new media and digital rhetoric, such as Jussi Parikka (2015) and David Rieder (2017) have begun to extend new materialist philosophies into an examination of our historical and contemporary relationship to electronic media and digital culture. This emerging trend posits that digital artifacts not only enact material effects within diverse media ecologies but actively resist the strict binaries between “the digital” and “the physical” that often circulate in discussions of new media and inform ecological thought.

In Still Life with Rhetoric, Laurie Gries outlines her new materialist approach to rhetoric by claiming that “a thing’s rhetorical meaning is constituted by the consequences that emerge in its various material encounters, affects, and intra-actions” (29). Gries pursues her new materialist rhetoric by tracing the digital and material circulation of the famous Obama Hope image. In a similar vein, Nicole Starosielski takes a new materialist approach by bringing to surface the overlooked structures of undersea cable networks that physically support Internet services. Lastly, Lori Emerson’s work with the Media Archaeology Lab at UC-Boulder demonstrates the importance of engaging with the material traces of our digital histories, from magic lanterns and typewriters to early modems and video game systems. The diverse methods taken up by these scholars serve as just a few examples of how new materialism offers a productive framework for grounding the study of digital rhetoric and media.

But what this issue contributes to the conversation is a more human and (differently post)humanist perspective for new materialist discourse on the digital. One of the greatest overcorrects of posthumanist and new materialist scholarship has been, in the words of John Schilb, that much of its especially object-oriented variety “trivializes, even trashes, the contributions of human actors” (“The Matter of Writing”). As David M. Grant and Jennifer Clary-Lemon currently prepare their edited collection Decolonial Conversations in Posthuman and New Material Rhetorics, we present this issue in alliance with their work to “put forward a vision for more equitable new materialisms or posthumanisms” (“Call for Papers”). In general, the articles in this collection explore how digital technologies can serve to both amplify and erase marginalized identities, perspectives, and epistemologies. In doing so, the scholars in this issue challenge the field of digital studies to not neglect the importance of human perspectives in the rush to theorize the agential qualities of digital and material actors.

The contributors to Trace Issue 4: “Writing New Material for Digital Culture” forward many compelling insights regarding the continuing imbrication of digital media within our everyday lives and spaces. In doing so, contributors take up a variety of approaches to the study of digital culture as a material phenomenon, from case studies exploring the materiality of online discourses to creative explorations of the compositional affordances of digital mapping technologies. The methodological and theoretical diversity of these projects not only demonstrates the value of cross-disciplinary perspectives within digital rhetoric and new media studies but also provides generative models for the future of scholarly production within these and other fields.

Issue 4 begins by reevaluating a common theoretical frame within new media scholarship: obsolescence. In “What a Waste: Why Obsolescence is the Wrong Lens for E-Waste,” Elizabeth F. Chamberlain questions the dominance of obsolescence as the critical lens for e-waste in new materialist scholarship. Her incisive analysis raises necessary and nuanced agitations on the term for the ways in which it traffics in linear understandings of device lifecycles and the places where they go to “die” and are dumped. She takes new materialist scholarship to task for reliance on obsolescence as lens resulting in narratives of “white guilt” that strip developing nations receiving e-waste from the West of their agency, framed merely as victims rather than capable participants in technological craft and discourse. Navigating through a wealth of case studies but focusing particularly on examples from Agbogbloshie, Ghana, Chamberlain moves the discussion of e-waste and critical interventions into the problem from fetishization of “artist-archaeologists” to a fuller picture of more “utilitarian upcyclers.” She works to enrich the framework for e-waste to include developing nations as very much part of the solution as well as problem, rather than allow the established trajectory of current new materialist scholarship that imagines obsolescence as “our” concern foisted onto “them.” Her article globalizes new materialist thought beyond its often too white and Western narrow foci.

