Sensing Exigence: A Rhetoric for Smart Objects

Article Information

  • Author(s): Elizabeth Losh
  • Affiliation(s): University of California, San Diego
  • Publication Date: 15th January 2016
  • Issue: 5
  • Citation: Elizabeth Losh. “Sensing Exigence: A Rhetoric for Smart Objects.” Computational Culture 5 (15th January 2016).


This essay argues that the sensing activities of smart objects and infrastructures for device-to-device communication need to be understood as a fundamental aspect of the rhetorical situation, even in the absence of human agents. Using the concept of exigence, most famously developed by Lloyd Bitzer, this essay analyzes the asymmetrical rhetorical dynamics of human-computer interaction and suggests new rhetorical roles for reading machines. It asserts that rhetorical studies has yet to catch up with electronic literature and other digital art forms when it comes to matters of the interface and the sensorium of the machine. It also claims that the work of Carolyn Miller epitomizes the conservative tendencies of rhetorical study when it comes to ubiquitous computing, even as she acknowledges a desire among some parties to grant smart objects rhetorical agency. Furthermore, when traditionally trained rhetoricians undertake the analysis of new media objects of study, far too much attention is devoted to the screen. In the logic of rhetorical theory, cameras are privileged over scanners, optics are privileged over sensors, and representation is privileged over registration. However, new forms of rhetorical performance by computational components may be going on independent of human-centered display. By interpreting works of electronic literature by Amaranth Borsuk, Caitlin Fisher, and Judd Morrissey, it posits a possible framework of sensing exigence.


The canoes glide slowly and noiselessly, punted by men especially good at this task and always used for it. Other experts who know the bottom of the lagoon … are on the look-out for fish. . . . Customary signs, or sounds or words are uttered. Sometimes a sentence full of technical references to the channels or patches on the lagoon has to be spoken; sometimes … a conventional cry is uttered. . . . Again, a word of command is passed here and there, a technical expression or explanation which serves to harmonize their behavior towards other men. … An animated scene, full of movement, follows, and now that the fish are in their power the fishermen speak loudly, and give vent to their feelings. Short, telling exclamations fly about, which might be rendered by such words as: “Pull in,” “Let go,” “Shift further,” “Lift the net.” 1

Rhetorician Lloyd Bitzer chooses this section from Bronislaw Malinowski’s famed ethnographic study of the Trobriand Islanders to illustrate how “primitive” language functions in the context of a situation shaped by particular exigences and limitations. To avoid scaring the fish away, the men must ration their speaking to a bare minimum, but large amounts of information still must be conveyed verbally in the suspenseful environment of otherwise enforced silence.

Rhetorical scholarship in the context of a computational culture characterized by machinic vision, autonomous sensing, and non-human navigation is returning to Bitzer’s work and his definition of “exigence” as an “imperfection marked by urgency”2 in his famous essay, “The Rhetorical Situation.” Bitzer appears to be particularly useful for explaining how responsiveness in communicative systems is shaped by limitations. According to Bitzer, we often speak because a conduit for opportunity is blocked not because it is open, and – in attempting to effect change through the discursive activities that we are compelled to undertake – we often have a restricted menu of options. In the story of Malinowski’s indigenous subjects, the Trobriand Islanders have to talk to each other in order to get access to the fish, but their speech of “technical expressions” and “technical references” is highly regulated by the demands of the specific situation. Similarly, contemporary users who send and receive digital files must be mindful of unintended audiences, unanticipated purposes, and the policing of norms around genre by followers of the metrics of popularity. In other words, rather than be liberated by access to broad audiences, those in the rhetorical situations of today that are crowded with others and with sensing apparatuses may often only wish to venture the most cautious of responses. Furthermore, there are many nonhuman actors participating in the circulation of discourse, which Bitzer’s scene also dramatizes.

Bitzer presents a useful starting point to contextualize recent studies of computational expression that focus on platform constraints3, the limitations of copyright and digital rights management technologies4, inscriptions on physical media that resist instrumental mastery5, and rule-based procedural rhetoric.6 After all, Bitzer’s classic essay asserted that expression sprang from “a defect, an obstacle, something waiting to be done, a thing that is other than it should be.” 7. One senses this imperfection and responds. Bitzer’s 1968 essay opposed popular dogma in rhetorical studies at the time, which primarily emphasized human mastery, agency, self-awareness, and free will. Instead, Bitzer focused on a rhetorical situation composed of three basic elements: audience, exigence, and constraint.

