ENGL 894 Reading Notes: Ambient Rhetoric (Week 15)

After a brief hiatus, I am back with my final reading notes of the semester. Finishing the course with Rickert made a lot of sense. Ambient Rhetoric brought together a lot of the theories and concepts we have discussed from the semester and also connected well with the other course I’m taking this semester, Classical Rhetoric. This response will focus on the important takeaways for me from the readings.


Why Ambient?

Blurry photo of a loose fist in front of out of focus lights from a town or street.
Ambience suggests the importance and influence of that which might not be in focus. Image from http://www.coloribus.com/adsarchive/ambient/vodafone-pro-self-employees-14548205/

The ideas of ambience suggests things that are not in the foreground, but the background, out of our specific notice and focus, but that have a profound effect on us none-the-less. I think this is a really interesting way to think about connections and affects that is slightly different from what we’ve talked about previously this semester. With the mind map for example, the points of intersection, the connections, these were big and clear concepts, yet Rickert’s texts brought to light how things we may not be thinking about are connected and can have a profound effect. This is why the analogy of ambient music works so well. Often ambient music does not draw direct attention to itself, but it impacts our moods, how we feel none the less. Rickert’s presentation of ambience suggests the importance of the web of factors (many in the background of our consciousness and particularly influenced by a place or a sense of place) impacts our actions and rhetorical invention.

Ambience vs Networks & the Power of Metaphors

Towards the middle of his book, Rickert offers a critique of a strict network theoretical approach when explaining how attunement to ambience is different: “An attunement to ambience would ask what would come to constitute writing and composing in network culture if we push against the against the metaphor of node, connection, and web first to metaphors of environment, place, and surroundings and second to metaphors of meshing, osmosis, and blending” (105). This statement, to me, was the biggest takeaway of the book because it spoke to several important ideas from this semester. The first is the power of metaphors and the way they can help bring understanding to concepts. A recurrent theme in my reading notes this semester was how different metaphors reveal and restrict meaning. Rickert’s question is essentially asking what new views we would get from changing the metaphors we use. Second, I found Rickert’s second set of metaphors really productive. In my previous conception of networks, there are distinct “things” and then connections between them–I’m thinking of representations like my mind map. This kind of conception is really easy to grasp because it can be mapped rather linearly. Rickert’s metaphor of “meshing, osmosis, and blending” though is more complex. I think this complexity might better fit the relationship between various aspects and factors within a different situation. This notion of blending together really captures the idea of creating something totally new instead of just creating links between things. I don’t think I could have started this class with this metaphor–it’s too amorphous; to difficult to picture. However, after spending a semester with the metaphor of network, it may have taken me as far as it can go, and this new metaphor from Rickert offers a new avenue for continuing to explore these relationships.

More Rickert & More Ambience

I was pleased to see there is actually a good amount of discussion surrounding this text, including interviews like this in Kairos, which explore with Rickert’s these concepts. I’m looking forward to spending more time considering ambience and how I might use this concept to explore my own scholarly interests.


Rickert, Thomas. Ambient Rhetoric: The Attunements of Rhetorical Being. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013.

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