Rhetoric of Health & Medicine
Vol. 1, Nos. 3- 4, pp. 269–295
© 2018 University of Florida Press
Gut Rhetorics: Toward
Experiments in Living
Jason Kalin and David R. Gruber
When considering the material ecologies of the human body, we must consider
the bodies within— at least ve hundred known species of microbes. We propose
the term gut rhetorics to highlight how our guts have become an environment to
which we are exposed: a biologically active actant contributing to the physiology
and psychology— the rhetorical capacities— of the human body. Gut rhetorics
incorporate— bring into the body and, importantly, into the body of rhetoric— the
hungry horde within human bodies. First, we trace one probiotic formulation across
three scientic studies to show how bodies, aects, and microbes are being “cali-
brated” at the level of experiment. Second, we stress skilled probiotic experimen-
tation and encourage scholars to play amid environments, give attention to
embodiment, and pursue phenomenological inquiry (Gruber, ; Melonçon,
). Gut rhetorics consider bodies, aects, and microbiota as entangled meta-
bolic intra- actions that aect how the world appears to the body and the body to
: attunement, body, microbes, new materialism, rhetorical ontology
A wave of scientic research and popular culture publicity— government
initiatives (for example, the Human Microbiome Project), TED talks, mag-
azine articles, best- selling books, and new diet trends— has given promi-
nence to the gut, the microbiota and the microbiome, situating them as
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integral to the health of the human body. We are, as this research often
points out, only % human; the other % is the microbiota— the bacteria,
fungi, and yeasts that live on or in the body (Hird, ; Yong, ). e
microbiota has been linked to not only gastrointestinal problems, includ-
ing gastroenteritis, nervous stomach, and irritable bowel syndrome, but
also allergies, asthma, chronic inammation, depression, and weight gain
and loss (Yong, ). Justin and Erica Sonnenburg (), two leading
researchers of the microbiota, argue that the microbiota “is directly respon-
sive to diet” (p.); thus, we have “trillions of mouths to feed” (p.).
Homogeneous processed foods, according to Sonnenburg and Sonnenburg,
have been stripped of “microbiota accessible carbohydrates” (p.), leav-
ing the microbiota and our bodies starving, if not to death, then for a dif-
ferent way of life, one more congenial to bodily and microbial appetites.
In his article “An Appetite for Rhetoric,” Nathan Stormer () sug-
gests that rhetoric scholars have long taken the rhetor’s body for granted,
when they have not been ignoring it altogether. Most often, he adds, rhetoric
scholars have assumed the body “to be well- fed or at least not a starving one”
(p.), and in so doing, they have limited rhetoricity to a “stunted aective
potential and responsiveness to the world” (p.). Stormer thus argues that
because “rhetoric is enlivened by bodies that eat” (p.), rhetoric scholars
need to attend to the hungry body and hunger itself as a “material vulnerabil-
ity to the world” (p.). Who among us well- fed academics has not expe-
rienced a feeling of being hangry— a portmanteau of hungry and angry— to
describe that irritability accompanying extended hunger that emerges when
a department meeting pushes against the lunch hour? Attending to bodies
that eat enables rhetoric scholars to imagine dierently the “material ecolo-
gies of rhetoric” and “the evolution of rhetorical capacities” (p.).
When considering the material ecologies of the human body, we must
also consider the bodies within— at least ve hundred known species of
microbes, numbering over a hundred trillion and weighing approximately
three to ve pounds (Hird, ; Yong, ). Body, microbiota, and their
appetites are entangled in intestinal folds so that to (mal)nourish the body
is to (mal)nourish microbiota, and vice versa. Attending to the body and its
material ecologies, specically the microbiota, suggests how “the evolution
of rhetorical capacities” may have much to do with the hunger of microbes
and corresponding bodily activities. us, we propose gut rhetorics to
acknowledge that being human is living with microbes and that rhetoric is
enlivened by both bodies that eat and microbes that eat bodies.
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Kalin and Gruber
Moreover, we are not simply living with microbes; we are reinventing
what it means to be human by reintroducing microbes— through the inges-
tion of fermented foods, fecal transplants, parasites, and pre- and probiotic
diets— into and as part of our bodies, cultivating some as “gut buddies”
(Lorimer, ) and exterminating others with antibiotics. In short, gut
rhetorics reveal the inseparability of epistemological, ontological, and phe-
nomenological realities. e gut has become a both metaphoric and meta-
bolic environment to which we are exposed: a scientically calibrated
representation, a biologically active actant, and a bodily eshy feeling. e
metaphoric and the metabolic contribute to the physiology and psychology—
the rhetorical capacities— of the human body. Gut rhetorics (re)compose
bodies as metabolizing forces— ingestion, digestion, inammation, fermen-
tation, and excretion— in which bodies are always on the way to becoming
something else yet feeding to maintain a stasis that remains elusive. Gut
rhetorics incorporate— bring into the body and, importantly, into the body
of rhetoric— the hungry horde within human bodies. If we are to under-
stand rhetorical capacities appropriate to the “material ecologies of rheto-
ric” (Stormer, ) and to “ecological thought,” such as vulnerability and
resilience (Stormer & McGreavy, ), we need our guts— literally and
guratively— not only our intestinal folds and their microbial inhabitants
but also our stomach, our appetite for creative experimentation.
We examine the “deliberate reentanglement” (Lorimer, , p.)