Because Bitzer’s essay posited that agency might be distributed across different aspects of the rhetorical situation, his work is important for understanding device-to-device communication and physical computing in which technological objects assume positions of agency. What Bitzer called the rhetorical “situation” transforms into the rhetorical “ecology” when taken up by theories that decenter the human. As Laurie Gries writes in “Agential Matters,” rhetoricians studying networked systems, interdependent agents, and feedback mechanisms and reading theories of posthumanism and distributed cognition are likely to experience “the growing awareness that agency is both multidimensional and dispersed among author, audience, technologies, and environment.” 8. Given the rise of smart devices that may serve simultaneously as rhetor, audience, exigence, and constraint, Bitzer provides a vocabulary to connect rhetoric and computation. His work also provides an alternative to instrumental assumptions about rhetoric that emphasize the primacy of persuasion and the function of appeals to the audience as tools. At a 2015 three-day symposium devoted to digital rhetoric, Bitzer was frequently invoked by those taking new forms of electronic chatter seriously.9 For example, self-described “neo-Bitzerian” David Rieder deployed Bitzer in a talk about transduction that was accompanied by the sensing apparatus of a Microsoft Kinect. Even those at the conference who denied that nonhuman actors could perform rhetorical activities recognized the value of Bitzer to buttressing arguments. At one point humanist advocate Douglas Eyman noted Bitzer’s famous assertion that “rhetoric is a mode of altering reality” and pointed out its application to new augmented reality technologies, such as the Leap Motion controller.

To contemporary scholars of science and technology studies, the Trobriand fishing expedition Bitzer alludes to would likely be seen as anything but primitive: the islanders are expert users interacting with highly specialized technologies, following a script of tacit knowledge practices, and the boats and the nets that they deploy are iteratively designed to exploit specific affordances. What’s interesting about this scene of what Bitzer calls “persons, events, objects, relations, and an exigence which strongly invites utterance” 10 is that it might also demonstrate that the rhetorical situation is much more about sensing than seeing. Despite the presence of fishermen “on the look-out,” most of the action seems to be about other kinds of condition checking, as the men respond to each other long before they are triggered to celebrate by the presence of fish in their nets.

This essay argues that the rhetoric of sensing in digital environments still speaks to many aspects of traditional rhetorical inquiry, although it requires rethinking the definition of discourse to include the movement of mechanical parts and the prompting of automated scripts. In short, it accounts for how rhetors’ sense of how to respond in digital spaces is profoundly shaped by computation. A rhetoric for smart objects could further expand the meaning of classical terms in the rhetorical canon like “memory” or “delivery” in productive ways, and it could offer a path to update theorization of the speaking objects and radiant subjects of forensic and epideictic rhetorics respectively. It builds upon existing rhetorical criticism about exigence and constraint in games,11 which in turn is grounded in earlier work on artifacts of popular culture drawn from horror and science fiction.12 This approach may also challenge conventional notions about agency by substituting software “authoring” for conventional textual “authorship.” When James J. Brown, Jr. asks us to consider “ethical programs” that enact the traditional scripts of conventions such as hospitality, we can look to the devices upon which these programs run and consider their agency as well.13

This essay acknowledges the influence of a particular type of account grounded in contemporary anxieties about smart objects and asserts that Carolyn R. Miller’s depiction of how computation transforms our understanding of the rhetorical situation and rhetorical agency shows how many rhetoricians resist posthuman repositioning. It asks why Miller’s account still privileges a human-centered notion of rhetoric and represses computation’s role in the rhetorical situation. An analysis of different kinds of objects that perform as “reading machines” demonstrates that communication is much more than a human-to-human enterprise and that computational machines can be audiences. Electronic literature that incorporates augmented reality provides a particularly useful series of case studies for thinking not only about inputs, outputs, and interfaces but also about the tablet as an animate entity. This essay concludes by arguing that Bitzer’s notion of the rhetorical situation helps scholars of computation understand that enhanced devices can – at different moments and sometimes simultaneously – be rhetor, audience, and situation.

Today, as we trawl for free wireless with our laptops, or angle for better signals with our mobile phones, we are still fishing. Our occasions for speech are dictated by the material, embodied, affective, situated, and labor-intensive feedback loops of interacting with technologies, with each other, and with the voids of the unknown, just as the Trobriand Islanders were. In fact, now that so many discursive opportunities depend on being recognized by nonhuman agents, it may actually be the case that our devices are speaking with each other while they fish for us.

Reformulating Exigence and Audience

Although influential in its time, Bitzer’s work was not without controversy. In 1973 Richard Vatz dismissed the rhetorical situation as a “myth” that denied the importance of choice, intention, and meaning and refused to treat rhetorical contexts as fluid and prone to subjective interpretations.14 He also argued that in the era of Nixon and Vietnam Bitzer’s positive logic of unavoidable compulsion could be used to justify the unacceptable behavior of the military industrial complex. Much as today’s opponents of technological determinism critique its Kittlerian potential to invite political acceptance of the status quo, Vatz asserted that Bitzer ignored the ways that language created lived experience and that he underestimated the role of interrogatable and alterable structures of power, privilege, and self-interest in a system’s fundamental design.

In her 1984 essay on genre theory, Carolyn Miller provides a useful analysis of how Bitzer promotes a particular tradition in rhetorical study distinct from Kenneth Burke’s in the way that it names the surrounding context.

