Introducing Digital Rhetoric at IU’s CMCL Colloquium Series

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.

Inhale. Exhale.

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.

Digital Rhetoric Symposium Image Header

Announcing the Indiana Digital Rhetoric Symposium

Indiana University will host the first Indiana Digital Rhetoric Symposium next spring (April 9-11, 2015). The 2.5-day event is designed to foster conversations at the intersections of rhetoric, media, and technology, and seeks to (1) explore Perspectives and Definitions of Digital Rhetoric and (2) articulate the ways in which digital rhetoric connects to, yet is distinct from, digital humanities. The conference will include a mix of invited speakers (listed below) and 7-9 selected presenters from an open call for proposals. The goal is to create a setting in which established and emerging scholars can critically explore the implications, possibilities, and gradations of digital rhetoric. For more details, see the full CFP.

Confirmed Speakers:
Liz Losh – UC San Diego – Opening Keynote
Collin Brooke – Syracuse University – Closing Keynote
Annette Vee – University of Pittsburgh
Casey Boyle – University of Texas at Austin
Anne Wysocki – University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee
Jim Brown, Jr. – Rutgers University-Camden
Thomas Rickert – Purdue University
Kathleen Blake Yancey – Florida State University
Nathaniel Rivers – St. Louis University
Sarah Arroyo – California State University, Long Beach
Doug Eyman – George Mason University
Jody Shipka – University of Maryland, Baltimore County
Jeff Rice – University of Kentucky
Laura Gurak – University of Minnesota
Byron Hawk – University of South Carolina
Lydia Wilkes – Indiana University
Bill Hart-Davidson – Michigan State University
Dave Reider – NC State University

Symposium Dates: April 9-11, 2015
Call for Proposals: Submissions due 12/15/14
Location/Venue: Indiana University – Bloomington, IN

Virginia Kuhn Connecting DR/DH/Supercomputing Communities at IU

Virginia Kuhn and HASTAC students

Last week, the Department of English brought Virginia Kuhn to campus. Kuhn is an associate professor in the Division of Media Arts + Practice in the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. She is, to put it mildly, a veritable tour de force when it comes to the intersections of digital rhetoric and digital humanities, with interests ranging from visual literacy and composition to cinematics and big data. While on campus, Kuhn gave several talks and/or spoke with several groups. The first engagement on her schedule was a presentation to department faculty about practices for recognizing and assessing digital scholarship (particularly for tenure and promotion purposes). Specifically, Kuhn helped provide a language for a more nuanced assessment of multimedia works. Using what has come to be known as the Kuhn method (c.f., Ball), Kuhn walked the faculty through her heuristic of conceptual core, research component, form and content, and creative realization (see Kairos 14.2 for more on this frame). Using example works, she helped the faculty develop a tentative vocabulary for approaching multimedia/digital scholarship—answering questions about praxis along the way.

In addition to speaking to the faculty, Kuhn also had a conversation with IU’s HASTAC scholars and the graduate course, “Introduction to Digital Arts and Humanities”. Both events were held at the Institute for Digital Arts and Humanities, where Kuhn spent time talking about her own work as a digital scholar, particularly her groundbreaking digital dissertation. In 2005, Kuhn produced and defended one of the first ever born-digital dissertations in the United States, titled Ways of Composing: Visual Literacy in the Digital Age. It was a work that not only challenged archiving and copyright conventions, but exposed many issues with the University dissertational process (and/or how we understand the function and role of the dissertation as an artifact that is part of the doctoral granting apparatus). Her dissertation/degree culminated in a feature article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, who offered a journalistic take on the academic and political tensions at stake in Kuhn’s situation and dissertation.

Kuhn also talked about the Scalar program, which the IDAH graduate course is using pedagogically. Kuhn was the first to publish using Scalar. Her 2011 article, “Introduction to Filmic Texts and the Rise of the Fifth Estate” was published in the International Journal of Learning and Media (MIT Press). That work not only explores the potential of films serving as a textbook for undergraduate curricula, but demonstrates a thickness and a hyperthreading technique central to the representational affordances of digital media.

