Cooper, “Rhetorical Agency as Emergent and Enacted”

Cooper, Marilyn. “Rhetorical Agency as Emergent and Enacted.” CCC 62.3 (Feb 2011): 420-449. (30 pages)

Cooper reacts to composition’s paradigmatic shift toward the social where individuals are socialized within complex systems (economic, cultural, linguistic, environmental, etc), thus the death of the subject (of the centered, conscious, rational self). Specifically, she attempts to theorize the role of agency in light of the social turn. At the core of Cooper’s piece is a realignment of a concept of change through discourse. She offers the frame of complexity theory, distilled succinctly: “Complex systems…are self-organizing: order (and change) results from an ongoing process in which a multitude of agents interact frequently and in which the results of interactions feed back into the process. Emergent properties (such as agency) are not epiphenomena [secondary byproducts], nor ‘possessions’ in any sense, but function as part of the systems in which they originate. And causation in complex systems is nonlinear: change arises not as the effect of a discrete cause, but from the dance of perturbation and response as agents interact” (421). For Cooper, there is not a cause and resultant effect that causes change; rather, change occurs through the interaction among agents.

The source of agency, then, is embodied in action—whether conscious or not. Action, in this case, is always intentional and thus always agentive: “Actors or agents are entities that act; by virtue of their action they necessarily bring about changes. (It should go without saying that all actions are embodied including what are thought as ‘mental’ actions—speaking, writing, reflecting) (424). In this way, “order is always provisional and temporary achievement, because agents are always doing things that make a difference” (425). Along these same principles, actors or agents’ meaningful patterns are always being changed or influenced by new stimuli: with each new experience, their concepts are perturbed. Cooper describes this process as follows: “The process of assimilation defines an agent as an individual with his or her own intentions and goals; the individual is determinate, but not determined, in an ongoing becoming driven by the interactions among the components of their nervous system and by their interaction with the surround. They change themselves through these interactions and at the same time instigate changes in others with whom they interact” (428).

The process of becoming is a cycle where new input is reconfigured with an individual’s interaction with their surround, but simply because it is new input becomes new meaning. And by inflecting this new meaning outward (performing an agency) we begin a dance of perturbation that instigate changes in others. This interaction between our enactment of agency and others in our surround can enact change in how the surround processes and operates. It’s a cycle. In Obama’s speech for example, the reactions to his speech were “fed back into his ongoing construction of meanings and goals” (431) for himself, but also in the perturbation of the narrative. This functions similarly to Brittons’ spectator role and participant role: meaning is socially constructed and transformed as others begin to offer meanings to new perturbations.

A person’s action—their embodied action—is their performance of their agency: through their performances, they enact who they are as individuals. Their personality or disposition, if enacted, is the performance of rhetorical agency: denying this action altogether will deny a person’s enaction of self, existence, agency. Agency is, in a way, the basis for existence.



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