Although Burke and Bitzer have both used the term “rhetorical situation,” Bitzer’s work brought a specific version into prominence in rhetorical theory. One crucial difference between the two is Burke’s use of motive and Bitzer’s of exigence as the focus of situation. Although the two concepts are related, there is a tension between them . . . Burke’s emphasis is on human action, whereas Bitzer’s appears to be on reaction.15

According to Miller, Bitzer considers exigence to be independent of human awareness and that its factual components are separable from what she calls “the perceptual screen.” Ultimately Miller takes issue with Bitzer locating exigence outside the social world, although – unlike Vatz – she does not reject his contributions out of hand. She even appropriates certain aspects of exigence to reject rigidly hierarchical genre theories that emphasize closed types rather than the open practices of situated action.

Miller’s 2007 essay for Rhetoric Society Quarterly, “What Can Automation Tell Us About Agency,” claims that systems to automate assessment of students’ English assignments actually tell us more about vexed interpersonal human dynamics and the ideologies behind them than interactions between people and machines. 16 Just as Bitzer is criticized by Vatz for claiming that “meaning resides in events,” which might deprive the rhetor of assuming any agency in shaping the rhetorical situation, Miller argues that today’s instructors of rhetoric are upset that agency might become “a property of the rhetorical event, not of agents.”17 This is not merely a matter of thinking about how technology creates exigency or introduces constraints, as scholars of more naïve forms of digital rhetoric commonly do. Miller is asking what happens when a computer becomes the primary audience in the rhetorical situation or replaces a human listener or reader entirely: “By positing a machine as audience, automated assessment systems for both writing and speaking denaturalize rhetorical action, challenging and uncovering our intuitions about its necessary conditions.”18

Miller claims that the advent of these technologies allows us to reflect about our own unstated premises about the rhetorical situation and question if change is effected through discourse in the ways that we commonsensically assume. To test her hypotheses, she creates an elaborate fiction about a computerized model that is supposedly now available for assessing student performance; then she surveys twenty-five instructors of composition and public speaking to collect their reactions to such a contraption. Although she imagines an impressive fictional composite for analyzing oratorical input computationally, her description is grounded in contemporary research already producing working prototypes.

AutoSpeech-EasyTM is a revolutionary technology, which has benefited from major advancements in computer science and cognitive engineering: rasterization of video input for realtime face and expression detection; an extensive database of haptics, oculesics, and proxemics; speech-recognition algorithms with matrix analysis of vocalics; and a patented inference engine for emotion recognition. These new programming achievements have been combined with established parsers for syntax, semantic cohesion, and logic.19

In Miller’s made-up scenario, “recognition” and “detection” events are registered as condition changes by an array of input devices that send signals from their sensors to the artificial intelligence system that interprets the data it is given against a pre-programmed evaluative matrix. As Miller notes, the machine does not adopt the function of a human audience member holistically; it can only imitate the perceptive powers of the instructor as a sum of meticulously listed working parts.

Scholars of surveillance studies have examined similar attempts to use the same kinds of facial-recognition technologies to outsource the labor of monitoring political subjects and maintain the authoritarian control of the state,20 The secondary theme that emerged in the surveys was anxiety about the potential loss of a dynamic public sphere in which audiences participate in complex and messy feedback loops of communication in which power relationships can be challenged. As one instructor put it, the technology would effectively “sanitize” the speaking environment.

Obviously this attribution of agency is a powerful part of the development of artificial intelligence (AI) technologies. Following the model of Weizenbaum’s ELIZA, a text-input computer program that simulated interactions with a nonjudgmental Rogerian therapist,21 generations of chatbot designers have aspired to create computerized intelligent agents that can play the “imitation game” successfully enough to pass the Turing Test and be judged as indistinguishable from human interlocutors.22 Thanks to these engineering efforts, computer programs have become skilled enough at speaking the language of customer service agents, porn stars, and scam artists to fool the gullible and to seem interchangeable with an attentive human being on the other side of a text chat session or e-mail exchange. Although these are procedurally generated text responses, recipients of such messages judge them to be endowed with economic or sexual agency and thus capable of rhetorical power.

Miller insists that the rhetorical situation must be legitimated by the presence of an authentically human Other. “All audiences are “inscrutable to some degree,” so the blackboxed nature of the workings of the technology is less of a problem than the potential absence of “someone who may resist, disagree, disapprove, humiliate—or approve, appreciate, empathize, and applaud.”23 She asserts that instructors are “culturally and economically positioned to deny agency to machines” while administrators are positioned to grant machines agency for reasons of expediency. Thus machines find themselves subject to different exigences, depending on the audience in a given rhetorical situation. Despite the fact that early computer scientists have warned that refusing agency to machines may be one day be seen as analogous to allowing the condition of slavery to exist24 or the devaluation of women, 25 Miller is much more concerned with “empowering subaltern subjects” of her own species – beginning with students in the classroom – who are humanized by giving attributions of agency to them and accepting attributions of agency from them as well.

Human-Computer Miscommunication

A contemporary rhetoric of smart objects is characterized by varying degrees of decoding ability, whether the rhetor is a person or a machine. On an everyday level, we may speak on a cell phone with GPS and an accelerometer or peruse a digital reader implanted with an RFID marker and have no capacity to participate meaningfully in the device-to-device communication that is simultaneously taking place during the human-to-human discursive interchange. Furthermore, the path dependencies created by unseen choices about particular chip designs or technical protocols also create constraints that significantly limit (or promote) creativity in expression.

