digital rhetoric new materialism

the principle of illectracy?

Perhaps Ulmer has a more elegant puncept for this, but basically I’m thinking here about the analog of illiteracy within electracy. I.e.:

literacy —–> electracy
illiteracy —–> illectracy?

For the first 25 years or so that we have discussed electracy, I don’t think there was a pressing need to imagine the operation of illectracy. For one thing, we had the concept of digital literacy/illiteracy. As I argue elsewhere this is an insufficient concept. At best you could say that digital literacy is the knowledge a literate apparatus can create about an electrate one and that a digitally illiterate person would not have access to that knowledge. Generally we could think about this in functional terms: e.g., can you send an email? save your documents? search a database? Or even more complicated functions like edit an image in Photoshop.

Illectracy is something else, only indirectly related to this kind of functional know-how. It’s maybe easier to think first in terms of the oral and literate apparatuses. As those familiar with Ulmer know well, the oral apparatus operationalizes moral concepts of good and evil and the literate apparatus operationalizes epistemological concepts of truth and falsity. It’s not hard to recognize the history of these clashing: the conflicts of religion and science are one of the grand narratives of modernity. Illiteracy in this context is not only the functional kind but also the cultural and rhetorical kind. It’s a confusion of these apparatuses and an inability to negotiate among them. And while we can talk about this occurring on the level of individual people, I’m most interested in it as a cultural condition.

Electracy operationalizes the concepts of pleasure and pain. So to put it in the most straightforward terms, illectracy is the confusion of pleasure with truth and goodness. I guess you can just ask yourself if you see around you people who believe media to be true because they derive pleasure from it.

Admittedly, we could say that this is just hedonism, though hedonism, as I understand it, is the assertion that seeking pleasure is the only moral imperative. This is something different. It’s the experience that the news-information-media which elicit positive affective responses from us become associated with our convictions about the true state of the world. They also become associate with our judgments of morality: to be moral is to share my affective responses… to take the same pleasure as I do from my convictions about the true state of the world.

Pick any contentious cultural topic that you like and you can see this repeated over and over.

But wait, there’s more. It’s certainly fair to say that we have “always” associated pleasure with our sense of truth and morality. However, electracy is the operationalization of that condition in an apparatus. That apparatus is partly a conceptual abstraction, but it certainly has its tangible elements. The most obvious of these have to be the social media algorithms that record, analyze, and the act upon user interactions to present us with a version of the virtual world that will generate the most engaging affective responses. Through these processes we become participants in social assemblages that I would call “user populations.”

In short we become organized by our affects along the lines of the way Deleuze describes the emergence of the control society from Foucault’s disciplinary one.

Riffing off a recent post, this electrate condition need not be dystopian or anti-utopian, though currently it is in one of those states. The challenge, as I started off this post, is with the principle of illectracy: an inability/struggle to negotiate among these apparatuses. The utopia image of electracy was/is the benefits that might be gained from empathizing with others. What is the anti-anti-utopian vision? Perhaps one that sense this doesn’t happen with the wave of a techno-magical wand but rather through invention, work, and the construction of new institutions, assemblages, arrangements, and so on. (Hint: Facebook may not be up to the task.)

I should probably note, as we think about this, that I do not mean to suggest that the pleasure/pain we feel or the way those affects are operationalized are in anyway free of the forces of history. One only needs to look at the way familiar political-ideological battle lines are reinforced by these affects to know that is NOT the case. For many good reasons those are the focal point of our concerns. At the same time, we can recognize the way that various memes and related rhetorical-compositional practices cross those boundaries–sometimes in reinforcement of broader social values (e.g. the love of family, bravery, overcoming illness, etc.) and sometimes in unexpected ways.

Of course that is all the more reason for us to address illectracy, because it is clearly exacerbating the challenges of political deliberation. E.g., how can we make a decision about how to act in response to climate change when we cannot agree on the facts as we know them or even on whether or not climate change is a hoax?!?!

I am often reminded of this line that my memory attributes to Virilio, maybe in Art of the Motor, which is something like… when trains were first built the French believed that they would help to end wars by making it possible for people to visit other countries and see how those people were much like them. The Germans, on the other hand, realized that trains would help them get troops and supplies more efficiently to the front. None of that occurs without the adjacent capacity of electrical communication: the telegraph and then the telephone. Those are the early, early days of electracy. These are not longer those days. We are in it now.

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