As part of her main act on campus, Kuhn presented as part of the Catapult Center for Digital Humanities & Computational Analysis of Texts speaker series. In that talk, she focused on her large scale video analytics project (The Video Analysis Tableau [The VAT]), which is the recipient of the National Science Foundation’s Extreme Science and Engineering Discovery Environment grant and has recently been reclassified under “novel and innovative projects” for the NSF’s XSEDE program. The goal of the project is to use supercomputing to make video archives as searchable and navigable as text-based archives—blending both the on-demand access central to humanities computing with the batch computing models of traditional supercomputing applications.

In her final act on campus, Kuhn spoke with the English Department’s Digital Pedagogy/Digital Humanities Reading Group. As part of that meeting, the graduate students and Kuhn discussed her co-authored article with Vicki Callahan, “Nomadic Archives: Remix and the Drift to Praxis” (part of Brett D. Hirsch’s edited collection Digital Humanities Pedagogy). That meeting not only touched on issues of nomadic drifting and remix, but also included an informal discussion about being on the job market and what it means to identify as a digital humanist/digital scholar.

Altogether, Kuhn’s visit to IU helped establish many new cross campus connections and reestablish many of the values central to the humanities, though recast and updated in terms of the digital and twenty-first century mediascapes. Her presence brought together all ends of the digital humanities spectrum on campus, and her presentations helped us develop ways of talking about the kinds of established and emerging projects that run the gamut of digital rhetoric and digital humanities, from pedagogy to promotion.

Composition as a Quasi-Object


On April 10, Byron Hawk (Associate Professor of English, University of South Carolina) visited Indiana and delivered the annual Exemplum lecture. Graduate students and faculty from English and Communication and Culture attended the lecture and participated in an informal discussion the next day about Byron’s 2007 book A Counter-History of Composition: Toward Methodologies of Complexity (University of Pittsburgh Press). Counter-History was the Winner of JAC’s W. Ross Winterowd Award in 2007 and honorable mention for MLA’s Mina Shaughnessy Prize in 2008.

Byron’s lecture, “Resounding the Rhetorical: Composition as a Quasi-Object,” presented several key themes and arguments from his new book project (in process). As we discussed during his visit, this current project builds on some of his work in Counter-History, a book the faculty and graduate students studied and discussed prior to his visit.

In A Counter-History of Composition, Hawk argues not just for another history of composition, but new methodologies for historiography that would enable us “to produce a new kind of history” (260). Rather than take history as the accumulation of abstract facts and events, Hawk encourages us to understand history rhetorically. As he writes in the afterward, “I want to remember the past differently than Weidner and Young in order to affirmatively forget their categorizations, and I do so in the hope of positively affecting the field in the present. It is part of my project to invent an origin from which I would like to have emerged as a counter to current exclusionary histories of rhetoric and composition” (262). For Hawk, these “exclusionary histories” include the ways rhetoric and writing theorists in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s worked to establish rhetoric and composition as a professional field of study by defining it negatively as a corrective to vitalist theories of writing and invention. Often coded under the umbrella of romanticism, vitalism became something of a devil term for rhetoricians such as Weidner, Young, and Berlin, who collectively dismissed it as an ahistorical form of subjectivism based on genius and irrationalism. As Hawk demonstrates, however, vitalism was never the fixed and stable term Weidner and others took it to be. Tracing the concept through Coleridge and back further to Renaissance animism and Aristotle’s theory of entelechy, Hawk recovers another understanding of vitalism that is “an emergent aspect of complex systems and their primary function, self-organization” (157). With this other vitalism in mind, Hawk develops—and encourages us to develop as well—other approaches to rhetoric and composition that understand expression as inseparable from larger material ecologies that are dynamic and comprised of innumerable suasive actors, from human speakers and writers to computers, writing instruments, spaces, and other everyday things. Ultimately, Hawk’s version of counter-history suggests that when we learn to see historical events in terms of complexity, we find that the history of rhetoric and composition is no longer simply the history of human speakers and writers. It is the history of natural and artificial things as well.

