digital rhetoric

Lanham|Economics of Attention, 3: typographic kubernetes

Lanham’s third chapter is available online at his website ( In fact, it may be better read there, as the online version allows you to see the animated text pieces that are represented only by stills in the book.

Chapter three continues the theme of oscillation with a focus on typography. Basically, conventional type asks us to look through the text to the meaning within. However, this looking through has always been paralleled with a concern for looking at the surface features of the text.  One’s thoughts may turn here to stylized calligraphy or illuminated manuscripts or other illustrated type, but the same concerns exist (albeit with different aesthetics and rhetorical concerns) with the plainer type of sinage or mundane serif and sans-serif fonts (like this one).

Lanham extends this to thinking about animated text, which gives us another way of thinking about textual space. He also discusses various artistic ventures and rhetorical figures that express an activity and dimensionality generally downplayed by print. As he explains, "Why animate letters? Why force the alphabet into a series of graphic puns with the body? Again, to heal the breach between ordinary human kinesthetic motion and the abstract motions of conceptual thought, between dance and philosophy." Here we can see the connection to classical rhetoric: the emphasis on oral presentation in classical rhetoric seeks some translation into the silent world of print.

Lanham goes on to argue that the emergent alphabet is one that "thinks," as opposed to the mute, nearly invisible alphabet of the print world that simply communicates abstract content. That becomes the focus of the next chapter, so I’ll deal more with it later.

What interested me most in this chapter was Lanham’s turn toward a notion of navigation or piloting, kubernetes (cybernetics). First he writes,

If you were to ask, in a metaphorical way, what talent you need to deal with complex printed texts, you might do worse than say that you need to cultivate a sense of where you are in an argument or story. In digital expression, that metaphor becomes literalized. The central literate talent in electronic space is the pilot’s gift for "positional awareness." In the print world, both print and the reader’s distance from it are fixed. In digital space, both come into play as you fly over the informational landscape.

Lanham goes on to speak of this quite literally, in terms of the fighter pilot’s heads-up display (HUD) overlaid on the cockpit windshield. I’m not exactly sure what Lanham imagines will develop out of the animated text of TV title credits and graphics, but this notion of text written into a 3-D informational landscape, tied to the concept of piloting seems to me to be an important direction.

3-D informational modeling is one of those emergent technologies. It has some obvious applications in desing, engineering and science where one is looking at virtual versions of physical objects. However, I think we are still trying to understand how the additional dimension might shape more abstract or conceptual knowledge. Lanham makes a good analogy here to the technological development of adding punctuation marks and spaces between words in print. Not only did this make print easier to read, it effected a new mode of reading–silent, private reading.

No doubt there will be many applications for this in the future, the obvious one being a new kind of topography wedded to a geo-tagged internet.

I do have a little issue with Lanham here. In part his argument is grounded on the idea that the shift from oral to print results in the loss of affect, of the human kinesthetic activity that accompanied rhetorical speechmaking, and that this loss is recaptured in a new way by electronic text. I object to this general move of making text secondary to speech, for the typical Derridean reasons. I would also contend that textuality has its own range of affects, even though I agree that the general impulse of Western printing and bookmaking has been to try to turn reading into a sensory deprivation experiment.

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