the digital cul de sac in rhetoric and composition

I’ve been catching up on some reading this summer and took a look at Courtney Werner’s article in the most recent CCC issue, “How Rhetoric and Composition Described and Defined New Media at the Start of the Twenty-First Century.” She looks at definitions of new media in some 70 articles across four journals: CCC, Research in the Teaching of English, Kairos, and Computers & Composition. Though her method is different, the impetus reminds me of Doug Eyman’s parallel investigation of how the discipline defines digital rhetoric (in his book Digital Rhetoric). I don’t have any substantive complaints about either piece. I think they both do a good job of capturing how the field has approached these closely-related concepts, as well as the broader gestalt that would include terms like multimedia, multimodal, computers and writing, and computers and composition. In that broader sense, I think their definitions, while not identical, are mutually reinforcing.

I would draw a different line across the field’s treatment of digital media technologies. The large majority of this work, like the vast majority of work across the discipline, is humanist and idealist. On the other hand is a far smaller, but still recognizable, segment that might be characterized as an electrate, posthumanist-cum-new materialist digital rhetoric. I’m not here to argue in favor of one over the other. To be plain, I really don’t care how other scholars decide to define their work. That said, I find this particular definitional distinction useful as it identifies a group that pushes up against the fundamental ontological boundaries of rhetoric. So without making comparative judgments about the relative value of different scholarly practices, the latter group offers a substantively different set of descriptions and understandings of digital media–not intrinsically better or worse though probably situationally better or worse for addressing particular kinds of concerns.

So what does this have to do with a cul de sac? I’m not going to argue that we’ve reached a dead end…. unless we do x, y, and z. In fact, there’s a important (rhetorical) distinction between a dead end and a cul de sac. With the typical suburban cul de sac (there are four in my neighborhood), you don’t have to put the car in reverse, make a u-turn, or whatever to get out. You can keep moving forward. You can go round and round the circle. Or, as in the case of my neighborhood, you can cycle among the various cul de sacs and at least have the sense that you progressing, even though you’re just wearing down the same paths. Structurally you can go on like that forever. Materially at some point you’ll run out of gas, the tires will go flat, and/or the car will break down but otherwise you’re good to go.

I suppose one could say that’s how the territorializing function of disciplines is supposed to work, an autopoietic underlining of boundaries. One of the common gestures (i.e. one of the cul de sac roundabouts) is claiming to break apart these paradigms.  For example, one might argue, as I certainly have, that moving beyond anthropocentric conceptions opens new capacities for rhetorical action. I don’t really see that as an argument against humanistic approaches to rhetoric. It’s not an either/or proposition as far as I’m concerned. My point here though is that an argument like that (or one that makes a more straightforwardly political argument for certain action) doesn’t lead one out of the cul de sac neighborhood. Instead, it attempts to enfold new dimensions along its existing paths. Indeed, one can make progress (e.g. improve social conditions, develop as a teacher, etc.) without leaving the neighborhood. So maybe the cul de sac is sufficient.  In fact, there’s really no foreseeable end to the potential topics for research and teaching–social media and consensus, algorithms and deliberation, fake news, mobile technologies, AI, machine learning, big data, etc., etc. If anything the prospects of the field are wider and deeper than ever.

So if the future is so bright, why call it a cul de sac? While the diagram of the cul de sac neighborhood is static, the movement across it maps a series of detours and enfoldings. This has always already been the case with rhetorical practice as technology. Rather than imagining driving around and around, imagine instead a process of weaving or tempering steel or lab experiments or recording music and video: recursive processes that eventually have their recursions, their detours, built into technologies. Imagine writing itself for that matter. From that shift in perspective, one can pick up the disciplinary cul de sac neighborhood and put it to work doing something else. This isn’t an escape from the dead ends. It’s a reconception of our relation to them. Of course, once you’ve done that, then you invariably have to see your practices differently.

Werner’s article led me to reflect on my own efforts over the last twenty years. Certainly I’ve argued for investigating the material, embodied, and cultural-historical conceptions of media technologies as they shape rhetorical practices and our understanding of rhetoric. I’ve argued for the necessity of incorporating instruction in digital rhetorical practices into English Studies and into first-year composition and for considering how the shift from print to digital might lead us to rethink fundamental values in the discipline. That’s how I’ve cruised the cul de sacs for the last couple decades.

Now I think the point is to pick up that enfolded tool and do something with it.