As other contributors to issue 4 demonstrate, digital media facilitate the circulation and amplification of marginalized voices. In “Activism, Actancy, and Delivery in Digital Human Rights Rhetoric,” Laura Sparks analyzes digital advocacy campaigns through a new materialist and posthumanist lens. Sparks notes that advocating for more equitable conditions for marginalized humans requires attending to the role of nonhuman actants within emerging digital ecologies. Through this, Sparks demonstrates how delivery in online spaces is enmeshed within networks of “distributed agencies” that make it difficult to track the rhetorical impact of activist initiatives. However, drawing on new materialist thinkers such as Jane Bennett, Sparks nonetheless demonstrates a viable approach to attending to these nonhuman, material-rhetorical forces through a close analysis of several Amnesty International campaigns.

From the international to the local, new materialism further encourages research practices that acknowledge the entanglement of human and nonhuman agencies within digital-physical environments. In “(Digital) Objects with Thing-Power: A New Materialist Perspective of Spaces, Places, and Public Memory,” April O’Brien conducts a spatio-rhetorical analysis of Pendleton, South Carolina. O’Brien’s analysis demonstrates how historical representation operates as a material and rhetorical force that can serve to whitewash a town’s racist and colonial past. However, despite the revisionist narratives promulgated by the local discourses and historical markers scattered throughout Pendleton, O’Brien demonstrates how human and nonhuman actors—dilapidated buildings, rusty memorials, garbage dumps—serve as traces of “another history” that collectively speak to the infrastructural injustices enacted against black communities in Pendleton and throughout the American south. Ultimately, O’Brien models a generative approach for how the field of writing and rhetoric might draw on the non-linear, spatial affordances of digital mapping technologies to document marginalized histories on-location.

Contributors to Issue 4 also address the seemingly immaterial world of social media networks to show just how material its complications can be. In “How to (News)feed a Crowd: Transformation and Collaboration in Digital Food Communities,” Kelli Gill considers how online food and recipe videos facilitate spaces for engaging in public discourse about culturally and politically sensitive topics, counter to the typical toxic domain of online conversation. As Gill notes, our relationships to food are highly rhetorical, imbricated within socio-cultural factors like race, ethnicity, geography, and class. Through a close analysis of several online recipe comment sections, Gill demonstrates how the participatory and playful nature of online food communities offers an emerging intersectional space for digital publics to engage in cross-cultural dialogue about these and other topics.

Entangled in the “post-digital” logics of these digital publics, new media also transform our relationship to inscription practices once thought of as exclusively material. In “New Materialism and the Intimacy of Post-digital Handwriting,” Adam Wickberg analyzes the changing ontologies of the practice of handwriting in overwhelmingly digital and digitized cultures. Wickberg takes on the post-digital as an epistemic condition caught between the ubiquity of the digital and the counter-resurgence of the analog that is critical to the understanding of new materialism. He traces the surfacing phenomenon of post-digital handwriting, defined as “writing on paper by hand which is then digitized as image and disseminated online,” to claim that handwriting is not disappearing but rather is transforming from a practice of representation and verbal communication to one of visual phenomena that invigorates the post-digital with qualities of intimacy and singularity it is purported to lack. His article focuses on three case studies to make its argument, the political signature of Donald Trump, the communities formed around the concept of “Penmanship Porn,” and the recent mindfulness trend of Bullet Journaling. Through each example, Wickberg emphasizes that post-digital handwriting digitally augments seemingly analog concepts of intimacy and singularity, in other words, the supposed personal individuality expressed in handwriting, through not an opposition of material substrate but a rather complex confluence of post-digital infrastructure.

