The Same As It Ever Was: Invention as the Future of Digital Rhetoric



This post is an extension of my previous work on Rodolphe Töpffer and the rhetorical histories of new media practices (Inventing Comics), and marks the start of two book-length projects: (1) a translation of Henri Saint-Simon’s (with Olinde Rodrigues) 1825 essay recognized as one of the first references to the literary and artistic vanguard, a term consciously adopted from the French military as a metaphor for a new social and institutional (academic) order for post-industrial societies; and (2) a monograph growing out of Töpffer’s and Saint-Simon’s work, tentatively titled, Rhetoric and the Humanities in an Electrate University.

These two ongoing projects are directly connected to Töpffer’s work as the “inventor” of graphic narratives—at least in the Western tradition; in the Eastern tradition, Hokusai developed an early form of manga thirteen years earlier, circa 1814 (cf. Michener). A review of Töpffer’s scholarly and theoretical work on what he calls his “modest art,” the form of literature in prints was derived from Western histories and traditions of the arts and humanities—rhetoric in particular—and adapted to the emerging scientific and technological environments of a Europe in the midst of industrial growth. As Thierry Smolderen writes in The Origin of Comics, “… if one reads the serious and the comics sides of the Töpfferian oeuvre concurrently … it becomes clear that the visual language of progressive action that he put together combined all the systems, all the injunctions, and all the models that characterized, to his eyes, the stupidity of the industrial world” (47).

Rodolphe Topffer and the Emergence of the Artistic/Literary Vanguard

Töpffer’s purpose in formalizing this language was more than a critique of the industrial world. However, while his pedagogical and artistic writings on the practice of composing graphic narratives tells us that the invention of technologies that made pencils, paper, and printing cheaper and more efficient allowed his experiments in new media writing possible (Essais; Mainardi, 2017), his journals and correspondence tells us another story. For instance, in an 1838 journal entry, Töpffer refers to himself as a ‘comrade’ of the “avant-garde,” thirteen years after the publication of Saint-Simon’s dialogue-style and manifesto-like essay, “L’Artiste, Le Savant, et L’Industriel” (Töpffer, Correspondence 323n55; Pitteloud 220).

The “Artist” tells us in this dialogue, the arts and letters disciplines are to serve as the frontlines of a social order designed for emerging scientific and technological societies: “We address ourselves to the imagination and feelings of people: we are therefore supposed to achieve the most vivid and decisive kind of action; and if today we seem to play no role or at best a very secondary one, that has been the result of the arts’ lacking a common drive and a general idea, which are essential to their energy and success” (Calinescu 103). The common drive the authors have in mind extends far beyond the technological or industrial support. Rather, the authors’ vision is to invert the traditional social order, with the arts in the first order of knowledge, the sciences in the second order, and industry in the third. The common drive or general idea they have in mind is that this artistic and literary vanguard will be an institutional movement (for governing bodies and for academic and other institutions), and one that aims to foster the new ethical and moral practices of a global society through the creative and popular arts (i.e., the entertainment industries).

Töpffer’s “comics,” it seems, participated in this early vanguard, offering an interesting perspective on his motivations, one not commonly recognized in comics studies and even less so in the traditional histories of rhetoric. Much of what Töpffer and Saint-Simon proposed in the early-nineteenth century is coming to fruition in the (scholarly) study of contemporary digital rhetorics, albeit with a wider range of technologies primed for greater rhetorical attention and entertainment industries with much greater influence on the ongoing ethical cultivation of public, civic, and global life in a technological society (cf. Vallor, Technology and the Virtues 35-117).

Electracy, the Contemporary Artistic/Literary Vanguard, and the Futures of the Humanities

Today, Töpffer’s work resonates most with Gregory Ulmer’s work on the social-machine (apparatus) of electracy, a theoretical proposal for rethinking the general idea of the aims and purposes of an arts and humanities education in a post-industrial (electrate) society (“The Learning Screen”). For a fuller discussion of this purpose, see Ulmer’s 2015 CCCC presentation, “H’MMM Disciplines (Beyond steAm) Electrate Pedagogy”:

Graphic narratives, in this context, serve as a relay for re-considering and re-inventing future approaches to education in the humanities (generally) and rhetoric (specifically) in a society increasingly ordered, influenced, and cultivated by creative and popular uses of new and emerging media.

