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).

Kittler’s “Gramophone, Film, Typewriter”

Kittler begins by describing a system of optical fiber networks that will eventually allow people to “be connected to a communication channel which can be used for any kind of media” (101). He uses this metaphor to segue into a discussion of how the “general digitization of information” (102) has vitally erased the differences between individual media.

For example, the telephone and the radio separate the auditory from the other senses; the TV separates combines audio and visual, but presents them in isolation from touch, smell, and spacial sense. According to Kittler, we are moving towards a channel in which all mediums can be combined into one communication experience, thus the “digital base erases the notion of medium itself” (102).

Kittler uses the example of the jumbo jet as an enclosed space where media are more densely connected than in most places. Inside the airplane, passengers are served a “canned mixture” of media that is experiences all at once, yet separate. You can listen to music on your earphones, watch a movie, eat the microwaved meals food they serve in their cart.

Ever wonder why the safety videos insist that you turn off all other electronics during take off and landing, regardless of whether they are in “airplane mode”? (This observation isn’t part of Kittler’s article, but it in a sense contributes to the idea of the airplane as a space of partially connected media systems that can be turned on and off at will).

 

Kittler makes an important point about they way in which we judge the quality of media. We see a media as “individual windows for one’s sense perception” (103)and we judge the quality of the medium based on the degree to which the medium accurately represents the content it attempts to convey. We have to “compromise” on how far the content can stray from the clarity of our own senses based on the limitations of the media technology.

Media, however, does not just channel the experience of our senses through different mediums. Spanning back to early machines like the phonograph, mediums have also been used to “store time” (Kittler 104).

“Time, however, is what determines the limits of all art. Data flow must be arrested before it can become image or sign” (104).

Texts and scores, Kittler notes, used to be Europe’s only way of archiving the progression of society. Before information can be stored in time, it first must be reduced to a series of symbols, encoded in time.

“This is why anything that every happened ended up in libraries” (105).

Libraries catalogue, group, and encode information for later use. In the most basic sense, we use our alphabet and grammar to encode information. Kittler suggests that writing naturally came out of oral history as a way to document human knowledge. So, oral culture was subverted by written culture and written culture was “additionally homogenized by the state apparatus” (107). Writing became a means not only of documenting and archiving, but the standardization of alphabet and grammar became a means of expediting the extrication of meaning from its signifiers.

“In order to naturalize writing, writing has to be made painless, and reading had to become silent. Educated people who could skim letters were provided with sights and sounds” (108).

To expand on Kittler’s point, much of the online written mediums today are designed to make the process of extricating information more efficient, and therefore, “painless.”

Kittler also discusses the role of storing information in our concept of death. The cemetery is a sort of “family archive,” while writing, voice recordings, videos, allow us to perceive a person even after they are no longer physically producing more content. Thus, “in the media landscape immortals have come to exist again” (112).

Finally, Kittler discusses the typewriter as a machine that documents information and places it into a standardized series of symbols. The typewriter prescribes the symbols that can be used and expedites the process of writing on a trajectory that has progressed from etching in stone to handwriting to the typewriter machine to the modern computer keyboards of today. The symbols provided by the typewriter are a “finite and ordered stock” (115).

Coming full circle back to his original point about the digitization of information, Kittler explains that information, history, content etc. used to be encoded laboriously and with little standardization. The homogenization of writing allows us to skim writing and derive meaning from it relatively quickly (say, in comparison to Egyptian hieroglyphics). The machine of today seem to allow us virtually limitless possibilities in terms of creating content and projecting it through media, yet behind the smoke and mirrors we really have reduced the information-encoding process to a series of 1’s and 0’s. No longer do human eyes even need to scan the symbols (as they skim a text) – the computer scans this symbols for us.

Machine can keep signs, erase signs, or leave a blank space in the place of a sign. However, in Kittler’s words, “no computer that will ever be built can do more” (117). We will continue to create and store data and then revisit it and recall its meaning.

Kittler ends with this powerful statement, so I will not attempt to dilute its effect with paraprashing: “All data flows in a state n of Turing’s universal machine; numbers and figures become (in spite of romanticism) the key to all creatures.”

Virili-oh!

“If last century’s transport revolution already brought about a mutation in urban territory throughout the continent, the current revolution in (interactive) transmission is in turn provoking a commutation in the urban environment whereby the image prevails over the thing it is an image of; what was once a city becoming little by little a paradoxical agglomeration, relationships of immediate proximity giving way to remote interrelationships. The paradoxes of acceleration are indeed numerous and disconcerting, in particular, the foremost among them: getting closer to the ‘distant’ takes you away proportionally from the ‘near’ (and dear)- the friend, the relative, the neighbour- thus making strangers, if not actual enemies, of all who are close at hand, whether they be family, workmates or neighbourhood acquaintances. This inversion of social practices, already evident in the development of communication equipment (ports, stations, airports), is further reinforced, radicalized, by the new telecommunications equipment (teleports).”

-Paul Virilio, Open Sky (19-20)

The passage reads as if responding to the proliferation of smart phones and social media, as if a critique of instagram’d events and the alienated self(ie), a contemporary logic expertly expressed by the Facebook Home commercial series, albeit with a notably different moral valence:

However, the passage comes from a book published in 1997 by an author who shirks the use of many technologies.

“I don’t have a car or a TV anymore… I don’t have a computer and I don’t have a cell phone. I have a perfectly normal house phone, water, gas, and electricity. Sometimes I listen to the radio.”

The experience of the web 16 years ago lacks many of the structures of interaction of the contemporary experience and the continued applicability of concepts like ‘remote interrelationships’ and ‘inversion of social practices’ attests to the prescience of the analysis. Apart from the discussion of Data Gloves and the mention of Cybersurfers, the text lacks the patina of age common to many scholarly engagements with the social import of technology.

