Digital Rhetorics: Simply Too Complicated a Phenomenon

Cross-posted at the SDRC.

Digital rhetorics1 provide a vast suite of generating principles. These principles are difficult to collect into a simple model, much less to name, substantiate, and prioritize. Fortunately, difficulties like these are much of what motivates digital rhetorics scholarship (some of which was reviewed by others in previous entries), and they are also what I find both exciting and challenging about the field. Digital rhetorics often draw on reasonably well-traveled rhetorical theories (Aristotle’s appeals, Burke’s dramatisms, stases, etc.), but they also subject traditional concepts to renewal and reinvention. Collin Brooke’s Lingua Fracta comes to mind as a terrific example of this renewal for the ways it reconceives rhetoric’s five canons in light of new media, but also because it explicitly recognizes ongoing change as inevitable. Thus, it stands to reason that we must refrain from settling too comfortably into static definitions lest we appear monolithic in how we think about digital rhetorics, how we enact them. Where rhetorical principles–new, established, cultural, applied–converge with hypertext, blogging, SMS, sonic mixing, still image and video editing, and more (a comprehensive list remains forever out of reach), distinctive practices emerge, and with them come abundant opportunities and responsibilities for teaching and learning, for rhetorical education concerned with composing across screens. Underscoring circulation, participation, contingency, and immediacy, digital rhetorics shift, intensify, or subside with particular tools, materials, and media. So digital rhetorics, as I think of them, tend to follow a crosshatched pattern, a meshwork similar to the boat wakes Burke noticed in the WWII gallery photograph (see Spread 7): one set of threads responsive to rhetorics, the other responsive to new media, and among them multiple junctures due for exploration.

Yet, considering all that digital rhetorics make possible, the quick sketch above remains an incomplete response to the carnival call: “What does digital rhetoric mean to me?” Perhaps another approach can enter a bit more definitional richness into play. For this, I turn to Googlism is a playful site (also rather like a para-site) that has been around for almost a decade. Basically, with search terms entered, it draws upon Google’s indexes to retrieve a list of equative phrases (e.g., [search term] is […]) related to one of four designated conditions: who, what, when, or where. A Googlism for the what of “digital rhetoric” yields this:

  1. digital rhetoric is characterized by many new genres
  2. digital rhetoric is similar to the classical rhetoric of ancient
  3. digital rhetoric is ?rhetoric? that is ?digital
  4. digital rhetoric is would you like a KML file to go with your fine map
  5. digital rhetoric is more of a disciplinary nebula than a field
  6. digital rhetoric is Jeff Rice’s Grammar <A> contending with English A, Grammar B while creating a curricular opening for Grammar PHP
  7. digital rhetoric is at once exciting and troublesome
  8. digital rhetoric is not such a new idea
  9. digital rhetoric is the sattelitization of a lost dog found with an embedded RFID chip
  10. digital rhetoric is capacious: the parlor as Tardis
  11. digital rhetoric is this concept of genres and media
  12. digital rhetoric is to me
  13. digital rhetoric is a Roland Barthes hologram annotating images of his mother and more in a Flickr set called “Almosts”
  14. digital rhetoric is less about technological devices and more about a process or
  15. digital rhetoric is Yancey’s “Composition in a New Key”
  16. digital rhetoric is that it has the potential to completely change or even slightly alter the purpose of discourse
  17. digital rhetoric is a bridging mechanism between digital consumers and producer
  18. digital rhetoric is worthy of greater attention by rhetoric and communication
  19. digital rhetoric is databasic literacy
  20. digital rhetoric is especially important now that so many citizens rely on official websites as sources of information
  21. digital rhetoric is simply too complicated a phenomenon to be able to figure out so swiftly
  22. digital rhetoric is unavailable designs available
  23. digital rhetoric is a course designed to engage online composition and push the edges of theory and practice
  24. digital rhetoric is objects by which I mean units by which I mean things by which I mean nonhumans
  25. digital rhetoric is wasted if those same students aren’t also able to see the relevance of digital rhetoric to their own lives once they leave
  26. digital rhetoric is appearing all the time from scholars in communication
  27. digital rhetoric is about writing ?clearly
  28. digital rhetoric is a book
  29. digital rhetoric is that it is inferior to extended argument
  30. digital rhetoric is especially important now that so many citizens rely on official websites as sources of information

The core list (21 of the items here) comes from “digital rhetoric is” strings appearing in various places on the web. But I’ve also embellished the list with a couple of add-ons of my own. Without cross-referencing, can you guess which ones they are? Which of the statements do you find most useful? Least useful? What “digital rhetoric is” statement would you add? Which one would you place at the top of this list? Why?

[1] I think it is fitting to assign the ‘s’, thus making digital rhetorics plural.

Resisting “Resisting Entropy”

Quick question: What’s the last “review essay” published in CCC you can name without searching?

