Annotated Bookshelf: The Electronic Word

Lanham, Richard A. The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1994.

Illustrative of the optimism that welcomed the first wave of personal computers, Lanham’s collected essays celebrate the aesthetic, political, and pedagogical potential of digital literature and new media technologies. Such possibilities are expressive of a general “expansion of rhetoric’s sphere of influence” since the Sixties, a revival of “the rhetorical paideia as our dominant theory of knowledge and education” (55) that is, “above all, a theory of general education, a centripetal system” (145); Lanham contrasts this “oral/rhetorical/dramatistic/semiological world” with “its literate/ philosophical/positivist opposite” (214), the binary divisions and didactic denunciations defended by Plato and Ramus, a fundamental antagonism that has characterized the entire history of Western culture between rhetoricians who created the truth of their own reality (and the reality of their own truth) and philosophers of the fixed and static. The computer, then, for Lanham, “often turns out to be a rhetorical device as well as a logical one” (31) and as such “constitutes the ultimate postmodern work of art” (17), destabilizing the distinctions between creator and critic, dissolving traditional disciplinary and aesthetic boundaries, and drawing us to “look at the surface pattern” of the text, “AT the design rather than THROUGH it” (43). “Rhetoric as a method of literary education aimed to train its students to toggle back and forth between AT and THROUGH vision, alternately to realize how the illusion is created and then to fool oneself with it again” (81); and Lanham argues that digital literature allows modern subjects to attain and maintain a bistable oscillation, “a toggle to boggle the mind” (82) between those “two basic orchestrations of reality” (166). In this schizophrenic “reality in which figure and ground can continually change places” (82), pace the fears of Luddites like Postman, “[t]he characteristically unstable Western self, by turns central and social, sincere and hypocritical, philosophical and rhetorical, is just what electronic literacy has been busy revitalizing” (25) because it suspends the line between private and public selves (219).

This post is one entry in an ongoing annotated bibliography of my bookshelf. If it’s useful to any person other than myself, all the better.


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