This is a special episode as it is part of The Big Rhetorical Podcast Carnival 2020. We, along with other podcasters dealing specifically with rhetoric and rhetoric and composition will all be focusing on one particular theme and releasing our episodes together. The theme of The Big Rhetorical Podcast Carnival is “The Digital Future of Rhetoric and Composition” My fellow podcasts include Global Rhetorics Podcast, Re:verb Cast, Rhetorically Yours, RhetoricLee Speaking, The Big Rhetorical Podcast, and Writing Remix Podcast. The Big Rhetorical Podcast Carnival 2020 takes place August 24-27. This is the inaugural The Big Rhetorical Podcast Carnival, and we hope to grow our list of participants and listenership going forward. We hope The Big Rhetorical Podcast Carnival is an annual event. The Big Rhetorical Podcast Carnival 2020 hashtags are : #tbrpodcastcarnival2020 and #thedigitalfutureofrhetcomp. The Big Rhetorical Podcast will feature a keynote interview for the podcast carnival. This episode will be released August 27. The keynote speaker for The Big Rhetorical Podcast Carnival 2020 is Dr. James Chase Sanchez, Assistant Professor of Writing & Rhetoric at Middlebury College. Episodes for The Big Rhetorical Podcast Carnival can be found at each podcast’s native host or at thebigrhetoricalpodcast.weebly.com or wherever you get The Big Rhetorical episodes.
So this particular episode will focus less on current events and more specifically on rhetoric. We’ll get back to the news in our next episode.
The Carnival is a collection of podcasts and podcasters who are all interested in rhetoric, but we come at from a variety of ways. Many of my fellow podcasters are interested in the rhet/comp side of things, which I absolutely value and understand – that was my introduction into rhetoric. My B.A. and my M.A. are in English and I spent some time in an English department T.A. -ing freshman comp. But when I switched to Communication Studies there was a shift in perspective. It wasn’t quite a paradigm shift, but it is enough to make a difference in who we perceive these things. In Comm Studies when we think of rhetoric we think of oratory. We share the history of rhetoric with rhet/comp, but around the 18th century rhetoric goes through a shift when it begins to mean writing as much as it does speaking. And in Comm Studies when we say “rhetoric” we mean speaking out loud and when they say “rhetoric” in English departments they mean “written composition.”
This makes a few differences. Think about the way audience shifts in these matters. When you are speaking, you are speaking to a very specific audience. You gear your message to THAT group in THAT moment. It is very particular. In composition they talk about the same thing – who is your audience and what is the purpose? But at the same time writing has permanence in ways that speaking does not. The written word has an inherently wider audience and a bigger timeframe to appeal to because it isn’t fleeting the way the spoken word is. The written word can be for a much more general audience. Novels are written for the public in ways that a speech to the RNC isn’t. That being said, an article for The Federalist is written for a specific audience in a way that an article for USA Today isn’t.
But digital rhetoric is bringing the world of composition and oratory back together in many ways. Oratory is permanent in ways it wasn’t before. We can record and replay speech indefinitely. With tools like YouTube and personal websites that host videos important (and unimportant) speech is constantly available. What once might have been oratory is becoming composition that is released online for people to read at their leisure. What would have been a proclamation, or a radio address is now a facebook post or a series of tweets. Important people take to facebook to make a long post or Twitter to make a short statement, or to Instagram to release an image or a video with text to go with it. Rhetoric in the digital age is bringing the oratorical, composition, AND the visual together in a hybrid form of rhetoric that, while following the rules of rhetoric as we understand it in many ways, appeals to us in NEW ways. So what has been a separation in rhetoric for many, many years is coming back together. Composition, oratory, and even visual rhetoric are coming back together and converging in new and profound ways in the digital world.
We see this in places like Instagram and TikTok where there is a mishmash of approaches to communication, and even argumentation. On facebook where image, text, and occasionally sound combine to make a point. Digital rhetoric is weakening the walls that once separated the various forms of rhetoric.
Marshall MacLuhan is kind of the godfather of media studies, and media studies and rhetorical studies are becoming more and more intrinsically linked.
First, we need a disclaimer. MacLuhan was a racist. Some of his theory uses really problematic language that very clearly describes non-Western people are inferior. That cannot be ignored. But, his influence on how we understand the media can’t be ignored, either. He was one of the first people to make media a field of study in and of itself. His legacy includes a lot of influential theory, such as the Four Periods of Media, and “hot” and “cold” media, but what is most applicable to today’s discussion is his ideas on the connections between medium and content. MacLuhan famously quipped “The medium is the message.”
