What Is Digital Rhetoric? Part 1

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:

    1. What do we mean by “rhetoric,” and what do we believe to be its proper domain and concern?
    2. 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.

Egypt and Afghanistan, Part 2

For the Afghans, the new semester starts in about a week. From my perspective as an advisor, everything looks unsettled: changes to classrooms, registration, new student orientation, teaching schedules. To my eyes, those changes prefigure larger ones in the country, and many of the Afghans seem to me as ambivalent about the smaller ones as the larger ones. I’m sitting in on an interview for a new instructor tomorrow, talking with another instructor later this week about suitable internet readings for the English-language Current Events and Culture elective, still not quite sure what to make of the إن شاء الله (insha’Allah) attitude that prevails here and the apparent incuriousness that seems to be its analogue. The Afghans I’ve met are enormously skilled in spoken argument, good-humored, passionate, but seem almost imperturbable in the way they take everything as given.

Nobody seems terribly curious about Egypt, or Tunisia, or Syria, or Libya, or at least they’re not willing to express as much to me. The translators and teachers that I work with use the internet, though they’re not nearly as attached to it as the Americans, and they aren’t as much interested in news from it as they are in culture — in YouTube videos, especially of Indian movies, and in Facebook. They’re more interested in radio and TV, and again the most popular TV programs seem to be Indian movies. That lack of interest in news frustrates me some because I’m eager to ask them what they think about the events in other countries in the region, and perhaps that implicit connection (is it as apparent to them as it is to me?) to their situation is why they’re reluctant to engage.

As I wrote last time, I think there is a connection between Egypt and Afghanistan, and a strong one, and it plays out in all sorts of ways with the topics I’ve been thinking about: the relationships between and among government, rhetoric, politics, organizing, technology, economics, and foreign intervention. The debates we’ve seen over what factors produced or contributed to the uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, and elsewhere — and who’s promoting which factors — seem to be absolutely key to questions of how governance is to work in those countries and what (if any) role foreign governments might have in answering those questions. Folks who study rhetoric and technology might have something to contribute to discussions of how democracies function in the 21st century. The assertions offered by Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt as to the nature of those uprisings are as good a place as any to start:

The insurrections of Arab youth are certainly not aimed at a traditional liberal constitution that merely guarantees the division of powers and a regular electoral dynamic, but rather at a form of democracy adequate to the new forms of expression and needs of the multitude. This must include, firstly, constitutional recognition of the freedom of expression — not in the form typical of the dominant media, which is constantly subject to the corruption of governments and economic elites, but one that is represented by the common experiences of network relations.

This is a claim both about the motivations of the rebels involved in the uprisings and about the way they represent themselves and are represented. As is the habit of Hardt and Negri, it hits many of its targets only glancingly because of its degree of abstraction: certainly there are problems with the dominant media’s relation to political and economic interests; certainly there are concerns with corruption; certainly there’s a desire for freedom of expression; certainly the ways people organize themselves into and communicate via and act among and within networks (as even a vexed a figure as General McChrystal has recently argued) need recognition; but all these things are a lot more concrete than Hardt and Negri’s theorizing might indicate. At some points, though, the connections between their claims about media, democracy, organizing, and rhetoric become (refreshingly) more clear, as when they assert that

The organisation of the revolts resembles what we have seen for more than a decade in other parts of the world, from Seattle to Buenos Aires and Genoa and Cochabamba, Bolivia: a horizontal network that has no single, central leader. Traditional opposition bodies can participate in this network but cannot direct it. Outside observers have tried to designate a leader for the Egyptian revolts since their inception: maybe it’s Mohamed ElBaradei, maybe Google’s head of marketing, Wael Ghonim. They fear that the Muslim Brotherhood or some other body will take control of events. What they don’t understand is that the multitude is able to organise itself without a centre — that the imposition of a leader or being co-opted by a traditional organisation would undermine its power. The prevalence in the revolts of social network tools, such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, are symptoms, not causes, of this organisational structure.

