the digital rhetoric-media studies round-trip

There’s a good argument for looking backward now to see the last ten years as the decade of digital rhetoric. Sure the term was coined 30 years ago by Richard Lanham, and some variation of digital rhetoric had already been at work for 10 years before that. But it’s the last decade that saw the global explosion of mobile and social media and the arrival of big data, popular discussion of algorithms and AI, the internet of things, etc. etc. It’s also seen the political and social toll of that explosion, as much in the US as anywhere, with no end really in sight. So yes, plenty of stuff for the digital rhetorician to study, though you’ll have to forgive me if I respond to those opportunities with about the same enthusiasm that a climatologist might have for studying the expanding effects of climate change.

After 25+ years studying and working in English departments, I moved this semester to Media Study. My work has always intersected with media study as a field, but while I am hardly alone in that regard among digital rhetoricians, I strikes me that there are many missed opportunities for cross-pollination in both directions.

My posthuman/new materialist approach to digital rhetoric has always turned my focus more toward nonhumans than the field in general. Perhaps because of this, media archeology, software studies, platform studies, infrastructure studies and related media study areas have long drawn my interest. These methods/areas of study examine the role of hardware, software, and the networks that connect them, drawing upon a cultural-theoretical heritage they share with us in cultural studies, Foucault, Deleuze, and so on. Currently I’m reading Lev Manovich’s new book, Cultural Analytics, which describes data science/digital humanities methods for studying massive data sets.

That said, my interest in digital rhetoric has mostly come to rest on describing and exploring the capacities for rhetorical action that arise in the relations between human users and digital nonhumans. To be sure, those capacities are virtually innumerable. That means, hypothetically there is no limit to what humans might do in their relations with nonhumans (or their relations with other humans mediated by digital nonhumans). On the other hand, in the actual rather than virtual realm, there are networks and assemblages of actors that shift those innumerable possibilities into more regularized probabilities. For example, while a human might do almost anything in her relationship with Facebook or her smartphone, through a study of the operations of hardware, software, and networks, as well as a statistical analysis of large scale behaviors, we can describe the terrain of those possibilities.

We can also begin to speculate on how shifting those operations might result in a new terrain with different possibilities.

In my course on social media and networks, we are currently reading #Hashtag Activism: Networks of Race and Gender Justice by Sarah J. Jackson, Moya Bailey, and Brooke Foucault Welles. It’s a network analysis of the emergence of a number of familiar hashtags from #MeToo to #BlackLivesMatter, as well as others that arose from black feminists, transgender women, etc. As Jackson et al explore these counter publics emerge to give voice and build communities for people who find themselves excluded from mainstream public discourses. It’s an excellent examination of how the technical capacities of social media networks can be leveraged to create political and rhetorical capacities.

Of course we know that such technical capacities are politically agnostic and that any user might employ a hashtag for any purpose, as was evident this weekend when K-pop stans filled the Million Maga March hashtag with pictures of pancakes.

In the good-old, bad-old days of the 80s-90s, as a student, it struck me that there are always three main kinds of media theory. There was the naive, mainstream notion that media were the neutral conveyors of human will; obviously that’s always been a non-starter from an academic standpoint. There was a kind of techno-determinism, which could either been good or bad (e.g. tv is rotting our brains, the internet will spread democracy, etc.). And there was ideological, over-determinism: media are part of an Althusserian superstructure or something similar. But who can look at the current state of affairs and think any of those things are true?

In the early days of social media there was this idea that a post-hoc evaluation of information by internet users would sort everything out. That a “radical transparency” or the long tail or the “wisdom of the crowd” would do a better job of creating a democratic public space than we had with the cultural gatekeepers of 20th century mass media. 10 years later does anyone think that?

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