A Review of Digital Rhetoric: Theory, Method, Practice by Douglas Eyman 2015, University of Michigan Press
Lucy Johnson, Washington State University
(Published November 22, 2016)
Douglas Eyman’s Digital Rhetoric: Theory, Method, Practice addresses the long awaited call to theoretically position the ways in which we rhetorically approach digital composing within the humanities. Eyman seeks to define digital rhetoric by attaching it to classical and contemporary theories of rhetoric, looking further at other interdisciplinary methods for digital composing, and the application of digital rhetoric in both pedagogy and born-digital scholarship. Eyman demonstrates how digital rhetoric provides not only a means for composing digitally but a method of analysis for digital compositions. In doing so, he offers a comprehensive resource, one which contains a methodology and praxis, and provides a heuristic to both understand and utilize digital rhetoric. Such a monograph, according to Eyman, has heretofore not surfaced within the sub-field of digital rhetoric.
Eyman begins with his own technology literacy narrative, seeking to situate his own experiences with digital rhetoric. Woven within the narrative, Eyman traces a loose history of digital rhetoric’s origins. Eyman tells of early conversations within technical communication and rhetoric and composition, as each set of disciplines began to develop its own theories and methods with a digital rhetoric. Eyman moves beyond these disciplines, however, arguing that Digital Rhetoric is an interdisciplinary resource, drawing from disciplines such as new media studies, digital literacy, critical code studies, and digital humanities.
Chapter One, “Defining and Locating Digital Rhetoric,” positions digital rhetoric as its own rhetorical sub-field, arguing that it cannot be gathered under the umbrella of new media studies or digital literacy. Rather, Eyman argues for rhetoric as the most appropriate umbrella term, providing both “an analytic method and a heuristic for production” (12), situating the digital within an ideology contained within rhetorical theory and forming praxis for composing digital texts. Eyman begins by defining digital rhetoric in its simplest form, arguing that digital rhetoric is “the application of rhetorical theory to digital texts and performances” (13). Drawing from Lanham, Bizzell, Kress, and especially Zappen, Eyman moves through ways of thinking about “digital,” “rhetoric,” and “text” as individual terms, each as it contends with the differences from print to digital; that is, the rhetoric employed in exploring the relationship between form and content and how particular design considerations change based on the medium of the composition. By retrospectively looking at Eyman’s text as a whole, the reader will notice that generous attention is given to this chapter in order to provide a theoretical framework for thinking about digital rhetoric and its complexity as both an analytic for critique and a heuristic within digital text production. With this chapter, Eyman provides a solid foundation for locating and understanding the “what” of digital rhetoric.
With Chapter Two Eyman continues to situate the “what” of digital rhetoric by providing a theoretical framework that pulls from both classical and contemporary rhetoric. While Eyman discusses classical rhetoric at length, he clearly identifies most with contemporary rhetoric. Eyman addresses particular rhetoricians who have focused on the canons of style and delivery in early digital contexts, those like Richard Lanham, Kathleen Welch, and Colin Brooke. In exploring some of the ways style and delivery have been historically discussed through a history of the ways in which rhetorical canons have been analyzed, Eyman provides contexts for contemporary digital application, noting that “digital rhetoric in many ways erodes the distance between rhetor, reader, producer, and user” (69). To illustrate just how digital rhetoric can mitigate what were heretofore more distant relationships, Eyman discusses how digital texts may become remixed, or, in other words, manipulated to serve other purposes and meanings in addition to being positioned as a ready-made text that may be circulated by another user. In other words, Eyman overlays the rhetorical triangle to include a producer, one who does not necessarily create but repurposes for other meanings, contexts, and audiences. An example of such an enactment of this revised rhetorical triangle would include photo manipulation or remixed audio.
In maintaining this shift toward a discussion of rhetorical theory and contemporary digital composing, Eyman explores three areas: “the rhetorical situation, digital rhetoric and identity, and the appropriation and use of network by digital rhetorical scholars” (74). Within his discussion of the rhetorical situation, Eyman references Bitzer and moves through particular digital contexts (Krause; Edbauer, Pashaei). In doing so, Eyman uses Bitzer as a starting point for thinking about the rhetorical situation and differences concerning identity within digital spaces. While Bitzer focuses on the relationship between audience, purpose, and exigence, Eyman moves beyond this relationship and looks toward constructs of fragmented identity in digital spaces. In his transition into an exploration of the relationship between digital rhetoric and digital identity, Eyman makes an important assertion in referencing power, arguing that “the body—especially in digital form—is a discursive formation that resists the dissociation of the physical and the virtual, and still others are now turning to the antiutopian view that technology may be damaging in its utilization of power outside of the physical body” (78). Within his exploration of the relationship between the body and the digital, Eyman references scholars who engage with performative rhetorics in digital spaces, rhetorics that relate to race, gender, and issues of power and access, how the “structures, hardware, and networks of digital spaces constrain online identity formation” (79). There might be previous explorations of the body’s relationship to networks of power in digital constructs (e.g., Selfe and Selfe), but Eyman argues that digital rhetoric provides an interdisciplinary approach to locating the body, one that works within networks and interfaces to track and connect the ways in which identity fragmentation may be enacted in digital spaces. Such attention to the body and the ways in which it becomes segmented is imperative as we consider the ways in which identities become the target of harassment concerning racism, sexism, and class. He closes the chapter with a conversation on how digital texts are circulated. In doing so he addresses digital rhetoric’s ties to circulation in that “circulation is the principle mechanism not only for enabling exchange-value but also for adding use-value to the rhetorical object via reproduction, appropriation, and use within a particular circulation ecology or through interactions across multiple circulation ecologies” (92). Recognizing the political economy of circulation, Eyman sets up a framework from which various methodologies of digital rhetoric can be successfully implemented, how circulation may be implemented or utilized across a variety of disciplines, enacting human and nonhuman agents within the production and distribution of digital texts.
