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L A N G U ( I M ) A G E

A Review of
Richard Lanham's
The Electronic Word

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© Andrews

Table of Contents

  1. The Electronic Word and Rhetoric
  2. An integrated high culture
  3. Technology does not control, but follows the Zeitgeist
  4. Lanham, McLuhan, and Media Literacy
  5. Rhetoric and Theory
  6. Footnotes

The Electronic Word and Rhetoric

Richard Lanham's The Electronic Word [1] is a noteworthy attempt by a Humanities educator to assess the usefulness of the computer and digital communications to the Humanities. It is an important book not because of the educational reforms he proposes but because of his formulation of the challenge faced by the education system. Also, his thoughts concerning the future of the Humanities and communication technology are often pointed. So much is being written now about the relation of computer technology to the future of education, writing, and art that there's bound to be considerable overlap among books on this subject.

Lanham's book is distinguished by the depth and breadth of the reading and thinking in it. The reading he brings to bear on the future of the Humanities involves a mature commitment to the study of literature and art. He is a specialist in rhetoric and Renaissance literature, but he displays interest in and knowledge of the twentieth century avant-garde. He also is aware of many of the prominent ideas of (so called) 'theory' and the work of McLuhan, Ong, and Havelock.

He has read considerable contemporary writing on the impact of computers on communications. He is a far-ranging humanist who advocates interesting change within Humanities curricula. The educational changes he advocates are the focus of the book; The Electronic Word is an extended, 277 page argument for the changes he advocates.

His position is that the primary challenge faced by the Humanities today is to "understand the expressive environment of our time" and shape the future curricula with this knowledge in mind. The idea that the "expressive environment of our time" is changing from print-based literacy to include electronic media is not new. We have seen and heard it coming at least since McLuhan wrote of the nature of television, radio, and film. Lanham's prognosis of the future of western culture is far sunnier, however, than McLuhan's. McLuhan reads like he is diagnosing an exotic and fascinating (though probably terminal) disease. Lanham believes that the current shift toward electronic text (with its capacity to incorporate sound, video, text, animation, and graphics) together with the changes in the means of communication (data highways, etc.) are not so much driving change in the age as providing the means for the incarnation within the everyday world of the postmodern ideals of plurality and democracy. Also, he anticipates a fusion of oral and literate culture in the multimedia nature of computer communications.

Amid the bewildering plurality, the Babel-like multiplicity of voices and languages we currently experience in literature and elsewhere (also on the Internet), Lanham locates the possibility for a flexible centrality (connected to the periphery) in adopting the study of rhetoric in the first two years of University. This study would, presumably, equip the student with skills to approach the reading and writing of texts of many sorts. It would also equip the student for navigating the world of electronic text. One of the more profound aspects of Lanham's vision of rhetoric is that it would unite two different approaches to knowledge: the oral and the literate. Finally, it would provide the student with the sort of overview of contemporary culture suitable to useful speculation and managerial acumen. He likens rhetoric to chaos theory and speaks of the "non-linear" nature of the study of rhetoric:

Chaos theory stands to Newtonian science, one might raffishly analogise, as rhetoric stands to logic.

Or at least we may say that rhetoric--considered as an information system that functions economically, that allocates emphasis and attention--resembles what is now called, in many fields, a non-linear system. That is, it is dynamic rather than static, a constantly changing emergence rather than a fixed entity; global rather than specialised into disciplines and constituent parts; a system that seeks to describe the confusion of everyday experience rather than narrowing it into a delimited, predictable field of study.

Lanham's primary argument is for such a Humanities curriculum. The rest of his arguments, interesting as they are in their own right, are all in support of this central idea of instituting the study of rhetoric in the first two years of undergraduate education.


An integrated high culture

He hopes that the rhetoric curriculum will supply a certain centrality but will be flexible enough not to shut down the possibilities of thought and expression. Much as computer communications on the Internet now suffers from the lack of a flexible centrality that would allow relatively easy (and marketable yet economic) access to the gigs and gigs and gigs of info available on it, social discourse has become increasingly fragmented and disjoint. Lanham acknowledges that the resulting diversity is healthy. But the fragmented bodies become insular in the absence of a flexible centrality connected to the periphery. Rhetoric, he argues, provides such an infra-structure for the Humanities and more general discourse.

