BY BARRY BRUMMETT

BrummettBrummett

Human life is organized around what happens and the spaces in between. Another way to put that is that our lives are structured around focused, identifiable experiences—let’s call these events—and times when we are staring into the middle distance, not doing anything in particular. In this paper I will argue that our experience of both events and unfocused passages are socially constructed and organized—that dimensions of boundedness and power are foundational for those constructions—and that the ways we organize and construct events and the unstructured passages have a great deal to do with human communication. I will claim that changes in technology and culture are changing the nature of both events and unstructured experiences. I will argue in particular that the history of rhetorical theory shows a marked preference for understanding rhetoric as event, which may be, and should be, changing as technology and culture change.

Let’s begin with some wording I used above, the distinction between events and staring into the middle distance. What these are is very much a matter of social, cultural understanding, of practices we share, of categories of cognition. The distinction is also rarely absolute. If I am attending an event that I might call a birthday party, it is because I have a cultural understanding of the birthday party as a particular kind of event with defining characteristics. It is a “thing,” culturally understood. But right away we run into problems with our wording, because one might well imagine a culture in which staring into the middle distance were constructed as an event also, and in which people gathered from time to time in groups to stare into the middle distance with a sense of purpose. What is constructed as an event may be threatened by the encroachment of the middle distance, as when the mind wanders during a staff meeting. If what one culture thinks of as unstructured might become an event in another construction of experience, if any kind of experience might or might not become an event, or likewise unstructured, then we cannot assume some ontological given-ness to events nor to the unstructured. This raises the question as to how events and nonevents are constructed symbolically and culturally. Instead of asking “what’s an event,” or its opposite, we might ask what dimensions and properties are assembled to make an event, or not. Let me propose a different set of terms to get at what I mean.

Eventuality and Porosity

Sometimes our experience displays what our cultures would put together as events using what I suggest we call eventuality. Eventuality is the set of properties a culture will attribute to, and use to manifest and create, events. I want to suggest that the “other” of an event is an experience that is porous, an experience of much looser, or no, definition such that other kinds of experiences impinge upon and through it. What “counts” as a porous passage of experience is culturally constructed and has certain culturally created properties, just as with events. If staring into the middle distance is porous and not an event, it means that all kinds of thoughts (“what’s for dinner?”) and minor experiences (a bug crawls over one’s ankle) run through that passage of experience without it becoming a “what’s for dinner” or a “bug” event. Were someone to ask what we are doing, we could with social justification reply, “Oh, nothing.” Parts of life are porous in that way. Let me call those properties that make such experiences noneventual porosity.

It’s difficult even to think of the truly porous without clawing some of it toward eventuality. If we exhort someone to “quit daydreaming!” then naming whatever they were doing as daydreaming begins to assert some eventuality for the experience. As we move toward the porosity end of the continuum of experience, experience becomes less and less nameable.

Eventuality and porosity are dialectically related even as they are culturally constructed. I will elaborate on what some properties of eventuality and porosity are below, taking eventuality as a provisional anchor term. When a culture makes something an event, what are the properties of eventuality that the culture uses? Or for a nonevent, what makes for porosity? Let me stipulate that since I am located in a Western culture, I will be identifying properties along two dimensions most likely used in those contexts. And let me note that in the tradition of Western culture, eventuality and porosity are always relative and rarely totally define an experience. Even the most vacuous experience may have occasional nodules of “something happening,” and the most intense experience may be intruded upon by unconnected thoughts of dinner. The two dimensions on which eventuality and porosity are constructed, I propose as boundedness and power.

Boundedness

One property of eventuality is boundedness, in time and space. Eventuality puts parameters around segments of life on dimensions of time and space. The parameters may be very narrow or very wide, and the clarity or sharpness of the boundaries may vary, but eventuality requires a sense that something has a beginning and an end, as well as spatial location. The Battle of Hastings has eventuality because of a cultural understanding that it began and ended at particular times and occurred within a bounded location in England.