While our media environments and ecologies have extended far beyond what Saint-Simon and Töpffer could have imagined in the early-1800s, their vision for a common drive among the arts and humanities remains an open question. Discerning the futures of digital rhetorics (and other creative and popular media), then, may require that we begin organizing the arts and humanities around a common drive to cultivate practices of social and practical wisdom through the entertainment industries. In the process, we may get closer to fulfilling the stated aims of the literary and artistic avant-garde for our own era: to serve as the vanguard of ethical life (well-being; a life worth living) in societies saturated with and organized by ever-new digital technologies.

At the heart of this early vanguard is a desire to invent what Jeff Rice and Brian McNely recently address as a “networked humanities, humanities-based work that does not reside in one space or object of study but in the interactions—the network—of multiple sites of learning” (3). By tracing out this pre-history of the digital humanities we may learn about similar efforts in the early decades of the Industrial Revolution and contribute to the “larger networks of connected thoughts, ideals, and actions” (Rice and McNely 18) of reimagining the general idea and common drive of a humanities education in the twenty-first century and beyond. Saint-Simon, Töpffer, and Ulmer, each working in different eras of scientific development, share such a vision of a humanities built on methods of invention and re-invention across our interactive networks. Pursuing this work is a matter of seeking what they thought possible for an electric (electrate) university.


Cover Image Adapted from the April 1878 Newspaper Heading of the L’Avant-Garde periodical, publishing the  Administration and Writings of the Avant-Garde in Chaux-de-Fonds (in the province of Neuchàtel, Switzerland). [Found on Wikimedia Commons here.]


Calinescu, Matei. Five Faces of Modernity: Modernism, Avant-Garde, Decadence, Kitsch, Postmodernism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1987. Print.

Michener, James A. The Hokusai Sketch-Books: Selections from the Manga. Clarendon, VT: Tuttle Publishing, 1989. Print.

Pitteloud, Antoine. Rodolphe Töpffer en Valais: textes extraits des “Voyages en zigzag” et de “Nouvelles Genevoises. Paris: L’Age d’Homme, 2006. Print.

Rice, Jeff, and Brian McNely. “Introduction: Networked Humanities” in Networked Humanities: Within and Without the University. Anderson, SC: Parlor Press, 2018. Print.

Saint-Simon, Henri. “L’Artiste, le Savant, et L’Industriel” in Opinions Littéraires, Philosophiques, et Industriels. Paris: Galerie de Bossange Père, Libraire, 1825: 331-392. Print.

Smolderen, Thierry. The Origin of Comics: From William Hogarth to Winsor McCay. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2014. Print.

Töpffer, Rodolphe. Correspondance Complète: Mi-octobre 1832 8 septembre 1838. Geneva: Droz 2007. Print.

—. Essais Sur le Beau Dans Les Arts. Geneva: Albert Aubert, 1858. eBook.

—. Inventing Comics: A New Translation of Rodolphe Töpffer’s Essays on Graphic Storytelling, Media Rhetorics, and Aesthetic Practice. Anderson, SC: Parlor Press, 2017. Print.

Ulmer, Gregory L. “H’MMM Disciplines (Beyond steAm) Electrate Pedagogy.” YouTube. 9 April 2018. Web. 12 September 2018.

—. “The Learning Screen” in Networked: A (networked_book) about (networked_art). Eds. Authors and Collaborators of the Networked Book Project. N.d. Web. 12 September 2018.

Vallor, Shannon. Technology and the Virtues: A Philosophical Guide to a Future Worth Wanting. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. Print.

About Author(s)

Sergio C. Figueiredo is an Associate Professor of Media and Rhetoric in the Department of English at Kennesaw State University. Sergio is the translator of Inventing Comics: A New Translation of Rodolphe Töpffer’s Essays on Graphic Storytelling, Media Rhetorics, and Aesthetic Practice.

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