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The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology and the Arts

Author: Richard Lanham
Publisher: Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1993
Review Published: December 1998

 REVIEW 1: Geoffrey Rubinstein
 REVIEW 2: Judyth Avary Baker

Do not even pretend to be adequately armed to discuss the impact of hypertext and cyberculture upon our present and future days until you have read this collection of ten essays by rhetorician and extextual guru Richard Lanham. The author addresses the trends, motivations and influences steering the minds of those who determine what we should or shouldn't read, how and what we should think, how we should learn, and what we may be forced to unlearn. Though the book will soon need an update, Lanham's ideas are solid, his logic unassailable. If he carries on a bit much about the renaissance of a new age of rhetoric, and about the oscillation that "pit(s) sacred texts against topical ones, ultimately meaningful ones against ultimately meaningless ones" (110), nevertheless his 'oscillation' penchant neatly explains why Western thought – long reduced to a linear script trapped in a lock-step of Aristotelian logic -- is now being transformed and rejuvenated as we move from frozen type on rectangular pages to literally electrifying screens where words leap, grow, metamorphose and generate incredibly mutated offspring. Readers, no longer bound by rules created for the printed word, are discovering a pre-literate, Homeric-style means of communication that’s dynamic, lively, vibrant. The printed book will become an archived curiosity -- a museum piece.
Far out? Maybe Johnny can't read, but he can play complex video games at the speed of light. And nobody surpasses Johnny in composing rap music, creating animated cartoon strips, cruising the Internet. Johnny reveals an extextual literacy that can only be viewed as awesome: he's the ten year old we invite over to solve our computer problems. Lanham discusses this phenomenon -- and others -- in ten chapters relating ten once-separate essays (making some of his information redundant). He displays uncanny insight as he investigates the implications behind such an incalculably different and not-so-future world, asking the really relevant questions and posing possible scenarios we'll have to face.

In Chapter 1, regarding how books will soon be made, Lanham says that "the textual surface is now a malleable and self-conscious one. All kinds of production decisions have now become authorial ones. The textual surface has become permanently bi-stable" (5). He ends these proclamations with this scenario: "Imagine a computer 'textbook' continually in touch with all the teachers who use it, continually updated and rewritten by them as well as by the author" (10). He continues: "What is a mustache on the Mona Lisa, compared to a Fourier transform practiced upon it? What does colorizing Casablanca amount to, compared to pseudocolor techniques applied to Titian?" (13). If this scenario doesn't shake your chain, just keep reading.

In Chapter 2, Lanham says that whereas "the (written) book is seen as static, inelastically linear, sluggish ... the new cinematographic form (is seen) as dynamic, interactive, simultaneous, swift" (33). This means, "concomitantly with the explosion of the authoritative text, electronic writing brings a complete renegotiation of the alphabet/icon ration upon which print-based thought is built" (34). Did you get that? In phrases so compact you might miss the import, Lanham opens windows he says have been created "through the infinite resources of digital image recall and manipulation the pictures and sounds suppressed into verbal rhetorical figures are now reassuming their native places in the human sensorium" (34). We can "go home again," intellectually speaking, to a more basic and fundamental way of communicating that carries more power and authority. In other words, "the complex icon/word interaction or oral rhetoric is returning." It's what he calls a flexible, multi-layered "Hot type." What Lanham means is that "Digital typesetting programs (can now) pour or flow… We (are now) encountering this change in liquidity everywhere" (44).

In Chapter 3, Lanham puts deconstruction in its place. “Although, incredibly, Derrida appears not to have known Burke’s work, deconstruction’s enfranchising hypothesis that rhetorical analysis can be used on nonliterary texts and on the conventions of social life itself is the pivotal insight of Burkean dramatism" (56). Lanham suggests that chaos theory can be used as a means to understand the new dynamics of the electronic word as it might relate to deconstruction theory. "Chaos theory stands to Newtonian science ... as rhetoric stands to logic" (61). Thus, Since chaos theory deals with scale-change ... (it resembles) rhetoric as a theory of behavior... If Mandelbrot is right, the underlying geometry of the world is decorative, not utilitarian" (62).

He goes on to explain that "the emergent pattern of rhetorical thinking is ... centripetal" (71). And if it is true that “Postmodernism in the visual arts and in music supplied the aesthetic of electronic display half a century before we started processing our words electronically…” today “The deconstructionists have made the binary oscillation of western decorum a desperate affair. (But) It is not a desperate affair; it is an error-checking operation" (84). The link between modern thought and modern ways to express that thought existed in human imagination long before we were able to devise a technology to express it, which is why we should respect the vista of the strange places to which modern writing and modern art have sometimes taken us.

But what has all this to do with democracy? Lanham calls Chapter 4 “The Extraordinary Convergence: Democracy, Technology, Theory, and the University Curriculum.” “When the arts are digitized,” he warns us, “…they become radically interchangeable" (106). The vigor we are now experiencing is a revitalization, and “The rhetorical paideia that is now returning puts the oscillation back into time, handles the problem the Renaissance way. Experimental humanism, with its often outrageous didactic, seeks to animate that oscillation. It represents not a nihilistic repudiation of the Western intellectual tradition but a self-conscious return to it" (111).