Building off the conversations broached by Issue 4’s contributors, a new materialist approach to digital culture requires alternative research practices that challenge us to (mis)use emerging technologies in generative rhetorical contexts. In “Transducing Embodied Inscription Practices with the Kinect,” Matthew Halm performs an object lesson of sorts highlighting the motion sensing input device Kinect, a videogame peripheral designed to accompany the Xbox 360, Xbox One, and Microsoft Windows computers. By analyzing the Kinect as an “example which behaves differently from writing but which bears unexpected similarity to it,” Halm endeavors to deconstruct what is actually so unnatural about “natural user interfaces,” such as Microsoft’s device. With the Kinect serving as a guiding case study, Halm argues that a posthuman understanding of writing should help distance conceptions of composition from traditional models of representation that limit the approaches we can take to the complexity of writing as bodily event. Rather than continue in frameworks that emphasize the anthropological and intellectual practices of writing as an interior phenomenon, Halm analyzes the deep exteriority of writing through a transition to transduction, or, the “process of residual transference as a result of proximity between entities.” Transduction describes the tendencies for writer and writing to leave traces upon one another—not the writer controlling the writing nor the writing the writer, but a material confluence between the two that yields surprising new understandings of what inscription really means outside of just the representational. Ultimately, Halm’s posthumanist approach to the “natural” user interface challenges us to expand the very definition of what we mean by writing in digitally ambient cultures.

Finally, Issue 4 concludes with a pedagogical focus to “newly materialize” the ideas considered throughout, and one that indicates in these frameworks just how daunting multimodal composing can be for both teacher and student. Fortunately, in “Following Suit: A Pursuit of Material Process in Multimodal Composition,” Kali Jo Wacker offers writing teachers some useful theoretical and practical guidelines for attending to the complex material processes inherent to multimodal production. Drawing on insights from new materialist theory and composition pedagogy, Wacker analyses a self-created art gallery exhibit that serves to illuminate the highly personal and enmeshed nature of multimodal composing as a digital and material phenomenon. In doing so, Wacker demonstrates how multimodality is not a discrete collection of individual objects or texts but rather a much more dynamic and entangled system of emergent rhetorical interaction. From this, Wacker offers some key insights and best-practices for incorporating multimodal projects into the writing classroom that might better attend to processes and practices of revision, preservation, and performance.

What all of the articles compiled for Trace Issue 4: “Writing New Material for Digital Culture” work to advance is a different way of tending to the kinds of concerns that have defined a field. What we propose in presenting the critical work of these various contributors is that previously radical work to decenter the human perspective and complicate traditionalist understandings of the digital has itself become traditionalist. Such work becomes part of an ethos that overcorrects to disavow the human altogether at a precarious time when cultural rhetorics are sorely reminding us that some people are still debating who “counts” as human to begin with. What this issue therefore presents is a newly prismatic angle on which to ponder new materialism as part of a more equitable project to break outside of non/human binaries and better value more and all forms of agency animating digital culture. May the collective body of work here complicate the conversations continually materializing in digital rhetoric and writing, media studies, and more.

Works Cited

Gibson, William. “Google’s Earth.” The New York Times, The New York Times Company, 31 August 2010, https://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/01/opinion/01gibson.html.

Grant, David M. and Jennifer Clary-Lemon. “Call for Papers.” Critical Rhetorics and New Materialisms Collection Call for Papers, David M. Grant, https://sites.uni.edu/grantd/CFP.html.

Gries, Laurie.Still Life with Rhetoric: A New Materialist Approach for Visual Rhetorics. Utah State University Press, 2015.

Schilb, John. “The Matter of Writing and the Mattering of the Humanities.” Modern Language Association 2018 Convention. New York Hilton Midtown, 5 Jan. 2018.

Editor Bios

Jacob Greene Jacob Greene is an assistant professor of English in the Writing, Rhetorics, and Literacies program at Arizona State University. His research explores the rhetorical potential of location-based writing technologies, from mobile augmented reality applications to GPS-guided audio tours. His work has appeared in Composition Studies, enculturation, Computers & Composition Online, and Kairos.

Chloe Anna Milligan is Assistant Professor of Digital Humanities in the Writing and Digital Media Program at Pennsylvania State University, Berks College, where she specializes in electronic literature, embodied rhetorics, game studies, and media archaeology. Her relevant scholarly work has been published in journals such as Computers and Composition Online, Textshop Experiments, Hyperrhiz, and Computers and Composition. She is currently at work on his first book, Novel Media: The Book, the Novel, and Post-Digital Literature, for Cambridge University Press as part of its new Elements in Digital Fictions series.

Cover design and layout by Jason Crider

Website design and layout by Jason Crider and Aaron Beveridge

Return to Table of Contents