Genre, media formats, and evolution

Mackenzie Wark has a useful extended discussion of Lev Manovich’s Software Takes Command. If you haven’t read Manovich’s book, it offers some great insights into it. I think Manovich’s argument for software studies is important for the future of rhetoric, though admittedly my work has long operated at points of intersection between rhetoric and media study.

But here’s one way of thinking about this. How do we explain the persistence of the “essay,” not only in first-year composition but as the primary genre of scholarly work in our field and really across the humanities? Indeed we might take this question more broadly and wonder about the persistence of scholarly genres across disciplines and beyond. That is, we might ask why genres of scientific scholarly articles have not changed much in the wake of digital media or newspaper articles or novels and so on.

Or maybe we should ask about the photograph.

Manovich's media lab image wall.

It’s likely that you have some recent family photos hanging somewhere in your house. They were probably taken with a digital camera, maybe even with your smartphone. But sitting in that frame, they probably don’t look very different from photos that would have hung there thirty years ago. The photo may not reveal to you the complete transformation of the composition process that led to its production. That transformation has led to the erasure of some photographic capacities that were available to chemical film that do not exist for digital images. However, as we know, most of those compositional activities are now simulated in software. Additionally, many new capacities have emerged for photographs, most notably, at least for the everyday user, the capacity to share images online.

Is the digital photograph the same as the analog photograph? Of course not. Can we say that the photograph persists? Or should we say that a new species of photography as evolved and come to thrive in the digital media ecology? And what’s at stake in how we answer that question?

As Wark observes in Manovich:

What makes all this possible is not just the separation of hardware from software, but also the separation of the media file from the application. The file format allows the user to treat the media artifact on which she or he is working as “a disembodied, abstract and universal dimension of any message separate from its content.” (133) You work on a signal, or basically a set of numbers. The numbers could be anything so long as the file format is the right kind of format for a given software application. Thus the separation of hardware and software, and software application and file, allow an unprecedented kind of abstraction from the particulars of any media artifact.

The same thing might be said of textual genres. If you print the PDF of a journal article it might look quite similar to the essays our predecessors tapped out on typewriters and received back in bound journals in the mail several years later. Personally, it’s hard to imagine working that way. Drafting longhand? On note paper? Going to the library and relying on printed bibliographies and card catalogs? What about before photocopiers, when you couldn’t even make your own copy of a journal article?

I think it is fair to say that the contemporary digital scholarly essay, despite its resemblance to it analog predecessors, has the following new qualities:

  • composed in a digital platform (typically MS-Word)
  • relied upon digital access to secondary scholarship (at the very least accessing a university’s online library catalog)
  • digitally circulated for review (perhaps by the author but almost certainly by the journal editors)
  • prepared for publication in a digital environment
  • exists as a digital object (behind a paywall as a PDF, on an open access website, on the author’s personal website, etc.)

In short, there are undoubtedly differences. But to me that leaves open a couple key questions:

  1. Do these differences make a difference? That is, do they alter the kind of knowledge we produce or the role essays play in our discipline? If so, how? and if not, why not?
  2. What are the untapped and/or under-utilized capacities of the digital species of the essay?

We have a growing field of digital rhetoric that investigates these questions and journals like Kairos that offer some direct evidence to inform an answer to question #2. Media study, on the other hand, while not being especially interested in text, offers some compelling responses to these questions as well, or at least it could if we are able to understand textual genres in relation to media formats. The two (genre and format) are clearly not equivalent. To the contrary they are quite distinct, but they act in conversation with one another. Historically we never really paid attention to the fact that essays were in a genre that existed within a specific print-analog media format. Now things are changing very rapidly because that media format has shifted. Now media study is integral to rhetoric, and rhetoric is integral to media study. I’ve been focusing here on the first part of that compound sentence. I’ll have to address the second part some other time. In fact, one might even go further and suggest that the entire constellation of fields within English Studies must turn itself toward media study, but again, that’s for another day.