The 2011 Talk to Me exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, curated by Paola Antonelli, demonstrates that conceiving of an “Internet of things” might necessitate imagining a very broad range of speech acts, not all of which include human beings in the interpretive community.
Whether openly and actively or in subtle, subliminal ways, things talk to us. They do not all speak aloud; some communicate in text, diagrams, and other graphic interfaces; others empathetically and almost telepathically, just keeping us company and storing our memories; still others in sensual ways, with warmth, scent, gesture. Objects populate our homes and our lives; buildings and places have identities and characters; cars and airplanes speak and listen; virtual worlds beckon us; London’s Tower Bridge and artist Marina Abramovic’s chair even send tweets.26

A rhetorical situation that incorporates smart objects includes a potential cacophony of digital speech acts, according to Antonelli, and a multiplicity of speakers and audience members in various states of animacy participate in networks of activity. Even the title of a popular paperback for tinkering hobbyists indicates that MoMA’s curator of design is not alone in her regard for “speaking” sensate objects: a case in point is the Make/O’Reilly Media book Making Things Talk: Using Sensors, Networks, and Arduino to see, hear, and feel your world.

Just as Bitzer argues that exigence may be divorced from human awareness, many technology users seem to have little understanding of the actual operations taking place inside their own blackboxed machines, particularly when hardware is hidden by the packaging of computation as a commodity. The design of Caleb Larsen’s 2009 sculpture A Tool to Deceive and Slaughter exploits this fact humorously. Although Tool is a digital artwork, the viewer only sees an inscrutable acrylic black box. It has no screen, no speaker, no mouse, no joystick, no keyboard, no touchpad. Inside the box is a condition-checking system: “Every ten minutes the black box pings a server on the internet via the ethernet connection to check if it is for sale on the eBay. If its auction has ended or it has sold, it automatically creates a new auction of itself.”27 The fact that the device immediately puts itself up for sale once connected by its new owner – who inevitably loses custody of it – cannot be observed on the exterior of the device itself, so A Tool seems to behave as an independent agent that cannot be swayed by human manipulation of its workings.

At the same time, the increasing ubiquity of sensing technologies by non-human agents does not mean that the potential sentience of so-called “smart” devices should be exaggerated. Each assemblage of sensors may be capable of extremely limited forms of observation, and glitches are an inevitable part of computational culture. During experimentation with LIDAR machines capable of taking very precise 3D measurements, which use remote sensing technologies that measures distance by illuminating a target with a laser and analyzing the reflected light, the UK-based ScanLAB collective has delighted in the device’s fortuitous errors. ScanLAB’s otherwise polished and hyperreal replicas may have the power of the profoundly uncanny, once the data harvested by the laser-mirror-sensor apparatus is rendered as flythrough animation, because the nonhuman gaze and nonhuman navigation of the reconstruction is so striking. However, noise is as interesting as signal to ScanLAB, particularly when virtual reality is “shrouded in a cloud of mistaken measurements, confused surfaces and misplaced three dimensional reflections.”28 For example, the reflection of a seated figure in a mirror’s surface might be read by the LIDAR machine as a second figure in a separate chamber glimpsed through the looking glass.

In analyzing human interactions with a seemingly “quite oblivious” copying machine, the Xerox PARC ethnographer Lucy Suchman places herself in the epistemological position of the machine to understand that it “had access only to a very small subset of the observable actions of its users.”
Even setting aside for the moment the question of what it means to observe, and how observable action is registered intelligible, the machine could only “perceive” that small subset of the users’ actions that actually changed its state. This included doors being opened and closed, buttons being pushed, paper trays being filled or emptied, and the like. But in addition to those actions, I found myself making use of a very large range of others, including talk and various other activities taking place around and in relation to the machine, which did not actually change its state. It was as if the machine were tracking the user’s actions through a very small keyhole and then mapping what it saw back onto a prespecified template of possible interpretations.29

Through the condition-checking systems of its sensorial array, the Xerox machine is constantly receiving information about its state, and often that information is conveyed back to the user, as displays report low toner levels or misaligned paper trays. Yet the channel for mutual communication between person and machine is narrow as well as noisy, according to Suchman. She later explains that the machine is only able to gauge the success of the interaction by sensing the responses of the human. However, it has limited access to those actions, and – despite elaborately programmed instructions or even machine learning algorithms – it is generally unable to reformulate the interaction to adapt to the specific needs of the user.

In many cases, Larsen’s oblivious human might be paired with Suchman’s oblivious machine. This situation of mutual incomprehension should be of interest to scholars of computation, and it offers an essential question that can be addressed by rhetorical theory. How can we understand who is included and who is excluded from a given conversation if we don’t consider the agency of the technology itself? By treating devices merely as tools or channels for communication, anthropocentric critics choose not to take smart objects seriously and overestimate the importance of humanistic intelligent design. Of course, the rhetorician needs the various interlocking disciplines of computational studies. Although rhetorical study often prides itself on its interdisciplinarity, members of the profession still rarely refer to the large body of scholarly literature around human-computer interaction (HCI) and science and technology studies (STS).

