Leigh Gruwell’s Making Matters: Craft, Ethics, and New Materialist Rhetorics

Nov 15, 2022

Published in Book Reviews | Issue 5

By Shiva Mainaly

Gruwell, Leigh. Making Matters: Craft, Ethics, and New Materialist Rhetorics. Utah State University Press, 2022. 

Attune or fail? This simple question explains that if the architect of the rhetorical assemblage makes all human and nonhuman actants work in alignment, the intended rhetorical objective is likely to be achieved. If they act contrariwise, the rhetorical assemblage is bound to veer off in the wrong direction, incurring possibly a deadlock or a failure. The issue of attunement has stimulated many conversations about new materialist rhetorics. Part of these conversations is associated with Laurie Gries, whose article “In Defense of Plants, Rhetoric, and New Materialism”—a response to Rhetoric Society Quarterly’s Symposium with Bruno Latour (2017) —is dominated by a frequent emphasis on the word “attunement.” Gries writes that attunement among all the elements in the rhetorical assemblage is key to determining whether rhetorical practice works or fails. For anyone interested in the continuing conversation about the connections between activist-rhetorical assemblages and attunement, Leigh Gruwell’s recently published book Making Matters: Craft, Ethics, and New Materialist Rhetorics is a must-read.

Gruwell’s text is able to achieve its intended thrust of shaping our understanding of new materialist rhetorics in relation to power and ethics. According to the author, it is possible to check the unjust and excessive diffusion of exclusionary power by reshuffling a new materialist assemblage. In a crisp and concise tone, she articulates how “new materialist rhetorics can generate an approach to rhetorical agency that recognizes the ethical and political consequences of forming, dissolving, or rearranging assemblages of various human and nonhuman actors” (11). For the author, justice and equity would be accessible to those affected wrongfully by power and politics of alterity if the rhetors overhaul the entire spectrum of rhetorical assemblages. In other words, by rearranging the rhetorical role of nonhuman actants in a rhetorical assemblage, it would be possible to empower the excluded and the underrepresented so that they could get a fair share of being involved in the act of knowledge production. This core claim of the author marks the beginning of a practical shift in our existing mode of applying new materialist rhetorics.

With her postulation of craft agency, the author delves deep into its origins, surveys how it has been used as a launchpad for feminist activism in the last two centuries, and calls for restoration of the lost status of writing as a craft. Her strong insistence on accepting craft agency is pedagogically beneficial; it can be enacted directly not only in the writing classroom but also in various scenarios where a wide range of writing, compositional, and rhetorical practices take place. With a pointed affirmation of her firm belief that “a reclamation of craft…can productively inform the future of the field” (141), the author moves on to enumerate direct outcomes of applying her pedagogy of craft agency to the field of writing studies. When it comes to flattening the overarching sovereignty of the human subject in any rhetorical practice of knowledge-making, craft-based writing instructions from the author seem to contribute enormously. This means that the concept of craft agency based on new materialist rhetoric proves to be a real asset for students grappling with fresh writing challenges. 

Craft agency, which is a centerpiece of her book, is found in the field’s numerous discussions of multimodality. Concerning this, the author writes “One of the most salient is the intensely multimodal approach outlined by Shipka (2011) in her book Toward a Composition Made Whole” (145). Every writer needs to cultivate a sort of craftsmanship that arises not only from how smartly we write but also from how creatively we handle every object that comes to impede our creative processes, including our typical ways of coping with deviations, low spirits, procrastinating proclivity, and delightful digressions. Doubtless, craft agency involves more than a rational approach to writing but also an intuitive, nuanced, idiosyncratic, and materiality-driven venture into tapping our artistic impulses. Additional pedagogical bearing lies in the power of craft agency in bringing to the surface the fingerprints of neoliberalism, which makes demands on university students and scholars that they prepare themselves for the rhyme and rhythm of market expectations. The complicity of our knowledge industries with neoliberalism is manifested in their constant emphasis on preparing our graduate students in writing studies to face the music of all the ifs and buts of the job markets.