I couldn’t come up with a title, much less the names of all of the books in any review essay. I recall reading Kris Blair’s piece (had to look up the title: “New Media Affordances and the Connected Life”) from CCC 63.2, but I could only remember three of the five books covered in that review: Dilger and Rice’s From A to <A>: Keywords for Markup because I already own a copy, and two others because I knew something beforehand about their authors and would claim an interest in their work. Otherwise, working from memory, I can’t come up with much–a vague recollection of another review essay by Schilb and one more by Villanueva on style. After reading the Villanueva review essay, I picked up a copy of Holcomb and Killingsworth’s Performing Prose, but that was as much motivated by a Twitter exchange with a colleague as by the review.

Thus, when I started to see an unusually high level of discussion circulating about Geoff Sirc’s “Resisting Entropy,” a review essay published in the latest issue of CCC (Feb. 2012, 63.3), my first thought was something like, “Well, this sure is an awful lot of activity for a review essay.” People were discussing it on Twitter, but I also received an email message from a student on the same day NCTE circulated the bulk email announcing the issue–an email message bringing up several questions and concerns based on things Sirc wrote. I hadn’t read the then-day-old review yet, but I hurried my pace in getting to it.

As far as I know, review essays covering multiple books began appearing in CCC seven or eight years ago. Before that reviews focused on single titles. The review essay provides readings of and recommendations for a small collection of titles, presumably titles that have come out in the last three or so years and that share a topical thread. And as I understand it, there are a few motives behind the switch to review essays: 1) they are more tightly packed than individual book reviews , 2) they promote a more rigorous appearing scope which in turn justifies known scholars to write them, 3) the known scholar bi-line gets people to read them, and 4) clustering multiple books into one review essay means readers will encounter book reviews at the edge of (and perhaps just beyond) titles they would have otherwise already been likely to check out.

I’ve read Sirc’s review essay, and although I realize it is poor cccarnival mmmanners to sidestep much substantive discussion of the article itself, all I want to say for now is that I appreciated the candor in his definitively recommending (or in not recommending, as the case may be) each of the four titles subject to review. The essay is polemic. Fine. It even toes the line between unapologetic critique and demolition-ball tear-down. But, despite however much or little I agree with Sirc in specific moments (i.e., there are points that resonate, others that trouble and confuse; I may well elaborate on a few in another entry), I know where he stands on these titles, and these titles become more decidable as a result. I want that nudge toward decidability from a review essay, and I suspect Sirc’s “Resisting Entropy” is one CCC readers will remember for awhile–both for the hot stove arguments the essay stokes and for the titles covered in doing so.

Call: CCCarnival

 First posted July 14, 2008.

Related entries:
Splitting Images
Kopelson’s “Sp(l)itting Images”
more thoughts on rhet/comp disciplinary futures
Response to Karen Kopelson’s “Sp(l)itting Images; or, Back to the Future of (Rhetoric and?) Composition”
New Echo, New Narcissus
Pedagogy of Rhet/Comp Job Market Imperatives
Carnival on Kopelson: The Pedagogical Imperative and Borrowing Theory
Spitting Images
Joining the CCCarnival: Kopelson’s “Sp(l)itting Images”

Kopelson’s Back to the Wall: Resisting Responsibility
Inversion and Dissolution
Theory and Interdisciplinarity: Kopelson Part Two
Kopelson carnival – my first take
CCC Carnival: Sp(l)itting Images
Kopelson (1): Stuck on paragraph 4
The Pedagogical Imperative: Kopelson Part I

Anyone interested in a carnival? After glancing the latest CCC
(59.4) at a coffee shop Saturday morning, I had the distinctive and lasting impression that
"Sp(l)itting Images; or, Back to the Future of (Rhetoric and?) Composition"
would be a good choice for a swarm of late July entries.  Kopelson’s
article covers a lot of ground, from a survey of grad students and faculty at
two institutions, to three of the chasms in the field (pedagogical imperative,
theory/practice split, and the brambles of identifying by varying ratios among
those two terms, rhetoric and composition), to a call for concerning ourselves
less with ourselves.  Ripe! because I endured a great range of responses
while reading it.

Here’s what I’m thinking: If you’re in, do what you can to post some sort of
response by one week from today–the 21st. I’ll try to keep tabs on all of
the links, but feel free to send a trackback. Then we can kick around
spin-offs, interjections, and retractions through the end of the month.

Also, here is how I will measure the success of the carnival:

12-15 participants: Wow.  There really is living comp/rhet blogosphere.
9-12 participants: Terrific.  Something told me the article was carnival
6-8 participants: Just great.  There is a value in reading what others
think (esp. while out to sea with the diss).
2-5 participants: Um, it’s late July.  What are you, on vacation?
0-1 participant: Witness spikes in traffic at E.W.M.


