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Making Future Space

Chris Scheidler


Drawing from Gries, Parks, and Pimentel's essays, Scheidler argues for the importance of attending to intra-actions in/of our work.

Making Future Space: Re(Intra)actions to Classrooms and Research

The future is made, not merely inevitable. Futures are more than “whens” or moments; they are the practices, histories/alt-histories, and entanglements of what has come before. With an attention to futurity, scholars have increasingly attempted to parse out the ways in which things circulate and transform beyond the moment they were made. A strength of the chapters in this collection is the attention they pay to the materiality of futures. Such materiality, I posit, can be understood through an already existing disciplinary metaphor of space. By leveraging spatial or ecological accounts of how activities come to matter, we foreground the salience of the roles relationships play in shaping future materials and activities. Put another way, I suggest that we read these essays as concerned not only with a future time that is yet-to-come but with a space that is yet to be built, reached, or recognized. Conceiving of the future as space affords us opportunities to more clearly enact an agential role in the way that future comes to be made; conceiving of the future as material and contingent allows for the hopeful possibility of re-articulating and re-defining what matters. Additionally, imagining the future as space foregrounds the twists and turns navigated to arrive there. In this essay I articulate the ways an "agential realist" approach (Barad) may leave room for consolidating the activist orientations of this collection and for recognizing the ways in which various material-discursive practices implicate the spaces we make for the future.

Spaces and Futures

The ways in which we conceptualize space are deeply related to the import of cultural geographies into Writing Studies. The place-based disciplinary history in the field has proven generative in many ways. Nedra Reynolds in particular stresses the degree to which place is socially composed and socially composing, suggesting that place simultaneously occupies roles of object and subject—a co-configuring of body and surrounding space. Edbauer, too, uses space to recognize the ecological and distributed interactions of bodies in the world. Nevertheless, although histories and pasts are often discussed and leveraged in these accounts, too little room is left for future-orientations. To be clear, by “future-orientations” I do not mean to imply that our scholarship and critique should aim to be predictive. Rather, I mean to suggest that scholarship and critique should be more attuned to tracking and anticipating the material effects of our activity, be it teaching, researching, or even the activities we study. One generative way of bringing focus to the material effects of activity is by adopting an agential realist orientation. Such an orientation specifically defers the drawing (no matter how tentative) of boundaries until we parse out the relationships and phenomena that make such boundaries legible. Building from Barad’s articulation of agential realism, in this essay I attempt to briefly trace out the various intra-actions (actions from within the ontological phenomena) of torture, educational racism, and community engagement. I use the term agential-space to leverage an already existent ecological account of activity and to continually foreground that such activity is always implicated in the boundaries drawn. To put it differently, our actions do not merely create material things for the future but also actively work toward the ways current and future entanglements are demarcated and rendered legible. In short, I address the “how” of coming to matter.

The contributions to this collection provide an opportunity for reworking our conceptions of involvement with activism along the lines of “agential realism.” To explicate this rendering of activism and to reconcile these approaches to futurity, I explore an agential realist account of intra-activity that views agential-space as the salient configurations of relationships. These relationships, conceptualized spatially through agential realism, are the results of (re)configurations of material-discursive practices that I shorthand to agential-inscriptions. Understood this way, anti-racist pedagogy and community engagement can coalesce around similar documentation and intervention with agential-inscriptions. Put differently, I ask us to recognize the ways in which these works are similarly enacting activist-orientations for shaping our future. Seeing our work as already implicated in the active shaping of futures sheds new light on the disciplinary critique that Parks ends his essay on; specifically, the failure of the field to prepare graduate students to “use knowledge to right systemic wrongs” can be articulated not merely as apathy but instead as the inadequacy of academic, and too often canonical, knowledge to right the wrongs within a system that created the knowledge. An agential realist critique offers a method of disentangling how we come to know from within.

Where Does the Future Happen—Agential Realism

Agential realism delves further into the multiple entanglements of the world than traditional place-based disciplinary work founded and shaped by ecological approaches. An ecological perspective of space, although generative in multiple ways, fails to account for the significant ongoing ontological moments of all participants in agential-space. On the other hand, agential-space foregrounds the importance of the ongoing configurations of relationships. Put differently, rather than attending to dynamic relationships between mostly static matters within the constraints of mostly static rules, agential realism stresses the preeminence of relationality: “we are not simply located at particular places in the world; rather we are part of the world in its ongoing intra-activity” (Barad 828). To be clear, this approach is a radical ontological reversal that begins with entanglement rather than separation; “things” do not become entangled but out of entanglement things become. The disparate things that make up the world are merely snapshots of the currently recognized entanglements or configurations of relationships, and what counts as a space or what counts as a body is always contingent. In this way, an agential realist approach accounts for always-already multiple and contingent ongoing relational actions. Bodies, human and non-human, are inseparable from what is/happening in/the environment. This is to suggest that bodies happen in the environment and that bodies are what is the environment. An important takeaway from this perspective is the alternative view of agency afforded by the preeminence of relationality. Barad contends that agency

is 'doing'/'being' in its intra-activity . . . [,] is the enactment of iterative changes to particular practices through the dynamics of intra-activity . . . [, and] is about the possibilities and accountability entailed in reconfiguring material-discursive apparatuses of bodily prosecution, including the boundary articulations and exclusions that are marked by those practices in the enactment of a causal structure. (827)

