Does Ancient Rhetoric have a Future? (Draft 1) Professor George Pullman, Georgia State University
Fifteen years ago when I started academic life I was keenly interested in ancient rhetoric, in the sophists and Plato and Aristotle and Cicero and company. I felt as though ancient rhetoric had a great deal of plausible advice for contemporary communicators, be they technical writers, or journalists, or politicians. But as I taught the classics I also started tinkering with electronic forms of writing—web-based communications primarily, and as the audience for my digital rhetoric classes grew, the audience for my classical classes shrank to the point where I started wondering what the future of ancient rhetoric might be. Relevance and practicality are primary rhetorical virtues, and given the place of phronesis within the classical tradition, it would be unfortunate if the study of ancient rhetoric were merely an archeological practice, if invention and arrangement and style and memory and delivery were merely artifacts, meaningful in situ but impractical now that much of the work done with words is done in binary code via fiber optics. If Plato shuddered when writing began to replace spoken discourse, I wonder what he would think about composition practices today. A few months ago, out of boredom more than any other rhetorical purpose, I built a website that consisted of nothing but information gathered robotically from other websites, news sources, the weather, sports scores, and so on. After the code was in place, the "page" composed and displayed itself without further human intervention. To this day it continues to update and display itself, though I haven't bothered to look at it in months. If Plato worried about writing replacing thinking, I wonder what he would think of my self-composing robot page. He would think, I suspect, that information acquisition had replaced reading, leaving us even that much further removed from reality.
There is much that is rhetorically alienating in the world of digital rhetoric. And yet as I started to catalogue the differences I was struck by similarities. I doubt very much that most of the people working in online communications—nearly no one uses the expression digital rhetoric—knows much about rhetorical theory or anything at all about rhetorical history. But interesting echoes seem to come out of nowhere. For the next few minutes I will amplify some of those echoes as a way of initiating a conversation about the place of rhetorical history in contemporary practices. It's not clear to me what that place is, but it is clear to me that much of the lore is still with us whether we are aware of it or not.
Let me start at the macro level—rhetoric as mechanism of social organization. Community is becoming an important concept among people who write online. Indeed many of these people see themselves not as just communicating online but actually living online. They see their chat rooms and email lists and news repositories as virtual spaces that they inhabit like actual spaces. They have online identities and relationships that are native to the electronic environment and do no need to materialize. These communities share some of the basic issues that traditional communities share—learning whom to trust and whom to shun being chief among them. So many of our face to face rhetorical decisions are made by visual cues, clothing, accent, eye-contact, the ease or discomfort with which a person appears to inhabit his or her social context as a function of body and physical space. These significant rhetorical cues are difficult to reproduce online—emoticons not withstanding. Adding to the potential for rhetorical conflict caused by misunderstanding is the fact that some people are emboldened by a sense of anonymity to abandon normal decorum. The two most common rhetorical breaches are trolling and flaming—saying provocative things in order to stir up trouble or launching uncalled for personal attacks. Dealing with obstreperous people has led online community leaders to various forms of social control; one approach is to gate the community by making people identify themselves before they can login. There are also panoptic approaches, where someone monitors what's said and sanctions abuse. Derek Powazeck, who wrote a book about designing online communities, came up with an interesting and very old-school solution. Powazeck's first impulse was to monitor all activity and personally banish the ne'er-do-wells, but there were too many people in the community for one cop to police. He thought about deputizing trusted citizens but he disliked the idea of a stratified society. Eventually he came up with the idea of a rating system. Whenever a community member encountered despicable behavior, he or she would write the offender's name on a form. If a citizen accumulated five citations, he was automatically barred from participating in the community for a specified period of time: he was exiled, in other words. Powazeck doesn't use the term but this is obviously a digital form of ostracism. The fact that he hit on ostracism as if it were entirely novel rather than an online variation of an ancient practice suggested to me that rhetorical practices could be described as manifestations of social relations and that, if that simile works, that the archaeological simile of rhetorical practices as artifacts whose real meaning is embedded in a particular culture might need to be re-thought. This doesn't indicate that ancient rhetoric is relevant, just that it isn't irrelevant because it is ancient
