Sunday, August 13, 2006

The classical trivium and new media

Just finished McLuhan's The Classical Trivium and have some ideas for the special issue of Kairos--classical rhetoric and new media. McLuhan's thesis is that the branches of the trivium have historically jockied for position--rhetoric pre-eminent in Sophistic and Ciceronian educational scheme, grammar sustaining the middle ages, dialectic pushing grammar and rhetoric aside during the renaissance of the 12th-15th century, rhetoric re-emerging in the oppulent and lay-educated 16th century. Underlying this struggle is a bias against dialectics on McLuhan's part, although perhaps also a desire for unity--each element of the trivium playing its role in a comprehensive, encyclopedic education.

Mapped onto 21st century education and new media studies specifically, it seems possible that the classical trivium can help us think about how to approach this "field." Or, how English studies might approach this field. Wait. for Kairos, the issue is what do the rhetoricians do with new media. My sense is that the rhetoric and composition often draws its circle too tight (McLuhan says Cicero complained about the narrowness of the professors of rhetoric), so how do rhetoricians both adjust their own field to new media, as well as embrace the other two components of the trivium.

Grammar = connections, the editors and enclopediasts, the collators. Grammatical exegesis or hermeneutics looks for the unifying links in texts. The grammatical task facing those who study new media is to try and hold onto a graps of this moving target. There are multi-disciplinary readers (Multimedia from Wagner to Virtual Reality; the New Media Reader, etc.), encyclopedic-like texts that can be employed, and should be employed, rather than providing our students (especially u-grads) with rhetorical collections only (PP, New Words for a New World, etc.). Rhetoricians need to include a broad range of new media texts in their classes / in their research: television, film, games, web, video, etc. and understanding the interconnectedness (the transmedia, the interplay, the influences--as McLuhan notes in C-to-A). They need to practice the hermeneutics of the grammarians: seeing the connections, building eloquent knowledge, making use of taxonomies.

Dialectics = divisions, the deconstructions, the skeptics, the inventors. Recognizing critical theory / deconstruction as the heir to dialectics, and recognizing the ways in which dialectics has marginalized grammar and rhetoric since the late sixties, highlights in part why new media studies did not immediately follow from mcLuhan's work, and it also parallels the flight from comprehension by the lay public. That said, rhetoricians don't need to abandon dialectics completely. We need to break down and question our complicity with media outlets, with corporate softwarew giants, with corporate university plans; we do need to stay vigilant to both the material digital divide and the ways in whith the new media continue to repeat the binary biases of the old media. We also need to recognize that the dialecticians have been engaged in both hermeneutics and invention: Derrida's texts, Ulmer's work, Mark Taylor. But we cannot end with analysis: we must move to design, and generally I think the field wants to move out of obscurity and towards relevance again.

Rhetoric = production, persuasion, design. Rhetorical analysis as reception obviously still has a place in new media studies, as we break down not the binary bias of a new media production so much as its strategies, purposes, and techniques. In asking for and teaching production, we have new tropes and schemes to learn: camera angles, stategies of closures, the concepts of design, etc. We must also be careful not to limit our productions, and our student productions, to academic and technical communication, to argumentation. We must also explore self-expression and analysis (Ulmer), we must be willing to let students produce ads and MTV-like products as ways of understanding them, and we must teach them to design games, drawing on their understanding of myth, narrative, and ethical representation of the other.

Seems pretty do-able, except for the fast approaching deadline--October 15.

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