In other words, how we experience a message is more important than the content of the message.
For example, the exact same message will be experienced differently whether it is read as a newspaper headline, a tweet, or heard over the radio.
Consider that for a moment: if a public figure makes a statement how do you access it? Do you read a transcript? Listen to a video? Read a series of tweet? Read a facebook post? Do you react to any of those media differently?
Consider how these mediums have changed in very recent years. When twitter was a new thing nobody would ever have gone to it for official statements from public figures. But now we have a president who seems to communicate to us almost exclusively through twitter, leaving us to figure out what is legal/official presidential statements and what is not. I myself have published academic articles that cite Tweets as a primary source.
The digital world is changing how we experience messages. And that is just the messages we read. Sites like Instagram or TikTok are no less rhetorical, but they are much more visual in nature. The same messages are being sent but they are being sent in wildly different way on wildly different media. The question is, how much does that change the message?
MacLuhan definitely had his critics. He even said that he was critical of himself. Burke is famously noted for sarcastically telling a story in which a messenger comes with a serious message about someone’s worst enemy and the recipient scolds the messenger for bothering with the message itself and demands to know how it came.
Obviously, the study of rhetoric DEPENDS upon the message itself. What is the argument? How does it build identification? How does it craft reality? What is the style? But there are so many ways to send these messages now and each way imprints itself upon that message. Rhetoricians of the digital age must confront how the medium affects their message, whether they are analyzing it or sending it.
So obviously any conversation about the digital rhetorics cannot be complete without some treatment of visual argumentation. The idea behind visual argumentation is that a visual argument can be more evocative than a traditional verbal one. Visuals can convey a narrative in a much shorter amount of time than a traditional argument. Visuals are interesting because they can either be abstract or realistic. They can often convey a sense of tangibility and realisms that traditional arguments lack. Visual arguments are specifically rhetorical, not logical or dialectical. They aren’t necessarily the reasoned, syllogistic or Aristotelian approach to argumentation that traditional arguments rely on, but they cite a few reasons for evidence in a forceful way. For a good primer on visual argumentation see J.A. Blair’s “The Rhetoric of Visual Arguments” from 2012.
A visual argument may not have a major premise, a minor premise, and a conclusion, but it does have claims and reasoning. Visual arguments are everywhere – they are in protest signs, memes, and pictures on Instagram. This is complicated by the fact that the digital world is moving at a phenomenal pace.
Visual Arguments are becoming more and more complex. Memes are quickly being replaced by GIFs. What is one saying when one responds to a political post with a GIF instead of a traditional response?
Then consider TikTok. The visual is being re-combined with aural, but it is something different than television. This is a new medium. Consider the sky-rocketing popularity of Sarah Cooper, the TikTok celebrity who has made a name for herself by “lip synching” to clips of Trump’s audio. She is clearly making a public statement about Trump, and it’s not a positive one. She doesn’t have to say anything or make any kind of reasoned argument. Her facial expressions and the camera do all the work for her. But she is combining audio and visual to create a new kind of public argument that is reaching people in ways that traditional argumentation simply is not.
What you may notice about all of this discussion about digital rhetorics and the way rhetoric is re-shaping itself is that it is not just a matter of politics and law anymore. While many rhetoricians still concern themselves with these traditional foci of rhetoric, the field has become broader and more encompassing. We have come to appreciate the importance of popular culture as something that is persuasive.
In many ways, popular culture is not just persuasive – it constructs the reality in which we live.
I had a professor in grad school say that popular culture was our enthymeme – it was the assumption we lived by. It is the way we communicate with each other. We define ourselves by the kinds of popular culture we consume.
Everybody’s favorite “getting to know you” question is, “So, what kind of music do you listen to?” And we all have some deal-breakers. If you are looking to make a friend or score some digits and the party you are interested in says “bro-country” or “screamo” or “adult contemporary smooth jazz easy listening” you may have an important phone call or a text you just HAVE to respond to.
Similarly, it could be that any of those answers may inspire you to say, “Finally! Somebody else gets me!” And a beautiful relationship might be forged. Because somehow the kinds of music we listen to are supposed to say something about US. This is something about our personality. There is somehow something substantively different between a person whose favorite artist is Ariana Grande and Tom Waits, supposedly.