of bodies and the microbiota within two epistemological- ontological-
phenomenological formations giving rise to gut rhetorics. We begin by
briey situating our material and methodological commitments within the
ontological turn in rhetoric (Graham, ; Stormer, , Stormer &
McGreavy, ) and S. Scott Graham’s rhetorical- ontological inquiry. We
then trace one probiotic formulation across three scientic studies to show
how bodies, aects, and microbes are being calibrated, that is, sorted, clas-
sied, and justied (Graham, ), at the level of experiment, an “experi-
mental formalization” of the microbiota (Landecker, ). Here, we detail
how gastroenterologists enact microbes ontologically as a probiotic formu-
lation, epistemologically through diagnostic questionnaires, and phenom-
enologically by relying on patients’ self- reported aects and feelings. In a
second formation of gut rhetorics, we stress how similar ontological,
epistemological, and phenomenological entanglements are being enacted at
the level of everyday practices, noting how probiotic foods and consumer-
driven diets advocate other means of living with the microbiota. ese
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everyday gut rhetorics not only focus on discursive appeals to the gut but
also orient consumers towards the development of skillful living with the
microbiota— a shift from knowing that to knowing how (Ingold, ; Coeck-
elbergh, ), a kind of learning through sensual inquiry in an age when
knowing is uneasy, not at all comprehensive, complex, and ecological (Mel-
onçon, ). In this way, everyday gut rhetorics encourage probiotic
experimentation in ways that resonate with recent methodological consid-
erations in the rhetoric of science and medicine, which encourage scholars
to play amid environments, give attention to embodiment, and pursue phe-
nomenological inquiry (Gruber, ; Melonçon, ). Consequently, we
outline how gut rhetorics can nd room not only for “experimental entan-
glements” (Fitzgerald & Callard, ) but also for “experiments in rheto-
ric” (Gruber, ) to understand how bodies, microbes, and environments
metabolize one another.
Rhetorical Ontology: Entanglement and Inquiry
Gut rhetorics begin with the premise that although the living ontology of
the body is dierent than not only our phenomenological experience as a
body but also our epistemological concepts used to textually inscribe,
describe, prescribe, and proscribe that experience, we cannot simply disre-
gard either bodily experience or metaphoric representation. Put simply, rhet-
oric scholars should be careful not to abandon language, discourse, and
representation in their turn to rhetoric’s ontology (Barnett & Boyle, ;
Stormer, ; Stormer & McGreavy, ). In this way, we follow Gra-
ham () who argues that rhetoric and ontology need each other to think
dierently, if not move beyond, the “two world problem” of “bifurcations
that include the subject/object, culture/nature, and mind/body dichotomies”
(p.). To counter the “two world problem,” Graham develops “rhetorical-
ontological inquiry” as a method/ology that accepts ontological multiplic-
ity and ecological entanglement—i nformed by science and technology
studies and new materialisms, primarily drawing upon Bruno Latour and
Annemarie Mol— while also studying how pain, in his case, is talked about
among diverse discourse communities (for example, medical, psychiatric,
pharmaceutical professionals) and experienced by patients who report
various pain symptoms. Rhetorical- ontological inquiry considers how epis-
temology, ontology, and phenomenology are inseparable from, yet irreduc-
ible to, one another in enacting multiple realities of pain. As such, rhetoric
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Kalin and Gruber
scholars can no longer be content with constructing text- bodies, or bodies-
as- texts, and must attend to lived, living bodies. We do so here by studying
what Graham calls two “practical regimes of engagement” (p.): rst,
gastroenterological research focusing on probiotic formulations, and second,
everyday embodied encounters with probiotics.
In examining these practical regimes of engagement, what becomes
apparent is the allusiveness of epistemological and phenomenological
accounts alongside the elusiveness of ontological calibration of the micro-
biota. e absence of certain microbes and their ecologies may be just as
consequential as the presence of other microbes. Likewise, the absence of
certain gut feelings, or aects, may be as consequential to the inscription
of a gut bacteria’s agency as the presence of other gut feelings. And the use
of specic psychometric questionnaires in gastroenterological studies inu-
ences how the participants’ feelings are understood and then how gut bac-
teria are ontologically empowered or delimited. us, the following inquiry
illuminates the ways we come to know gut bacteria, which are acting in the
world and have a material say in how “we see ourselves going forward in that
world” (Rickert, , p. xiii) even as they obscure understanding. In short,
microbes and bodies are metaphorically and materially shaped even while
they shape “our thoughts, feelings, and sociabilities” (Lorimer, , p.).
Gut rhetorics, accordingly, compose bodies and microbes as ruminations,
coughing up the capacitation of rhetoric, a kind of chewing, as well as chew-
ing the cud, that is, thinking with/in the gut.
In her study of the gut and depression, Elizabeth Wilson () writes,
“My argument is not that the gut contributes to minded states, but that the
gut is an organ of mind: it ruminates, deliberates, comprehends” (p.). In
like manner, gut rhetorics suggest that rhetoric’s ontology arises with the
millions of missed, missing, and mist microbes dwelling with/in a gut that
is both environmental and irreducible to representation. In other words, the
very capacitation of a rhetoric, such as aective response and conscious feel-
ing, may begin with microbes. As the rhetorical- ontological inquiry in the
next section shows, we have much to learn about how bodies and gut bac-
teria are becoming environmental and to what extent gut bacteria and aect
states, such as stress, anxiety, and depression, may be calibrated through
gastroenterological research and everyday embodied experimentation.
Understanding microbes, bodies, and bodies of rhetoric as “multispe-
cies achievements” (Lorimer, , p.) in living well together— or not
so well (see Haraway, ; Hird, )— oers an opportunity to advance
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rhetorical- ontological inquiry. In reecting upon his study of pain medi-
cine, Graham () notes that he enacts an “empirical- discursive” ontol-
ogy, “an iterative series of ocular and inscriptive practices so as to create an
account of doing” (p.). He is an ethnographer, looking at words and
observing practices in situ. Alongside this empirical- discursive praxiogra-
phy, Graham calls for the development of “a more fully interventional form
of inquiry” (p.). We suggest that gut rhetorics may do so by encourag-
ing rhetoric scholars to enact empirical- phenomenological experience, such
an “experiment in rhetoric” (Gruber, ) that relies on (microbial) emo-
tions, in tandem with contextual discourses, to augment critique, to explore
bodily relations, to feel through rhetorics, to sense the persuasive power of
bacterial life, and to invent new possibilities for living with gut bacteria.
Part 1— Rhetorical- Ontological Inquiry:
Experiments in Probiotics and Affects
Among the many competing explanations for depression is the presence and
inuence of microbiota in the gut. e extent to which gut bacteria may
make a dierence in a given situation remains largely unknown. However,
Ali Naseribafrouei and colleagues () situate depression as a “chronic
syndrome with a pathogenesis linked to various genetic, biological, and
environmental factors,” adopting the appropriate hedging as they seek to
pinpoint specic gut bacteria associated with patients diagnosed with major
depression disorder (p.). Although Naseribafrouei etal. focus on the
Oscillibacter type strain of gut bacteria and the negative eects of its valeric
acid output, other studies indicate that a Lactobacillus strain along with other
lactic acid bacteria can regulate neurotransmitters “implicated in the patho-
genesis of anxiety and depression” (Bravo etal., , p.), concluding
that individual strains of bacteria “may have benecial eects in the treat-
ment of depression and anxiety” (p.).
