Genres & digital media

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Genres are an ever-moving target; “dynamic [and] evolutionary in nature” (Miller & Shepherd, 2004), they are subject of an immense body of research into which I barely dipped a toe this week when reading for my course “Rhetoric & Digital Media.” The readings demonstrate the close relationship of form, genre, and narrative. I’ll attempt here to explore briefly some of the major issues discussed in our readings and take a stance on what genres are, what emerging issues for genre accompany the developments in digital media, and how we, as budding digital media scholars, can examine them.

To begin, Burke’s Counter-Statement (1968) takes form as a central tenet, and the selections we read reflect his initial exploration of form (“Psychology and Form”) and the subsequent addenda to and corrections of his ideas (“Lexicon Rhetoricae”) In the former, Burke demonstrates Perelman’s (1982) “dissociation of ideas” to distinguish between form and psychology. To Burke, rhetorical form is the creation and fulfilling of desires of the audience, their psychology. It is dynamic: the reader anticipates, the writer delivers, and the text satisfies, creating a profoundly social and rhetorical view of form, as opposed to the traditional aesthetic view used within literature at that time.

Burke’s early ideas of form and human action lead us directly to Miller’s (1984) discussion of genre as social action. She explains that form, combined with the substance of discourse, permits “that symbolic structures take on pragmatic force and become interpretable actions” (p. 160). She makes clear, however, that form does not mean genre, instead suggesting a definition of genre that has become the discipline-standard for scholars: “typified rhetorical actions based in recurrent situations” (p. 159). Thus, genre is not a property of a text, but a function. Genre organizes constraints on textual production and meaning-making. In outlining this new way of understanding genre, Miller responds to the exigence that hardly any scholars discussed genre similarly at that time, seeing a need for a more stable way to define and analyze genre within the field. In developing what she calls a “rhetorically sound definition of genre” (p. 151), Miller places emphasis on the pragmatic component of texts (as opposed to syntactic or semantic) and gives rhetorical critics a new standard for evaluating genre.

Miller & Shepherd (2004), in “Blogging as Social Action,” use methods that we can consider for genre analysis. Using the semiotic terms from Miller’s (1984) “Genre as Social Action,” they examine at the generic semantic content, the formal features of the genre, and the pragmatic value of blogs as social action, deducing that the blog as genre “addresses a timeless rhetorical exigence in ways that are specific to its time.” This study demonstrates the work that we may do for this course or for our dissertations. We see through the blog example that digital media engender new genres. The Internet was able to accommodate the cultural exigence, and thus the genre emerged.  So, as digital media scholars, how can we explore emerging or evolving genres? It seems that many of the rhetorical concepts we are covering this semester are useful for this type of study: determining the kairotic moment for genre emergence, looking at the form (formal features) of text, and the exigence out of which the genre develops, just to name a few. Miller & Shepherd identify a key problem that we may encounter in our studies: they identify blogs as “a rapidly moving target,” reflecting on the constant evolution and adaptation of digital media and genres. How can we identify generic features if they are constantly changing?

Upon re-evaluation a few years after their original study, however, Miller & Shepherd (2009), conclude that blogs are not genres, but a medium, hypothesizing, “when they were new, the medium was the genre; but adoption and experimentation led to differentiation and the multiplication of genres anchored in the same medium” (283-4). Now, the blog medium, with all of the tools that a person needs to create and maintain their own blog, carries blog genres: political blogs, photography blogs, academic blogs, family blogs, and many more, each of which can serve as a subject for genre analysis in their own right.  Miller & Shepherd show that while media can carry genres, they are not genres in and of themselves. Genre and medium seem to have a symbiotic relationship, but it is important to distinguish between the two concepts to determine where a medium simply provides affordances for a genre, and where the true social action through discourse takes place. Placing a genre in a new medium – for example, taking a novel and making it available online – would not necessarily create a new genre, as the exigence and social action of the genre has not changed. Are there instances where this does happen? How does the Internet create new kairotic moments or alter social action? Can a person create or “design” a genre? This last question would assume, perhaps, that a person can also create a rhetorical exigence for a new genre.

It may seem that genre criticism is a difficult or futile exercise if genres consistently change and adapt, but as Frow (2006) argues, genre is important to the reading of every text. Genres are real classifications that we use to organize our culture. We rely on genres to establish constraints on how we produce and interpret meaning in texts. Shifting and emerging genres raise important questions of social, technological, and economic change that we as rhetorical critics have the privilege to address. So, if we are going to analyze digital genres, we must think critically about how we can effectively do so. Can we ask the same questions for digital genres as we have about print genres? I don’t think we can. Certainly, print genres may be the antecedents for some digital genres and some similarities may exist between them, but we also have new issues to consider with digital texts. As we’ve established in previous class discussions, we have new exigences to respond to, new ways of constituting audiences, and an overall highly complex rhetorical situation.


