Digital Rhetoric

I’m back to commuting, so I finally have a chance to listen to the final four lectures in the John McWhorter lecture series on Myths, Lies and Half-Truths about the English language. Lecture 20, on speech making, has been one of my favorites so far.

Decades ago, perhaps even a century or so, speeches came in quite different form – they were more like a written form of speaking. People were orators by profession, and spectators used to come to watch and listen to these speech makers as a form of entertainment, for the opportunity to hear someone use language in an elegant way. This was a time when “oration was one of the measures of a man”. Boisterous and heavily prepared, it is no coincidence that this style of speech making changed as audio and video transmission and recording technology became more prevalent in society. You can hear one example of this style in a campaign speech by Grover Cleveland from 1892. (McWhorter actually uses a clip from a US Senator named Charles Eaton, but I couldn’t find anything out there by him. If anyone has a link, please share.)

The type of rhetoric involved in this old style of prepared speechmaking does not translate well into recoding, amplification, and the casual, choppy style of today’s spoken word. Rhetoric shifted from spoken word to written word. However, this isn’t the rhetoric of negative connotation – it’s rhetoric that, in my mind, compares to literacy; to having the tools and device to command a medium. In the same way that the word rhetoric developed a bad name, so did this extravagant style of speechmaking from decades ago that is now considered caricature. This s the rhetoric of the ancient Greeks, and the rhetoric that connotes style and persuasion, without calling into question motives (a separate, albeit important matter).

I believe rhetoric closely compares with the concept of digital literacies in the variety of contexts and scope of its application. As electronic media shifted rhetoric from speech to writing, so now it comes back to the milieu of digital communication in the form of design. We encounter many different styles of mediums these days, for those who choose to be connected, and all of the dents and aromas that each particular form of communication brings with it. Knowing what is attached to our messages based on the form that they take, the shape of the channel, is a skill to be gained.

Link to the first post in this series is here.


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