In my on-going quest to study the world of digital rheoteric, I’ve spent the past 2 weeks attempting to come up with a working understanding of what digital rheoteric actually is, before attempting to comment upon it or analyze it. Marred by the lack of formal training in rhetoric or writing studies in general, it has been a challenge. But a single good challenge can be more enriching than a thousand trivial victories, provided the target and the outcome are sufficient.
One key source I’ve been referred to is Douglas Eyman’s Digital Rhetoric, which attempts to, well, do exactly what I’m doing in more a sophisticated and much more in-depth manner. In chapter 2, Eyman explores rhetorical theory and its connection to digital rhetoric. In the second half of the chapter, Eyman brings up the nature of the “ecological” theory that explores texts, producers, readers and the institutions surrounding them in the way an ecologist attempts to study organisms and the environments they live in.
From my scientific background, the theory was interesting if not a bit strange due to its metaphorical nature. What brought clarity to Eyman was Collin Brooke’s “Ecology” chapter of his text Lingua Fracta. In this chapter, Brooke focuses on rediscovery of the classical canons- invention, arrangement, style, memory and delivery- and their utility in modern rhetoric study. The ecological theory Brooke deftly handles is applied to the canons in order to define their usage in a contemporary period, and indirectly, makes Eyman’s discussion that much clearer and palpable.
After an introduction to his argument that the old canons can be utilized for effective scholarship if they are analyzed through a different lens, Brooke dives into the ecological model as it connects to the canons themselves. To me, essentially an outsider, the canons and their presentation seemed more like concrete processes, similar to transcription and translation in protein synthesis; a given canon explained a given thing about some element of argument or composition. Brooke’s statement cleared the misconception I’d developed while he established as he dove into what the “ecology” he kept referencing really meant, “The canons have functioned neither as theory nor as practice…when we have paid particular attention to one or more of the canons, it has often been to render them more static.” (Brooke 43-44)
The connection between Eyman and Brooke came about as Brooke brought forth an explanation of the canon of invention in its ecological context. Brooke makes the argument that invention as a “generalized activity” further defined as “relations rather than categories.”(44) Brooke’s invention ecology essentially offers itself as a frame of the way that ideas that go into forming a composition or a text interact with one another a producer, in an individualistic sense, and in the way that these ideas interact with one another and producers on ecosystem-like scale in a way that ties into LeFevre’s “shared ecology”. Seeing a basic component of rhetoric broken down in such a way- that realistically mirrors systems biology more than ecology- added a secondary layer of clarity to Eyman’s model.
Eyman’s model focuses less on rhetoric itself and more upon the products on it, drawing off a “energy flow and material cycling” model that parallels nutrient cycling and energy flow in biological ecology. Seeing Brooke break down the canons made the metaphorical nature of the concepts Eyman puts forth more palpable. Eyman’s ecological theory can actually parallel Brooke’s invention ecology, ” …the rhetorical activity of writers and the material labor of production is analogous to the input of energy per se into a natural system; once that energy (and the digital object that results from the deployment of that energy) is added to any given digital ecosystem, the interaction of environment (network) and other inhabitants (other digital texts) in that ecosystem generates relational links and instances of material cycling (also known as remix in terms of digital practice).” (Eyman. The rhetorical activity discussed by Eyman operates in a similar manner to the Brooke’s circulation of ideas.
With Brooke and Eyman together, I conclude that the utility of the ecological theory of the study of digital rhetoric is a study of interactions in an effort to understand not only how an individual rhetorical activity or unit impacts the intended target audience or conveys the author’s desired point, but how its existence and interaction with prior rhetorical activities or units and subsequent influence upon future rhetorical activities or units as well as conception by producers and understanding by audiences alters the digital “ecosystem” as it were.
While Eyman and Brooke have caused me to accept new lenses of focus for digital rhetoric, other scholars have instead taught me how a specific rhetorical concept is applicable and unique in the field of digital rhetoric.
David Sheridan, Jim Ridolfo and Anthony Michel’s The Available Means of Persuasion explores the concept of “kairos” indepth. Kairos is essentially a combination of the way that timing and opportunity interact with a given rhetorical situation, as evidenced by the apt reference to its original relationship to archery early in the chapter. Specific emphasis must be placed on their discussion of “ripening the time” (Sheridan, Ridolfo and Michel, 9). Timing and opportunity in a print environment was already peculiar because of the preservative element a book, or a news article or a poem could possess; How is a rhetor supposed to address the reader who receives their text decades afters its inception, when its incendiary language and powerful hyperbole in regards to warfare has been lost in an age of peace, for example? This element has not only be retained within the digital sphere but has evolved. Now more than ever, audiences have expanded as more people gain access to digital space, timeframes are heavily condensed as information transfer becomes more and more efficient, and the preservation of original work’s intent and impact becomes much more an issue as digital texts became increasingly modifiable both by the authors themselves and members of the audience who utilize and remix the text. The argument Sheridan, Ridolfo and Michel bring up is essentially that timing and opportunity are not always something a rhetor constructs. As the authors state when referencing Sharon Crowley’s “prepared rhetoric”, “Preparation is required to read a situation effectively, to discern what opportunities are available and to know how to frame a rhetorical response that is appropriate.” (Sheridan, Ridolfo and Michel, 10).
With this in mind, there are two things to consider in regards to digital text. Firstly, the element of opportunity and timing suggests that a rhetor must be able to respond to the topic their addressing with their intended audience in mind and their main argument well understood. If offering an unpopular opinion, for example, it becomes useful to approach the audience in a non-combative, neutral or even friendly tone. Most respond poorly to antagonism, and offering a dissenting opinion can breed antagonism. We can observe this phenomena in digital spaces readily in a negative light as a facet of the anonymity offered by the internet. Going into a Twitch.tv chatroom for any random streamer could be rife with ineffectual, combative rhetoric due to the disregard for the audience, for kairos and due to the protection of their identity, though the specificity of this particular digital space is a connection for another day.
The second point to consider is the kairos can change in a special way in the digital sphere; authors can more readily alter published texts and, hypothetically, could change an argument or opinion if some element of the timing changes. This could work effectively by allowing an author to “ripen the timing” by responding to changes in the nature of the topic they discuss, in the opinions of the audience, or even in changes of heart in regards to an argument for any number of reasons. In this regard, a digital rhetor can ripen the time through constant vigilance of the situation they are involved within. At the same time this could prove damaging, as the ability to change an argument or opinion on the fly could be seen as miscontruing the argument in and of itself, or even “censorship”, which has become an increasingly dreaded word in some corners of the internet.
Digital rhetoric is undoubtedly a unique phenomena, but there is much we can learn from thinkers before us who lacked the opportunity to explain this strange and wonderful realm.