Rhetoric as the study of forms of self-expression has many meanings depending on the context in which it is used. For theorists and practitioners of public speech, it is concerned primarily with the study of persuasion. For those interested in cultivation of effective expression, rhetoric concerns the use of style and development of polished writing and speaking. Rhetoric has been the subject of scholarly theory and analysis in education since at least the fourth century bce, when Aristotle developed his theories of artistic proof and stylistic expression in On rhetoric (Aristotle 1991).
Influence Of Technology On Rhetoric
Aristotle’s On rhetoric exemplifies the ways in which technology has influenced rhetoric. The advent of writing in Greek culture meant that public oratory would be influenced by technical developments in inscribed expression. The adoption of writing in a previously oral culture precipitated interest in sequential logic and prescribed forms of organization. As Walter J. Ong (1982, 9) noted, “writing from the beginning did not reduce orality but enhanced it, making it possible to organize the ‘principles’ or constituents of oratory into a scientific ‘art,’ a sequentially ordered body of explanation that showed how and why oratory achieved and could be made to achieve its various specific effects.” Pursuing this same line of work, Ong traced the work of Ramus, a sixteenth-century educator who developed pedagogical theories during the shift from oral to print culture and literacy. Ramus produced grand display schematics that “proceeded by cold-blooded definitions and divisions, until every last particle of the subject had been dissected and disposed of” (Ong 1982, 134). Ramus’s visual displays and diagrams were remarkably well suited to dissemination in the new medium of print.
The digitization of print technologies in the late twentieth century has further influenced the nature and form of rhetoric. Early affordances introduced by digitization included use of new fonts and hypertext commentary on primary texts (Lanham 1993). Further development of hypertext markup language (HTML) in the 1990s provided enhanced possibilities for rhetorical expression that included embedded supporting hyperlinks, producers’ ability to track users’ movements through sites, automated personalization of messages delivered to users, and interactive user interfaces. These technical capacities of the new medium have been also combined with persuasive appeals in the form of animations and multimedia content to create online platforms that are highly effective for rhetorical expression (Farkas & Farkas 2002; Burnett & Marshall 2003).
The distinction between expressive forms seen in earlier media contexts and those associated with new media has been clarified by Lev Manovich (2001). He observed that an important difference between prior media and new media is that the latter are computerized. Whether it be a text or visual image, the new media object originates on computers and is comprised of digital code and subject to algorithmic manipulation. Because it has been converted using mathematical functions, digital text is modular and is comprised of independent, separate elements such as pixels, hyperlinks, gif and jpeg elements, and media clips. These elements can be disaggregated, rearranged, and re-presented through automated processes. Thus, a good deal of digital media content is produced through the cooperation of multiple agents who produce variable texts that can be tailored to individual users, rather than unified, stable texts designed for mass audiences. As Manovich noted, another dimension of the digitally constituted text is its variability. Instead of a master text or copy that is created and stored, a digital text may give way to many versions as the text is altered automatically through periodic updates and processually through actions taken by users. This process has been termed “coproduction” and viewed as a collaborative constitution of the text, in which content is jointly produced by authors and users.
The need to study and analyze co-produced texts has led some scholars in the humanities to turn to the work of prominent theorists such as Roland Barthes (1977) and Mikhail Bakhtin (1981). Barthes’ work shifted the critic’s focus from the author as sole producer of an oral or written message to the reader or consumer of the text. Barthes believed that an author-centered orientation worked from the perspective of the “readerly text” – a finished work that views the author as the center of meaning production. This is in contrast to what Barthes labeled the “writerly text” – one which is incomplete, plural, and indeterminate, thus calling upon the reader to supply or fill in meaning. Barthes’ view of text as a network in which meaning emerges along a horizon of possible significations aligns well with digital expression as experienced in contemporary media environments, where texts are produced through corporate authorship, constantly revised, often borrowed, and frequently parasitic on the other texts to which they are linked. Analysts and critics of rhetorical expression working from Barthes’ framework often consider the range of possible meanings and construals of a persuasive message and how it might be taken up, rather than emphasizing the purported intention of its author in interpreting its meaning.
Because Bakhtin viewed artistic expression as seen in novelistic prose as interweaving the speech of the author, the characters, the various forms of expression in the host culture, and what is said in other texts, his theories have also been quite pertinent to study of rhetorical expression in certain current media forums. For example, the world wide web is host to many forms of heteroglossic speech, such as multiply authored sites, intertextual satire, parody, group discussion and deliberation, and other contexts where many voices blend and clash. In such an environment, it is useful to consider persuasion in multiply authored sites as an expression of orientations that evolve from multiple forms of expression and points of view.