Although it is tempting to suggest that gastrointestinal research is
merely in a nascent phase and that these researchers ultimately will delin-
eate which bacteria inuence which bodily system to explain how humans
might be prone to mood swings or the loss of self- worth associated with
depression, the claim proves tentative when the scientic processes of tex-
tualizing and calibrating the body and microbiota are brought to the surface.
Gut bacteria and symptoms of depression do appear, in some cases, to shift
together (Dinan etal., ; Petra etal., ). In other cases, correlating
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specic types of gut bacteria with patients diagnosed with depression
proves uneven, not statistically signicant, or, put simply, a bit tricky (Diop,
Guillou, & Durand, ). Because depression is diagnosed through patient
evaluations involving patient self- narrative and psychometric questionnaires
(Matza etal., ), the microbiota is composed by a process of textualiza-
tion. Patients must be sorted into dened categories associated with diag-
nostic tools such as the Eysenck Personality Questionnaire (Chakraborti
etal., ), the Spielberger State- Trait Anxiety Inventory (Schmidt etal.,
), the Hamilton Depression Rating Scale (Gwee etal., ), the Hop-
kins Symptom Checklist, and the Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale
(Messaoudi etal., ). Patients are grouped in terms of mood disorders,
anxiety disorders, and clinical depression. Sometimes doctors have a say in
the process; other times, clinical researchers grade patients based solely on
demographics and computational factors (Chakraborti etal., ; Schmidt
etal., ). Whatever the case, patients must be institutionally labeled
and correlated with stool or urine samples and examinations of the micro-
biota over time (Dinan etal., ).
is diagnostic process, which primarily constructs bodies- as- texts,
allows for claim- making and legitimizes comparisons to animal studies,
despite obvious dierences in clinical evaluations that determine levels of
anxiety in animals versus humans and despite the diculty of determining
whether or not the feelings of rats are at all the same as those of humans.
We analyze this complicated scientic process across three studies looking
at the eects of one probiotic formulation. Doing so shows how textualiza-
tion, as an epistemic process inscribing ontological multiplicity, leaves gas-
trointestinal scholars and scholars of rhetoric with a tangible dilemma— not
only how to know a body, but also how to live with bodies that eat. Exam-
ining these experimental processes, and how each subsequent study seeks
to build upon the last yet confronts divergence and instability, shows how
lived bodies and microbes continually eace texts, eluding the processes of
textualization brought to bear on them.
Ingesting probiotics, which are complexes of microbes that may have
benecial eects in the human body, has been proposed as one possible
response to bring together the known body and the lived body. For example,
Michaël Messaoudi and colleagues () have attempted to better under-
stand how, when, and why a probiotic formulation (PF)— comprising Lacto-
bacillus helveticus R0052 and Bidobacterium longum R0175— might mitigate
the severity of stress, anxiety, and depression in humans. Messaoudi etal.
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turn to several other gastroenterological studies examining the same or
similar Lactobacillus- based PFs to contextualize their claims and compare
outcomes. Exposing disjunctions across the various epistemic resources
brought to bear on the microbiota from these studies presents a “praxiog-
raphy of representation,” which is a way of understanding “not so much
what people say or what texts mean but rather how representational activity
circulates within and contributes to a deeper ecology of practices in which
those acts of representation are embedded” (Graham, , p.). Speci-
cally, examining the psychometric questionnaires used in each study, how
those questionnaires were facilitated, and how they rhetorically and mate-
rially established dierent aect states— namely, “stress,” “anxiety” and/or
“depression”— and how they were compared to stool or urine samples
todraw conclusions about the healthfulness of the PF elucidates what Mol
() calls the prescriptive “epistemic normativity” of the eld (p. ).
However, attending to the gaps and conicts that appear across three inter-
related probiotic studies, starting with Messaoudi etal. (), displays how
dierent psychometric questionnaires compel transformations in key terms,
such as “anxiety,” which help to determine the results. Gastroenterologists
need to contextualize the PF through their colleagues’ studies despite
obvious and important material dierences to secure a space for their work
and to draw conclusions that might push forward the science of the micro-
biota despite diering patient reports. For the rhetoric of health and medi-
cine (RHM), understanding how aect states are forged amid this process
brings insight into how, in gastroenterology, scientic calibration— the
process through which patients, the microbiota, and probiotics are catego-
rized and legitimized (Graham, )— makes bodies legible and remakes
bodies (see Jack, ; Wells, ).
Because questionnaires inform when and which gut bacteria can be des-
ignated helpful or healthy, a rhetorical- ontological inquiry draws out how
the microbiota is presumed to alter, to some measurable degree, feelings of
self- worth, personal isolation, or in/ability to connect with others as reported
by study participants. Finding ways to measure the inuence of food choices
and one’s gut bacteria on sociality and/or self- feeling is essentially the focus
of such research. e work re- materializes and medicalizes dinner plates,
indicating a rhetorical ontology that is material, phenomenological, and dis-
cursive in entwining human and bacterial bodies. Accordingly, we understand
PF studies as premised upon a broader cultural insight: “Food communi-
cates values, history, politics, demography, regionality, and culture” such
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Kalin and Gruber
that “what and how much we eat . . . comes with the promise of ever greater
levels of agency” even as food can also “generate identities,” contribute to
exploitation, and physically change our bodies (Young, Eckstein, & Conley,
, p.). In like manner, we propose that the various interrelated pro-
biotic studies attempt dierent ways of “touching” and then securing, if
not universalizing, a link between food and human feeling in the mission
to increase human agency. ey literally forge ontologies in building up
knowledge- making relations between the microbiota and personality,
appropriate sociality, and appropriate diet.
e praxiography of representation we identify proceeds as follows:
. Food choices or habits of eating are conceptualized as socially and
materially entwined with psychological conditions.
