After engaging with Sound Never Tasted So Good, it should be clear that sensory rhetorics have the ability to affect and persuade in powerful ways—from influencing our experience of flavor to evoking intense emotions and memories to lulling us to sleep or even triggering panic attacks. While intention and design can play a role in sensory rhetorical endeavors, responses to sensory encounters cannot be entirely predicted; there are always elements of an environment or situation that are beyond our control. In writing about the more unpredictable and uncontrollable aspects of sensory encounters in Sound Never Tasted So Good, I came to recognize the salient role that rhetoricity plays in sensory rhetorical work.
In Inessential Solidarity, Diane Davis defines rhetoricity as “an affectability or persuadability” (2). Rhetoricity is not a choice. It is the capacity to be affected and persuaded, prior to symbolicity, that necessarily results from humans being exposed to and embedded in complex ecologies. Glossing Davis, Eric Detweiler, host of Rhetoricity podcast, explains,“[W]hile rhetoric often focuses on persuasive encounters, situations, or strategies, rhetoricity emphasizes the conditions that make persuasion possible—not the rhetorical agency of a masterful communicator, but the vulnerability, the openness and feeling of exposure that have to be in place for any attempt at persuasion to unfold.”
This emergent condition of affectability and persuasion is not something I discussed explicitly with students. Rather, they learned about rhetoricity through experience. My students found out, even with careful planning and rhetorical strategies, that they did not have as much rhetorical agency as they initially thought they would have. While students attempted to control some of the material conditions (e.g., lighting, soundtrack, table design, food, etc.), they discovered that they couldn’t control how people would respond to these conditions. For example, as I mention in “After-Dinner Debrief,” the faculty who participated in the multisensory dining event were still reeling from the workday and caught up in banter about their jobs. They never left the workplace because the event was held in a university space, so they never had a chance to leave behind the feelings and ongoing relations they have with that workplace, which includes stress. Their levels of openness and vulnerability, at least in the moments when they were distracted by work matters, were diminished, and therefore students’ rhetorical work was less effective in those moments. This is not something my students could have anticipated.
While students had some agency in terms of the design, it became obvious quite quickly that agency was distributed among many human and nonhuman actors. As Thomas Rickert explains, “an environment, including sound, even designed sound, cannot be reduced to the intentions of any party” (145). My students realized that their design decisions were not the only reason our participants were having the experiences they were having. Intent can only go so far. “[I]ntent,” Rickert writes, “is only one element in a large array of things, feelings, peoples, and forces all complexly interacting. To say this is not to deny the existence or importance of intent but rather to insist that within any given rhetorical event, intent cannot suffice for its full accounting as rhetoric—not to mention the near dogmatic assertion of intent as the expression of the subjective will” (36). In addition to the feelings and experiences participants brought with them into the multisensory dining event, the space, materials, and technologies we had access to contributed to the effectiveness/affectiveness of our sensory designs. Put another way, the spatial, material, and technological ecology in which we were embedded played just as much of a role in shaping the event as did our intentions.
Moreover, the biological makeup of participants may have contributed to their level of comfort (or discomfort) with the multisensory dining experience. For instance, in the episode of Rhetoricity podcast I referred to above, Detweiler interviews Will Burdette about his research on fermentation. As Burdette describes, “even the bacteria in our guts influence and interrupt any pure notions of human agency or individuality … there’s even some evidence coming out now that our microbiota can affect our human behaviors, that it can trigger certain cravings for certain kinds of foods, that it can in some ways persuade us to do things or eat things.” Unbeknownst to them, participants’ microbiomes may have influenced how they responded to the food we served. The many ways that different bodies react to food—from allergic reactions to surges of dopamine that occur during pleasurable food experiences—are folded into the ecology from which sensory rhetorics emerge and operate. If anything, the multisensory dining event made my students, the participants, and me more attuned to how both designed and nondesigned environments depend on an intricate web of macro- and microrelations that make persuasion and affectability possible.
Given this discussion of rhetoricity and agency, it is worth lingering on the notion of “teaching” sensory rhetorics. I would argue that it is not actually possible to teach sensory rhetorics, at least if we think of teaching as a kind of semiotic pursuit in which the teacher has access to knowledge that the students don’t. Rather, teaching sensory rhetorics requires giving students opportunities for experiential learning—for physically engaging and interacting with environments. I cannot experience for my students, or even predict the ways that each person will react to a particular sound, taste, smell, etc. Rather than teaching my students about sensory design, then, I was coparticipating in the emergent learning of the class—learning that arose from our engagements and entanglements with course readings, discussions, technologies, spaces, aesthetics, sensory experiences, the multisensory dining event, and each other. Like any act of teaching, sensory rhetorical work is erratic, messy, and not entirely in our control. As the teacher, I did not hold the answers to what would happen in our multisensory dining event. I was just as anxious to find out what would happen as my students were.
My job was not to teach sensory rhetorics; it was to be open and vulnerable to the ecology I was implicated in and helped to coproduce. In this sense, I was a quasi-subject. As Byron Hawk writes in Resounding the Rhetorical, “Every encounter is driven by circulation, entangles its interlocutors, and coproduces ecologies” (11). As a teacher, I was not a masterful rhetor that controlled the sensory education my students and the participants were immersed in; I was “already a part of the ecology” (11). This is not to say that “teaching” (or being taught by) sensory rhetorics is an entirely chaotic or unmanageable enterprise. As I see it, sensational pedagogies resonate with postpedagogical approaches. Rather than viewing teaching as a kind of knowledge exchange from teacher to student, postpedagogical scholars stress the importance of cultivating learning environments. Marc Santos and Megan McIntyre put it this way: “rather than thinking of ourselves as chefs training apprentices, we might think of ourselves as architects designing kitchens; it isn’t our job to teach as much as it is our job to design environments (and assignments) in which students can learn.” By designing contexts that allow for bodily learning to emerge, then, teachers can—to some extent—guide students through a sensory inquiry while still providing room and flexibility for surprise and curiosity. Teachers can provide frameworks for learning that still honor students’ unique individual experiences.