Kopelson, Karen. “Sp(l)itting
Images; or, Back to the Future of (Rhetoric and?) Composition.” CCC 59.4
(2008): 750-780. [Carnival]

New Echo, New Narcissus

Kopelson writes,

Yet, as composition studies is distinct in its penchant for ‘borrowing,’
we are also, in my opinion, unrivaled in our proclivity for
self-examination. I am not arguing that this is an unimportant
activity, but only that the costs are indeed high when self-scrutiny comes
at the expense of taking up other critical concerns and of making other,
more innovative and far-reaching forms of knowledge (775).

This appears in the final section of the essay, the part titled "Conclusion:
Banishing Echo and Narcissus." Here, Kopelson takes exception with the
field’s self-reflexivity, the growing heap of self-interested and self-absorbed
assessments of where we are or where we are heading. There is an
unidentified villain here, and I wondered as I read whether Kopelson has any
favorite ‘misses’, accounts that get it terribly wrong or that are built up on
marsh-lands of mushy data.

Reading this section and the quotation above in particular, I had the
sense that Kopelson wasn’t as interested in "banishing" Echo and Narcissus
as in giving them overhauls, in renewing them, even in teaching them how to
and reflect less recklessly. In other words, what is
wrong with many self-reflexive disciplinary accounts (or "discipliniographies"
to lift and bend a term Maureen Daly Goggin introduces in Authoring a
) is that they succumb to a localist impulse. That
is, they un-self-conciously extrapolate from local experience and anecdotal
evidence onto the field at large, projecting some local knowledge onto the
expansive abstraction that is the discipline (however we imagine it to be).
The localist impulse can take many different shapes; often it is akin to reading
patterns through the course of an individual career (i.e., "in my thirty years
at Whatsittoyou U.") or by cherry-picking from an exceedingly thin selection of
data (titles of conference presentations or tables of contents for teacher
training manuals). We all do this to some extent–making sense of the field at
large through our local, immediate experiences, but it is dangerous to arrive at
conclusions about the field (or world) at-large solely by examining one’s own

What I’m getting at is that I don’t have any beef with the disciplinary
practice of self-examination. Perhaps there are more than a handful of
fields in the academy that would benefit from more of it. I hold history (the calling of others who’ve navigated this canyon) and
reflection in high regard (perhaps not to the ill-fated extremes of Echo and
Narcissus). Resonanceresonanceresonance and reflection are valuable, especially for newcomers,
for the "new converts" Kopelson mentions. But they will not be successful–or
very useful–until they get beyond that localist impulse, until they involve
earnest field-wide data collections and collaboratively built databases. I
don’t know how well this matches with Kopelson’s "innovative and far-reaching
forms of knowledge," but it is increasingly where my own interests lie.
If those far-reaching forms of knowledge included disciplinary data (even simple
stuff, like how many programs offer undergraduate writing majors), they could
generate insights about disciplinarity. In the meantime those full-view
insights will continue to elude us as long as we leap from local knowledge to
widespread pattern, without addressing sufficiently the intermediary scales.

Kopelson, Karen. “Sp(l)itting
Images; or, Back to the Future of (Rhetoric and?) Composition.” CCC 59.4
(2008): 750-780. [Carnival]

Spitting Images

A passing tribute to having wrapped up Dan Roam’s
The Back of the Napkin
night, I figured why not throw down a few images in the spirit of keeping things
carnivalesque. Roam is a marker-carrying whiteboarder whose core premise is that
we spark insights into complex problems by treating them to a simplified and
illustrated version. I doubt that I have played strictly by the heuristics
he introduces in the book; nevertheless, I do find some of the stark
oversimplifications in these first four images helpful for thinking through some
of what Kopelson sets up in the article.

Continue reading →

Carnival: Trimbur and Writing Studies

Following Donna’s

renewed call
for the late February Trimbur carnival, here are a couple of
in response to

"Changing the Question: Should Writing Be Studied?"
from Composition
31.1 (2003).

For now I’ll try to keep it to just two or three ideas. I’ve heard
passing mention of "writing studies" as an alternative name for the knot (bow?)
where rhetoric and composition are tied together. When I used it myself
once, I think someone suggested that the "writing studies" designation is
typically claimed by discourse analysts–those whose encounters with texts are
measured for pattern and (ir)regular features. Perhaps that’s only of value
inasmuch as it sheds light on my own baggage with the phrase: a moment of
correction, definition, and re-association. And whether this is right or not is
less the point, I think, than the contemplation of writing studies’ orientation
to particular methods and research agendas. As I read Trimbur’s article, I also
thought about another passing conversation with a colleague who described
someone else’s work in film this way: "[S.h]e does film studies, not production.
Students who take film classes want production rather than all of the history,
theory, and methodology that go along with film studies. They’re impatient
and even bored with film studies." That was the gist of it, anyhow.
Out of this half-remembered conversation comes one question about a shift from
workshop to seminar room and toward writing studies: at the cost of what?
If the answer is that we study writing (n.) at the expense of writing (p.v.),
the proposition becomes considerably messier. Of course, nobody is saying
this explicitly, but to what degree is a quiet displacement of something else
implied by the asking?

Continue reading →