A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Introduction: What is Rhetorical about Digital Rhetoric? Perspectives and Definitions of Digital Rhetoric

Justin Hodgson and Scot Barnett, Indiana University

(Published November 22, 2016)

On April 9-11, 2015, Indiana University hosted the first Indiana Digital Rhetoric Symposium (IDRS). Over two and a half days, thirty scholars ranging from graduate students to full professors—along with dozens of additional participants—convened in Bloomington to explore the implications, possibilities, and gradations of digital rhetoric. As the co-coordinators of this event, we felt there was such an array of perspectives and definitions of digital rhetoric in the field (our Symposium and now Enculturation special issue theme) that we wanted to create a unique space for fostering conversations at the intersections of rhetoric, media, and technology and to investigate the ways digital rhetoric connects to, yet is potentially distinct from, digital humanities. 

Of course, the term “digital rhetoric” has been in circulation for some time now, originating in a lecture Richard Lanham delivered in 1989 and that was subsequently crystallized in his 1993 book The Electronic Word. In the years since Lanham’s inaugural account, the term has continued to gain traction, most notably in the works of James Zappen, Kathleen Welch, Elizabeth Losh, and Douglas Eyman. However, more recent years have witnessed a noticeable proliferation in usages of the term. To us, this suggested a need to reassess the relationships between digital media and rhetorical studies. As one example, in 2013 we were both hired for positions at Indiana in “Digital Rhetorics.” At the time we applied for these positions in 2012, there were exactly two mentions of “digital rhetoric” in the MLA Job Information List (including our eventual position at Indiana). Of course, even though “digital rhetoric” was nearly absent in that year’s JIL, numerous positions called for specialists in “multimodal composing,” “digital writing,” “new media studies,” “digital media,” “digital humanities,” “computers and composition,” and “computers and writing.” Although technically represented, the language of digital rhetoric was not nearly as prevalent in the 2012 JIL as were these and other monikers. In contrast, a quick survey of 2015’s JIL tells a somewhat different story. While positions in digital writing and digital humanities continued to show increases, 2015 also saw at least twenty-three positions that specifically named “digital rhetoric” as one of their desired specialties. The exponential increase in the term digital rhetoric—as well as variations in nomenclature surrounding digital media generally—reflect a number of issues, some disciplinary, others institutional. But the question worth asking—and to which the IDRS and this special issue of Enculturation serve as a response—is, What exactly do we mean by “digital rhetoric?” How is digital rhetoric different from digital writing or digital humanities, if indeed it is different at all? More to the point, What is rhetorical about digital rhetoric?

Unsurprisingly, the Indiana Digital Rhetoric Symposium did not adjourn with anything resembling consensus on these questions. Indeed, if anything, what the presentations and discussions succeeded in doing was opening up more trajectories and possibilities for digital rhetoric. Consider, for example, the following outtakes from a video project filmed during the IDRS. Over the course of the Symposium, Stephen McElroy, Matt Davis, and Rory Lee interviewed participants about a range of issues related to digital rhetoric. One of their first interview questions, of course, was, “How do you define digital rhetoric?” The initial reactions and responses are both humorous and telling, demonstrating how difficult that question can be to answer even for scholars who routinely invoke the term in their scholarship and teaching (McElory, Davis, and Lee’s full video project appears in the final section of this special issue). 

Download Transcript

Their stumbling and stuttering notwithstanding (how many of you would be able to answer this question cold?), participants’ inability (or unwillingness) to offer a clear definition of “digital rhetoric” may turn out to be one of the most valuable outcomes of the Symposium and the articles collected in this issue. While the field may still lack a clear definition of “digital rhetoric,” the essays and media projects in this issue suggest that, like many things rhetorical, our inability to put a finger on this term—to nail it into place once and for all—is not to be lamented but embraced as an exigency for conducting further research, teaching, and collaboration. The boundaries and divisions within digital rhetoric are many. But they are also porous, constitutive, and inventive; they enable theorists and practitioners to explore digital media from multiple directions and with multiple questions in mind. They allow us to both push off of and push against particular groundings. These are not weaknesses to be corrected, but potentially generative pathways and positions for developing new insights and new approaches to theorizing, making, and teaching digital rhetorics.

