digital rhetoric

media archeology is ordinary

Yes, it’s a play on Raymond Williams. Of course he was mostly suggesting that “Culture” was not solely the territory of a particular well-educated and wealthy class of Brits. Cultural studies was and is a highly technical and esoteric set of theories, methods, and discourses, and the apparatuses of the culture industry are elitist and arcane in their own way, but still culture is something we all do. Something similar might be said of media archeology. As an area of study it is technical and esoteric. What we might write about the smartphone is not composed for a wide audience. The media industry is also technical, elitist, and arcane from the smartphone’s engineering to its marketing. But without the quotidian use of the smartphone, without the everyday user, it would just be an expensive brick. By this I do not mean to suggest that media archeology must always be about the most prevalent and recent gadget. Historical media, failed products, niche applications, artistic experimentations: they are all also part of the ordinary, the everyday. The point isn’t to make a value judgment about the technology (as in ordinary vs. exceptional or low vs. high culture). The point is that the work of media archeology investigates matters that are relevant to all of our experiences, even if the scholarly texts that are produced are not for wide consumption.

For fields that only occasionally cross-pollinate, media studies and rhetoric, particularly digital rhetoric, share many matters of concern. There was a time, in the mid 80s through the mid 90s when it seemed like more intersection might happen. It was the first significant push of the PC into workplaces–including universities and classrooms. In these essentially pre-Internet days, graphical user interfaces and multimedia CD-ROMs were creating new possibilities. Lev Manovich points to this period as the beginning of “software culture,” of a time from which, going forward, all of our media products would at least pass through some digital phase. Effectively digital rhetoric, German media theory, and an Anglo-American cultural studies of media and technology were all happening at the same time, though perhaps with little crossover, even though they were drawing on many similar resources.

Searching back, I see the first reference to Kittler here was in 2003 when I was discussing my initial thoughts for what would become my first book. Kittler went on to have a significant role in The Two Virtuals. I’m not sure how/when I first encountered Kittler’s work. I’m guessing when I was a post-doc at Georgia Tech in the late 90s. Gramomphone Film Typewriter was published in English translation in 1999. Kittler’s work, indeed the concept of media archeology, follows on the work of Foucault. He also draws on other familiar postmodern, poststructuralist thinkers–Derrida, Lacan, etc. In other words, his work bears conceptual similarities with a lot of what was happening with “theory” in English in the 80s and 90s. But Kittler’s work never took off in rhetoric. I’m not saying that it should now. It’s just an observation.

Really media studies hasn’t gained much traction in rhetoric, but neither has rhetoric had much impact on media studies. Perhaps there is more crossover in the empirical, social-scientific side of these two fields, but that’s a separate matter. I have not been, nor am I now, a crusader for the cause of telling people who they should read, cite, or write about. I suppose I just articulate my own somewhat idiosyncratic research project in a way that makes digital rhetoric, posthumanism/new materialism, and media studies logically overlap. That is, I have always been interested in the way that the rise of digital media has shifted rhetorical/communication practices and furthermore created opportunities to rethink more generally the role nonhumans play in rhetoric. I have noticed over the years, that others find the intersections odd, esoteric, or unnecessary. But for me media archeology is ordinary. It’s just one of the ways, scholars move on from postmodernism to investigate digital media.

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