According to the writer, the new materialist conceptualization of writing practice as a “continual process of becoming” (142) —along a constellation of intra-actionality, relationality, attunement, and embodiment—contains the power to liberate writing studies from the reins of neoliberal governmentality. In achieving this liberatory agenda, the author’s pedagogy of craft agency plays a pivotal role. In this sense, to shine light on pedagogical feasibility of the notion of craft agency, the author cites Asao B. Inoue and calls us to “rethink assessment not as the evaluation of singular student subjects, but as the practices that produce student agency within broader institutional assemblages” (148). That means we can use her pedagogy of craft agency to review our methods of grading, admitting respective contributions of the factors aplenty: the humans and nonhuman actants, the technology, the academic space, the network of professionalism, and various other parameters. 

The author’s new materialist appropriation of craft agency yields its pedagogical benefits when used radically in our citation practices. Citation is a political act since it attests to whose voices we are determined to carry forward. Gruwell has briefly dwelt on citational assemblage in the text, specifying how “Sara Ahmed (2017) has likened citation to both ‘memory’ (15) and ‘bricks’; the materials through which, from which, we create our dwellings” (150). In any act of knowledge-making, these questions— “Whose thinking do we privilege in our scholarship? What kind of agential entanglement do we make visible? And which do we obscure—as we construct a citational assemblage?” (150)—matter profoundly. With this assertion, Gruwell pushes her readers toward merging craft agency pedagogy into any scholarly writing where citation requires radical reshuffling, distillation, and inclusivity. To be sure, craft agency treats “practice not as a discrete doing but a continual process of becoming…It asks writing studies to interrogate its practices…it paves the way for the shift from subjectivity to agency…Setting aside agency as such, craft agency entails located agency” (Gruwell 142-143). Acknowledging the respective roles of all the human and nonhuman actants in their embeddedness within systems or surroundings is the major thrust of craft agency. 

The writer starts Chapter One with questions: “How do the mutually constitutive actors induce change? How does power diffuse across the agentic networks, and how could rhetorical assemblage be reoriented in an ethically admissible way? Who is responsible for the ethically skewed practice of new materialist rhetorics?” (Gruwell 13). With these questions, she draws the attention of her readers and critics from the pure ontology of matter to the politics and ethics of the ongoing new materialist rhetorical practice. To take this point further, the author reflects on the political consequentiality of the new materialist assemblage by reviewing a few tenors of dominant feminist thought which laid the groundwork for the inception and evolution of craft agency.

 Chapter Two revolves around three key terms: techne, metis, and kairos. To define techne, the author sets up an equation between rhetoric and techne, arguing that techne as craft knowledge shapes and is shaped by “the embodied, relational intelligence of kairos and metis” (48). Since techne as a craft of knowledge is characterized by its situatedness, it gets into sync with a certain valency of power to streamline feminist voices of dissent. To make her goal pretty clear, the author attempts to reshuffle the circulating notion of kairos, citing what Debra Hawhee says, “Kairos…marks the quality of time rather than its quantity” (66). Next to kairos comes metis that “demonstrates how rhetoric meant to disrupt power inequities must be agile, responsive, and, most importantly, emergent from mutually constitutive material agents” (Gruwell 53). Her treatment of metis as a vital part of the techne-kairos-metis triad puts her on a par with Jay Dolmage, who developed a sophisticated notion of metis.

Chapter Three deals with craftivism—a term born out of a combination of craft and activism. A large chunk of this chapter digs into the historical origins of craftivism. What is rhetorically scintillating in this chapter is the author’s other claim that if craftivism is discouraged, the progressive goals of new materialist rhetorics might be compromised. By far the most vital chapter of the book is Chapter Four, which takes at its centrality Ravelry—a digital crafting community where knitters, crocheters, and other fiber artists engage in various social justice-oriented practices of new materialist rhetorics. In her analysis of Ravelry, the author describes how the digital community functions as a social network and database where users “write, share, and edit patterns” (9). Taken together, the digital space, the networked assemblage of Ravelry, and the smart use of online space helped the trade thrive beyond belief. 

