Draft of paper given at the English Graduate Symposium 2019 at NC State University. This is a work in progress; attribute appropriately.

Title: Rhetoric, riddles, and the strange stranger
Author: Helen J Burgess
Affiliation: NC State University
Source code: github

Abstract: This paper discusses the potential of using rhetorical terminology and concepts in enacting rhetorical handcrafting — a practice akin to critical making that incorporates traditional textile crafting techniques and focusses on the voices and presences of the objects that collaborate with us to produce handcrafted artefacts. As a focal point, I present “bombix • fusus”: a project combining silk cocoons, embroidery, and wearable technologies that investigates Timothy Morton’s observation from OOO that “rhetoric is a technique for contacting the strange stranger.” Silkworms and spindles, ancient textile technologies, collaborate with light and color sensors and human hands to produce a meditation on secrecy, animality, closeness and distance.

(pass around cocoons)

Today I’m going to talk to you about rhetoric through the lens of a branch of scholarship known as “critical making,” which is a practice-based field of study in which we construct and deconstruct objects as a way of thinking through ideas. There’s a lot of scholarship on critical making in the humanities, in both literary study – for example Canadians Matt Ratto, Marcel O’Gorman and Jentery Sayers, who work in a Digital Humanities context, and in digital and multimodal rhetorics – people such as Jody Shipka, Jim Brown and our own David Rieder. But I won’t spend too much time defining critical making for you. Instead I’m going to talk through some of its potentialities, and give you an example I’ve been working on, in the hopes that you might consider doing it yourself. We all know that the motto for NC State is “think and do,” which I suspect has occasioned some eyerolling in the humanities. But I ask you suspend your cynicism for half an hour and consider what we might do with that injunction.

Let us start with a riddle.

alt text

This is from St. Aldhelm of Malmesbury’s Aenigmata, written in the 7th century. I am definitely not a medievalist, so I won’t attempt the Latin for you; but here’s a recent translation, from the poet A.M. Juster:

When times of year for weaving threads resume,
My hairy threads fill sallow flesh with weight,
And soon I climb the leafy tips of broom
To craft small balls, then rest with twists of fate.

What is this thing?

Let us start again, at the beginning. It is springtime. From a tiny transparent egg emerges a little brown worm. In popular parlance sometimes named “kego,” or “hairy baby,” this worm is barely the length of an eyelash. It is drawn irresistibly to the unique chemical fingerprint of albus mori, the fresh shoots of the mulberry tree. Hold a mulberry leaf over a silkworm and it will stand up, questing. It eats, until each leaf is left lacy with holes. Eventually it molts, changing size and color, losing its baby hair. Its glossy faceplate pops off like a miniature samurai mask. It does this four times, eating and eating. And growing.

After the fifth instar, about a month’s worth of eating and growing, the worm starts spinning test threads. Once situated, it creates an ovoid shelter for itself using spit. It wraps itself into that shell or shroud, and undergoes a transformation we cannot even imagine – liquefying its innards and growing wings. Emerging, it is guided to other moths using pheromones. It mates, lays eggs, and dies without ever eating again. The “small balls” it leaves behind are here in your hands.

Here’s another riddle from Aldhelm:

alt text

I sprang from branches growing greenery,
But, in rank, Fortune altered fate for me.
While on my rounded neck I’m twirling thread,
Which makes the robes that cloak the royal line,
No hero’s belt surrounds as much as mine.
The Parcae set men’s fates through me, it’s said.
If I weren’t steadfast, chills would strike men dead.

Any clues?

This voice belongs not to an animal but a tool. And such a wonderful, simple tool! It takes animal hair and leaves and turns those basic materials into something that can be woven and stitched, enfolded and embroidered. The spindle is the founding technology of what Aldhelm calls the Roman Parcae, and whom we otherwise know as the Fates: specifically, it is the tool of Clotho, who spins out the thread of human life. The beginning of things.

