About Laurie Gries, Ph.D.: Laurie Gries is Associate Professor at the University of Colorado Boulder (CU Boulder) with joint appointments in the Department of English and the Program for Writing and Rhetoric. Dr. Gries’ work applies innovative digital methodologies rooted in new materialist philosophy to the study of visual rhetorics and their circulation. Dr. Gries is author of the book Still Life with Rhetoric: A New Materialist Approach for Visual Rhetorics, which received the Advancement of Knowledge Award and the Research Impact Award from the Conference on College Composition and Communication.

Dr. Gries is also coeditor of Circulation, Writing, & Rhetoric with Collin Gifford Brooke and the digital volume Doing Digital Visual Studies: One Image, Multiple Methodologies with Blake Hallinan [which you can access here]. She has published more than 20 articles and book chapters in diverse journals and volumes like Rhetoric Review, Review of Communication, College English, College Composition and Communication, and Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy. Her most recent publications include the forum “Rhetorical New Materialisms” in Rhetoric Society Quarterly and “(Re)designing Innovation Alley: Fostering Civic Living and Learning Through Visual Rhetoric and Urban Design” in Review of Communication.

At CU Boulder, Dr. Gries is Resident Faculty at WRITE Lab, a faculty research lab dedicated to Writing, Rhetoric, Information, Technology and Ecology, and the question of what it means to write in the 21st century. Dr. Gries received her Ph.D. in Composition and Cultural Rhetoric from Syracuse University and both her M.A. in Teaching with an Emphasis in English Education and her B.A. in English from the University of Montana.

Interview Questions

[MastersinCommunications.com] May we begin with an overview of your academic and professional background? How did you first become interested in rhetoric, composition, and the digital humanities and begin to bring these fields into conversation with new materialist criticism to study visual rhetorics and their circulation?

[Dr. Laurie Gries] I think it is important to understand that I am not a traditional communication scholar. I have a Ph.D. in Composition and Cultural Rhetoric from Syracuse University. In that Ph.D. program at the time, we had the choice between two different tracks. One was a composition track, the other a rhetoric track. I chose the rhetoric track, and because I became interested in visual rhetoric, I familiarized myself with the communication field and communication research on rhetoric. While I was at Syracuse, I was fortunate because scholars such as Anne Demo and Bradford Vivian were working in the Department of Communication and Rhetorical Studies, so I had the opportunity to learn from them. But I was primarily trained within what is now called the Department of Writing Studies, Rhetoric, and Composition.

When I came to CU Boulder, I was hired by the Program for Writing & Rhetoric, but they are not a tenure-granting entity. Because of that, I had the choice to go to English or to opt for communication. At the time, rhetoric was not a strong focus in the English Department, so I decided to make my tenure home in the Department of Communication, where I could work alongside a stellar group of rhetoricians such as Lisa Flores, Pete Simonson, and John Ackerman. Thankfully, they really opened their arms to me. For the last five years I have been in the Department of Communication, which has led me to start going to communication conferences and reading more rhetorical studies coming out of communication. But still, I do not fully identify as a communication scholar. I identify as a rhetoric scholar who does interdisciplinary work, and I recently transferred from the Department of Communication to the Department of English.

At any rate, my interest in new materialisms emerged from a project that resulted in my first publication. I write about this a little bit in the Foreword to Still Life with Rhetoric. Essentially, I was in Peru, and I went to this museum that documented the archeological discovery of these ancient artifacts from the Moche culture that had been buried for over 1,000 years.

When they were dug up and put in the museum, they suddenly took on a new rhetorical life. They were published in books, and people began writing about them. I started thinking about how fascinating this was. These artifacts had a certain rhetorical function in this ancient culture that we cannot fully understand because we do not really have access to that culture’s way of knowing, but then these objects also possessed an ongoing rhetorical life. That made me ask, “How do we account for the rhetorical life that unfolds as rhetorical artifacts circulate with time and space in all of these unpredictable ways that their original authors or designers couldn’t have envisioned?”

