the ends of digital rhetoric

Two personal data points: a meandering FB thread about the future of the Computers and Writing conference; another conference conversation over the implications of asserting that “these days” everything is digital rhetoric. It’s a related observation, taken one step further, that leads Casey Boyle, Steph Ceraso, and James J. Brown Jr. to conclude in a recent article “It is perhaps too late to single out the digital as being a thing we can point at and whose fate we can easily determine. Instead, the digital portends to be a momentary specialization that falls away and becomes eventually known as the conditions through which rhetorical studies finds itself endlessly transducing.” So there are multiple ends (or sense of the word end) for digital rhetoric, both as a disciplinary specialization and as a discrete phenomenon (with the two being related since as long as the latter exists there’s reason for the former to exist). We can ask about the purposes/ends of digital rhetoric (as a field of study but perhaps also as a phenomenon). We can seek out the boundaries between digital and non-digital rhetoric (i.e. where digital rhetoric ends and something else begins).  Finally we can think about those boundaries temporally as Boyle et al suggests by “momentary specialization.”

I guess my first observation is that the fact that something might become pervasive doesn’t necessarily mean that it ceases to be a subject of study/specialization. Just think about the ways we study race, gender, class, or culture–obviously these are all pervasive elements of human life. We identify many meaningful distinctions here and one imagines significant objection to the idea that the transduction of rhetoric passing through such bodies portends the erasure of their study as discrete phenomena. But I don’t think that’s Boyle at al’s point. Instead, the exact opposite is what might be suggested. If I may use this analogy, we have seen intersectionality result in a vast proliferation in the way human rhetorical practices are studied over the last couple decades. This is the result not only from the proliferation of identities but from their combination as well. The same is true of digital technologies and rhetorical practices. In this respect it becomes increasingly problematic to speak of a discrete, cohesive digital rhetoric, but no more so than it is possible to speak of rhetoric or writing in general terms.

As Boyle, Ceraso, and Brown also write “The digital is no longer conditional on particular devices but has become a multisensory, embodied condition through which most of our basic processes operate,” though they move from that description to “offering the concept of transduction to understand how rhetorical theory and practice might engage ‘the digital’ as an ambient condition” (a la Rickert). So these things are all true. We can describe (and study) digital media ecologies as ambient conditions. This involves first understanding rhetoric as a not-necessarily human phenomenon that can itself  be ecological and ambient, which can in turn encounter and interact with digital media in a variety of ways resulting in a digital-rhetorical ecological-ambient condition. At the same time, one can study and describe particular devices and/or particular devices as they operate in specific communities or for certain purposes.

I think that either of those approaches–studying ambient digital rhetorical phenomenon or specific devices/practices–promise sustainable areas of specialization within rhet/comp (inasmuch as any of this is sustainable). So a journal like Kairos or a conference like Computers and Writing has a sustainable path forward, at least in terms of disciplinary logics (usually its material support and logistical problems that are the main challenges to sustainability anyway). I think starting a phd specializing in digital rhetoric in 2018 makes at least as much sense as starting any other kind of English Studies phd in 2018. And, on a more practical level, the differences between vlogging and blogging, between web design and podcasting, between mobile apps and infographics (i.e. among all these transducing digital rhetorical practices) are where the curriculum will happen. So again, you can’t just study “the digital.” The field is proliferating.

I suppose one could say that’s where the field ends (though literary studies hasn’t ended as a field because there are dozens of specializations within it), but even then we’re a long way off. If/when there are a half-dozen once and future “digital rhetoricians” in your department, then we can talk about how each is really in a sub-specialization. I’m not holding my breath on that one.

Indeed I’d think the opposite future is just as likely to be true. Rather than “the digital” becoming pervasive and being subsumed again into a rhetoric that is implicitly but no longer explicitly digital rhetoric, the field of rhet/comp, along with the rest of English Studies, becomes subsumed into a humanistic study of the digital that, from our perspective, might be described as interdisciplinary. That is we become explicitly digital and implicitly rhetorical. And from there one will see new sub-specializations. But honestly I doubt either is probable. Almost all the internal energy and resources across English Studies, including in rhet/comp, are powerfully conservative. Almost all the external energy and resources are indifferent to English Studies at best; there’s nothing about us that screams good investment to them.

The upshot is that I think for at least the next decade we’ll continue to see rhetoricians who specialize in the study of digital media while the vast majority continue their research with little thought to the implications of digital media for it. And on some level that’s not only fine but totally reasonable; you can’t study everything. And I suppose in the end that’s the potential problem with digital rhetoric–if you start seeing it as “everything” (or at least a lot of things). But I wouldn’t (don’t) panic about it. It’s always already intermezzo; you’re always beginning and ending in the middle of somethings else.

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