Burke, K. (1968). Lexicon rhetoricae. Counter-statement. Berkley, CA: U of CA. Original edition, 1931. 123-183.
Burke, K. (1968). On psychology and form. Counter-statement. Berkley, CA: U of CA. Original edition, 1931. 29-44.
Frow, J. (2006). Genre. The new critical idiom series. Ed. J. Drakakis. London: Routledge.
Jasinski, J. (2001). Narrative. Sourcebook on rhetoric. Rhetoric and society, ed. H. Simons. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. 389-404.
Miller, C.R. (1984). “Genre as social action” Quarterly journal of speech 70, 151-76. Accessed Jan. 24, 2010, via Communication & mass media complete.
Miller, C.R. & Shepherd, D. (2004). Blogging as social action: A genre analysis of weblogs. Rhetoric, community, and culture of weblogs. In L.J. Gurak, S. Antonijevic, L. Johnson, C. Ratliff, & J. Reyman (Eds.), Into the blogosphere: Rhetoric, community, and culture of weblogs. Retrieved Jan. 21, 2010, via
Miller, C.R. & Shepherd, D. (2009). Questions for genre theory from the blogosphere. Theories for genre and their application to Internet communication. Eds. J. Giltrow and D. Stein. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Perelman, C. (1982). The realm of rhetoric. Trans. W. Kluback. Notre Dame, IN: U of ND. Original edition, 1977.

Poetics vs. Politics in a Discussion of Rhetorical Pedagogy

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Yikes. Blogging took a backseat this week to reading and reviewing student rough drafts. And also to this little gem of a response to two previous readings that I did for my Rhetoric and Digital Media class, which has been slightly adapted here for the blogosphere. I’ll be back soon with something else!

In the twenty-first century, digital technologies have complicated the study and teaching of rhetoric. Multiple media forms on the internet, newly emerging genres, and a complex web of technologies and systems give rhetorical studies an ever-expanding array of subjects for study, while at the same time rendering the teaching of rhetoric in universities problematic. Scholars have begun to consider the consequences of apparently ubiquitous rhetoric and the impact on various areas of scholarship. Richard Lanham, in his latest work The Economics of Attention, argues that, in the age of information, our new scarce resource is attention, and rhetoric provides an economic model for dealing with new challenges in communication. He offers specific details about the impact of the attention economy on the university and how institutions of higher education can address these issues. Read against Lanham, Bryan Garsten does not seem to attend to academic considerations of rhetoric in Saving Persuasion, as he focuses primarily on close readings of traditional rhetorical texts as related to judgment of political issues. My response will show how each scholar addresses, whether directly or indirectly, the important questions of rhetorical pedagogy in the twenty-first century, and argues for a new online pedagogical practices based on a reading of both Lanham’s and Garsten’s advocacy of rhetoric.

The most direct discussion of rhetorical pedagogy comes from Lanham, who devotes an entire chapter, “The Audit of Virtuality,” to analyzing what he calls myths of higher education that need to be reconsidered in this attention economy. He asserts that the very technologies that have created an attention economy are those that can be used to improve educational experiences for both pupils and professors. One of the earlier myths that he addresses is the fact that universities must be brick and mortar and individuals physically (in addition to mentally) present for students to learn and for instructors to teach effectively. On the contrary, he claims, and uses the Open University in the United Kingdom to demonstrate how “the digital medium allows new mixtures of text, voice, and image that create educational programs of unprecedented power” (240). He continues to comment on the ideas that scholarly work is not so incredibly serious that we should eschew play, which encourages creativity; that administration should no longer cocoon faculty from the outside world, but instead that virtual programs would expose faculty to real world issues; and that universities are not so separate from industry and as such, comparisons can only improve their collective function. Most notably for rhetoric, though, Lanham concludes the chapter by arguing that “the new electronic field of expression” radically alters what scholars are doing and how we are doing it, primarily for the way that “it creates a different rhetoric that puts words, written and spoken, in new juxtapositions with picture and sound” (248). He notes that academic teaching methods of changed, generally for the better, though he fails to explicitly describe these new practices at this point and only moves to discuss it in his final chapter, “Revisionist Thinking.”