There it is! Symptoms, not causes: that starts to say something a little more intelligent — and a little more interesting — than the tired debate over whether the events in Egypt and elsewhere represent some sort of Facebook revolution. That’s what I’ll talk about here, and that look at the debate over the alleged Facebook revolution takes me to questions of access and privilege in relation to new media, social media, and mainstream media. Those questions, I assert, are fundamentally economic questions, even though those with the privilege of access to such media prefer not to think of them as such, because behind economic questions of access to media lie more fundamental economic questions of access to the basic needs of sustenance. The revolution in Egypt was in very large part about bread. Not a terribly surprising thing, maybe, but in the broader picture of how American development policy via USAID actually caused the shortages, troubling: Americans might happily celebrate the apparent pro-democracy internet freedoms we associate with Tahrir square, but what do we do when we realize that the longstanding design of our economic foreign policy is precisely what the rebels rose up against?

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My Homework

The semester is underway, with lesson 2 of 40 taking place tomorrow. We had our academic convocation this afternoon, which was a pleasant enough ceremony in the Dean’s and Superintendent’s reminders that academic endeavor is of first importance in what we do. The need for such a reminder likely seems odd to those familiar with the environment of higher education, but here there are some who are occasionally eager to emphasize Sparta at the expense of Athens.

This semester I’m teaching EN101, our first-year composition course, and our course director has selected a new course reader. To increase our familiarity with the selections from the reader and our familiarity with one anothers’ interests and professional styles, and perhaps also to help remind us of what it is we’re asking our students to do, he assigned us homework: each member of the EN101 faculty was asked to choose one selection from the reader and write a two-to-three page summary and response essay. (I think assigning teachers to write at least one essay similar to what students are doing before the semester gets underway is a pretty good idea: I like that our course director did it, and wound up learning something valuable.) Two to three pages is not a lot of space, and I didn’t particularly cover myself in glory in what I wrote for the assignment: I’ve assigned summary and response essays in the past, and it’s not the most fair thing to ask of a student, since the genre almost demands that they respond with something fairly simple and basic.

That’s what I came up with, at least. This is some of the poorest writing I’ve done in a while; not really interesting or even original, with over-used analogies and recycled truisms that are likely familiar to most of us. I guess the thing I’m least unhappy with is the organizational device or trope, but even that is a bit of a gimmick. Why post this, then? For one, it’s a way to get me started blogging again after far too long a dry spell; for another, it’s a way to remind myself to carefully consider what I’m asking students to do, and what I expect them to get out of the assignments they complete. I’m not assigning a summary and response to my students this semester, and I’ll think hard before I do so again.

(And yes, it’s even got five paragraphs. Gah! What the hell is wrong with me?)

Cursus Imperii

In the Romantic view of Hudson River School painter Thomas Cole, civilization proceeds from an idealized “Savage State” and to a desolated version of that state ultimately returns. For Cole, as for Jos

“Authenticity” as Last Refuge of the Lazy

I was intrigued to see two abiding concerns of compositionists rolled into one in the recent controversy over Helene Hegemann’s plagiarized/remixed novel Axolotl Roadkill. There’s the usual breast-beating and hair-tearing and garment-rending about these kids today from the usual choristers, but what I thought was interesting was the use of the trope of authenticity in service of defending representing someone else’s writing as one’s own. Hegemann, in her own defense, asserted that “There

The Clear Use of Sources

I’m looking at a quotation that I don’t know what to do with: it’s confusing me. I ask you, reader, to help explain it to me; to help me figure out how the author is using a particular source. Here’s the quotation, in context, from pages iii-iv of the Preface by Marshall Sahlins to The Counter-Counterinsurgency Manual:

As deconstructed in the Counter-Counterinsurgency Manual, the applied anthropology of the US Military may be described something as follows: a planetary strategy of research and destroy, involving the deployment of armed and largely culturally-illiterate American forces from among the thousand or so garrisons now distributed on foreign soil, sometimes complemented by second rate mercenary academics, all charged with an investigation of the cultures of the local peoples sufficient to determine if and how they can be subjugated or, failing that, taken out.

Here is anthropology as a weapon in dubious battles, as the critics rightly claim. For as it is put by a certain Lt. Colonel cited in the counterinsurgency manual:

“There will be no peace… The de facto role of the US armed forces will be to keep the world safe for our economy and open to our cultural assault. To these ends, we will do a fair amount of killing. We are building an information-based military to do that killing.”

But then, whose side are you on, Petraeus? Although the counterinsurgency manual pretends to be based on up-to-date social science, it lacks the critical reflexivity of the latter, since what it dare not address is the Americans’ own presence as an invading and occupying power.

