RhetTech Log: Finding The Ambience in Urban Design



“Rhetoric is intimate with the environments in which it emerges. intimacy is not solely human-based.” (152)

“For ambient rhetoric, connection is already given as possibility by the world itself.” (103)


Q: What fields concerning technology, in addition to music and writing, may we benefit from in employing an ambient rhetoric framework?


Ambient Rhetoric is primarily interested in reorienting the way in which we [scholars] traditionally conceive of rhetoric, and disrupt several of the binaries that have become cornerstones of rhetorical teaching. Among those binaries, Ambient Rhetoric highlights in chapter 5 the subject object divide in the act of persuasion. Through exploring notions of agency and language-making from Kenneth Burke, Debra Hawhee and Heidegger, Thomas Rickert makes the case that persuasive control ultimately rest not in the hands of the rhetor in an attempt to persuade an audience, but that all agents within the ambient environment operate alongside each other to allow for persuasion to occur. What most excited me about this chapter was its utility in discussing relationships between states and its citizenry that are generally accepted as both hierarchical and static, relying on underlying assumptions of subject-object between states and citizens. Specifically, I found persuasion within an ambient rhetoric context a productive means of exploring contemporary urban design since it ideally considers “place, language and body into coadaptive, vital and buoyant interaction,” (107) much like ambient rhetoric.

In Unpleasant Design, a book I originally heard about on the wonderful 99% Invisible podcast, the contributors [urban designers and artists, sociologists, and architects] explore different means by which states have reformed urban spaces to make them unpleasant to [mis]use in a manner other than what is intended by the state. A prominent example discussed throughout the book being the installation of arm rests on public benches in order to deter people from sleeping on those benches, a design solution that most effects marginal groups such as the homeless. Examining this scenario from a traditional rhetorical perspective, we can recognize the linear subject-object manner that the state sees as their role in controlling the use of urban space. In the case of the public benches, the state as subject sees that the presence of homeless people in public spaces negatively impacts the space, perhaps by deterring other people and decreasing the commercial activity occurring within those spaces.

Average ordinary park bench

In traditional invention, the state views the problem of the bench, assuming a particular regular usage of urban space in a manner that they deem to negatively impact its intended use, an assumption that may or may not even be based on empirical data of the urban space in question. The addition of armrests to benches therefore imbues the bench, the state’s silent agent, with the persuasive message of discomfort to homeless people, working to convince them to move to another area, assuming again that the desired action will take place due to the armrests persuasive appeal. If the homeless population begins to avoid the redesigned space, the rhetor will feel that they have been successful in their persuasive act, considering the fate of the dispersed homeless population secondary.

Park bench with armrests making sleeping difficult, impacting marginalized communities such as the homeless who rely on them for rest.

Let’s reconsider the same scenario from an ambient rhetoric perspective in which the state sees themselves not as the agent responsible for change, but as an I-situation working within the environment alongside other agents. Now then, the state examines the problem of urban space utility in light of the homeless population sleeping on benches, and works alongside interested groups to find a remedy that allows the bench to maintain its flexible utility. Within an ambient rhetoric framework, the state no longer is conceived as the subject meant to control the object [the urban populace], and therefore would not be expected to alter the urban environment in order to minimize the presence of person’s considered less vital to the increase in commercial capital. The homeless person’s usage of the bench would not be so easily deemed unseemly because the bench would no longer have a fixed use. They work as equally active agents to persuade for an expansion of the bench’s use.

A park bench with shelter added to make sleeping more comfortable.

Taken further, urban design within an ambient rhetoric framework would be modified according to the uses desired by all persons within the city. The marginalized people of the city would therefore have as much of a role in determining spaces’ utility. Taking the bench as an example for a third time then, ambient rhetoric would allow the state to respond to homeless person’s use of benches for sleeping not by deterring their presence, but by considering how to alter these benches to allow for more comfortable, effective rest, and also determining the qualities of specific benches that make them appealing for sleeping.

This perhaps all reeks of naïve implementation of ambient rhetoric within a material environment, and yet I feel somewhat buoyed by the way that ambient rhetoric works as a non-political means of destabilizing structures (both ideological and material) that are considered permanent. The urban space becomes liquid, one that considers the changing demands of its populace (both human and non-human), in which a greater attunement is seen as best achieved in the process of undulation. Unpleasant design becomes non-desirable to the state because fixing the space to limit its accessibility would render the space inert and incapable of engaging the populace in a never-ending design challenge. To ignore the ambience would be seen as failure, to make invisible would be damaging to not solely those directly affected but to the state and other non-marginalized groups.


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