Douglas Eyman Digital Rhetoric: Theory, Method, Practice
In Chapter 2 of his book, Eyman reviews the applications of rhetorical theory to digital contexts as scholars work through the difficult question: ‘what is digital rhetoric?’. Eyman spends time discussing the way theorists have reimagined the rhetorical canon – notably Brooke’s Lingua Fracta: Toward a rhetoric of new media. While Eyman’s discussion is lengthy and detailed I want to focus on just one tiny detail here.
Eyman sites Porter and Sullivan (1994) saying “[b]ecause rhetoric is a situated and applied art, it generates principles, not rules. The difference is significant: principles are always interpreted and adjusted for situations (and rarely survive in pure form); rules circumscribe absolute boundaries (115)” (64 in Eyman’s text). Stated another way, context matters to rhetoric, and rhetoric must be understood in context. This is an important distinction for me, and seems to be my breaking point with Eyman – the digital in digital rhetoric cannot be the only context considered!
As a side note, I forgot my computer charger this morning, not noticing until I arrived at work. I began asking around to borrow a power cord – the IT department, Library, and Instructional Design team don’t lend chargers. While waiting for my cord to be delivered (thank you to my wonderful husband), I needed to find ways of completing digital work from my phone (an Android) – a much smaller screen, very different interface from my MacBook. I produced tweets – similar tweets to what I would’ve produced had I used my computer, but how I interfaced to create the tweets, my thought process for approaching my digital work was completely different. While this happened today as I was considering the content of this post was both frustrating and fortuitous, I am really noticing the lack of humans in digital rhetorical theory today.
As someone who studies new media, rhetoric and games, this play on principles and rules is really meaningful to me. In this chapter, Eyman’s goal is to work through existing discussions of digital rhetoric, the glows and the grows (a Lesson Study approach to showcasing praxis recently adopted by the Center for Academic Excellence at my institution – I love the terminology), specifically the ways the canon has been adapted to study production of digital texts more frequently than analysis.
This emphasis on how – production – makes sense. Interacting with interfaces is new, as interfaces continue to change, as new tools are developed, as new ways of communicating becomes possible through these interfaces and tools, users must determine how to deploy, users make choices in how they construct their digital communication acts. What is seen, what is viewable by the rhetorician, are the ‘final’ product choices (‘final’ because interfaces can and do and should change!). As Brooke points out, reimagining the canons can add to the fields understanding of rhetoric. But, the canons were designed by Aristotle in a time when oral rhetoric had a time and place for delivery. With digital tools, no digital communication is ever complete/done/delivered. Stale content on a website is an evil in the digital age – updating information to entice users to continue to visit the site is the expectation.
This is where I think a return to principles and rules – especially influenced by games and play – can add a lot to discussions of digital rhetoric. Eyman points out that Aristotle’s canon of rhetorical practice is heavy handed in rules. For example, Aristotle offers a discrete list of fallacies – of all possible arguments to be adapted to all situations. While useful during Aristotle’s time for the fixed audience and purpose of rhetorical education (democracy and public forum government), this approach is heavily rules based so constantly adapted to meet contemporary needs and contemporary understanding of the situatedness of rhetoric. For this reason, Eyman, very wisely, frames his approach in practices.
However, because I’ve played games (and become a competitive nightmare) like Fluxx where the rules and goals change with every turn, I think Eyman’s framing on principles needs to also account for the human element behind the decisions. In Fluxx games, the strategy is often to hold on to new goal cards until you can play the rule, action and keeper cards to win. This requires a combination of cards in your hand/deck, and a lack of cards in another players. Often this also requires in-play rules allowing/requiring players to play 3 or more cards per hand (long set-ups to playing new goals can be easily overridden by other players). The cards are shuffled, they will appear in the deck in any random order – it is up to the players (and their understanding of the game) to play the cards (to run the code in computer terms).
When discussing rules and principles of digital rhetorical theory, the principles and canonical adaptations need to account for human choice. While this leads to super messy theory – because we really can’t guess what a human will do – this accounting goes beyond invention (overall aligning my discussion with Eyman who similarly finds the canons binding).
This is where game theory, play theory, can offer a lot to discussions of ‘what is digital rhetoric?’. In games, rules are meant to be played with, often players determine which rules to enact, which rules to enforce, which rules even become active in a given game. I played Life with my husband and son and they bought stock. I can’t remember ever buying stock in the game previously. In my family growing up, those rules never became active and we chose to ignore the game pieces provided. In Fluxx games the players actively choose to make rules and goals. In both situations, play depends more on principles than rules. Play theories account for and recognize the situatedness of rule enacting.
As I work through theories of play for a November presentation I’ll continue to refine this idea. Initially I see the moment in Eyman’s digital rhetorical theory discussion where play theory would further complicate the ideas, and also bring the users back into the discussion in important ways. What is digital rhetoric without the users? How can we reimagine the question ‘what is digital rhetoric?’ to also account for and acknowledge the users?
The consideration of what play theory can offer is still just a kernel of an idea……