At that time, I was trained in rhetorical analysis as a method which, according to my understanding, was about isolating and imposing a context or a boundary around an artifact so that you could study it. You might choose an artifact by the context, or designer, or author, or genre, or geographic location. This was 2006. At the time, things were starting to go viral, and people were starting to talk about virality, but we really did not know at that point how or why things were going viral. All we knew was that artifacts, especially images, were starting to circulate across the world at an unprecedented speed and in a highly distributed way that was also without precedent.

Part of what I wanted to ask was, “How do we actually keep track of the rhetorical life of something that is going viral, and what theories would undergird that research and help us think about artifacts that live in such an unpredictable, dynamic, distributed sense?” At that time, the rhetorical theories or methodologies that I was encountering were just not doing the work that I thought needed to be done, or at least in a way that I could duplicate.

I turned to new materialisms, process philosophies, and other theories to help me think about the dynamic, distributed phenomenon that I was witnessing in my study of viral images in real time. I gravitated towards that style of thought to try to help us think differently about images and study images in a novel fashion that might be able to better encapsulate the complexity and the messiness that many images are experiencing in this day and age.

[MastersinCommunications.com] One place where these themes of your work come into conversation is your book, Still Life with Rhetoric: A New Materialist Approach for Visual Rhetorics, which received both the Advancement of Knowledge Award and the Research Impact Award from the Conference on College Composition and Communication in 2016. Could you tell us a little bit about new materialisms and why they provide a useful theoretical vocabulary for approaching visual rhetorics?

[Dr. Laurie Gries] I appreciate this question, and it made me return to my book. If you look in Chapter Four of this book, you will see that I was trying to identify some theoretical principles that underpin the methodology that I was putting forward. I tried to make the difference between methodology and method very distinct, which was always really confusing for me when I was in graduate school.

I developed a method (which I define as a constellation of strategies to organize, collect, and analyze data) called iconographic tracking [discussed in more detail below]. In terms of the theories and the philosophies that are undergirding my understanding of the artifact and actually guiding my research practices, I turned to the methodology I called “new materialist rhetoric,” which now, in more recent publications, is often referred to as “rhetorical new materialisms.” I do not see them as very differentiated, except for rhetorical new materialisms might be a little bit broader.

If you look to Chapter Four of the book, specifically pages 86 and 87, you will see that I articulate the principles of rhetorical new materialism as becoming, transformation, consequentiality, vitality, agency, and virality. I will just discuss two so you get the idea of how these work.

The first one is the principle of becoming. If we think of becoming as an opening of events into an unpredictable future, and we understand that reality is always about an open process of mattering and change, that conception impacts the way that we think about artifacts. We will recognize that many of the artifacts that we tend to think about as static objects with static identities are, in fact, constantly evolving and transforming and experiencing becoming, if only on a molecular level. This charges us with a different responsibility in terms of our studies. Rather than thinking about how we can isolate or constrain a static object to make it easier to study, what happens if we let go of that, and we try not to impose any constraints onto our objects of study before we start to study them? If we immerse ourselves in the messy unfolding these artifacts are experiencing, how does that open up research potentials for us?

The fifth principle, agency, I think is really important because we often think of agency in human exceptionalist terms, or, when we have been pressed to think about the agency of objects, we have thought about objects carrying agency. In contrast, new materialisms really push us to recognize that agency emerges from the interactions between humans and various non-human elements. Thinking about agency in that sense, and in relation to becoming, prevents us from focusing on one agent. It motivates us to suspend our interpretations, observations, and suspicions. It encourages us to study how an artifact suddenly transforms into a new media and/or genre, shows up in a new place across the world, and starts interacting with different technologies and different people. It also helps us recognize how agency emerges out of each unique interaction, which in the case of viral objects is often very different from the interaction that happens five seconds later across the globe.

The principles that I developed are really trying to help us think differently about how images exist and interact and move to co-constitute the world in this day and age. Those principles also then hold us accountable for the kinds of research practices that we use to study these images.

