I was reading Ian Bogost's "Rhetoric of Video Games" and was interested in his use of the term "procedural rhetoric." The term is also central to his book, Persuasive Games. The term caught my eye in part because it is the same term that Richard Fulkerson employs in his 2005 CCC essay "Composition at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century." So I started wondering about the potential for interesting things to happen between these texts.
Not surprisingly, Bogost and Fulkerson are referring to different things, at least on the surface. For Fulkerson, procedural rhetoric, along with expressivism and critical/cultural studies, represent the three dominant forms of composition pedagogy. For Fulkerson the WPA Outcomes Statement is a good example of procedural rhetoric, and he describes procedural rhetoric in the following way:
an axiological commitment to judging writing
by suitability to the context (“situation and audience”), including concern for
classical issues of pathos, ethos, and logos. Its theory of the writing process
says that writing is a complex extended set of (teachable) activities in which a
wide variety of invention procedures may be valuable, and an equal variety of
drafting and revision activities….Epistemologically, adherents of this view
believe that values and decisions are reached through dialectic, but they do
not take a radical antifoundational view.
In short, Fulkerson's procedural rhetoric includes some of the dominant pedagogic modes in FYC. Of course one can take issue with his taxonomy, but that's not what I am here to do today.
Instead, I want to juxtapose this with Bogost's use of the term:
Procedural rhetoric is a general name for the practice of
authoring arguments through processes. Following the classical model, procedural rhetoric
entails persuasion—to change opinion or action. Following the contemporary model, procedural
rhetoric entails expression—to convey ideas effectively. Procedural rhetoric is a subdomain
of procedural authorship; its arguments are made not through the construction of
words or images, but through the authorship of rules of behavior, the construction of dynamic
models. In computation, those rules are authored in code, through the practice of
So here we have something interesting, I think: argument through the composition of rules of behavior, the construction of dynamic models. In a way, I think this is what is going on in Fulkerson's model as well. There, as a procedural rhetorician and pedagogue, one is teaching students a variety of writing processes. The students undertake the processes in the composition of essays, but one teaches procedures as a mode of persuasion and expresson. Now there is an argument that would suggest that all texts are procedural. Books carry with them rules of behavior. Reading a book is a procedure, and a procedure that must be learned. Different books demand different procedures. As such, one might argue that Bogost's distinction between the "construction of words or images" and the "authorship of rules" does not fully hold. And here, like Bogost, I'm not talking about the content of the media but rather the mechanisms by which media are composed and consumed/used/played. What we might say is that the procedural rhetoric of print-textual writing and reading have become regularized. Where we are quite conscious of our choices as game players, we are perhaps less conscious of the choices we make as readers, even though our choices with texts are likely more open.
In saying this I am not trying to dismiss the point that Bogost is making, because I think there's certainly value in thinking through the rhetorical issues here. To the contrary, in trying to establish the connections between these concepts of procedural rhetoric, I'm thinking it might be possible to open up this conversation to think about the role of other rhetorical theories. In particular I am interested in the notion of a "post-procedural rhetoric" that builds upon post-process theories. In this essay, Bogost is particularly interested in the potential for video games, through procedural rhetoric, to undertake the kinds of cultural critique Fulkerson would associate more with the Critical/Cultural Studies brand of composition pedagogy. However, I would push in a different direction where rhetoric processes are less deterministic and become articulated as components in a more complicated assemblage or network.
Undoubtedly, processes in a more technical/computer programming sense conform to a stricter logic than rhetorical processes. Despite that, if we think of a game like chess, with a reasonably limited number of procedures or rules, we can see rich variety of potential interaction and unfolding composition: particularly once the system is exposed to (and exposes itself to) two human players. Chess can be as much a game of human psychology as anything else. Post-process composition asks us to consider the broader cultural and material contexts in which writing practices are situated, that writing cannot be simply the undertaking of pre-established procedures or processes (not that anyone would ever say it could be, right?… right?). A post-procedural rhetoric for games (serious/persuasive/educational/etc.) would similarly investigate the social assemblages or actor-networks or whatnot in which games operate. This is not to suggest that a game or text cannot be persuasive, because obviously things are persuasive. Instead it is simply a way of stepping beyond the perceived process to investigate how rhetoric operates in these assemblages.