Now, porosity has a tendency to nibble at the boundedness of eventuality. The very start and the very end of the Battle of Hastings were likely frayed, and thus displayed some porosity. Perhaps some local citizens became aware of the gathering of armies and fled in its early stages. For sure, looting, removal of the dead, the arrival of carrion birds and so forth scattered the ending of the Battle into a future of days, maybe weeks. The before and after featured porosity because other experiences were interwoven with them in ways unlikely during the pitched height of the battle. Likewise, the spatial boundedness of the battle likely showed porosity, as the wounded crept away from the location of the main battle to die, refugees scattered off to other locations, and news reports of the battle went flying off to other sites. And of course, some measure of porosity came to dominate perceptions of the battle and battlefield as time and space became something else. But had the battle not had the boundedness of eventuality, it likely would not have been regarded then nor remembered today as an event, as a “thing.”

Over the last one or two hundred years of cultural construction and practice, there has been a relative change in the boundedness of eventuality in the West. There are many causes for this, dialectically related: an increase in and distribution of technology, which puts more control over messages in the hands of agents who used to be largely receivers of messages—proliferation of cultural varieties and awareness of difference, which exposes people to different ways to understand how to organize experience—a vast expansion of means of transportation, which allows people to overflow boundaries—an awareness of different languages and discourses, with different rules and practices for boundedness—and so forth. Let us consider for the moment just technology which now allows any event to be shared globally and to be repeated in whole or part across times. One had to go to Senlac Hill outside of the town of Hastings to experience the bounded eventuality of the battle, and one had to have been there during a bounded time period in 1066. That by no means says there was no porosity, as people would talk about the battle beyond a certain boundedness, children would reenact it in the streets, and so forth. But the battle had strong boundedness as a thing that occurred then and there.

Today, that boundedness would not have disappeared, but it would display a great deal more porosity. Media make sounds and images of battle available to people around the world, and recordings of a battle may be distributed widely for weeks or years, and may be reassembled in other forms technologically. This will become more true as time goes on: the holodeck is coming, in which excellent simulations can extend boundedness without limit. The spatial and temporal boundedness of battles today has not disappeared, but it displays a great deal more porosity. In some extreme cases, the porosity may seem to dominate the eventuality.

Case in point, the War on Terror. Or if you want something with a little more eventuality, the War in Afghanistan. At one point in the dim past President George W. Bush declared “Mission Accomplished” for these wars, asserting a boundedness of time. To call something the War in Afghanistan certainly asserts a boundedness of space. Would it not be fair to say that in American, perhaps global, consciousness the eventuality of these names for wars has frayed off into increasing porosity some time ago? There are of course some—those who have lost friends and loved ones, and continue to do so, for instance—for whom these wars may display greater boundedness. But for most of the public, porosity relatively crept up on eventuality some time ago. The War on Terror and the War in Afghanistan now have the porosity of air, with occasional nuggets of eventuality forming in the boundedness of focused acts of terror, bombings, and the like.

It is in the interests of power structures to encourage, intentionally or not, greater porosity. Power wants people not to notice, and we notice porosity much less. As I note below, there is power in eventuality, for the highly eventual calls attention to an experience. Power may well not want its means and ends attended to. So if power structures want their actions not noticed, it will be in the interests of power to increase porosity. To pursue here mainly a focus on technology without denying other contributions to porosity discussed above, technology has tremendous power to increase the porosity of experience. Turn on cable news coverage of any of these “wars” and it will within minutes if not seconds be interrupted by news of the Kardashians and their exploits, and then ads for Charmin. This situation is largely although not exclusively facilitated by technology, which allows the dribbling out of pieces of news of this and that event in the “wars” without pulling together a highly bounded sense of eventuality for either.

Many, perhaps all, human experiences are constructed somewhere along the continuum of boundedness in time and space. There may be some experiences and practices that repay examining in that regard more than others. I think rhetoric and communication do. Certainly experiences of rhetoric have shown both eventuality and porosity, but I want to argue that experiences we might call rhetorical nowadays, and theories about those experiences, show relatively more porosity than in the past. The practice and the theories of rhetoric in the past have been relatively more bounded, which is not to deny some porosity. In particular, the boundedness of eventuality and porosity help us to understand the history of rhetorical theory even more than practice.

To some extent, rhetorical practice of the past had relatively greater boundedness. Sermons, political speeches, and so forth simply took longer and took more audience investment than they do today. While they were surely interrupted by the small intrusions of everyday life, it cannot have been to the extent that practice is made porous today by cell phones, cultural practices that are more permissive of inattention, multitasking, and so forth.

