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A Rhetoric of Electronic Communities

Author: Tharon Howard
Publisher: Greenwich, CT: Ablex Pub Corp, 1997
Review Published: August 1998

 REVIEW 1: Randall McClure

"This is a study of power, the power to monitor what is said, to authorize who can speak, and even to censor what they are saying. But even more important, it is a study of the power to determine what is and is not thinkable or knowable--that is, the power to shape and maintain the communities that shape and maintain us. To put this somewhat less dramatically, this book engages in a rhetorical analysis of the concept of community, utilizing the unique qualities of the writing that occurs on wide-area electronic networks [WANS] to better understand both what the existing theories of community may be able to explain in this important new medium and how, in turn, this new medium challenges and problematizes those existing theories" (2).

Tharon Howard's A Rhetoric of Electronic Communities, part of the continuing "New Directions in Computer and Composition Studies" series edited by Gail E. Hawisher and Cynthia L. Selfe, is not only concerned with an abstract analysis of power; more specifically, the text looks at how power in electronic discourse communities shapes and is shaped by those who participate in the creation of what Howard calls "networked texts." Differentiating them from more popular terms today such as computer-mediated communication (CMC), Howard sees "networked texts" [or NT] as a new medium rather than a repackaging of oral or print mediums. An analysis of this new medium, Howard believes, will not only clarify how networked texts and communities shape one another, but also create a new theory of community that will be adequate for traditional media as well.

While the focus of the text is electronic communities, Howard, the Director of the Clemson University Usability Testing Facility, Chair of the Instructional Technology Committee for the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), and Co-Director of the Carolinas Alliance for Computers and Writing, is first and foremost committed to the "integration of instructional technologies in the classroom" (ix). While A Rhetoric of Electronic Communities is not a text foregrounded in establishing new computers and composition pedagogies, Howard's theoretical analysis of the binaries involved in electronic communities does have pedagogical implications for the classroom, including the writing classroom.

To begin the construction of a new and clarified sense of community for NT and WANS users, with further general applications for writing instructors despite being masked within the heavy theoretical movement of the text (perhaps due to the fact the text was Howard's dissertation), Howard first situates his ideas within the now common binary between technological euphoria and technological pessimism. Here, the binary between euphoria and pessimism divides fields, from technical communication to rhetoric and composition, which are interested in technology and power into two separate camps--euphoriacs who see almost endless potential for empowerment throughout culture and pessimists who see nothing but perhaps the clever disguise of existing power structures. Yet, Howard does not attempt to synthesize a middle ground between technological euphoria and pessimism. Instead, Howard situates his ideas within a Janusian framework; here, the framework does not try to reconcile the poles in the relationship between technology and community, but instead acknowledges the contributions of various notions of community and technology as well as the need for revising the conceptualizations of their relationship. Howard articulates such a Janusian metaphor throughout the text, calling it a way "to celebrate the play in the space between binary oppositions or even multi-faceted poles" (110). Yet as the author notes in the opening of the text, the potential (and still to an extent viable) criticism of such a Janusian perspective, especially here where the use of separate yet related binaries borders on overuse, is that such a perspective may be seen as "hypocritical and "two-faced;" ...However, [the] main goal in this study is not deconstructive but, rather, revisionary" (10-11). While perhaps revisionary at the time, Howard's reconstructive revision here occupies part of what is now a large space in computers and composition studies--the ambiguous middle that is convinced technology should continue to be integrated into education, but unconvinced that this integration will change any of the existing (often oppressive) power structures at work throughout education.

To construct such a revision of community, Howard builds his argument on a foundation of power and through what he sees as the more positive contributions of existing theories regarding technology and community. After a brief outline of the text's purpose in chapter one, Howard moves quickly in chapter two to establish the significance of NT, one that Howard sees as rich in its potential to empower individual users with more critical perspectives on culture and society: "Few media offer individuals the ability to have a voice in social, economic, political, and/or pedagogical change as does NT" (13). Yet, Howard is just as quick to qualify such optimism by stating that current uses of NT are often "neither liberated nor liberating" (23). Staying within the framework of power, Howard points out that technology and NT can not be neutral and free from power relations. It is such a multiplicity of perspectives that convinces Howard of the need for the Janusian perspective that underlies A Rhetoric of Electronic Communities.