“A refreshing antidote to the ‘global village’ mantra of net gurus, Virilio writes in the subversive tradition of Michel Foucault and Jean Baudrillard.”—Publishers Weekly

Following McLuhan, Paul Virilio ascribes a strong determining (though not necessarily determinist) role to technology, shaping perception, politics, and sociality. However, where McLuhan identifies a utopian potential in his imagining of a Global Village, Virilio offers a decidedly dystopian prognosis.

“Doomed to inertia, the interactive being transfers his natural capacities for movement and displacement to probes and scanners which instantaneously inform him about a remote reality, to the detriment of his own faculties of apprehension of the real, after the example of the para- or quadriplegic who can guide by remote control- teleguide- his environment, his abode, which is a model of that home automation, of those ‘Smart Houses’ that respond to our every whim. Having been first mobile, then motorized, man will thus become motile, deliberately limiting his body’s area of influence to a few gestures, a few impulses, like channel-surfing.” (16-17)

The transition from mobile to motorized to motile follows another chain of correspondence: from nomadism to urbanization to…? The third term remains unnamed but Virilio traces yet another series, getting at the meaning or significance of the third term: from journey, to destination, to non-space. With each quality mapping onto the corresponding terms, the nomad exists in relationship to the journey, the urbanite exists in relationship to the destination, and this third term exists in relation to the non-space of telecommunications. To get at the idea of non-space, Virilio uses the example of a teleconference and asks where does the meeting take place? In the office in NYC that initiated the call? In the office that answered? In the wires, tubes, and ether that connect the two? Neither one nor the other, he insists that the meeting takes place in a kind of non-space, inclusive but not reducible to the spatial parts. Virilio connects the move towards non-space with a devaluation of the destination and the journey, a break down of real time, real space, and real sociality. A variation on his dystopic vision of the future can be found Pixar’s Wall E.

Telecommunication technologies may enable new ways of connecting with people, but what are the end results of those connections? Like the inhabitants of the Buy N’ Large spaceship only able to attend to issues of immediacy- what do I want right now?– Virilio sees the trajectory of technology as ending the very possibility of trajectories, making it impossible, or at least difficult, to ask questions like how did I get here? Where do I go from here?
This form of present shock suggests not only a new relationship to space but also a new relationship to time.

“These days, the screen of real-time televised broadcasts is no longer a monchromatic filter like the one familiar to photographers which lets through a single colour only of the spectrum, but a mono-chronic filter which allows a glimpse only of the present. An intensive present, spawned by the limit-speed of electromagnetic waves and no longer registered in chronological time- past-present-future – but in chronoscopic time: underexposed-exposed-overexposed.” (28)

The idea of chronscopic time offers a different way of analyzing the flood of digital information. Take the medium twitter- it is (sort of) possible to analyze tweets under a chronological paradigm- each tweet has a relational time stamp depending upon the time of access- two minutes ago, an hour ago, two days ago- but the precision of the time stamp lessens the further removed the tweet is from the present. Additionally, it is difficult to imagine the value of a strictly chronological project- so much of the social meaning of twitter takes place in algorithmically mediated connections rather than individual tweets. Tarleton Gillespie’s analysis of the twitter trending algorithm (of 2011) shows a different paradigm at play- the chronoscopic paradigm of exposure, overexposure, and underexposure. Algorithms shape the experience of the presence, outsourcing the act of judgement from the human to the machine, and determining twitter trends, facebook feeds, and media recommendations. Which is not to ignore the role of design- algorithims do not emerge of their own volition but instead are shaped by the decisions of individuals, although the scale of those decisions can vary widely with the use of machine learning technologies. But is this exactly this question of design that Virilio’s framework of chronoscopic time elides- instead of looking to the different ways media, technology, and algorithms shape the perception and experience of the present, Virilio reduces the significance of technological development to ever-acceleration resulting in the motile (hu)man. Although he sharply criticizes the logic of progress, Virilio leaves the structure of progress in place while offering a different valence of the term.

“With the cold war over and capitalism ascendant, Fukuyama argued, the end of that History, with a capital H, was more clearly in sight. Whatever the ultimate fate of this thesis—the controversy it sparked was both trenchant and varied—my point is that
media, somewhat like Fukuyama’s “mankind,” tend unthinkingly to be regarded as heading a certain “coherent and directional” way along an inevitable path, a History, toward a specific and not-so-distant end.”

-Lisa Gitelman Always Already New: Media, History, and the Data of Culture (3)

Gitelman and New Media

Video

This is an exploration of Gitelman’s comparison between the phonograph and the Internet and how, as “new media,” these two brought into question how we look at concepts like the document or the lecture. I would like to specifically discuss what implications Gitelman’s theory of new media has for 1) accessibility to information and 2) how we establish authority and authorship in new media. I use the concept of Wikipedia specifically to discuss how some of these concepts relate to new digital networks, and how these technologies raise similar questions to those raised by the printing press.

Media as Historical Subject

Video

As someone interested in media history, I wanted to focus on the historical methodology Lisa Gitelman presents in the introduction of Always Already New. I do think the objections/questions I raise are primarily limited to the theorization of her method and do not necessarily apply to chapters that follow the introduction- or at least I have not done the work to the make that application here. However, I do think Gitelman presents her method as a corrective to extant approaches to media history and so I wanted to consider what could be lost if this approach were universalized within media histories.

On Gitelman’s Skepticism

Video

I’ll be the first to admit that I do get a little hung up on surface-level material in these readings. This week, it’s Gitelman’s mention of the rise of skepticism among consumer’s of print culture. I think this poses the question of how long it takes for the public to become skeptical or what variables must present themselves to instill doubt in the minds of media users. Lend an ear. Lend some insight.