Media · Rhetoric

Lingua Fracta

I had every intention of posting this months ago but kept putting it off because I’m mildly intimidated by the awesome combination that is Collin + this book. Because I enjoy it so much, though, I think it’s appropriate for this to be my inaugural post for my summer-reading-for-exams extravaganza!

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linguafracta

Though perhaps tempting to critique and disregard print culture and the tradition from which it emerged (as it seems many are wont to do), this certainly isn’t Brooke’s purpose in Lingua Fracta: Toward a Rhetoric of New Media. Instead, Brooke carefully shows the value of the tradition and the classical rhetorical canons as they are reconsidered through the lens of new media. This rearticulation is an attempt to “restore the dialectical character of the rhetorical canons” that positions them as dynamic and changing rather than rooted and fixed (Brooke xiii). Without reimagining the canons for new media, applications to technological pursuits are superficial and restricted.

And though he doesn’t throw out the canons, Brooke does warn against disciplinary dependency on print, arguing that our insistence on print “if it persists unchecked, will slowly bring us out of step with our students, our institutions, and the broader culture of which we are a part” (23). In order to redirect this dependency, Brooke argues that we need to shift both our unit of analysis and our rhetoric from a focus on text to the medial interface. The interface, he argues, emphasizes the importance of process:

A turn toward the interface as our unit of analysis would be an acknowledgement that it is not necessary that these processes culminate in products (which can then be decoupled from the contexts of their production), but rather that what we think of as products (books, articles, essays) are but special, stabilized instances of an ongoing process conducted at the level of interface. 25

Brooke’s emphasis on process here is imperative for an understanding of the canons as dynamic and of reformulating disciplinary conceptions of texts as fixed. Brooke rearticulates the five rhetorical canons—invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery—and remediates them through a more inclusive lens of new media that shifts them away from their static categories.

  1. The first remix is a shift from invention to proairesis, which includes the possibilities of reading and writing practices beyond print.
  2. The second shift is a move from “arrangement as sequence” to “arrangement as pattern” (92), which complicates our understandings of a text as something that must be composed, read, and understood from start to finish.
  3. Style is the third remix, which Brooke rearticulates as perspective because new media necessitates a shift away from the reader’s perspective of a fixed text to consider the “multiple and partial perspectives needed to understand and assess a digital text (114).
  4. The fourth remix revitalizes memory in terms of persistence, the “practice of retaining particular ideas, keywords, or concepts across multiple texts” (157), which becomes more complicated with the infiltration of information readily accessible through technological resources.
  5. The fifth and final remix shifts delivery to performance, which imagines delivery as performative—it is not simply a matter of delivering a text to a reader but performing that text in a way that ensures circulation.

These canonical remixes are important to emphasize because each reexamination very carefully shows the value of the traditional categories in ways that are more appropriate and useful for new media contexts.

It is also important to emphasize here the integral role that the trivium plays in Brooke’s argument. The classic trivium is composed of the fixed categories of grammar, rhetoric, and logic. Brooke argues that “the trivium should be rethought as layered ecologies, that each element of the trivium describes not a separate discipline, but a different scale for thought” (27-28). This claim underpins his argument for remaking the canons while speaking to the larger issue of the interconnected and layered ways we can consider the different roles of technology as ecology.

Following other calls for a consideration of ecology as metaphor (Cooper, 1986; Spinuzzi, 2003; Edbauer, 2005), Brooke sees it as an opportunity to focus on the “temporarily finite set of practices, ideas, and interactions without fixing them in place or investing too much critical energy in their stability” (42). An ecology destabilizes our idea of fixed products, making room to consider the potentiality of the dynamism of texts, and Brooke’s revised trivium consists of the ecologies of code, practice, and culture.

An ecology of code accounts for the multimodal processes—visual and aural, spatial, textual—that work together to create a dynamic interface (48). The ecology of culture looks carefully at the range of relationships and discourse communities in local and global contexts (49). It is the ecology of practice, however, that is highlighted as “conscious, directed activity” that “produce[s] a particular discursive effect” (49).

I want to pause for a moment to suggest that it is this form of practice that many discussions of technology lack. The ecology of practice is an opportunity to understand the “changes wrought with and by new media” (47), and this ecology is a framework for reimagining both the rhetorical canons and our understandings of the author and text.

Through his examination of the canons, Brooke claims that a “rhetoric of new media, rather than examining the choices that have already been made by writers, should prepare us as writers to make our own choices (15). Such a claim reinforces the supposition that reinvigorating both the trivium and the canons is useful for imagining new technologies and texts that are dynamic and forward-thinking. It acknowledges that instead of analyzing writers and their texts as fixed identities and products from a readerly perspective, we can instead shift our focus to our own role within the process of meaning-making.

Such a shift calls into question the author/reader binary in which an author creates a print text (a stable product) that is then consumed by a reader. Instead, a rhetoric of new media as situated within an ecology of practice reimagines the author/reader relationship, which also makes room for a reconsideration of the composition process itself. 

