A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Review of Michele Kennerly and Damien Smith Pfister’s Ancient Rhetorics and Digital Networks

Matthew J. Breece, University of Texas at Austin

(Published May 11, 2020) 

Originality—Not that one sees something new as the first one to do so, but that one sees something old, familiar, seen but overlooked by everyone, as though it were new, is what distinguishes true originality.[1]

—Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human


Conceptions about rhetorical invention are often inspired by a preoccupation with innovation and novelty that passes over the significance of discovery. Peter Simonson, in surveying this issue, observes that in the dialectic between affirming and breaking from tradition there is “a modern romantic prejudice that installs creativity and originality as invention’s normative core” (300). As Nietzsche reminds us, however, originality develops out of tradition by seeing the past with new eyes. The contributors to Ancient Rhetorics and Digital Networks take up this challenge, discovering inventive ways for making rhetoric’s earliest theories germane to the digitally mediated present. 

Unlike other recent collections that focus on digital rhetoric’s broader disciplinary relationship to the digital humanities (Rhetoric and the Digital Humanities, University of Chicago, 2015) or circulation studies (Circulation, Writing, and Rhetoric, Utah State, 2018), Ancient Rhetorics and Digital Networks situates itself within ancient rhetorical traditions to navigate and reinvent current networked culture. Although applying ancient concepts, theories, and practices to digital networks may seem incongruous at first, the collection’s coeditors, Michele Kennerly and Damien Smith Pfister, maintain that ancient and contemporary rhetorical concerns have more in common than otherwise: “The fundamental communicative issues we deal with today—negotiating information abundance, persuading others in our social network, navigating new media ecologies, shaping broader cultural currents—also pressed upon ancient peoples” (1). The eleven chapters in this volume respond to such ongoing concerns through a rearticulation of both familiar Greek figures (Isocrates, Gorgias, and Protagoras) and non-Western ancient traditions (Confucianism, Nāgārjunian Buddhism, and Jainism). It is precisely this collection’s proclivity to toggle between the familiar and the less familiar that encapsulates its inventiveness.

Situating the past and present in relation, Kennerly and Pfister argue, “shakes up accepted interpretations, produces readings with different nuances, allows old terms to be revivified and reinhabited in new ways, and generates theoretical resources to guide critics, theorists, and publics in negotiating continuity and change” (2–3). The editors propose five principal relations for reading ancient rhetorics across digital networks: (1) historia: the antecedent relation; (2) analogia: the analogical relation; (3) heuresis: the heuristic relation; (4) nomos: the conventional relation; and (5) anakainōsis: the renewal relation. Although the chapters in this collection are organized chronologically by ancient text, I take up the editors’ invitation to read them with these relational categories in mind. Attending to the relations between these essays allows new relations to emerge, activating even more connections that reinvent traditional categories.   

Historia: The historical relation highlights recovery work that searches for overlooked ancient concepts to provide insight into contemporary digital culture. Rosa A. Eberly and Jeremy David Johnson draw on tropos, Isocrates’s term for “character,” rather than the Aristotelian ēthos, to better account for the “multiple, complex, and changing” forms of mediated identity in digital networks. They argue that unlike ēthos, Isocratean tropos “points to a rhetoric-grounded conception of identity, full of twists and turns and spins in time instead of static dwelling” (149). This turn to tropos recovers an alternative notion of identity that is more in line with its networked articulations. Similar to Eberly and Johnson’s recuperation of tropos, Christopher J. Gilbert recovers ancient humoral theory to reappraise viral media. Unlike virality, Gilbert argues rhetorical humors are “less about spreadability than about the magnification of cultural disturbances” (110), which reveal a festering in the body politic—one that provides a way to diagnose cultural dis-ease and anxiety. The recovery of Isocratean tropos and humoral theory offer more fitting explanatory and diagnostic lenses for networked identites and media. 