Perhaps more to the point, the long history of rhetorical theory in the West shows a preoccupation with eventuality, with crafting the focused and unified experience that is a rhetorical appeal. Classical references to kairos, or to timeliness, make sense only within a sense of temporal boundedness. Classical advice as to how to order a speech, and what the different parts of a speech are and do, require a sense of boundedness, or else the eventuality of the speech begins to fritter off into porosity. One will find very little mention of anything like porosity in Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and the long tradition of rhetorical theorists up to the present age. These theorists, most of them social and political elites, may have found the possibility of disruption or even subversion of rhetorical practice through porosity to be destabilizing, and so theory largely assumes that porosity is not worth mentioning. Even today, public speaking textbooks, those guardians of the ancient traditions, feature eventuality always and already, for references to a public speech assumes eventuality in the first place.

There have certainly been some efforts to understand what amounts to porosity in recent rhetorical theory. A few decades ago Samuel L. Becker proposed a “mosaic model” of communication that was attuned to the granular components of the communicative environment and the strategies that are used to create communication out of them, which is very congenial with the idea of eventuality fetched out of porosity (“Rhetorical”). Later work has developed Becker’s idea in the concept of “quotidian” rhetoric (Brummett), most recently developed in Jaishikha Nautiyal’s dissertation (Quotidian). Samuel McCormick’s recent work shows great sensitivity to the rhetorical currents at work in the everyday and the background buzz (Letters), and his work in progress promises to continue that attention to the rhetoric of the porous (“Samuel McCormick”). Some scholars have suggested resources for understanding more porous rhetorics by turning outside the Eurocentric tradition, or to aesthetic understandings of rhetoric (Ochieng, Intellectual Imagination; Groundwork). One may also find awareness of porosity in scholarship on social movement rhetoric (Jensen), in rhetorical uses of Foucault’s “microphysics of power,” (McKerrow), in Michael Calvin McGee’s idea of fragmentation (“Text), and in recent theorizing of rhetoric and affect (Katz).

Scholars outside of rhetoric seem also to have a theoretical grip on the increasing porosity of everyday life (Bittman, et al; Harmon, et. al; Licoppe; Mazmanian, Orlikowski, Yates; Mark, Wang, Nilya; Mark, Iqbal, et al; Stephens). Those who study the complex webs of communication in organizational or interpersonal contexts are becoming more attuned to the porosity achieved by multiple intersecting affordances of technologies into eventuality (See esp. Mazmanian, Erickson, Harmon). Cultural and technological changes have contributed to the increasing porosity of many experiences, even if we call that distraction or multitasking. Imagine the young person reading homework in front of a screen (television, computer) while checking text messages on a phone and listening to music through headphones. At any moment one of those components may shift, more components may enter in, and so forth. In such an example one can see the relative porosity of experience today. Even if one ascribes eventuality to an experience (going to a movie) the experience will still be shot through with porosity.

Power

Another dimension on which to display eventuality and porosity is power. I take power to be the ability to control actors, meanings, and objects. Eventuality is easier to control than is porosity. There is power in the cultural act of creating eventuality. Creating events is an act of carving out a focus in conscious awareness; creating porosity is an act of dismissing conscious awareness. That does not mean that porosity cannot be controlled, nor that power dynamics do not exist in the porous. It means that power dynamics can be clearly named, seen, negotiated, and controlled in the bright light of eventuality.

Over the last few years a term has entered public discourse that gets at this distinction, and that term is “microaggressions.” Without a sense of microaggressions, a culture has reduced ability to specify what may contribute to dominance, oppression, and their refusal, if those mechanisms are found in experiences that might melt into porosity. When a culture achieves a realization that certain events are powerful in that way, it is actually creating those experiences as events—it is ascribing eventuality to certain words, gestures, actions that would otherwise be part of a background buzz. Of course, the question then arises, background or foreground for whom? To use the term microaggressions forthrightly will be a way to create eventuality for empowered and oppressing classes, when the actions and events already have eventuality for the oppressed. It would call attention to the empowered to experiences with eventuality for the disempowered. Once this kind of “consciousness raising” happens, the empowered can be invited to think of certain events as real and consequential. The idea of microaggressions congeals events and classes of events out of porosity.

