Collective Collections

Okay, to begin with Electric Rhetoric … um … what can I say except that it is an excellent illustration of what not to do. I appreciate the attempt to reread rhetorical history and revitalize previously forgotten figures (such as Diotima and Aspasia) and engage with the racial and gender issues present in ancient rhetoric, but I consistently found this engagement to be unsupported and without reason. For example, I still am not sure why we need to look to Diotima to understand electric rhetoric, nor am I sure even who Aspasia is. I am also in disagreement with Welch’s read of Isocrates and why his writing are more “oral/aural” than someone like Plato, when Isocrates was not an orator and Plato’s writings are actually in the form of dialogues. Confusion aside, I think Welch’s attempt to redefine rhetoric for the digital age is incredibly reductive and falls into the Ulmerian trap of trying to separate this “next” rhetoric out as something altogether new rather than looking at it as a continuum.  It also relies too heavily on critique for the sake of critique (e.g. all of her stabs at the literary canons). There is a passage in her last chapter that I will quote here at length to illustrate the dangers of this type of critique and then draw a line of connection to Levy’s text. This passage is in reference to a photo program installed on the IBM Laptop 755 CE and its scrolling gallery of stock images:

The photographs in this gallery include a close-up of raspberries, farm buildings, a head-and-shoulders photograph of a Black girl who look at the camera, baseball hats, a lighthouse, a head-and-shoulders shot of two parrots, a long shot of whitewater rafters (seven White people), a long-shot photograph of a mountain capped with snow, and a long-shot photograph of a seashore. The gallery sequence runs raspberries, farm buildings, Black girl, baseball hats, lighthouse, parrots, Whit rafters on whitewater, mountain scenery, seashore. The racism of this pictorial juxtaposition, aside from being breathtaking in its insensitivity, communicates volumes about the automatic responses of some anonymous software designers who equate Black girls with beautiful, exotic animals (exoticism) and who present a photograph of a child in a semi-erotic pose as if it were a phenomenon of physis (nature) and not of nomos, a convention of law or more. (202)

What Welch seems to be doing here is using a “revitalized” electric rhetoric to expose the objectification of the Other because of the juxtaposition possible in a digital medium–drawing what seems to be to me a completely off-base and unfair conclusion about how the software designers equate a Black girl with parrots and mountain tops. It seems much more reasonable to look at how this ability to juxtapose creates something new (such as what Rice suggests in Rhetoric of Cool) rather than something that instantiates the previous patterns of objectification. This connects with a concept I found particularly interesting in Collective Intelligence: the cosmopedia.

The new organization of knowledge in this fourth space [is] the cosmopedia. It is based largely on the possibilities made accessible to us through computer technology for the representation and dynamic management of knowledge … Because instead of a one-dimensional text or even a hypertext network, we now have a dynamic and interactive multidimensional representational space. Instead of the conjunction of image and text, characteristic of the encyclopedia, the cosmopedia combines a large number of different types of expression: static images, video, sound, interactive simulation, interactive maps, expert systems, dynamic ideographs, virtual reality, artificial life, etc. … Once they plunge into the cosmopedia, space reorganizes around them, depending on their history, their interests, their questions, their previous utterances. They are surrounded by everything that concerns them, which arranges itself within their reach. (216; 219)

This to me, seems like a much more reasonable and productive way to look at the abundance (and the possible juxtapositions of) information that the digital age (and the Internet) make possible–dynamic and interactive (constructive) rather than unwittingly racist and sexist (destructive). We can connect and create through our collective intelligence and the abundance of information provided.

In terms of a future project, with what we have been discussing thus far, I think that Levy’s (and Authier’s) conception of the cosmopedia might offer some insight into a revamping of Aristotle for the digital age. Welch talks a lot about the common topics, which seem to fall short of describing the way rhetoric functions today because it relies on a seemingly impossible standardization of information and excludes the concept of the collectivity of intelligence. Ulmer attempts to redefine this as chora, but runs into a problem where we can’t really define chora and thus can only talk about what it is not rather than what it is. Cosmopedia, I think, gets at the same idea, but in a more definable way. we place things (ideas, thoughts, information, etc.) into the networks of collective intelligence, where those things are circulated and juxtaposed, rather than placing them in specific locations (topoi) for later retrieval. Might the cosmopedia be a new lens through which to view rhetoric in a digital age rather than continuing to rely on topoi?



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