Brave New World (3): New Rhetorical Concepts

Throughout the history of rhetoric, traditional theories and concepts have been examined and reexamined many times to adapt to new communication media and technologies. With the strong emergence of Web 2.0 communication technologies and the immense popularity of social media the reexamination of traditional concepts naturally continues. This relatively small review of the literature strongly suggests the general agreement among theorists that traditional concepts have to be revisited, revised, and reconceptualized in light of the participatory Web 2.0 communication technologies and the associated rhetorical situations that make them sustainable.


Lunsford and Ede (1984) make a compelling case for the reexamination of traditional rhetorical theories by challenging traditional interpretations of the same. They point to what they call the false dichotomy that has been created between classical and modern rhetoric, markedly the goal of rhetoric being persuasion in traditional rhetoric and communication in modern theory. The authors argue for a revised interpretation of the classical concepts, with special focus on Aristotle. (p. 40-43) They summarize their interpretation in three sets of similarities and qualifying distinctions between classical and modern rhetoric. First, they assert that “[b]oth classical and modern rhetoric view man as a language-using animal who unites reason and emotion in discourse with another”, and point to the qualifying distinction that “Aristotle addresses himself primarily to the oral use of language; ours is primarily an age of print”. Written in 1984, of course, this precludes today’s digital and portable communication media. Secondly, Lunsford and Ede point out that in classical as in modern conceptualization rhetoric, as techne, affords the rhetor and the audience joint access to knowledge. The qualifying distinction, according to the authors, is that Aristotle has the rhetor and the audience achieve a state of knowing via the use of language and be in a “clearly defined relationship with the world and each other”. This clearly defined relationship between the knower and the known is not part of contemporary theory. In their third set of similarities and distinctions, the authors acknowledge that both modern and classical rhetoric theory include rhetoric’s potential “to clarify and inform activities in numerous related fields”. But, while Aristotle’s theory equates rhetoric to an art and “relates it clearly to all fields of knowledge”, there is no systematic theory that is generally accepted for today’s communication practice. (p. 45-46) All points, and especially the last one, illustrate the need to focus on reviewing and revising traditional concepts to make them applicable to new means of communication.

Kathleen Welch, in Electric Rhetoric (1999), advocates the Next Rhetoric and goes to great length to vindicate and seek application for the rhetoric proposed by Isocrates in order to incorporate it into a Next Rhetoric that she proposes. Welch’s Next Rhetoric rejects the binary of oral and written discourse in favor of Isocrates’ more Sophist version of rhetoric. She argues that the classical rhetoric set forth by interpretations of Aristotle and Plato is “categorical and highly ordered” (p. 33) and does not account for our ‘electrified time’. She contends that the latter is by nature exclusionist, racist, and mysogynic.
Welch goes back to Sophist rhetoric and asserts that the re-elevation of Sophist thought tends to accompany drastic rhetorical change such as the one occurring at present, as also noted by many other sources in this document. In Welch’s interpretation, Isocratic rhetoric “consists of language as it constitutes part of thought (that is, interior discourse) and language as it constitutes one’s negotiations with the world (that is, exterior discourse). Writing, speaking, and thinking are mutually dependent for him and, I contend, heavily conditioned by the technology of writing” (p. 34). This fact, according to Welch, is critical in formulating the Next Rhetoric as it accepts the relationship between private and public, interior and exterior speech. Isocrates’ rhetoric, in Welch’s view, is better suited for the present electronic discourse that has changed the interrelationship that exists between interior and exterior discourse.

Welch concludes that Isocrates’ approach to rhetoric not only deserves a place but needs a place in the canon of classical rhetoric and techno-liberal-arts study in order to critically rethink the hegemony created by the prevalent rhetorics of Plato and Aristotle. Isocrates must be reinterpreted in this time of social change because his work presents a viable alternative that will address exclusionist tendencies born out of the prevalent approaches to rhetoric.
Much more focused on a specific technology in his suggestion, Jeff Rice (2008) 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 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. This stands in clear contrast to the Ramist approach. 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.

Manovich (2008), citing De Certeau, introduces the concepts of tactics and strategies and brings to our attention that Web 2.0 media are designed to be manipulated and customized as Rice alludes to with the database offering fluid arrangement. Rice’s rhetor, the information seeker, 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. Manovich contends that what used to be the individual’s tactic to customize his or her world is now built into the strategy of large industries and can be said to be the paradigm of Web 2.0. The question arises whether this would then go back to a Ramist model of pre-set spatial organization where we only manipulate surface features but are locked into a rigid arrangement leaving little room for invention? What rhetorical implications does that have for theorists?

Rice makes a compelling case for a new rhetoric of the network that allows for fluid arrangement leading to invention and cites Latour’s definition of a network as a tool that can be used not unlike other rhetorical tools associated with space, i.e., memory palaces, outlines, etc. Networks afford us the option of arranging information in ways unrestricted by the rigidity of pre-determined arrangement.

Connecting his workplace research of a KMS to traditional concepts of rhetoric, Torning (2008) finds that, two of the pisteis seem to emerge as highly influential and merit further examination: ethos and pathos. An organization has to establish the KMS as an ethical tool that will not take unfair advantage of the KW, the KW has to understand the KMS as such and the KW has to have a passion for contributing that is generated by the clear understanding of personal benefits of using it.

James Zappen (2005) acknowledging the need for ongoing examination of rhetorical concepts where digital media are concerned, contends that currently there is no single, cohesive digital rhetoric, but rather a mosaic of theoretical components have not begun to form the shape of a comprehensive theory .

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