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.

Good Ideas

I like much of Steven Johnson’s stuff, and undoubtedly I will pick up a copy of his latest book project, Where Good Ideas Come From, though probably not until next summer. As I watched this TEDtalk, though, I’m dissatisfied with how little work on rhetorical invention surfaces here. Johnson’s “liquid network” is an intriguing metaphor, indeed: drink together, think together…eureka! Or, sometimes, “I’ve got nothing. May I have another?” But I wonder whether this “natural history of innovation” will do much more to advance thinking about how good ideas happen than did Karen Burke LeFevre’s Invention as a Social Act (1987), a book whose premises have by now become a given for contemporary rhetorical thinking. This “noodling around” and “hacking” is fascinating stuff, especially when such innovative acts are paired with vivid, thoughtful anecdotes, a storytelling strategy Johnson deploys with distinction. Since Johnson is great at making theoretical concepts accessible, maybe this new project will be a good fit with existing work on invention. On the other hand, absent some acknowledgment of a larger family of ideas related to invention, e.g., “systematic serendipity” (via Merton via Halavais, a concept we discussed yesterday in ENGL326) or contingency (an alternative to managerial rhetoric Muckelbauer develops smartly in The Future of Invention), the originary “where” from which good ideas come will remain partial, incomplete, problematically runny.

Allowing that I haven’t picked up the book (!), I look forward to reading it with these few provisional concerns in mind. In that sense, I guess this amounts to some sort of TED-motivated pre-review. Furthermore, I wrote it while sitting all alone in my campus dorm-office, which probably means good ideas here are few, far between.

Theory Blackmailed, or Invention Hobbled?

Yesterday–day one of teaching in the new semester–did not quite go as planned, and in the wake of a couple of surprises, I didn’t get around to posting like I intended to in recognition of the nth annual RB of September. After a few years such postings carry a some heavy, if solitarily imagined, burden of tradition. Thus, “theory blackmailed”:

Many (still unpublished) avant-garde texts are uncertain: how to judge, to classify them, how to predict their immediate or eventual future? Do they please? Do they bore? Their obvious quality is of an intentional order: they are concerned to serve theory. Yet this quality is a blackmail as well (theory blackmailed): love me, keep me, defend me, since I conform to the theory you call for; do I not do what Artaud, Cage, etc. have done? –But Artaud is not just “avant-garde”; he is a kind of writing as well; Cage has certain charm as well… –But those are precisely the attributes which are not recognized by theory, which are sometimes even execrated by theory. At least make your taste and your ideas match, etc. (The scene continues, endlessly.) (54)

Why blackmailed? Translator Richard Howard could have selected a different connotation of “la chantage,” e.g., bluff, or intimidation. When the avante-garde serves theory, theory in turn may be said to hobble invention, to wrap it in a splint, to contain it. I read in this Barthes passage a concern for theory’s disciplining of innovation. Unexpectedly, this clicks with concerns in the Introduction and first chapter of Muckelbauer’s The Future of Invention, a book I’ve just started. Related are questions about what becomes of “the attributes which are not recognized by theory,” put another, perhaps more helpful way, Can theory keep up with avante-garde performances? Must it?

Anyway, happy RB Day, twice belatedly.

Everything Inventive Is Good For You

Earlier this week I wrapped up Steven Johnson’s latest, The Invention of
, a pop-sci biography of Joseph Priestley. The book was typical, enjoyable
Johnson: cleverly woven anecdotes, theoretical hints concerning networks and
ecologies of influence, and iterative trigger-phrases that pop just enough to
keep the narrative lively and fast-moving. I soared through the first 160
pages in-flight last Friday and then got back into the final chapters a couple
of days ago. And I liked the book very much, except that it slowed ever
so slightly near the end: the young, experimental Priestley was more provocative
than the aging, dislocated Priestley. The latter, it turns out, suffered late in
the religious and political aspects of his life because of the the same
"congenital openness" (190) (or "chronic intellectual openness" (142)) that
helped him become so influential on enlightenment scientific inquiry, and this
section of the book worked at a noticeably different pace than the one dealing
with Priestley’s tinkering with plants.

Johnson characterizes his own ecological approach to Priestley’s life with
the phrase "long zoom":

Ecosystem theory has changed our view of the planet in countless ways,
but as an intellectual model it has one defining characteristic: it is a
"long zoom" science, one that jumps from scale to scale, and from discipline
to discipline, to explain its object of study: from the microbiology of
bacteria, to the cross-species flux of nutrient cycling, to the global
patterns of weather systems, all the way out to the physics that explains
how solar energy collides with the Earth’s atmosphere. (45)

The "long zoom", thus, is both a description of Priestley’s intellectual
manner and also Johnson’s method of developing the biography. "Long zoom"
is an idea Johnson incubated in an NYU seminar he taught on Cultural Ecosystems
and through an invited talk he gave to the
Long Now Foundation
in 2007 (according to footnotes in TIoA). I
doubt that The Invention of Air does full justice to the concept as
Johnson thinks of it, but the project does, on the other hand, seem to enact the
"long zoom." In the passage above, the reference to scale-jumping exposes one of
the rough edges of the concept. The "zoom" also comes off as predominantly
vertical, along the lines of the orders of magnitude, more than horizontal or
some combination of the two (viz. networked); it is not, in other words, a "long
pan" or "long track" (here I’m thinking of the extended camera metaphors–pan,
track, zoom–adopted smartly by Rosenwasser and Stephen when they talk about
inquiry, research, and modes of engaging with an object of study). I mean that
Johnson’s "long zoom," even though he does not say so explicitly in The
Invention of Air
, seems to work both horizontally, vertically, and extra-dimensionally,
as suited to networked relations as to ordered magnitudes, and all the while
alert to the dangers in too recklessly skipping from one scale to another

Priestley comes to light as a "roving" intellectual (205), one whose "hot
hand" series of scientific breakthroughs culminated as consequence of a 30-year
"long hunch" he’d been following (70). The "long zoom"–a kind of
scale-shifting, one-thing-leads-to-another approach–allows Johnson to pin down
Priestley’s knowledge-making wanderluck. Yet, at another point,
Priestley’s success with hunches appears to be as much grounded in his "knack
for ‘socializing’ with his own ideas" (74) as a credit to his roving, generalist
sensibility. Where Johnson writes of Priestley’s affinity for socializing with
his own ideas, TIoA comes remarkably close to delivering a product
placement ad for DevonThink–almost to the point of making me thing I’d

read about it before
(re: Johnson, not Priestley).

There is much more to say about The Invention of Air, but I’m out of
time, viz. paradigms and anomalies (44), coffee and coffeehouses (54), hack vs.
theoretician (62), ecosystems view of the world (82).