. Consequently, psychometric questionnaires are employed by
scientic/ medical communities to determine the kinds of conclusions
that might be made by gastroenterological experimentation examin-
ing dierent strains of gut bacteria.
. Claims about unhealthy and healthy strains are dependent on
thechanges in follow- up responses to participants’ psychometric
. Consequently, gut bacteria become agentive and salient by being cal-
ibrated to patients’ reported feelings amid dierent habits of eating,
as well as other habits of sleep, habits of work, etc.
. e gut bacteria, then, in the form of PFs can operate as “punctal-
ized actors,” or objects endowed with a particular role for network
building (Law, ). PFs become a “material delegate” conveying a
narrative of healthfulness/unhealthfulness from past research, which
is then purported to do something, such as expand agencies and build
up networks of PFs to sooth gut remedies (Akrich and Latour, ).
e problem is that probiotic formulations hold the promise of “ever
greater levels of agency” and personal satisfaction even while psychometric
questionnaires across the studies conict or talk past each other in seeking
to measure and categorize dierent aect states, and often do so dierently.
Although the psychometric questionnaires are a “materializing force” (Hill,
) in gastroenterological research, generating new scientic realities and
categories for negotiating the body, they are unable to provide stable accounts
of a living body and its hungers. Examining how one study builds claims
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by including and occluding various forms of psychometric questionnaires
helps to illuminate just how an epistemological apparatus grapples with phe-
nomenology to inscribe an ontology of the body.
Study #1: MeSSaoudi et al. (2011)
Messaoudi and colleagues () hope to mitigate the severity of the stress,
anxiety, and depression in humans through discovering viable PF treatments.
To measure specic moods that they term “stress, anxiety, and depression,”
they construct a study that employs four dierent psychometric measures.
• Hopkins Symptom Checklist (HSCL- ),
• Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale (HADS),
• Perceived Stress Scale (PSS), and
• Coping Checklist (CCL).
e rst (HSCL- ) is a - item questionnaire with a ve- point rating
scale evaluating “somatization, obsessive- compulsive, interpersonal sensi-
tivity, anxiety, and depression” with individual questions strictly correlated
to specic aect states (Derogatis etal., ). e second (HADS) uses a
- item questionnaire on a four- point scale with various answers at either
end of that scale (“yes” or “often” or “denitely,” etc. as examples of the posi-
tive end), evaluating anxiety and depression with seven questions each (see
“SVRI”). e third (PSS) uses a ten- item questionnaire with a ve- point
scale ranging from “never” to “very often” and intends to determine stress
levels (Cohen, ). e fourth, and nal, (CCL) is a - item questionnaire
on a “yes/no” scale used to determine “a broad range of behavioural and cog-
nitive responses that may be used to handle stress” and can be understood
as drawing a distinction in degrees between “normals” and “neurotics”
(Rao, Subbakrishna, & Prabhu, ). Messaoudi etal. () administer
each questionnaire following its own diagnosis protocols— some requiring
delivery and interpretation by a trained psychologist or professional and
others self- given— and then apply them across two groups of human test
participants, a placebo group and a probiotic group. After four weeks of
Messaoudi etal. () do not entirely clarify whether HSCL and H ADS are administered by
professiona ls, despite recommendations to do so.
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Kalin and Gruber
collecting urine samples and giving PF treatment to the test group, they ask
the participants to again complete the four psychometric questionnaires.
In this case, the researchers argue that the tested PF treatment miti-
gates psychological symptoms associated with anxiety and depression:
“e benecial eects of probiotics on anxiety and depression may be
explained by competitive exclusion of deleterious gut pathogens, decreases
in pro- inammatory cytokines and communication with the central ner-
vous system via vagal sensory bres, leading to changes in neurotransmit-
ter levels or function” (Messaoudi etal., , p.). In layman’s terms,
specic strains of microbes ingested seem to force out other bacteria or
overwhelm their negative eects by sending new benecial signals to the
Messaoudi etal. () are unable to pinpoint how or why microbiota
seem eective in alleviating symptoms of anxiety and depression, compar-
ing the eects measured in their study against other studies, including ones
on aggression in rats (Hanstock, Drew, & Van Kessel, ), the gastroin-
testinal tract of pigs (Estrada etal., ), and the sleep rates of elderly peo-
ple (Yamaura et al., ). In each case, similar bacterial formulations
were used, but the results varied and depended upon what could be known
from the human or nonhuman participants and what kind of epistemic
apparatus enabled the practice. Indeed, in reviewing related studies, they
spend signicant time confronting confounding disjunctions with Diop
etal. (), which reports no statistically signicant eects on anxiety or
psychological symptoms, even though the PF did show clear benets on GI
problems. In contrast, Messaoudi etal. argue for their own positive results
with the necessary hedging: “ese data are preliminary,” and “these results
provide further evidence that gut microora play a role [emphasis added] in
stress, anxiety and depression” (p.); the “role” remains unclear, and the
researchers suggest more research is needed (p.). eir judicious state-
ment of results is proper to scientic inquiry and ethically composed. Dis-
covering conicting results is likely always confounding, but reviewing the
other studies exposes how, as Mol () says, “ontology is not in the given
order of things . . . ontologies are brought into being, sustained, or allowed
to wither away” (p.). e ontology of microbes are made and questioned.
As the following section shows, knowing the microbiota becomes a com-
plex process of integrating prior studies as well as feeling a way through the
practices of other researchers and the reported phenomenological realities
of other participants.
