Mick Doherty: In response to a question from Jim Zappen and June Deery

Two summers ago, Jason Teague and I were discussing (via electronic mail, as we both were at work) Douglas Coupland's wonderful novel, _Microserfs_. We were drawn not only to the plotline, but to the plot's lack of line; the book was a loosely interconnected series of vignettes (some a word, some 2-3 pages) which you could begin reading at any point, in any order, though it made nominally more sense if you started from "front to back." There were a couple of "threads" to the book, which occasionally crossed, and a number of authorial voices -- the protagonist, an omniscient narrator, the protagonist's (or the narrator's? we are never sure) computer's RAM -- and they mingle to a nervously stable cacophany.

Communications Technologies Reading List
Answer Porush | Answer LeFevre
Exam Q uestions | Introduction

"You know why we like this so much," I wrote to Jason. "Coupland has written himself a book of email!" Jason countered, "Almost -- really, it's more like a collection of UseNet postings; we can skip around, but can't delete anything." One of us -- I don't remember which -- pointed out that we were forced to "lurk," that is, we couldn't contribute to the written conversation. Except, of course, that is precisely what we were already doing. And in the middle of our email exchange, Jason got a post from his fiancee, and we all met up together, face to face, for lunch.

As I started thinking about how I would answer this question, I found myself thinking about McLuhan's experimental writing, l'essai concrete (in CounterBlast and in The Medium is the Massage) -- where texts collide with images on the page(s) -- and I toyed with creating an explosive answer to this question, utilizing multiple fonts and varied margins, visual cues embedded in and surrounding the textual ones. And just as I was calling up a cartoon-producing font called "Zapf Dingbats," I remembered that Victor had asked me to send him my answers to this question via electronic mail.

Toward the end of his popular run in the late 1960's, McLuhan also wrote that in an electronic environment, "invention" now equates with "adjustment." (Or, at least, he is quoted as saying that; what Yogi Berra once said of himself is painfully true of McLuhan: "A lot of the things I said, I never said.") And given Victor's request, it reminded me that the key -- the absolute bottomline most important -- shift in how we approach rhetoric in electronic discourse, as opposed to the centuries of print-bound, or even oral culture, is that the author-speaker-writer-rhetor no longer controls the user-end interface (examined notably in Chauss, 1996). In fact, I wanted to put that phrase -- no longer controls, etc. -- in italics, but some mail programs can make alphabet soup out of italics, and I don't know what kind of mailer Victor uses. So I am -- as McLuhan suggests -- *adjusting.*

I realize this may be an opportunity to experiment with the ballistic, creative rhetoric that characterizes both cyberpunk fiction and much postmodern criticism, at the *textual* level only. When all we control are the textual characters -- no longer the size of the page or the shape of the font -- it is perhaps a chance to experiment with what I would call l'essai concrete electronique. To that end, this answer addresses the question at hand not only in content but in format; indeed, if we are discussing rhetoric in an electronic age, it must do those things simultaneously. It is my act of writing, moreso than the text I am producing, that will address the final point of the question: where I situate myself within this literature. I will return to this part of the answer, or perhaps to a different question entirely, at the end of this essay-slash-essai.

You might recognize what follows as positively Couplandesque. You might recognize it as sort of looking like a collection of UseNet postings. Or maybe, down the road, you'll be visiting a UseNet group upweb somewhere and realize that it looks sort of like this answer.

Academia seems to love a dichotomy. As I've been reading about the history of the internet and computing, revisiting websites and books that speculate about electronic discourse, there has consistently been a feeling of bifurcation.

  • *Academic* versus *Popular* commentary
  • *Rhetorical* versus *Philosophical* commentary
  • *Postmodernism* versus ... well, everything
  • *Fiction* versus *Non-fiction*

There are others. The will occur to me as I write, and I suppose I will scroll back up and add them as if they occurred to me as a convenient long list of paired opposites.


To begin with the most ancient of dichotomies, I would introduce you to Dr. Jay David Bolter and Dr. Michael Heim. These two men are, by all accounts, pioneers in exploring electronic discourse and meaning-making in the pixeled world. Indeed, it would not be far-fetched to refer to Bolter as "the Rhetorician of Cyberspace" (Stephenson overexaggerates to the absurd by calling him "the Gutenburg of cyberspace") while Heim is "the Philosopher of Cyberspace."

The traditional difference between the two stances is best addressed by Richard Lanham in his widely-cited book *The Electronic Word.* The rhetorician is concerned with "looking at" a thing (a communicative act) while the philosopher is concerned with "looking through" it. Lanham posits that electronic discourse demands we "toggle" back and forth between the two positions, and this is eminently possible if we familiarize ourselves with Bolter and Heim.