Going into the IDRS, we had our own orientations toward digital rhetoric and our own hopes and expectations for the event, but, to be perfectly honest, we really weren’t quite sure what to expect. And, in truth, the invited presenters wasted no time messing up (in the best ways possible) the few orientations we possessed. Some divisions and contours we thought might stabilize over the weekend quickly vaporized. From an at-times overt commitment to human agency to dismissals of the digital humanities/digital rhetoric distinction altogether, what we encountered during the Symposium (and now in these articles) were a range of theoretically adept perspectives asking us to question our own assumptions as much as to consider the directions being opened before us. During the first day of the IDRS alone, we heard about the importance of fieldwork for digital rhetoricians and about methodologies informing work in digital rhetoric writ large. On the same day, we also saw presentations about gestural ecologies and the performance-dimension connected to digital rhetoric (particularly sonic rhetorics). Needless to say, by the end of the first day, we think most in the audience felt the way we did: We somehow knew vastly more and yet vastly less about digital rhetoric.

The second and final day of the Symposium took a decidedly cultural and civic turn, with presenters asking us to consider the space of cultural rhetorics, to explore the value of digital technologies in relation to civic and cultural engagement, and to appreciate how digitally-oriented methodologies can lead to architectural projects of a civic nature. The last day also featured presentations and discussions about textual circulation and remediation as well new media literacies/electracies and locative and embodied media. If, at the end of the first day, many of us felt both energized and overwhelmed by the scope of inquiry that flies under the banner of digital rhetoric, by the end of the second day we also felt a greater appreciation for what digital rhetoric can mean, and what it can do for us, in the academy and beyond.

Ultimately, like rhetoric in the classical sense, digital rhetoricians (at least those present at the IDRS and represented in this special issue) see rhetoric as both a theory and an art of making and teaching. This is in excellent keeping with longstanding understandings of rhetoric from antiquity to the present. For ancient rhetoricians in particular, to study rhetoric was to learn specific concepts and strategies for persuasion as well to perform those lessons through speech and writing. As Jeffrey Walker argues in The Genuine Teachers of this Art, for ancients, “criticism and theory are distinctly ‘rhetorical’ insofar as they observe ‘rhetorical objects’ and critique practices and articulate general principles that are relevant to the process of training a rhetor” (3). While at times we have tended to emphasize one arm over the other (certainly, this was the case at the IDRS where, at times, theoretical questions took priority over pedagogical and performative issues), Walker reminds us that rhetoric is at its best—is its most rhetorical, we might say—when its theoretical and pedagogical arms are closely connected and mutually reinforced. This is certainly true of the seventeen articles featured in this issue of Enculturation, which collectively demonstrate how taking the question of Perspectives and Definitions of Digital Rhetoric seriously opens the way for more distinctly rhetorical inflections for digital rhetoric, inflections that embrace the best of what rhetoric and rhetorical education have historically tended to offer.

Defining and Expanding Digital Rhetorics

Following the Symposium, we knew that any publication we might put together would have to reflect not only the diversity of ideas and perspectives present at the event, but also the range of media as well. Moreover, many talks fostered such commentary, conversation, and critique from the IDRS audience that we knew we needed to allow for fuller, more developed works to ground this special issue. To this end, we invited IDRS speakers to consider revising/re-envisioning their talks for one of three sections: (1) fuller, more developed, traditional article-length essays; (2) shorter, conference paper length essays (with presentations being re-envisioned for print publication); or (3) multimedia/creative projects offered as reimagined media-rich performances of Symposium presentations. Not only did these three sections allow us to best accommodate the variety of scholarship presented, but it also provided participants with options for how they might best reconstitute their presentations as publishable artifacts. As such, this special issue features six traditional-length essays, five shorter essays, and five digital media-oriented projects.

