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Rhetoric and the Digital Humanities

Rhetoric and the Digital Humanities

by Jim Ridolfo

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The digital humanities is a rapidly growing field that is transforming humanities research through digital tools and resources. Researchers can now quickly trace every one of Issac Newton’s annotations, use social media to engage academic and public audiences in the interpretation of cultural texts, and visualize travel via ox cart in third-century Rome or camel


The digital humanities is a rapidly growing field that is transforming humanities research through digital tools and resources. Researchers can now quickly trace every one of Issac Newton’s annotations, use social media to engage academic and public audiences in the interpretation of cultural texts, and visualize travel via ox cart in third-century Rome or camel caravan in ancient Egypt. Rhetorical scholars are leading the revolution by fully utilizing the digital toolbox, finding themselves at the nexus of digital innovation.

Rhetoric and the Digital Humanities is a timely, multidisciplinary collection that is the first to bridge scholarship in rhetorical studies and the digital humanities. It offers much-needed guidance on how the theories and methodologies of rhetorical studies can enhance all work in digital humanities, and vice versa. Twenty-three essays over three sections delve into connections, research methodology, and future directions in this field. Jim Ridolfo and William Hart-Davidson have assembled a broad group of more than thirty accomplished scholars. Read together, these essays represent the cutting edge of research, offering guidance that will energize and inspire future collaborations.

Editorial Reviews

Stuart A. Selber
"Ridolfo and Hart-Davidson have produced a volume that interrogates the most important questions facing both rhetoric scholars and teachers who are interested in the digital humanities and digital humanists who are interested in the rhetorical dimensions of multimodal texts. Avoiding the negative aspects of territorialism and disciplinary politics, the contributors remix theories, practices, and methods in new and exciting ways, mapping productive relationships between rhetorical studies and the digital humanities and illuminating how these areas intersect and interanimate one another. This volume should be required reading for anyone who cares about the future of writing and reading."
Collin Brooke
"Rhetoric and the Digital Humanities is a landmark collection for scholars in rhetoric and writing studies. Its attention to procedurality, coding, scholarly communication, archives, and computer-aided methodologies, among other things, maps many of the important changes in disciplinary terrain prompted by the emergence of the digital humanities. It's also a compelling demonstration of the role that rhetoric and writing studies can and should play in discussions about digital humanities. This book will provide colleagues across the disciplines with a strong sense of the ways that rhetorical studies might intersect with their own work."
Matthew K. Gold
“An important and timely exploration of the many ties that bind the digital humanities and composition/rhetoric. Rhetoric and the Digital Humanities is a much-needed book that will stir conversations in both fields.”
Digital Scholarship in the Humanities - Ken S. McAllister
"A much needed volume in the fields of rhetoric studies and digital humanities."
Digital Humanities Quarterly - Kevin G. Smith
“Rhetoric and the Digital Humanities is an important collection. The affinities between the digital humanities and rhetoric and writing studies are numerous, varied, and brimming with potential for mutual collaboration.”
Digital Humanities Quarterly - Alan Bilansky
“A good introduction for those coming from a rhetoric background, and is of interest not only to those in English studies generally, but also to digital humanists in informatics programs.”

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Rhetoric and the Digital Humanities

By Jim Ridolfo, William Hart-Davidson

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-17672-7


Digital Humanities Now and the Possibilities of a Speculative Digital Rhetoric


Discussions of the digital humanities often encounter the problem of defining the field. There are some methods and areas of study that are clearly defined as digital humanities: these employ computers to study traditional objects of humanistic study, an area that was once called humanities computing. Other methods and areas bear a more ambiguous relation to digital humanities, such as media study and rhetoric and composition, which have long-standing practices of studying digital media and technologies that have paralleled those of humanities computing. Within rhetoric and composition, digital rhetoric faces identity challenges similar to those of the digital humanities as it potentially envelops work from various subdisciplines such as technical and professional communication, computers and writing, and new media rhetoric. Given the difficulties in defining either digital humanities or digital rhetoric, imagining how the two might relate in general terms generates a wide range of possibilities. The relation is further hampered by the now wellknown troubled relation between rhetoric and the humanities. For more than a century, starting in English departments, the humanities have largely disassociated themselves from rhetoric. Some rhetoricians no longer consider themselves humanists; they are trained and work in communications departments and practice social scientific methods. There can be a fair amount of ill will and suspicion that must be overcome for digital rhetoricians and digital humanists to collaborate. This disagreement might be a relatively minor matter, to be settled locally, were it not intertwined with the problems that the humanities in general and the digital humanities in particular face. As has been widely discussed in both academic and mainstream discourses, the humanities are in an apparent state of crisis, with declining numbers of majors, fewer jobs for faculty, funding cuts, and a general questioning of their value in a system of higher education that is itself under attack. Digital humanities has been identified, rightly or wrongly, as a potential solution to this crisis. However, it seems unlikely that any new methodology, digital or otherwise, will solve this problem. Instead, the promise of the digital humanities lies in its potential to address the political, ethical, and rhetorical challenges of living in a digital age: a set of challenges that are not particularly addressed by the traditions of conventional digital humanities but that are at the core of digital rhetoric. This is not to suggest that rhetoricians have all the answers either. Rather, what is required is a rethinking of the humanities that accounts for technology and rhetoric in a new way.

