Ideology, a New Rhetoric, Authorship, and Power Relations

Is technical communication ideally neutral, or inevitably political? or does it rest in some position between these extremes?

Many of the readings we have encountered suggest varying ways of truth finding and/or knowledge creation, intent on removing partiality, balancing power relations, detecting inequalities that privilege one position over another, or removing marginalization by either inclusion or exclusion. In short, there is a clear call out to stop the othering of the Other. The Barton & Barton article, was fascinating from several angles, and illustrates the afore mentioned calls for removing imbalances clearly in terms of power relations as expressed in the visual representation of the map. Maps with the intent to possess, claim, legitimate, and name (p. 236) that represent an optimist yet highly distorted Weltanschauung, are, according to B&B, based on rules of inclusion and exclusion.

I would, at this point, like to detour just a little bit. I could not help but think of mashup technology, especially, of course map mashups, while reading this article. B&B bemoan the Euro-centric and more importantly power-centric vision of the map, privileging the perspectives of a few over those of the marginalized. The mashup technology is somewhat of an epitomy of this concept, in that it clearly serves a purpose, either in marketing, in business, in science, or any give situation that could ‘benefit’ from a combination of certain data. If taken to the level of the individual, and his or her specific needs at a specific point in time, it is entirely user-centric, a concept that has recently swept across the management of knowledge everywhere. However, it is also very different in that it is ephemeral (or can be) and it really only serves a very particular purpose.

This brings me to my second detour, Jeff Rice’s rhetoric of the network. Jeff Rice proposes a rhetoric of database-driven online mapping of spaces and names it the rhetoric of the network. Using an SNL skit about the quality of online mapping services, such as Google Maps and MapQuest, as a starting point, Rice outlines how these services use particular “types of informational arrangement for the purpose of invention.” Not unlike Carolyn Miller’s notion of novelty in the invention associated with topoi, upon which the rhetor draws, the database can be used to draw those arguments that are deemed the most appropriate for the situation. Rice proposes for arrangement to be the key to invention. Rice cites Walter Ong in characterizing the Ramist approach to arrangement as being the logical process of navigating topoi to facilitate the most efficient path to understanding an argument. This, according to Rice citing Ong, presupposes that there is a preset order or arrangement and one just has to navigate it but one cannot rearrange it, effectively curbing invention.

Spatial layout on a print page can be said to determine the structure of ideas with tables and outlines, etc., as arrangement devices. Rice, though, suggests just the opposite for the rhetoric of the network, id est, there are no grids and tables that confine movement of spaces and places in a database; it rather leaves the navigational path open by not predetermining any structure of the arrangement. This means that the rhetor, or in our case the information seeker or map viewer, is allowed an individualistic arrangement allowing for invention of new paths. Rice summarizes this thought by following Miller’s notion of the topos as a conceptual space that does not have completely predetermined content and, thus, can be seen as a starting point for renewed search. B&B, in my opinion, would probably have added to their article, had they known about mashup technologies.

Now, finally, getting to the prompt for today’s post, I would like to say that TC cannot and should not be neutral. Circling back to the introductory paragraph of this post, I want to say that neutrality or objectivity are unachievable. Any author or designer composes through a lens, has an angle. What I do want to emphasize, though, is that with the current development towards more egalitarian and participatory technologies (Web 2.0, etc), we can observe a much greater scrutiny of the expression of power relations. The removal of the economic cost of information when it was still firmly attached to a material carries (paper) has democratized information and allowed for a much wider distribution of crucial knowledge. ‘Others’ have a voice now and can make that voice be heard. Authorship has changed, because authors can now be contacted and questioned by their audiences. So when B&B quote Williams on p. 239 that, “there are in fact no masses; there are only ways of seeing people as masses”, we can now say that these masses (image or not) have a voice as individuals.

The Slack, Miller, Doak article approaches the topic from the angle of authorship or ‘writer’ as Foucault prefers. What makes one an author? What constitutes authorship? This article also centers on the power relations existent in authorship. Again, this really doesn’t allow for any kind of neutrality in writing. Neutrality, while unachievable, might not even be desirable because it might be un-decodable for the receiver. Interesting to me was the choice of words that comes straight out of the telecommunication jargon. Also, if we assume communication to an ongoing struggle for power (p. 167), we cannot ever assume neutrality.

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