A RhetNet SnapShot


What's In A Name?
What We Call What We Do And Why It Matters

Mick Doherty
Elizabeth Pass
February 14, 1996

Neologisms are fascinating; looking at where a name comes from can reveal an immense amount about the thing or group it represents. An obvious example? The name of this very journal, RhetNet. An obvious and accessible way to label a publication (if indeed that is the word for what this is) where rhetoric meets the internet.

That same intersection has led to another neologism -- "netoric." It's more than just a MOO-based Cafe; it's come to be used to label the ongoing work of rhetoricians of technology working in online and hypertextual environments. But ask Greg Siering, who coined the word with Tari Fanderclai some three years ago when they founded the Cafe, what it means, and he'll say, "Netoric? I don't know. I don't want to put a particular definition on it, because it's still defining itself. If I claim ownership of the word and put a definition to it, that immediately limits the possibilities" (personal electronic communication, 1995).

Siering is correct at many levels; but when we start tossing the term around near our students, or even more dangerously, near administrators who want course descriptions, then for practical purposes we need to match a definition to the word. One possible starting point is this: netoric is the rhetorical study of nonlinear electronic communications technologies.

Of course, we could all argue through the end of the millenium about the definitions of most of the words in that definition -- rhetorical ... nonlinear ... communications ... technologies. So perhaps constructing a definition isn't as limiting as Siering might have feared.

And ... wait! Isn't this definition, in most important ways, simply a re-statement of a common defintion of "rhetoric"? Shouldn't we be able to articulate why we're not using "rhetoric"? Isn't it because "netoric" is a more clever word, more attractive to the audience; it sounds cool and reads cool all at the same time, perhaps reflecting the oral/print mixture so many Netoricians claim is the basis of the field? Or is that just happy coincidence?

So why do it? Why name the one field (netoric) in terms of its ancient forebearer (rhetoric)?

We name things to understand them, and then construct and re-construct the definitions attached to those names as we construct and re-construct our understandings. Naming matters. It can also be a dangerous thing!

Both McLuhan (1962), in The Gutenburg Galaxy, and Toffler (1980) in The Third Wave, have pointed out that we use the terminology of old paradigms to name aspects of new realms.

The "horseless carriage" was defined in terms of its animate predecessor; its energy is still described as "horsepower." The printing press followed the illuminated manuscript -- and early typeset mimicked script. The typewriter followed the earlier linotype printing press and was so named "type" + "writer."

Following the typewriter -- the computer, and its first fonts (usually Courier) looked like typewriter-type. There is a common HTML code, <tt> ... </tt> which stands for just that ... "typewriter type." Despite the overwhelming presence of computers, with the easy capability of italicizing, the newest MLA styleguide still accepts underlining in place of italics ... a nod to the technology of the old paradigm.

Similar terms have arisen in the Computers and Writing community, a new realm in the old paradigm of academia. Aside from "electronic mail," which is now commonly understood at the societal level, there are a great many others which use specifically academically-based terms. RhetNet, a new kind of medium entirely, still labels itself a CyberJournal. We read about "online conferences and roundtables." Our students post to electronic bulletin boards.

We are defining the new realm of technological literacies in academia by borrowing and re-shaping names from the old paradigm(s). But both the cleverness of the names and the ease with which we might see through their meanings is an open door for administrators and others to criticize and even dismiss the new realm with observations and commentary based solely on assumptions relevant to old paradigms.

Why is naming important? Because naming counts. Naming is how we are recognized, valued, supported. If we aren't certain of our naming, or it we don't insist on being clear with our subsequent defining, and instead allow those unfamiliar with the field name and define for us, then consequences will hurt us and our discipline.

We will be (mis)understood, in terms of 4000 years of rhetorical tradition, rather than in the ongoing invention of a netorical field arguably not yet a decade old. We will be criticized for what we do not do, or what we do not know, in terms of the old paradigm. Those in power -- administrators, tenure/promotion review boards, hiring committees -- will make powerful, potentially harmful, decisions that affect our field in terms of what they're used to knowing rather than what we-they might not yet know.

Naming counts. Naming matters. What are we doing to define our realm?

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