IP as Rhetorical Agency

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One of the primary challenges the fields of professional and technical communication (PTC) and composition and rhetoric will face in the coming decade is identifying the rhetorical agent or agents that can be considered the “owner” or “originator” of intellectual labor. Who or what can be described as the creator of an art installation, an orchestration, a mapping mashup, or a research paper? Whose property are we talking about, and what right to ownership does the authorial agent(s) have to that intellectual work? Can property, physical or intellectual, be owned by any single rhetorical agent, and whose “intellect” is represented?

As the field of PTC explores rhetorical agency in the next decade, I believe the results of exploration will challenge the basic notion of IP as individual or collective ownership of intellectual work. The activity of tracing rhetorical agency through systems of labor and production is ongoing across the humanities. Thomas Rickert’s Ambient Rhetoric explores agency in embodied and disembodied influences, especially sonic influences, on rhetorical creation and expression. Sean Conrey, in a recent film titled Listening for Phoné presented in Enculturation, explores sonic agency in environmental ecologies. Levi Bryant’s Onto-Cartography, following in the footsteps of Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter, examines the emergent agency of things in their relations with human and nonhuman actors alike.

In professional and technical communication, the question is being explored in disaster rhetorics (Zoetewey & Staggers, 2004; Herndl, Fenner & Miller, 1991), through documentation of dangerous work environments (Sauer, 2003), through the mapping of disciplinary boundaries (Sullivan & Porter, 1991), and in fan-produced documentation for and against video games (Beale, McKittrick & Richards, 2016) among other sites. Questions raised about intellectual property include:

  • Where do we find blame, a type of intellectual ownership, in rhetoric surrounding a massive disaster like an airliner crash or an oil rig explosion?
  • Where should we situate technical knowledge of dangerous workplaces, another type of intellectual ownership, in written and experiential documentation?
  • What are the intellectual roles and responsibilities of disciplinary scholars in increasingly interdisciplinary research?
  • Where (or to whom) does the responsibility for producing technical documentation of video games “belong”?

In my research in technical communication, I’m tracing rhetorical agency through emergent systems of algorithmic activity and meaning. When we and our students conduct research by searching Google Scholar or our academic library’s catalog, we are only partially controlling the search process. Algorithms and the individuals, teams, corporations, and ideologies that produce them collaborate in the rhetorical activity that gets represented in our search results. The scholarship we conduct is reliant in part on what we trust (or hope) are ethical algorithmic activities that provide us the most relevant results for our searches.

When we choose to include and cite one or more of these search results in our scholarship, to what extent can we say “we” conducted the research? The research process is, at least in part, an emergent algorithmic activity that collaborates in the production of knowledge. Human and nonhuman, physical and metaphysical, the agents involved in the production of knowledge are varied and challenging to trace to their origins. So, then, is the IP of the research process difficult to trace. Whose intellect shall we say produced and owns the knowledge created by research and application? It is surely the researchers in collaboration with the technical systems that enable its collection, organization, production, and distribution.

Cheryl Geisler’s essay report from the 2009 meeting of the Alliance of Rhetoric Societies neatly frames this question in its title: “How Ought We to Understand the Concept of Rhetorical Agency?” I suggest this could easily be revised to ask, “How ought we to understand ownership of intellectual property?” If intellectual property refers to the creation and ownership of works of the mind, then the concept of rhetorical agency contains within it the concept of intellectual property. And what will be the result of the field’s exploration of IP as agency? It will rely on distribution of IP among human and non-human entities, it will render our current legal protections for IP obsolete, and it will require new ways of understanding collaborative, emergent agency and ownership.


Beale, M., McKittrick, M., & Richards, D. (2016). “Good” grief: Subversion, praxis,and the unmasked ethics of griefing guides. Technical Communication Quarterly, 25(3), 191-201.

Geisler, C. (2009). How ought we to understand the concept of rhetorical agency? Report from the ARS. Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 34(3), 9-17.

Sauer, B. (2003). The rhetoric of risk: Technical documentation in hazardous environments. Mahway, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Sullivan, P. A. & Porter, J. E.(1993). Remapping curricular geography: Professional writing in/and English. Journal of Business and Technical Communication 7(4): 389-422.

Zoetewey, M., and Staggers, J. (2004). Teaching the Air Midwest case: A stakeholder approach to deliberative technical rhetoric. IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, 47(4), 233-243.