Nathaniel Rivers speaks on "We Have Never Been Critical"

Itineration Video: A Transcript of Fragments
Nathaniel A. Rivers l Saint Louis University

“In spite of all the deformations, it is easy to recognize, still burnt in the steel, our trademark: Made in Criticalland” (Bruno Latour 230).

[Narration: 00:48] Bear with me. This is an affirmation of an attitude.

“My argument is that a certain form of critical spirit has sent us down the wrong path, encouraging us to fight the wrong enemies” (Bruno Latour, 231).

[Narration: 01:11] I am attuned to Bruno Latour’s “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?” I hear this question as a scholar in rhetoric and composition likewise ambivalent about the project of critique.

“The only loser is the naïve believer, the great unwashed, always caught off balance” (Bruno Latour, 239).

“what I’d like to call critical barbarity is rather easy to undo” (Bruno Latour, 240).

[Narration: 01:50] Critique has been running out of steam for some time now, it seems. Latour senses that critique is slowing its forward progress and that we should be on the market for something new. But I want to Latour Latour and suggest that we have never been critical. Just who this “we” is I leave open for the moment.

“The critic is not the one who debunks, but the one who assembles” (Bruno Latour, 246).

“Now, such speculative criticism, the main purpose of which is to cleanse its fundamental truths not only of all falsity, but also of the mere suspicion of error, places upon the same plane of falsity not only false thinking but also those secondary verities and ideas which are based on probability alone, and commands us to clear our minds of them” (Vico 868).

[Narration: 02:57] Having been early taken with work such as Wayne Booth’s “rhetoric of assent” and Kenneth Burke’s notion of “discounting” and the “comic frame,” Latour’s admonishment against “critical barbarity” struck me as strangely familiar. For instance, even the phrase “critical barbarity” itself resonates with Ernesto Grassi’s phrase “the barbarism of ratio” (25). Grassi’s project, like that of Vico, his inspiration, was concerned with invention, with ingenium.

“Again I say, this is harmful, since the invention of arguments is by nature prior to the judgment of their validity, so that, in teaching, invention should be given priority over philosophical criticism” (Vico 868).

“But it is part of my point that modern philosophy—at least until the last two decades—has saddled us with standards of truth under which no man can live” (Wayne Booth 868).

[Narration: 03:58] Rhetoric has always stuck me as first and foremost about affirmation, about yea-saying. Even the loudest “no” is founded upon the deepest “yes.” My focus on rhetoric reflects my own scholarly trajectory; I am by no means positioning rhetoric as the way through or even beyond the project of critique as outlined by Latour.

“By proper discounting, everything becomes usable” (Kenneth Burke, Attitudes Toward History, 244).

“that is, we may not ‘discount’ them enough, not fully recognizing how imaginally positive they are” (Kenneth Burke, Language as Symbolic Action, 462).

[Narration: 04:50] Our, shall we say, post-critical moment is but the kairotic disclosure of a steady tradition that has paralleled the critical projects of ideological critique, radical skepticism, unmasking, debunking, or, as I once heard critical thinking defined by a colleague, “how not to be a sucker.”

“In short, what is at stake is the possibility of inventing a style of engagement that is irreducible to the dialectical movement of negation” (John Muckelbauer, 5).

“That is, flight is enabled when it is an affirmative repetition, or the repetition of intensive, singular rhythms” (John Muckelbauer, 33).

[Narration: 05:40] Do not mistake me as someone who desires to negate this critical project. I want only to engage alternatives, to build or assemble new modes of engagement, new critical orientations.

“We are talking here about an intersection of rhetoric and solidarity that would be the condition not only for symbolic action but for the symbol-using animal itself” (Diane Davis 3).

“Perhaps seduction would be the ethical thing to do” (Byron Hawk 219).

“I argue for a method of reading characterized by the process of fascination and seduction” (Jodie Nicotra 38).

“Wonder has two senses. For one, it can suggest awe or marvel, the kind one might experience in worship or astonishment. But for another, it can mean puzzlement or logical perplexity” (Ian Bogost 121).

[Narration: 07:15] Even Latour works in this affirmative tradition. He wants to add steam to critique: not to negate but to reassemble it, re-associate it.

“To ‘en-chant’: to surround with song or incantation; hence, to cast a spell with sounds, to make fall under the sway of magical refrain, to carry away on a sonorous stream” (Jane Bennett 6).

[Narration: 07:45] What I have worked through here is a tracing of this alternate tradition, or borrowing from John Muckelbauer, this singular rhythm. I treat this rhythm as source from which we can draw on as we continue the never-ending work of inventing the world, its acts and attitudes.

“The practical problem we face, if we try to go that new route, is to associate the word criticism with a whole set of new positive metaphors, gestures, attitudes, knee-jerk reactions, habits of thought” (Bruno Latour, 247).

All video courtesy of The song “Door of Return” courtesy of Magnolia Summer. “41_STEAM” courtesy of ReWired at

Works Cited

Bennett, Jane. The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2001.

Bogost, Ian. Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2012.

Booth, Wayne. Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent. Notre Dame: U of Notre Dame P, 1974.

Burke, Kenneth. Attitudes Toward History. 3rd rev. ed., Berkeley: U of California P, 1984.

---. Language as Symbolic Action. Berkeley: U of California P, 1966.

Davis, Diane. Inessential Solidarity: Rhetoric and Foreigner Relations. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 2010.

Grassi, Ernesto. Rhetoric as Philosophy: The Humanist Tradition. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 2001.

Hawk, Byron. A Counter-History of Composition: Toward Methodologies of Complexity. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 2007.

Latour, Bruno. “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam.” Critical Inquiry 30 (2004): 225-248.

Muckelbauer, John. The Future of Invention: Rhetoric, Postmodernism, and the Problem of Change. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2008.

Nicotra, Jodie. “The Seduction of Samuel Butler: Rhetorical Agency and the Art of Response.” Rhetoric Review 27.1 (2008): 38-53.

Vico, Giambattista. “From On the Study Methods of Our Time.” The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present. Eds. Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000.