[MastersinCommunications.com] In this book, you also discuss the relevance of new materialisms to the growing fields of “circulation studies” and “mobility studies,” which you have been dedicated to developing and advancing throughout your research. For those of our readers who may be unfamiliar with these fields, could you introduce us to them and how they help us take up new materialism’s interest in the activity and consequentiality of matter?

[Dr. Laurie Gries] I tend to think of circulation as not only the spatial, temporal flow of information and discourse but also as a cultural, rhetorical process. One of the things that I began to notice when I was thinking about circulation is that, even though circulation had been acknowledged in ancient rhetorical theories and even though scholars like Cara Finnegan, Mary Stuckey, and others had attended to the circulation of rhetoric, circulation was not getting a lot of attention in and of itself, at least compared to delivery or other canons of rhetoric.

While I was not trying to identify circulation as a canon of rhetoric, I was trying to think about what happens when we actually prioritize circulation in our studies of rhetoric. What does that open up for us in terms of what we can learn about rhetoric itself? After Still Life with Rhetoric, I wanted to think about how we might actually develop something called circulation studies, which is, in the broadest and simplest sense, the study of discourse in motion.

At the time, mobility studies was beginning to gain traction as a transdisciplinary movement across the humanities. I think Mimi Sheller and some others have done a nice job trying to articulate that. But in my engagements with mobility studies what I found missing, which is often the case, was rhetoric. Where, I asked, are all the rhetorical perspectives about the movement and consequentiality of bodies, artifacts, power, infrastructure, distribution, and globalization?

In one sense, you can think of circulation studies as an attempt to contribute to mobility studies from a rhetorical perspective. That is the simplest way to put it. We do not even have to think about ourselves as doing circulation studies; we can think about ourselves as doing mobility studies from a rhetorical perspective. At the same time, I think it is important for us to keep expanding subfields within rhetorical studies that open up new possibilities for research and new knowledge practices. I am always interested to see what subfields are being invented. With circulation studies, I was essentially trying to assemble scholars around a phenomenon that has not received nearly enough attention and rhetorical study.

[MastersinCommunications.com] One important case-study in your scholarship is the famous portrait of Barack Obama, Obama Hope, by Shepard Fairey, which, as you discuss, became both a “cultural icon” and a “viral image” that was frequently circulated, remixed, imitated, and parodied. In part through your engagements with this image, you have developed innovative methods for engaging with visual rhetoric including the study of “iconographic tracking” and “data visualization.” Would you introduce us to these research approaches and what they help us understand about the political and cultural significance of Obama Hope?

[Dr. Laurie Gries] One of the things that I wanted to understand was how an image goes viral. Iconographic tracking, informed by new materialist principles, really pushes us to follow images with the understanding that they are constantly unfolding, transforming, and unpredictably entering into all kinds of diverse relations from which different agencies, messages, and consequences emerge.

Iconographic tracking is a digital research practice that takes advantage of the different digital technologies now at our disposal to track the wild and unpredictable circulation that many images experience today. It also pushes us to immerse ourselves in the data and suspend our interpretations and our hunches as much as possible so that we do not cut off particular research paths that might open up if we do not get siloed into thinking about how that image manifests in one particular genre or context or takes on one particular rhetorical function. When we start concentrating too much on one particular path, we miss out on all of the rhetorical complexity that a viral image is experiencing. Part of the move with iconographic tracking, then, is to ask, “How do we actually follow a viral image and immerse ourselves in the massive messiness?”

To be honest, when I began tracking the Obama Hope image, I really did not know what I was doing. Seriously, I began data hoarding — collecting and immersing myself in as much data as possible without any clear direction. Then, once I had collected a massive amount of data, I began to identify patterns and trends and used those patterns and trends to ask new research questions that led me in all kinds of new, more specific directions. With Obama Hope, the data felt endless, and I really did not know when to stop tracing the image because it just kept circulating. But at some point, because I had to write a dissertation, I had to stop researching and following the image. It was only then that I went back and started to make sense of the data and discover patterns and trends that I really wanted to concentrate on.

