Paul Muhlhauser at the journal Harlot has challenged people to #DefineRhetoric, and Naomi Silver at the Sweetland Digital Rhetoric Collaborative has asked people to consider possible responses to the question “What does digital rhetoric mean to me?” and begun a blog carnival (#DRCBlogCarnival) centered around that question. Plenty of smart folks have responded to both prompts, and such concerns have been on my mind lately as well as I plan out the 300-level course on “Electronic Research and the Rhetoric of Information” that I’m teaching this fall. I like the way Doug Eyman’s response invokes the definition offered by Mary Hocks, who suggests that “digital rhetoric” as a term “describes a system of ongoing dialogue and negotiations among writers, audiences, and institutional contexts, but it focuses on the multiple modalities available for making meaning using new communication and information technologies” (632), but I feel like such a definition doesn’t quite go far enough in terms of specificity, but instead basically says that “digital rhetoric” is rhetoric (“a system of ongoing dialogue and negotiations among writers, audiences, and institutional contexts”) plus computers (“the multiple modalities available for making meaning using new communication and information technologies”). Eyman, of course, goes further and offers some specifying examples and points of clarification, but comes back to asserting that digital rhetoric is “most simply defined as the application of rhetorical theory (as analytic method or heuristic for production) to digital texts and performances”: again, that doesn’t go much beyond saying digital rhetoric = rhetoric + computers — which is fine, but I think there’s more to it than that.
So two questions, then:
- What do we mean by “rhetoric,” and what do we believe to be its proper domain and concern?
- What do we mean by “digital” beyond simply waving our hand at those computery things upon which we do things with texts, and is it possible to do digital rhetoric without vacuum tubes, punched cards, or transistors?
In responding to Muhlhauser’s posing of the first question, I’ll acknowledge the obvious starting point being Aristotle’s definition concerning the study of the available means of persuasion, but also point out that some of the definitions Harlot has looked at have explicitly or implicitly contrasted rhetoric to coercion, force, or violence. That goes back to the whole thing about the open hand and the closed fist: rhetoric is the open hand, whether it’s contrasted to the closed fist of coercion, force, or violence, or whether it (as elocutio) is contrasted to the closed fist of logic, reason, or philosophy (as ratio). That already gets me into troublesome territory, though, because it suggests that rhetoric has a vexed relationship with truth. It in some way takes truth as its concern, because if it didn’t, it would be either poetics (which explicitly deals with things that are known to be not true, or at least invented, crafted, artificed), lies, error, or bullshit (bullshit here taken in the sense of the College English article from a few years back, as being a statement that has no regard or interest in its connection to truth, whereas lying is an act that is very much concerned with what is true and what isn’t true). Certainly, some can and have made the case that rhetoric need not concern itself with truth, but if it doesn’t and therefore falls into one of those other categories, then that doesn’t strike me as a terribly interesting object of study. Rhetoric as error, lies, or bullshit is for the most part uninteresting to me. But rhetoric as something that stands in relation to truth even as it seems to swerve away from truth at the last moment, as it becomes something other than logic, reason, philosophy, or coercion — that’s interesting to me. So a metaphor: rhetoric is an act, a doing, a verb, a process of skating on the thin ice of persuasion that rests between the materiality of our everyday social lives and the dark and cold waters of contingency, even as that thin ice is constituted by the frozen, solidified, embodied aspects of that contingency.
I won’t get to that second question tonight. So that’s something for tomorrow.