Review of Collin Gifford Brooke, Lingua Fracta: Towards a Rhetoric of New Media. (Hampton Press, 2009)
Steven Keoni Holmes, Clemson University
Enculturation 7 (2010): http://enculturation.net/ecologies-of-new-media-practice
Collin Brooke’s goal, in the author’s words, is “grandly ambitious” (175). He proposes nothing less than the revision of classical canons of rhetoric from stylistic adornment to a meta?“scale” capable of describing all practices of new media and writing. If the reader is immediately tempted to think of Kenneth Burke’s pentad or Richard McKeon’s architectonic art, then s/he will be rewarded. Brooke intends, in part, a Burke-inspired restoration of the canons’ dialectical character to describe new media production and interactivity in the space between “positive” and “ultimate” terms that dominate the scholarly terrain. While many have portrayed the components of the canon as an inflexible or anachronistic set of Aristotelian causes with little to offer literary or media studies, Brooke treats them in terms of ratios and relations. He contends that new media scholarship requires a rhetorical understanding of practice as a way of knowing and acting?in?the?world to re?situate the dominant critical paradigm. Brooke exhaustively maps the prevalence of print-literacy-based assumptions about static text-objects (positive and sensibly known in isolation) and theoretical generalizations (ultimate and irreducible to their objects) from the early discussions of hypertext to present network cultures (Chapter 1, “Interface”). Reading media practices in terms of print, Brooke maintains, has contributed to new media remaining the specialized province of a handful of token “new media” scholars in English departments as these objects of study are assumed to "fall" within the domain of literary theory. As a way of knowing, doing, and making, however, technology and rhetoric form a relationship that is "transdisciplinary, cutting across the full range of activities that we engage in as professionals” (5). The longer scholars and researchers wait to acknowledge transdisciplinarity, "the harder we will have to struggle for respect and relevance as experts in writing" (5).
The problems stemming from underdetermined conceptions of new media are not limited to disciplinary reduction. Rather, these non-dialectical "terministic screens," as Burke would say, are no longer capable of describing even basic communicative or instrumental activity through new media objects. Along these lines, Brooke locates static textual assumptions in a variety of definitions new media, including Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin’s recent re-working of McLuhanist remediation, which he argues only “redescribe” media combinations that have already achieved stability. In Brooke’s assessment, theories reflective only of static combinations are of little use in the assessment of possible practices latent within dynamic new media interfaces that can hardly be said to exist in a static form. "Interface," Brooke suggests, is precisely the sort of dialectical term that acknowledges both communicative interaction among users while not denying the interface’s internal dynamics that consistently change, in part, through activities of use. To develop a framework appropriate to new media interfaces, Brooke proposes the re-vitalization of the classical trivium of grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic/logic to, respectively, ecologies of code, practice, and culture capable of identifying ratios among technological interfaces (Chapter 2, “Ecology”). Like interface, “ecology” is equally compelling as a post-hermeneutic lens, as it allows analyses to “focus our attention on a temporarily finite set of practices, ideas, and interactions without fixing them in place or investing too much critical energy in their stability” (42). Far from an anachronistic or nostalgic juxtaposition, he notes, “Kathleen Blake Yancey, in her Chair’s address to the 2004 CCCC, called for a ‘new model of composing’ grounded partly in the rhetorical canons” (35). Brooke maintains that the trivium’s nearly two thousand year-old function to ground academic disciplines, including rhetoric, has caused its "instantiating" potentialities as “qualities of discourse” to fade into analytic and generative impotence (47). As opposed to the mere noting of correct (constative) usage, an “ecology of code” refers to a grammar of mediality-in-general, including spatial, aural, visual, and textual materialities attuned to operational or performative dimensions. Analogously, ecologies of culture and logic acknowledge an expansive economy of interconnected units of analysis from the local to the global. Brooke intends culture to describe and inform the multiple sites of competition among individuals, institutions, contexts, and ideologies that collectively condition the production and mode of accessibility of an interface. Due in large part to space requirements, Brooke focuses the remainder of the manuscript on ecologies of practice and rhetorical canons, thereby leaving the analysis of new media interfaces through code and culture for other scholars to follow suit. Importantly for Brooke, practice encompasses more than traditional rhetoric as the discovery of the available means of persuasion through language and audience. Rhetorical practice through interfaces involves attentiveness to new possibilities for further practices that have been enacted through the ecologically provisional "conclusion" of the former in a given communicative interaction.