Making the ecological, emergent, unpredictable aspects of sensory rhetorics explicit to students—letting them experience these aspects for themselves—is a way to deepen their understanding of how and why sensory rhetorics work and affect people (or not). Again, in sensational pedagogies, experience is key. The goal is not to come away with a body of knowledge; the goal is to transform those who take part in the experience. In this way, the sensational pedagogy I have been describing is in line with Paul Lynch’s thinking in “Shadow Living: Toward Spiritual Exercises for Teaching.” Drawing from Robert Yagelski’s Writing as a Way of Being and Casey Boyle’s “Writing and Rhetoric and/as Posthuman Practice,” Lynch troubles the field’s reliance on reflective writing by focusing on “experiences that cannot be so easily rendered in language or reduced by means of writing” (506). In particular, Lynch is interested in writing as a way of intensifying experience as opposed to a way of processing or interpreting experience from a position of remove. The pedagogical practices Lynch advocates for rely on an openness to the world—a kind of vulnerability—that is “not designed to produce knowledge,” but to “reshape subjects themselves” (509).
Similarly, the multisensory dining event did not merely provide students with knowledge that could be stored in their brains and reflected upon at a later time. It was a lived experience that required them to be present in the moment, to wrestle with challenging questions and problems while in the midst of feeling, composing, and interacting. Even students’ artist statements were collaboratively written (and rewritten) while experimenting with and producing different designs; they were not, in other words, written from a position of remove after the event was over. Most importantly, the multisensory dining project was an experience that was intended to reshape all who participated—to sensitize or attune them to new ways of engaging with the world going forward. This kind of transformation is not fast or immediate and it is not something that can be fully anticipated; it happens slowly through repeated encounters, through the accumulation of experience. In a way, then, the multisensory dining event echoes Hawk’s description of sound art: “Its aim is a kind of coordination…that affects audiences and produces new conditions of possibility for listeners” (Hawk 144). Indeed, sensational pedagogies are always future-oriented. They are not simply aimed at teaching students to pay attention to or reflect on their relationships with sensation. Sensational pedagogies should aspire to expose students to “new conditions of possibility” that will (re)shape their future experiences.
Transcript: [Ketsa’s “The Gentle Side” fades in] I found out I was pregnant after finishing the first draft of this project. As I work on the manuscript’s final touches, I keep thinking about the baby growing inside me—about how my belly has become a world within a world. My body is this baby’s first learning environment. What I eat and feel and hear is actually shaping his developing body and future experiences. [“The Gentle Side” fades out] When I walk around in my daily life, I’m acutely aware of how my surroundings might affect this baby. I pull my scarf over my nose when I get the slightest whiff of fumes from someone’s diesel engine [sound of diesel engine] or of the cigarette smoke that lingers in the air when I pass a group of construction workers [sounds of coughing, construction noises] on their lunch break. [sounds of bass fade in and out briefly] I get nervous around intense bass that vibrates my body in what I imagine to be an uncomfortable feeling for the baby—even though I have no way of knowing what’s actually comfortable or not. I’m hypervigilant and a little paranoid about the fact that it isn’t just me who is experiencing the world; I’m experiencing for two.
[sounds of Doppler ultrasound detecting baby’s heart beat fade in and out) I’ve read fascinating things about how amniotic fluid can actually have a flavor based on what a mother consumes. It can be salty or garlicky or sweet. According to some studies, babies become emotionally attached to the tastes and aromas they experience in utero, which can influence their food preferences in early life (Wilson 44-45).
[MR.ARG’s “Soothe Your Baby to Sleep Womb Sounds” fades in] I’ve also read a lot about the experience of sound in utero. As someone who cares a great deal about music, I’ve been keeping a list of all of the albums I listen to frequently during pregnancy. My doctor told me that babies can start to hear sounds around 18 weeks, even before their ears are fully formed. I wonder if the muffled sounds the baby hears and feels will shape his future musical tastes. [womb sounds continue while a muffled musical collage plays; the collage features short clips of “Cool Scene” by The Dandy Warhols, “Nobody” by Mitski, and “Good Vibrations” by Brian Wilson]. I hope that music is something we can share. [music and womb sounds fade out]
Enthusiastically, I collect and store these fun tidbits of information about pregnancy, but I know deep down that I only have so much control. I am not in control of the sensory education of my baby; I am simply a part of his ecology (Hawk 11). Like a good postpedagogical teacher, I can try to design a beneficial environment—a bodily context—in which my son’s sensory learning can emerge. But as much as I try to manipulate these sensory conditions, I cannot know exactly how he is experiencing the world through me—or how he will experience the world in the future. As my students learned, intent only goes so far in sensory education. I can’t determine this baby’s future health or food preferences or musical tastes because those things will be influenced by his ongoing interactions with extremely complex ecologies—intricate webs of macro- and microrelations that make persuasion and affectability possible.
[Ketsa’s “The Gentle Side” fades in] Pondering all of the weird and wonderful things that are happening in my pregnant body further reinforces how enmeshed our sensory experiences are with the worlds we inhabit, both in and outside of the womb. The sensational pedagogy that my baby is experiencing—that we all experience every day as bodies interacting with worlds—opens up new and unpredictable possibilities that will continue to shape and re(shape) his and our future experiences. [music fades out]