Jeff Pruchnic: Dissertation Description The Transhuman Condition: Rhetoric and Ethics in the Cybernetic Age



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Jeff Pruchnic / Dissertation Description /

Jeff Pruchnic: Dissertation Description

The Transhuman Condition: Rhetoric and Ethics in the Cybernetic Age
Value of Research: Scientific theories and discourses have long been invoked as a “limit case” for rhetorical analysis that protects distinctions between reality and representation or truth and persuasion. By attending to the roles rhetoric plays in the development of science and technology, rhetoric of science scholarship does not so much seek to disrupt these boundaries as to highlight the complex interrelationships between modes of persuasion and technoscientific epistemologies. In practice, rhetorical accounts of technoscience provide methods for analyzing contemporary realms of knowledge production (how innovation and invention take place in technoscientific work) and strategies to intervene in the political and ethical controversies emerging around current science and technology. This perspective as well as the interdisciplinary reach and broad range of subjects engaged by my research (new media technologies, artificial intelligence, legal discourse, neurological and pharmacological sciences) have prepared me to teach both highly specialized courses and more general classes in rhetoric, composition, critical and cultural theory, and technical writing.
Argument of Emergent technoscientific reconsiderations of human bodies and categories

Dissertation: of human agency have challenged traditionally humanist conceptions of ethics

and epistemology as well as more contemporary postmodern and poststructuralist critical and cultural theory. My study provides an analysis of this rhetorical ecology and argues for a transhuman rhetoric that productively deploys new capacities for persuasion, interaction, and conditioning made possible by contemporary science and technology. This principle is then applied to a variety of phenomena currently at the center of debates over human subjectivity, humanist politics, and praxis within the humanities: new media technologies, rhetorical theory and criticism, composition pedagogy, public policy development, and legal discourse.


Contribution of Rhetorics of science and technology typically focus on the emergence and

Dissertation: circulation of technoscientific knowledge and practice. By combining this

approach with broader concerns about contemporary subjectivity and ethics, I am able to



  • expand the role of rhetorical theory and praxis to encompass affective and non-discursive phenomena, such as human interactions with contemporary technology and the use and effects of psychopharmaceuticals;

  • illustrate how “networked” perspectives of human and mechanical agency and cognition are altering the contemporary roles of human identity, responsibility, and accountability.


Relevance to My current research on the networked relationships between technoscience,

Future Research: rhetoric, and ethics has provided me with a large amount of new material and a range of publication options. Future projects include an analysis of court cases contesting the validity of scientific claims and a genealogy of cybernetics and early neuroscience based on planned archival research.

Chapter Summaries

Chapter 1 Toward a Grammar of Transhumanism; or, Why the Future Needs Us

Organized around a series of theses that are invoked and supported throughout the

dissertation, this chapter analyzes the rhetorical dilemma at the center of endeavors to think in a non-humanist and non-anthropocentric manner: the seemingly paradoxical attempt to conceive of an ecology in which human conception will itself have undergone radical changes. The chapter narrates the emergence of populist and academic movements writing under the banner of trans- or posthumanism as they develop in the wake of mid-century cybernetic sciences and then contextualizes them in reference to broader movements in rhetoric and contemporary critical and cultural theory. Writing partially in response to Sun Microsystems founder Bill Joy’s influential essay “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us” — an argument for the affirmation of traditional liberal humanist values as a defense against a coming age of massively destructive technologies and scientific practices — I argue for a transhuman rhetoric that productively deploys new capacities for persuasion, interaction, and conditioning made possible by contemporary science and technology.
Chapter 2 On Seeing Differently: Cybernetic Knowledge Production and the Blind Spots of New Media Theory

This chapter analyzes methods of knowledge production and critical practice developed by the cybernetics movement in reference to contemporary methods of critically engaging contemporary technologies of electronic mediation. It begins with a critical reading of the Turing Test, Alan Turing’s influential 1950 thought experiment that assays whether a human participant could guess the identity of an artificially intelligent computer solely through textual interaction. Turing’s test and subsequent responses to it in media theory and science studies create the framework for critical engagements with a variety of technologies and arguments that traffic in material and analogical practices of vision: the “black box” method that served as a crucial conceptual device for first-wave cyberneticists; biologist Jerome Y. Lettvin's canonical investigations into the physiological components of animal vision; virtual reality role-playing games; and Steve Mann's EyeTap technologies, wearable computing devices that alternately diminish and augment a user’s vision. I argue for a set of critical and pedagogical practices focused on our ability to manipulate our and others’ affective and cognitive responses to visual and electronically mediated material rather than our abilities to interpret or critique them.  


