Electric Rhetoric – Technologies of Electric Rhetoric

The Sophistic performance of electronic rhetoric has arrived. …It is on computers. … and it is on television. (137)

Welch, Kathleen E. Electric Rhetoric: Classical Rhetoric, Oralism, and a New Literacy. The MIT Press, 1999.

In this fifth Chapter of Electric Rhetoric, Technologies of Electric Rhetoric, Welch elaborates on her idea of an electric rhetoric–stemming from an Ongian tie to secondary orality, which exists in, and due to, the electronic era. Given the ubiquity of computer use, Welch calls for a digital literacy not only for anyone wanting to enter the workplace, but also for anyone who wants to fully experience that richness that has been brought about by new media and our current state of technology.

Students who are trained in electric rhetoric, that is, to perform and interpret electronic texts in Sophistic ways (ways that are situated, raced, fragmented, self-consciously perfomative, gendered, relative) will be more likely and able to decode other texts that constitute their lives. …Digital literacy is now required for citizens to get and maintain jobs in the new information-based economy. Just as important, digital literacy is now required for citizens to partake of a new identity. (140).

This new identity is formed when individuals actively participate in the current technological situation that both shapes and is shaped by digital literacy and the new rhetoric. Essentially, a new student cannot survive without a certain amount of computer skills and awareness of how to navigate certain aspects of the internet. Specifically, one would be hard-pressed to find a collegiate instructor who would accept a paper that was hand-written or even typed on a typewriter. Perhaps more importantly, it is virtually inconceivable that one would desire to submit a paper in such a form, since computer use is so ubiquitous and ingrained in the lifestyle of those “born digital.” Similarly, one must have a certain level of digital literacy to secure most jobs, and in most cases, to even apply for a job.

Moving to a discussion more related to the orality and auralism that comprises our digital culture, Welch suggests that, beyond reading “Writing, encoding, and other kinds of performing are required to adequately understand how texts operate in an oralist/auralist era such as our own” (141). Furthermore, students from traditionally oral cultures, such as Native Americans, can particularly benefit from applications of oralist theory in the classroom, since oralism/auralism represents and operates as something very different in their culture, often even defining it.

Digital literacy and Native American studies have more in common than many have been willing to admit. It is the oralism/auralism of the two that partly accounts for their strong connections. (142)

In this way, the online video conversation (OVC) can be seen as a way to potentially prolong oral traditions of now partially-oral cultures. In a culture where oral tradition is so ingrained, so important, so tradition-oriented, the OVC could logically feel more natural, desirable, and beneficial for those individuals–generally younger generations- who come from oral traditions but are now operating in the digital world. The communication method might help to keep those oral traditions a part of their culture while advancing as a part of, and perhaps even leading, the digital orality of this technological age. “U.S. Euroculture needs the wisdom and logos performances of these other groups” (142).

“In the functions of memory and delivery reside many issues of culture, ideology, society, and the construction of public and private lives…” (145).

This discussion of culture and orality also relates to memory in that traditionally oral cultures relied on various methods of memory in orated speeches, such as repetition and rhythmic verse. Conversely, writing itself aids one in memory or, as Plato sees it, destroys memory, since orators can refer to written speeches in while or in part (as reference) rather than committing entire orations to memory. In a number of cases [I’ll cite if used in the Diss.] the rhetorical canons or memory and delivery have been downplayed or even removed in some cases. Welch notes that this is in part due to the fact that they are seen to interfere with the writing process and its privileging of invention and the thoughts and feelings of the writer.

A standard explanation for their removal of memory and delivery from the five canons relies on the simplistic idea that the burgeoning power of writing made memory and delivery less relevant because those two canons are said to be more powerful in orally/aurally-dominant cultures. This is not the case, memory and delivery do not wither with the encroachment of writing; rather, they change form as they do many times historically. (146)

Therefore, with any emerging and new media, the way that memory and delivery manifest and are applied can alter and adapt to the technology. Clearly, these are not canons to be disregarded, as they are essential and, in some views, even dominant canons in the rhetorical process. “[M]emory and delivery were not afterthoughts as they gradually developed in Greek rhetoric and found fuller expression” (146).

It should be understood that no period or culture or delivery method is superior to another, but rather are merely ways I which w have cognitively and practically adapted to the time and situation. “Human, in-person articulations of spoken texts involve one kind of memory and delivery; printed articulations have another kind; and digital versions yet another. In each kind of transmission, there is a change and a sameness” (147).

This point also means that we need to consider the situation fully when analyzing it and not, necessarily, apply all the same filters. This is to say that because different delivery methods include different modes and settings, they cannot always be compared in the same way.

Delivery is weakened if it refers only to gesture, physical movement, and expression that many commentators have dismissed it as limited to. The fifth canon of rhetoric includes this aspect of visual communication in person, but it includes much more as well. (153)

This is to say that writing, for example, does not include any element of physical gesture or appearance of the orator/writer. However, it still includes many elements and considerations of the canon of delivery, including visual elements such as type style/size, image inclusion, layout and design, colors, etc.

Walther Ong detailed the nine characteristics of oral text as being: additive rather than subordinative, aggregative rather than analytic, redundant or ‘copious,’ conservative or traditionalist, close to the human lifeworld, agonistically toned, empathetic and participatory, homeostatic, situational rather than abstract. To this list, Welch adds that “oral cultures are complexly formulaic, not simply formulaic. …These characteristics can be applied to television texts because electric rhetoric may share many properties with primary orality even though it differs substantially” (156). Similarly, these characteristics can be applied to the online video conversation (OVC), an application that I will detail in the future.

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