The research process, which came to be called iconographic tracking, was that messy at the beginning. But doing that with Obama Hope produced all kinds of knowledge about that image that I do not think I would have come to had I constrained my research path early on in the research process. In one sense, it helped me understand the very intentional acts that Shepherd Fairey, and others involved in the 2008 political campaign like Yosi Sergant, took with respect to the design and distribution of that image that encouraged its circulation. But embracing the messiness also enabled me to learn how, to my utter surprise, that image became involved in all kinds of rhetorical actions across the world, whether it was activist movements in the Arab Spring, political campaigns in Australia, or the protests that were going on in Iran at that time.

Iconographic tracking also allowed me to dig into conversations about fair use that were emerging because of the scandal that unfolded when it was discovered that Shepherd Fairey captured the Obama Hope image in an AP [Associated Press] press photo and lied about it. By following the Obama Hope image and the conversations around it, I was able to untangle how that scandal evolved and what was going on.

As such, the impact of iconographic tracking was really profound in terms of discovering and understanding the complexity of that single image. I got really lucky. I started tracking that image in 2008. I had no idea that image was going to go viral like it did. Over a decade later, I was in Sweden giving a talk and someone pointed out that Obama Hope had been remixed and surfaced on vaccination posters in Sweden. That image is still being remixed. It just happened to turn into the perfect artifact for the questions that I was asking. I got really, really lucky in that sense.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Would you tell us a little bit more about your research on data visualization–for example, your work to develop the visual WebText “Mapping Obama Hope”? Are there key contributions that data visualization can make to research in rhetoric, composition, and communication that you would highlight from this area of your scholarship?

[Dr. Laurie Gries] When I initially developed and enacted the method of iconographic tracking for the Obama Hope project, I was not coding the data in an extremely rigorous way. I was also loosely playing with data visualizations, mostly in the form of maps. We often think about data visualizations as communicative designs to present our findings, rather than as a strategy for our research to open up new questions and pathways. I started to think about how we might actually play more with data visualizations to benefit our research practice and communicate our research findings. Iconographic tracking uses data visualizations toward both of these purposes.

With the Obama Hope project, one of the things I started to do was map where it was showing up. For instance, once I had amassed a ton of data and began weeding through it, I noticed that I was not really seeing the image show up in Australia or South America. That would lead me to ask, “Does that mean it is not circulating there?” So I would go do a pointed search to see if I could find it in these countries, which I did, but I would not have necessarily known to look for them without the data visualization. Mapping was a way for me to visualize where it was traveling and that opened up new pathways for me to search in other places of the world.

A current project I am working on sheds light on what I am doing with data visualizations now. For the last five years, I have been tracking the uptick of swastikas that surfaced on the streets of the United States during the Trump administration. In early 2017, when Trump just started coming onto the major political scene, there were daily reports coming up about swastika incidents all across the country. I wanted to figure out how I might adapt the method of iconographic tracking to address this social injustice, so I thought, “What might I find if I track these swastikas?”

I embarked on a project that is still ongoing with Kelly Wheeler, who was a graduate student at the University of Michigan at the time. We spent five years tracking over 1300 swastika incidents. We coded for the dates that they were showing up, the city and state, the local places they were showing up — for example, was it on a synagogue door or a playground at an elementary school? We kept track of the media in which it surfaced. We kept track of the words and other images that it was circulating with, which were haunting and disturbing. To the best of our ability, we also tracked who was being targeted, who was distributing them, and how communities and individuals were responding.

I am talking about five years of intense labor. Now, we are creating a public data advocacy website to help make sense of our findings, which offers maps, data visualizations, general reports, and educational resources. We are making everything open access so that various stakeholders can use it. Compared to Obama Hope, with the swastika project I am using data visualizations more towards the presentation of our findings.

Iconographic tracking, then, uses data visualization both as a way to do research and to present the findings of that research. It works both ways, and they are very different. When you are using it for research, you can do what I call lazy data visualizations. They can be really quick. When you are trying to make them accessible to others and interactive, and you are trying to think about how we want to use design according to data justice and universal design principles, all of a sudden you have a much greater responsibility with those data visualizations because you are going to release them into the world.

This research is, again, pushing me to develop a new methodology. I am now working with what I am calling rhetorical data studies, which is putting critical data studies, data feminism, and the Black digital humanities into conversation with rhetorical studies. What I am finding is that the ethical dimensions of doing this work are almost paralyzing, especially when you are working with such a harmful object like a swastika. This has really pushed me to think about the principles that guide this research — not only the ways that we need to understand data itself, but also the ethical responsibilities wrapped up in our data advocacy work.

[MastersinCommunications.com] In one of your recent publications, “New Materialist Ontobiography: A Critical-Creative Approach for Coping and Caring in the Chthulucene,” you propose a different type of methodological approach that you term “ontobiography.” Could you introduce us to this “critical-creative” method and the importance of ontobiography in our contemporary moment defined by the threat of global, anthropogenic extinction, which you refer to here as the Chthulucene?

[Dr. Laurie Gries] Let me tell you how this project emerged, because I think it will help you understand what the method is. In my work on rhetorical new materialisms, I started to think, “Okay, if we take seriously the notion that the mundane objects we come into relations with through our everyday encounters are in fact contributing to the rhetoricity of the world and our own persuasive responses to, and actions in, the world, how do we account for those affective, persuasive responses that impact us in all kinds of diverse ways? How would that research unfold? Going back to the new materialist principles of becoming and unpredictability, if we understand that we have to open ourselves up to those encounters fully to see what emerges, what would that require us to do and what would we discover?” This is the starting point of my next book, which I am for now loosely calling Waking Up: Rhetorical Impressions from the Field.

I have always loved rocks. I live on a piece of property that has, I don’t know, between 10,000 and 100,000 rocks. I live in the cliffs. These are really ancient rocks, dating back to 500 million years. I started to think about what would happen if I just dwelled with these rocks and I actually tried to enter into an open encounter with them — to listen and to phenomenologically tune into what was happening for me — and then tried to perhaps channel those affective and persuasive experiences into writing.

I did not know what was going to happen. I started walking amongst the rocks, sitting with the rocks, building rock sculptures, and trying to record what was happening for me on an affective, persuasive level: what feelings, sensations, and thoughts were coming up. I was trying to account for all that.

Ultimately what emerged was, on the one hand, a vehement critique of the Trump administration’s neglect of the fact that we are in the middle of a major climate change crisis. What also came up for me through the process of writing was certain understandings about sensibility, sensation, affect, and rhetoric. What came out of this, which I published in my article for College English, is a creative critique that does theory along the way. It is like creative nonfiction with a new materialist twist.

Now I have two different projects in mind. Part of what I want to do is work in the valley. We have foxes that are crying out in the night, we have coyotes that are howling and running around. I have been writing, listening to, recording, and dwelling with those sounds. We have fierce 100 mile per hour winds that generate a lot of experience. We have smoke that comes into the valley during fire season that is really intense. I am trying to tune into all of these elements to see what happens.

We also have an EPA Superfund Site near us that was turned into an ecological refuge. I started to think about what would happen if I did a new materialist ontobiography on that piece of land and if I could go to other Superfund Sites around the country. What would I learn? What would I learn from talking with community members and including their stories? Part of ontobiography is about practicing acute listening and trying to phenomenologically account for what is happening.

I also work with qualitative research methods. In writing about my local community, I include the voices of my neighbors and their stories, and I hope to apply that same emphasis to the Superfund project. What I want to do is continue to play with new materialist ontiobiography to see what I can learn about how rhetoricity emerges for me and others who are living near or in toxic landscapes.

[MastersinCommunications.com] At CU Boulder, you are currently Resident Faculty at WRITE Lab, a research initiative that asks, “What Does it Mean to Write in the 21st Century?” Would you provide us with some background on WRITE Lab and your goals for your residency there?