Chapter 3 Neurorhetorics: Articulating Life during the Great Anti-Depression

In this chapter I examine the interrelated development of scientific research in artificial intelligence and neuropharmacology in reference to the contemporary use of antidepressants and related ethical and political controversies. Parallels and intersections in the genealogies of AI and neuropharmacology resulted in the production of numerous “neurorhetorics,” techniques of persuasion and transformation inspired by research into neural nets and the establishment of the network as a conceptual paradigm. I argue for a conception of “cybernetic subjectivity” integral for the early formulation of this research and necessary for our contemporary ability to respond productively to the use of neuropharmaceuticals such as antidepressants.


Chapter 4 Rhetoric, Cybernetics, and the Work of the Body in Burke’s Body of Work

The next two chapters examine explicit engagements between rhetoric, cybernetic science, and transhuman thinking, beginning with the co-terminus development of Kenneth Burke’s early rhetorical theory and the first-wave cybernetic research to which Burke was often implicitly and explicitly responding. Burke’s (primarily negative) responses to cybernetic research are pivotal to understanding his early attempts to construct a rhetorical subject embracing affective and nonrepresentational vectors. The chapter argues that the recuperation of this often neglected aspect of Burke’s canon is salutary for intervening in contemporary rhetorical scholarship on subjectivity and similarly instructive for approaches to affective experience and new media technologies developing in contemporary cultural and critical theory.


Chapter 5 Coldness and Criticism: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Pedagogy

This chapter develops the conclusions of the last chapter in reference to current pedagogies for writing and critical thinking. I take the contemporary “conservative backlash” against Liberal Arts instruction (and composition classes in particular) as a point of departure for forwarding a pedagogical program based on an “aesthetic” rather than “critical” view of pedagogy. This perspective, developed around the ethical works of Hannah Arendt and the lessons learned from contemporary open-source software production and open-author writing systems, contains both a theoretical framework and discrete strategies for teaching in the contemporary writing classroom.


Chapter 6 Hacking the Self: Burroughs, Deleuze, and the Limits of Control

The next two chapters expand the itinerary of the study to broader political, cultural, and ethical domains. “Hacking the Self” stages an intervention in the emergent concept of “control” or “cybernetic” societies, a critical mapping of contemporary economies of social control first formerly introduced through theorist Gilles Deleuze's last published works. Although Deleuze is explicitly working from Michel Foucault's studies of disciplinary power, his use of control society as a periodizing concept is very similar to canonical cyberneticist Norbert Wiener's predictions of the future of social control, and he credits American author Williams S. Burroughs for first anticipating the emergence of control societies. In this chapter, I first trace the connections between cybernetic theorizing and Deleuze's philosophical writings before arguing for an alternative concept of control societies drawn from Burroughs’ work. The chapter concludes with a proposal for fomenting political activity without recourse to traditional tropes of critique and protest.



Chapter 7 “My Hands”: Capacitation, Culpability, and Transhuman Ethics

This concluding chapter surveys the grounds for an ethics of transhumanism and its possible pragmatic application in jurisprudence. After foregrounding the exigence for such an investigation through the close reading of recent court cases dealing with the altered states of human capacitation and culpability augured by contemporary technoscience, it turns to the figure of the sleepwalker and the problems it has posed for three interpretive domains: medicine, literature, and the law. Court cases involving sleepwalkers that have committed violent crimes are then deployed as a historical antecedent and contemporary test case for transhuman ethics.


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