Both men gained notoriety in the academy with a book inspired by the advent of personal-computer word-processing (Heim's "Electric Language" and Bolter's "Turing's Man," respectively); both moved from there to their most influential (or at least widely-cited) books where they carved out their territory in cyberspace. For Bolter, in "Writing Space," it was just as the title suggests -- about looking AT the shape of the writing, and the new possibilities and demands facing all the actors in the communication process. For Heim, in "The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality," he loudly proclaims "Cyberspace is Platonism as working product!" and re- tells the allegory of the Cave in such a way that suggests "jacking in" to the matrix is like leaving behind the world of shadows for the world of forms -- or, as he puts it, the world of inFORMation (his emphasis).


I notice a recurring word in the above graph: "cyberspace." I suppose it is one of those words which people read and don't even ask for a definition any more; but let's be truthful -- cyberspace, as we have been taught by Gibsonian fiction to think about it, does not exist (Benedikt). Perhaps it is one of those terms, like "rhetoric" and "hypertext," which has been defined so many different times and ways, that it becomes meaningless to offer still another. So I will just say that I rather like Sterling's (1990) definition as "the place between." He means the place that is between two people communicating at a distance; he clearly means via electronic means, since he posits that cyberspace began with the telegraph. I am only too happy to accept this electronic limitation, if only to avoid the massive ontological debate which begins with the phrase "Really, all communication takes place in what we could call cyberspace ..." Porush has claimed that it is all part of a grand effort to engage "telepathy" (to move our thoughts from our brain into someone else's); perhaps this is so. I simply don't wish to activate that particular hyperlink in this two-hour time period.

How are we to engage this cyberspace?

If we look at it to what it makes us do, as Bolter would have us do, and look through it to what it does to us, as Heim would have us do, realizing all the time that as Covino puts it, we never actually enter cyberspace because we never get past the interface ... then what? The thing is, all the border collapse. The electronic text becomes the cyborg text; in reviewing Greco's _Cyborg_, Kathleen Hayles proclaimed it just that (though there is some question she meant this in a complimentary way) -- a cyborg text just like Haraway's cyborg-goddess: the cyborg is a creature of disperse identities, with neither margin nor center; we pass in and out of cyborg space as it is shifting and impermanent. The word, as Moulthrop puts it, no longer will stand still. Which poses a problem for the writer who presumably wishes to engage an audience, keep it around to hear the argument or story at hand. And therein lies the key to writing in electronic space: treat the language in same way we treat the medium.


According to McLuhan, electronic media were an extraordinarily "cool" medium, much cooler than print, which in turn is cooler than television; the "hotter" a medium is, the less effort at participation is required on the part of the user. Electronic media, especially those enabling hypertextual communication (which I will discuss tomorrow) are inherently interactive, providing opportunity for -- perhaps even demanding -- a more participatory audience.

Perhaps that's why McLuhan's favorite vehicle for information was the aphorism. The aphorism, used effectively, is an extraordinarily cool textual medium, as are the pun and the neologism -- they require the receptor to actively engage the term and look for meaning. The traditional essay might lay out an argument so a reader can passively ingest it for consideration. It takes a keen eye to take an aphorism apart, search for meaning, interact with it. Equally, it takes a keen writer-sender-rhetor to build an accessible, yet meaning-packed phrase.

Of course, McLuhan's most famous aphorism was "The Medium is the Message," first published in "Understanding Media" in 1964. There is nothing about this phrase that does not permit the reader to simply take it in and attack it at face value; but there are also layers of meaning. By 1968, the phrase had morphed into "The Medium is the Massage" (it tweaks and adjusts us). And of course, this breaks down into "The Medium is the Mass Age," an ironic commentary related to McLuhan's concept of "global village." And McLuhan, always wary of mass communication, would gleefully bring this twist full circle to "the medium is the mess age." Thus we have a carefully-scripted five-word aphorism with at least four layers of meaning, all of which could be fodder for separate two-hour discussions or answers. To claim that effective rhetoric in electronic scholarship is all about speed, brevity, and cleverness (see Birkerts and Postman as the leading proponents of this dismissal) is only half of the equation; it's also about interactively building and unpacking our meanings into words and signs that stand alone in an interface where we cannot control the user's side of the screen.


