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.

Weinberger’s Talk at Michigan

Earlier this month, I disregarded office-hour responsibilities (“Will return by 4:30 p.m -DM”) on a Monday afternoon and went over to Ann Arbor for David Weinberger’s talk, “”Too Big to Know: How the Internet Affects What and How We Know,” based on his soon-to-be-released book of a similar title.

It’s worth a look; the talk hits several important notes, particularly in light of the information studies slice of ENGL505, a rhetoric of science and technology class I’m teaching right now. In 505, we finished reading Brown and Duguid’s The Social Life of Information earlier this week, and although several aspects of the book are dated, that datedness is largely a function of print’s fixity. I know this isn’t big news, but because Weinberger’s talk works with a related set of issues, their pairing (for my thinking as much as for the class) has been worthwhile.

A couple of quick side notes:

  • Brown’s introduction of Weinberger is a nice illustration of differences between Information Studies and C&W or PTC. That “invent” is cast in the shadows of technological determinism is, well, curious. Or, it’s what happens when rhetoric has gone missing. I had to turn to an authoritative decision-maker to verify my sense that invent still has some mojo.
  • I like Weinberger’s account of the history of facts, and while I understand that facts are useful for argument, their solidity and their restfulness touch off other problems for argument.
  • I left Weinberger’s talk largely satisfied with his characterization of the moment we are in and the shifting epistemological sands digital circulation has stirred. But, if the paper paradigm has really met its match, why should Too Big To Know be printed at all? An obvious answer is that book will produce substantially more revenue than the blog where bits and pieces of the book draft surfaced. Yet, it seems like this cuts against the grain of the talk. I will, of course, withdraw this question if Kindle copies of TBTK outsell paper copies.

While Supplies Last

From The Long Now blog, an entry today about the end of typewriter manufacturing. What will it be next? VCRs? Film cameras?

I never got much use out of the typewriter as a writing machine. I used them to fill out forms in that dimly lit pre-PDF-dawn when fax machines were hot. I used typewriter impersonators (compact dot matrix word processors, essentially), although I can’t think of a single document whose production depended on it such that it couldn’t by then have been more sleekly crafted on a computer. I read Click, Clack, Moo to Is. twenty or thirty times when she was younger, so that’s something. But this isn’t the sort of discontinuation that I would think gives anyone much pause, except perhaps to wonder which commonplace technologies of today will surrender to obsolescence in the next 25 years.


Unplanned Meanderings

Steven Johnson’s “The Glass Box And The Commonplace Book” renews questions about what happens when e-readers unexpectedly suffocate text behind no-copy/no-paste barriers. Safe-guarding text against circulation is not new, of course, but Johnson offers a timely reminder of the ways this glass box logic is noxious, lying dormant, going unnoticed until it is revived in this or that text-walling application. There’s much to think through in his entry (which is a transcript of a talk Johnson offered at Columbia University), much in the way of commonplace books, motivated filtering, and how it is homophily bias takes hold differently online than in “real-world civic space.”

§ § §

Each rereading of the commonplace book becomes a new kind of revelation. You see the evolutionary paths of all your past hunches: the ones that turned out to be red herrings; the ones that turned out to be too obvious to write; even the ones that turned into entire books. But each encounter holds the promise that some long-forgotten hunch will connect in a new way with some emerging obsession. The beauty of Locke’s scheme was that it provided just enough order to find snippets when you were looking for them, but at the same time it allowed the main body of the commonplace book to have its own unruly, unplanned meanderings. (para. 5)

“But each encounter holds the promise that some long-forgotten hunch will connect in a new way with some emerging obsession.” Here is a line that succinctly captures for me how blogging has always functioned a little bit differently than the kind of “being digital” I experience in Facebook or Twitter. Long-forgotten hunches and emerging obsessions are not so much a function of friendship, sociality, or phatic affirmation as they are a distributed, often faint, read-write memory–a recollection of being (or having been) on the verge of something mind-changing.

New Forms of Connectivity

I just glanced Gerald Graff’s IHE column, “It’s Time to End ‘Courseocentrism’,” which urges greater transparency in the designing and teaching of classes and greater cross-curricular coordination, especially in the humanities. Humanities courses, Graff suggests, confound students with jumbled messages (fwiw, this rings of Fulkerson’s concerns with philosophical confusion in composition programs created by all of the mixing, borrowing, and blending). Graff would have us unmix the messages, prefer coherence, and even out the scenes of teaching.

But how?

