Monthly Archives: July 2012

What Is Digital Rhetoric? Part 3

I’ve been talking about what rhetoric means to me and about what digital rhetoric means to me. The subtext those posts has concerned the material effects of language use, with certain instances of language use itself very loosely defined as digital rhetoric. That too-loose definition begs the obvious question: if language use itself is digital rhetoric, then what’s the difference between rhetoric and digital rhetoric? In the introduction to My Mother Was a Computer, N. Katherine Hayles characterizes “materiality” as “an emergent property created through dynamic interactions between physical characteristics and human intention” which therefore “marks a junction between physical reality and human intention” (3). That’s the distinction between our analog material lifeworld and our contingent immaterial persuasion-world I’ve been trying to draw. But rhetoric, aside from its distinctions and confusions with truth and coercion, can be analog as well as digital, embodied and experienced as well as symbolically and discontinuously represented. In fact, Hayles describes a perhaps reductive “binary opposition between embodiment and information” (3) that she’s grappled with in the past, and that’s the line I’m perhaps reductively following her in trying to draw. Digital rhetoric, in the useful ways that Richard Lanham points out — even as I disagree with him about the quantification of attention — abstracts. It calls our attention to the differences between the ways that, as Lanham points out, we look at things versus when we look through things.

Looking through the artifice of any text in order to become absorbed in the content or substance with which it concerns itself — in other words, being captivated or engrossed or carried away by how much a movie or book draws us into its world — is analog attentional experience. It’s a form of felt sense. We can’t untangle the emotions and thoughts and ideas from the experience. But as soon as we start splitting hairs, asking question, looking at how such books or movies or arguments are constructed, we’re using language and symbols to set up categories and sort things so we can subdivide and anatomize them into their individual bits and bytes and taggable sortable atomies of meaning. We’re abstracting away from embodiment and into information.

In 1987, I was a freshman at Carnegie Mellon University. My mother was a librarian. Years earlier, in primary school, she’d brought me home Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books from the library, and I’d been fascinated and engrossed by how I could make choices in a book that would change the outcome — and of course, as soon as the novelty wore off and I ran into an unhappy ending, I started reverse-engineering the books, looking to the back of the book to see which choices led where. Cheating. Looking at rather than through.

My favorite moment in Gide is from The Immoralist, when the narrator Michel says, “Nothing can be told of happiness save what leads up to it and what follows it. And now I have told you everything that led up to it.” He’s yanking us out of the story, saying, “Watch what happens next: this is where it all changes,” while at the same time plunging us right back into it.

On a trip to San Francisco, my mother and father visited with a family friend who let me play some version (I don’t recall well enough, except for the “get Lamp” and “maze of twisty little passages” bits) of Adventure on his computer. Then my family bought our first computer, an Atari 800, and I found Infocom text-adventure games like Suspended. They were absorptive in the sense that Charles Bernstein draws our attention to, through rather than at, until I stumbled across the bits of syntax that would throw the engine and then found out about the verbosity commands, and played with those for a bit. Fast-forward to 1987 again, and somebody in the yearbook office let me borrow the 3.25″ floppy with a sticker on it that said afternoon: a story. I slot it in, it ka-chunks like those old floppies did in those old Mac Pluses, and the title screen comes up with its reference to “a long the riverrun” and I knew that was something about Joyce. And then it says, “I try to recall winter,” and continues evocatively to the end of the first screen, which asks: “Do you want to hear about it?”

Of course I want to hear about it. I’m hooked, immediately. I’m absorbed. Looking through to the emotional experience of Peter and his son, of fractal trees, octopi, poetry, the skated surfaces of ice. And yet as soon as I click a term, or click yes, I’m thrown out again, looking at rather than through, asking myself — in that dorm room 25 years ago — what am I doing here? What comes next? Is this a game or a story or something else entirely? And most importantly: how does this new thing work?