New Directions in Digital Rhetoric

The first section of this issue features essays that run the gamut in terms perspectives and definitions of digital rhetoric. There are essays that focus on traditional concerns, ranging from defining digital rhetoric (Eyman) to using digital rhetoric to rethink the classical canon of delivery (Yancey). The other essays, however, offer an interesting divergence, with two moving toward algorithms and persuasive agents (Beck and Holmes) and two pushing toward the intersections of publics and the digital (Aguayo and Cram, Loehwing, & Lucaites). Together these six essays provide a rich assessment of the perspectives available to scholars in digital rhetoric studies. 

The first essay in this section is Douglas Eyman’s “Looking Back and Looking Forward: Digital Rhetoric as Evolving Field.” Eyman offers definitions of digital rhetoric as well as an account of several historical trajectories responsible for the formation of digital rhetoric. The first half serves as condensation of his recent book on digital rhetoric, while the second half explores four considerations raised at IDRS that were not explicitly addressed in that monograph. The second essay, “Ethos, Hexis, and the Case for Persuasive Technologies,” comes from Steven Keoni Holmes, who uses B.J. Fogg’s Persuasive Technology to construct a theory of digital rhetoric in which behavioral change can be seen as rhetorical. Holmes specifically examines technologies that provide behavioral responsive feedback loops (e.g., from Fitbit to devices that test blood-alcohol-content levels) and highlights how these are anything but neutral; they are, in his own words, “essential elements of the bio-political construction of rhetorical subjects’ procedural habits.” 

Following Holmes, Kathleen Blake Yancey considers the effects of digital delivery on how and what we read through an analysis of counterpart texts, her term for various digital versions, editions, replications, or reproductions of print texts. Yancey’s careful and engaging study of Hill’s 1874 Manual of Social and Business Forms illustrates how texts emerge within and as a result of complex delivery systems—in Yancey’s terms, through a “rhetoricity introduced by the device on which the text is delivered and displayed.” E. Cram, Melanie Loehwing, and John L. Lucaites follow Yancey’s work with, “Protest Photography in a ‘Post-Occupy’ World: Keywords for a Digital Visual Rhetoric of Public Discourse.” Their essay presents a rhetorical analysis of visual conventions manifest in protest photography. Not only do the key images of their analysis depend upon digital circulation and digital publics, but the authors suggest that the very heuristic power of recurrent visual conventions allows for an imparting of symbolic continuity across discrete protests.

The fifth essay in this section, “A Theory of Persuasive Computer Algorithms for Rhetorical Code Studies” by Estee Beck, offers algorithms as quasi-rhetorical agents with persuasive abilities. Computer algorithms are not inert, Beck argues, but are persuasive agents that effectively transmit cultural values and beliefs through the structures of code language, thus giving greater urgency to calls for rhetoricians to develop rhetorical code studies attuned to the natures and implications of persuasive algorithms. The final essay in this section returns the conversation explicitly to digital publics and grounds digital rhetoric in acts of digital media production. Using The Rural Civil Rights Project and related digital documentary as a case study, Angela Aguayo’s “The Bodies That Push the Buttons Matter: Vernacular Digital Rhetoric as a Form of Communicative Agency,” argues that digital production allows not only for official commercial and industry discourses, but specifically vernacular forms of communication and the opportunities for stories to be told “through the eyes of the common people rather than politically privileged, economic elites or media professionals.” 

Taken together, it is difficult to find a unifying thread in these six essays beyond their adherence to the term digital rhetoric, which the authors employ in a variety of ways. However, the diversity of their projects helps emphasize the necessity of increasingly granular approaches to digital rhetoric and an attunement to the perspectives that shape our inquiries into digital rhetoric. 

