The Fate of Rhetoric in an Electronic Age.

Collin Gifford Brooke



Insofar as rhetoric, or rhetoric/composition, constitutes a discipline, or at least a concentration under the auspices of English Studies, it is possible to walk into many English departments in this country, and to tell who is who. Whether we opt to label our present age one of postmodernity, hyperreality, or a late stage of capitalism, departmental boundaries have never been thrown into relief as drastically as has happened with the latest wave of technologies. Put simply, and perhaps too simply, the literature faculty are the ones wringing their hands, while the rhetoric faculty are rubbing theirs together in delight. Some journals proclaim the "death of the book," while others explore "the future of composition and rhetoric." There are notable exceptions to this reductive analysis, as Internet technology has made possible the various works at the University of Virginia's IATH, the artistic experimentation of the Synergy project, and an explosion of on-line texts, both creative and analytical. The question that this technology puts to English departments, though, is one of relevance. Given that Internet technology can provide quick access to the various contexts and even editions of literary texts, how long will it take before the texts themselves are obsolete? Or, as Sven Birkerts, in his book The Gutenberg Elegies, asks,

The student may, through a program on Shakespeare, learn an immense amount about Elizabethan politics, the construction of the Globe theater, the origins of certain plays in the writing of Plutarch, the etymology of key terms, and so on, but will this dazzled student find the concentration, the will, to live with the often burred and prickly language of the plays themselves? The play's the thing--but will it be? Wouldn't the sustained exposure to a souped-up cognitive collage not begin to affect the attention span, the ability if not willingness to sit with one text for extended periods, butting up against its cruxes, trying to excavate meaning from the original rhythms and syntax? (138)

Finally, do these questions really matter for rhetoric and composition? Plato goes to great lengths in Gorgias to establish the lack of an object for the discipline of rhetoric, not suspecting that this might become its advantage, as the technologically-specific book runs the risk of becoming a thing of the past. Having established its disciplinary focus as one of process, composition and rhetoric seems beyond the possibility of being reduced to anachronistic product.

There are certainly reasons for such a wide disparity between the relative optimism of rhetoric and literature faculty, some of which are related to computer technology specifically, but many of which are not, despite some commentators' claims. Birkerts writes, and I am inclined to agree with him, that it is no accident that the issue of canonicity is so prevalent in current English department debates. This is so, he explains, for reasons of scarcity. "If serious literature were alive and well in the culture (written, published, circulated, read, discussed), then there would be less reason to fret about the state of things in our institutions of higher learning" (190). Instead of expecting students to come to those courses with a solid foundation in literature, English courses are rapidly becoming the sole source of such a foundation. Rightly or wrongly, that gives the average literature syllabus a great deal of influence over what gets read, and, thanks to recent tax law, some degree of power over what is available. Such difficulties are attributable to a number of different cultural, sociological, and technological factors, factors which show little sign of reversing or even slowing.

Birkerts details a number of these factors, although he adopts the common tack of identifying them as effects of an "all-electronic future." Chief among these "developments" are the erosion of language, the flattening of historical perspectives, and the waning of the private self (128-131). Although it would be beyond the scope of this essay to discuss these in detail, it is worth noting that each of these phenomena, and indeed most of such "predictions," have the virtue of accuracy because they are more descriptive than predictive. The apocalyptic tone of Birkerts and other commentators who tell us that the end is near, whether because of tenured radicals, computers, or some other ripple in the pond, does more to convince the American public of that end than any other factor. They are self-fulfilling prophecies, these elegies.

