I’m about 30,000 words into my second book. The subject matter of this book will not be a surprise to anyone who reads this blog. It will deal with digital rhetoric, speculative realism, and the challenges that digital media pose to the humanities and higher education. The central premise is that the (post)modern, anthropocentric concept of rhetoric and symbolic behavior, which underlies academic discourse and pedagogy across the humanities, is ill-equipped to understand digital rhetoric as it begins with faulty premises about the ontological foundations of rhetorical practice. SR, very broadly conceived, offers new ways to approach digital rhetoric that allows us to imagine new scholarly and pedagogical practices. Of special interest to me is the way that SR reaches out to the sciences.
But who is the audience for this work? Perhaps the 500-1000 faculty and graduate students in the field of computers and writing. Or those interested in speculative realism. Maybe some of those who claim an interest in the digital humanities writ large to include media study and so on. Or I could try to move in the other direction, more disciplinary than inter-. toward the more general field of rhetoric and composition. On some level, I’d like to imagine that all humanists might recognize the issue of working in the digital age as a matter of concern for them, but I won’t pretend that means they would read a monograph on the issue, let alone select mine.
The answer to this question comes down in part to the role that scholarship from rhetoric and composition would play. For example, one of the issues I address in chapter two has to do with conceptions of cognition, working memory in particular. My interests in this connect with some the conversations of pan- or polypsychism in speculative realism, with some research in cybernetics and neurobiology, with distributed and embodied cognition and such. There has been recent research done in working memory and writing, but not so much in rhet/comp journals. The field of rhet/comp turned its back of cognitive research in the late 80s, choosing instead to favor postmodern theory and cultural studies, right at the cusp of a real explosion in cognitive studies and the development of situated/embodied/distributed cognitive models. Yes, there are some exceptions, and work with cultural-historical activity theory such as that of Bazerman and Russell might fit into that, but for the most part rhet/comp turned toward ideology, discourse, and textuality in a way that favored subjectivity over cognition. Depending on how I envision my audience, I would address the scholarship in rhet/comp differently and to a greater or lesser extent.
The bottom line for me in this chapter is that while we have very little idea of how a complex operation like writing occurs on a cognitive level, a theory like distributed cognition would suggest that our relations with other objects in our environment alters the way that we think. If, as is argued, our capacity to write is connected with the capacities of working memory, and working memory can be modified and extended by our situation within cognitive networks, then clearly this is a matter for us to consider in understanding composing in a digital age. This isn’t a matter of designing digital systems to solve problems in pre-digital communication or to preserve pre-digital ways of thinking. Instead, the challenge becomes investigating and experimenting with an emerging cognitive practice. It is literally like playing with fire in the sense that we are confronting an emerging technology that is perhaps as revolutionary and dangerous as the earliest humans adapting fire to their own purposes. Unfortunately, our legacy humanistic concepts of subjectivity don’t really allow for this. It’s not that culture and ideology don’t matter, because they clearly do. It’s not an either/or situation. Our legacy notions must insist that the Internet is only a cultural artifact, a product of text/representation, and a servant of ideology, perhaps even a mute conspirator in a transnational capitalist plot. It would be ludicrous to imagine that this laptop or the iPhone sitting next to it are not capitalist products shaped by market forces, that cultural values and ideologies did not inform their design, or that because I’m publishing this on the web I am somehow a free-willed subject in a new way. On the other hand, it would be equally ludicrous, in my view, to imagine that the shifts in cognitive capacity and rhetorical/compositional practices are solely the product of an ideological force that overdetermines all human activity. To imagine that would be to imagine that we understand how we think and that the ways that distributed networks of cognition form together are predictable and controllable. In short, our legacy concepts of ideology and discourse must of necessity rest upon a theory of cognition, one that ultimately believes that biology is overdetermined by culture to an extent that questions of nature do not matter. If, as I assert, this position is wrong, that how cognition happens does matter and that cognition is shifting as the networks in which we think are changing radically, then this is a significant matter for humanists to address. It is, in the end, a Latourian argument that rejects the nature-culture divide that has made our previous theoretical paradigms possible.
So who is the audience for that argument? In a moment of aspiration would I like to make that argument across the humanities? Yes. Pragmatically, is there an audience for a book on that interdisciplinary level? I’m not sure. I could play it “safe” and write primarily to other rhetoricians. That’s what I am supposed to do I guess. Even then, it remains an odd project as it points beyond the discipline far more than it does within it. Who am I talking to?document.getElementById(“plaa”).style.visibility=”hidden”;document.getElementById(“plaa”).style.display=”none”;