6(3), August 1989, pages 123-128

Digitizing Some Keywords

Richard A. Lanham

The mythology of the electronic digital computer emerged, not unnaturally, from its early history. Like the Great Books curriculum, the conversational method for learning foreign languages, and many other educational revolutions, this mythology was a child of war. In the computer's case, it was World War II, and the generators of the computer's mythology were two. In England, a pioneer calculating machine--one whose details are still not publicly known--formed the center of the spectacularly successful British code-breaking activities at Bletchley Park. In America, the Aberdeen Proving Ground's need for a quicker method of calculating artillery trajectories led the Ballistics Research Laboratory to fund ENIAC, the 18,000-tubed wonder which begot the American main-frame computer industry.

From Bletchley Park came the computer as a deep mystery, indeed a state secret, attended by a secret priesthood. The numinosity ordaining this priesthood was not the worship of God, of course, but the worship of the relentless permutational abstraction which cryptanalysis demands. So few people possess a natural gift for this kind of thinking that the priesthood was by its nature a very aristocratic one. There was no question of explaining these mysteries to ordinary folk, even had it not been against the law to do so. Ordinary folk could not understand them. Thus, the computer grew naturally to claim an oracular authority which endures to the present day.

From the Aberdeen Proving Ground came everything implied by calling a computer a "computer:" its central identity as a mathematical device, the ultra-fast calculating machine which ballistics research required. From such a computational fountain flowed the undoubtable truths of physical science, the statistical parameters within which the human drama was henceforth to be played. The electronic truths displayed on this cathode-ray reality were, literally as well as figuratively, black and white. And the "on or o~" logic inherent in the machine fostered a new model for the human brain, the logical problem-solving AI (Artificial Intelligence) model for thought which we are only now beginning to outgrow.

All these attributes merge into a mythological Eden it would not be unfair to call Platonic. A governing priestly class of mathematical philosophers dispenses truths--impersonal, unquestionable, and beyond politics--in an oracular manner. If the ordinary folk, blessed alas with an intelligence natural rather than artificial, feel folded, spindled, and mutilated by the process, well, hard luck. Oracles have seldom promised us a rose garden.

The electronic Platonism of this mythology still governs, for many people, the much-changed world of the personal computer. This new world is not Platonic at all. It is a world privately owned and programmable but publicly known; a world full of lay preachers and some gurus but no organized priesthood; a world not based on number but on word, gesture, and, increasingly, image. And it has been a colorful world, both literally and figuratively, almost from the beginning. The hackers who created this new world were themselves as full of color as the screens we can now gaze upon, full of messianic posturing, stylistic genius, and the kind of high-level bitchery and betrayal which indicates that true scholarly status is not far away. It is in fact a political rather than an oracular world, and the personal computer as we have socialized it is not, I suggest, finally a numerical, Platonic device but a rhetorical one.

We can see it now reincarnating the whole rhetorical apparatus for thought which, to us, has always been isomorphic with the world of print. All the key rhetorical terms and concepts are both changed and illuminated by such a digitization. Let's consider two or three of them.

At the center of the rhetorical paideia stood the theory and practice of declamatio, of formal speechmaking. From the earliest drills of the progymnasmata forward, the student concentrated on this central form of rehearsal reality. Through the speech-in-character, the students reenacted the whole range of recorded history, impersonated greatness as it made its crucial decisions, and then debated the accuracy of that reenactment. The rhetorical curriculum was centripetal, drawing into its central verbal core all the activities which we have, with our centrifugal disciplinary logic, separated into different departments. Psychology, history, political science, sociology, argument, were all learned through a central discipline of histrionic reenactment.

This led to, implied far more powerfully than it could argue for explicitly, a particular meaning for mimesis. Social reality, such a system implied, was not just something "out there" to be reenacted, something which when it "happens," "happens" in a way fundamentally different from how it works in school. The school process is the same as the reality process. Both are essentially dramatic. Declamatio, and all that it implies, is the same in both.

In the long transformation of Western education from its rhetorical basis to its scientific one--the transformation from which, I hope, we are currently recovering--this view of mimesis was of course lost. In its place, we thought of historical reality as nondramatic, as wie es eigentlich gewesen, as something that really happened, as a chronicle of facts beyond interpretation, dispute, human intermediation of any sort. In the process, of course, we had to translate the whole classical discussion of mimesis into our positivist terms. We were equal to this translation of course, especially since the many manifest self-contradictions thus generated required much further scholarly commentary. At the end of it, we had established that study was a very different process from the thing studied: Philosophy was not governance or even wisdom; criticism was not literature; history was not political science and neither of course, at least in well-bred departments, was political science.

