Defining Digital Rhetoric with 20-20 Hindsight


Like Doug Eyman, who began this blog carnival a few weeks ago, I started trying to define the phrase “digital rhetoric” about a decade ago.

There were already many conversations going on in which the phrase was being bandied about. A decade ago there were already listings in the MLA job database that asked for expertise in “digital rhetoric” and courses being taught on the subject, but it seemed to me at the time that the term was being used without any common sense of its history, its disciplinary character, or its basic philosophical orientation.

It seemed like a slippery term back then in need of a good solid definition to shore it up for posterity and to give it some scholarly rigor. I actually even had the hubris to try to tackle this task solo in the beginning of my endeavor. Looking back at these first bursts of definitional activity, they now seem a bit ridiculous, particularly doing so in isolation at first. It was as though I thought that only someone shut off in a clean room free of contaminants could distill the essential essence of “digital rhetoric.” It makes much more sense to define things — like the words that we use — collaboratively and to take part in new forms of writing like this. Hopefully our digital rhetoric about digital rhetoric will express our collective intelligence, and I hope that the carnival won’t really be “closed” with this posting, since the comments remain open.

In any case, here were some of the questions that I asked when Google was still new and YouTube didn’t yet exist, as I looked into the petri dish of my computer screen, where I was already spending hours and hours of the day watching pixels change as I chased Internet memes and burrowed deep into the ephemera of official websites:

What was digital rhetoric?
What did it look like?
What did it sound like?
What did it feel like?
What ideologies did it represent?
What labor practices sustained it?
How was it represented in material culture?
What infrastructures did it require?
What disciplines controlled how it was learned and taught?
How could we tell good digital rhetoric from bad digital rhetoric?
And was that an ethical distinction or an aesthetic one?

I tried to trace the term “digital rhetoric” back to its putative coiner, Richard Lanham, to find out why he chose to put those two particular words together. We had a lovely lunch at the Pacific Dining Car in Santa Monica, where he regaled me with origin stories about bringing humanities computing to UCLA, but even this founding father of the field couldn’t help me define the term with the kind of precision that I longed for.

I tried to defend the term against people who hated seeing the word “digital” appended to everything, like Ian Bogost, who preferred “procedural rhetoric” or “rhetoric and computation” as more meaningful descriptors. Bogost and I are now working together on the definition of the latter for the Oxford Handbook of Rhetoric, so I guess I only ended up promising to define more things.

I tried to defend the term against people who didn’t believe that “rhetoric” is a discipline with any relevance to the contemporary world of computational media, like Lev Manovich, who declared rhetoric dead in The Language of New Media. (Manovich has now been won over and talks about “database rhetorics” quite frequently, and he and I are collaborators at present too.)

In my probably futile drive to gain mastery over digital rhetoric, I actually laid claim to the term as my own intellectual property by purchasing the domain name “” As a monument to human vanity it still stands as an outdated and badly designed website, which I keep meaning to update, especially since it periodically appears on the course syllabi of others also desperate for definition.

I almost gave up completely on definition when people began insisting that the phrase should be treated as a plural,”digital rhetorics,” in the name of resisting hegemonic systems of control.

In the version of defining digital that appeared in the chapter on the subject in the Virtualpolitik book (MIT Press, 2009) I focused on the following four areas:

1. The conventions of new digital genres that are used for everyday discourse, as well as for special occasions, in average people’s lives.
2. Public rhetoric, often in the form of political messages from government institutions, which is represented or recorded through digital technology and disseminated via electronic distributed networks.
3. The emerging scholarly discipline concerned with the rhetorical interpretation of computer-generated media as objects of study.
4. Mathematical theories of communication from the field of information science, many of which attempt to quantify the amount of uncertainty in a given linguistic exchange or the likely paths through which messages travel.

Definition one seemed important at the time, because definitions of digital rhetoric at the turn of the millennium were overly likely to emphasize persuasion over other rhetorical purposes and to be excessively allied with the “persuasive technologies” movement. Much as Cheryl Ball has created a beautiful memorial posting on this carnival celebrating the life of Genevieve Critel, I felt it was important to recognize how computational media could be used to mourn, celebrate, commemorate, and recognize events without the coercive force of needing to “win” in argumentative discourse. In other words, as Ball says, kairos matters. Rhetorical occasions should not just be reduced to gaining territory in pro and con arguments, and that is true for digital rhetoric as well.

Definition two was much of what the book was devoted to in the bulk of its pages in trying to understand the complex legacies of the Bush and Clinton administrations and how histories of media and technology might express the political with a capital “P.”