In this brief chapter, I will propose one possible approach to this rethinking. While there are certainly many possibilities, my central argument is that any approach will need to identify and address the problem with modernity that Bruno Latour has elaborated in We Have Never Been Modern (1993) and elsewhere. This is not to suggest that we must all become Latourians; there may be other ways to address this concern. Instead, what I believe is crucial in Latour is the issue that has resulted in this particular kairotic moment that brings together a humanities in crisis, the digital humanities, and (digital) rhetoric. This issue, simply put, is the identification of cultural objects and practices as knowable only through a limited set of humanistic methods that are kept separate from the methods of mathematics and science. This identification has created the absolute divide between nature and culture: a definition that, for Latour, shapes the modern era. The humanities has, as a modern discipline, operated on the principle that scientific discourses and methods are appropriate only to matters of nature while cultural matters demand a separate set of methods and inquiries. The contemporary moment has put unrelenting pressures on that divide. The complaints raised about the digital humanities reflect those pressures as humanists reject the idea that human experience and aesthetic endeavors can be productively or legitimately explored by computational means. Digital rhetoricians face a related objection from those who view digital literacy as secondary to, and often disruptive of, a primary, humanistic (and print-based) literacy. Not coincidentally, thinkers in the speculative realist movement, such as Latour, have faced similar criticism for their willingness to consider the value of contemporary mathematics and science for addressing traditionally humanistic concerns. The traditional views in both rhetoric and the humanities share a faith in a human exceptionalism that must of necessity posit every new technology as a potential threat to the already existing human with his independent and self-contained capacities for thought, agency, and expression. On the other hand, digital humanities and digital rhetoric share (at least potentially) the speculative realist view that humans are not ontologically exceptional but rather participate openly in an environment that includes other nonhuman objects and blends nature and culture. (I put potentially in parentheses here as it is certainly possible to undertake digital work and hold on to a belief in human exceptionalism.) How is this step toward the nonhuman and away from the modernist nature/culture divide related to the perceived humanities in crisis? The easiest way to understand this relation is as a paradigm shift wherein scientific discoveries, the emergence of digital media, and the development of new global relations (i.e., all the trappings of the postindustrial world) have created new conditions for which traditional humanistic paradigms, built in the modern, industrial age, are no longer suited. I will focus primarily on Latour as one thinker who offers some insight into this issue. Latour's work has become increasingly well-known in digital rhetoric, so he offers a somewhat familiar starting point. However, I also want to situate him in relation to the larger philosophical movement of speculative realism and, thus, as one possible contributor to a speculative rhetoric that might develop.

What Is a Speculative Rhetoric?

Speculative rhetoric refers to the speculative realism movement in philosophy that has developed over the last decade. Briefly, speculative realists all acknowledge in one way or another the contemporary philosophical situation that Quentin Meillassoux (2008) terms correlationism: "the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other" (7). That is, correlationists (following Kant) assert that humans can know the world only in relation to themselves. Correlationism sets up an important question for ontology. Given this apparent limit on knowledge, what can we say about being? Speculative realists offer different answers to this question, and this is not the occasion to attempt to account for them all, though I will momentarily take up one. Rhetoric has traditionally operated within the correlationist circle, concerning itself only with human symbolic behavior (or symbolic action, to use Burke's phrase). That said, it has also always dealt with the problems and opportunities that nonhumans—technologies in particular—pose for communication. That is, rhetoric has always recognized that symbolic behavior cannot be simply human. Nevertheless, rhetoric has imagined symbolic behavior as primarily human, as something that nonhumans might enhance or disrupt, but as something that is ultimately of us and for us. Indeed, in the absence of a divine explanation, symbolic behavior has been the central evidence of human ontological exceptionalism: that is, what makes humans unique is that they possess symbolic behavior as an ontological characteristic. A speculative rhetoric begins with recognizing that language is nonhuman. It is not "ours," though clearly humans have a powerful relation with language. As such, one must approach rhetorical relations as relations within nonhumans; this is where a speculative rhetoric begins, with an investigation of nonhumans.