It is unfashionable these days to advocate centrality in university curricula. But that is what he is advocating throughout the book. He does not dwell pessimistically on the Babel metaphor (nor does he dwell pessimistically on anything). And he places no special emphasis on saying that the rhetoric curriculum would provide an infra-structure to thought and discourse and thereby provide common tools with which to approach writing and reading and visual images and speech. But surely this is one of the strongest arguments for the relevance of a rhetoric curriculum within a culture headed toward hypertext.

He speaks also of rhetoric facilitating inter-disciplinary communication and emphasises the ability of a rhetoric-based first and second year university education to dovetail with a theory-based (read: highly rhetoric-based) postmodern outlook.

There is, [says Clifford Geertz], no hope for "an integrated high culture." And then: "All we can hope for, which if it were to happen would be that rarest of phenomena, a useful miracle, is that we can devise ways to gain access to one another's vocational lives." Contriving that "useful miracle" could restore coherence to the entire undergraduate curriculum. I am afraid that I really am going to be bold enough to suggest that the bi-stable conception of man and society transmitted to us by the rhetorical paideia constitutes this "useful miracle."

I believe his perspective on the relevance of rhetoric to the Humanities (and society) is larger than this, however. His introduction to chapter 4: "The Extraordinary Convergence: Democracy, Technology, Theory, and the University Curriculum" contains some notable passages on this point. He states that the first version of chapter 4 was an address he delivered in 1988 at Duke University. The Humanities conference was apparently shaping up as a confrontation of a "New Left" and a "New Right."

My paper was supposed to supply the keynote, but I don't think it did so. It didn't fit the race/gender/class political agenda. Defining the "Great Books" debate in terms of Left and Right proved too much fun for both sides for either to notice the obsolescence of that confrontation. As I have argued in the preceding essays, the real change we must confront and understand is not a new selection of canonical great books but, as our expressive radical moves from print to screen, a new conception of human reason and how Western culture creates and transmits it. There are political implications aplenty in such a switch, but they don't emerge from debates between "Westerns" and Western culture.".... If we fail to understand the expressive environment of our time, we will have failed in our duty as transmitters of culture, whether we think the culture to be preserved consists of Dead White Males or Live Female Revolutionaries of Color.

I continue to think that it is the convergence of technology, the arts and letters, and the democratising of higher education that poses our paramount cultural and educational explanandum. I don't think this convergence either can or should be politicised into the current Left and Right. Its political implications run much deeper than this, and neither side seems predisposed to think much about them.

Technology does not control, but follows the Zeitgeist

The 'failure of the Humanities,' as it is commonly known, has been ongoing for some time. It is this failure he hopes to address and help rectify. Great books, however you define them, are of importance in the study of the Humanities. But what Lanham is suggesting is that moving to a curriculum that involves the study of rhetoric in the first and second year of a University curriculum--and having the texts electronically based and situated within the ether of the Internet, etc.--will provide students not only with the tools of analysis that they will use in business, government, education, and inform their personal reflections on life, but will make them more fluent and able within the immanent world of electronic text (and the accompanying animation, sound, and graphical elements) and electronic communications. Lanham sees these changes as "hastening" or "following" the incarnation of the ideals expressed in much of postmodernity (as opposed to driving change).

We may view the strand of experimental humanism that started with Marinetti's Futurist Manifesto and the Dadaists, then returned as a specifically rhetorical argument with Kenneth Burke and Richard McKeon, exploded again in all the sixties' isms, and then returned again in the seventies as "literary theory," as finally a didactic movement, a long and variously animated argument about what humanistic study should do and be. Experimental humanism aimed to convert the Arnoldian foregone conclusions into an open-ended experimentality; to galvanise the silent and impassive audience into interaction; to invoke the medium as self-conscious condition of the message; to expose scaling changes as movements to a different register of meaning; to precipitate game and play out of pompous purpose and plead directly to them; to readmit chance to the role it has always played in the human drama; to make war on taste in order to find out what species of censor it truly was; and through all these radically to democratise the arts. To return us, that is, from a closed poetics to an open rhetoric. The electronic word, as pixeled upon a personal-computer screen, reinforces all these purposes, literalizes them in a truly uncanny way.