Analogia: If the historical relation offers fresh modes of discovery and recovery, the analogical relation challenges linear narratives of progress, refocusing attention on the parallels between the ancient and digital. Mari Lee Mifsud draws on ancient Greek lexical, mythical, and tropical versions of “network” to trace how gender and power operate in past and present-day networked cultures. Centering on the term amphiballein for network—(amphi) “on both sides” and (ballein) “to throw”—she suggests how the trope of amphibolia throws into relief the ambiguity of networks, indicating a complexity that illuminates the many sides of a matter. It is this ambiguity rather than any kind of masculinist idealization or teleology that demonstrates how networks both take (airein) and are free from being taken (atelēs). The challenge Mifsud’s analysis poses to the idealized sense of networks as both immaterial and teleological echoes in Michele Kennerly and Damien Smith Pfister’s Isocratean analysis, which counters the deterministic interpretations of memes as a selfish cultural analog to biological genes. Rather than selfish, they argue that because memes are rhetorical products, they are in fact generous: “an offering, a humble submission, a modest contribution” (208). Further, they show how memes are a practical doing and a productive making (poiēsis)—reproductive, generative, and fecund (genesis)—and an emulation that align actions with representations (mimēsis). These rearticulations of networks as ambiguious and memes as generous contest narrow interpretations that have come to structure networked life. By putting the past and present into a proportional relation, these essays unsettle contemporary misconceptions and rigid orientations, advancing future possibilities by reopening the past.  

Heuresis: The heuristic relation presents unique methods and practices for critical judgment. Ekaterina V. Haskins and Gaines S. Hubbell examine virtual reality’s immersive potential for critical rhetorical education. Through a close reading of Plato’s Phaedrus as an ancient immersive technology, they demonstrate that immersive education technologies often resemble Phaedrus reading Lysias’s speech without the critical questioning prompted by Socrates. They argue that rather than the invisible interface of contemporary immersion, students need reflective and critical distance. Otherwise, “they thus unreflectively embrace the ideology of authenticity... without examining its ethical, political, and pedagogical dimensions” (155). Much like Haskins and Hubbell’s call for critical distance in relation to immersive technology, E. Johanna Hartelius emphasizes the Protagorean lens euboulia—“prudent and concrete judgment” (80)—to examine big data. Hartelius explains that big data employs human measures (homo mensura), places private and public interests in opposition (dissoi logoi), and applies precision and coherence (ortheopeia). What is absent from these orientations, she argues, is the culmination of Protagoras’s pedagogy: euboulia. Without euboulia, Hartelius cautions, data is conflated with understanding and information with judgment. While critical distance and judgment often characterize heuristics, Nathan Crick demonstrates the indispensibility of language for ordering judgments of visual affects. Crick analyzes visual rhetoric through Gorgias’s contrast between vision (opsis) and language (logos) to account for the rhetorical function of viral images. Tracing the affective and noncognitive power of visual opsis as love (erōs) and fear (phobos), Crick argues that while images can produce desire and fear, they cannot reverse these affects on their own. Instead, he reminds us that language (logos) is necessary for the transformation of affective images into meaningful emotions and actionable judgments. Because digital networks have the potential to seamlessly captivate and absorb us, revisting Platonic, Protagorean, and Gorgian heuristics help defamilarize immersive and affective experiences, reviving rhetoric’s capacity for critical judgment. Heuresis, in this sense, does the important pedagogical work of preparing rhetoricians for this networked life.

Nomos: Conventions illustrate how social norms ethically structure selves and others, so they are portals into possibilities for developing more compassionate connections with others. Building on the cultural norms of harmony and family within Confucianism, Arabella Lyon examines tactical media used in the 2014 Umbrella Movement through the Confucian concept jiàn (remonstration). Lyon’s non-Western analysis concentrates on the concepts zhōng—“acts of duty to others”—and shù—“putting oneself in the other’s place” (52). She reveals how the digital art of the 2014 Umbrella Movement embodies Confucian ideals that “develop connections that emphasize duty (responsibility) and relationship, and they do so without denying difference” (62). Lyon uncovers in Confucian concepts an ethical indebtedness to others that deemphasizes the self. Conversely, Scott R. Stroud finds in online shaming culture an over-valuing of the self, so he turns to the Jaina lens of nonviolence (ahimsā) to offer an alternative ethics. Tracing the intricate relationship between the passions, violence, the self, and others within Jainism, he explains, “It is the passion associated with privileging the self over other beings that accrues bad karma” (262). Like accruing bad karma, Stroud argues that the same self-privileging has its parallel in the vicious cycle of shaming campaigns and that Jainism’s nonviolence points to a more charitable response to online disputes. Turning to Confucian and Jaina concepts enable rhetorical scholars to reconsider ethical commitments that prioritize others and counter norms that divide and separate.   

