Brooke, Lingua Fracta

Brooke, Collin Gifford. Lingua Fracta: Toward a Rhetoric of New Media. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 2009. (222 pages)

Brooke’s Lingua Fracta revises the five canons of rhetoric within the new context of the new media landscape—as he writes, this project is located between technology and rhetoric using the canons deductively while at the same time stretching the canon’s theoretical scope.

The title of the book is a pun on lingua franca, a reference to the pidgin language developed by merchants across cultures, nations, and countries in order to make connections and cross boundaries for the purpose of a shared interest. As he writes, technology has served as a lingua franca in the academy, reaching across disciplinary boundaries. However, Brooke’s term, lingua fracta, references the ways in which technology—while making connections intersectionally—also encourages “different axes of separation” (xv). Such double-edge is, in a way, much like Burke’s identification which always implies division: “we congregate with certain people only by segregating ourselves form others” (xv).

The term also references fractal geometry: a figure composed of the same structural shape at various scales. By referencing the idea of fractals, Brooke calls upon a fallacy he sees in how new media is theorized and practiced: “we frequently assume that our individual (or even community) experiences with various technologies can be extrapolated to all users, or that the values of those experiences are the same at every level of interaction” (xv). In this way, Brooke attempts to construct a theory of new media rhetoric by paying close attention to the theories applicability to multiple scales.

 

Chapter 1: Interface

Here, Brooke charts out what a new media criticism might look like. Generally, he notes that literary criticism historically depends on the assumption that others can have a shared experience; however, for new media, particularly in a hypertextual digital environment, such shared experiences are not guaranteed at the level of the text itself. Rather, such a shared experience “rests at the scale of medium or system rather than an individual readings” (13). He reiterates, “if new media provide us with objects that are not stable enough for the kinds of shared, close reading to which we are accustomed in print culture, then locating theoretical values behind the texts will largely be a matter of assertion, rather than demonstration” (14). He offers, for example, to move away from theorizing based on text and moving toward the interface of the medium.

This lends him to discuss the theoretical lens of remediation, defined as the idea that the content of one medium (old media) is represented in another medium (new media). Brooke sees the value of a theory of remediation, but also points to its limits: “Remediation holds some value as an exploratory framework, certainly, but it cannot supply us with ready answer to the question of a new media rhetoric. Ultimately, it defers that question [of new media rhetoric] to older media” (19). He continues to explain that while remediation can explain the development of some practices in a new medium, but does not account for the new-ness of the media. Such a theory requires that there is some degree of stability in the media. But also, using the logics of older media can obscure what can be known about the new practices: new media may involve a different set of goals or accomplish different rhetorical aims than the new medium’s antecedents.

Brooke then defines what he means by interface. He starts with a baseline definition forwarded by Kirschenbaum: “definition of the term ‘typically invoke the image of a “surface” or a “boundary” where two or more “systems,” “devices,” or “entities” come into “contact” or “interact”’” (523 quoted in Brooke 23). However, he goes beyond interface as simply some kind of boundary or contact point between people and machines, interfaces are “those ‘ever-elastic middles’ that include, incorporate, and indeed constitute their ‘outside’” (24).

 

Chapter 2: Ecology

Brooke begins by defining ecology alongside his earlier referenced idea of fractal: “Ecologies are vast, hybrid systems of intertwined elements, systems where small changes can have unforeseen consequences that ripple far beyond their immediate implications…what is ‘effective’ at one scale or location within an ecology may fail utterly in another context” (28). He uses ecology as a new way to discuss the rhetorical canons, namely by theorizing the canons in the lens of ecologies of practice: a focus on “the strategies and tactics we bring to bear on new media” (41). Each canon represents an ecology of various practices. As he writes—using memory as an example—that we often see practices shift when we enter a new media landscape, but others (like Plato) see such shifts as a erasure of the canon rather than a shift in practice.