I was hooked on the experience and on the analysis at once. I emailed Michael Joyce a couple times. He was gracious, encouraging, generous. I emailed Mark Bernstein at Eastgate Systems, who was publishing hypertext and also gracious and encouraging and generous, all these years ago, not really knowing what I was doing but knowing that I was paying attention to how to read at and through and that there was some sort of important distinction between the two, even if I couldn’t put it into words or express it adequately. The at of afternoon wasn’t explicitly concerned with truth, I know, but it was showing me how it did something new via the through, and that was true. The structure of afternoon in the way it called attention to itself — the through — was the opposite of coercive except in the way that it forced you to make choices and thereby abstract yourself from the analog embodied experience of literary reading unconcerned with truth except as represented in the at of the text.

My mother was a librarian who tried to bring me all the books she thought might add to or broaden my experience. There is my experience, before and after her death. The digital concerns itself with making use of the gaps in our analog experience.

What Is Digital Rhetoric? Part 2

In my last post, I tried to explore some preconditions of a possible definition of or metaphor for rhetoric: rhetoric’s tangential relation with truth as the counterpart to coercion and its negotiation between lived materiality and the contingency of the provisional truths we construct about that lived materiality. I also expressed some reservations  about what seemed  to me to be a possibly reductive identification of digital rhetoric as rhetoric plus computers.

I’ve been thinking some more about that, and I’ll push my definitional exploration of what digital rhetoric means to me (#DRCBlogCarnival) a little further here: one doesn’t need computers to do digital rhetoric. One doesn’t need punch cards or vaccum tubes or transistors or semiconductors or microprocessors or even Babbage’s steam-powered clockwork-mechanical analytical engine to do digital rhetoric. One could do digital rhetoric with smoke signals or drums, if one so chose. The thing about digital rhetoric is that it’s digital, in the most basic sense of the term: it’s the opposite of analog. It’s discontinuous, and that’s a vitally important distinction. The digital exists in discontinuous quanta of information, rather than in the continuous and therefore infinite gradations of the analog. In other words, the defining characteristic of the digital is that it has gaps, and therefore that it’s finite especially as its users employ it to reproduce analog phenomena, and so that it’s lossy and therefore efficient. The fact that the digital is discontinuous, that it has gaps (between the characters of an alphabet, between ones and zeroes, between the digits upon which we count out numerals), is what makes it both malleable and reproducible — and those are the most defining characteristics, I would argue, of the digital.

But those characteristics are also what identify the digital as unnatural, and therefore as belonging to the human-constructed world of contingency, rather than to what we think of as the truths of the material or natural world. Even natural phenomena that bear some resemblance to the digital in their apparent discontinuity — the rhythmic radiation beat of a pulsar from light years away that’s more accurate than the most acccurate human-constructed atomic clock, the lub-dub pulse of a heart in which we might want to hear something like the ones and zeroes or ons and offs of the digital — come from continuous analog motion, not from discrete digital solid-state alternation.  The lifeworld, the material world, is fundamentally analog. Human work with symbols is fundamentally digital, because it sorts and recombines discontinuous things.

(This also helps me figure out why I’m so excited and intrigued by yet resistant to the work Alex Reid is doing with object-oriented rhetoric that takes as its first assumption a flat ontology: if one is going to do the sort of Marxist-inflected materialist work I’m interested and that I’m trying to do here, that flat ontology doesn’t work. There are multiple types of things in the world, with different qualities and intentionalities and capacities. But I worry that in attempting to undertake this sort of materialist work, I’m simply reenacting a naïve form of old-school humanism. Not that, you know, there’s anything wrong with that.)

Here’s one final step further: human attention, as an aspect of our material lifeworld, is analog. It’s continuous. There are no individual atomies of attention. Attention varies in scope, duration, intensity; it’s sometimes shared, sometimes individual. Because it’s analog and continuous, it’s necessarily infinitely subdividable, and therefore infinite. There is no quantum of attention. And for that reason, even as the digital information we produce is finite (albeit enormous in quantity), lossy, reproducible, our attention is not, and that’s where I think Richard Lanham gets it wrong.  Attention is not scarce or zero-sum, but it is necessarily always incompletely expressible in our finite, lossy, manipulable digital human language of bits and bytes or smoke signals or drums or alphabets. So digital rhetoric, to me, means paying attention to that push and pull between the material and analog lifeworld and the informational and digital world of rhetoric, especially in the ways that the effects of one circulate into the other. Digital rhetoric means there’s always something not said, an icy surface skated over, something left behind: digital rhetoric as praeteritio.