digital rhetoric

contexts for independent media and other buskers

On Blogora Jim Brown discusses this story from the Washington Post about reknown violinist Joshua Bell being largely ignored during an experiment in which he busks in a DC metro station. The story tries to make sense of the results. As it explains, on one level we have this belief that truly beautiful art is universal and self-evident, that Bell’s performance should have "soothed the savage breast" of morning commuters and the fact that it didn’t is just evidence of our growing barbarism: pearls before swine and all that. On the other hand, as the Post article continues, the experiment forces us to recognize the importance of context for the way we understand and value aesthetic experiences. On Blogora, Jim points to a connection with Lanham’s Economics of Attention, and I must agree: this is a fine example of how art is not simply an aesthetic experience but also a rhetorical one. The rhetorical situation in which one encounters media/art affects shapes that encounter.

This got me thinking about this in terms of independent media. Generally speaking, bloggers and such have much in common with everyday buskers. Do we imagine that a well-known author writing under a pseduonym on a free blogger account would fare any better than Joshua Bell? Maybe, over time. And maybe if Joshua Bell played anonymously in the same place every day for a couple months, a few people would recognize his talent, and word would get around. This is what independent media producers hope for: that their work goes viral.

On the one hand there’s a pragmatic, rhetorical lesson to be learned here. To rephrase the old saying from real estate, the three most important things about media production are (rhetorical) situation, situation, and situation. It’s really classical tactics that crosses every possible tactical situation from warfare to business to sports to polemics and so on. You want to choose your battlefield.

On the other hand, in the analysis of compositional practices, this is another reminder of the importance of the material contexts of any media practice. If Bell’s aesthetic virtuosity is overdetermined by the context of the metro station, what chance does a student writer have in the overdetermined context of the classroom? And when I say this, I don’t mean to leap immediately to ideology, but rather to suggest that an examination of the network of social-material-technological conditions that produce the rhetorical situation must be analyzed to understand that compositional practice. It is impossible for us to "just read the student’s paper," just as it is impossible for DC commuters to just hear Bell’s performance.

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