Material Rhetoric in the Midway: Albatrosses, Plastics, and the Pacific Garbage Patch

Event Date: 

Thursday, November 17, 2016 - 3:00pm

Event Location: 

  • SSMS 2135

In this presentation Dr. Propen merges visual-material rhetorics with questions of agency (Bennett 2010), affect (Rickert 2013), and trans-corporeality (Alaimo 2010) to consider the impact of the Midway Atoll “garbage patch” on albatross populations. The Midway Islands, located at the northern end of the Hawaiian archipelago, provide a habitat for threatened albatross species. Here, ocean plastics pose a specific threat to albatross populations, as parents mistakenly feed pieces of plastic to their chicks. Moreover, Chris Jordan’s (2009) photography and documentary film called Midway, while harrowing, are quite powerful and recently circulated in museums and social media; his work positions the albatross “as mirror of our humanity” and serves as an additional layer of rhetorical response. I argue that, in the Midway case, both ocean plastic and its environmental, performative responses, function as rhetorical artifacts that situate albatross bodies as materially rhetorical in ways that we perhaps wish they weren’t. As Jane Bennett suggests, things themselves bear the capacity for agency: “[O]ur trash is not ‘away’ in landfills but generating lively streams of chemicals and volatile winds of methane as we speak” (2010, vii). Similarly, Stacy Alaimo (2010) writes that “[p]otent ethical and political possibilities emerge from the literal contact zone between human corporeality and more-than-human nature” (2). With these ideas in mind, I demonstrate how visual-material rhetorics can function in the service of advocacy and can also further discussions about the intersections of agency, affect, and performativity in human/nonhuman animal relationships.

Amy Propen is an assistant professor of digital and multimodal writing. She teaches courses in rhetoric and professional writing, including Writing About Sustainability, Multimedia Writing, and the Seminar in Document Design and Production. She is also co-director of the Multimedia Communication track of the Professional Writing Minor. She earned her Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Scientific and Technical Communication from the University of Minnesota and also holds a master’s degree in Technical and Professional Writing from Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts. Her research interests include visual and material rhetorics, environmental and sustainability rhetorics, digital and posthuman rhetorics, rhetoric and technical communication as advocacy work, writing in the disciplines, classical and contemporary rhetorical theory, animal studies, human geography, critical cartographies, and critical GIS. She is particularly interested in the connections between multimodal technologies, the posthuman, and environmental and marine species conservation.