My question is about that “There will be no peace” quotation that goes up to “killing”: how is Sahlins using it? What’s the purpose? There seem to me to be several problems with the quotation. First, the “certain Lt. Colonel” is never cited in the counterinsurgency manual: the quotation comes from a xenophobic 1997 editorial piece by the then-Major Ralph Peters, published quite clearly not as scholarship but as opinion, and in its content clearly superannuated by the work that went into the counterinsurgency field manual. If we are to believe that authors work with a sincere commitment to the words they write, that work strikes me as creditable, and should in no way be related to the execrative fustian offered by Peters ten years earlier.

So: the material leading up to the quotation says some nasty things about the military and about the authors of the field manual, and about the intentions of its authors in using anthropological scholarship. The material following the quotation directly addresses General David Petraeus, who directed the authorship and publication of the Field Manual that Sahlins critiques.

Why, then, does Sahlins use a quotation (itself not cited at all in the Counter-Counterinsurgency Manual: I found the Peters source via Google) from an author he doesn’t name? Is this guilt by association? Is there an implied equivalency between the opinions of the author of an editorial piece and military doctrine? If so, how is the quotation supposed to relate to General Petraeus? Should we understand from the way the quotation is positioned that General Petraeus is to be held to account for the opinions of the now-retired Peters? In sum: what are we to understand as the intended relation of the Peters quotation to FM 3-24?

Cops in a Bar, Overheard

“This guy, he was all busted up. He was all upset about this cat. He was going on about the ASPCA. So he goes away, he gets on his cell phone.

I took out my weapon, I shot that cat eight fuckin times. Blam blam blam! Like that. It was fuckin awesome.

I threw it in the fuckin woods. My captain didn’t even give me any shit about it. He was OK.”

Chiasmus: Surveillance, Power

I got word that my Computers and Writing 2009 proposal was accepted, but I’ve been hesitant to blog about it, for reasons that may be apparent in my proposal, which follows in slightly paraphrased form.

My proposed presentation poses as its problem the environment of pervasive computer-enabled surveillance at the United States Military Academy at West Point. The problem is both practical, in the labor and logistics associated with the ubiquitous application of technologies of surveillance, and ethical, in my concern that ubiquitous surveillance may inhibit the development of the risk-taking thinkers essential to the Army’s mission. The presentation theorizes possible responses, contrasting the writing of political philosopher Leo Strauss and Roman historian Gaius Cornelius Tacitus on writing and domination. Finally, the presentation offers suggestions for how those responses might be enacted at West Point, and possible implications for other institutions.

At West Point, Web surfing is monitored, and spiders crawl the web for any mentions of the Academy, with mentions sent to the chain of command. (Interestingly, the Academy writing program endorses the use of digital technologies in the classroom, following the lead of the Academy’s general embrace of digital technologies.) Such a seemingly contradictory context requires a rhetorical response that moves beyond crude applications of Foucault’s “unequal gaze.”

I pose two alternatives for such a response: first, using the analysis of simultaneously esoteric and exoteric texts suggested by Leo Strauss in Persecution and the Art of Writing, and second, using the perspectives implied by Tacitus in his Dialogus de Oratoribus wherein authors intentionally place their meaning sous rature in ways that deliberately challenge hermeneusis depending upon interpretive context. Both writers suggest the possibilities of texts that can be interpreted in opposite ways by different audiences, depending on all parties’ positions of relative power within the rhetorical situation. However, I argue that Tacitus’s accounts implicitly offer the possibility of a counter-imperial micro-politics of resistance to the combination of domination and surveillance. The presentation then explores ways to enact that possibility of resistance in ways that open up opportunities for rhetorical risk-taking without compromising military missions, principles, or hierarchies.

And that’s it for the proposal, which I know will make the crawls come Monday morning, and which my bosses will see. (Hi, sir!) That’s enough for some nervousness on my part. But I’ve also been thinking that a blog entry — this one, for instance — is really the only way I can frame the project (after all, the conference program’s going to be indexed at some point) without making the presentation into some sort of rhetorical ambush. So I feel like there’s a whole lot of stuff in here: about classroom pedagogy, first and certainly, and about theories of rhetoric, but there’s the back-text as well, the usually unsaid except in my explicit invocation of it, about professionalism and what it means to talk about your job. (I don’t think I’m saying anything bad, but some might suggest I’m better off not saying anything at all.)

We’ll see.