While invention has not suffered from a lack of attention in media and composition scholarship, Brooke contends that his ecological conceptualization can supplement current models that originally promised to expand this canon. Process pedagogy, for instance, inaugurated by Kathy Burke Leferve’s shift of invention from Platonic romanticism to social context and construction nevertheless labors under assumptions problematic for new media interfaces. “Consider, for example, the various strategies advanced under the umbrella of invention, like freewriting, outlining, mapping, tagmemics, and so on. Although part of viewing invention ecologically must include this repertoire of pedagogical strategies, the emphasis on conscious, visible activity is necessarily a reduction of the canon” from Brooke’s ecological perspective (44). In sum, such methodologies of invention hold that the quality of the ends (the polished student essay) reflects the quality of the means (the process of invention) thereby giving little regard to the influence of an interface’s mediality (Chapter 3, “Proairesis”). Brooke turns to Roland Barthes in an exemplary reading that posits the latter as an early thinker of the shift from text to interface. Rather than becoming fixated on the “sturdiness” of the completed object that elevates the “hermeneutic” (“goal” of reading and purpose of writing) over the “proairetic” (“empiric” events of reading a text), Brooke suggests a reversal for new media. His understanding thereby moves closer to Eric Charles White’s understanding of kaironomia as “an inventional practice that locates itself not within repetition (the demonstration of topoi) or difference (the myth of the originary genius), but in the dynamic between the two” (77). He offers an analysis of a Google search from the perspective of a proairetic ecology. If we are able “to resist the closure implied in search ‘results’ and to treat that page as a point of departure, even and especially when the results are mixed” in ways that “bring potentially distant topics and ideas into proximity both with each other and the user” (83).
By contrast, if invention has favored the hermeneutic, theorists of hypertext (Brooke cites Bolter as an illustrative example) have fetishized proairetic activity to the point of collapsing arrangement into both the reader’s invention and delivery through an authorless infinite play of interpretation. While hypertext certainly seems to exclude the author’s control, Brooke counters with the analogy that “just because there is more than one way to walk through a building, this does not make its arrangement (architecture) irrelevant” (91). The mistake scholars of new media make is the binary assumption that arrangement is either entirely the author’s control or not at all. If static media theorists looked at arrangement as linear “sequence,” Brooke urges us to look at hypertext arrangement as “pattern.” The distinction between the two is well described by Brooke’s commendable re-"mediation" of Walter E. Benjamin’s discussion of the act of collection, which can be extended to a variety of sites such as Flickr, Amazon.com’s book recommendation feature, or even CCC Online. “For Benjamin, the existence of the collector is tied 'to a relationship to objects which does not emphasize their functional, utilitarian value […] but studies them and loves them...'" (109). In contrast to a print essay’s structure, which records an exact pattern of production, “building a database of related items allows patterns and relationships to emerge” (107). By increasing visibility of their contents, databases, blogs, wikis, and other new media enable the establishment of new personal collections, which express a proportionate intimacy to a user’s personal ecology that could be otherwise obscured by conventional views of arrangement.
Style as rhetorical adornment has lent itself easily to visual-oral analogies in new media studies; however, Brooke’s concern with style also falls under ecologies of code (e.g. literate grammatical norms). In other words, style is more often a matter of looking at new media as one would analyze a painting namely, from a single, circumscribed position in a museum predicated by proper distance and light. While static print text aspires to transparency in style, new media has transformative stylistic capacities over time. Hence, Brooke modifies Richard Lanham’s famous "at/through" distinction to add "from." This added term attempts to account for where and when we look from—equally adding a dimension of perspective to mere style. A great case in point is his example from serious games such as World of Warcraft, wherein mere immersion does not guarantee procedural competence. A user’s preference for a close-up, first person camera angle could helpfully reveal some aspect such as a hard to spot item to collect while obscuring freshly spawned and/or roving enemies. The “practice,” here comes in the "creation of perspective" “an emergent quality of a specific interaction among user, interface, and object(s), drawing on each without being reducible to any of those factors” (140).