I treat Birkerts' pronouncements, and the future of literature itself, at some length because they have something to do with the status of rhetoric, beyond the fact that they share a common department at most universities. Contemporary rhetoric has concerned itself with the passage of time, and the potential transformations that such history entails. From the various periodizations of rhetoric (cf. Scott, Ehninger, Corbett, et al.) to the citation and study of Thomas Kuhn, rhetoric as a discipline has been intimately concerned with its place in history as well as its various directions. Part of the reason that there is no analogous "end of rhetoric" in English studies is that such an end has already occurred. In their essay "Rhetoricality: On the Modernist Return of Rhetoric," John Bender and David E. Wellbery suggest that the cultural dominance of classical rhetoric came to an end in the post-Renaissance culture of Europe, namely with the onset of the Enlightenment and of Romanticism. They identify five tendencies (objectivism, subjectivism, liberalism, literacy, and nationalism) and, reversing the Kantian formula, label them rhetoric's "conditions of impossibility" (22-23). With the challenge to these tendencies posed by contemporary culture, according to the authors, the conditions were ripe for a return of rhetoric, albeit a return not of the same classical model, but of a different modern version.

It is tempting to draw rhetoric and literature closer together by observing that Bender and Wellbery's tendencies played a large role in securing the status of Literature in society, the same status whose decline Birkerts bemoans. After all, it is but a small step from their list to one more inclined towards literature (New Criticism, intentionality, literary scenes, the technology of the book, and canonicity). Such a revised list would come close to arguing that the privilege enjoyed by literature in the university came at the cost of a similar status for rhetoric. And indeed, such arguments are often made on behalf of beleaguered composition scholars, whose work is undervalued in comparison to their fellow faculty in literature. Those arguments are based on material practices (hiring, tenure review, office location, salary, et al.), however, rather than the type of broad historical theorizing offered by Bender and Wellbery. Conversely, such an argument would lay much more of the blame for literature's alleged demise at the feet of rhetoric than is probably the case. From a pragmatic standpoint, it seems foolish to posit English departments as closed systems with different factions competing for finite resources. Although this is a reality in many English departments, it is hardly a worthwhile strategy to pursue.

Part of the difficulty of determining a strategy that would be valuable for English departments, though, is the misunderstanding of rhetoric as Bender and Wellbery describe it. The modern rhetoric whose return they herald is substantially different from the classical model. For a more specific articulation of this difference, it is worth turning to S. Michael Halloran's essay, "On the End of Rhetoric, Classical and Modern." Halloran describes the classical model of rhetoric in the following way:

The master of rhetoric was the man who had interiorized all that was best in his culture and applied this knowledge to public forums, influencing his fellow citizens to think and act in accord with their common cultural heritage...Classical rhetoric, then, rested on the assumption that wisdom is open and publicly available. In principle if not in fact, the individual was assumed to be capable of knowing everything worth knowing. The orator was a polymath rather than a specialist (331-332).

The classical model, then, depends upon stable assumptions about knowledge and the world that are, in Halloran's words, "no longer tenable." The classical orator could rely upon a common cultural heritage, and upon an ethos that measured his ability to embody the ideal of such a common culture. Halloran's thesis about the difference between classical and modern rhetoric rests upon the relationship between self and world. He writes, "To inhabit a world is to possess images of how things are beyond the reach of one's immediate experience, images that have implications for how one experiences the immediate, and that generate values which make claims on the conduct of one's life. In the absence of a world given by a stable and coherent cultural tradition, man is compelled to construct his own" (336). For Halloran, then, modern rhetoric affects a reversal of that relationship represented by the classical tradition. Instead of the persuasion of others to act and think by referring to a shared culture, rhetoric becomes the construction of partial and competing cultures by monadic selves.

Citing the shift in Kenneth Burke's A Rhetoric of Motives from a rhetoric grounded in persuasion to one based instead upon identification (or "consubstantiality"), Halloran offers the following characterization of modern rhetoric:

...when both speaker and audience are assumed to inhabit the same world, it is sufficient that both attend to the argument. But when speaker and audience inhabit different worlds, it becomes possible for both to hear without listening...For the ancients, ethos consisted in the degree to which the speaker embodied the virtues most revered by the culture, the degree to which he had apparently internalized all that was best in the tradition that defined the shared world of speaker and audience...In our time of fragmentation and isolation, ethos is generated by the seriousness and passion with which the speaker articulates his own world, the degree to which he is willing and able to make his world open to the other, and thus to the possibility of rupture. If, as Johnstone argues, rhetoric is the means whereby the self and its world are constituted, ethos is the measure of one's willingness to risk one's self and world by a rigorous and open articulation of them in the presence of the other (337-339). (iio)

I have quoted Halloran at length, because his definition (along with that offered by Bender and Wellbery) offers us some understanding of what is going on with Birkerts and similar doomsday literati. The world of Literature as they recall it, if indeed it ever existed, is gone, and it vanished long before hypertext, databases, and the World Wide Web. Yet, their arguments are persuasive only if one shares the type of nostalgia that pervades their accounts of such a world. From a perspective of modern rhetoric, though, the world that Birkerts embodies was one that also entailed a great deal of social hierarchy and privilege, which explains why other critics are so quick to vilify leftist critiques as one of the primary factors leading to Literature's downfall, although Birkerts himself is careful not to embrace such a fallacy. The fact of the matter is that the world of Literature, even when it was a cultural ideal, was not shared in the active sense, and there is something a little disingenuous about asking us to return to it now. What has been sacrificed in the contemporary era is not literary culture itself, but rather its adherents' own belief in it. The world that Birkerts constructs is not one of promise, but of mourning, and in identifying with his arguments, we bear witness to a funeral rather than a rebirth. The passion with which he and similar critics declare the end of literature constitute a world where that end has already occurred, instead of an argument for reversing such trends. Their prophecies, and indeed all rhetoric in the modern era, are self-fulfilling.

What, then, is the fate of rhetoric in an electronic age, other than a trope on the subtitle of Birkerts' book? If Stephen North, Patricia Harkin, and others are correct, then rhetoric's disciplinary fate is tied up with those factors which render rhetoric post-disciplinary. If, as Halloran writes, modern rhetoric is characterized by the ability to risk one's self, then the discipline of rhetoric, or the cultural dominance of rhetoricality, is alive and kicking only to the degree that it is able to continually open itself to other disciplines and risk its transformation. The lesson that Birkerts offers is a cautionary one for rhetoricians: as soon as difference on a wide scale becomes equated with decline, we will be speaking about the death of our own discipline as well. In their brief analysis of the relationship between rhetoric and literary criticism, Bender and Wellbery offer the following observations:

Especially in literary studies, a field often deeply troubled by the rifts of history and by the fear of cultural oblivion, one encounters projects that anxiously work to reconstitute for the present a unity of tradition and doctrine that no longer exists...Once rhetoricality is understood as the fundamental condition under which any contemporary literary criticism must proceed, the discipline itself will be transformed because its boundaries will be redrawn" (37-38).

Those boundaries will be redrawn to include mice as well as typewriters, screens as well as pages, and multimedia as well as variora. Perhaps it is the fate of rhetoric in an electronic age to rescue literature from its own pessimism.



Works Cited:

Bender John, and David E. Wellbery. "Rhetoricality: On the Modernist Return of Rhetoric." The Ends of Rhetoric: History, Theory, Practice. Bender and Wellbery, eds. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1990.

Birkerts, Sven. The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. Boston: Faber & Faber, 1994.

Burke, Kenneth. A Rhetoric of Motives. Berkeley: UC Press, 1950.

Ehninger, Douglas. "On Systems of Rhetoric." Professing the New Rhetorics: A Sourcebook. Theresa Enos and Stuart C. Brown, ed. Prentice Hall, 1994.

Halloran, S. Michael. "On the End of Rhetoric, Classical and Modern." College English 36 (February 1975): 621-31.

Harkin, Patricia. " The Post-disciplinary Politics of Lore." Contending With Words: Composition and Rhetoric in a Postmodern Era, Ed. J. Schilb and P. Harkin. NY: MLA, 1991.

North, Stephen. The Making of Knowledge in Composition: Portrait of an Emerging Field. Upper Montclair: Boynton, 1987.

Scott, Robert L. "On Viewing Rhetoric as Epistemic." Professing the New Rhetorics: A Sourcebook. Theresa Enos and Stuart C. Brown, ed. Prentice Hall, 1994.