I keep returning to the phrase "bodies of theory" in the question as asked. I don't find myself accessing any labels which would lead to quick delineation. The phrase "postmodernism" occurs frequently in literature about electronic discourse, but eschatologically-driven positivists like McLuhan and Ong are often lurking behind the postmodern proclamations. There are some groups of people working together now who claim to be representing, or at least building toward, a unified body of theory; notable among these are the self-style "Florida School" working with Greg Ulmer, and calling the place we are heading -- a "third place" -- with electronic discourse neither orality nor literacy but "electracy." But there seems to be room for every kind of theory in electronic discourse; along with the positivists and postmodernists mentioned above, Provenzo and others present electronic discourse as the native environment of social constructionism. The boundaries are collapsing. There is no center. The body of theory is a cyborg body.

I almost deleted the phrase "effective rhetoric" above because it can mean so many different things. For the purposes of this essay -- and for most of my work online -- I have grown fond of Lanham's definition of rhetoric: "attempting to get someone to share your attention structure." Effective rhetoric, then, relies on structural coherence. And coherence, as we have seen, is difficult to come by in electronic discourse. So electronic rhetoric is, indeed, about writing space (not necessarily Bolter's Writing Space, but the space we are attempting to get others to share); it is about creating discursive moments of connection between the author and the user-reader-audience, about utilizing a ballistic-aphoristic- vignette-lexia-heuretic style that we see not only in McLuhan and in Coupland, but in the work of cyberpunk fiction authors from William Gibson to Neal Stephenson and back to Gibson again, and in "hyper-textual" (if not technologically hypertextual) writing spaces like _Kairos_ and _RhetNet_ and the CFest MOO sessions.


The visual-textual response is necessary in a skim-and-dive, scan- and-delete reading environment. I tell my Tech/Pro students at the beginning of each semester, that if they have not captured their audience's attention within the subject line and the first glimpse of primary text, they have lost the battle to the delete button. We must pack meaning into a tight textual representation precisely because everything else about the electronic communication act is fluid. We may have to make the reader work harder to decode the text, but if we have kept her there to do so, we have engaged collaboration, and re-invented rhetoric as e-pistemic.

According to Stewart Brand, High Chronicler of The Media Lab, there are three ways we gather information, all of which are more easily identifiable online: we graze (passively intake information, as with television); we browse (what has come,unfortunately, to be knows as "surfing"); and we hunt (we have a goal in mind and work until we find it). Advertisers -- McLuhan believed the world's most effective rhetoricians were found on Madison Avenue -- want grazers. Hunters know what they want. The online author is primarily concerned with surfers ... how do we get them to stop and stay?

And again, we return (or re-turn) to the neologism, the wordplay, the aphorism as the rhetorical "hook." But we can only add cyber-prefix and suffix-web to so many words before the audience begins to roll its eyes and click the delete key again. "E-pistemic" is cute, sure, and decodable, and perhaps (though arguably) meaningful) but how many times can we see a word that begins with "E" hyphenated to playfully point to "electronic"? It gets old; it gets familiar (a comfort in classical rhetoric) -- in certain places, these even become word-level commonplaces. Commonplaces, as I have shown in the earlier question, rely on an understanding of the ethos of the community. Or, in this case, I suppose, it relies specifically on the e-thos of the community.

But the ethical, ethos-based argument does not lend itself to the sound-bite rhetoric of an electronic age, argues Kathleen Jamieson. The only effective traditional rhetorical appeal in this milieu, she says, is pathos. We cannot, really, come to know a speaker-rhetor in an electronic culture that features, as Hart-Davidson has termed it, preference for the greeting card over the essay. And certainly, there is no time, no patience, for the extended logical appeal. Abandoning ethos, and with no time for logos, we are left with having our emotions (yes, "e-motions," but at least that has a nice double meaning, i.e., electronic movements) tweaked to draw us into a debate in the first place. We are looking to engage, as it were, the perfect "sound byte" (here sound as in reliable, rather than aural) ... and that is, literally, pathetic.

Recall, too, that in l'essai concrete electronique, we are limited to characters-only communication; we do not control the user-end interface. That may be one reason -- and another type of pathos-driven writing, I think -- for the absolute inundation of emoticons and abbreviations in electronic discourse.

Perhaps this is another attempt to return to Ong's "secondary orality," and include facial expression and the like in our writing; perhaps it is an attempt at a text-only reclamation of the font and margin.

BTW, IMHO it's the 2nd. ;-)

Postman, in "Amusing Ourselves to Death," says this "sound bite mindset" has let us to the most ironic of empty signifiers ... "And Now ... This."