Rhetoric has not completely ignored HCI: a notable exception, James Porter’s “Recovering Delivery for Digital Rhetoric,” cites Suchman’s pioneering work.30 Unfortunately, as the pace of launching new ubiquitous computing products has accelerated, the interpretive work of humanistic disciplines has not kept up. Rhetoric is only beginning to venture out of the domain of desktop and laptop computing to engage with an ever-expanding range of scanning and sensing technologies and to make distinctions about how different forms of communication may be privileged. For example, a sophisticated 3D sensing apparatus may vary in price from a modest $100 Kinect machine to a multi-million dollar specialized LIDAR rig. The prohibitive cost of LIDAR technology consequently limits public access and rhetorical participation, while almost anyone can both scan and be scanned with the Kinect. Despite being on opposite ends of the consumer affordability spectrum, however, LIDAR and Kinect seem to represent similar manifestations of a paradigm shift. 31 As a ScanLAB press release declares, “autonomous sensing is more than just a platform for the production of information: it implies a radically pervasive distribution of touch, communication, and intelligence . . . Information and experience are shared, ways of knowing combined with ways of doing. Agency is located throughout expanded networks of sensing and sensation.”32

Even if the pace of technological change has made it difficult for the field of rhetoric to link theories of the rhetorical situation to increasingly ubiquitous and pervasive forms of computing, rhetoric can do more than simply find purchase in discussions of hardware and software, particularly if rhetorical theorists are willing to shift attention when it comes to how they sense information from their objects of study. In Persuasive Games Ian Bogost has asserted that humanistic disciplines have a tendency to privilege verbal rhetoric and visual rhetoric over procedural rhetoric that may be experienced more indirectly by interacting with the rule-based systems of games. I would argue that humanistic disciplines also privilege the screen as a way to interpret the relationship between the algorithmic logics that drive computation and the public rhetorics of display. When undertaking the analysis of new media objects of study on which text is both visible and legible, the screen serves as a familiar electronic page or canvas hearkening back to Alberti’s window.33 Yet, as Lev Manovich points out, the screen has two functions in that it can both display and “screen out” information.34

Now a new wave of scholarship in media studies sometimes associated with “the material turn” is breaking with cinema studies to question the priority of the graphical user interface and to insist that the complexity of the material cultures of computation cannot be ignored. Lan Xuan Le complains that contemporary digital media studies still tend to love the camera that seems to see, and ignore the scanner that merely senses.35 This privileging of devices with apertures and lenses that both mimic and connect to the human eye may also have to do with maintaining traditional attributions of agency. After all, the camera is associated with critical distance, perspective, focus, and the orientation of the photographer’s face, while the scanner seems capable of little more than dumbly registering brute changes in its immediate environment. Thus, cameras are privileged over scanners, optics are privileged over sensors, and representation is privileged over registration.

Reading Machines

When Vilém Flusser predicted that the universe of what he called “technical images” would be constituted primarily by “imagined surfaces” that “absorb geography and history” (4), he argued that this groundless utopia would fundamentally subvert traditional image-making culture, because “[w]ork (hand), ideology (eye), and narrative (finger) will be subordinated to programmed computation” (29).36 However, the call to pay more heed to “sensing” rather than “seeing” or “reading” does not mean that one mode of reception necessarily negates the others. N. Katherine Hayles describes a complement of strategies for effective literary interpretation created by traditional “close” reading of the printed page, “hyper” reading facilitated by more rapid and nonlinear engagements with digital text, and “machine reading” that is performed by a computational detection technologies.37 Her primary example of fluent and valuable machine reading is Lev Manovich’s Cultural Analytics project, which has analyzed hundreds of TIME magazine covers and sorted them by attributes such as color saturation, orientation of faces, and patterns of geometric composition. As a somewhat more conventional humanist, Jessica Pressman primarily defines a “reading machine” as a “mechanized device that stores and presents literature,” and secondarily acknowledges its importance as “a readerly prosthesis for accessing text.”38 According to Pressman, who draws upon the work of Mara Mills, by creating text designed to be machine readable, authors inevitably allow the machine to “participate in producing the literary experience.”

By teasing out a long history of assistive technologies, Mills has examined how reading machines literally adopt the audience function in Bitzer’s terms. For Mills, devices capable of optical character recognition become actual agents in the rhetorical situation, whether they adopt the function of decoding emphasized by neurologists or the function of interpretation emphasized by literary critics. Much as Carolyn Miller argues that we can understand contemporary anxieties about the attribution of agency in the rhetorical situation by examining how new automated technologies are received, Mills argues that the current “crisis in the definition of reading” is closely correlated to the rise of reading machines.39 She also brings considerable historical context to her discussion and presents a genealogy of antecedent devices that were developed long before digital readers. She contends that today’s crisis in defining reading seems to have been “presaged in the last century by a similar set of debates about print access technologies and alternate reading formats for blind and print disabled people.”40 She also notes that technologies were developed to emulate and translate a variety of sensing modalities and that optical media were displaced much earlier from their position of privilege than is commonly assumed.

