“Boundary Objects as Rhetorical Exigence: Knowledge Mapping and Interdisciplinary Cooperation at the Los Alamos National Laboratory”

The Productive Purposing of Rhetoric

Boundary Object. Knowledge Map. Methodological Symmetry. Oh, my! What have (we) rhetoricians gotten ourselves into? Furthermore, what have “we” – in this very room (*Dr. Marc Santos’ Contemporary Rhetorics course; USF/Fall/2010) – to contend with regarding our university’s fearless leader, whom we affectionately refer to (well, at least within the confines of our course) as The Herndl? In April of 2007, prior to joining us at USF, The Herndl was an associate professor of English at Iowa State University and a faculty affiliate of the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) – “the laboratory that created the first atomic bomb and that is responsible for maintaining and assessing this country’s enduring nuclear stockpile …” (216). What was our Herndl – a “nice boy like me” (as he writes in the Commentary to the article discussed here) – a rhetorician whose interests revolve around ideological resistance, cultural change, and theoretical resources for critique and action – doing there? The answer to that question constitutes the context of this discussion, so more of that in a moment … but first, I believe it is necessary to situate this article (an article that addresses things like boundary objects, knowledge maps, and methodological symmetries) with Contemporary Rhetorics and, more broadly, to identify its significance within a field that values productive purposing of rhetoric in academic and non-academic discourses. My specific question is, “What does Herndl’s seemingly obtuse work at LANL have to do with Contemporary Rhetorics and, in general, the climate of “our” theory and practice as rhetoricians in 2010? As I see it, this article – and Herndl’s work – epitomizes the specific ways that postmodern rhetoric lends itself to forging a critical practice that sees theory as a resource for action – even in LANL. Rhetoric is certainly there in that place – and most importantly, (and more generally) in the openings between social and science institutions, like the System Ethnography and Qualitative Modeling (SEQM) team at LANL in which Herndl was a faculty affiliate.

But despite parallels between today’s rhetorical practices, Contemporary Rhetorics, and Herndl’s work, the initial question remains: What was a nice boy like Herndl (and another presumably nice rhetorician, Greg Wilson) doing in a place like LANL? Herndl explains:

…rhetoricians explore and explain how knowledge and power work, how they are created and circulated. We write about how             institutions create and use knowledge and how power relations are reproduced or realigned in the process. As we go out into the         field to do this sort of research, as we gather materials, analyze them, and build theory, we sometimes intervene in practice.                   Research in institutional sites such as LANL might be part of the “worldliness” that Hall (1989) described as the necessary                     complement to theoretical work, part of the move from “the clear air of meaning and textuality and theory to the something nasty     down below.” (278)

Reflecting Herndl’s insights, Wilson cites DeLuca (1999) adding,

‘The contemporary social field is rife with exposed contradictions, demonstrating that exposure in and of itself does not lead to             social change’ (342-343). Agential rhetoric requires moving beyond describing problems in the hopes that someone else will                   solve them.  My work at LANL joins the work that other rhetoricians – in the academy and in institutions such as my own – have         done to forge a critical practice that sees theory as a resource for action. (225-226)

What do rhetoricians like Herndl and Wilson specifically do in places like LANL? “Boundary work.” They study the “rhetorical activity that occurs at the boundaries between the communities of practice engaged in [LANL projects]” (131). Essentially, they practice middling: the SEQM team (of which Herndl and Wilson were members) consists of qualitative modelers (sociologist, policy analyst, rhetorician) who “perform ethnographic work in these complex problem spaces to build qualitative representations that capture what the technical community knows about a problem” (133). They analyze the differences between communication practices of disparate specialists; they study how the exchange of information “travels across the borders between disciplinary or discursive communities [while] retain[ing] its integrity” (133). Similarly, Latour, too, is concerned with work that travels across the borders … work between disparate groups of communicators. Harman summarizes, “For Latour, the truth lies not in some combination of these two flawed positions, but in a middle term that shares nothing in common with either: the ‘Third Estate’ or ‘excluded middle’ of the bustling mob of actors, all of them equally real” (Harman 88). Can we suggest that Herndl and Wilson were concerned with the Third Estate of communication between “these two flawed positions” (namely, the conflicting ideologies of each LANL community’s “…distinct knowledge and expertise … [their] division”)?

Even more specifically, Herndl and Wilson’s boundary work involves a particular “boundary object” – the knowledge map. In justifying the two “rhetorically important aspects of Star and Griesemer’s (1989) conception of the boundary object,” they summarize its efficacy at LANL: “… the knowledge map as a rhetorical boundary object encourages an integrative exigence. As a boundary object, the knowledge map recognizes difference and division, but it also provides identification across the sites of action. Combined with the democratic distribution of epistemic authority, the balance between division and identification allows the knowledge map to function as a boundary object that encourages integration rather than demarcation as a powerful and shared motive” (138).

Before concluding, a bit of justice must be given to the function of “methodological symmetry” as it relates with the rhetorical activity of SEQM as it functions at LANL. Summarizing Smith’s perspective on the concept, Herndl and Wilson write, “Methodological symmetry is a social and rhetorical commitment to the notion that the other person’s position is rational and valid within some context of action and experience. So, the different knowledge and language used by experts from different locations on a knowledge map are valid within the local contexts represented on the map” (147). Essentially, the function of the knowledge map as a boundary object is to facilitate methodological symmetry so as to provide a rhetorical space in which “to discuss shared and divergent meaning, and to move forward on shared action” (151).

Works Cited

Wilson, Greg and Carl Herndl. “Boundary Objects as Rhetorical Exigence: Knowledge Mapping and Interdisciplinary Cooperation at   the Los Alamos National Laboratory.” Journal of Business and Technical Communication 21.2 (2007): 129-153. Web. 12 Nov. 2010.


About klangbehn

Doctoral Candidate: Rhetoric of Science University of South Florida 4202 E. Fowler Avenue Tampa, FL 33620-5550 View all posts by klangbehn

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