Having come to that preliminary conclusion I started hearing rhetorical echoes that had escaped me before. As you may recall, the rhetoric ad herennium offers a system for remembering large chunks of information by associating pieces of information with objects that are easily visualized. If you want to remember witnesses, visualize ram's testicles; if you want to remember the characteristics of rhetoric, visualize a noblewoman with three sheep tethered by golden chains, that sort of thing. If static visual cues don't help, you can use a well-worn path through a familiar place to help you reference the material for your speech. Think about how the elder Seneca could recall as an old man, apparently word for word, the speeches he heard as a young man. Francis Yates has shown how these kinds of visual systems were used to memorize galaxies of information. These memory systems are simple in design. They use a key to reference some piece of information. Databases work the same way. And many contemporary web documents are essentially databases, repositories of information generated on the fly by reference to an array of key values. The only differences in the digital mnemotechnic system is that the keys are automatically generated and the collection and association of information can be done robotically, which means that any of us can access several galaxies of information as if our heads were crammed full of scenes and backgrounds. The current buzz word for the visual representation of data is infovis, an abbreviation of information visualization. There are quite a few companies now dedicated to finding ways to represent information three-dimensionally. Oddly enough, one common form of such a visualization looks like a galaxy, with a key term in the middle and related words spread out around the screen but connected to the center and to some of each other by lines. Relations among the terms are often indicated by color and proximity, suggesting constellations of meaning. These graphical depictions of data are being developed as an aid for dealing with the deluge of information the Internet makes possible. Each of us has at our disposal material for thousands of speeches, and thousands of documents to use as models. And yet the nmemotechnique that we use is virtually the same as those the orators and their direct descendents used. Theirs was faster and more portable—if I'm not mistaken the human brain is still a superior processor—but our nmemotechnique is catching up.
A few years ago access to the Internet was provided via cables and so our collective memories were tethered to our office walls. But wireless devices and open access points are making it possible to jack in from anywhere. Although I'm too cheap to pay for the service, my cell phone can search the web. It can also read text. So I could have it prompt me for what to say next as I stand here. I could get it to fetch a statistic or a quotation to help me illustrate a point, or book a seat on an earlier flight if things go really badly. Wireless technology makes the Internet portable, providing instant access to ideas and information out of which speeches about nearly anything can be created on the fly. Give me a subject and I'll give you a speech, as Gorgias is said to have said. Invention in the sense of coming up with or remembering things to say has been in some ways simplified by ready access to Internet search engines. It has been complicated at the same time, however, by the shear volume of information available—and thus more and more people need ways to store, sort, and organize the content they acquire. Visualization helps, and so too do topics, not in Aristotle's sense of patterns of thought, but in Cicero's sense of commonplaces where one can find thoughts of a certain kind: the database again, or more specifically, the content management system.
CMSs are all the rage these days. They are web-based information systems that make it relatively easy for a person or group of people to store, track, and share information, creating in effect a highly elaborated system of summaries, quotations, book marks, and notes. One can record anything at all, provide key words for it, and thus develop over time a searchable collection of information that can be re-used and re-purposed when the occasion requires it. Keeping such collections of information is a time honored practice. Since the Renaissance, writers and public speakers have kept commonplace books, notebooks with subject headings ranging from the sublime to the mundane, under which they kept quotations, observations, and musings to be drawn on at later dates. These repositories of distilled and filtered information were highly effective tools for helping a person generate ideas and adorn their compositions with apt quotations. Interestingly, the commonplace book became a genre, which publishers offered for sale to those people who wanted the information but lacked the desire or the resources to acquire it themselves. In his introduction to "Renaissance Commonplace books from the British Library" William Sherman observes that at the time "there was a growing market for printed books to guide the compilation of manuscript notes, and compilers of manuscript commonplace books were expected to cut and paste (sometimes literally) excerpts from printed texts." (link) The literate taste of the time ran to copia rather than originality, and command of what others had said, decorously displayed, was more important than original composition. The contemporary equivalent of the commonplace book may not as yet have reached the level of a genre, but there are repositories of information that serve the same function, sifting through the tons of information available, sorting, organizing, and rendering more accessible what anyone could find had they the patience and commitment to search for themselves. Some of these repositories have fee for use or subscription economic models and in that sense are very much like the commonplace books published hundreds of years ago. But it is easy enough to keep and publish your own commonplace book using a content management system that allows you to cut and paste quotations, or whole sites, into your own database to be retrieved later or even published for others to view, which makes the electronic commonplace book an interesting new form of old school rhetorical practice, one that encourages the traditional rhetorical practice of building what you have to say out of what others have already said—rather than pretending to make it all up yourself. If the electronic rhetorical practices are anti-romantic, they will return us to rhetorical activities much more like those practiced by the ancients than those practiced by our grandparents.