Did you watch Game of Thrones? The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel? Do you watch The Bachelor? Do you watch The Masked Singer or RuPaul’s Drag Race? Do you ever feel judged for watching or NOT watching something? Do you have a community of people you talk about your favorite shows with?
Popular culture defines us and sets up the parameters for our communities and our lifestyles. It is a part of our identity. It is, in fact, constitutive. And that makes it rhetorical.
One scholar who has done some important work on popular culture is Barry Brummett. He moves the definition of rhetoric from being just argumentative to something that influences and manages meaning. This is important because this definition can include all manner of rhetorics – the verbal, the visual, the mediated, the and cultural. So you can look at the rhetoricity of everything from films such as Birth of a Nation to Thor: Ragnorak. You can think about the messages and influences of Billie Holiday’s performance of “Strange Fruit” or J-Lo and Shakira’s performance at the Super Bowl. YouTubers and Instagram influences become just as fruitful sources for analysis as George Bush.
Rhetoric, Brummett argues, is a matter of understanding culture. And culture is a combination of experiences and ways of crafting reality. Pop culture is intrinsically tied up in that. Our experience of life, and the way we craft reality, happens through the lens of pop culture and consumerism. At least, in developed nations. And this creates different experiences, classes, contributes to ethnic and national differences, and basically how we understand the world. So pop culture is inherently rhetorical.
And style is at the very heart of pop culture. Style is a sign or system of signs that is on the surface of a message or ideology. It’s important to understand that it is on the surface because surfaces are easily manipulated. You can convince a person to change on the surface level. Aesthetics are malleable. And at the center of aesthetics are images.
So pop culture is very much a visual exchange – it is mutable, visual, consumable, and it changes from one context to another. Yet at the same time we use it to construct our reality.
So the future of rhetoric is going to have to be nimble, flexible, and creative. It is going to have to understand not just how to make a traditional argument, but how visual, aural, and mediated stylistic markers delineate identity and reality. This will change how we understand rhetoric and how we produce it.
Rhetoric is not just an argument – it is how we fashion reality and ourselves. It is constitutive. And it is not just a think that happens when a public figure speaks to an audience or when a student writes a paper, but it is every time a person logs on or picks up their phone. And that will CHANGE HOW that public figure speaks to an audience or that student writes a paper.
Rhetors and writers are going to have to be aware of negotiate these styles, markers, and mediums. Who will see or hear them? How, when, when and where? Where do they get their information from? And how are they making their arguments? Are they stylistic? Are they substantive? What kind of argument are they trying to make?
This leads us to thinking about how rhetoric is forming in the digital world even beyond this combination of what we hear and see: we have to think about networked rhetoric. The advent of things like social networks or social media has inspired those who take rhetoric seriously to think about the ways rhetoric is connected.
Consider the hashtag – you click on it and it takes you on a trail of connected claims, ideas, thoughts, or observations. Hashtags connect users who are talking about the same thing in the same digital spaces. These mediated networks connect people, ideas, and devices all at once.
Consider what we do with these networks:
We advance ideas and arguments. Memes, hashtags, and popular tweets move through these networks as they are shared and re-tweeted. Sometimes even a more extended argument can be made in the form of a facebook post or a thread.
We create communities. We follow people whose ideas we like. We invite friends to like our pages. We send friend invites. These communities can be as intimate or robust as you would like, with some people having thousands of connections and some maintaining a small, close-knit circle. You can manage your community however it suits your needs.
We craft a reality. We curate our facebook and Instagram posts and images to show ourselves in our best lights. We filter our photographs, pose, and choose the best photo out of many to make it look as if our lives are some kind of picturesque ideal. We select what to share – what to celebrate in a post or what political statement to make. These networks we are creating are the versions of ourselves we want the most.
So what does all of this mean for the future of rhetoric? It means that more than ever we need to understand how style, image, and the digital era’s unique combination of the aural and the visual craft reality. It means we have to remember our Baudrillard and think about how what is real is that which is communicated to us – reality is a matter of that which can be replicated. For those of us who think about rhetoric is terms of communication studies it means widening the field of rhetoric even more and embracing new theories and modes of communication. It means seeing the connections between rhetoric and media, and connecting those dots between style, consumption, reality, and communication.
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first.