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Study #2: diop et al. (2008) & Study #3:
ait- Belgnaoui (2006)
For Messaoudi and colleagues (), the diculty in dealing with Diop
etal. () is not only that those researchers discovered no signicant
eects related to what they termed “psychosocial stress” but that the GI
problems noted in Diop’s participants were strongly correlated to “stress
induced symptoms of colorectal dysfunction” by a previous study conducted
by Afa Ait- Belgnaoui and colleagues (). In that study, a sepa-
rate, but related, Lactobacillus strain showed the ability to prevent colorec-
tal hypersensitivity (p.). Chronologically, the studies proceed as follows:
Ait- Belgnaoui etal. correlate GI problems to heightened “stress” in rats and
show that a Lactobacillus PF alleviates those GI symptoms for rats, provid-
ing no comment on the psychosocial responses. Subsequently, Diop etal.
argue that those same microbiota strains do help with abdominal pain and
vomiting in humans but show no eect on any adverse psychological symp-
toms as measured by certain psychometric questionnaires administered
before and after PF treatment. Messaoudi etal. then argue for meaningful
correlations between their similar Lactobacillus- based PF and the psycho-
logical symptoms involved with “anxiety” and “depression” but nd noth-
ing in relation to “stress.” us, we are left with a dilemma about how “stress”
could be unaected while “anxiety” shows improvement, and how GI prob-
lems could disappear while the “stress” that purportedly inamed those
problems does not. e inquiry becomes simultaneously semiotic and mate-
rial, about questions and questionnaires working in tandem with bodies
Interestingly, Diop etal. () cite the Ait- Belganoui etal. ()
study as partially motivating their work. ey engage in what Charles
Bazerman () calls the construction of “the accomplishment,” encour-
aging “some lines of development” through building on what has been done
while asserting what has not (p.)— in this case, transitioning this PF from
rats to humans. In staging the research gap in their introduction, Diop and
colleagues state, “Recent studies have shown that lactobacilli prevent vis-
ceral pain and stress- induced visceral hypersensitivity in rats [here citing
Ait- Belgnaoui etal. and Kamiya etal., ]. However, there has been, as
of yet, few data available on the eects of probiotics on stress- induced gas-
trointestinal symptoms in humans” (p. ) e nal line indicates why
Messaoudi etal. () would later cite Diop etal.; the eort to correlate
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psychological symptoms to specic Lactobacillus strains could bolster the
power of the PF, thus moving the claim from rat gastroenterology to human
gastroenterology to human psychology. e move makes sense: If stress can
induce GI problems that are alleviated with the PF, then that same PF might
alleviate the related feelings of stress, including anxiety. However, show-
ing aect states changing confronts patients, not to mention a reasonably
large epistemic toolkit, rife with choices.
We call attention to not only the shift from animals to humans and
the shift in the exact Lactobacillus strains being used— despite their genome
similarities and abilities to produce lactic acid (see Salvetti, Torriani, &
Felis, )— but also the structure of the study designs. Diop and col-
leagues (), for instance, deviate signicantly from Messaoudi et al.’s
() study, choosing to construct a specialist questionnaire to test for
“stress induced symptoms.” Indeed, Diop and colleagues build their own
- item questionnaire with the aim to “encompass the following areas: gas-
trointestinal, cardiovascular, sleep disorders, locomotor systems, physical,
emotional and psychological symptoms, intellectual problems, spiritual
symptoms, and social aspects” (p.). Consequently, any direct comparisons
between Diop etal. and Messaoudi etal. confront a dierence in measure-
ment tools, what questions constitute certain aect states, and how those
assessments are administered. Quickly reviewing the questionnaires shows
that “anxiety” in one includes questions about “feeling ‘wound up’” or hav-
ing “‘butteries’ in the stomach” (“SVRI”) while the other asks about the
“feeling of being trapped or caught” and having “shakiness inside” (Access
Counseling Group). Likewise, one questionnaire determining “stress” asks
about “condence handling personal problems” (Cohen, ) while the
others do not (Diop etal., ).
Fast- forwarding to the Messaoudi etal. () study, those researchers
rightly assert, “is discrepancy [in our ndings about stress versus the Diop
etal. study] may be due to the duration of the period of administra-
tion of the preparation and/or to the use of a dierent questionnaire” (p.).
With this explanation, Messaoudi etal. acknowledge that dierent dura-
tions of ingestion may result in dierent outcomes as the body incorporates
new bacterial formulations with old ones, engaging new environments along
the way. However, the dierence in duration between the two studies is
only eight days (Diop etal., ). If deemed signicant, researchers might
argue for the time it takes for a body to “exclude” and “decrease” pro-
inammatory agents, and if not, then researchers would be left once again
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with an unknown. What remains, then, are the dierences in the ques-
tionnaires, the kinds of questions asked, how aect states are conceptual-
ized, and how the calibration process was facilitated.
As with the relations among body, the microbiota and aects like
depression, the centrality of textual diagnostic tools can be hard to detect
unless they stop working and the results are negative. NathanR. Johnson
() makes this clear in his discussion of medical infrastructures: “Work-
ing infrastructure often stays invisible” because when important classica-
tions “function” and “serve audience needs,” then the standards and
algorithms tend to disappear into the background (p.– ). Precisely
because one of the four psychometric tests used in the study— the PSS
questionnaire— did not show any signicant results in response to the PF,
Messaoudi and colleagues () are compelled to suggest that patient self-
reporting might have been a salient factor. ey state, “Taken together, PF
appears to show a benecial eect on general signs of anxiety and depres-
sion, which did not generalise to the PSS, although all three tests comprise
self- reported measures” (p.). One way to read the statement is to see a
aw in the PSS’s ability to obtain good patient self- reporting; another way
is to see aws in relying on patient self- reporting, thus taking all the results
with a proverbial grain of salt; yet another way to understand the statement
is to see patients as more likely to report shifts in anxiety or depression,
given the questions on those questionnaires or the nature of the diagnosis.
What Messaoudi and colleagues intend remains unclear.
Many scales used for evaluating anxiety and depression do rely upon
self- reported measures, but it is important to note that some should be con-
ducted in formal hospital settings for validity or administered by a trained
professional (see “SVRI”; Snaith, ), while others, such as the PSS, can
be much more widely used and lled out privately. Given that the PSS is
tailored to identify symptoms of stress and intended for general audiences,
Messaoudi etal. () could remark that the PSS is the one scale— of the
four used— presumably most likely to be comparable to the - question sur-
vey created by Diop and colleagues () who specically make claims
about the lack of results tying the probiotic formulation to stress. Perhaps
rightly, Messaoudi etal. focus mostly on legitimizing their positive results
and the eectiveness of the probiotic for alleviating “anxiety” and “depres-
sion” symptoms. Yet, they also, at least for a rhetoric scholar, unintention-
ally highlight the complexity of deriving any results at all: e variable
means of self- reporting, the separate legitimacies of each questionnaire
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Kalin and Gruber
across studies, and the dierent test periods for similar but not exactly the
same PFs, all combine to produce diculty and suggest future adjustments
across variables. Figure outlines the divergences.