The modern literacy imperative in the United States prompted the development of dozens of new formats—aural, tactile, olfactory, visual— by which blind and other print disabled people could read. “Inkprint reading” became one among many possibilities, starting with raised print and Braille in the nineteenth century and joined in the twentieth by phonographic Talking Books, Radio Reading services, and a variety of electronic scanning devices for translating print into tones, Braille, vibrations, or speech . . . Formats like Braille were historically critiqued by sighted people for accentuating the differences between themselves and the blind—or for being “separatist” media. For many blind readers, on the other hand, Talking Books seem to embody a philosophy of normalization. 41

Mills tests the hypothesis that print as a technology might actually inhibit reading efficiency and pleasure for all types of readers, and that a more capacious understanding of the work that could be done by reading machines is needed.

How might the presence and participation of reading machines in the rhetorical situation alter the rhetor’s relationship to the audience? Unlike a text that can be more neatly positioned as the object of interpretation, a reading machine seems to be able to assume the role of subject and/or object in discourse. In the field of electronic literature, prominent authors have begun to incorporate augmented reality technologies that rely on having a smart device sense the presence of particular triggering symbols in the environment to create a particular kind of machine reading performance. Writer Judd Morrissey collaborated with choreographer Mark Jeffery to stage The Operature (2014) in an ATOM-R (Anatomical Theatres of Mixed Reality) production. Morrisey’s Operature combines live performance and an augmented reality poem that highlights “anatomical science and spectacle” in which the temporary tattoos worn by the work’s dancers can be read by a scanning apparatus. The dance movements are periodically punctuated with iPad interludes in which inscribed body parts are examined on the performers’ corporeal physiques by the scanning technologies of the device. Otherwise hidden content is revealed in the detective work of assaying a kind of crime scene in which the dancer’s bodies are often presented as inert objects. For instance, with the aid of the iPad in the hands of the skilled performer playing investigator, scenes from a Kenneth Anger film play, or coded sexological “stud files” with records of experiences and partners appear. The scopophilia of scientific scrutiny is emphasized in a drama of public exposure in which reading machines consume text on human skin. Although the iPad is the primary reading interface for showing the transgressive hidden messages about male homosexuality encoded in the temporary tattoos, an artist’s book with handcut type was also released concurrent with the performance. Morrisey describes The Operature as a “provisional collective exploring forensics, anatomy, and 21st century embodiment through performance, language and emerging technologies.”42 When it was performed at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Chicago, iPads read both realistic cross-sections of organs from medical illustrations and stylized depictions of hands and flowers in tattooed folk art to generate both a homoerotic rendering of the bodily landscape and the digitally mediated output of technocratic knowledges.43 As Morrisey explains, “the work’s choreography and use of technology are influenced by research into a series of diverse anatomical histories including early-modern surgical theatres.”44

In contrast to Morrissey’s clinical mode of address that is situated in disciplinary semi-public space, a voice of intensely personal lyricism that speaks very intimately to the listener – sometimes in a whisper – defines Caitlin Fisher’s Circle (2011). Circle is an “augmented reality tabletop theatre piece” that deploys the iPad or smart phone in a much more private setting. The iPad device is used to sense appropriate input cues from an assemblage of miscellaneous scrapbook-style mementos stocked in a small trunk. Circle tells the story of three generations of women through haunting voiceovers. It includes a plaintive tale of disappearing parents told by an orphaned child whose “parents went on holiday to Morocco in 1967 and didn’t come back.” Nostalgic refrains run through the piece, such as “They won’t come back. They might come back. They don’t come back.” Fisher is known for conceptualizing her works as adult forms of children’s pop-up books in which the reading machine is triggered by cryptic symbolic markers. She had created previous pieces, such as Andromeda (2008) and Requiem (2010), with augmented technology environments, but the paper artifacts that tripped the condition checking of the computer’s recognition technologies were coherent stacks of cards or bound volumes rather than the disjointed polymorphous fragments of Circle. The initial version of Circle was created using a custom marker tracking system, so that users interacted with the piece by hovering over the markers with a webcam and triggering audio and video content. 45 To read the photos, scraps from the nursery, family travelogues, and other ephemeral documents, a later system utilized Unity and natural feature tracking, so that the jarringly incongruous black and white coded markers of an earlier version clearly intended for machine interpretation could be replaced by naturalistic objects and photos that might seem more aesthetically harmonious to the human eye.

Unlike the baroque sensibilities of Fisher’s work, Amaranth Borsuk favors an aesthetic of sleek mid-century modernism and machined characters. Borsuk’s Between Page and Screen (2012) investigates “the place of books as objects in an era of increasingly screen-based reading.“ The actual pages of this artist’s book contain no legible text; the reader is presented with only abstract geometric patterns and a URL leading to the Between Page and Screen website, where the book may be read by using any browser and a webcam. Between Page and Screen is an epistolary work in which there is “a series of letters written by two lovers struggling to map the boundaries of their relationship,” which does not exist on either page or screen, “but in the augmented space between them opened up by the reader.”46 (Borsuk claims to draw inspiration from the concept of “projective mediumship” in the work of the poet H.D.)