Next, in chapter three, Howard discusses current perceptions on the role of power in NT, what traditionally has been dominated by critiques of electronic writing and publishing. Working through a series of binaries from traditional print-based vs. electronic writing/publishing to the text as produced vs. consumed to the democratization vs. suppression of communities, Howard concludes that NT can promote more egalitarian discourse, give voice to the true, inner thoughts of both oppressed and unoppressed users, and change political, educational, and social relationships. (55) Careful, though, not to fully embrace such optimism (even though he is quite aggressive in the force of these claims), Howard does note his concerns for those who view NT as a medium of communal change regardless of intentionality and implementation, including concerns regarding the access, control, and ownership of NT, along with the need for a critical perspective of such potential factors of disempowerment.

In the remaining four chapters of A Rhetoric of Electronic Communities, Howard builds the bridge from technology and community to rhetoric (and composition), a bridge that in the final chapter articulates a synthesis that has practical pedagogical implications for the writing instructor. In chapter four, Howard wants to differentiate print-based communities from electronic ones, so he turns to an analysis of different theories of community across several fields. Playing with the binary of "individualistic" and "constitutive" theories of community, Howard moves his analysis through theories of community by Althusser and Kant and comes to the conclusion that "NT researchers need a definition of community that is more inclusive that the traditional use of the term, both in terms of the types of communities it admits and the factors it takes into consideration" (68). Ultimately, Howard believes that definitions of community outside of rhetoric, whether individualistic or constitutive in nature, end in determinism and therefore are "incompatible with rhetoric" (84).

So, Howard's next chapter fixes a redefinition of community within rhetoric in terms of the text's dominant binary of communities--accommodation and resistance. Here, Howard looks at conceptions of community within the field, beginning with the tenets of social constructionism, continuing the analysis of binaries with a discussion of foundationalism and anti-foundationalism, and ending with Howard's concern that binaries, both in and out of rhetoric, are not only antagonistic, but deterministic as well. Howard notes that the binary of accommodation and resistance still dominates the scholarship regarding technology within rhetoric and composition, thus continuing the preference of one type of knowledge over another. Yet, Howard continues to resist closure, stating that resolving these binaries, especially that of accommodation and resistance, by using some third perspective will only give us a term that is not "capable of resolving the conflict either by validating the claims of one side over the other or by re-cerning or resituating the binaries in an alternative framework that will suture all the possible manifestations of community within some all-encompassing whole" (110).

Next, Howard moves from the theoretical to the pragmatic part of the text as he looks at how electronic groups function as electronic communities. Using his online list group, PURTOPOI (The Rhetoric, Language, and Professional Writing Discussion Group co-owned with Patricia Sullivan), as the focus, Howard returns to the individualistic-constitutive binary to provide a specific illustration of an electronic group functioning and not functioning as an electronic community. Howard sees PURTOPOI as a community in the sense that individual users have the relationships of being members of an electronic group and work within some sense of a common project; however, PURTOPOI does not escape the power relations still inherent in a community based in discourse and thus falls short of achieving a new and higher sense of community. Ultimately and despite his initial enthusiasm, Howard admits that "such groups seem to remain mortgaged to forms and practices that have come before" (148).

Finally, Howard gives his Janusian-like synthesis. Working through the final binary of inside vs. outside along with the introduction of what Howard calls "positionality" and the "articulatory moment," Howard presents his revisionary definition of communities as both unified and sites of struggle; for, communities without struggle and only unification cease to exist as communities, and communities without a sense of unification lack the binding element that makes them communities. With this view, electronic communities, the same ones that are finding applications within college writing (and other) classrooms, must then be similar sites of resistance and accommodation despite the apparent continuance or rooted power relationships and structures. While writing classrooms as such sites remains to be seen on any significant scale, Howard's reconceptualization of electronic communities and rearticulation of their possibility for empowerment in A Rhetoric of Electronic Communities adds to the growing claims of reconceptualizing classroom communities and the communities of higher education and society as well despite the lack of evidence citing empowerment, at least for the time being.

Randall McClure:
Randall McClure is a doctoral student in Rhetoric & Writing at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. His research interests include technology, culture studies, literacy, and issues in higher education.  <randall.mcclure@mnsu.edu>

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