Slavery and Composition: Some Economic Context

My current book project, still very much in the early stages, examines the interrelationships among the American 19th-century slave economy, the technological and economic advances of the Industrial Revolution and the corresponding expansion of literacy, and the growth of American higher education and the emergence of composition as a discipline. That means for right now I’m pulling together threads from a whole bunch of different sources and disciplines and noting correspondences while trying to resist the urge to assign direct causality—but even so, there are multiple intersecting narratives, and they feel like they have a shape to them that’s been emerging from the way I’ve looked at composition and economics in other contexts.

So here’s a very brief and partial early version of some aspects of those intersecting narratives, arguing that the origins of composition studies flows directly from the value of the labor appropriated in the early American slave economy.

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Forthcoming in Collected

The editors of the collection Rhet Ops: Rhetoric and Information Warfare recently informed the authors, me included, that it’s available for pre-order from Pitt Press, and up on Amazon as well, due out in October.

I’m excited, because it’s been one of the rare remaining opportunities I’ve had to re-focus on the intersection of the military, rhetoric, and Marxian economics that I was looking at while working on my first book (delayed revisions at last completed) but have since moved on from. Part of the reason I’ve moved on is because the military/veteran stuff, while important to me, also has felt more and more like self-focused and self-interested identity politics, and I feel like there’s more than enough of that scholarship already from straight white men like me. So my desire has been to turn my introvert’s attention outward, and that attention lately has been focused on the beginnings of book #2, on the historical intersections of the 19th-century American slave economy, the technological and economic boom of the Industrial Revolution, and the emergence of the American system of higher education and the discipline of composition in particular.

I’ll have more to say here on those topics. For now, my thanks to the editors, Jim Ridolfo and Bill Hart-Davidson, and my thanks to you for reading if you’re still with me. An excerpt from the nice blurb from Christa Teston:

The other thing I really love about this book is the ways it integrates Marxist material rhetorics (and even Foucault) in meaningful, contemporary ways. For all of the ways our field has moved on into ‘new’ materialisms and other re-imaginings of extant theories, we sometimes lose sight of these foundational scholarly contributions.

I’ve been arguing for a while that the engagement we’ve “moved on” from was never really much of an engagement to begin with.

Rationale for a Graduate Seminar in Digital Technology and Culture

Proposed syllabi for graduate seminars are due Monday, and while I’ve got the documents themselves together, I also want to be able to better articulate the exigency for this particular seminar I’ve proposed a syllabus for. There’s no guarantee my proposal will fit the Department’s needs better than any other proposals, of course, so this is partly an exercise in hopeful thinking, but it’s also helping me to figure out why I’m interested in investigating certain topics. The course, “Studies in Technology and Culture” (DTC 561 / ENGL 561), examines “key concepts, tools, and possibilities afforded by engaging with technology through a critical cultural lens,” and is one of the two required courses for the interdisciplinary WSU graduate certificate in Digital Humanities and Culture, a certificate designed to “enhance already existing graduate programs in the humanities and the social sciences, . . . [offering] graduate-level coursework in critical methods, textual analysis, composing practices, and hands-on production for engaging with humanistic studies in, as well as about, digital environments.” I see a couple important points there:

  • first, the certificate’s “critical cultural lens” indicates a reflexive and dialectical (practice- and theory-based) analysis of cultural phenomena as in process and under construction by human and nonhuman agents, and toward the notion of culture as a “noun of process” (from the etymological tracing of Raymond Williams, who points out that the original verb form of “culture” was transitive) representing complex multiple self-developing practices relating to symbolic action; and
  • second, the certificate’s interdisciplinary aspects contribute in rich ways to its digital focus, given its required electives that examine how (AMST 522) the economics of access in the digital divide reinforce inequalities, how (DTC 477) the commodification of information and digital tools can contribute to the stratification of their use, how (DTC 478) interface designs can sometimes reinforce stratification and inequality, how (HIST 527) public history projects incorporating digital technologies can attempt to resist the dominant appropriation or suppression of the heritage of subjugated cultures through practices of responsible representation, and how (HIST 529) ethical digital curation and archiving practices can serve equitable and inclusive ends.

