Friday, June 24, 2011

Changes in the Ecosystem

I've finished reading James Berlin's book Rhetoric and Reality: Writing Instruction in American Colleges, 1900-1985, and perhaps the thing that most impresses me about the book is how totally unaware it is of the Internet. Of course, Berlin was writing a decade before the advent of the World Wide Web, the sum total of the Internet for most people, so he could hardly have included the Internet without more prescience than most people possess. I am not making a critique of Berlin; rather, I am noting how informed my own thinking is with all things Internet – so much so that when I read an entire book on rhetoric and find no mention of blogs, wikis, Twitter, or even email, then I am somewhat taken aback. I feel that something is missing.

I was most acutely aware of this lack when Berlin was discussing his preferred flavor of rhetoric: the social-epistemic. Berlin situates social-epistemic rhetoric within the broader framework of transactional rhetoric, which is one of his three broad categories of Twentieth Century rhetoric, the other two being objective and subjective. Briefly, the three are distinguished by how they treat epistemology, or where they place meaning. Objective theories place meaning in the external world of things and objects or things written about, subjective theories place meaning in the inner world of subjects or the writer's own mind, and transactional theories place meaning in the interactions among the subject (writer), the object (the world), and the writer's discourse community. For the objective and subjective rhetorics, then, meaning has a particular place in either the external world or in the internal mind and it has a fixed and unique shape and identity. For the transactional rhetorics, meaning has no particular place or  fixed shape but exists in the dynamic interactions of writer, readers, and world. Berlin says it this way:
Transactional rhetoric is based on an epistemology that sees truth as arising out of the interaction of the elements of the rhetorical situation: an interaction of subject and object or of subject and audience or even of all the elements—subject, object, audience, and language—operating simultaneously. The three major forms of transactional rhetoric in the twentieth-century writing class have been the classical, the cognitive, and the epistemic. (15)
Berlin favors the social-epistemic rhetoric, which he distinguishes from classical and cognitive varieties in two ways:

  1. "Epistemic rhetoric posits a transaction that involves all elements of the rhetorical situation: interlocutor, audience, material reality, and language" (16), and
  2. this transaction always includes language, for "there is never a division between experience and language. … All experiences … are grounded in language, and language determines their content and structure. … Rhetoric thus becomes implicated in all human behavior" (16).
I find an easy fit in Berlin's notions that knowledge is a pattern that emerges from the interactions among an interlocutor, a discourse community, and reality (I do not believe that reality is limited to the material or that language is necessary for knowledge, but more of that later and elsewhere), but I'm bothered by the absence of any firm notion of networks and networking, chaos, uncertainty, ecosystems, complexity, and rhizomatic thinking in general. Of course, Berlin's ideas do not preclude those concepts, but they don't include them either. This suggests to me that much has changed in the twenty-five years since Berlin's book.  Well, then—we have some room to work in.
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