Garsten, however, does not address modern pedagogy as directly as Lanham, though some insightful ideas can be inferred from his discussion of judgment that occurs in his final chapter, “Persuasion and Deliberation.” He concludes his book, throughout which he does a political reading of classic rhetorical texts, by calling for a deliberative democracy; deliberative based both on argumentation and also in the sense that citizens can “purposefully consider as completely as possible within the time that we have the factors relevant to our decision, bringing to bear upon our choice whatever different sorts of knowledge and information seem relevant, including perceptual, emotional, intuitive, experiential, theoretical, and scientific knowledge” (192). Garsten explains that in doing so, citizens draw upon their faculty of judgment, and rhetors should facilitate deliberation by posing questions that allow interlocutors to “draw upon the knowledge they take from their situations and from their particular commitments” (192-3). He also considers how persuasion “will require careful study of the particular characteristics of one’s audience” (193). Garsten clearly emphasizes the role of knowledge in persuasion in these to passages, but seemingly fails to discuss how this knowledge is acquired – at least formally. He does, however, reflect on the importance of individuals informing themselves of the arguments and opinions around them, of paying attention to fellow citizens, and to gain understanding of opposing views in order to strengthen our own arguments in the public arena.

The link then that connects Lanham’s attention economy-affected university and Garsten’s self-centered instruction is the setting in which learning can occur for their intended audience: online. Lanham advocates a return to teaching rhetoric in the university, displacing science and business programs in favor of arts programs for their focus on the attention structures he argues are imperative to know for succeeding in an attention economy. The virtual classroom is an ideal setting for Lanham’s charge to take place; while science-based courses require lecture and lab space, many rhetoric-based courses can easily be conducted online. The internet would show students first-hand how websites compete for their attention and give them much fodder for discussion. Furthermore, he discusses in the final chapter how not only university students need to learn about the attention economy, but consumers as well. He uses William Lewis’ argument that “‘[c]onsumers are the only political force that can stand up to producer interests’” (qtd. in Lanham 261),  and make conscious choices every day that have political and aesthetic impacts. Too many choices, though, pose a problem for consumers, and thus Lanham claims that “training the chooser can protect and refine the freedom the market creates. . . [and] can build bridges between individual choices and understanding group behavior” (262). Essentially, he advocates not only formal training in university, but also for consumers to protect themselves from being misguided amidst the excess of information available online and for individuals to better understand the opinions and actions of others, just as Garsten does in his concluding chapter.

Each scholar’s approach to learning rhetoric online, however, would most likely look different. Garsten’s focus on political rhetoric and close reading of texts contrasts with Lanham’s advocacy of rhetoric in the university, particularly in humanities courses, and his economic approach to the issue in general. On one hand, Garsten encourages controversy to engage in judgment, and as such, a fitting exercise for deliberation may be found on public political forums, including news outlet-sponsored sites and partisan pages, that encourage participation from all citizens. Here, internet users could exercise Aristotle’s situated judgment by choosing a forum that interests them, while at the same time practicing deliberative partiality by reading and weighing arguments from the opposition when writing a response. Garsten’s approach is clearly group-oriented and relies on back and forth communication between individuals for learning and persuasion to take place. Without receiving a response to a post, or finding an opponent with which to debate, the setting is not interactive and thus would not facilitate learning by either party. He would also advocate repeated practice of debate, for “the best ideas will not always carry the day in democratic debate, and even the most attentive and skillful efforts at persuasion often fail for reasons unconnected with the merits of the cause” (211). So, the internet provides the perfect combination of opportunity and audience to exercise persuasion and hone rhetorical skills. There is an audience for everyone and essentially unlimited forums to house deliberations.

On the other hand, Lanham’s education model for rhetoric online is a more individual approach than Garsten’s, with people enrolling in virtual classes as they fit into their lives and not on a regulated semester system, “supplying knowledge when and where it is needed” (237-8). Students thus rely on their on self-motivation to learn or learn as they encounter situations that drive them to do so, and online courses result in both physical and temporal isolation of students from one another. If a student can enroll at any point during the year, regardless of the semester, basic principles such as group work or responding to peer writing would not be logistically easy to plan into the schedule, making it unlikely that students learning stems from anything but their own reading and interpretation of texts. Lanham’s model is flexible in terms of the models for study, for “the World Wide Web has. . . developed into an ever-richer community resource. The more people graze on it for their own purposes, the bigger it becomes and the greener its grass grows” (13). They could study the implications of multimedia web pages and the new ways in which web designers demand internet user attention. Also, one person’s blog posts can become the subject of another person’s study, which can be assigned reading by an instructor in his perpetual-registration virtual class, and so on. The cycle of production, and thus learning, is never-ending.

