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.


What Is Digital Rhetoric? Part 2

One thought on “What Is Digital Rhetoric? Part 2

  • October 23, 2012 at 8:41 am

    Mike, I’m very interested in this notion of the dis/continuous. One of the primary dividing lines between object-oriented ontology and process philosophies (Deleuze for example) is that OOO asserts a fundamental, ontological discontinuity: all objects withdraw from one another and relation is not necessary. As such, OOO would dispute your assertion that nature is fundamentally continuous. We may experience continuity but that’s not how things really are. The gaps between digital ones and zeros in this way are perhaps not unlike the gaps between subatomic particles. The gap between the analog and the digital that we feel so acutely is also a gap between the digital and the digital or the analog and the analog.

    Regarding flat ontologies, I agree that it is likely that a post-Marxist would experience some modification of theory and method by addressing these perspectives (and there are a wide range of flat ontologies from OOO to Latour and DeLanda). I would note though that a flat ontology would not argue that hierarchies do not develop or exist. Instead, they only assert that no hierarchy or asymmetry is ontologically necessary. Latour’s problem with Marxism and other “sociologies of the social” as he terms them is that they presume that particular asymmetrical relations are at work in a given situation before they begin their work. That is, if ideology/power is totalizing and overdetermining in its operation, then it is always the same explanation for every situation or event. However I don’t think that post-marxist analysis needs to work in this way. One can still do systemic analysis but there’s more work to do as Latour denies the leap from a singular situation to a global explanation.


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