One possible intersection of both points might be understood as the intersection of process and information, which is how I would theme the seminar. Such a theme would represent the familiar cultural studies topoi of race, sexuality, class, gender, ethnicity, age, religion, ability, and others as points of contestation over information. The processes via which information is produced, distributed, owned, used, and re-produced shape and are shaped by those topoi and their intersections with digital technologies. Furthermore, I see tendencies in our emerging studies of digital technology and culture that replicate past trajectories whereby early adopters of technologies (often members of privileged cultural groups) tend to centralize, monopolize, and territorialize research domains—fields that shape processes related to the development of information—especially in an academic context shaped by the eagerness of funding agents to throw money at technology. Given such eagerness, the certificate’s welcome emphasis on “hands-on production” might offer an opportunity to counter that territorializing impulse.

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Doing Digital Research, Being Digitally Researched

I’m teaching a course this semester that I’ve taught a few times before at WSU but never felt like I really had a solid grasp on what it was supposed to do, until now. The course is Digital Technology and Culture (DTC) 356, “Electronic Research and the Rhetoric of Information.” From what I understand, it began as a course co-taught by folks from the rhetoric faculty and folks from the library, with an emphasis on how to navigate the library’s electronic databases and resources and the increasing interlinking of rhetoric and information technologies in the relatively early days of the World Wide Web. Circumstances have changes substantially since then, both in terms of how undergraduates learn to navigate the digital resources of library databases and the Web and in terms of how the course gets taught and what its emphases are. In the WSU course catalog, its description is as follows:

Social and cultural role of information; research with electronic sources; production, validation, storage, retrieval, evaluation, use, impact of electronic information.

Following some of the guidance and excellent examples of my DTC faculty colleagues (here’s a version from Kristin Arola), I first taught it as something like a contemporary topics and concepts course in WSU’s Digital Technology and Culture major with a focus on the availability and findability of digital information, including units on intellectual property and the politics of search. My adapted course description was as follows:

This class explores the cultural, legal, economic, political, and social roles of information. We will pay particular attention to the ways in which the self and society shape and are shaped by our changing information networks, and we will look at the structures of those networks. We will examine such topics as social and collaborative networking, information retrieval and management, the function of creativity within an information economy, and copyright law. Throughout the course, students will be encouraged to understand the function and limits of rhetoric in an age of information.

While that worked well enough at first, I wasn’t entirely comfortable with it, and Read more


I mentioned in September that I was teaching a graduate seminar in classical rhetoric last semester. I gave it the subtitle “rhetoric under empire” because I tried to craft a syllabus that foregrounded the relations of power and materiality that seem too often absent from classical rhetoric as it’s taught in rhetoric and composition studies. Certainly, there’s some attention paid to Corbett’s closed fist and open hand (ratio and elocutio), or as the image I stole from the Internet to publicize the course and now can’t source would have it, the fasces and the flowers.

fasces and flowers

The course went extraordinarily well and did everything I wanted to, and the students even seemed to like it. Folks in rhetoric and composition sometimes tend to think of classical rhetoric as dry, dull, deadly boring stuff, and that’s mostly the fault of the way it’s too often taught, I think. There’s an impulse I’ve seen to abstract and to theorize and to alienate from context: to take Aristotle and ask what we can use from his Rhetoric in the composition classroom and wind up with a lot of FYC essays pointing out instances of ethos, logos, and pathos in Emerson’s “Self-Reliance”; or to ask undergraduates to identify rhetorical figures from the Ad Herennium and De Inventione in political speeches from the last election and wind up with a lot of etceterative taxonomies that offer scant sense of possible implications.