Byron’s lecture brought to an end an impressive year for rhetoricians and digital theorists at Indiana. Along with Hawk, we also hosted Carolyn R. Miller, Chris Anson, Steven Jones, Steven Mailloux, Debra Hawhee, and Ian Bogost. Needless to say, it was busy but stimulating year for us!

Building a Better Future

Following Marc Bousquet’s “The Moral Panic in Literary Studies” in The Chronicle of Higher Education, I worry about rushing too quickly to sound the death knell on literacy studies. Much like the 1990s technological determinists who warned of the death of text, and much like Lev Manovich’s trumpeting of the death of rhetoric at the turn of the century—neither of which, mind you, came to pass—we might be better suited not to pronounce the dead (or proclaim the dying) but to attune ourselves to the transformations underway. Meaning, look at all the ways alphabetic text still proliferates in our visual, hypermedia culture. Or look at how rhetoric has begun to thrive precisely at the juncture where Manovich thought it would vanish. Literary studies may need to “face the music,” as they say, but what seems more valuable to me is not how and/or why they are dying, but in which directions they are want to go. From increasing focus on digital humanities work, to a wider perspective on literature’s place in critical studies, culture studies, media studies, writing studies, and the like, we might see that our literary colleagues have much to offer any number of conversations. While the future may reside in something like Clemson University’s RCID program (of which I was one of its five inaugural students, graduating 2009), I want to believe in a model that isn’t a zero-sum game. Meaning, as rhetoric and composition gains strength—and as placement rates and job opportunities skew that way—its not that we should merely invert the power structures in the English Department Silo, but rather that we have an opportunity to envision a more promising future: one that works more fully in terms of methodologies, epistemologies, pedagogies, ontologies, and the like, rather than fields, authors, periods, or closed data or archival sets.

This is perhaps what RCID does so well: teaching graduate students how to situate themselves in relation to competing and complementary disciplinary identities: engaging varied rhetorical forms of invention, analysis, practice, and performance; embracing and challenging traditional literary perspectives and modes of critique; exploring situational and figural-oriented philosophies and finding moments of intervention; learning and playing with artistic approaches to representation and media (as both practice and theory), and so on. And these are not meant as exhaustive, nor reductive. Rather, what was central during my experiences with RCID was finding spaces where different ways of thinking about the world, different ways of making connections and relationships, could come together to allow us a unique vision/exploration going forward.

While any “future-vision” at this point may necessarily include a reconstituting of the traditional English Department, including the role and identities of rhetoric and composition faculty as well as those of a variety of literary traditions, it does not mean we are necessarily in a moment of crisis. Rather, in my view, we are in a moment of opportunity: identities, trajectories, and strategies for practice are all being exposed and opened in a way previously not available. This is the current situation I find myself in at Indiana University, where because of institutional shifts, changing enrollment numbers, and emerging tensions in the market, I get to participate in a kind of future-making rarely afforded to faculty. This, to me, is less a panicky moment of crisis and more a moment of excitement, of opportunity, of building a better, more sustainable future.

Mills Kelly and the Digital Making of History

Earlier this week I had the good fortune of attending a talk sponsored by CATAPULT, held at IU’s SSRC, by George Mason University faculty member Mills Kelly. Professor Kelly is a scholar in teaching and learning history, with a particular tint toward digital media. His most recent book, Teaching History in the Digital Age (UM Press, 2013), is intended as a guide for bringing digital media technologies to bear on the research, writing, and teaching of history. It was from this frame that Kelly delivered his talk, “Exploring, Remixing, Analyzing: Teaching History with Digital Media.”

Mills KellyOne of the things that struck me about Kelly’s talk was how much overlap there was between the kinds of digital media work he was having his students do and the kinds of digital writing skills that are increasingly populating lower division writing classes. It suggests not only a need for multimedia composition, but the reality that multimedia composition is taking place across the curriculum.