Overall, Richard Lanham and Bryan Garsten present theoretically and pragmatically different arguments in their respective works; however, each scholar’s argument has implications for learning and teaching of rhetoric in modern society. With the recent rise in networked classroom experiences and significant increase in online course materials, it will be important to read other works such as these for the pedagogical insights that they have to offer so that we may more aptly address issues of digital rhetoric for students and for our own learning.

Works Cited
Garsten, Bryan. Saving Persuasion: A Defense of Rhetoric and Judgment. Cambridge, MA: Harvard U P, 2006.
Lanham, Richard A. The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2006.

Applying Warnick’s Model & Looking at “Online Rhetoric”

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This week in Rhetoric and Digital Media, we’re reading Barbara Warnick’s useful critical text, Rhetoric Online: Persuasion and Politics on the World Wide Web. This work is one of the first attempts to differentiate between traditional text-based or speech-based rhetoric and new digital forms of rhetoric, or “online rhetoric.” To briefly summarize, she argues for critics to still consider elements of traditional rhetoric, but that online rhetoric necessitates new critical inquiries and methods to be fully understood.

Those of us studying rhetoric and digital media know that we no longer have to justify web sites or internet applications as legitimate texts for study – we know they are important and have significant impact on our culture. And thanks to Warnick, we have a good starting place for thinking about web texts rhetorically.

Rhetoric as the economics of attention?

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This week in my rhetoric and digital media course, we are reading Richard Lanham’s The Economics of Attention. What a fascinating read! After several weeks of communication theory (not my strong point), this is a book that I’ve really gotten into and can’t wait to discuss in class. And now to think through some of the key ideas before getting to class… (Not a full synopsis.)

Lanham’s introduction I saw to actually be his weakest chapter. He spends time here justifying the niche of the book, showing the audience why this message is necessary now and what new ideas he’s bringing to the table. This is where I saw him taking the most liberty with his logic and explanation for how he’s arrived at the conclusion that rhetoric nowadays is the economics of attention. I believe he has a 100% valid argument and great idea, I just wasn’t convinced with the explanations he used in the introduction. It is clear, though, that in today’s information economy, we are drowning in knowledge and access to it, and the scarce resource that we need to allocate more efficiency is our attention. How to manage attention? Lanham claims that rhetoric is the key: the books, web pages, videos, songs, etc. that we will read/watch/listen will be the ones that pay attention to style and audience.

In the third chapter, Lanham begins to outline what he sees as “what’s next for text,” or how text will move beyond linear black and white print to the electronic forms now made possible through technology. This chapter is actually posted online, because it was written using HTML and he wants it to be read that way (though it is possible to read it in the book; I read the book chapter first and later went to read it online, what a difference!). The coolest point he makes here, I think, is a discussion of Martin Minsky’s experimental e-text, where Minsky walks around in the margins of his book as he narrates.  Can you imagine having the author roaming the margins of the book that you are reading, offering extra information as you hover your eyes over a certain word? I all of a sudden feel enlightened to this amazing possibility with e-text and want to see more of it in practice. I wonder where to find them? The e-texts we think of now are essentially Kindle books (or other companies’ equivalents). How come we haven’t made greater strides using all of the tools available to us? Overall, the argument in this chapter, with all of the examples of digital, animated, and interactive text is that digital media influences style, but it is also influenced by style.

 The final chapter I want to think about is Chapter 7, “The Audit of Virtuality,” as I’m helping lead discussion for this one in class tonight. Here, he explores how concepts of online universities can offer better models for traditional universities, ultimately arguing not that traditional universities need to change their ways completely, but that a university that succeeds in the new attention economy will oscillate between virtual and theoretical practices to better suit the needs of students. He claims that the four-year model for school, with semester courses, is no longer relevant, and that schools need to be more flexible to meet the needs of students. This also means that tenure may no longer be the best way to evaluate the suitability of a professor for a department, or that the same professor has to teach the same course for nineteen years running (as Lanham himself did). Instead, Lanham posits that a professor sets up a course one time, complete with readings, assignments, etc., and the university can offer the course virtually in unlimited settings. Lanham never addresses whether the course would be evaluated for effectiveness and whether a professor would work to improve the course over the years, as many professors do in their regular courses.

As an instructor teaching a hybrid (half in-class and half online) course for the first time this semester, this chapter was especially relevant to what I am currently doing. I recognize how I am in the middle of an attention economy in attempting to select readings for my students to do online, and I often choose fluff (style) over stuff (substance), knowing I can add missing or additional information later if I need to. But the first goal is how to get the students to do the readings for the online work days – and figuring how to get their attention is my first order of business when designing a day’s work. What Lanham doesn’t address, which I think is crucial for his model of a university that oscillates between virtual and traditional values, is how to support instructors in an attention economy. Because digital rhetoric demands a new attention model (one of Lanham’s main claims), it goes without saying that instructors will need new models for teaching. How can we support the faculty in this endeavor?