Television newscasters use it as if it were actually a transition from one story to another, says Postman, and this is a travesty. Postman is still thinking in terms of the Essay (probably five paragraphs long) with proper transitions. TV News, with this kind of fast-paced recognition that we just want to move to the next story, was more or less anticipating the "Next" button on our browsers. The Next button is the "Now This" of the sound *byte.*


<irony> And now, this ... </irony>

I've noticed another recent trend in electronic rhetoric -- bastardizing HTML code to make a quick point.

<sarcasm> This is an effective rhetorical ploy, since everyone online is familiar enough with HTML style to get the point.</sarcasm>

Or perhaps this is an effort, if mis-guided, at re-claiming the ethical appeal which Jamieson says is lost to electronic discourse. Proving we know our way around electronic space as a coder makes us a more credible rhetorician. Doheny-Farina points out that in MOOspace (as, I would add, in any electronic environment), dexterity on the keyboard, effectiveness in manipulating coded feature objects -- this is what passes for expertise in communication. Eloquence -- no, e-loquence -- is now, with profuse apologies to Mssrs. Blair et al, The Good Man Skilled in Coding (gendered specificity intentional).

<irony>I'm not an effective rhetorician, but I play one on WebTV</irony>


That's it ... that's the common factor.

McLuhan has written that games are an extension of man's (sic) ability to exist as a social being; Provenzo chronicles the story of "The Video Kids" and notes that the Nintendo Generation is learning a new set of life skills through interactive electronic media. Rickly and Crump claim play is vital to electronic scholarship -- but even the title of their webtext, "It's Fun to Have Fun, But You Have to Know How, or How Cavorting on the Net Will Save the Academy," betrays the problem: you have to know how.


Earlier I mentioned that Covino believes we never actually get "in" to cyberspace, since we never get past the interface level. And even to do that, he says, requires that we learn a set of pre-ordained, formulaic commands, that we know the difference between "exit" and "quit" and "@quit" ... and if we do not know them precisely, we are denied entrance to the discourse. So maybe not everything about electronic discourse is fluid and boundaryless ...

Actually, much of what is written about electronic discourse, no matter what we might call it, is pure speculation. Porush notes at the end of an article about "cyborg" technology and the history of the bomb, that hundreds of books and articles are being written about this new technology "that hasn't even been invented yet."

Of course, it *has* been invented, but only in the pages of fiction writers like Gibson and Sterling. Another boundary collapses, as the scientists as NASA/Ames read "Neuromancer" and proclaim it a "goal" worth pursuing. I would posit that the most significant "body of theory" regarding electronic communication in (if you'll pardon the pun, "in fact,") the fiction. It becomes a process of recursive re-information; Gibson writes "Neuromancer" on an old standard typewriter (claiming if he'd known anything about computers, it would have limited him), and in return sees the scientists at UNC-Chapel Hill begin to build "the Matrix." And shortly thereafter, with a bit of what is possible re-defined, Neal Stephenson writes "Snow Crash," and his vision of cyberspace informs what the next generation of scientists are focusing on.


Still, there is a fair amount of prognosticating occurring in the non- fiction; the only two major theorists I have read who seem unwilling to proclaim that the future is foreseeable, that AT+T's "You Will!" commercials aren't deterministic Big Brother instantiations, are Ulmer and (of course) McLuhan.

Ulmer claims we are busy writing in the future perfect -- that is, writing what will always already have been (see the end of this text for more on that concept). McLuhan steadfastly refused to do anything but -- in his words -- "predict the present" (CounterBlast). The pace at which the technology is changing, the skills with which the children are now being raised, it makes little sense to guess, so rather we observe, and predict the present by writing in the future perfect.

Of course, one way we have approached "predicting the present," (even if that is not what we've heard it called) is by relying on classical models to describe what we are doing.

Aside from Bolter and Heim, discussed earlier, McLuhan himself presented "The Gutenburg Galaxy" as a meandering historiography which compares the shift from manuscript to print culture to the then-current shift from print to electronic media; he even rather baldly compares himself to Francis Bacon. Ong, a student of McLuhan's, wrote an entire volume on "Orality and Literacy," and describes the current paradigm as "secondary orality." Porush and Rosenberg have both invoked the Talmud as a model for studying "protohypertext." Lanham's "The Electronic Word" is entirely a call for a return to a reconception of the classical canons, as he discusses "Digital Decorum" along with other kludged terms combining electronic modifiers with traditional rhetorical concepts. Technophobic commentators like Birkerts and Postman (another McLuhan protege, incidentally) bemoan a culture "getting sillier by the minute" (Postman, "Technopoly") and quickly begin listing what is *lost* by the move toward interactive media.