Digital Rhetoric: Positions and Perspectives

The next section features shorter pieces that collectively suggest ways to expand digital rhetoric to include a wider range of actors and discourses, from methodologies for doing digital rhetoric to social media discourses and physical and locative computing practices. In “Methodologies and Methods for Research in Digital Rhetoric,” Crystal VanKooten asks and explores a deceptively simple question, “What are the global operations, the methodologies, of digital rhetoric?” Using IDRS participants as a sample case study, VanKooten offers some preliminary suggestions about what methods mean (and which count) in digital rhetoric scholarship, noting how many of the scholars present at the IDRS tended to approach digital rhetoric through a fourfold matrix involving hermeneutics, digital composition, empirical observation of human experience, and self-definition. David R. Rieder’s piece, “Making Wayves: Transductive Rhet~Writing,” exemplifies VanKooten’s hermeneutic approach, although it adds an important layer to this approach by incorporating a strong maker culture ethic into its examination of physical computing environments. Building on Victor Vitanza’s sense of “wayves” and his distinctive writing style which often utilizes non-alphabetic symbols such as slashes and tildes, Rieder finds in the post-PC era of physical computing strong resonances with Vitanza’s earlier script, ultimately arguing that both manage to productively confuse boundaries (such as between “rhetoric” and “composition” or “virtual” and “the real”). Rieder’s piece explores some of the rhetorical implications of computing’s recent transformation through two provocative examples: a digital art installation called “Rain Room” and Rieder’s own efforts to redesign Microsoft’s Kinect gaming platform into a new device attuned to our increasingly everted experiences in the age of physical computing.

In his contribution, Nathaniel A. Rivers encourages a similar move (back) toward the physical in our understandings of digital rhetoric. In “Paying Attention with Cache,” Rivers revisits the issue of attention in the digital age. Rather than criticize how digital technologies have (arguably) constrained our abilities to focus through deep attention, Rivers argues that attention is better understood not as a commodity but as a composition “progressively composed across human and nonhuman actors.” To explore this possibility, Rivers describes a collaborative teaching project he built around the technologies and practices of geocaching. While his students’ engagements with geocaching do not suggest that students can be taught to pay better attention, they do indicate, Rivers concludes, that how we presently understand attention needs revising in order to account for practices such as geocaching which emphasize different forms of attention rather than mere quantifications of attention.

Attention is also important to Caddie Alford in her analysis of doxa and social media hashtags. In “Creating with the ‘Universe of the Undiscussed’: Hashtags, Doxa, and Choric Invention,” Alford argues that with the rise of social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook has followed a recuperation and augmentation of the ancient rhetorical concept of doxa. Although doxa, much like rhetoric, has been much maligned at times, Alford shows how in social media environments doxa serve as both the constitutive and limiting forces in the production of rhetorical activity. In some cases, doxa do more than simply rehash the commonplace; doxa can—and indeed do, Alford argues—also perform a kind of choric invention that disrupts the commonplace by enabling more dynamic engagements with everyday discourses. Likewise interested in social media discourses and their appropriations of doxa, Jeff Rice proposes in “Digital Outragicity” that expressions of outrage in digital spaces constitute “the feeling or sentiment of outrage over not a reality (whatever that may be) but a representation based on various levels of aware and unaware aggregations.” For Rice, the proliferation of outrage on social media, such as the online backlash against the killing of Cecil the lion, suggests an emerging logic in which representations of reality are increasingly confused with aggregations (biological and technological) that enable us to see and respond to situations in some ways but not others.

Doing Digital Rhetorics

The third and final section pushes us into digital rhetoric scholarship that is enacted in digital media. Four projects comprise this section, with the majority of them utilizing video as their preferred delivery platform. The first project, “Iconostase: Cyber-history and Hacking Le Corbusier’s Method Experiments” by Matt Demers, uses Gregory L. Ulmer’s CATTt methodology as a way for solving real-world, architectural problems. In this work, Demers demonstrates how the CATTt specifically, and electrate reasoning generally, can be leveraged for digital rhetorical practices attuned to issues of place, publicity, and sustainability. Further, it embraces the relational affordances of web delivery in order to allow for user-directed movement through the project and its contributions.