Finally, as a graduate of a private arts college who appreciates her liberal arts degree, I have to say that his view of the re-emerging arts degree a little too utopian to be probable. Yes, this attention economy necessitates new rhetoric, but will employers recognize this as a skill coming from arts degrees? Not necessarily. This is one of his prophecies that I don’t see coming true at the moment. On the whole, I definitely agree with his view of the new attention economy and see a new rhetoric emerging as a result, but I just don’t see how arts degrees will be favored over others because of it. We may see new programs of study emerging, which I think is a better approach to producing graduates with the ability to work in an attention economy – not reverting back to English literature majors because they can recognize style when they read it.

Understanding McLuhan’s *Understanding Media*

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This week, in History of Communication Theory, our class it tackling Marshall McLuhan’s seminal text. I’m also leading discussion, so writing this ahead of time will hopefully give me an opportunity to think through some of my ideas about the text and digest some (’cause you know you’ll never understand all!) of his thoughts.

On the whole, this is a book that I’m struggling with, and not because of its size. Two reasons: one, he’s written the chapters in a very mosaic fashion, not linearly, as most books are. This is a different stream of thought to adjust to as the reader that really inhibits comprehension. Ultimately, I see this as a choice he made to further his argument about media. The bits and blurbs fit together sort of like television, and a lot like the way that we now read on the Internet: starting with one idea (browser tab), flitting to another (let’s say your inbox, when it pops up saying you have a new message), then back to your first idea (browser tab), and then following a new train of thought from one idea (let’s say to a hyperlink you open in a new browser tab to find out more about a specific term mentioned). We all do this! McLuhan was certainly ahead of his time with his assessment of how media impacts us. While he couldn’t have predicted what media would come out, he already knew how it would change our lives.

My second issue with McLuhan is his methodology and presentation of ideas (not to be confused with writing style). I’ve often been frustrated reading the book, wanting to shout out to him, “Where is your evidence?” or “Where did this information come from?” and “Did you just make this up, or did that really happen?” It seems that the book is semi-truth and semi-probing McLuhan’s mind with what he thinks happened historically or what construction of an event best works with his ideas. He’ll state what seems to be a fantastic idea at the end of the paragraph, and then – poof, onto another subject. Essentially, I always want to know more information than he’s provided. Part of this is my craving for well-structured writing – I never did well with James Joyce or Virginia Wolf in undergrad – because to me, as a researcher, those are the most valuable presentations of work, and well, because that’s how our faculty expect us to write. It’s not such a crazy concept!

So while there are structural issues that affect my perception of the text, I’m not totally criticizing the work. It’s not a widely-read book in Comm studies for no reason – the man had a lot of key insights into media issues that still ring true today, in a world where I can’t imagine how media could be any more pervasive in our lives. I can’t tell you how many times I noted in the margins that his ideas still applied, such as in chapter four where he describes technological somnambulism. In other areas, it is remarkable how he was able to predict effects that took place well into the future, including his quip in the introductory chapter for the first edition of how with electricity, “the globe is no more than a village” (6).

After 500+ pages of examples of it, I’m seeing how the medium is the message. While I think that media today made this concept more complex, there’s merit in his point. The message of the theatre is not the story line of the play, but the fact that what’s presented is a “high” art form that we should appreciate and likely can’t understand all of the ideas, unless we’re in the highly literate class. The internet, though, is not so easy to pin down. It’s clearly a medium with many media contained within it: television, radio, photograph, alphabet, etc. How does this affect the message? Can the messages from those media be contained within the message of the internet, or is it another idea entirely? McLuhan’s editors in the critical edition talk about how the message of a medium refers to the effect that it produces in its audience. Obviously, there cannot be one single effect that we understand as the message of the internet. One effect that I can see is the idea that everyone feels they now have information that is appropriate for the world to know (or to be preserved). With the advent of blogs a little over a decade ago, the message is that everyone’s private journal thoughts are fodder for discussion, that their ideas are important or relevant, and others should have a chance to read them, hence why people publish blogs. Same now with social media sites – Facebook, Twitter, Myspace, etc.: The message is that everyone’s daily activities and special milestones are worth preserving digitally and being put out there for the world to see.

Work Cited:
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Critical Ed. Ed. W. Terrence Gordon. Corte Madera, CA: Gingko, 2003. Print.