think my larger question/interest is based around seeing the “institution” as a rhetorical agent. I’m still moving to more fully define what I mean by institution, but at this stage, I see it as an organization or custom that persists through time and helps care for, manage, or direct a particular issue–here, disability. I guess what drew me to this particular question is the sort of “banality of evil” that we discussed, the way that fairly good or neutral people end up perpetuating oppressive actions.
In the language of some of the institutional scholarship I’ve been reading, institutions “persist” and “reproduce” the same actions, even as they may change people and places. To me, this capacity to persist and direct, even as human agents change, gives the institution its own rhetorical agency. I have not found much framed in this way. Institutional scholarship does tend to increasingly see a institution as a something that exists as more than the sum of its parts with a sort of affect or ontology in its own right, though debate persists in how they form, how they exist, and how they persist and reproduce.
But rhetorical scholarship, while looking at the rhetoric of institutional documents, does not seem to look at the sort of agency that appears present in the institution itself.
I feel like a few reasons exist for this, like the nonhuman and assemblage-based nature of this “agent,” but the work of Rickert, Manuel deLanda, and others in that camp provide a rhetorical-philosophical vocabulary to look at how the institution “speaks.” In particular, I think two ideas present themselves: “thing” and “assemblage.” A thing “things,” in the language of Heidegger and Latour, or “be-things,” creating a certain gathering or articulation of being. For Rickert, this “rhetorical thing” acts as a rhetorical agent in human affairs, allowing or precipitating certain rhetorical possibilities, thereby creating a rhetorical input of sorts. I see the institution as a “rhetorical thing” in this way, not only persisting in its own being, but reproducing it as a certain rhetorical agency–and by reproducing I mean continuing whatever it does in the way it does it, often in coercive ways.
And I think assemblage theory helps explain the sort of being of this rhetorical thing by allowing an emergent entity from the combination of co-independent components. Elements of this theory, like territorialization and expressive/material roles, also help one trace the different components of an institution. But in particular, I really want to stress the fact that an institution “is” in and for itself, though it arises from co-independent components, like people, founding ideas, rules, walls, patients–and folders. So, as noted, people may change–or in the case of Junius Wilson, the name and some policies of the institution may change–but the “thing” persists at some capacity, exerting rhetorical agency by contributing to the rhetorical situation/ecology beyond the tenure of a particular part of its assemblage.
I’m still sort of thinking through the elements that allow this persistence, but a few elements stick out: causation, procedural rhetoric, ideas, history. Some scholarship has focused on causation and ideas–that certain causes lead to longterm effects and institutions founded on ideas often try to stay grounded in those ideas. History also feels relevant, as it contributes to identity and tradition, the “we’ve always done it this way” idea that occludes or calcifies the ability to attune to other modes of being (once again in the mode of Heidegger, Rickert, and Hawk). Procedural rhetoric, though primarily used in the context of machines and programing, also has a broader dimension, which Ian Bogost points to but largely moves aside in light of his videogame focus. Pointing to the way that a set way of doing things exerts its own rhetoric, procedural rhetoric is all over, but we often are flexible enough to adjust procedure when the time requires. Bogost gives the example of a return policy in the face of a particularly aggressive customer, when the sales rep may relent in light of the situation. But one can imagine a procedure that is not flexible and would not change, like in an institution.
Thus, I think that institutions rhetorically persist through these two rhetorical elements. On the one hand, as Heidegger might say, we forget that a question exists and can no longer attune ourselves to looking at it. We lose sight of its existence, like Boudieu’s habitus. In this context, we get stuck in a procedure and lose the ability to look beyond it. And on the other hand, the ability for procedural rhetoric to persist in that void, perpetuating whatever argument it is making. And here, I think that procedural argument is one of being: categorizing or diagnosing both the identity and (therefore) actions of people. Here, people in Institutions. In other words, through this procedure, the institution, as an assembled thing “be-things,” thereby acting as a rhetorical agent.
I think this outlook is important, as theoretically convoluted as it may seem, because it shows that no single person is to blame, and it may provide a framework to better approach the coercive rhetoric of the institution, by advocating an attitude of rhetorical attunement and a move to change the procedure–as one may re-write the codes of a program. This in itself becomes the means for a rhetorical situation for change–a way in, as it were. And indeed, there is some connection to this strategy for change, though it is not framed in these terms.
I know this is a little messy, but it gets at what I’m interested it. I’m also interested at connecting our readings to this more abstracted frame to offer more concrete examples. Also, I recognize this as “start” that may move to a larger project.