This discussion necessarily invites Richard Lanham’s discussion of the dissolution of authoritative and canonical print texts and the tenuous relationship between creator and critic, a discussion that Brooke frequently cites. In the introduction of The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts, Lanham describes the dynamism and interactivity of the electronic text as volatile, arguing that to “volatilize text is to abolish the fixed ‘edition’ of the great work and so the authority of the great work itself. Such volatility questions the whole conception of textual authority” (xi). That is, new media (for Lanham, the e-text) disrupts the idea of canonical Great Books, which calls into question the author.

This volatility not only questions the authority of the single Author but also challenges our understandings of the static content in a book. We see such volatility in all aspects of the rhetorical process and production of new media texts—from the composition to the arrangement and production to the text’s circulation. At all of these stages, new media pushes on the fixed notion of what it means to compose and be a composer, what a text is and has the potential to be.

Wikipedia as Praxical Application

Wikipedia (not without its own faults) can be a useful example here to imagine how these different canons intersect and push on our ideas of the author and text. Brooke argues that proairetic invention supports practices that are not “closed, idealized, and privatized” (Brooke 74) and refuses the historically romanticized notion of the single author of an authoritative text. Although Wikipedia may not be practicing what it preaches, it does make itself known as a space that is open to contribution, that is always in process, and that is made up of the labor of multiple authors.

Wikipedia offers itself as a text that is patterned. Though it could be read sequentially from top to bottom, we often use it to find particular information—skimming through, clicking hyperlinks, skipping from section to section. Like Brooke’s example of the database, Wikipedia only provides ordered information when it is acted on by a user (101). That is, the user chooses how to read/navigate it.

New media necessitates a shift away from the reader’s perspective of a fixed text to consider the “multiple and partial” perspectives needed to understand and assess a digital text (Brooke 114).

Lanham argues that print text strives for “unselfconscious transparency” (Lanham 4), but the electronic text is malleable, self-conscious, authorial: “The textual surface has become permanently bi-stable. We are always looking first AT it and then THROUGH it, and this oscillation creates a different implied ideal of decorum, both stylistic and behavioral” (5). The result of this toggling is the dissolution of the creator and critic (6). Though Brooke agrees that the transparency of text exists along an oscillating continuum, he adds, “our own position along that continuum is never static” (Brooke 133). That is, a rhetoric of new media must also consider how we look at and through interfaces “from a particular position” (140). For a discipline that is hyper-aware of author and reader subjectivity and the importance of our cultural and social positioning, this addition is crucial and makes a lot of sense in relation to some of the discussions related to Wikipedia that have occurred recently.

Feminist Wikipedia Edit-A-Thon bitstrip comic by Adeline Koh--image of feminist people of color working from computers and cell phones
Feminist Wikipedia Edit-A-Thon by Adeline Koh

In terms of persistence, Wikipedia is interesting for considering how we tell, record, preserve, and share information. Brooke argues that as a practice, memory is “the ability to build and maintain patterns” (157), a sort of toggling between what we retain and what we must necessarily forget to make room for new information. Such a claim connects to skimming: there are so many (academic) texts and time constraints that we are inevitably forced to skim, recognizing patterns of a text more than individual details of that text.

And finally, Wikipedia is interesting to consider in terms of its performance. Delivery is not simply a matter of delivering a text to a reader but performing that text in a way that ensures circulation. Brooke focuses on circulation within the context of medium, which emphasizes the role of writing technologies within delivery and the process of circulation rather than the product itself (176). This shifts attention away from the final product, the Text itself, and asks us to consider the authors’ role within the production and delivery of that text.

Concluding Thoughts

Brooke argues that “the canons speak to the need for invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery, but our available information technologies (from voice and gesture to YouTube and MySpace) both constrain and enable the way that those needs are actualized in discourse” (196). I would add to this, too, that our knowledge of writing technologies also constrains our pedagogical applications of the value of the canons.

Rhet/comp is in a tenuous space where we recognize the importance of new media and new writing technologies but haven’t yet consistently applied that value to either scholarship or classroom practices. Brooke offers practical applications for how we can apply these new media theories to our research and teaching practices, which necessitates a disciplinary shift in how we understand and value both the Author and the classical conception of the Text. In many ways, these shifts reflect the recent turns toward multimodality (a word Collin may not necessarily like)—promoting collaboration between students, assigning projects that necessitate students exploring a range of literacies and technologies.

Ultimately, we must position technology not as an add-on, either in the classroom or in scholarly contexts, but understand and appreciate the value of writing technologies in their own contexts, to “move from a text-based rhetoric, exemplified by our attachment to the printed page, to a rhetoric that can account for the dynamics of the interface” (Brooke 26).

 

Brooke, Collin. Lingua Fracta: Toward a Rhetoric of New Media. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 2009. Print.

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