In terms of guiding his student engagement, Kelly offered some basic strategies for getting students to work with different technologies (framed around zones of extraction, zones of exchange, and zones of creativity—conceptual work coming out of MIT). He even colored himself as a kind of “gateway drug” to more advanced technological practices because the limits of his courses prevented him from doing more than introducing students to new platforms for making/doing history.  But what really stuck with me were the kinds of projects his students were producing, and their rhetorical and technological sophistication.

In one course, he has students study and then create historical hoaxes. He guides them through the ethical considerations involved in this process, from the potential damaging effects of misinformation to the misuse of university resources. But what they were able to produce, and how they conceptualized the entire process and “deliverables”, was really quite fascinating. And it made me realize that the journal that I run, The Journal for Undergraduate Multimedia Projects (TheJUMP), needs to start branching out in terms of areas/fields. We have had works from communications courses, media studies courses, rhetoric courses, composition courses, literature courses, and the like, but there is clearly a wider net of multimedia scholarship at play.

Further, Kelly’s presentation helped me realize not only this “across the curriculum” dynamic, but that we might be well served to start making connections and partnering with teachers and departments to create unique learning experiences. Perhaps its part of the “curriculum of the future” to which Kelly alluded in his talk, but the possibilities of working with one another rather than in the traditional academic silos seem to be a better model for us going forward in the digital humanities end of the 21st century university.

Digital Disseration Course

It’s that time of year where faculty start promoting their fall classes. As such, I thought I would use this venue to showcase my own graduate course this fall: Digital Dissertations and Multimedia Scholarship.


Inspired by a number of recent inquiries into my own attempts at a digital dissertation many moons ago, I decided to put together a course that explores avenues for making digital dissertations. It will generally engage the topic of multimedia scholarship, but specifically be targeted for dissertation work. We’ll examine a number of potential authoring platforms (from Scalar to Adobe Edge) and explore several key digital, manuscript/dissertation length texts in order to gain an orientation to these types of projects.

The major project for the semester will be for students to create a born-digital artifact (an “article” for publication or chapter of their dissertation) using one of the platforms we explore. The goal, however, will be to help students learn to interrogate the relationships between our means and modes of representation and the potential arguments/expressions we might make.

My intent is to bring in guest speakers (both physically and tele-presently) to help us situate key practices, performances, and politics that surround the digital dissertation conversation (from accessibility concerns to legal consideration). These other voices should help to frame the diversity of issues that manifest in relation to digital dissertations.


Accessibility Workshop at IU

As a multimedia writer/scholar and Editor of The Journal for Undergraduate Multimedia Projects (TheJUMP), I am increasingly attuned to matters pertaining to accessibility. This is the result not only of regularly engaging in the production of accessibility materials (for my own work and for TheJUMP), but more specifically the result of routinely working with multimedia projects that do not fit neatly into any “standard” approach. What these experiences have taught me is that accessibility is typically an individuated entity: meaning that while basic standards and general approaches can provide conceptual starting places, they are not a one-size-fits-all solution. Each project requires an individuated approach.


The same is true of dealing with students in the classroom. A student may come to an instructor with a memo from the disability services office detailing that he or she needs X, Y, or Z accommodations, but these are typically just general approaches (i.e., more time on tests) that do not account for the specific dynamics of a given student’s situation. As you might imagine, the more attuned I have become to the dynamics of making multimedia projects more accessible, the more I have come to understand the importance of developing accommodation strategies for students on a case-by-case basis. But knowing how to approach accessibility, how to develop and implement a set of strategies, and how to foster a more inclusive climate (from course syllabus construction to classroom assignments), is not something that we just develop naturally as teachers.

In an effort to raise awareness on accessibility and to help provide the graduate students at IU with a set of tools and resources for designing more accessible classroom practices, Jess Waggoner (current English graduate student @ IU) and I  held a workshop on Friday the 13th on “Accessibility in the Classroom.” The event, sponsored by the Culbertson Endowment, was surprisingly well attended (15 participants) given that it took place at 4pm on a Friday (and not just any Friday: it was the last class day of the semester).


