digital rhetoric and the resident web

Two lion cubs.
Vulnerability is charming until it grows up and stalks you through the savanna.

Donna Lanclos and David White offer some remarks in Hybrid Pedagogy, on “The Resident Web and its Impact on the Academy:” the “resident web” being that portion of online spaces which “involve the individual being present, or residing, to a certain extent online,” i.e. social media. Their argument is, in part, a familiar one, indicating that “New forms of scholarly communication and networking, manifested as digital tools, practices, and places such as blogs and Twitter, create a tension between the struggle to establish one’s bona-fides in traditional ways, and taking advantages of the benefits of new modes of credibility, many of which are expressed via the Web.” And it’s that last part which interests me here, the “new modes of credibility.” What are those?

As Lanclos and White describe, “When someone is followed on Twitter, it can be as much for the the way they behave — how they project character and a kind of persona — as it is for the information they can provide.” And what kind of character/personae is attractive?

Acquiring currency can be about whether a person is perceived to be vulnerable, not just authoritative, alive and sensitive to intersections and landscapes of power and privilege: As Jennifer Ansley explains, “In this context, “credibility” is not defined by an assertion of authority, but a willingness to recognize difference and the potential for harm that exists in relations across difference.” In other words, scholars will gain a form of currency by becoming perceived as “human” (the extent to which ‘humanness’ must be honest self-expression or could be fabricated is an interesting question here) rather than cloaked by the deliberately de-humanised unemotive academic voice.

My first thought here goes to Foucault’s investigation of technologies of confession in The History of Sexuality. Foucault discusses the Christian confessional but I’m thinking more about his investigation of writing as a confessional technology. My second thought is of Kittler, in Grammaphone, Film, Typewriter, where he remarks on the pre-typewriter perception of a connection between the fluidity of handwriting and a kind of honesty of expression. It’s hardly news that social media from LiveJournal blogs through Facebook and YouTube to Instagram or YikYak and beyond has been a site of confessions. These sites have generally offered a feeling of spontaneous utterance that is associated with honesty and confession.

What I think is curious here is Lanclos and White’s assertion of the development of academic status through these rhetorical practices. As they point out, impersonal objectivity has been, and really remains, at the foundation of academic knowledge. Even in discourses where subjectivity is hard to mask, like literary or rhetorical analysis, arguments must be built from textual evidence, scholarly sources, and established methods. So what role can these confessional performances play in building academic reputation?

To be “honest,” I am skeptical. There’s no doubt that the ability to create and maintain weak social bonds (i.e. networking in the non-technical, social sense) is valuable in almost every professional enterprise, and in academic terms that means building relationships with potential editors, reviewers, collaborators, hiring committee members, and more generally an audience for one’s work. In some respects this was more true in the 50s and 60s, when academia was more of an old boys network, than it is now. Clearly in those days, informal social bonds were largely created maintained face-to-face, which we still do and, as far as I can tell, is the primary reason for having conferences. As such, I don’t mean to suggest there is no value in building such relationships. And there may even be some prejudice, some semi-conscious subjective preference, to find those with whom we build such bonds to be credible. In effect, the sense that someone has confessed, has bared their soul, has exposed their neck to our teeth, makes us more inclined to believe them. Perhaps it just the curse of being a rhetorician, or maybe its some congenital incapacity on my part to trust others (oh look, that was almost a confession), but if you were investigating something that really mattered to you, would these kinds of confessions really sway your judgment?

Lanclos and White end by asserting that

As scholars we need to put aside anachronistic notions of knowledge being produced by epistemologically neutral machines and embrace the new connections between credibility and vulnerable humanity which the Resident Web brings. In tandem with this, as institutions we need to recognise this shift by negotiating the new forms of risk online and supporting increased individual agency without reneging on our our responsibility to protect and nurture those in our employ.

I can certainly agree with the first part of the first sentence. There are no epistemologically neutral machines for knowledge production. From a Latourian perspective that would make no sense. If you have a machine for the purpose of producing knowledge, how could it do/produce knowledge and have no effect (i.e. be neutral) on the knowledge? It would be like having a movement-neutral automobile. However, the connections between credibility and vulnerable humanity are not new, though the capacities of the Resident Web do shape this longstanding rhetorical practice in new ways. Furthermore, I’m not sure what is being asked in the imperative that we need to “embrace” these connections. Embrace itself is an interesting word choice as it suggests an affective response as opposed to say respect, acknowledge, value, reward, or some other similar verb.  And I’m not really sure what that last sentence is asking for. I think it is suggesting that academia needs to protect its students, staff, and faculty from the potential risks of social media (with which we are now all familiar). Of course I’m fairly sure that that doesn’t apply to “confessions” or honest expressions that we find racist, sexist, or otherwise offensive, because those bastards should clearly be pilloried, right? In other words, I don’t see how this happens, at least not in a general way. As their article does point out, these are (rhetorical) performances. Vulnerability here is a genre, just as the speech in a confessional is. Maybe we need to “embrace” this genre. I’m not really sure why. Perhaps it is simply a recognition that academics are increasingly exposed.

I suppose I would push back in the other direction, a direction Lanclos and White only briefly point toward when they note that the resident web “largely takes place in online platforms run by multinational corporations.” Foucouldian confessions were part of a disciplinary culture. Digital confessions might be articulated more as part of a Deleuzian control society. They become modulations in an algorithmic fed-forward subjectivity. Maybe we shouldn’t embrace such things. Maybe instead we need to be more cautious and at the same time more experimental in our skepticism over the value of the performance of vulnerability as a rhetorical strategy.

 

One thought on “digital rhetoric and the resident web

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  1. Interesting response Alex. I am questioning connection for myself recently and referred to Donna and Dave’s article here https://francesbell.wordpress.com/2015/10/16/a-moment-of-optimism/ I was interested previously in some elite scholars’ appropriation of blogging where they turned off comments and effectively used it as a broadcast channel. That’s fair enough unless we include different uses under some umbrella of ‘blogging’. I think we need to look at how the ‘new’ is very like the ‘old’ and explore practices about which I suspect we know relatively little.

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