Last Friday I had the good fortune to be one of two invited speakers for the IU Communication and Culture Colloquium Series. Along with Dr. Emily Cram (one of the speakers at the upcoming Indiana Digital Rhetoric Symposium), my charge was to introduce, in some capacity, the conversation on/around digital rhetoric. Dr. Cram and I thought it would be helpful to approach the conversation roughly from our different disciplinary perspectives: she working from communication studies and I from rhetoric and composition. These are, of course, arbitrary distinctions for both of us as each of our research is more aligned with the field of Rhetoric than either of these two disciplinary poles within/related-to that frame, but it was a useful exercise for starting the conversation. Particularly, it seemed likely to have value for graduate students and colleagues who may be unfamiliar with digital rhetoric or even skeptical of digital rhetoric.
My approach began with a kind of informal mapping of how digital rhetoric has emerged within composition studies. I began with traditional roots in the marriage of computers and composition, focusing not only of the role of pedagogy in this relationship but the all-too-important lab spaces (like the Digital Writing and Research Lab at UT Austin) that were central to these foundations—places where graduate students and faculty alike could build tools, toys, and even techniques for writing, writing instruction, and improving the writing process.
I paired that C&C marriage with the developments of computational literacies, new media literacies, and digital literacies, working through what I like to call the Cindy Selfe family tree (Stuart Selber, Johndan Johnson-Eilola, Anne Wysocki, Cheryl Ball, and so on). This, of course, was not meant to reduce these scholars work to only this frame, but rather as a way of bridging into a conversation on Multimedia Composition and, more specifically, the varieties of emerging digital pedagogy associated with or even spearheading alternative media writing practices.
This kind frame is, in many respects, a fairly established perspective in composition studies. But if you do digital rhetoric and you only look here, you are missing like 80% of the conversation. For example, you can’t talk about digital rhetoric without paying homage, in some fashion, to the New Media conversation, particularly those folks whose work on media studies aligns with or contribute to various rhetorical practices and consideration. This includes obvious staples like the work of Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, Richard Lanham (who coined the phrase Digital Rhetoric), Liz Losh (who extended Lanham’s phrase), and Lev Manovich. But it also includes the works of Friedrich Kittler, Marshall McLuhan, Walter Ong, and many others who helped provide theoretical frames for understanding new media and our roles/actions/processes in relationship to new media. And within this New Media frame, particularly given its orientation toward the visual, there also resides a series of critical threads back to a set of conversations on visual rhetoric.
At this point, I had said quite a bit. But, in truth, I wasn’t anywhere near close to an adequate response on how digital rhetoric takes shape within the composition studies frame. I hadn’t mentioned the work of N. Kathrine Hayles, a staple in this conversation for sure. I hadn’t mentioned Sherry Turkle or Lisa Gitelman or Henry Jenkins, all of whom contribute mightily here. The roots simply were spreading, sprawling, spiraling. But rather than pull it in, I let the conductive connections run.
Digital rhetoric, particularly post the techno-explosion of 2004-2008, also includes considerations of social media and online/digital culture studies. Also, its grounds in building tools in computer labs relates it to computer studies as well as to the “tool builder” roots of early DIY Digital Humanists. There are also conversations on coding, programming, and algorithms—all computational in nature, yet increasingly exposed as being rhetorical as well. Entire conversations I hadn’t covered other that to mention them in passing—ranging from folks established figures like Ian Bogost to emerging figures like Annette Vee. There was also Bogost’s work on procedural rhetoric and persuasive media. And all these things made me think the user-end considerations, with usability studies needing to be accounted for in growing milieu of how digital rhetoric is taking shape.
User experience design opened me to technical communication, which bounced me on over to issues of design (user, information, etc.). And much of those conversations connected back to visual rhetoric, to the marriage of computers and composition, and to the development of digital research tools built by rhetoric scholars interested in studying the actions and interactions of human-technology assemblages.
The conversation just kept getting more and more out of control.
Finally, I quickly gestured toward new areas of consideration—from 3D printing, new materialism, and even the object oriented ontology conversation to matters of digital aesthetics, ranging from James Bridle’s work on New Aestheticism to the kind of functional aesthetics gestured toward in the works of Aimee Knight or Cheryl Ball and Ryan Moeller’s. I needed a breath. It was just running, running, running out everywhere.
I stared at the audience. They seemed to need a minute. My face was flush with the energy of flow, the sprawling flow. I thought it might help to draw a picture, to map out the emergence. But in a moment of clarity, I realized the interconnectedness of all the parts was going to make the image layered, busy, sloppy. Plus, there was only had one color of chalk.
Damn it! I didn’t even get to Gregory Ulmer’s work. How is it possible that I left out the entire conversation on electracy? Seriously? That stuff is central to my own research, my own scholarly identity.
But rather than picking up with Ulmer and staring off again, I concluded with the following: “And that, folks, is like the rough introduction of an elevator-talk on where digital rhetoric comes from in composition studies.” Of course, that too wasn’t true. I mean, despite my efforts, and despite my acknowledgment of it being a rough introduction, how does one really capture or encapsulate the ways in which digital rhetoric has taken shape in any field, let alone composition studies, which has a long history of not staying within disciplinary boundaries.
I sat back. It was Emily’s turn to try the conversation.