My workshop co-leader and I provided handouts (click here for “Eight Guides” pdf) to act both as resource and to help guide our conversations, and the grad student participants took advantage of the workshop opportunity to engage with us and each other as we attempted to collectively work through a number of critical issues related to accessibility. Additionally, we provided—via the generosity and efforts of the folks at Bedford/St. Martin’s, particularly Nick Carbone and Julia Withrall—Lewiecki-Wilson and Brueggemann’s Disability and the Teaching of Writing critical sourcebook.

What was important was not only introducing ideas like universal design for learning (UDL) and technologies-as-learning-aids, but that we begin a kind of culture change at IU: moving away from the boilerplate disability policy statement that is required on all syllabi and instead begin to approach accessibility (and that syllabi statement) as a matter of pedagogical value.

[Top image from wikimedia commons]

Steven E. Jones, Gibson’s Eversion, and Changing Perspectives.

Last week Indiana University’s CATAPULT Center for Digital Humanities and Computational Analysis of Texts sponsored a talk by romanticist, game theorist, and digital humanist Steven E. Jones.

Image of Steven Jones Presentation

Dr. Jones is Professor of English and Co-Director for the Center for Textual Studies and Digital Humanities at Loyola University Chicago, and he came to IU to talk about his recent book The Emergence of the Digital Humanities. His book is so recent, in fact, that Routledge currently publishes it with a 2014 copyright date—literally a book from the future, so it would appear.  Thus, it seems no surprise that we might find Professor Jones’ work intimately connected to the metaphors and conceptualizations offered by William Gibson. Jones used Gibson’s cyberspace (Neuromancer) as one apparatus for positing (and problematizing) a digital world distinct from reality, but then turned to Gibson’s later writing-over of cyberspace with his notion of eversion—as in cyberspace having everted into the real (Spook Country)—perhaps a more accurate depiction of how the threshold between the digital and the real are taking shape.

What was most interesting for me in Jones talk was not only his ability to walk us through a kind of tour de force of the history of digital humanities, and not simply his very useful locating of 2004-2008 as the grounding for the development of the digital humanities, but his keen eye for exposing us to historical tensions and threshold moments that have governed our thinking on most-things digital. From cutting edge digital academic projects to the historical roots of humanities computing to emerging matters of the new aesthetic, Jones asked us to consider a much richer, much more complex version of the relationship between the digital and the real. And by doing so, and exploring a number of others whose work also suggest a non-dichotomous relationship between the digital and the real, he was able to ask us, in relatively short time, to rethink key perspectives often governing our views on the digital turn.

As his presentation moved toward question and answers and then moved further into post-talk conversation, I kept coming back to this idea of thresholds, of demarcations, and of the couplings we create in order to begin to articulate particular positions. These are divisions we know we cannot make. Yet, to talk about them, we must make the divisions—even if only as temporal markers. But what is more fascinating is that we actually create the entire conceptual apparatus—constructing the very architectonic structures that allow those divisions in the first place. Thus, Gibson’s eversion is only significant in relation to his cyberspace construction, and so eversion not only continues to participate in the realm of a cyberspatial world view, but actually expands the horizon of the cyberspace concept/construct.  I don’t mean to suggest that we need to abandon the cyberspace apparatus—for it is a concept that has legs and has had major impact for a variety of digital conversations—but when rethinking our perspectives in the ways Jones’ suggests, we need to consider not just new view points, but points of vision that eclipse the apparatus altogether.

Accounting for Ambience in the Digital Humanities

By Scot Barnett

During Carolyn Miller’s recent visit to IU, I learned about an exciting new DH project: John Wall’s collaborative Virtual Paul’s Cross Project: A Digital Recreation of John Donne’s Gunpowder Day Sermon. Installed November 5, 2013 at NC State’s James B. Hunt Library (and also available online), Virtual Paul’s Cross Project explores the rhetorical situation of Donne’s famous sermon delivered in the Churchyard of pre-fire St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. As the project’s website explains:

The Virtual Paul’s Cross Project helps us to explore public preaching in early modern London, enabling us to experience a Paul’s Cross sermon as a performance, as an event unfolding in real time in the context of an interactive and collaborative occasion. This Project uses architectural modeling software and acoustic simulation software to give us access experientially to a particular event from the past – the Paul’s Cross sermon John Donne delivered on Tuesday, November 5th, 1622.

