Burke and the Late Age of Print

As we transition from print communities to digital, participatory cultures in my DIY Publishing class this week, I’ve been of course trying to theorize some of the important differences between these various technologies and/or scenes. The concept of a participatory culture was first articulated by Henry Jenkins in his famous 2006 MacArthur white paper about media education. From the executive summary:

“A participatory culture is a culture with relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations, and some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices. A participatory culture is also one in which members believe their contributions matter, and feel some degree of social connection with one another (at the least they care what other people think about what they have created).” (3; emphasis mine)

In this sense, any DIY community is participatory; political pamphlets, zines, art books, and independent journalism match these same general properties: anyone can cut and paste, learn from the more experienced members of the scene, and of course feel socially connected with one another. Most importantly, in any DIY publishing community, the work circulates among audiences who also produce the content. This begs the question, if participatory cultures have existed with us since the beginning of mass literacy, why has the digital privliged DIY now more than ever. The obvious answer might be located in Jenkins’s first characteristic where contemporary participatory cultures have “relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement.” That is, anyone with a smartphone or access to a library computer can technically self-publish. You don’t have to spend $50 at Kinko’s to circulate your ideas on Facebook. I don’t want to contest that common sense response as much as I want to think more critically about how the field of comp/rhet has been perhaps eager to claim the digital as the dominant narrative for the imagined future of writing.

While Jody Shipka, Jay David Bolter or Ted Striphas might be more useful for exploring this question, I turn to Burke’s Rhetoric of Motives (ROM) not only because it’s our required reading in 631 this week, but because his concept of identification might allow us to better understand the new status of print inside and outside the classroom.

By the time Burke reaches his section on identification in ROM he’s discussed, among another things, the poems of Milton and Coleridge as they evoke the complexities of death in their work. In the case of both authors murder/suicide resists being reduced to a single motive. As such, no term can capture the motives in these cases, which is a purposeful move of the poet so as to employ image as transformation more generally. Burke chooses death/killing as topoi in ROM in order to illustrate the complexity of motive — as “proportions of a motivational recipe” (17) — but also to argue that depictions of death also identify a thing’s essence through its transformation. This is important for the concept of identification since “transformation involves the ideas and imagery of identification. That is: the killing of something is the changing of it, and the statement of the thing’s nature before and after the change is an identifying of it” (20). I may be perverting Burke here, but I wonder what the essence of print becomes when we declare its death. In a Burkean Burkeian sense, what is it transformed to?

I suppose, per usual, it depends on the context. When Kathleen Fitzpatrick describes the scholarly monograph in Planned Obsolescence, she calls it undead: “not viable, but still required” in the humanities. That is, while “the book” is indisputably the “gold standard for tenure” and promotion, the presses that publish the bound codex cannot support the number of academics writing them. As the title may suggest, Fitzpatrick argues that networked technologies such as Commentpress – which was used throughout the review process of Planned Obsolescence – are necessarily changing the way texts are born. Necessarily because ultimately Fitzpatrick’s argument is that the more grave obsolescence is not technological at all, but institutional: the process by which we produce, circulate, vet, and value the print monograph in the humanities is unsustainable. By declaring the scholarly monograph undead, Fitzpatrick is able to essentialize print, via the image of the zombie, as obsolete. What’s more, Fitzpatrick uses a material consubstantiation of the peer-to-peer network to propose a new way of doing peer review that is more in line with the academy’s needs in the 21st century.

According to Burke, consubstantiality occurs when two identities join as one:

“A is not identical with his colleague, B. But insofar as their interests are joined, A is identified with B. Or he may identify himself (sic) with B even when their interests are not joined, if he assumes that they are, or is persuaded to believe so… In being identified with B, A is “substantially one” with a person other than himself. Yet at the same time he remains unique, an individual locus of motives. Thus he is both joined and separate, at once a distinct substance and consubstantial with another… To identify A with B is to make A ‘consubstantial’ with B.” (20-21)

He goes on later in the section to argue that “[a] doctrine of consubstantiality … may be necessary to any way of life. For substance, in the old philosophies, was an act; and a way of life is an acting-together; and in acting together, men have common sensations, concepts, images, ideas, attitudes that make them consubstantial” (21). Fitzpatrick’s suggestion in Planned Obsolescence, then, is to increase the chances and frequency of consubstantiation via networked technologies. In doing so, our academic communities will limit the role of the monologic reviewer, but permit themselves to create something she calls “peer-to-peer review,” networked spaces such as blog-based platforms that “not only brings in more voices (which may identify more potential issues), and not only provides some ‘review of reviews’ (with reviewers weighing in on the issues raised by others), but is also crucially, a conversation.”

Through the process of conversation where rhetoric is at its center, identification and division compete. As Burke writes: “…put identification and division ambiguously together, so that you cannot know for certain just where one ends and the other begins, and you have the characteristic invitation to rhetoric” (25). Peer review, then becomes a contact zone for consubstantiality — and eventually as identifications takes hold, consensus and truth.

I think Fitzpatrick makes a fascinating and important case for how and why digital publishing networks can help bring the humanities into the 21st century. I’m on board. Yet, as my posts have asserted this semester, context is key. Again: how might the rush to declare print dead or undead transform it for other communities of practice? As Burke writes in Part II of ROM, how one uses rhetoric to gain advantage is dependent on audience: “The same rhetorical act could vary in its effectiveness, according to shifts in the situation of in the attitude of audiences” (62). Advantage, in other words, is defined by its context. Burke uses Aristotle, La Rochefoucauld and others to explain the different fruits that result form the concept of advantage: “happiness,” “love of glory,” “envy of others,” “desire for money,” etc. For Burke, the 21st century’s screen saturation might give print’s death a new meaning. For book makers, zine writers, and others who are involved in various DIY print communities, cool become that transcendent term. Advantage is gained through cultural capital (and obviously material capital since distinction in this context costs money). Yet as some would argue, DIY print texts are fundamentally detached from corporate networks, free from privacy compromises, terms of service agreements, and the like.

Aside from this, this semester is teaching me more than ever that print’s death can help defamiliarize visual rhetoric for “digitally native” students. That is, by asking students to put together booklets or zines, they literally see how form affects function and that they must think about audience in perhaps more experimental, riskier ways. In Burkean Burkeian terms, it helps students think that consubstantiation isn’t always intentional, but incidental.