Apologies for taking so long to put up my last panel notes — kind of got a whole bunch of different things going on right now. I was also kind of anxious because, to be honest, it was one of the best panels I saw; Jim Ridolfo and David Sheridan and Tony Michel fit their presentations together really well thematically speaking; but I also liked it because I saw so much in it that intersected with my research interests and offered me some new and startling insights. All three focused, in one way or another, with the intersection of multimodal discourses with the discourse of the civic, as their panel’s subtitle (“Digital Rhetoric as a Civic Technology”) might demonstrate, but all three were very careful to acknowledge a sophisticated awareness of the many problems associated with the privileging of civic discourse, which made me happy — one so rarely sees, in our field, an acknowledgement that the public sphere was initially theorized as a bourgeois space.
Jim’s presentation, “Rhetorical Veloooocity!!!: The Economics of the Press Advisory and Tactics of Activist Delivery,” dealt with his work at Michigan State with the Worker Rights Consortium, composing activist press advisories with the knowledge and intent that the language of those advisories may be appropriated by the press. Basically, using the example of the sequence of rhetorical production and circulation of these releases, Jim demonstrated the deep connections between rhetorical delivery, re-seen economic theories — of production, distribution, consumption, appropriation, and re-production — and activist strategies for economic change. In fact, Jim argued, the rhetorical canon of delivery can be theorized through the lens of economy, including — in particular — the rhetorical situations in which the mass delivery, redistribution and re-appropriation of writings are the rhetorical objective. In the context of distribution defined as a tactic of delivery planned for economic circulation, Jim’s term “rhetorical velocity” refers to an accelerated delivery tactic (or cycle?) fostering the appropration of texts. He offered the example of a “News Advisory” sent to local papers concerning a protest event that used the words “students will dance vigorously”: two newspapers that actually sent reporters did not use those words, but the paper that did not send a reporter — only a photographer — described the event as “vigorous dancing,” and offered no reporter’s name on the news piece that ran following the event. Jim then showed a timeline demonstrating how quickly that cycle of appropriation operated: press release on Tuesday, event on Thursday, the appropriated-language news piece on Friday. In his conclusions, Jim compared the activist economy, the economy of the reporter, and the economy of media, all on immediate, near, and long-term scales, and noted that these three economies overlap in the ways different parties construct the economic value of a distributed text. Brilliant stuff, and this too-brief description doesn’t do it justice.
David Sheridan’s presentation on “Materializing Ethics and Multimodal Civic Rhetoric” described how different forms of production and semiotic affordances can open up shifting civic opportunities, working from the perspectives of the different but intersecting axes of understanding rhetoric as a material practice and rhetoric as an ethical practice. (And I know that sentence is a huge, mangled tangle of David’s language; I’m hoping he’ll set me straight.) In other words: how do material considerations intersect with rhetorical ethics?
The fascinating extended example he worked through was drawn from the trial of Michael Skakel for the murder of Martha Moxley, because of its use of multi-modal rhetoric. The prosecution hired media consultants to create a multimedia CD-ROM from which they drew and presented all their artifactual evidence, and the defense ultimately referred to the unified multimodal composition as a “fabricated confession” because of the way it played through a timed juxtaposition of a 1997 interview taped for Skakel’s biography with 1975 photographs of Moxley living and then the police photographs of her body at the murder scene, keying Skakel’s vaguely expressed verbal anxietes to the moment when Moxley’s body was shown. According to National Public Radio’s analysis of the situation, “The rules for presenting evidence aren’t geared for the powerful impact visual images can have on juror’s emotions.” The worries about the material presentation of the prosecution’s test foregrounded how rhetorical ethics are deeply linked to materiality. David then offered the two primary views on the ethics of the technologies, modes, and media associated with the materiality of rhetoric: they’re either inherently bad, harmful, dangerous, and perhaps uncontrollable (i.e., the substantive theory of technology Andrew Feenberg charts in the work of Jacques Ellul and Martin Heidegger) or they’re morally neutral and depend only on how humans use them (i.e., the more common instrumental theory of technology). Both views construct technology itself (or, perhaps more properly, technological progress) as something that cannot be intervened with, but only surrendered to, used, or not used. David argued for a middle way past this dilemma: the Moxley photographs naturalized and concealed the rhetorical practice by which they were juxtaposed with another text, but if rhetors can lay bare the means by which they are deploying their technologies and effects — if they can start producing self-reflexive multi-modal texts that facilitate and encourage critical reading on the part of the audience — might that not be a worthy goal and a possible critical way around the substantive/instrumental impasse? So at this point, as David was concluding, I was (of course) immediately thinking of Mariolina Salvatori’s excellent Gadamer-influenced essay on practices for fostering self-reflexivity in student texts in the non-wired classroom, “Toward a Hermeneutics of Difficulty,” in Audits of Meaning: A Festschrift in Honor of Ann Berthoff (ed. Louise Smith. Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook, 1988. 80-95), but I was also thinking about J. L. Austin’s point that performative speech acts are self-reflexive, and I wonder if it’s worth thinking about certain types of student self-reflexive speech acts as inherently performative, so that by writing in certain ways, students might be bringing into reality the ethical reality that they’re writing?
Finally, Anthony (Tony) Michel from Cal State Fresno described his school as very “non-techie” and went on to talk about his student’s engagement with online multi-modal rhetorics. I was delighted to see that he cited that ridiculous “most harmful books” list in order to describe some several interestingly rhetorical e-mailed responses to it, but said that his students ultimately resisted engagement with the list, worried about the relative futility of such engagement. That response made Tony re-think his ideas about civic and public particapation, and the affordances of public participation at the media level. And that’s where I kinda lost the thread for a while, lisening too hard to Tony’s carefully nuanced presentation to take decent notes, but picked it up again when Tony asked: how are material resources for public participation in civic discourses made available — and to whom? There are concerns about access, but equally important, there are also concerns about rhetorical education, and there’s a worrisomely common assumption that Public Writing is no longer the work of rhetorical education. Has our discipline moved too far from public discourse and too much towards academic discourse? Well, here’s what we can do, Tony said, as some concluding interventions. First, develop and disseminate examples of organizational collective rhetorical work, as George Lakoff is doing. (And as weblogs are doing as well, I’d add.) Second, work on developing cognitive maps and social-economic-rhetorical frameworks (like the one Jim offered) that we can use to help students understand how their discourses can circulate and be distributed. (Like in Jim’s.) And, third, offer a re-emphasis on public writing in our courses. (Like some of us are doing with students who keep public weblogs — which, I would argue, perform one sort of public tracking of the negotiation of meaning in their comment threads: perhaps a form of self-reflexivity?)
Hugh Burns, among others, provoked some really good discussion in the comments afterwards. All in all, a really excellent panel.