However, he acknowledges that ecologies of practice is only one scale within a trivium of scales: ecologies of code (akin to grammar); ecologies of practice (akin to rhetoric); and ecologies of culture (akin to logic). By drawing attention to multiple levels of scale, he believes we are better able to understand his central focus: ecologies of practice or the canons. Simply, ecologies of code refers to “those resources of the production of interfaces more broadly constructed, including visual, aural, spatial, and textual elements, as well as programming codes…a broader range of resources on which we draw in the production of interfaces’ (48). Ecologies of practice refers to the “conscious, directed activity, the explicit combination of elements from the ecology of code to produce a particular discursive effect” (49). Finally, ecology of culture are the cultural assumptions that constrain any act of discourse/practice.

 

Chapter 3: Proairesis (Invention)

Brooke begins with a concept of invention posited by LeFevre, one that sees invention as a social act (i.e. one that includes audience as part of the invention process). He also references Bawarshi’s concept of genre as a way to discuss the ecology of practice involved in invention: “genres, as rhetorical ecosystems, are sites where we both act and are acted on. The idea that they are ‘stabilized enough’ suggest that they carry sufficient order, custom, and/or inertia to constrain our acts, while retaining enough flexibility to change over time and to accommodate generic violation” (65). In this way, Bawarshi’s social concept of invention is distributed and opens to door to discuss how invention is not just distributed across people, but also across materials, technologies, and genres. As Brooke highlights, “we internalized most genres to the degree that we naturalize the ideologies as our own without realizing that our agency is distributed well beyond our own particular articulation of it” (66). Networked technologies, for example, allow people to access one another, mediated by these technologies.

It is here that Brooke also notes that the author is reconfigured in hypertext: the author is decentered. “The reader’s ability to choose particular paths through a body of information represents ‘ a clear sign of such transference of authorial power’” (72).

Brooke also makes a distinction between hermeneutic invention and proairetic invention. Hermeneutic invention is marked by a mystery, enigma, or gap that asks for some kind of resolution or actualization. As Brooke describes, it is the “temptation of meaning” (77). Proairetic invention resists the closure of hermeneutic invention: it focuses on the generation of possibilities. The hermeneutic seems to be what drives a narrative through absence, and the proairetic are actions within the text that close down certain possibilities while opening up others. To take the example of “to knock at a door”: if we take that as the action, then there are a set of possibilities that branch out like a tree from that: someone opens it or doesn’t, a dog barks, it falls in like a cartoon door, etc. When Brooke says that we would use the Google search page as a point of departure (83), it’s similar to the opening of new (albeit limited) possibilities that we wouldn’t have arrived at without the initial action of the search. So proairetic invention would be like moving through the various branches of the trees, which themselves lead to more branches.

 

Chapter 4: Pattern (Arrangement)

Brooke notes that in the wake of hypertextual interfaces, some have sought to erase arrangement as a useful canon to discuss new media: the argument goes that since readers are able to construct and arrange their own meaning from the interface, there appears no need to focus on arrangement. However, as Brooke writes, “just because there is more than one way to walk through a building, this does not make its arrangement (architecture) irrelevant. So too with hypertext” (91). He continues, “the links that allegedly demonstrate the irrelevance of rhetoric are rhetorical practices of arrangement, attempts to communicate affinities, connections, and relationships” (91).

In theorizing a new digitized canon of arrangement, Brooke notes that “every technology gives us not only a different space, but a different time as well” (93). Brooke alludes to the idea offered by Weinberger that, in fact, the web isn’t quite a space (denoted by complete freedom), but rather constructed places in which users can (nearly) freely move. Like a garden, a webtext “is an artful combination of regularity and irregularity”: the balance between the “intentional design and chaos of nature” (97).

Brooke also discusses databases as an interesting example of arrangement, particularly as it comes to interfaces. As he writes, some interfaces allow for different kinds of arrangements possible with the cache of seemingly unorganized data. For example, on Amazon.com, users can filter the vast items by just the author or genre or year of publication.