Though there are many possible methods for undertaking this investigation, here I will focus on a Latourian approach. Meillassoux's correlationism can be encountered in a different register in Latour's critique of the modern split of culture from nature. By this, I mean to suggest not that Latour and Meillassoux are making the same argument but rather that there are resonances. As Latour points out, the modern world allows one to speak of natural, scientific knowledge, or of sociocultural knowledge, but not of both simultaneously. Correlationism applies equally to both natural and cultural objects, but in practice the indeterminacy of a text or a cultural practice is understood differently from the inscrutability of a natural object. As Latour writes: "In the eyes of our critics the ozone hole above our heads, the moral law in our hearts, the autonomous text, may each be of interest, but only separately. That a delicate shuttle should have woven together the heavens, industry, texts, souls and moral law—this remains uncanny, unthinkable, unseemly" (1993, 5). One of the effects of a Kantian correlationism has been to construct these different worlds: a natural world that is clearly not human and a social world that while also beyond us is closer to us, is produced by us, and, thus, might be understood differently as operating by a different set of laws. As the quote offered above suggests, for Latour rhetoric and discourse form a third space in the modern formulation where it is possible to speak of a system of signs or the text itself. This results in a postmodern condition composed of "a nature and a technology that are absolutely {softlinesleek; a society made up solely of false consciousness, simulacra and illusions; a discourse consisting only in meaning effects detached from everything; and this whole world of appearances keeps afloat other disconnected elements of networks that can be combined haphazardly by collage from all places and all times" (Latour 1993, 64-65). A Latourian speculative rhetoric then takes up the challenge of investigating a hybridized space that technology, nature, society, culture, and discourse commonly share.


Crossing State Lines: Rhetoric and Software Studies


In Rhetoric and Reality (1987), Jim Berlin claims textual production for rhetoric and argues that poetics is primarily concerned with interpretation. His history of twentieth-century writing instruction goes to great lengths to explain how theories of rhetoric and poetics are always intertwined at any historical moment. However, his primary goal is to "vindicate the position of writing instruction in the college curriculum" (1) and to refute the idea that the primary focus of English departments is the interpretation of literature. Berlin's work offered a necessary corrective to the often-marginalized field of rhetoric and composition, and it put into question the idea that literary interpretation is the core disciplinary concern of English. While things have certainly shifted since the publication of Rhetoric and Reality, the disciplinary lines traced by Berlin remain with us in various forms. In fact, a new version of this struggle is playing out as rhetoricians decide how or whether to engage with work in the digital humanities (DH). DH journals and conferences often focus on using computation to do literary analysis, leading rhetoricians to see the (sometimes) small tent of DH as excluding work in computers and writing, rhetorical theory, and composition studies.

DH's historical trajectories and its roots in "humanities computing" have been covered in detail elsewhere, and it is important to note that DH's link to English departments is tied up with this complicated history (Kirschenbaum 2012). However, none of this changes the fact that the relation between DH and literary studies reminds rhetoricians of the battles fought by Berlin and others, leading scholars such as Alex Reid to respond to some of DH's more exclusionary impulses by suggesting that "rhetoricians in English Studies should be familiar with such shenanigans" (2011). Cheryl Ball has expressed similar concerns, suggesting that much work in DH has ignored scholar ship in computers and writing: "It seems I always end up in sessions where 'DH' folks present on topics as if they've just discovered them. Digital dissertations aren't a new problem. Using discussion forums in your classes is not a new pedagogy. Getting tenure for digital work is not a new form of administrative harassment" (Croxall 2011).


Excerpted from Rhetoric and the Digital Humanities by Jim Ridolfo, William Hart-Davidson. Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Meet the Author

Jim Ridolfo is assistant professor of writing, rhetoric, and digital studies at the University of Kentucky and associate researcher at Matrix, the Center for Digital Humanities and Social Sciences at Michigan State University. William Hart-Davidson is associate dean of graduate studies in the College of Arts and Letters at Michigan State University and senior researcher at Matrix.

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