Sunday, January 29, 2006

A Riff on Jeff's "Language Games," Part I

In response to Jeff's post "Language Games" is a brief discussion by Donna, Jeff, and Scot about the nature of argument in new media and agonistic discourse. The discussion and the post itself got me to thinking, but I haven't felt entirely comfortable about commenting on it until now.

Any way, it'll come as no surprise to those who know me that I enjoy a good debate, probably too much for my own good. But a good debate is one in which all parties should be able to walk away in the end happy and having learned something, even if the debate itself gets heated and even aggressive while its running.

The media dynamics of a blog, and especially the comment function, are some of the worst I've encountered for sustained, productive debate. But that really shouldn't be a surprise, least of all to me. Agonistic discourse in the form of productive debate is always problematic outside of face-to-face communication (and when too ritualized, such as with current US Presidential Debates, it's not that productive face-to-face, though one could argue they're not engaged in face-to-face oral communication). And while I'm not sure I really think this yet, my gut thinking, based on years of use, is that asynchronous written communication environments are much more problematic for this kind of this kind of discourse than even pre-electronic and digital ones. In effect, the sense of immediacy that digital technologies afford give us a sense of face-to-face immediacy but lack all the affordances of face-to-face communication. As with all written communication our audience is a fiction, even when we know that audience well. Since we can't just "sit down and talk," we have to let far too many misassumptions and fictional (re)constructions of ourselves and our positions slide by without comment as we try to focus on the larger issue(s), but those misassumptions and fictional (re)constructions keep us from coming to an understanding about the larger issue(s).

Our regular failure to fully take this into consideration is apparent when you google secondary orality. It's commonplace to discuss written online communication (both synchronous and asynchronous) in terms of secondary orality when, in fact, there's nothing oral about it. It's written. Sure, it has some of the characteristics of oral discourse, but that's mostly surface level features rather than the deeper level media dynamics. (I'm still trying to work out a language for all this as well as develop a more complex understanding of what I mean when I talk about surface level features and deeper level media dynamics, and while I've developed my thinking a bit more on the subject, I have two posts on the subject dating back to Oct. 2004 -- oh, wow, I see there's a really good comment to the second one I have somehow overlooked until now and ought to formulate a response to.)

And this brings me back to Donna and Jeff's discussion of argument and its role as a "god term" in composition (great term, Donna) and the desire to drag argument with us as we turn towards new media. The origins of rhetorical argument, as we all know, harkens back to ritualized face-to-face oral discourse practices of Antiquity, and that these practices, in one form or another, were a regular feature of education into the 20th Century (Ong, among others, treats this in detail in Fighting for Life). We've made do in written mediums, but written discourse isn't the best medium for debate (though various writing technologies have differing affordances and constraints).

And from here I step on to more shaky ground.

While I suggesting--exploring, really--the idea that writing isn't well suited for debate, I think it's safe to say that it was literacy that allowed us to systematize various discourse practices into Rhetoric in much the same way it was literacy that allowed the systematization of memory practices that became rhetoric's ars memoria (on ars memoria as a consequence of literacy, see Carruthers' The Book of Memory and Small's Wax Tablets of the Mind. In other words, although we've dragged argument into written discourse, it's really best suited for face-to-face oral discourse.

Again, I'm just tossing out some ideas to think about, and while I'm "buying" it at the moment, that's because I'm in an Elbowian believing mode.

More on this in a few days.


At 3:29 PM, Anonymous jeff said...

Of course. Lyotard's point is that various levels of rhetorical interaction have different rules, but that the rules keep changing...the game keeps changing...b/c of the role technology plays. I just don't see the blog as always the best place for that kind of game. On my blog, I don't want to be debated. That's not why I write. So I try not to debate others on their sites/spaces as well since they are often playing by similiar game rules.

At 7:18 AM, Anonymous Daniel Anderson said...

One issue that continually arises in these discussions, too, is the fading usefulness of the term blog. Varying games makes a better metaphor. Anything that allowed for some granularity would work better. There may also be some distortion in the discourse based on the fact that the echo chamber here resonates--at least in large part--through academic flavored sites. I'm struck by the differences between conference Q&As where some participants feel the need to score points to keep moving through the airspace of academia by stepping on the shoulders of anyone else who remains standing. A great conversation might swing into play over coffee or beer that morning or afternoon, but get into the public confines of the conference room and everybody needs to score points. Since blog sites have that strong public character, moving into them as the beverage-fueled alternative kinds of spaces comes slowly, if at all.


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