When the contemporary equivalent of the commonplace book is sorted not by topic but by date, you get what's known as a weblog, a website that consists of frequent observations about life online and off, increasingly with digital images captured on a cell phone. The weblog offers the writer a soapbox in cyberspace, a place to tell the world what it looks like from a particular vantage. You don't need the sanction of a governing body or even the prestige of an association to publish a blog. Nor do you need any technical knowledge. Anyone, in other words, can publish anything they like. The phenomenon of weblogging has been around for just over six years and already there are tens of thousands of webloggers. There is very little organization to the practice. Some web services offer link sharing and blogs-most-recently-updated lists that create a kind of audience for the bloggers who use them, but for the most part bloggers are simply out there on their own, putting their views out and creating an audience by linking to other bloggers and commenting on the blogs they read. For the most part the practice is unpaid. Some webloggers beg for donations, and others make money hocking t-shirts and hats. There are, however, a few who have started making names for themselves as journalists and critics. Some have even gone on to publish books. The fact that anyone can publish a blog—there's a blog called the homeless guy (http://www.thehomelessguy.blogspot.com/). The author, Kevin Barbieux, sleeps in the streets and uses libraries and café's to keep his blog—and the fact that there are no governing bodies restricting expression in any way, coupled with the fact that it is possible to create a following, means that the weblog has made it possible for people to pursue a kind of sophistic existence, trading their words and personalities for reputation and wealth—not much wealth, I admit, but there are a few who make enough to quit their day jobs. The weblog is more, however, than a portico for virtual sophists.
When Trent Lott, the American Senator from Mississippi, was toppled for eulogizing racist views, the weblogging community claimed responsibility for bringing the traditional media back to what it had considered a non-story, and thus for the first time the webloggers had political impact. Further evidence for the emerging significance of weblogging in politics can be found in the current British Parliament, which this past July set up a temporary wireless network so that 120 webloggers could participate in a discussion about politics and weblogging. Among the participants was the first MP to keep a weblog. Tom Watson's online presence has increased his political fortunes. The Guardian quoted the organizer of the conference, James Crabtree, as saying, ". . . six months ago nobody had heard of [Tom Watson]. Now, if you type 'Labour MP' into Google, you get Tom Watson, not Tony Blair." (link) And then there is the phenomenon of moblogging which is short for mobile. Howard Rheingold is responsible, I think, for getting this notion on the map. In his most recent book, Smart Mobs, he recorded several events that were created by people forwarding text messages via their cell-phones. The most remarkable of these was the overthrow of President Joseph Estrada of the Philippines in January of 2001. Rheingold says that more than a million Manila residents participated in peaceful demonstrations that were to a large extent organized by people forwarding text messages to everyone in their cell phone address books. (157-8) "Go 2EDSA, Wear Blck" was apparently the message. Go to Epifanio de los Santa Avenue wearing black, in other words, and thousands of people did. This is certainly a very vivid example of digital rhetoric in action. There is a parodic transformation of moblogging happening in American cities today called flash mobbing, (Rheingold called the phenomenon swarming) which uses the same technology, message forwarding, to organize a bunch of bored folk to show up at a designated time and place and do something silly, sing a song, chant, or hop around. At such an event in Dallas, the participants divided into two groups, one shouting Marco, the other responding Polo until they all dissolved into laughter and wandered away: Digital rhetoric as buffoonery. (link)
If there are odd echoes of ancient rhetoric in contemporary invention and memory, there are also some in arrangement as well. The organic and linear constructions that Plato champions in Phaedrus are highly literate, acontextual, and systematic. Pull out one piece and the whole thing stops making sense. Add something and you've got something new. With digital rhetoric, you have something much more like the Lysias speech. You can assemble chunks of information in data heaps, and then format and reformat them at will. You can do this because it's technically possible but also because people do not read information from a computer screen the way they were taught to read books. They don't begin at the beginning and read to the end. They scan the screen looking for something to fix on; they jump around, tune in and out, they carry their own personal context with them, and often they don't afford the information authority or even agency. Texts and images and sounds are raw material out of which to build others texts and images and sounds. The objectification of words that inscription necessitated is being erased by endless repetition and re-arrangement. The paternity of ideas that Plato sought is being questioned and the business model that copyright enforces, the one that's leading the music industry to sue kids for downloading music, could be replaced by something much more sophistic, a rhetoric where personality is more important than paternity, where citizenship is global and ideas and words are freely exchanged not as commodities but as creative opportunities.