Another way to get at this distinction is found in Michael Polanyi’s contrast between tacit and focal knowledge (Tacit Dimension). Polanyi shows us that any focal action, which we may take to be endowed with eventuality, depends on a complex structure of tacit knowledge, which for purposes of doing the focal task must be out of awareness. To drive a car down the street with focal awareness requires tacit awareness of the controls, the seat, the dimensions of the car, and so forth. Any element of the tacit structure may itself come into focal awareness, but then a new tacit structure forms behind it. Once we say, “My! What a remarkable steering wheel!” then our focal awareness of driving collapses as we marvel instead at the wheel. Polanyi helps us to understand the role that intentionality and focus play in creating eventuality and porosity. To loop back to the previous example, to call something a microaggression is an attempt to make that thing, and awareness of that thing, intentional, so that now it may be examined and accepted or rejected in its greater eventuality.

An important aspect of power is that eventuality is much more commonly taught than is porosity, and as such, is more easily placed within the control of a priesthood. By priesthood I mean those who are officially (one way or another) sanctioned to teach, to certify the knowledge of those who have learned, and so forth. Indeed, one might argue that porosity is never taught, for to teach something means drawing it out of porosity and endowing it with eventuality. Porosity may be learned through repetition and habit, but taught, not so much. Not every eventuality creates a class of experts in control of knowledge and practice of events, of course. If I invite you to take a walk with me, I am proposing eventuality for a series of actions, but I’m not sure there are experts to control what I am proposing, to say how it’s done, and so forth. But without eventuality, there can be no such control, no priesthood. We start out learning how to ride bicycles by having those learning experiences endowed with eventuality, and nearly always a parent or older sibling teaches us how to do that. But the well understood truism that once you learn you can never forget is an assertion of increasing porosity. To get back on a bike requires less eventuality than it did at first. It does not call for priestly supervision. This tells us that intentionality is a feature of eventuality. One has to mean to do something to give it much, or unaccustomed, eventuality. That which we just do without concentrated attention is always slipping back in the direction of porosity.

To give another example, there are laws against, or control over, loitering. One would think loitering would lurk on the porosity end of the continuum. But to call a certain group of actions and experiences loitering is to pull it towards eventuality. Loitering cannot be controlled until it becomes “a thing,” until it acquires eventuality, and then it can be controlled. Ordinances will be passed, officers dispatched, and so forth.

This brings us back to rhetorical theory. When Plato argued that rhetoric was merely a knack one picked up from experience, he was tugging it in the direction of porosity, for one picks up a knack just by going along through life and engaging in practice (Gorgias). But for that very reason he argued that rhetoric could not be taught formally or systematically, and of course that means there could be no experts in possession of sure knowledge who could do that teaching. In his Gorgias he begins with an exercise in eventuality, as Socrates grills the title character on what a rhetor is and does. The answer is depicted as insufficiently eventual, for Socrates appears not to think rhetoric is much of a thing at all. In the academy, law, or social mores, only by endowing certain actions with eventuality can the actions be named, commented on, and controlled—or theorized. Once eventuality is ascribed to a set of experiences such that they become speeches, advertisements, sermons and so forth, then those eventual experiences may be governed by experts, by law, and so forth. One may go to school, indeed must go to school, to be advised how to master those events. Laws will often be devised to control the events, which could not have been controlled had they not been given eventuality. We must remember that the great rhetorical theories (since Plato, at any rate) are all ascribing eventuality to an experience that can be managed, controlled, taught, and handed on. For those reasons, a priesthood possesses power over the eventuality.

Another important aspect of power is that eventuality and porosity provide grounds for moral judgment and thus control of others. Of course, the wielding of moral power is an important rhetorical outcome depending on a wide range of rhetorical tools. I think it may be possible to understand different cultures based on their different views of eventuality and porosity, with moral implications. If someone is not entirely attuned to those cultural understandings, then an experience might be seen by an outsider as in some way performing poor eventuality or porosity, and moral judgment may follow.