A collaborative effort among literary scholars, historians, architects, and acoustic engineers, Virtual Paul’s Cross Project enables students and scholars to experience what it might have been like to hear Donne’s sermon in the actual location of its delivery, with all of that location’s sonic, environmental, and architectural complexities. The project incorporates into its virtual model historical information about average crowd sizes for sermons of this kind (between 5,000-6,000 people), architectural information about the church and its courtyard, contemporary accounts of Donne’s preaching style, and speculative data on the courtyard’s ambient noise.

The ambient aspect of this project is of particular interest to me. The project accounts for several ambient elements in this specific rhetorical situation. In addition to including the sounds of horses, dogs, and birds, all of which are frequently represented in paintings of Paul’s Cross, the project also incorporates a range of other ambient noises likely to have shaped audience’s experiences of the sermon.

There are of course other possible sources of ambient noise. The sound of water flowing in the Thames, only a few hundred yards away, might well have been audible. The sound of people — and their horses and carts — moving through the streets just on the other side of the buildings surrounding Paul’s Churchyard was certainly part of the acoustic background.

The sound emanating from Paul’s Walk — the nave of St Paul’s Cathedral, the largest enclosed space in London, notorious in this period for being so noisy that it disrupted worship in the cathedral’s Choir — may also have been audible outside the cathedral.

In our Exemplum reading group this semester, we have been reading Thomas Rickert’s new book Ambient Rhetoric: The Attunements of Rhetorical Being. In this book, Rickert argues for an ontological approach to rhetoric that sees rhetoric as both emplaced and emergent. That is to say, rhetoric, in Rickert’s view, precedes language (or at least symbolic language) and thus constitutes the lived/ambient environs within which we live, move, and interact. Put simply, rhetoric in Rickert’s view is not only the product of individual human rhetors, but is also (and perhaps more so) a collaborative event that emerges out of the interactions of a wide range of actors, some human but many not. Frequently, Rickert discusses ambience in terms of sound, though he is careful to say that ambience is always a contexture of multiple media that collectively affect us and shape our ways of being in the world. With respect to sound, however, Rickert offers a number of examples that help us understand the “presence” ambience has in rhetorical situations. John Bonham, the legendary drummer for Led Zeppelin, for example, is reputed to have achieved some of his most famous drum sounds by using recording techniques keyed to specific places, such as the former poorhouse Headley Grange, in East Hampshire (8). Such a sound, Rickert says, “was achieved by making the environs integral to the composing process.” Thus, the recordings we have capture not only the drums themselves, but “a sound’s ambient fulfillment in an environment that brings its own unique qualities” (8). If recorded in another place, a song such as “When the Levee Breaks” would no doubt sound differently. Place matters, in other words, not just as the location where rhetoric takes place by as a suasive, and inventive, force in its own right.

I read Virtual Paul’s Cross Project as a digital exploration of Ambient Rhetoric. In their discussion of the bell at St. Paul’s, the project designers acknowledge how places themselves factor into our composing processes:

The bell, on the other hand, provides a different kind of ambient acoustic experience. Thanks to Tiffany Stern’s research (2011), we know that the clock at St Paul’s Cathedral sounded the time on the quarter hour as well as on the hour.

Here, the bell (a struck clock bell, not a swinging peal bell) sounds on the hour at 10:00, 11:00, and 12:00, as well as on the quarter hour. The extent of congruence between the rhetorical structure of Donne’s sermon and the sound of the bell has been sufficient to suggest that Donne drew on the way the clock bell structured time to organize the structure of his delivery.

Here, the structure and length of Donne’s sermon is interpreted through a range of material agents—not simply attributed to the agency of one individual rhetor. As rhetoric and digital rhetoric in particular continue to move toward more distributed notions of agency, I believe we’ll need to devise new methodologies for studying such interactions. As I see it, Virtual Paul’s Cross Project offers us an initial model of what that kind of rhetorical research might look like in the future.