(pull out spindle)

Learning to spin is a humbling experience. Like writing, it looks easy, but it’s not. It has to be learned not in the mind but in the body. Working with the hair of an animal or the stuff of a plant, the slipperiness and tautness of language can be felt through the fingers, as one spins and plies, and then later couches and stitches. Every spun thread is a physical record of the movement of finger, foot and bobbin reel; twist is captured, combined, released. Working with silk forces me to reckon with the particularities of that fiber. Spinning silk, surprisingly, is quite a bit easier than wool or cotton because its staple (the length of an individual fiber) is so long: a worm can spin a single thread up to 1300 meters. Compare that to wool or rabbit or alpaca, which is a few inches long, or cotton, which is basically just fluff. Similarly, embroidering with silk is different to cotton. Cotton is soft, matte, and highly machined. Silk is stretchy, glossy, and kind of “crunches” in your fingers as the fibers jostle against one another. Our animal and vegetable collaborators supply the fiber: we supply the turn, the volta. The thread is stitched, over and under, creating an encoded material trail: a kind of writing, yarn on yarn.

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And yet this writing is somehow indecipherable. Timothy Morton, member of the group known as Object Oriented Ontologists, (place three cocoons) characterizes the things that surround us as examples of what he calls the “strange stranger.” For OOO adherents, to live in the world is to understand that we are surrounded by objects that have their own ways of being in the world, independent of us. Every object is a strange stranger: it has a kind of hiddenness that we cannot fully access: what Graham Harman calls the act of withdrawal. Morton offers an accessible example of this “withdrawing”: take an object and look at it. Now turn it over. As the back comes into view, and shows us new dimensions, the front recedes. We can never see it all.

Morton suggests that “rhetoric is a technique for contacting the strange stranger.” How might we do that? What kind of rhetoric might he mean? There are some immediate possibilities: Morton himself offers ekphrasis as one contact point. Ekphrasis, the act of writing an exhaustive description of a visual artefact or object, is an attempt to get at the wholeness of that artefact: Ruth Webb traces the etymology of the Greek ekphrasis and offers a translation as “to tell in full” – aligning it with the latin explicatio – an unfolding (74-75), and with Quintilian’s enargeia – vivid description, which is achieved by verbally placing the object “before the eyes” through the practice of phantasia, the “use of mental images” (88).

Riddles offer another contact point, in the form of prosopopoeia: the act of speaking from the viewpoint of another; in these two examples, animal and object. “What am I?” asks the riddle (here I take on the voice of the riddle). Quintilian noted that “[I]n this kind of figure it is allowable even to bring down the gods from heaven, and evoke the dead; and cities and states are gifted with voices,” and while he maintained that “assuredly a speech cannot be conceived without being conceived as the speech of some person,” he also offered the possibility of a prosopopoeia that “give[s] a voice to things to which nature has not given a voice” (IX, II, 29-32), elsewhere noting that “[E]ven mute objects may touch the feelings, either when we speak to them ourselves, or represent them as speaking” (VI, I, 25). Prosopopoiea gives us the opportunity to engage in what archaeologists and museum studies workers call an “object biography,” but from the inside out: from the perspective of the object itself, in what Harriet Soper terms a kind of “life writing” that exceeds simple description.

Both ekphrasis and prosopopoeia, though, are a kind of rhetoric-in-absentia. They attempt to use language to place an absent object or creature before us in simulation, working to woo us into sympathy or understanding through speech and writing. Ekphrasis freezes time, exhaustively describing a single moment of observation. Prosopopoeia speaks in place of an object or person or system. We need to bring focus back on the object itself.

In science and technology studies, Lucy Suchman explicitly formulates the work we do in terms of practice: “both in the sense of research methods as practice, and in the sense of “practice” as itself an object of research” (21). Drawing on the STS methodology of “material-semiotic studies,” Suchman studies how objects work within and without systems, such that we are always delineating and redrawing the possible boundaries of an object, asking the key question, “Is this order, or is this mess?” (28) Moving from objects-in-systems, Donna Haraway critiques the idea of Western, science-based “objectivity,” offering the observation that “Objects are boundary projects. But boundaries shift from within; boundaries are very tricky” (595).

The field of critical making is a kind of research-based practice (or practice-based research) that requires our intimate entanglement with objects, and seeks to understand how those boundary conditions are formed and how they shift as we reconstruct them in different formations. Working with objects helps us think about the material world and its boundaries and uncertainties. Drawing on Ian Bogost’s formulation of object-oriented inquiry as “carpentry,” for example, Jim Brown suggests that within rhetorical studies we should conduct what he calls “rhetorical carpentry,” which “would construct objects (and conversations among objects) in order to demonstrate approximations of the strange, alien conversations happening around us. … the best way to begin an investigation into the conversations amongst objects is to make those conversations happen.” (pp.) A kind of prosopopeia of the fingers, working with an object and exploring what an object wants to do (and what it wants us to do), helps us learn to see from different perspectives but also to understand how those perspectives are always partial and depend upon where and when they are speaking.