Academic Category Error

People in my academic discipline sometimes conflate “military” and “war.” From what I’ve seen of the broader scape of academe, that’s not uncommon. In listserv discussions, interactions at conferences, calls for proposals, and hallway conversations, there’s a common assumption that any association with the military must commit one to a monolithic and intolerant ideology supporting all war, always, in all contexts.

Two nights ago, on Monday, Eugene Jarecki showed up on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart promoting his new book. (Jarecki wrote and directed the award-winning 2005 documentary Why We Fight, which — while voluminously researched and attempting to provide the appearance of scrupulous fairness — mostly did a very good job for 99 minutes of proving that Jarecki agreed with the cautions offered in Eisenhower’s “military-industrial complex” speech: to paraphrase a number of critics, the movie was an op-ed piece, not investigative reporting.) He had some good things to say about today’s links between the defense industry and American foreign policy, and with Stewart’s prompting and assistance, he made a number of solid points fully and clearly in the nine minutes or so that he had.

Stewart’s a breezy interviewer, and I think Jarecki would have fared better with a more deliberate pace, perhaps even with being asked to read a passage from the book out loud, NPR-style, though that seldom plays well on television. (Would that it did.) I say this because Jarecki was invited here to West Point to talk to people — cadets and faculty — about his movie after its release, and accounts of those conversations have traveled, some of them making their way into his new book, and some of them making their way into our Dean’s annual address to faculty — all faculty, military and civilian — where I first heard them two months ago. I quote here from Jarecki’s book, The American Way of War, published ten days ago:

Located in wooded isolation some 50 miles north of New York City, West Point is very much in its own intellectual orbit, not entirely removed from the workings of the American defense establishment, yet not entirely in sync with them either. On my first drive there, I recall the incredulity with which friends and family reacted when I called from the road to tell them where I was going. They were surprised that a military academy would even show a film like Why We Fight, let alone invite a self-acknowledged critic of U.S. defense policy, to address its best and brightest.

As it turns out, this incredulity reflects a prejudice that sweepingly and mistakenly equates bad foreign policy with those entrusted to implement it. While soldiers come in all types and no single generalization can be made, one finds inspiring abundance on West Point’s faculty of responsible thinkers who feel a responsibility not only to train their cadets in the military arts but to educate them more broadly about the strengths and weaknesses of the nation’s foreign policy system.

Jarecki’s words are a careful and instructive counter to the myopic conflation I describe above. When our Dean read those words, and conveyed them to the faculty with an argument about their importance, they helped me see something more about teaching at this place, and about why I’m teaching here and want to continue to teach here. The engagement with diverse and critical perspectives that Jarecki describes is something I’ve seen here far more than at any other college or university I’ve attended or taught at, and seen especially with a remarkable openness in the classroom.

It’s remarkable the things cadets are unafraid to say and the criticisms they’re unafraid to make, reasonably and professionally, and how calmly and precisely they’re able to disagree with one another on loaded issues, and then think nothing of it and move on to celebrate and support one another. (Mostly.) In my class, they’ve just finished a unit on multi-modal argument, with more than a few of them giving presentations on similar or identical topics in rapid succession, and the kaleidoscope of perspectives has been refreshingly more wide-ranging than some of the homogeneous arrays of ideological and rhetorical commonplaces I’ve seen elsewhere. And in many ways more liberally accepting; more embracing of what Benjamin Franklin called “all these scatter’d counsels.” That ideological diversity and tolerance strikes me as one of the most valuable assets that a democratic nation might promote in its military, and one that I wish I might see more of in academe’s broader scape.

Palin’s Resemblance

Slate culture editor Meghan O’Rourke nails it, in as apt an analogy as I’ve seen: Sarah Palin is a character from a George Saunders short story. If you’ve read Saunders’ fiction, you know exactly what O’Rourke’s talking about; if you haven’t, Saunders writes a world shaped by the brand-name overconsumption, with its inhabitants tragicomically resigned and adapted to the dictatorial regime of consumerism. In O’Rourke’s words, Palin “buys into a whole vocabulary of signifiers that often don’t signify very much, and she scaffolds that lexicon with winks, smiles, and carefully mimed gestural reinforcement.”

It’s an attractive, pleasant, carefully calibrated empty clockwork face. That’s what I’d say I saw last night.

All In

Watched the Olympic opening ceremonies, and I’m amazed. It’s like China pushed its economic and public relations chips — its whole pile — to the center of the table, and said, “All in.”