The second project also picks up with the work of Ulmer. Sarah Arroyo’s “Growing up with Electracy” offers a video performance that is part mystory, part image/video of wide-scope, and part electrate articulation of a sense of identity, self, and place. In this work, Arroyo walks us through a host of personal and professional touchstones, concepts, formulations, and practices that help her make sense of varying critical perspectives. An emotional, pedagogical, and rhetorical creation, Arroyo’s project brings together rich aesthetics and spoken word to provide viewers as much of a felt sensibility as anything grounded in understanding.

The third project, also a video work, reenacts the engaging presentation Jennifer Warfel Juszkiewicz and John Warfel delivered at IDRS. In “The Rhetoric of Mathematical Programming,” we get a glimpse of a conversation between a rhetorician and mathematician (couched in the affect of brother/sister dynamics). In this work, the two scholars discuss not only the mathematics informing the construction and operation of certain algorithms, particularly focusing on linear programming, but they also explore the rhetorical layers central to the construction of models and linear programs themselves.

The final project, “Ways of Knowing and Doing in Digital Rhetoric” by Stephen McElroy, Matt Davis, and Rory Lee, takes the form of a video documentary (itself, part of a larger project) exploring what it means to know/do digital rhetoric. Their project gets at these considerations primarily via interview, asking digital rhetoricians to speak to what they see as knowing/doing digital rhetoric. And while McElroy, Davis, and Lee were not presenters at IDRS, they took advantage of the event to interview presenters and participants, many of whom are featured in this issue, and in turn crafted a compelling narrative about research in digital rhetoric that opens much for further consideration. 

Looking Back and Ahead

While hosting an event such as the IDRS was labor intensive, we look forward to holding another IDRS in the future (most likely Spring 2018). The initial IDRS taught us not only that the conversation was far more diverse than we expected, but that there is genuine interest in this kind of work and of bringing scholars together to debate ideas related to digital rhetorics. As the term digital rhetoric enters its third decade of use, there is still much we can learn about the relationship between rhetoric and digital media: What makes digital media rhetorical and, conversely, how are digital media, technologies, practices, and environments reshaping our understandings of rhetoric? As the articles in this issue attest, there is nothing essential (that is, nothing to essentialize) about either rhetoric or digital media. As theorists and teachers of rhetoric, we appreciate how understandings of rhetoric have transformed over time—that rhetoric means and has meant many things over its long and contested history. This is no less true for digital media, despite its more recent emergence relative to rhetorical history. Much like understandings of rhetoric, what constitutes digital production, theory, and pedagogy shifts and contorts not just over time but across different contexts and environments as well. Learning how to conceptualize and work within these temporal and spatial flows—which, increasingly, have moved beyond the laptop and the internet to incorporate everyday spaces and objects (the so-called Internet of Things)—is one of the challenges and opportunities facing digital rhetoric today. The good news is that rhetoric and rhetorical theory are uniquely positioned to respond to the ever-shifting dynamics of digital life today. As an art similarly rooted in contingent matters and states of affairs, rhetoric, in some respects, has always been a digital art, one deeply attuned to issues of delivery, invention, affect, and persuasion that are very much at the heart of our contemporary digital technologies and practices.1 Understanding the digital aspects of rhetoric and the rhetorical aspects of the digital thus represents not only a program for future research but an opportunity to revisit past understandings of rhetoric, understandings that may have been more progressive and more coincident with contemporary concerns than we have thus far appreciated.

  • 1. Sean Morey identifies a number of important parallels between classical theories of delivery and contemporary digital practices (including embodiment, affect, and gesture) in his book Rhetorical Delivery and Digital Technologies.
Works Cited

Morey, Sean. Rhetorical Delivery and Digital Technologies: Networks, Affect, Electracy. New York: Routledge, 2016. Print.

Walker, Jeffrey. The Genuine Teachers of this Art: Rhetorical Education in Antiquity. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2011. Print.