I realize that I am both assuming an identity for sophistry that can't be proven and accusing Plato of engendering a destructive rhetoric. Neither of which is entirely necessary for the point I'm trying to make, namely that the issues created when classical rhetoric was created, about how to restrict rhetorical power, have returned in the realm of digital rhetoric. Indeed, if you re-read the last section of Phaedrus, the myth of Theuth and the creation of writing, you will see a direct analogue to current concerns about writing and the Internet. If you were to ask the average teacher what he or she thinks of the Internet's impact on student writing pretty quickly you would hear, I'm guessing, something about plagiarism and cutting and pasting and never going to the library anymore and not bothering to read but rather book mark and such. I hear these sorts of comments regularly and though I tend not to bother getting into it, I'm tempted to remind my colleagues about the Renaissance practice of keeping commonplace books.
Under the heading of delivery there is also an interesting return to the sophistic model of discourses constructed out of disarticulated interchangeable parts. Inscription is a mortifying process. Once the text is inscribed, it is hard to reanimate it. Inscribe a stone and change your mind and you've got a lot of work ahead of you. Publish a book and it's out of date. But electronic communications can be delivered on the fly, at the moment of request, because the format and the presentation can readily be separated from the information. In a typical web-based communication, the words are contained in one file or set of files and the formatting instructions in another. Because it is possible to know something of your reader based on information provided passively from their server or actively by way of feedback forms, it is possible to alter the appearance of the text before delivering it, while simultaneously delivering a variation to another reader. You can also have the information change without disturbing the presentation—a robotic page like the one I described a few minutes ago. Also, because the information is contained within a database, it can be updated automatically, and filtered as well, so that what is delivered is what the reader is looking for—or at least is what matches the reader's profile. To be able to modify both the content and its disposition on the fly is something we've done without since the advent of inscription. I'm not saying we have a return to orality here, there's more to it than that. We can communicate with people in different parts of the world simultaneously and asynchronously. So the restrictions of traditional orality, dependence on recall, connection to the immediate audience, physical limitations, none of those things influence online delivery. At the same time, we are less hampered by the limitations of inscriptive rhetorics also because we can separate the content from the way it's delivered. We can permit the viewer to carry his or her own context and still communicate effectively. We don't have to ensure the organic model Plato insisted on because viewers tune in and out, read with the idea of re-using what was written or with the idea of communicating back to the writer in the form of asynchronous dialogue. I have no idea what Plato would think of asynchronous dialogue; he might like I.M., but I'm guessing he'd insist on F2F.
Given my chosen pattern of arrangement I should say a few words about style. It seems to me that style is both the same and vastly different. Word choice, metaphors, syntax, they all matter in much the same way except that there is increasing pressure in the direction of contraction and concision. People don't read from the screen, are in a hurry to do something, and can quickly abandon one source of information for another. So it's even more important than ever to say what's to be said with as few words as possible. The paragraph structure that we've engrained in ourselves may well disarticulate into bullet points. Just as technological effects on viewer practices encourages what the ancients called the low style so to there is increasing pressure to construct a style that conveys a positive ethos in a hurry. Because anyone can publish and because the typical Google search kicks up a pile of possible sources, it's important to be both succinct and compelling—to look like you know what you are doing, like your content is fresh, and layered so that those looking for depth can find it while those looking for a quick solution aren't bewildered by complexity. It is also important to be readily accountable, to have lots of ways for people to find the people behind the website, to answer email quickly and in person, etc. Text, in other words, is part of a larger enterprise, not an enterprise in itself, which might mean that digital rhetoric will end textual fetishism.
Well, the echoes I was responding to have turned into something more like ringing in my ears so I will end by observing that there is quite a bit more to think about along these lines. Kairos, for example, is interestingly transformed when re-situated in the realm of the virtual. And to pre-pon as well. There's more to be said, that's certain; what's obscure to me at the moment is what's to be made of all that can be said. One idea that I am beginning to incline towards is that rhetorical practices may not be purely culture-bound. If that's the case then ancient rhetoric has a future.
Janice Walker used this pattern of arrangement that I've employed in this paper in a piece she put online in 1997 (link). There has also been a dissertation on the subject which I need to track down.
Rheingold, Howard. Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution. Perseus: Cambridge, 2002.
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