In Chapter 5, Lanham suggest that this “return,” however, will not be to a more primitive expression of experimental humanism, but will instead restructure many of the ways we handle the arts, as well as the sciences. “Musical instruments themselves have changed, the nineteenth century Romantic orchestra collapsing into a generic keyboard, horn, and drum pad. Musical notation, for so long a great bottleneck, has been taken out of the hands of skilled engravers and put on the average electronic desktop" (122). Everybody can be a Renaissance Man once again. “This same volatility dissolves the boundaries between the arts…(and if) Friedhoff and Benzon…argue that we are coming to depend on visualization as a vital tool for conceptual thought in ways that were simply impossible before the digitization of information… We have to (realize that we have to) do here within an expanded sense of human reason itself" (127).

Lanham’s own mode of communicating this transformation will, itself, soon be relegated to the past. “The essay will no longer be the basic unit of writing instruction” he insists. “The world will not come to an end therefore; the essay was not always the dominant form. In classical times the central expository form was the declamation; in the Middle Ages, it was the letter; now it will be something else" (127).

What, then, will it become? “…writing will be taught as a three-dimensional, not a two-dimensional art.” (128) “…the concept of educational order itself, at every level, will have to be renegotiated" (133). There are four more chapters to look at, Chapter 6 dealing with undergraduate education and how it will now change. “(W)e find incoherence and muddle everywhere we look in American undergraduate education. Students take their random walk through a great K-Mart of the human spiritand end up with a handful of requirements fulfilled and perils passed.” And if this seems disorganized and incoherent, “…the incoherence of the modern curriculum, major and minor, reflects faithfully the incoherence of modern thought" (139).

The University has already divided itself into miniworlds: “…the modern university curriculum is…a series of countries speaking separate languages, among which the students migrate in rotation every hour on the hour…it is a very rhetorical society and will create in our students a very rhetorical self and sense of society. We have only to revive the traditional rhetorical paideia. It will do just fine (145).

In Chapter 7, Lanham brings up the “Q” Question. What is it? “What I have called the “Q” question,” Lanham explains, “(is what) emerges every time technology changes in some basic way. In each case, we have to ask ourselves, “What are we trying to protect? The old technology itself or what it carries for us, does to us?" (154). For “Humanists regularly rewrite the history of universities into a golden-age Platonic academy which puts them centerstage…We regularly preach one way and teach another…We regularly confuse the right kind of middle-class factual knowledge with moral virtue, public and private, as does E.D. Hirsch. We apply to our own writing a Platonic and Ramist theory of language which pretends that it is value-free, as McCloskey’s critique of scholarly writing…points out. We regularly, in the interests of Platonic worship, disembody language and reason" (178). Lanham succinctly pigeonholes the best and most popular of those theories of scholarly language, rhetoric and language into surprisingly useful categories while proving that most of these theories can’t properly deal with today’s rhetorical and language problems.

Then, in Chapter 8, Lanham deals the death blow to the printed volume. “The rhetorical/philosophical distinction,” he reminds us, “though it grows from the technological distinction between oral and literate cultures, concerns more than technology. It debates opposed theories of human motive, human selfhood, and human society" (203). He concludes that “Around the electronic word, then, around this movement from book to screen, cluster the major humanistic issues of our time" (203). To those who still get their big thrills from reading the flat printed page, Lanham soothes with the observation that “Writing gets its power from the role it allows the writer to play. The writer seems to speak as we do, but actually speaks from a different time scale, one that condenses years of work and thought into minutes of reading time. The rush we get from reading comes from that sudden, almost instantaneous transfer of power" (220). And we are assured, he seems to imply, that we’ll get similar “rushes” from the electronic word displays with which we’ll be reading and interacting. But the next generation, getting big buzzes from their own interactive “reading” experiences in a cyberworld we can only begin to imagine, will have little interest in what seemed so attractive about the static display of a book.

In Chapter 9, Lanham sees the electronic word as an injection of new vitality into our tottering intellectual world. “That is what the humanities are all about in an information society—attention-structure" (243). The rhetorical version of a utopia, in fact, looks very like a richly emergent system…poised…”on the edge of chaos.” It does not aim at stasis, as does the utopian condition that descends from Plato, at finding an ideal pattern of life and then shutting the developmental process down. The developmental process is life. To shut it down is to kill it. Stasis is the death by ice,” he concludes. “This new convergence between the arts and sciences is deeply democratic—“bottom-up” from the bottom up. It is digitally driven. It is capable of generalization" (254).

Finally, in Chapter 10, Lanham engages in a schizoid conversation between his old and new self (as I see it). One recalls the past with a fond desperation: the other sails with confidence into a rosy sunrise—or is it, instead, the sunset of our civilization? In “Conversation with a Curmudgeon,” Lanham touches all the raw spots we worry about—sometimes with sandpaper, sometimes with tender care. “Hypertextual and linear processes of thinking are surely the two basic processes of the human mind,” he say (269). “How will….(today’s) children play the role of a common reader if they can’t, or won’t, read? How do you compare if you don’t remember, if you cannot organize and prioritize knowledge, if you cannot isolate elements from the general background noise, if you don’t pay attention to the lyrics except as they reinforce the thump-thump of the beat?" (276). (You can guess that this is The Curmudgeon speaking). The answers Lanham gives are both soothing and, in a very elemental sense, sobering. So read the book. A large stable of important hobby-horse thinkers is put out to pasture, and a good bit of common sense takes its place to fuel our hopes in that speculative and quickly-changing futurity we all must run. All this knowledge --from a book that’s just one inch thick. A book that predicts, interestingly enough, the demise of books.

Judyth Avary Baker:
Judyth Avary Baker is an anthropologist, linguist and writer who also teaches Freshman composition at the University of Southwestern Louisiana, Lafayette, LA.  <americancream@sprintmail.com>

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