If one of the canons seems truly marginalized in new media from Brookes’ perspective, it surely is memory; after all, its relation to mediality and rhetorical invention has historically followed Plato’s mandate about the artificiality of writing destroying the memory of being (Chapter 6, “Persistence”). The more the necessary cause for knowledge shifts from cognition to artificial storage, memory becomes spatialized—existing in an exterior relationship to the present speaking and thinking Self. This conceptualization continues to inform print and new media, wherein memory is reduced to storable amounts of information with computer memory serving to displace ecological considerations. Yet, citing Jacques Derrida’s Archive Fever, Brooke argues that changes in archival technology effect the user as much as the contents of what can be stored. With reference to cinematography’s persistence of vision, “the quality of vision that enables us to perceive motion from a precession of still images” (144), Brooke adds persistence of cognition. He works through N. Katherine Hayles’ pattern/randomness division to move beyond absence/presence, which serves to reconfigure space and memory through a variety of interfaces. He calls for renewed attention to temporality, arguing that such an approach would acknowledge the construction of patterns of memory over time and would resist quantitative reductions of memory in relationship to medial interfaces.
Delivery (Chapter 7, “Performance”), like invention, suffers less from neglect than from static textual assumptions. Brooke recognizes that delivery is often uncritically examined, as it presupposes a transitive object (i.e. an object that can be said to be given through an material act of delivery) in the classical sense. Instead, Brooke suggests replacing either a transitive or transactional approach with performance. By performance, Brooke seeks to avoid conceptual analysis to focus on “how technology is used,” and thereby juxtaposes interface and instrument to illustrate how technology as an interface presupposes ecologies of practice (181). In this regard, distrust of websites like Wikipedia stems from mistaking medial interfaces for static objects that are either correct or incorrect, “when in fact many of the 'pages' are ongoing performances of values and interpretations” that may even end up being “more 'accurate'” in the long run (171).
The drawback to Brooke’s lofty goal lies in the burden to demonstrate what ecologies, interfaces, and classical rhetoric provide that current new media and writing scholarship does not, and Lingua Fracta largely answers this challenge. Brooke’s scholarship will leave readers with little doubt that a “rhetoric of new media” has something to add to debates on technology and writing; however, the need to individually describe ecologies across arrangement, delivery, memory, style, and invention through a variety of interfaces leads to inevitable and unavoidable shortcomings in the manageability of the project. Lingua Fracta can leave the reader with the feeling that Brooke suggests a framework for new scholarship without producing much sustained inquiry through this revitalized lens. Indeed, he tells us as much when he says that his goal is less to attempt the definitive description of what new media scholarship is than what it “shouldn’t be” (23). In lieu of sustained examination of a particular genre of new media interfaces, he draws on an impressive range of personal and ecological practices on the Web including Amazon.com book recommendations, data mining practices, tagclouds, and hypertexts in hope that other scholars will answer his call to action.
From a different perspective, while a revised trivium of code, practice, and culture can be used to locate and scale medial interface ecologies, and the canons “provide a rich articulation of ecologies of practice” (200), all that remains to be seen is whether or not Brooke’s revitalized canon will enjoy widespread use. Ecologies of rhetoric, new media, and the canon are being taken up by other scholars, and Brooke goes further than most in addressing a wide range of new media practices and demonstrating how ecologies and interfaces can re-orient scholarship in new and underexplored directions. If parallels to the current status of Kenneth Burke’s pentad are any indication, it is likely that, save for a few “Brook-ologists,” ecological ratios may not ever enjoy widespread use in new media scholarship. However, Burke’s critical arguments—especially as they relate to technological object (interface), theory (new media scholarship), and dialectics (rhetorical ecologies of practice)—have had such an impact on critical practices as to render citation unnecessary. I can foresee a similar impact as a product of Brooke’s canonical revision; namely, that I am unsure that new media scholars will have the patience to perform a specifically pentad-esque canonical reading of media interfaces. Instead, I suspect that scholars will take Brooke’s extremely compelling insights about the ecologies of rhetoric, technology, and new media as a point of departure to rethink their own ecological practices and relationships to medial interfaces.
Bolter, Jay David and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999. Print.
Derrida, Jacques. Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1996. Print.
LeFevre, Karen Burke. Invention as a Social Act. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1987. Print.
White, Eric C. Kaironomia: on the will-to-invent. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1987. Print.
Yancey, Kathleen Blake. “Made Not Only in Words: Composition in a New Key.” College Composition and Communication 56.2 (2004): 297-328. Print.