In the same vein, Chapter Five dwells on the pros and cons of the women’s march—orchestrated on the day Donald Trump took oath as president of the USA. Concerning this protest activism, the author asks: how and why did this activist outcry meet its limitations? Admitting that the activism “remains a potent and, so far, persistent location for contemporary feminist protest” (126), the author contends it partly lacked its all-encompassing spirit because it was labeled as a cisgender, white middle-class women’s march, which had no ethical appeal and activist allure to women of color (105-130). In addition, the author continues to have a critical take on one dimensional white women-centric rhetorical assemblage, with a special reference to the digital Ravelry knitting community. To make this point convincing, the author cites one of her research participants and writes “Ravelry itself does not track such information—my participants suggest that Ravelry users are, by and large, a relatively privileged group of women” (86). This online network of Ravelry needs to be restructured so as to make it accessible to underprivileged women as well. Interestingly enough, Chapter Six ends with the writer’s clarion call to reclaim the craft status of the field of rhetoric and composition that “ground both the institutional and intellectual work of the field” (141). Near the end of this chapter, the author sounds optimistic about the field being rejuvenated if writing’s lost identity of being a craft is to be reclaimed by means of new materialist rhetorics.

Finally, I am under the impression that the author is devoted to promoting justice for the indigenous cultures of the USA, with her key claim that indigenous culture had already put into practice a rich materialist assemblage, prior to the arrival of Europeans in North America. The practice of materialist rhetorics by the indigenous people of North America since time immemorial illustrates how to push back on the oppressive and exclusionary contours of power, with an intent on making it accountable via shifting the very positionality of any actant within a rhetorical assemblage in a manner most ethical and responsible. In point of fact, this is the pith and marrow of Gruwell’s text being reviewed here. In unearthing the inherent political consequentiality of new materialist rhetorics in alignment with ethics and equity, no one is on a par with Gruwell. Making Matters is an ally and asset for those who want to delve deep into new materialist rhetorics.  

Works Cited

Barad, Karen. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Duke University Press, 2007. 

Dolmage, J. “Metis, Mêtis, Mestiza, Medusa: Rhetorical Bodies across Rhetorical Traditions.” Rhetoric Review 28 (1): 1-28. https://doi.org/10.1080/07350190802540690.

Gries, Laurie E. “In Defense of Rhetoric, Plants, and New Materialism.” Forum: Bruno Latour on Rhetoric, Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 2017, pp. 437-442.

Hawhee, Debra. Bodily Arts: Rhetoric and Athletics in Ancient Greece. University of Texas Press, 2004. 

Latour, Bruno. “The Berlin Key, or, How to Do Words with Things.” Matter, Materiality and Modern Culture, edited by Paul Graves-Brown, Routledge, 2000, pp.10-21. 

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

About the Author

Shiva Mainaly is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of English, Rhetoric and Composition, at the University of Louisville. Currently, he is writing his doctoral dissertation on the medieval Khajuraho Temple Complexes in the Central Province of India. Ambient rhetoric, materialist rhetoric, monumental rhetoric, and heritage rhetoric fall under the banner of his research interests. Shiva has specialized in the representation of opium, opium addiction, and the Opium Wars in Victorian literature. Ethical anomalies arising from the application of both weak and strong AI in the learning space have also gained an upper hand in the widening spectrum of Shiva’s research interests.


I would like to thank Ana Milena Ribero who provided critical feedback and support at different stages of the development of my book review draft. Ana pinpointed the incorrigibly convoluted style of my writing. At her advice, I rewrote this review. After that, Ana reminded me right from the beginning that the draft has to go through multiple revisions prior to being accepted for publication. Each time I got feedback from Ana, I realized that I got an alchemy of advice which transformed my raw and rugged  review draft. Excluding the feedback and nourishing energy from Ana, what invigorated me is the motto by which Ana is driven: “Caminante no hay camino, se hace camino al andar.” I am deeply indebted to Ana for my book review’s fate of being accepted by constellations.

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