Thursday, October 27, 2005

Lanham - The Electronic Word (1993)

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.

Key ideas:

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:  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.

  Unselfconscious Selfconscious
Object Transparent<--- --->Opaque
Viewer Through<--- --->At
Reality Biogrammar<--- --->Drama
Motive Hierarchy<--- --->Play

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 communion (240).

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 Nicolas Carr (via, 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 dramaticality" (6).

"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 management" (47).

"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).

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