The letters are full of homophones, puns, sight rhymes, and linguistic play with the Indo-European etymology of the words “page” and “screen.” Sometimes the addressee is “P” (page), and sometimes it is “S” (screen), and there are also a number of interludes in which concrete poetry occupies the 3D space that the reader inhabits. Indeed, the reader can not disappear from the text that he or she is engaged in reading, because it is difficult to elude the gaze of the webcam while holding up one’s copy of the book. Thus the kinetic typography floating in 3D space between page and screen almost inevitably includes the human subject in the reading environment. Fans of the work can print out their own books with their own augmented reality texts using a DIY toolkit on the website.

All three writers – Morrisey, Fisher, and Borsuk – not only remediate forms of print culture generally considered far beyond the margins of mass-market book production but also allow the reading machine to occupy the position of first reader, often in front of the human one. With a new generation of reading machines that can perceive contrast relationships in a 2D visual environment, sensors can read the “ink” of tattoos, the grain of family artifacts, and the code of a numbered artist’s book or print-at-home emulation. The same types of reading machines can be used in locative media projects that decode digital narratives, although – if not triggered by universal Global Positioning System (GPS) coordinates – electronic literature projects tend to use much more standardized and generic Quick Response (QR) codes to serve as the local signposts for telling stories situated in specific geographies that may range from quiet graveyards and abandoned ghost towns to busy campuses and bustling downtowns.47 As John Tinnell argues in “Techno-Geographic Interfaces,” augmented reality obliterates the conventional Aristotelian opposition between the intelligible and the sensible along with the opacity of traditional writing spaces, which include printed pages, painted canvases, and pixelated websites. According to Tinnell, with augmented reality technologies, “textuality is no longer an intelligible essence distinct from the accidents of the sensible.”48 Using the mega-texts of the architectures of smart cities, as well as smaller-scale diagrams from cybernetics, Orit Halpern similarly claims that the historical relationship between how we manage and train perception and how we define reason and intelligence has been fundamentally altered by the rise of cognitive science and practices of visualization.49

While Aristotle emphasizes the persuasiveness of stirring sights and the power of observation in his Rhetoric, and specifically privileges vision over other senses, such as smell (I.vii), there are other rhetorical traditions in which orientation and navigation can be imagined differently and which encourage other theories of reception. Turning to Bitzer again can be useful to theorize the formal demands of the materialities of the digital, as computational objects respond to various exigences. For example, one type of blockage may be a specific file format to which a device must conform or a particular media codec that can only be accepted by some nationalities of machine; thus noncompatibility and obsolescence become powerful drivers in the media ecologies of digital expression. The object must “respond” by becoming legible to the machine. If this non-human call-and-response performance does not take place properly, that discursive object in many ways ceases to exist. The works of electronic literature created by Morrissey, Borsuk, and Fisher require a rhetorical performance in which the device senses the exigence present in the rhetorical situation. At the same time these works generate glitches and noise from the machine’s sensorium.

This essay is meant to demonstrate that Bitzer’s theory of the rhetorical situation simultaneously extends rhetorical study beyond the rhetor and beyond speech and writing and provides an opportunity to extend the study of computation into the theoretical framework of rhetoric to speculate creatively about how particular programs may be initiated, delimited, and in communication with each other. Discourses about “affordances” and “constraints” are familiar to digital designers, as they are familiar to rhetoricians who owe an intellectual debt to Bitzer, but the “audience” in HCI is often under-theorized as “consumer” or “user.” To meet Bitzer’s criteria for a full-fledged rhetorical situation – complete with exigence, audience, and constraint – an assemblage of “persons,” “events,” “objects,” and “relations” seems to be required. By considering the rhetorical situation for the smart objects of electronic literature, which function as reading machines, perhaps we can become more likely to be able to speak in meaningful ways about the agency of everyday technologies, both to our devices and to each other, and even about the buzzing conversations taking place constantly between devices in which we are unable to participate.

The rhetorical situation of the Trobriand Islanders that Bitzer presents is constituted by a range of technical constraints and procedures. The fish, the boat, the water, and the nets are all agentive components of the situation, not merely part of a backdrop to where the rhetorical action is. In an era of ubiquitous computing and animate machines that are reading and speaking and listening and sensing, the tradition associated with Bitzer may prove be a starting point for a richer theory about the discursive interventions of devices and a way to understand the broad audiences for whom (or which) our technology simultaneously performs and waits in judgment.