I admit that I have always been troubled by this insistence by rhetoricians to proclaim all new variations of communications technologies as being either paths back toward what has always been done, or worse yet, paths Away from the Truth. But it is an instantiation of another of McLuhan's aphorisms -- our proclivity to try to learn about ourselves by "Looking backward through the rearview mirror." We talk about new things in old ways so we can understand them, first, then play and rename them and guess and discover more and predict the present with and about them on our own terms. This, again, is Ulmer's heuretic approach, writing in the future perfect.


I have mentioned Postman and Birkerts several times; they are the most vocal of what we might call the technophobic faction of this debate. They question what is being "lost" with the new technology and whether it is "worth it." There is some very real merit to this way of thinking. I have no taste or appreciation for rah-rah technophiles like Nicholas Negroponte, and electronic definition of arrogance, who proclaims that what we all need, really, is "a digital sister in law." The forecasting and cheerleading he does has its place, I suppose, but it is not as productive as the hard questions posed by Postman and his ilk -- even if I agree with them no more than I do Negroponte, I am at least challenged by the doubt, as opposed to utterly uninterested by the hype.

And indeed, McLuhan and Ong both are quite up front in their theorizing that the process of interiorizing a new communications technology alters our sensorium forever, and thus alters our relationship to the old media. Lanham's infamous "Q question" -- Are we defending the old medium, or what it does to us? -- reflects this shift. Moulthrop has taken on McLuhan's "Laws of Media" (published posthumously with Bruce Powers) and applied them to electronic technology, asking "what does the new medium provide? take away? do at its extreme?" We should be asking the same kinds of questions.


The question at hand asks,

"Describe and characterize the principal intellectual positions on electronic discourse ..."

Which I have attempted to do through observation, anecdote, and link -- three of the most common and crucial elements of electronic discourse itself. I have been predicting the present, and tying those predictions to the authors of very recent past -- all of whom have been wrong, of course.

"...(including specific bodies of theory and methods of analysis), as represented by (and with reference to) the works of the major figures on your reading list ... "

And here I hope my presentation of the false dichotomies of electronic space -- those listed above, and others implicit in the text since -- have addressed the fact that, in most important senses there *aren't* (and cannot yet be) any bodies of theory; as to the methods of analysis, I have attempted to present both observation and suggestion about how to *create* effective discourse in electronic environments, or what occasionally passes inappropriately for it. My method of analysis, as above, is simply engaging the terminology of the past to make guesses about the present.

As to the "major figures," I admit I would have liked to work in more of the fiction authors, and have not yet even mentioned one of the most effective commentators in the current canon examining electronic text, Steven Levy. I have perhaps dismissed Negroponte, Postman, and others, inappropriately due to time constraints; each brings something worthwhile to the debate.

And I have managed to get this far without mentioning the work of Raymond Williams, who in "KeyWords," notes that we should not be studying words in order to define them, but in order to observe them. I would hold that as a personal credo for studying electronic text as a whole; we must observe it. We can't define it -- yet.

"Briefly explain where you situate yourself conceptually within this literature."


This answer has been about itself, of course. However, if this writing does not appear to directly address the question at hand (though I believe it clearly does), then perhaps it is a cross-media issue. McLuhan and Ong both believed that the first topic/content of any new medium us always the old media. So to write about traditional rhetoric in a new rhetorical (electronic) milieu may be quite natural; to attempt the reverse, which is essentially what this "faux essai concrete electronique" does, may not work. But it just might *play*!

Since I have been drawn to the playful, aphoristic, heuretic style of writing which Greg Ulmer is the most recent and vocal proponent, I will reference his description of the kinds of writing happening in effective rhetorical engagement of electronic space: the process is proleptic. The question itself arrives out of continually re-answering it in the future perfect tense (this is Lyotard's post-modo) -- writing, as Ulmer puts it, what will already have been. McLuhan's predicting the present. The approach is not critical, in the traditional sense, but generative and speculative. Williams' observational rather than definitional. So has been this answer to the question at hand been a way or re- asking it through a playful series of answers. In 1969, the critics called this "McLuhanacy." More recently, Ulmer has terms it "electracy." Perhaps it is a hugely perverse game of grammatological Jeopardy.

Or as McLuhan (is supposed to have) said: You think my fallacy is wrong? You don't like these ideas? I got others."

Reading Lists
Answer Porush | Answer LeFevre
Exam Questions | Introductions


Name:  Email: