A rough, sprawling take on digital rhetoric and writing

Tomorrow night I'll be talking with students in ENG 500 English Studies: Issues and Methods, a course designed to introduce them to graduate studies. In addition to regular readings about the discipline and field, the course often subjects students to guest lectures from current English faculty about courses taught and research done. That I am again one of those guest speakers is both an honor and privilege. Due to my own accessibility and availability on campus, I have very limited opportunity to talk with graduate students outside of a class they take with me. 

As I'm more interested in discussion and less interested in listening to myself, I only plan to talk at students for about 7 minutes. Below is a rough, sprawling take of some opening thoughts on digital rhetoric and writing.


After escaping from Brunwald Castle on the Austrian-German border and disposing of the Nazis in pursuit, Indiana Jones and his father find themselves at a crossroads. As Indiana starts their motorbike down the road toward Venedig, Henry Jones, Sr., stops him, imploring his son to instead go to Berlin. Their subsequent discussion reveals an important plot point ("he who finds the Grail must face the final challenge...three devices of such lethal cunning") but also the value of keeping a journal ("I wrote them down in my Diary so that I wouldn't have to remember."). Now, of the many argumentative exchanges between these two characters, this is my favorite because of how it relates to Socrates' castigation of writing. In the Phaedrus, Plato has Socrates also condemn writing as out of context and without any voice, but I suppose there's some irony in the ability of anyone to recall that Greek disapproving of writing as evidence of a heuristic which weakens memory. 

We have an additional play on this disapproval with the slogan from Field Notes, but we also see updated versions of such judgment applied to the internet; to be more specific: Google; to be more recent: Twitter. These arguments aren't as nuanced, though, often simplified to grand statements about how the former's making us stupid and the latter's destroying the English language (or at least the next generation's appreciation of it).

I remain skeptical about the truth of either argument, though I do acknowledge that having some space other than our own minds for ideas can lead to one's ability to recall information somewhat hampered. I also do not deny that many of us are might now be more engaged in remembering where we wrote something rather than the something itself. But memory and writing both can be untrustworthy, albeit in different ways.

These differences are even more apparent in digital and online forms as we write for some kind of audience beyond ourselves, thereby revealing acts of performance. This can be more pronounced when others get involved as not only an audience but also as contributors and even co-authors on a text, which is a term still seeing change in the moves toward online compositions. In moving online, we find other people placing demands, but the technologies we use do, too. Just as page in my Field Notes memo book invites me to write, various and sundry social media tools ask me to create, discuss, promote, and measure. 

Some say this is all about branding and marketing, about turning ourselves into social media gurus, even about losing our sense of what it is to be human, but I see these as rather cynical criticisms. Instead, I see much of this as a kind of collective search for meaning. As Andrew Sullivan once observed about blogging, there's a great freedom and possibility in meaning-making now. Writing online, whether it be blogging, tweeting, or something else, is even more of a performance. As such, I think greater humility is needed, though we don't often encounter it online. These online writing performances can have an addictive edge, but I want to highlight blogging and tweeting in particular as they can be part of the discussion of digital rhetoric, which, according to Zappen, is concerned with how traditional rhetoric might be extended and/or transformed in digital spaces (319). What we also have through digital communicative technologies are "processes of identity formation as interactions among multiple versions of our online selves and between these and our real selves" (322, paraphrasing Sherry Turkle).

Furthermore, there are exercises in developing expertise as we figure out the particular of a given technology, what it allows, demands, encourages, and offers. There are constraints on our performances as we discover how varied the voices within us are and decide which of these should be given priority or prominence in a specific space. We may even suffer from what Kenneth Gergen calls "multiphrenia," the condition of being simultaneously drawn in multiple and conflicting directions because of technologies that increase social contact. 

Our online performances of identity can betray or contradict each other. However, videogames can help in preparing for these performances because they "recruit identities and encourage identity work and reflection on identities" (Gee 51). Such practice and preparation may seem tedious, but I think it is worthwhile, perhaps even necessary, because making informed choices about identity formation in the public sphere, whether it be through a blog or Facebook or some other online communicative technology, helps us become "seriously good," which is something else I can discuss later. 

Now, I intended to design this presentation as a kind of performance, to inspire further conversation, not to take the place of it, and I think this is what much of what research in digital rhetoric does. Because of the nature of the digital, work in this field is often some kind of work-in-progress. That a knowledge performance is an historical artifact while being first performed is something of a given. 

Part of what's revealed in certain research in digital rhetoric, too, is the impermanence of our discourse. With changes and subsequent questions swirling about the nature of academic and literary publishing, we see plenty of consternation and worry about the future. The recent inclusion of Twitter hashtags in my memo books for archival organizing purposes marks another change, perhaps potential fuel for the fires burning down the English language. Still, I think much of what we have online now is what Sirc hopes for: "writing as assemblage, with a structure based on association and implication; piling stuff on to create a spellbinding, mesmerizing surface" (284). 

In many ways, we are seeing a renewed interest in writing, one defined as much by tradition as by whatever lies ahead. I find myself returning to issues explored in my dissertation, i.e., techne, but also the question of truth in our online performances as well as performances in the writing classroom and in videogames. 

I look forward to exploring these questions and others with you.