And thus to identify my own practice as a scholar. Less carpentry than handcraft, working with fiber is a way of engaging in a program of practice-based research rooted in the exploration of animal and vegetable objects. Instead of hammer and nails, I use needle and thread. Using the techniques of spinning and stitching, I attempt to contact the strange strangers that are cocoon and spindle. I try to embody Jim Brown’s observation that “[B]y engaging with objects and putting them into relation with one another (and by understanding that we are enmeshed in this process rather than in charge of it) we can consider how objects act differently in different rhetorical situations.” Consider embroidery, such as the examples I’ve shown you. The thread moves up and down, from the back of the fabric to the front. It creates pictures, or letters, or abstract shapes and curves. Some stitches have meaning to the viewer, feeler, and wearer (the textured front of the fabric), and some have meaning to the embroiderer, who must choose the path from point to point in order to minimize waste thread. In front, aesthetics. Behind, economy. Here we see the strange stranger withdrawing: as Brown suggests, this is the act of oscillatio, in which “an object conceals itself and reveals itself” (6).

Rhetorical handcrafting can also be thought of in another classical term: dunamis, which is “the potentiality for change and to produce change” (Maher). Aristotle breaks this term into kinesis (the act of changing) and energeia (the actuality of the thing, changed). Rhetorical handcrafting captures objects in moments of transformation, enacting dunamis, unlocking each object’s potential for change. The object you are holding in your hand, the silk cocoon, transforms itself from spit to fiber, a protective temporary house for an animal, and then is transformed to an agricultural product providing income for farmers and textile producers, and thence to an object providing both material cover and status for the wearer. The process of hand preparing a cocoon for spinning involves multiple geometric transformations, from a spheroid in a web to a flat plane stretched on a frame, and thence to a long, thin fiber via a spindle. Commercial processes short-cut this multistep process by preparing a single fine thread using a “reeling” technique – literally un-spinning the cocoon in reverse.

Consider all the objects and entities involved in these transformations, and in all their dunamis, their potential for change: worm, moth, leaf, cocoon, frame, hand, spindle, reel. Oblivious to complex human relations, the spindle, cut from a tree, works using its own spatial rhetoric. It is born to turn, taking the energy from a human hand and turning it into angular momentum, or “twist” – an energy that is forever trapped inside the resulting thread. Two threads are spun together in reverse (to prevent themselves from unreeling), in a process called plying. They embrace one another permanently, the trapped energy in each.

Thus, rhetorical handcrafting – an act of kinesis that explores how objects work in the world and how they change when placed together in new arrangements, is a method for contacting the strange stranger. We turn the object over and over, watch it withdraw. We ask it with our fingers what it wants to do, what it asks us to do by dint of its material affordances and constraints. And we think about the open possibilities, the dunamis of a thing, and that is where we can engage in fruitful practice-based research.

I’ll end by showing you a critical making project that I’m working on as an act of rhetorical handcrafting.

(show & explain the thing, which is awesome, and includes prosopopeia.) alt text alt text alt text


Aldhelm, and A. M. Juster. Saint Aldhelm’s Riddles. University of Toronto Press, Scholarly Publishing Division, 2015. 8-9. Circa 695.

Brown, James J. Jr. “The Decorum of Objects.” USC Conference on Rhetorical Theory September 8, 2011.

Haraway, Donna. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” Feminist Studies, Vol. 14, No. 3 (Autumn, 1988), pp. 575-599.

Maher, Jennifer. Text message.

Morton, Timothy. “Here Comes Everything.”

Quintilian, Institutes of Oratory VI. Chapt. 1; IX Chapt. 2.

Soper, Harriet. “Reading the Exeter Book Riddles as Life-Writing.” The Review of English Studies, New Series, Vol. 68, No. 287, 841–865 doi: 10.1093/res/hgx009.

Suchman, Lucy. “Practice and its Overflows: Reflections on Order and Mess.” Technoscienza: Italian Journal of Science & Technology Studies Volume 2(1) pp. 21-30.

Webb, R. (2009). Ekphrasis, Imagination and Persuasion in Ancient Rhetorical Theory and Practice. London: Routledge, https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315578996