If microbiota studies are going to solidify claims about the positive
eect of probiotics, they must necessarily rely upon patient accounts because
the medical diagnosis of psychological conditions are largely dependent
upon feelings of guilt, shame, and self- worth as well as the corresponding
narrations about one’s own body as documented across various forms of
interviews and questionnaires (Evrensel & Ceylan, ; Naseribafrouei
etal., ). If microbiota are “mind- altering micro- organisms,” as Cryan
and Dinan () declare, they seem to alter the mind because patients say
so, reporting life changes, while researchers collect the corresponding sam-
ples of gut bacteria. Understanding this complex process illuminates the
value of gut rhetorics to learn how to consider material- discursive infrastruc-
tures composing the gut and to develop a response to the popularization of
microbiota research. Understanding how individual questionnaires ask par-
ticipants about food habits, sleep, paranoia symptoms, work stress, and
lived experience— and ask dierently— as well as how probiotics studies
forge exigencies by relating their work to previous studies positions gut rhet-
orics as a vital site of rhetorical- ontological inquiry in RHM.
Figure. Study Comparisons Tracing Back Citations from Messaoudi
etal. (). (Created by authors)
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e three studies also highlight some confusion in gastroenterology
about best means to delineate, capture, and measure aect states to relate
them to gut bacteria. en again, rhetoric scholars have only started to learn
how to talk about aect, how to see variable aects, how to relate them to
situated encounters, how and when to stage them as universal, and how much
to see them as intimately responsive to interventions. In looking outward to
other elds, we can also look inward to discover a gut rhetoric right inside
ourselves, one that groans for interdisciplinary engagement and epistemo-
logical entanglement (Fitzgerald and Callard, ) to digest what rheto-
ric’s ontologies demand. And we may begin by considering how living with
depression, for example, may call for developing the environmental skill “to
meet with” (see Haraway, ; Hird, ) gut bacteria and their meta-
Part 2— Environmental Skill: Experiments in
Living with Probiotics
e three probiotic formulation studies reveal how scientists struggle to
comprehend the body, or enough of a body to make claims about variables
that move in/dependently of the epistemic apparatus and the test partici-
pant’s experience of those variables. is observation is not made to simply
reinforce the need to move beyond representation (Lynch, ). Indeed,
the problem that gut rhetorics confronts is not simply the need to devise
better epistemic modes of data collection, such as textual categorization
and patient self- reports. e problem may not be empirical- discursive, but
empirical- phenomenological. e problem is coming to grips with unfold-
ing, messy, often subtle and sudden entanglements among bodies and envi-
ronments. Gut rhetorics within a rhetorical- ontological inquiry foreground
microbial life— millions of nonhuman bodies, the new discursive construc-
tions of what it means to be healthy with a microbiota, and the inadequacy of
any scientic or epistemic account of how to live with/in this environment.
In pragmatic laboratory terms, Messaoudi and colleagues () dem-
onstrate the lack of conceptual resources for analyzing such complex intra-
actions. ey administer treatments to a placebo group and a probiotic
group, yet they conclude that the reported probiotic eects could result from
the presence of benecial microbiota or the absence of harmful ones, or some
other unknown and strange combination. Similarly, in her analysis of anti-
depression medication and placebos, ElizabethA. Wilson () argues that
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Kalin and Gruber
“placebos seem to treat and not treat at the same time” (p.). She even-
tually concludes that the “inert placebos also seem to be able to be activated
by the forces of persuasion” (p.): “If an inert substance can be brought
to action by suggestion, if a nondrug can become a drug under the sway of
a clinician’s care, authority, paternalism, or attention, is there not a muddle
(for my purposes, an appealing muddle) between the actions of body and
mind?” (p.). In brief, body and microbiota are dispersed across “a net-
work of psycho- genetic- institutional- pharmacological action” (p. ).
Accordingly, gut rhetorics must do more than reiterate this observation of
ecological entanglement and co- being; it must intensify relationships and
discover ways to move with the many realities, agencies, and vitalities—
human and nonhuman— that compose a body continuously producing and
enacting its relations. Gut rhetorics must have an appetite for metabolic
intra- actions as integral to explorations not only of bodies and aect but
also of rhetoric’s ontologies.
Although we agree with Wilson () by suggesting that rhetoric
scholars need to establish more conceptual frameworks to understand
material- symbolic intra- actions and to compose new analyses of rhetorical
ontology— thus, our call for gut rhetorics— we also extend beyond the
conceptual to posit another, active dimension to gut rhetorics: experiments
in living with probiotics. Gut rhetorics cannot be limited to showing how
objects and things are “‘always already’ inextricably and irrevocably impli-
cated, intertwined or even imbricated with everything else” (Ingold, ,
p.). Ontological entanglement is an initializing premise, whereas the
practical and practicable challenge becomes how to “ join with the texture
of the world, with its materials and processes. . . . e practice of theory, in
short, must be a modality of habitation— a way of thinking and working
with stu” (Ingold, , p.). If omas Rickert () encourages
rhetoric scholars to adopt “the more holistic terroir . . . earth, sun, vine,
and weather” in thinking ambiently (p. x)— that is, when the entire world
becomes environmental— we must become more capacious still— to include,
in our thinking and living, the hungry horde within that makes and arbi-
trates the terrior. And we must ask how we see ourselves going forward in
that world. How do we act, inhabit, dwell?
To enact an active, living rhetorical- ontological inquiry— that is to
fold performance and phenomenology into such inquiry— rhetoric schol-
ars may need to diverge from the mapping impulse in Latour’s ANT and
start ruminating on dierently responsive modes of inquiry. Tim Ingold’s
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() SPIDER— Skilled Practice Involves Developmentally Embodied
Responsiveness— oers one avenue. When the spider abides at the center
of its web, it is “all a- quiver,” wherein every movement is a movement of its
attention, which, in turn, is an instance of action (Ingold, , p.). Ingold
suggests that the essence of action occurs in “the close coupling of bodily
movement and perception,” the activity of a skilled practitioner:
e skilled practitioner is one who can continually attune his or her
movements to perturbations in the perceived environment without
ever interrupting the ow of action. But such skill does not come
ready- made. Rather, it develops, as part and parcel of the organism’s
own growth and development in an environment. (, p.)