The central focus of electronic information in the working world reverses the historical meaning of mimesis once again. At the center of work on a computer is modelling, thinking by rehearsing, by using a dramatic reenactment of reality. Whether we call it CadCam design, or "rapid prototype" development, or molecular modelling, or graphics argumentation, or on-line group decision making, doesn't matter. In every one of these areas the fundamental logic of declamatio, of the central act of the rhetorical paideia, has returned. The logic of the medium is based on the old meaning of mimesis, not the mistaken one which Eric Auerbach grafted onto antiquity.

We can see the same return to the classical sense and resonance of a classical rhetorical term if we consider the topics. We have never, in our scientific, foundationalist world, been happy with them. They were too much like plagiarism, too insincere, too consumerist, too much like shopping in a department store. The idea of building up an argument by selecting its ingredients from lists ready-to-hand seemed to our Romantic sensibility an offensive mechanization of the spirit. As with the memory systems common in antiquity, we knew they were illegitimate and so we didn't have to think too hard about them. One of the didactic strands in the 20th century visual arts has been, through collage, to do some of the thinking we thought beneath us. And now the personal computer, with its increasingly powerful theatres of memory, is prompting us to rethink what the topics are all about. At the center of the reappraisal stands something fundamental to Western literacy and the social reality built upon it--the alphabetic/iconic ratio of information. The topics were, to an extent we have almost consciously suppressed, iconically based. They drew on the visual cortex, on spatial judgment. Understanding this powerful source of "thinking" was what underlay the whole "memory-theatre" system of remembrance. Our convention of a transparent printed surface, with no iconic clues and no colorizing allowed, has strained out any use of this kind of thinking.

We have also, of course, developed a strong prejudice against the psychology of repetition upon which a topical form of argument is based. And again the visual arts have sought to remind us of our neglect. A topical form of argument brings into play self-consciously how patterns of thought are changed by scaling, by arrangement, by juxtaposition, by reversal. It makes us see that the ways in which we think are not isomorphic with the ways in which we present our arguments to the public. It reminds us of the conventionality, the stylization, of conventional written argument. We do not welcome this reminder.

Instant replicability is one of the personal computer's most obvious powers. We can see it operating with libraries of images and musical figures more clearly right now than with arguments-- it is revolutionizing both the visual arts and music precisely through this means--but the logic is no less strong for the topics. And again, as with mimesis, electronic presentation moves us closer to the classical meaning of the term, not farther away.

The classical conception of decorum, the central term in the rhetorical pantheon, is illuminated in the same way. The basic typographical decorum of print is the "crystal goblet" convention. (A typeface should be to its content as a crystal goblet is to the wine it contains.) The printed surface should be maximally clear and transparent, and maximally unself-conscious. It should vanish to reveal the concepts beneath. The social decorum based on this arrangement follows a similar logic. Human society is not established and re-created by convention but just out there, and the purpose of communication is, like the crystal goblet, to allow us to view society. Obviously, electronic text fractures this convention completely. The whole transparency pact upon which not only print cultures but all literate cultures are based is put up for grabs. The digital alphabetic surface is volatile and destabilized. The user can alter this surface in innumerable ways. It becomes opaque, a self-conscious parameter of expression. Written expression on an electronic screen is a bi-stabilized oscillation between surface and concept, between looking AT and looking THROUGH. And this oscillation implies its own conception of social decorum just as the fixed-print surface did. The new conception of social decorum implied is not fixed and inevitable but volatile and constantly changing, continually reestablished by a conventional decision to accept a particular social drama as "real" for now. Again, we return to the classical conception of a classical key word. Decorum in the rhetorical universe was the word for our acceptance of hypocrisy, of histrionic enactment, as standing at the center of human affairs, as an inevitable center of our being in the world. We find the classical discussion of decorum self-contradictory and puzzling because we have taken it out of time and tried to be sincere about and within it. Romanticized it. Digitization takes us back to decorum 's classical center--the oscillation between social and central self, society as drama and society as inevitable. Digitization reclaims the bi-stable center of rhetoric's key term, and thereby of the whole organizing principle for rhetorical education.

What happens to these three key words, mimesis, topic, decorum, under electronic presentation seems to me symptomatic of the deep rhetoricality of the personal computer as a communications device. This rhetoricality implies some equally deep changes for teaching composition--indeed for language teaching of all sorts--which we would do well to ponder.

Richard A. Lanham teaches at the University of California at Los Angeles.