The agency in agential realism is one of intra-activity: of “'things’-in-phenomena” (817). This is to recognize the inescapable contingent becomingness of all reality past and yet-to-be. However, in becomingness there are moments of discursive practices, or the “(re)configurings” of reality through which localized “boundaries, properties, and meanings are differentially enacted” (828). Such discursive practices are not merely in the realm of language or semiotics but are instead the entirety of the process(es) through which meaning is rendered legible. In this way, our engagement with and study of phenomena is important, but such engagement must be certain to recognize that we’re already implicated in the shaping of what we come to study.

Meaning is not a property of individual words or groups of words but an ongoing performance of the world in its differential intelligibility. (Barad 821)

In an agential realist account, these performances are indelibly material. Indeed, Barad contends that what is is an ongoing process of material-discursive becoming. This is to suggest that boundaries between seemingly disparate things are merely tentative in an ongoing process of material-discursivity.

Where Does the Future Happen—Material-Discursivity

Material-discursivity is not merely the combination of materiality and discursive (i.e. linguistic) practices—and neither is it a combination of semiotic awareness and materiality. Material-discursivity is, instead, a way of exploring onto-epistem-ology or “the study of practices of knowing in being” (829). It is a way of coming-to-know reality from within. Said differently, material discursivity is that from which our worlds and boundaries are made legible, enforceable, real. What I mean to suggest here is: as the world is demarcated and rendered legible the work of intra-actions that make boundaries meaningful is present and (although not always readily) available for critique. Despite the constant significant ontological configurations (the fuzzy and always changing boundaries) that are always present, locating and exploring material-discursivity allows for a method of examining and responding to what-has-come-to-matter-here. This is in stark contrast with scholarship that begins with things interacting.

An agential realist account begins with relationships (co)constituting boundaries into things into meaningful existence. This means that for scholars studying how meanings, feelings, truths, or (insert other big term) are made, a mandatory step through an agential-realist lens is locating and exploring intra-actions that enforce the boundaries taken for granted and then examining activities as entangled phenomena. For example, Steve Parks’s references to the various methods of torture deployed in Syrian security dungeons are a way of illustrating what Barad and other agential-realists refer to as the “cuts” or boundary making practices. Rather than approaching these accounts with a granular description of the a priori things that enable and create the torture scenarios (such as the existence of chairs, tires, and torturers) and then describing the relationships and entanglements made possible by these things, an agential realist approach refuses to presume the distinct existence of these things prior to the production of the torture. This enables us to frame the chairs used not as innocent, sitting apparatuses but as racks upon which bodies are leveraged and twisted and to frame tires as other than pieces of machinery but as tools of containment. Such an approach privileges the articulation of the torture phenomenon as experienced by survivors and grounds an understanding of the materials of their experience in the relationships they forcibly (co)constituted. In a time and place when the very nature and production of “Truth” is violently contested, delaying our capitulation to the existence of things affords us the chance of new (perhaps more accurate or salient) explanations and cuts of phenomena.

In the following section, I explore the material-discursive practices brought tentatively to light in the pedagogical implications of Pimentel and the research tools of Gries. I define the apparent (re)configurations or effects of material-discursive practices as “agential-inscriptions," suggesting that these effects leave traces of evidence that can be fruitful to explore. The term “agential-inscription” foregrounds the materiality of the resulting changes of dynamic intra-activity; to contend that agential-inscriptions are merely things (rather than dynamic relationships) is to miss the forest for the trees. Agential-inscriptions are, at most, the perceived effects rendered legible and meaningful in the local intra-active enactment. What I mean to suggest here is that agential-inscriptions are the marks that remain (however fleeting they may have originally appeared) and continue to shape material-discursive practice. In place-based approaches to Writing Studies, inscriptions (e.g. words, visuals, built environments) interact to produce space and relations within it. However, agential-space and agential-inscription focus on the intra-action of these elements to foreground the inseparability of being-in-phenomena. This is to suggest that we are always implicated in the world being made and should never, as Parks says, “give ourselves a moral alibi.”

Inscriptions on Bodies, Books, and Walls

Generally, we think of human-made inscriptions as attempts to render legible local material practices. Visual, textual, and other forms of inscription regularly seek to authorize particular values and affects to a space. For instance, gender neutral bathrooms (an increasingly hard-fought civil right) authorize a degree of acceptance of existence; yet even in lieu of such facilities all people still defecate. This is not to suggest that such demarcations are meaningless—on the contrary, failure to demarcate accessible facilities denies the humanity of a person. Instead, I use this example to outline how traditionally-understood inscriptions and actual practices often differ. What I am deeming “agential-inscriptions” are ubiquitous remainders of what has come to matter. In the example above it is clear that to certain legislative cohorts some bodies do not matter, but what is made more clear by tracing out the agential-inscriptions is the degree to which practices and material are imbricated in what matters.

