Jenny Edbauer Rice – “Rhetoric’s Mechanics: Retooling the Equipment of Writing Production”

Rice writes as a teacher and theorist of composition and rhetoric, and turns her eye toward the issue of “mechanics” in writing as well as the increasingly important “mechanics” of technology in relation to new media production.  According to her, rhetoric as a field has a deep-seated anxiety about being over-associated with the “mechanical,” stemming from Platonic philosophy, because a mechanical rhetoric implies it is a “rote habit,” which thus “could not be considered an ethical practice,” since it lacks a component “of true judgment or wisdom” (367).

Because of this, Rice alleges, experts in composition and rhetoric have often considered the simple “mechanics” unworthy of attention, resulting in a pernicious distinction between “the production work of texts” and “the produced texts themselves” (367-68).  In the twenty-first century, however, new media are once again pushing “the materiality of production” back into the center of rhetorical studies (368).

Rice traces the historical drift of American composition and rhetoric away from the mechanics of writing.  She suggests that just as more “mechanical” jobs (plumbers, auto mechanics) are disparaged in the broader culture, the mechanics of writing are seen as “beneath” instructors who tend to think of students’ mechanical issues as things that simply need to be “improved” or “fixed,” a task which is seen as more akin to menial labor than true instruction.  “Whereas grammar and mechanics were once seen as the starting point of sound thinking,” Rice explains, “they were eventually repositioned as writing’s final touch” (371).

Rice proposes that to remedy “anti-mechanic sentiment,” we must begin to think of rhetoricians as “logomechanics, or creators who can imagine, improvise, and enact the material deployments of meaning and its operation” (372).  That is, we must imagine a type of mechanics that is not rote, but in fact profoundly flexible and, it follows, profoundly ethical.

New media in particular demand we turn to the issue of mechanics not only because their technical interfaces are far more multifaceted than bare writing, but because traditional rhetoricians are largely ignorant of the mechanics of new media and, consequently, the rhetorical promises they hold.  As Rice says, “Part of the production and circulation of meaning depends upon a rhetorician’s ability to imagine possibilities for those meanings’ deployment” (373).

In learning the complex systems associated with image, video, and audio production, students and rhetoricians alike are granted a wide array of tools that can become of use in producing particular artifacts of meaning.  To this end Rice stresses that we should not be simply content to learn “the templates of managed software,” such as PowerPoint, but be willing to tinker and experiment with our tools in order to preserve our “potential as inventors of actions and ideas,” rather than having our thinking circumscribed by the software at hand (378).

Knowing how to use technology, Rice emphasizes, does not necessarily mean the ways we engage with the world through that technology are profoundly changed.  Borrowing from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, she offers the example of an auto mechanic who, though he knows perfectly well how a motorcycle works, fixes a malfunctioning bike while unintentionally damaging another important part.  The issue is not that the mechanic doesn’t know how the motorcycle works, but rather that at the time of the repair, the mechanic was not cognizant of the bike a complex assemblage of interdependent parts – it was simply a single problem that needed to be “improved” or “fixed.”

The trick in our ventures with new media, then, is not simply to learn how, eg, PowerPoint works, but to think about the ways in which PowerPoint’s various functions offer us the ability to produce rhetorical artifacts distinct from those of plain text, with care given to how these will engage viewers or readers, not mention our own selves, within a wider world.  We must, as Rice puts it, “figure out ways of caring about the world with the available means of technology,” rather than through or in spite of technological proliferation (380).

Rice encourages the use of M.A Syverson’s idea of a “personal pedagogy,” a willingness to engage in “exploration and experimentation” with unfamiliar media in order to produce artifacts of interest to oneself, a sort of “learning-by-doing” (380).  By returning our attention to mechanics – all types of mechanics – Rice asserts that we can “bridge[] the tensions between theory and practice” because “[m]echanics is where all texts […] begin” (385).

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