With Chapter Three, “Digital Rhetoric: Method,” Eyman investigates heuristics for digital production, arguing that “rhetoric is an activity and not just an analytic framework” (93). Within this conversation, Eyman addresses the “how” of digital rhetoric. In situating rhetoric as a means for digital production, Eyman strongly emphasizes circulation and its affordances within a variety of contexts. As such, Eyman begins by addressing the literary practice of close reading alongside its opposition—distant reading (Moretti). Eyman defines distant reading as the positioning of a text among many others, how relationships and constructs of meaning shift based on the intersectionality of such relations. By analyzing the relationship between close and distant reading, Eyman investigates how these methods have been taken up in a variety of contexts as heuristical methods, including writing studies as well as other interdisciplinary avenues that do not necessarily engage with rhetoric explicitly. In his discussion of rhetorical theories of heuristics, Eyman ultimately concludes that “new methods need to be developed to help us better understand how composing practices change from traditional print production activities to multimodal, multimedia productions that can now be delivered, distributed, published, and circulated in and through digital networks” (97).
The final chapter, “Digital Rhetoric: Practice,” provides the beginning of a conversation that Eyman advocates our continuing. While highlighting three different syllabi that engage with digital rhetoric, Eyman highlights the work of born-digital scholarship in publishing venues such as Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy. While Eyman focuses much of his scholarly attention to this venue due to his own professional affiliation as senior editor for the journal, he does reference several other interdisciplinary avenues within which born-digital scholarship have been recognized, published, and encouraged. Within his discussion of Kairos Eyman notes that published works “should ideally invoke rhetoric as a design as well as design as rhetorical practice…in this sense, the aesthetic becomes rhetorical as well” (124). This is something that has been discussed previously by others such as Arola in “The Design of Web 2.0, The Rise of the Template, the Fall of Design.” This argument of the synchronous relationship of form to content extends to other conversations surrounding new media scholarship, as well, such as Cheryl Ball’s “Show Not Tell: The Value of New Media Scholarship,” which Eyman makes a point to reference as a justification for born-digital venues. Eyman also nods toward the opportunities for social justice and the politics surrounding digital rhetorical practice, referencing social media as a discursive space for advocacy and political discourse (Warnick). Within his discussion of digital rhetoric as a means of production, Eyman references remix culture within digital spaces, detailing Ridolfo and DeVoss’s notion of “rhetorical velocity” as a means with which to engage remix culture critically, or how text become repurposed or manipulated by users in order to fit a different rhetorical situation. While most of the chapter situates itself within digital rhetoric and new media studies, the latter half of the chapter is devoted to fleshing out digital rhetorical production and practice within other humanities disciplines, demystifying some of the haze around what could “count” for digital rhetoric within overtly computational practices. While the final chapter seeks to situate itself as a beginning to a conversation, or rather, a repository of digital rhetoric practices and applications, this chapter really answers the “why” of digital rhetoric, focusing on the product and opportunities that such scholarship can afford within this interdisciplinary practice.
Embedded within the Eyman’s overall argument is the attention to the composing differences between the book’s media. While the print book is structured both in form and content in ways that embody traditional text, the e-book version offers an interactive experience for the reader that is a mixture of text, the visual, and hyperlinks, offering a degree of agency in how the reader chooses to experience the book. While I was at first overtly critical of these radical differences in media, I believe that the differences between the versions embody the collective argument of Eyman’s vision for digital rhetoric. The composing differences between the print and digital formats allocate for an embodied form-to-content relationship. If we are truly considering the particular affordances for the digital as its own branch within rhetorical theory, then we must think about the distinct differences in rhetorical choices that are present within each medium, and which one embodies both the theory and methodology that it advocates. While I would argue that there is still much to be gained from its print form, in order to fully embrace digital rhetoric one must experience Eyman’s work as a digital text. This book is a crucial resource for scholars looking to engage with digital rhetoric and scholarship as both an analytic and a production resource. While I do wish that Eyman had spent a bit more time on the value of digital rhetoric as it applies to multimodal composing and cultural epistemology, I believe that this is just the beginning of a long conversation, with Eyman providing a solid foundation in a theoretical framework that is long overdue.
Arola, Kristin. “The Design of Web 2.0: The Rise of The Image, the Fall of Design.” Computers and Composition. 27 (2010): 4-14.
Ball, Cheryl. “Show, Not tell: The Value of New Media Scholarship.” Computers and Composition. 21 (2004): 403 – 425.
Eyman, Douglas. Digital Rhetoric: Theory, Method, Practice. University of Michigan Press. 2015. Print/e-book.