Anakainōsis: The category anakainōsis demonstrates how ancient practices are recurrent and renewed within digital networks. Carolyn R. Miller argues that in the digital age, genre is once again caught in a tension between stabilization and change. She suggests that we return to the ancient concepts of imitation (imitatio) and invention (inventio) and consider them, much like stability and change, as completementary rather than oppositional (186). Additionally, Miller surveys the application of the ancient Greek terms for genre, genos and eidos, finding in Aristotle’s works on biology usages that once again account for genre’s forms and functions, as well as its stability and change. Like Miller’s analysis of genre’s recurrence, Scott Haden Church examines digital remix culture as a reemergence of classical prosōpopoeia and the Nājārjunian Buddhist concept śūnyatā. He argues that digital remix returns us to the voice-making, voice restoration, and voice projection of prosōpopoeia. As a complement to prosōpopoei, Church offers the Buddhist concept of śūnyatā to account for the lack of inherent essence, interdependence, and process orientation of texts and digital remix. As these analyses of remix and genre demonstrate, the past is not past. Rather, the past reemerges through rhetorical practices, proliferating and circulating in the present.

All the essays in this collection are both timely and untimely; originating from an ancient past, they markedly orient rhetorical studies toward both the present and future. While many of these essays are thoughtfully written and provocative, two chapters stood out to me in particular. The first is Mari Lee Mifsud’s “On Network,” which skillfully and eloquently catalogues the etymology of the ancient Greek terms for net, work, and network, opening up the concept of network in generative ways. She recovers from a series of myths the materially significant yet invisible net-work of weaving women: “Ancient Greek rhetorics of network in archaic words and myths tell of network as an ambiguous mix of gender and power, materiality and immeteriality, and the forces of taking (airein), being taken, and being free from being taken (atelēs)” (36). The second essay that deserves special mention is Carolyn R. Miller’s “Genre in Ancient and Networked Media.” Not only does Miller demonstrate the fundamental tension between the emergence and stabilization of genres in digital media, but she also connects contemporary rhetorical theory to a rigorous analysis of genos and eidos. Moreover, Miller relates these conversations back to brief but informative histories of speech communication, literary studies, and rhetorical studies. In her conclusion, Miller recommends that “genre theory can be richer and more persuasive to the extent that it finds ways to learn from both rhetoric and poetics, ancient and modern, as it struggles to understand the relationships between form and function, between imitation and invention, and the twin challenges of stability and change” (197). These essays exemplify an impressive level of scholarly depth in their conscientious and accessible engagement with larger theoretical concerns and ancient rhetoric’s inventive possibilities. 

Ancient Rhetorics and Digital Networks demonstrates that the ancient rhetorical tradition continues to be a rich source for reinterpretation and reinvention of our contemporary moment. The collection’s principle strength is its various analyses of diverse digital phenomena, including memes, trolling, online shaming, virality, immersive environments, genre creation, and remix. Additionally, the three chapters that center non-Western rhetorics offer a welcomed expansion of the discipline’s understanding of digital culture as well as the rhetorical tradition itself. Both historians of rhetoric and digital rhetoricians will find this collection generative and useful. This collection would also enrich any history of rhetoric course as a culminating reading for upper division undergraduate and graduate students. Ancient Rhetorics and Digital Networks emphasizes the inventive possibilities of seeing the ancient as though it were new. It challenges rhetoricians to search beyond familiar commonplaces for more enriching conceptual frameworks, providing alternative models that unsettle relations. It reminds us that in order to invent the present anew, we must first see our relationship with the past as itself inventive.


[1] Translation modified to reflect the neutral pronouns used in the original German.

Works Cited

Gries, Laurie E., and Collin Gifford Brooke, editors. Circulation, Writing, and Rhetoric. Utah State UP, 2018.   

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Human, All Too Human. Translated by R. J. Hollingdale, Cambridge UP, 1996. 

Ridolfo, Jim, and William Hart-Davidson, editors. Rhetoric and the Digital Humanities. U of Chicago P, 2015.   

Simonson, Peter. “Reinventing Invention, Again.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, vol. 44, no. 4, 2014, pp. 299–322.