This passage is a useful (though necessarily incomplete) pomo summary that acknowledges the influence and passionate, sporadic continuity of the avant-garde in our century. The sprawling diversity of our current culture, the trend toward smaller political bodies, even the trend in business toward a bottom-up, modularised organisation, are acknowledged by Lanham as incarnations of the ideals of diversity and freedom expressed variously from (first) the periphery (be it in the arts or elsewhere) and even now in corporate headquarters in our century (now why don't they smarten up on the freedom line?). The common knowledge of rhetoric he advocates, while not sufficient to keep us from each other's throats, would at least provide a common approach to some problems.


Lanham, McLuhan, and Media Literacy

What is it, then, that he feels ancient rhetoric has to do with contemporary culture? He has a balanced regard for Marshall McLuhan who, though in disrepute, must nonetheless be acknowledged as having inspired an entire generation toward a fresh and startlingly relevant analysis of media. Lanham points out that McLuhan did his dissertation on the rhetoric of Thomas Nashe. He sees McLuhan's thesis about the return to an oral culture (brought about by radio and television, in McLuhan's analysis) as being a thesis about our return to the world view propounded within the " rhetorical paideia " .'

The quarrel between the philosophers and the rhetoricians constitutes the quarrel in Western culture. McLuhan's argument for electronic media reintroduced the rhetorician's conception of language, and of human self and society, after the three hundred years dominated by the philosophers, with their strongly opposed conceptions of language and social reality. The fuss about McLuhan was, behind its glitzy façade, about something very deep, something bound to set off landmines at every step.

Electronic media were from the beginning, as McLuhan sensed, tied into the underlying intellectual and artistic movement of the twentieth century, the return of the rhetorical world view after an interval so long that rhetoric's very existence (except as a synonym for lying) had been forgotten. As McLuhan well knew, rhetoric was an oral phenomenon, returning to an increasingly oral world. Although applied to writing as soon as there was writing, rhetoric was originally a training in public speaking, and more largely in an oral culture, in political behaviour. To this kind of education the quasi-oral world of electronic media was home ground.

....As long as "McLuhanesque" remains a dyslogistic epithet, we can never decide what we should do with these marvellous new means of expression that now lie like quicksilver in our hands.

Rather than experiencing a complete return to an oral-based culture, the electronic media of our time reintroduce elements of oral culture into our consciousness and will fuse strangely with print literacy.

For instance, it seems likely that in twenty or thirty years time, schoolchildren will hand in homework assignments that are extremely hypertextual: the assignments will involve the production of 'texts' that combine sound, animation (and video), graphics, and hot-spots to other information located in the electronic text world. And they will also involve text.

These sorts of 'texts' will be commonplace for schoolchildren and adults. How will they proceed? How will they be 'read,' understood, and commented upon? Most people have a certain familiarity with texts of various sorts. And with radio, film, television, etc. It is unlikely that were a production similar to H.G. Wells's War of the Worlds to be done in any medium that it would receive the same frightened response that occurred during the radio broadcast: I suspect that we are more sophisticated critics and interpreters of media signals these days (though in certain contexts, such as television news, we might still run for cover. But even that is changing: we would likely change channels to see if they were reporting the same thing, look for some corroboration of the news). [2] The art of persuasion isn't quite what it used to be? The language includes all media. Advertisers know this quite well.

Film and audio criticism, together with their (usually) accompanying awareness of 'theory,' together with hypertext rhetoric manuals (done in hypertext), etc., will combine to acclimatise our imaginations and world view to these new sorts of 'texts.' But, of course, criticism (or, as Lanham would have it, rhetoric) will play a relatively small role in this process of acclimatisation. Mostly we will just plunge into the texts themselves and navigate in our customary way of trial and error.