As admirable a volume as Bizzell and Herzberg’s Rhetorical Tradition is (and it is massively, wonderfully admirable: I’ve spent many hours lost in its pages), I think it’s partly to blame. The primary texts included in the volume can be categorized—with a few exceptions—as almost entirely rhetorical theory, and with that as one of our most well- and widely-known sources, of course it’s going to influence how we teach. So when I taught Cicero, I taught bits of the De Inventione and the De Oratore and the Brutus and Orator, but all in the context of his early speech in front of the dictator Sulla, all in the context of his bawdy and misogynistic oration for Caelius in conjunction with the love poems of Caelius’s rival Catullus, all in the context of his rhetorical judo with the Pro Ligario before Caesar as both judge and plaintiff. So, too, with Isocrates and the function of rhetoric during wartime and the debates over how literate the Spartans might have been; so, too, with Aristotle and Alexander and the paranoia and xenophobia; so, too, with those who enthuse about Quintilian without considering the imperial terror of Domitian and the indictment by Tacitus of “gain-getting rhetoric” — epideictic rhetoric as truly economic — when there was no space left for rhetoric as forensic or deliberative. To me, that sort of rhetoric understood in its material and social context is exciting and fresh and alive, not abstracted or theoretical or irrelevant: when you read his letter to Atticus, to Caelius, to his wife Terentia, there comes an entirely different human sense of who Cicero was that gives extraordinary vitality to his rhetoric.

It makes me think there’s risk in studying rhetoric, in that abstracting it into an object of scholarly exchange can lead to seeing only how it operates at that abstracted and theoretical level and missing completely the level of material and experiential consequence. So that’s why my classical_rhetoric_syllabus looked the way it did, and that’s why I’ll continue to teach it that way: it’s in a way the same thing I try to do in my emphasis on the economics of writing study; to look at the value of and motivation for the rhetorical labor we perform and the intellectual and affective capital we produce and distribute and experience and re-produce and re-value.

Graduate Seminar in Classical Rhetoric

I’ve loved classical rhetoric for a long time. This semester, I finally get to teach it.

I took Latin in high school and to fulfill my language requirement in graduate school, and had amazing teachers, including Bill Nickerson, Teresa Ramsby, and Elizabeth Keitel. To their credit, I now read Latin passably well, and have a little bookshelf of red-jacketed dual-language Loeb editions. Those instructors were all excellent at teaching not only the language but what was going on at the time, and their approach made classical rhetoric feel vital and alive in ways that it didn’t in some of the English-specific courses I took for my PhD. In the seminar I’m teaching this semester, I’ve tried to imitate their approach: this is ancient rhetoric in its amazing, breathtaking material context.


Rhetorics of Debt

Graeber, David. Debt: The First 5,000 Years. Brooklyn, NY: Melville House, 2011.

Anthropologist David Graeber points out Aristotle’s use of the term symbolon to argue that “coins are merely social conventions” (298), and observes that symbolon originally meant “tally” and often referred to “an object broken in half to mark a contract or agreement” (298). Think of the heart-half necklaces young couples wear today that serve as reminders of their relationship: from Graeber, we understand that those were instances of what Aristotle was talking about. So coins literally symbolized social relationships between people, even as today they have become (according to Marx and his successors) the ways to abstract those social relationships, to wrench those relationships from their interpersonal contexts. Graeber then extends his analysis to set up a parallel with language, which exists as an interpersonal communicative link but is also arbitrary: the word has as little intrinsic meaning as the half-heart necklace—it is an arbitrary set of sounds—and only carries meaning in its social context. It is at once deeply particular and remarkably abstract. Words, like money, are “arbitrary tokens of agreement” (Graeber 299) that spring up among individuals. Consider Graeber’s observation in a Burkean context: Burke’s Grammar breaks down the terms by which we engage one another, whereas his Rhetoric examines the systems of persuasion by which we allow ourselves to identify with one another. Graeber’s remarkable book offers an extensive historical grammar of debt and money as instantiations and abstractions of social bonds and relationships. How, then, might I work towards a historical and technological rhetoric of debt and money as instantiations and abstractions of social bonds and relationships?

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.