That’s the part that doesn’t seem to me to get enough pixels in this column. Graff embraces “amazing new forms of connectivity” as one kind of solution, but connection doesn’t by natural progression bring about coherence. Also, connection demands a degree of participation: faculty ought to be putting their syllabi online. (I don’t mean for this to be a slight, but I couldn’t find any of Graff’s syllabi on the WWW). Courseocentrism–any kind of -centrism that neglects to take an interest in what is happening elsewhere–is akin to negligent specialization, perhaps a byproduct of it. There are many ways to complicate courseocentric tendencies at a programmatic level, provided teachers are willing (or made) to do so. In fact, as I prepared to teach this semester, I was impressed to find that the Writing Program had collected more than 250 syllabi and made them available online (albeit as static, unsearchable PDFs). I looked at no fewer than ten of them as I prepared my syllabus, just to develop a sense of what others had done. I ended up doing something slightly different (a courseocentric gesture?); I didn’t adapt anyone’s stuff, in other words, but this was possible because the syllabi were published online. Who doesn’t relish being able to glance syllabi for smart, engaging courses taught at all levels, whether at their own institutions or elsewhere?

In a roundabout, courseolliptical way, this brings me to my larger point (and unavoidable concern): When will the MLA develop a robust relational database for the systematic archivization of syllabi? Why not provide a platform for indexing (pre-coordinate and folksonomic), storing, and interrelating course syllabi (and materials, assignments for that matter)? Looking for a course on contemporary rhetoric? The platform would return a few by direct search and also suggest near-misses, following a “feeling lucky” algorithm. I understand that such a database is something that’s been on several people’s wish lists (and it’s also been technically possible) for some time. No telling whether it would narrow curricular gaps or level out the disjointedness in any curriculum, but it would be a start toward a more systematic use of “new forms of connectivity” to address chronic “courseocentrism.”

Digital Canvass


Purple Dino

Is. has been asking lately–passionately–to paint. In
fact, "paint" is one of those five-alarm words around the house: we know that
saying it will tip Is. into such intense determination that, once it is said,
there is no getting out of some sort of painting. D. will happily set out
the water colors for her on the kitchen table (at breakfast this morning, Is.
pointed to lingering brush marks on the wall and proudly claimed it: "Baby
paint!" But she is almost as content with the graphics tablet and
digital canvass. I can
map the tablet to the exact size of the blank canvass on the interface and
assist her (by mouse) with choosing colors–all a far better match with my own
material preferences when it comes to painting. Whatever else can be said
of it, Is. is picking up on subtle distinctions between colors (i.e. dark red
and what she calls "yellow-white," although I’m still not always sure what this
latter one is). And, on any given day, she gets enough of the water colors
and enough of the graphics tablet to refer to them both as "painting" (a word
you must not mutter in our company unless you want to alter the course of our
lives for an hour).

Above, the first is just some futzing around with colors.
The second looks to me like the end of the purple dinosaurs or the smoke monster
from Lost knocking Mr. Echo onto his back.

Writing Feverlets*

Curious about her critique of Derrida’s Archive Fever, I picked up a
copy of Carolyn Steedman’s Dust: The Archive and Cultural History from
Bird Library, recalling it from another patron who had checked it out (v. sorry
about that). I deal briefly with AF in Chapter Three. Steedman
makes the point that AF is less about archives than about Derrida’s
concern for the slippage of origins (a theme in his other work) and the
inseparability of psychoanalysis from Freud (and also Judaism). She
writes, "The Foreword [to AF] carried the main argument, about Freud’s
Jewish-ness, and the contribution of Jewish thought to the idea of the archive,
via psycho-analysis" (7). Basically, Steedman is suspicious of Derrida’s
characterization of the fever (as a frenzied pursuit of origins which do not
properly exist). She complains that the concept of the fever is degraded in
translation from Mal d’Archive, and then she enthusiastically claims the
sickness Derrida mocks: "Archive fever, indeed? I can tell you all about
Archive Fever!" (17). Dust undertakes this "all about-ness" at fever’s pitch;
Steedman, all the while, works to correct (or tune, at the very least) Derrida’s
glancing consideration of the archive left behind in his treatment of other
concerns (psychoanalysis, Freud, and so on).

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Writers House

I may have mentioned before that I subscribe to the RSS feed for
my network. For me
this means big things. I use Google Reader to aggregate all of the links bookmarked in by users I have identified as belonging to my network.
Twenty-two more or less active gatherers of the net’s goods, the whole team
working in service of, well, themselves (I almost wrote me). They
don’t necessarily post links for me (although makes this possible,
and others have shared links with me directly a time or two). But because
they post them for themselves, the bookmarks carry something like credibility, a
small portion of this sort of matters to somebody. How much time do I
spend sifting through the feed bubbling with all of these links from my network? Rarely more than a minute. Sometimes I herd the
links into my own collection. Other times I open a link in a new tab and
see what it’s all about (this is the most time-consuming practice; also,
sometimes, the most rewarding). Most of the time I move along, having merely
glanced the bookmarks. Even when I pass them by, they give me a vague
sense of what someone else is collecting (or researching or doing or even buying
for holiday gifts…I won’t say whose gift ideas I borrow every
December). These practices, like many others (not all of them digital), promote
what I think of as network sense (this, a key idea I am developing in the

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