  1. Lloyd F Bitzer, “The Rhetorical Situation,” Philosophy & Rhetoric 25 (1992): 4.
  2. Bitzer, 6.
  3. Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost, Racing the Beam the Atari Video Computer System (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2009).
  4. Tarleton Gillespie, Wired Shut Copyright and the Shape of Digital Culture (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2007).
  5. Matthew G Kirschenbaum, Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2008).
  6. Ian Bogost, Persuasive Games: Videogames and Procedural Rhetoric (Cambridge, Mass.; London: MIT, 2007).
  7. Bitzer, 6.
  8. Laurie Gries, “Agential Matters: Tumbleweed, Women-Pens, Citizen-Hope, and Rhetorical Actancy,” in Ecology, Writing Theory, and New Media: Writing Ecology (Routledge, 2012), ed Sidney I Dobrin, 67–91.
  9. Indiana Digital Rhetoric Symposium,”
  10. Bitzer, 4.
  11. Ken S McAllister, Game Work Language, Power, and Computer Game Culture (Tuscaloosa, Ala.: University of Alabama Press, 2004).
  12. Barry Brummett, Rhetorical Dimensions of Popular Culture (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1991).
  13. James J. Brown, Ethical Programs: Hospitality and the Rhetorics of Software (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2015).
  14. Richard E Vatz, “The Myth of the Rhetorical Situation,” Philosophy & Rhetoric 6, no. 3 (1973): 154–61.
  15. Carolyn R Miller, “Genre as Social Action,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 70, no. 2 (1984): 151–67.
  16. Carolyn R Miller, “What Can Automation Tell Us About Agency?,” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 37, no. 2 (2007): 137–57.
  17. Ibid, 147.
  18. Ibid, 140.
  19. Ibid, 139.
  20. Kelly Gates, Our Biometric Future: Facial Recognition Technology and the Culture of Surveillance (New York: New York University Press, 2011) but in the relatively benign educational context in which AutoSpeech-EasyTM would be deployed, Miller presents it as a potential labor-saving boon to busy instructors. Nonetheless, reactions were uniformly negative. The primary theme that she observed in the responses that she collected was skepticism that a computer could ever appreciate the nuances of human affect and recognize “creativity, appropriateness to context, the expression of emotion, and individual and cultural differences.”[21. Miller, “Automation,” 140.
  21. Joseph Weizenbaum, Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgment to Calculation (San Francisco: W.H. Freeman, 1976).
  22. Alan Mathison Turing, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” Mind : A Quarterly Review of Psychology and Philosophy. LIX, no. 236 (1950): 433.
  23. Miller, “Automation, 149.
  24. Norbert Wiener, Cybernetics; Or, Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. (New York: M. I. T. Press, 1961), 27.
  25. Turing, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” 433.
  26. Paola Antonelli and N.Y. Museum of Modern Art, Talk to Me: Design and the Communication between People and Objects (New York, N.Y.: Museum of Modern Art : Distributed in the U.S. and Canada by D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, 2011), 6.
  27. Caleb Larson, “A Tool to Deceive and Slaughter,” Caleb Larsen, accessed April 17, 2014,
  28. “NOISE: Error in the Void (2013),”
  29. Lucille Suchman, Human-Machine Reconfigurations: Plans and Situated Actions (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 11.
  30. James E. Porter, “Recovering Delivery for Digital Rhetoric,” Computers and Composition 26, no. 4 (2009): 207–24.
  31. Not all critics are convinced that LIDAR represents a radically different form of machinic vision. For example, Lisa Cartwright asserts that the LIDAR machine is not fundamentally different in constructing subject-object relations and in fact may be more analogous to the sonogram machine and even the conventional camera than it is to an autonomous agent.
  32. “Qualcomm Institute Gallery Harvests Art from Noise of 3D Laser Scanning,”
  33. Anne Friedberg, The Virtual Window: From Alberti to Microsoft (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2006).
  34. Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media (Cambridge Mass.: MIT Press, 2002), 96.
  35. Lan Xuan Le, “Scanner Epistemologies” (UC Santa Barbara, February 15, 2011),
  36. Vilém Flusser, Into the Universe of Technical Images (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011).
  37. N. Katherine Hayles, “How We Read: Close, Hyper, Machine,” ADE Bulletin, 2010, 62–79.
  38. Jessica Pressman, “Machine Poetics and Reading Machines: William Poundstone’s Electronic Literature and Bob Brown’s Readies,” American Literary History 23, no. 4 (2011): 767–94.
  39. Mara Mills, “What Should We Call Reading? Mara Mills / New York University | Flow,” December 3, 2012,
  40. “What Should We Call Reading?”
  41. “What Should We Call Reading?
  42. Judd Morissey, “The Operature: Anatomical Theatres of Mixed Reality,” Judisdaid!, accessed April 17, 2014,
  43. It is noteworthy that Bitzer claims that poetry and science are outliers in his model of the rhetorical situation, because each supposedly does not “require an audience in order to produce its end”: “the scientist can produce a discourse expressive or generative of knowledge without engaging another mind, and the poet’s creative purpose is accomplished when the work is composed. See Bitzer, 7-8.
  44. Morissey, “The Operature.”
  45. Caitlin Fisher, “Caitlin Fisher,” accessed April 17, 2014,
  46. Amaranth Borsuk, “Between Page And Screen, a Digital Popup Book,” Between Page And Screen, accessed April 17, 2014,
  47. See Jason Farman, Mobile Interface Theory: Embodied Space and Locative Media (New York: Routledge, 2012) and The Mobile Story: Narrative Practices with Locative Technologies (New York: Routledge, 2014).
  48. Dennis M Weiss et al., Design, Mediation, and the Posthuman (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2014), 81.
  49. Orit Halpern, Beautiful Data: A History of Vision and Reason since 1945 (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2014).