[Dr. Laurie Gries] The WRITE Lab at the University of Colorado Boulder is committed to thinking about 21st century writing practices at the intersections of writing, rhetoric, information, technology, and the environment. What I want to do in my role there is to cultivate and develop writing practices that will help students grapple with the complexities of the situations that they are facing right now. New materialist ontobiography is one practice of many practices that I think might help us and our students cope in these really intense times.

I am constantly struck by how many of my students right now are dealing with mental health issues, and I am really concerned about that. I am constantly thinking about what writing practices we can introduce to our students to help them grapple with the complexities and the anxieties that they are experiencing on an everyday level. What I like about new materialist ontobiography as a method is that it has the ability to help us tune in to our everyday experiences and perhaps channel some of the emotional aspects of what we are experiencing.

We are living in a world that is pushing us to operate at such speeds and that is distracting us on such an intense level that we are missing out on all kinds of amazing [and harrowing] rhetorical encounters. I have students who are living in neighborhoods that are being gentrified all around them, and their families are having to find new places to live because they cannot afford the rent anymore. I have students who lost their homes to the fire that we had in Boulder in 2021. I have students who have experienced such intense isolation and racism on campus that they want to graduate as quickly as possible to get to a place they feel more safe.

These are really painful spatiotemporal phenomena. Life feels overwhelming for so many of our students. So, as part of the WRITE Lab, I am really excited about developing practices to help students make sense of and cope with all of this mind-boggling stuff going on in their lives.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Do you have advice you would give to students who are interested in new materialisms, visual rhetorics, or the innovative research methodologies we have discussed today who are considering pursuing a graduate degree in communication?

[Dr. Laurie Gries] My experience with the field of communication is that it is pretty traditional. Many people are married to traditional understandings of rhetoric and traditional ways of studying rhetoric. I feel like there is a lot of resistance to thinking in different ways and doing different kinds of research. I say that based on conversations I have had, pushback I have encountered in conferences on the work I do, and claims that are made by my own colleagues.

As a result, I think one of the most challenging things about being a graduate student is actually following your own desires, intuitions, and interests, especially when you start working with the director of, say, your dissertation project. Too often that which we really want to be doing and exploring gets tampered down by either the constraints of the program or the constraints of what a particular director would want us to do. I experienced this with my own rhetorical education as a graduate student.

So, I think part of the challenge is figuring out how to actually experiment. How do you actually embark on research processes that push you to enter into a state of unknowing? How do you create opportunities to follow that unknown, and how do you be brave enough to do that even if projects fail?

I recently had a digital book project come out called Doing Digital Visual Studies: One Image, Multiple Methodologies, and it is all about experimental play — about taking risks that often lead to failure and then recognizing that failure is constructive and generative. As I said earlier, when I started making up iconographic tracking, I had no idea what I was doing. I had no idea if my project was going to succeed. Fortunately, I was in a privileged position, so if the project failed, I knew that I would be okay.

I know that a lot of graduate students do not have that sense of security or that material reality of security. But I think that the closing down of opportunities to think and do rhetoric differently is something that I would still urge graduate students to push against to the best of their ability. I would encourage them to push their graduate programs to open up opportunities for people to do things otherwise.

Thank you, Dr. Gries, for sharing your insight on new materialist rhetoric, circulation studies, critical-creative research methods, and more!

Photo of Ben Clancy
About the Author: Ben Clancy (they/them) is a critical scholar and creative living in Chicago with their partner, child, and other wildlife. They are a PhD candidate at UNC Chapel Hill in the Department of Communication, where their research focuses on the politics of communicative and artistic technologies. Ben has an M.A. from Texas State University, has worked as a research fellow for the Center for Technology Information and Public Life at UNC, and is an alum of the Vermont Studio Center residency in poetry writing.

Please note: Our interview series aims to represent the diverse research being pursued by scholars in the field of communication, which is often socially and politically engaged. As a result, all readers may not agree with the views and opinions expressed in this interview, which are independent of the views of MastersinCommunications.com, its parent company, partners, and affiliates.