Rhetoric and Theory

Certainly many media studies and 'theoretical' literary studies going on may be thought of as concerned with describing the rhetoric of the various spheres of talk and image, etc., they discuss. There have even been several books published over the last few years that seek to describe the rhetoric of scientific discourse. Lanham mentions several of these. Science as Writing by David Locke is an interesting example. The aim of the book is to examine some of the extra-scientifical ways that scientific ideas become accepted in the scientific (and larger) community. The factors range from prose style to p.r. campaigns to the wielding of academic position, etc. In other words, Locke examines the rhetoric of science. We know better than to think that scientific (or other) ideas become accepted or not within the realm of their subject merely by virtue of the congruence of the theories or ideas with a way things are (independent of rhetoric). We know to look at the frame. We know that frames are often as influential and interesting as what they frame.

Lanham presents rhetoric not only as the art of persuasion, as it is commonly known, but even as a general theory of knowledge. He might be going a bit far here, just as he does when he says that "The quarrel between the philosophers and the rhetoricians constitutes the quarrel in Western culture" or when he says that "...as our expressive radical moves from print to screen, a new conception of human reason" emerges. Nonetheless, the sort of media literacy required in society does dovetail nicely with a study of rhetoric.

Also, it is not clear how broad his notion of the democratisation of the arts and the Humanities is. It seems that the democratisation he speaks of applies primarily within the universities. [3] The 'useful miracle' of a curriculum that includes rhetoric will create inter-disciplinary communication and Humanities graduates who are better trained in the 'expressive environment of our time'. But what will it do for the growing numbers of people who do not have access to university?

Finally, however, Lanham's book is unusual and integrative of art, education, management, pomo theory, avant-garde aspiration, rhetoric, and electronic communications. He is concerned that the Humanities be a strong and influential force in contemporary culture and offers many excellent suggestions to educators and observations to non-educators (everyone is an educator, I suppose). He has been known as a teacher who has trained leaders and thinkers and doers. He approvingly quotes some of Peter Drucker's remarks about the Humanities and management:

Management is thus what tradition used to call a liberal art--"liberal" because it deals with the fundamentals of knowledge, self-knowledge, wisdom, and leadership; "art" because it is practice and application. Managers draw on all the knowledges and insights of the Humanities and the social sciences.... For these reasons, management will increasingly be the discipline and the practice through which the "Humanities" will again acquire recognition, impact, and relevance.[4]

Lanham's synthetic vision is well worth considering. His emphasis that the central problem facing the Humanities is to "understand the expressive environment of our time" and adapt the electronic means of communication and education at our disposal is a change from the important but limited debates concerning Dead White Males and Live Female Revolutionaries of Colour.

I hope his ideas are vigorously debated toward the goal of widening and improving education, widening it to accommodate the various electronic means of expression and the resulting richness of expression, and opening education well beyond the curricula of the schools into all the world. Beyond matters important to educators and institutions, Lanham's remarks about the "expressive media of our time" will be useful to anyone concerned with the electronic word.



[1] Richard A. Lanham, The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1993). ISBN 0-226-46883-6. $22.50. Here is a link to a bookstore that carries some of Lanham's books (including The Electronic Word).

[2] Jean Baudrillard (the McLuhan of the nineties?) made the mistake of arguing, prior to the Gulf War, that it wouldn't happen. He made up for his error after the war by arguing that it never really did 'happen.' The humour and tragedy here is too convoluted and bizarre to explain. It's a joke that is peculiarly contemporary and informed (or not) by an awareness of media. What is real?

[3] Lanham is occasionally afflicted with a narrow view of literature and literary activity and is prone to abuse the word 'democratic' in the manner of fashionable rhetoric: "Literary study, as by now we all know, takes place very largely in a university environment, and that environment is far more open and democratic than it used to be..."

[4] Lanham is quoting from Peter F. Drucker's The New Realities.

© Jim Andrews
Created: 7/28/96
Last Modified: May 2005