Skilled activity as moving with the materials of the environment helps to
close the gap between knowledge and action, thereby becoming the moti-
vation for moving forward dierently in the world. Similar to how the spi-
der spins a web from the materials of its body, gut bacteria and intestines fold
into one another, and these intra- actions become a condition of bodily agency
and rhetorical capacity. Continually responding to and experimenting
with materials, attuning to those intra- actions and the environment in
which they emerge means becoming more skilled practitioners.
is impulse to create and engage in bodily experimentation is already
evident within the world of consumer probiotics through everyday embod-
ied encounters. In fact, Dannon’s Activia brand managers seem to wield
experimental life as a strategic marketing campaign. ey are not waiting
to know more about PF treatments; they do not need more or dierent
knowledge and conceptual frameworks. ey are performing a gut rhetoric—
the capacitation of rhetoric— as a skilled activity of experimenting with
probiotics. Dannon’s website for Activia makes not only the entanglements
of guts and the microbiota explicit but also the skilled practice involving
developmentally embodied responsiveness— a phenomenological investiga-
tion of the gut. e website asks, “Gut check. Do you ever feel bloated,
gassy, or uncomfortable with rumbling?” (“Activia Challenge,” ). In
promoting its brand of probiotic yogurt containing “a unique cocktail of
dierent cultures,” including “billions of bidus bacteria in every oz. cup,”
Dannon suggests that Activia allows the consumer to “feel the dierence”
(“Activia in numbers,” ). e website explains: “When the intestinal
microora is out of balance, that imbalance may aect overall health. is
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Kalin and Gruber
balance can be disturbed during physical or psychological stress, with age,
in menopause, during drug treatment, with an unbalanced diet, and in the
event of acute or chronic intestinal diseases” (Dannon, “What role,” ).
Bloating, gassiness, rumbling, and discomfort are agonistic “meetings- with,”
aective, bodily entanglements among body, microbes, food, nutrients, and
As Activia’s list of imbalances implies, bodily responses are not rational
knowledge but more and dierent kinds of entanglements, attunements,
and experiments. In this way, the microbiota does not present a problem to
be solved, but the capacitation of a gut rhetoric to be lived— the very
grounding of thought, cognition, and response to the world. With respect
to analyzing and performing gut rhetorics, then, the living cannot be situ-
ated merely as a coming- together but also as a “rumbling” and a “gassiness”—
the feeling that something is wrong, the wrangle with misalignment and
rupture. Skillful living is a continuous responsiveness to the ow of materi-
als through and with the body. e need to run to the toilet or desire to pull
out one’s hair are the realities, those living concerns, motivating PF research
in gastroenterology as well as experiments in living with probiotics. at
Activia’s marketing discursively encourages people to feel these ruptures
and buy the product to resolve them may, in some ways, introduce skepti-
cism about doing so, but the marketing materials make the overall point—
responsiveness to a body- environment can function as experimental means
for rethinking how we live and how we might try to (re)attune and then see
what happens. In this way, a rhetorical methodology for gut rhetorics de-
cient in ecological concepts that capture microbial inuences must turn to
performative phenomenologies (Melonçon, ) to see what might “reside
at the corner of play and experimentation” (Gruber, , p.).
Skilled engagement, rather than detachment from the microbiota,
pushes toward “thinking and feeling that grow out of one’s engagement with
the environment” (Coeckelberg, , p.). Such thinking and feeling
shifts attention away from theoretical knowledge (knowing that) and to
embodied, responsive practices and habits (know- how) (Coeckelberg, ).
Although everyday gastroenterological experimentation may not precisely
calibrate relationships between probiotic formulations and aect states, our
bodies do seem to know something— gassiness, rumbling, inammation—
indicating that we could try to eat and live dierently: “Rather than rea-
soning about the environment or having feelings about the environment, we
act and think in a relational, environmental way” (Coeckelberg, , p.).
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Savoir faire becomes saveur faire: not only the “art of responding to our envi-
ronment, which invites us and challenges us to respond” (p.), but also
“the art of eating well” and “the art of savoring” our relationships with our
gut bacteria and probiotics. Developing experiments in living with probi-
otics oers one possible response “that moves us, makes us care, and makes
us more ‘environmental,’ and thereby lets us, and our environment, our-
ish” (p.). “Rewilding” our guts with probiotics may well be a trope intended
to reinstill some cooked- up sense of “naturalness” to human technoscien-
tic engagements; nevertheless, it is also a multispecies achievement that
has no nal conclusion.
Ingold’s SPIDER and Coeckelberg’s environmental skill oer non-
dualistic, non- modern ways of thinking and being in the world, of living
with bodies that eat. On the one hand, the scientic view of gastroenterol-
ogy treats gut bacteria and probiotics as “things” that may initiate all kinds
of reactions, contributing to health or sickness (Coeckelberg, , p.).
On the other hand, Dannon’s Activia may oer a romantic view of “natu-
ral” and “authentic” foods, which is equally problematic because it presup-
poses an ontological division between the two and risks glorifying the
agentive power of consumer products. In contrast, a phenomenological
approach— the development of environmental skill that hones uneasy feel-
ings to nd new ways to live— proposes an active relation to an environ-
ment. Examining the textual frameworks and epistemological apparatuses
that construct an image of living bodies will not settle how to live with bod-
ies that eat; rather, we need something less rational in composition, not
completely content with conceptual network mapping— gut rhetorics that
examine how the gut is articulated, what it can do socio- culturally for ref-
ormations of brain- body- environment relations, and what it can do within
the experiences of living as environmental beings.
Conclusion: Experiments in Rhetoric
We have much to learn about rhetoric from our microbial entanglements,
and this knowledge should be both conceptual and skillful. e body does
not simply have or not have benecial or harmful microbiota, and micro-
biota do not simply inhabit the body; they make the body inhabitable and
remake the body. Eating feeds both the body and microbiota that nourish
each other. e body and microbiota are entangled and attuned in ways
beyond the epistemological scope of science’s and rhetoric’s textualizations.