Case in point is the colloquial concept of CPT, or Colored People’s Time. To phrase this as neutrally as possible, CPT may be understood as a relaxed regard for schedules and punctuality. Of course, one can see right away the moral judgments involved in such an understanding and the purposes of power domination to which those judgments may be put. From a Eurocentric perspective, CPT may be seen as meaning that people influenced by cultural contexts, especially in Africa and South America, are always “late.” But I think eventuality and porosity give us another way to understand what is going on.

Let me offer a personal example. I am White, and was recently invited to attend a church service with an African American family with whom I am friends. The service starts at ten, I was told. “We’ll pick you up at ten thirty.” They arrived at eleven. We got there at eleven thirty. My friends immediately became fully involved in the experience, as did I, but I also noticed some parishioners leaving the sanctuary from time to time. That the sign outside the church announced services from ten to one simply seemed to matter less to my friends than it might for my fellow Eurocentrics. (Let me note parenthetically, this may be specific to certain kinds of religious practice. I recently attended a Catholic service in a predominantly African American congregation and to my casual observation there seemed to be much less coming and going.)

Then it occurred to me: I think a Eurocentric perspective is much more invested in eventuality. I see it in myself. If the church service starts at ten, be there by ten says the voice inside my head. Same for a movie that starts at seven. Get there at seven or some part of the event is irretrievably lost. The voice is insisting on a high degree of eventuality for “the service,” or “the movie.” From a Eurocentric perspective, annoyance and perhaps even moral judgment may follow from seeing someone waltz in “late.”

But from an Afrocentric perspective, “the church service” shows a great deal more porosity than it did for me, and perhaps this is true for other experiences. The Eurocentric judgment of “always late” goes away if there is less eventuality to “be late” for. And then so does the potential for moral and ethical judgment. Although I cannot develop this idea here, it may well be the case that one way cultural, religious, and other institutional practices may be differentiated is by the degree of eventuality or porosity they facilitate, assume, and nurture in everyday experience.

To display eventuality or porosity therefore picks up communicative, rhetorical dimensions as they engage moral judgments. To conform—or not—to cultural expectations for the relative eventuality or porosity of an experience is to communicate a stance toward those expectations, which at the same time has the rhetorical power to ingratiate, to challenge, to refuse, and so forth. I mentioned earlier that classical rhetorical concepts such as kairos or timeliness are much more relevant and workable for a culture with a high sense of eventuality. That element of rhetorical theory is much less relevant and workable for a culture with a high sense of porosity. And then by the same token, the moral judgments that might come with kairotic judgment—or any other choices governed by the continuum of boundedness—will be different.

Let me turn to one more example. In 2002, Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone and half his family were killed in a plane crash just days before Election Day, in which he was standing for reelection. The Democratic Party in Minnesota quickly nominated popular former Vice President Walter Mondale for the seat, and victory for the Democrats seemed all but assured. But then a very large and ultimately disastrous memorial service for Senator Wellstone was scheduled just a few days later. What began as a spiritual event quickly turned highly partisan, with charged and aggressive speeches that alienated the bipartisan crowd in attendance and the larger television audience. Mondale narrowly lost the election (Grow.)

Now, one interpretation of what happened, and a perfectly legitimate one, would be generic: the rhetorical theoretical explanation that the service seriously violated generic expectations of a memorial to the dead. Without denying that reading, I think another explanation might be that expectations for a highly bounded eventuality for the service made any departure from a rhetoric of memorialization not only inappropriate but immoral. A highly eventual construction tends to close off how else an experience might be made. A way to understand the service that was more porous might have created more rhetorical space for the mixed event it turned out to be.

In this paper I have proposed a way of looking at how cultures make events and nonevents, by developing eventuality or porosity. I have proposed a non-exhaustive set of two dimensions on which eventuality and porosity are constructed, and those are boundedness and power. In explaining these concepts, I have noted how cultural and technological changes have contributed to a relatively more porous culture, at any rate in the West. And I have suggested that some cultures, not necessarily grounded in the West, may be more naturally given to porosity.

In particular, I have wanted to suggest some ways in which the history of rhetorical theory has been committed to eventuality. If it is true that technology and culture is encouraging more porous experiences, then rhetorical theorists should continue their efforts at understanding the suasive dimensions of both eventual and porous experiences.

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  • Barry Brummett is the Chair of Communication Studies and Charles Sapp Centennial Professor in Communication at the University of Texas at Austin. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..