Thursday, March 30, 2006

In Search of Digital Rhetoric

I also brought Lev Manovich's excellent book The Language of New Media (MIT Press, 2001) with me for my seaside re-reading. I was struck again by how much better Manovich's analysis of media artifacts was than the similarly titled and more recent The Language of Websites (Routledge, 2005), which I found to be an oversimplified and superficial false start. In particular, Manovich looks at new media through the critical apparatus of print, film, and human-computer interfaces, while Boardman never gets beyond the arrangement of written characters in the codex form as grounds for his comparison.

My only quibble would be Manovich's assertion that rhetoric is in decline as a factor to be considered in new media studies. For example, Manovich writes:

Traditionally, texts encoded human knowledge and memory, instructed, inspired, convinced, and seduced their readers to adopt new ideas, new ways of interpreting the world, new ideologies. In short, the printed word was linked to the art of rhetoric. While it is probably possible to invent a new rhetoric of hypermedia that will use hyperlinking not to distract the reader from the argument (as is often the case today), but rather to further convince her of an argument's validity, the sheer existence and popularity of hyperlinking exemplifies the continuing decline of the field of rhetoric in the modern era. Ancient and medieval scholars classified hundreds of different rhetorical figures. Roman Jakobson, under the influence of the computer's binary logic, information theory, and cybernetics to which he was exposed at MIT where he was teaching, radically reduced rhetoric to just two figures -- metaphor and metonymy . . . Rather than seducing the user through a careful arrangement of arguments and examples, points and counterpoints, changing rhythms of presentation (i.e., the rate of data streaming, to use contemporary language), simulated false paths, and dramatically presented conceptual breakthroughs, cultural interfaces, like RAM itself, bombard the user with all the data at once. (78)

Of course, Erkki Huhtamo has been cataloguing the figures of new media in his work as a digital Curtius. Furthermore, like Ian Bogost who writes about procedural rhetoric in video games, I would assert that rhetorical interpretations should be rightfully seen as central to the field, especially given the political and public nature of these new forms and the structures of power to which they make appeals.

Granted, the Aristotilian category of "ethos" is invariably altered in new forms of virtual discourse that lack face-to-face contact or the authority of the written word, but even in a field of rhetoric that could be seen as somewhat dated in a global, technologically complex society, such as classical oratory, online remixes of presidential speeches show the vitality of rhetorical approaches oriented around the speaker's presentation at a traditional podium, since even parody pays homage to the form, despite the fact that parataxis may triumph over hypotaxis. Presidential speeches are also getting machinima makeovers, such as the Bush and Mush exchanges between the U.S. Chief Executive and Pakistan's head of state.

I would also argue that Aristotle's opposition between the necessary and the contingent in the Rhetoric is also important in the rhetoric of science around probability in contemporary information theory.



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