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Kalin and Gruber
Indeed, the rst material ecology of gut rhetorics— the experimental cali-
bration of probiotic formulations and aect states— reveals a gut rhetoric
that is an entanglement of patient self- feeling, patient self- report, psycho-
logical assessment, urine samples, and testing kits set both with and against
previous ndings involving lab rats, electroshock treatments, mazes, bright
lights, and so on. is rhetorical- ontological inquiry foregrounds what is
absent as much as what is present, what is attuned and not attuned, expos-
ing breakdown and misalignment just as much as ecological connections
and compelling relations. We hope not to make too strong a point here about
rhetoric scholars ambitiously focusing on ecologies or attunements because,
they, too, tap into the enticements of materiality and the formations of a
rhetorical ontology. Even so, with intense attention on new materialist
approaches in rhetoric and repeated calls to examine how bodies, technol-
ogies, places, and things come together (Blackman, ; Johnson, ;
Rickert, ), we believe that gut rhetorics emphasize those messy onto-
logical formations dependent upon incompatibilities— what cannot be
touched or made palatable, or even made known, just as much as what can
be made anew. We suggest that the embarrassing, forceful, disgusting, icky,
often surprising, movements of the gut, the tricky ruminations of micro-
biota, the unexpected aective response, and the suspicion that resides in
rhetoric’s ability to stir sudden anger or unreasonable outbursts hold some-
thing in common— a glimpse into the embodiment, even the very capaci-
tation, of rhetoric.
Consequently, we suggest a second material ecology of gut rhetorics—
the active, embodied, and skillful experiments in living with probiotics, spe-
cically, and the microbiota, generally. is environmental skill reminds
us again, “No one will ever nally exclaim: ‘So, there it is: now, we know
all that a body can do! Let’s call it a day’” (Gregg & Seigworth, , p.).
We will never know what a body can do because, in part, microbes blanket
the surfaces of the world, literally and guratively terraforming and sculpt-
ing bodies. ey are our environment, our bodily materials, a condition of
our agency, and therefore an invitation and challenge to our embodiment.
ey are both our environment and our happening. Microbes have domes-
ticated us, and we attempt to domesticate microbes. Where gut rhetorics
makes its contribution, then, is not necessarily in conrming the need for
a broader move toward entanglements, but in making explicit the suasive
potentials of microbial life and the continuous embodied responsiveness to
environmental exposure: “We are stuck here and we have to act everyday
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as we live alongside an innumerable and unknowable number of species”
(Rivers, , p.). Environmental skill requires a “knowing how” that
surfaces “in the skills of perception and capacities of judgment that develop
in the course of direct, practical, and sensuous engagement with the beings
and things with whom, and with which, we share our lives” (Ingold, ,
p.). Experiments in living with probiotics oers one possibility for ongo-
ing skillful, yet agonistic encounters with microbiota.
Finally, experiments with the dense material complexities of gut bac-
teria come at a time when scholars grow hungry for expanded analyses
involving explorations of aect and the body. Gut rhetorics can serve as a
call to investigate how individual strands of bacteria “aect certain conse-
quences in the world” (Stormer, , p.) not only by being “good” and
producing digestive ease but also by being agonistic to the body and opposed
to scientic textualizations. Gut rhetorics goad a challenge to and a project
for rhetoricians of health and medicine: As we continue to explore rhetori-
cal ontologies to “meet- with” all that a body can do, we must produce both
textualized constructions of bodies across assessment tools, medical charts,
consultations, and probiotic consumerism and ontological provocations for
how we might live with the realities of microbiota and feel the directions
our own bodies are taking us as we feed.
Lisa Melonçon () sets out a similar methodological proposal, argu-
ing that rhetoricians of health and medicine should seek to “understand
how the body experiences health and illness individually” as a way to eval-
uate entwined relations. She suggests folding a “mutual dependence on
embodiment and experience into performative phenomenology,” by which
she means a move to spend more time reecting on in situ sensory experi-
ences within the formation of otherwise traditional rhetorical analysis
(p.). David Gruber () oers a similar proposal: Rhetoric scholars see-
ing the potential to build new theory from neuroscience would benet
from working through performative means, “seeking invention and residing
at the corner of play and experimentation” (p.). Here, Gruber situates
experimentation as both literal and creative, stressing the value of arti-
cial test environments as much as uid discovery wherein bodies play in new
environments that might expose new realities of the gut or realize entirely
new conditions for thought and action (p.– ).
As such, rhetoric scholars of health and medicine might begin to set
up and conduct their own experiment in living with probiotics. Gut rheto-
rics encourage scholars to feel the inamed linings of the gastrointestinal
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Kalin and Gruber
tract as a way of beginning to think with the “appealing muddle” (Wilson,
, p. ) of mucilaginous membranes and metabolizing microbiota.
Perhaps more salaciously in our conception, gut rhetorics take up a sickening
feeling as a starting point for conceptualizing rhetoric as a bodily act and a
variable embodied phenomenon that cannot be well ordered or maintained;
indeed, gut rhetorics suggest an approach that investigates what does not
line up or feel quite right, just as we have done with the examination of dis-
junctions across PF studies which were interrelated precisely to try to stage,
legitimize, and secure the science. However, what is important for gut rheto-
rics is that this calibration does not occur seamlessly or symmetrically, is
not conceptualized as a uid series of attunements; rather, every gut rhetoric
appears as an asymmetric wild fermentation— pungent, intoxicating, repel-
lent. Just as the body is not merely a text, and depression not merely a colo-
nization of the “right” or “wrong” bacteria, nor scientic experimentation
merely a material encounter, so must rhetoricians develop environmental
skill to attune to all the ways that a body is composed— from within conver-
gences as well as “exclusions” and “deleterious gut pathogens” (Messaoudi
etal., , p.), all the ways that a body eats and spills its guts.
J K is an assistant professor in the Department of Writing,
Rhetoric, & Discourse at DePaul University. His research interests include
rhetorical theory; visual, material, and digital rhetorics; and rhetorical
methods. He has published in Rhetoric Society Quarterly, Space & Culture,
and Visual Communication Quarterly, among other forums.
DR. G is an assistant professor in the Department of Media, Cog-
nition and Communication at the University of Copenhagen. His research
focuses on neurorhetorics and rhetoric of the body. His forthcoming book is
titled Brain Art and Neuroscience: Neuro- sensuality and Aective Realism.
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