 

Chapter 5: Perspective (Style)

Style and media have often been theorized together: “to speak of media is to speak of forms of expression, the traditional province of the canon of style” (113). However, Brooke attempts to move more toward the ways that interfaces are designed in order to support perspective or the “disciplining of the eye to the point of transparency” (121). Or, in other words, Brooke concerns style with how to design interfaces that can draw attention toward or away certain connections—this is achieved through the employment of certain metaphors (see: remediation). And the involvement of attention (as well as remediation) is likewise the involvement of the continuum of hypermediacy and immediacy or Lanham’s looking at/through or Bolter’s transparency and reflectivity. Briefly, looking at refers to more hypermediacy and reflectivity (being conscious of what the interface is making visible, etc). Looking through refers to more immediate and transparent interactions with interfaces. In disciplining the eye, a designer can direct a looking at/through perspective by offering cues.

Regardless, Brooke’s main focus is on looking from (his contribution): “changing the interface does not simply change the ‘look’ of the game, although it does do that as well; it also affects the physical actions used to trigger game actions” (138). Brooke’s concept of looking from is, in some ways, like a terministic screen in that the metaphor we use within an interface directs how we interface within the medium. A change to the interface changes our actions. Concluding, “just as we look at and through interfaces, we also look from a particular position, and that position is born macro- and micriperceptual” (140)

 

Chapter 6: Persistence (Memory)

In Brooke’s discussion of memory, he begins by charting out some of the ways he sees memory being misconstrued. For example, he takes particular note of the way that memory has been defined as a storage system. Such a definition has allowed some like Plato & Corbett to see the externalization of memory (i.e. the externalization of the storage system from the mind) as a way to see the erasure of memory as a productive canon of discussion. However, more recent revivals of memory that embraces the externalization of memory—such as framing memory as a distributed cognition among other people and technologies—retains roots in the Platonic sense of memory by preserving an memory as an absence/presence, i.e. where is memory placed? Who owns the memory?

Instead, Brooke attempts to reclaim memory as a discussion of time and discourse rather than its more recent attempts to define memory in terms of environments, spaces, and distributed cognition. His discussion of memory takes particular note of how media and technology constructs memories; he outlines this discussion in terms of constructing pattern or randomness. He offers the example of the trial of the police who brutzlised Rodney King: the translation of video into still-photo frames allowed the memory of this brutalization to be reconfigured into a particular pattern or narrative of thought. On the other hand, Brooke discusses the Challenger explosion as being presented by the media as a random act of chaos thus ignoring the accountability of the NASA team for their role in preventing this tragedy.

 

Chapter 7: Performance (Delivery)

Brooke looks toward a sense of delivery as performance. In doing so, he attaches delivery with identity, particularly the construction of author, ethos, and credibility. He begins by claiming that authors don’t “write”, but rather, “author is written…the intransitive manner of to write means that the author is as much a product of her text as the text is the result of her labor” (177). In this way, “reality…is indeed performed in the instance of discourse” (177). In terms of medium and technology, Brooke notes that “the technology simply represent or instantiate values that preexist any specific practice” (181).

From here, he dives deep into the ways delivery is always implicated in discussions of credibility, noting particularly the idea of distributed credibility, where “a range of other conditions [aside from authorship] under which a site might be deemed credible” (185). The focus on accountability structures and performance is the focus of delivery. He uses Wikipedia as a exemplar: “it is compared with the Encyclopedia Britannica with the obvious exception of its authorship. Wikipedia articles are authored by anyone who wishes to contribute…If the content provided by each of these reference works is substantially similar, then the primary differences between them lie elsewhere. Obviously, there is a difference in authorship” (188). However, under the principles of distributed credibility, “credibility is not delivered prepackaged at Wikipedia; it is performed, sometimes ad nauseam. As a discourse system, Wikipedia collects both the process and product of a reference work, and the result sometimes can be messy. But it can also represent the kind of opportunity that traditional encyclopedias can never dream of providing—an ethos that is interactive, democratic, public, and at times, contentious” (191).

In sum, Brooke does not necessarily think the transitive nature of delivery is that interesting (one delivers something else). This is why he doesn’t quite take to current discussions of delivery and circulation. Rather, he sees circulation and delivery as intransitive: discourse circulates rather than something we circulate.

 

 

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