Methods And Studies
The study of online persuasion has included various methods of analysis and criticism. For example, Laura Gurak’s (1997) study of text-based discussion in listservs, newsgroups, and email used a case study method to examine persuasion practices among people protesting actions that they considered to be a threat to online privacy. Gurak considered participants’ use of form letters, petitions, and the patterns of their dissemination as well as the content of the messages circulated to explain why the agents against whom they were protesting acceded to their demands. In a later study of web-based protest, Gurak and her co-author John Logie (2003) considered member protest against online service provider Yahoo! in 1999 by using a comparative case study method. They demonstrated that the structure of hypertext discourse on the web enabled actions that would not have been possible in earlier text-based communication. These included defacement of existing websites, redirection of users to alternate sites, and use of notices and site placement to establish a single website as a central node in the protest action. These two studies indicate how the rapid grow of the web and its associated technologies changed the form and effectiveness of online protest over time.
A second line of research on rhetorical discourse in new media environments is from a critical perspective. For example, Susan Herring studied the roles and nature of online communication involving women for over 15 years. In a 2001 retrospective of trends relating to gender, she used discourse analysis to trace the ways in which gender differences emerged in control of online interaction and nature of online messages. In the Internet’s early days, when women were a small minority of Internet users, they were often harassed or dismissed by participants in online discussions. The advent of the web brought with it online pornography, which objectified women and exploited their representations for personal gain. By the 2000s, online content came to be dominated by commercialized representations that positioned women as having a need to please others and improve themselves. Herring’s current work has considered practices of self-representation produced by women in personal home pages, online meeting sites, and on webcams to describe the ways in which online gender representation has continued to be stereotypical.
Rhetorical criticism, a method of analysis that focuses on text-based persuasive strategies and how they function to influence users, has also been used to study online discourse. This mode of criticism closely examines uses of expressive form, placement, genre, argument, visual image, and other means of symbolic representation that are used to persuade audiences. For example, a rhetorical criticism of web-based discourse would consider site layout, the link structure, ease of use, and the means by which site design is planned to encourage repeat visitors and increase site usability. Such an approach might also examine site elements such as interactivity and intertextuality as they are used to promote user involvement with site content, as well as the means by which site authors seek to establish their ethos, or credibility, with audiences (Warnick 2007).
As communication and information technologies develop, the means used to persuade audiences are likely to change as well. During the classical period, additional logical forms emerged and exposition became increasingly linear. In the late nineteenth century in the United States, training in oratory emphasized dramatic use of the voice and elaborate gestures to convey content to large audiences in the absence of devices for oral projection of the voice. By the early twenty-first century, the Internet made possible new forms of immediate and highly visual persuasive expression. In each case, rhetoric has adapted to the communication contexts in which it has been used, and there is every reason to believe that this trend will continue in the future.
- Aristotle (1991). On rhetoric: A theory of civic discourse. (trans. G. A. Kennedy). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Bakhtin, M. M. (1981). The dialogic imagination: Four essays (trans. C. Emerson & M. Holquist). Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.
- Barthes, R. (1977). Image – music – text: Essays (trans. S. Heath). New York: Noonday.
- Burnett, R., & Marshall, P. D. (2003). Web theory: An introduction. London: Routledge.
- Farkas, D. K., & Farkas, J. B. (2002). Principles of web design. New York: Longman.
- Gurak, L. J. (1997). Persuasion and privacy in cyberspace. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Gurak, L. J., & Logie, J. (2003). Internet protests: From text to web. In M. McCaughey & M. D. Ayers (eds.). Cyberactivism: Online activism in theory and practice. New York: Routledge, pp. 25–46.
- Herring, S. C. (2001). Gender and power in online communication, Center for Social Informatics working paper WP-01–05. At http://rkcsi.indiana.edu/archive/CSI/WP/WP01–05B.html, accessed September 23, 2007.
- Lanham, R. A. (1993). The electronic word: Democracy, technology, and the arts. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
- Manovich, L. (2001). The language of new media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- Ong, W. J. (1982). Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. London: Methuen.
- Warnick, B. (2007). Rhetoric online: Persuasion and politics on the world wide web. New York: Peter Lang.