I was also adamant that definition three was important, if there was field-buidling going on in the academy, and that we would need to get beyond disciplinary turf wars. I also argued that “studying digital rhetoric involves examining ideologies about concepts like ’freedom’ or ‘honesty’ that are in turn shaped by factors like national, linguistic, theological, or disciplinary identity; societal attitudes about ownership and authorship; and cultural categories of gender, race, sexuality, and class” (56).

Eyman took issue with definition four in his own recent work on defining digital rhetoric, which is likely to appear in the Digital Culture series from the University of Michigan Press. (This text comes from an early draft of Eyman’s work, so I apologize for reproducing what may be an early version of his thinking on the subject in what is likely to be a must-purchase volume for anyone seeking a survey of the subject.)

Losh sets up this move by arguing that “in the standard model of digital rhetoric, literary theory is applied to technological phenomena without considering how technological theories could conversely elucidate new media texts” (47) . . . I would argue that to this point, there certainly is no “standard model of digital rhetoric.” . . . However, I would concede the more important point here—that technological theories (as with Bogost’s development of “procedural rhetoric”) may well add complexity and depth to the field of digital rhetoric. While it is likely that network theory is certainly useful (and, indeed, many more recent works in digital rhetoric and related fields have appropriated theories and methods from network theory, e.g. Rice, 2006; Nakamura, 2008; van Dijk, 2009), prior attempts to synthesize communication theory (meaning the mathematical principles of information encoding and decoding via telecommunications systems) and rhetorical theory have been less than successful.

Actually, as astute a reader as Eyman is, I think he might have missed some of the point of how information theory is used in the Virtualpolitik book, particularly in the context of the final chapter about gender and computing, since I’m actually arguing that many of the early patriarchs of information theory — Vannevar Bush, Norbert Wiener, Claude Shannon, Alan Turing, and J.C.R. Licklider — composed texts that were full of provocative metaphors that could mark their writing as literary rather than scientific works. I agree with Eyman that we need to ask what we fail to learn about values, knowledge systems, institutions, and power when we think that what we are expressing is purely rational, logical, commonsensical and a-rhetorical.

But Eyman is right. It’s a flawed book in many ways. And any book about this subject quickly becomes outdated.

So what has changed in digital rhetoric in the intervening years, since the Virtualpolitik book first appeared, and how has my thinking about the subject of defining digital rhetoric changed? I’ve always thought that “digital rhetoric” means both rhetoric about the digital and rhetoric conveyed by digital platforms, interfaces, and code. So developments in the field of software studies should certainly continue to be changing what digital rhetoric means to composition scholars, just as those developments mattered in the 2000s. As Jentery Sayers points out in The Thing about Networks, or Big Data Rhetoric digital rhetoric is going meta now that we can generate visualizations of visualizations. What other trends in computing should digital rhetoricians care about?

For example, what does it mean to talk about fields such as “platform studies” or “media archaeology” when considering the relationship of digital rhetoric to the affordances and constraints of material culture? Many no longer accept the notion of a “virtual reality” that is somehow disengaged from the physical world and its infrastructures. As we move toward an “Internet of things” and engage with the materiality of particular technologies made more visible by the social practices of mobile and ubiquitous technologies, do we — as Alex Reid says — need to think about a more object-oriented ontology?

As we debate in writing studies if we must “program or be programmed,” what does it mean to think about critical code studies and consider the relationship between human language and its rhetorics and computer programming? Is “digital literacy” even a meaningful term anymore, and — if so — who has the right to teach it?

When so many people celebrate remix uncritically, should we be doing do more as rhetoricians to “unmix” digital media in an effort to understand the specific provenances of the individual elements of works produced in new digital genres? Do we have an ethical obligation to try to understand the original audience, purpose, and context of a digital file as well as those of the remix that contains it? (I argued in the Virtualpolitik book that this was important in the case of the SonicJihad scandal when the House Intelligence Committee mistook a Battlefield 2 fan film for a terrorist training videogame, and I still think it is important in my recent work that looks at remixes from the Arab Spring with Sam Gregory of WITNESS.) Can the tools of cultural analytics or media visualization from digital humanities labs like this one help us in this work? What about cheap tools for unmixing like Shazam or Google image search?

Finally, as a worldwide collective of feminist instructors who teach with and about computational media launches the Feminist Dialogues on Technology initiative, how can we think about words like “archive” and “discipline,” which are both nouns and verbs that matter for digital rhetoric? How do we understand forms of invisible labor, and how knowledge is embodied, situated, and co-created?

Join us on the FemTechNet listserv and find out!

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  1. Pingback: Narrowing the Scope: Digital Rhetoric | Write from the Start

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