For instance, Pimentel’s important critique of pedagogy in the United States examines the bodies, wardrobes, treaties, histories, and history books that coalesce toward a societal instruction for systemic racism. The way histories are taught, in particular, glorifies and obfuscates the troubled past of colonialism and power that reverberates in today’s racist discourse. Yet adjacent to these materials (i.e. textbooks and curriculum) are the actions that deem such materials acceptable or useful. Orienting toward the agential-inscriptions (or the effects of space rendered meaningful) brings multiple actions to bear on the equation. This is not to condone the existence of such material but to suggest that it is a part of the intra-acting elements. Tracing this action brings schoolboards, curriculum designers, publishers, departments, and more into relationship with each other. With each intra-action these materials are re-defined, re-articulated, and often, unfortunately, reified through practices. The teacher, the institution, and “The Man” blend into each other; the boundaries exist, perhaps, only in our minds or the minds of the students. To be clear, this is to say that what is important to attend to are the configurations that afford materials or instructors power rather than merely the things themselves. The net of racism in the United States is wide (of course it is) and many of us are already implicated in the space cast by it, yet thread by thread this net can be unraveled. I would like to second Pimentel’s calls for action toward coalition pedagogy and the selection of course materials. Additionally, I’d like to suggest that we simultaneously aim to implement Pimentel’s ideas to create spaces for anti-racism at the department, university, book publisher, and other levels. Such work should make transparent the often racist implications of the status quo as well as make clear the multiple intra-actions that work to stabilize that status quo.

One promising tool for making transparent multiple intra-actions is public engagement with scholarship. Laurie Gries ends her chapter calling for more rhetorical entanglement with “other circulating discourses," and toward this end she aims to use data visualization as a tool for local and community activists. However, this work too can be rearticulated across an agential-realist orientation. For instance, visual data might be articulated and organized by phenomena and activities rather than things. In this way, such visualization might organize data by those incidents of bigotry-inspired-defacement that resulted in community conversations, compassion festivals, or the painting over and through of the marks. In other words, multiple possibilities exist for leveraging such work for activism and interpretation alongside the communities of relevance. Of course, caution must be exercised in my resistance to the granularity of materiality; for many good reasons, recognizing the material is important and useful. Nevertheless, tracking the how of communities and scholars making bigotry-inspired-defacement meaningful has reverberating effects and remains a generative possibility.

What's Left Behind

The conversations in this collection have urged us as citizens, teachers, and scholars to care for and reconceptualize the uncertain futures ahead of us. Pimentel, for instance, calls for a future with genuine unending allyship in addressing acts, pedagogies, and other manifestations of racism. Calling for making the writing class a “sanctuary” space utilizing “coalition pedagogy,” Pimentel lends teachers tools and insights to publicly recognize historical and contemporary racism. Laurie Gries’s essay in part articulates an approach to future allyship that makes use of scholarly expertise and the “rhetorical entanglement(s)” that civic engagement requires. Finally, Steve Parks’s account of work with Syrians for Truth and Justice and the decomposed disciplinarity of the field of Rhetoric and Composition should provoke our field to continue or begin probing for how we can shape more hopeful futures. Noting a perceived lack of disciplinary engagement with this activist project, Parks questions, “what, I wonder, does that say about the future of our discipline.”

Across these conversations, multiple futures have been evoked and imagined. It is important to note that the future is not a passive event that we must wait for: the future is the outcome of the relationships we put in action now. The future is made of the agential-inscriptions left behind: the reverberations of a constantly (re)configuring space. As Barad suggests:

Particular possibilities for acting exist at every moment, and these changing possibilities entail a responsibility to intervene in the world's become, to contest and rework what matters and what is excluded from mattering. (Barad 827)

Such a conception demands that scholars not only better document the various configurations of relationships but act to reconfigure these spaces toward more hopeful futures. An important part of this realization is that we find ways to make our work not only address apparent “things” but instead focus on the dynamic relationships that make “things” possible. Understood this way, we can read these essays as documenting and intervening in these material intra-actions. The choice we make for our work is not to be researcher, teacher, or community engager but instead to be active and attentive to these relationships or not.

Works Cited

  • Barad, Karen. "Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter." Signs, vol. 28, no. 3, 2003, pp. 801–831.
  • Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Duke UP, 2006.
  • Edbauer, Jenny. “Unframing Models of Public Distribution: From Rhetorical Situation to Rhetorical Ecologies.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, vol. 35, no. 4, 2005, pp. 5–24.
  • Reynolds, Nedra. Geographies of Writing: Inhabiting Places and Encountering Difference. Southern Illinois UP, 2004. Print.