Technology, democracy (explicit in the subtitle), rhetoric education and
curricular reform recur as themes in Lanham’s The Electronic Word.
The book sets out with an overarching consideration of the material,
instrumental and ideological transitions in the interfacial revolution from book
to screen. The screen has rattled the "reign of textual truth" (x), opened
up the meaning of "text," and, consequently, challenged traditional-humanist
rationale for moralistic training via literary works (lots on the Great Books
debate here) . EW is set up for reading as a continuous book and also as
discrete chapters, according to Lanham; the chapters make frequent intratextual
reference (i.e., "In chapter 7, I…"). He gives readings of
rhetorical/philosophical traditions and more recent –phobe and –phile
orientations toward microcomputers and related computing activities–activities
he regards as deeply rhetorical and thoroughly transformative for commonplaces
about text, decorum, higher ed, and the humanities. EW is probably
one of the earlier takes on a digital rhetorics, even if he frames a compelling
range of precursors (xi)–"a new and radical convertibility" of "word image and
sound" (xi) staged in Cage’s experimental art and music, Duchamp’s readymades
and even K. Burke’s poetry.
AT/THROUGH (43): At-through is one of several bi-stable qualities for
engagement/encounter (?); it primarily concerns visual experience (correct?),
and it suggests a perceptual oscillation: at…through…at…through.
The at disposition is alerted to surfaces; it is highly self-conscious of
play and design; through, on the other hand, is un-self-conscious and
unaware of any fashioned aesthetic. Lanham writes, "Print wants the gaze
to remain THROUGH and unselfconscious all the time" (43).
bi-stable decorum (oscillation) (14): Lanham introduces this model as a
way to complicate what he calls the "classical notion of decorum": Clarity,
Brevity and Sincerity (34). Bi-stability introduces a dynamic quality to
otherwise static, absolute orientations.
scale (41-42): Through much of chapter two, Lanham deals with concepts of
scale; he says "scaling change is one of the truly enzymatic powers of
electronic text" (41); these powers, he says, line up with distinctive textual
aesthetics such as collage. His discussion in this section put me onto a
few questions I need to work through a bit more about the virtual and the limits
of scalability. It makes sense that zooming enables interactivity; it
democratizes the epic, according to Lanham, but to what end? Google Earth?
Relative to foreclosed notions of text-as-art, sure, "all of this yields a body
of work active not passive, a canon not frozen in perfection but volatile with
contending human motive" (51). Good stuff, but what of limits (in
relation, perhaps, to more recent developments)?
the "Q" question (c. 7): The Quintilian question: is a good orator also
a good person? Lanham broadens the question to the humanities curriculum
and a divide between philosophy and rhetoric: how do we justify the humanities?
Do the "humanities humanize" (181)? Starting with Peter Ramus’s split of
rhetoric into philosophy (invention, argument and arrangement) and true
rhetoric (style and delivery). It’s hard to sum up, but it seems to reduce
to inertial/accelerative tensions in the curriculum. Lanham observes
protectionist/preservationist stances which cling desperately to canonical
traditions but that can no better prove the moral effects of humanities
education than those who are more adaptive. He advocates an
integrative/oscillatory stance–a sprezzatura (161)–that is at once
forward-looking and dynamic, welcoming movement between the rhetorical and the
philosophical. This is what he calls a "Strong Defense" which accepts that
rhetoric is essentially creative (156). In contrast, a "Weak Defense" of a
rhetoric-based humanities curriculum argues the good rhetoric/bad rhetoric
split, which, in turn, allows for a moral stance disaffiliated from those
unsavory definitions of rhetoric as coercive or merely ornamental.
Keywords: pastists (x), proleptic aesthetic (xi), device of dramaticality
(6), chameleon text (7), motival structure (14), ekphrasis (34), chreia (40),
calligram (34), architectonic (56), expressive technologies (73), experimental
humanism (110), remediation (130), ethnographic map (141), bricolage (144),
useful miracles (151), curricular compass (152), mindless hypertext (218),
technophobic jeremiads and political stinkfights (226), noosphere (235), phatic
Figures: McLuhan, Marinetti (31), Burke (35), Cristo (48-49), Charles Jencks
(62), Robert Venturi (63), Susan Langer (77), Richard McKeon (165), Bolter,
Landow, Ulmer (c. 8), Postman (c. 9)
I have quite a few additional notes, but I’ll keep the rest scribbled on
paper for now. Lanham’s mention of quoting images (what of that?, 46)
started me thinking. As much as anything else, I was also struck by the
applicability of the "Q" question to the ongoing (de)merits-of-academic-blogging
debate. Arching over the Tribble column, sharp responses, and concerns
about blogging related to scholarly activity and T&P: the "Q" question.
That blogs (potentially…oftentimes?) humanize is, perhaps, what renders
them–in light of the "Q" question–so deeply inappropriate for dutiful
academics (or so the argument roughly goes). The "Q" question might also
help us sort through the discordant views on Web 2.0, especially the notions of
"amorality" suggested by
via). Although the web doesn’t fall strictly in humanities territory, it
does force difficult questions on academic definitions of the humanities and
related justifications. I don’t want to be too quick to dismiss Carr’s
total argument (destructive as it is to push in the break and mash the
accelerator, unless separated in time), but I am suggesting that it was
instructive for me to read Carr’s entry with the "Q" question in mind.
"Digitized communication is forcing a radical realignment of the alphabetic
and graphic components of ordinary textual communication (3).
"The personal computer has proved already to be a device of intrinsic
"The themes we are discussing–judgments about scale, a new icon/alphabet
ration in textual communication, nonlinear collage and juxtapositional
reasoning, that is to say bottom-up rather than top-down planning, coaxing
change so as to favor the prepared mind–all these constitute a new theory of
"Does the center of liberal education lie in methods or texts? If methods,
intuitive or empirical? If texts, ancient or modern?" (101).
"If you separate the discipline of discourse into essence and ornament, into
philosophy and rhetoric, and make each a separate discipline, it makes them
easier to think about" (159).
"If you are trying to revolutionize a bureaucracy, even an educational one,
you cannot afford to write like a bureaucrat" (217).
"Intelligenda longa, vita brevis should be the motto of the
information age–life is short, but long indeed the list of things to be known
in it" (227).