Collin Gifford Brooke's Lingua Fracta: Toward a Rhetoric of New Media
argues that rhetoric's inherent technological dimensions have been ignored to our
(discipline's) detriment. The project intervenes by making a case for shifting our
"units of analysis" from texts toward investigating sites
that create discursive possibility, the interface. By aligning two clusters of rhetorical concepts,
canons and trivium, alongside information technologies, Brooke creates a space for rhetoric and
technology where "neither is left untransformed by the
encounter" (p. xxi). With this ambitious goal, Lingua Fracta offers us an
opportunity to revive our tradition's most fundamental concepts in an age when
endless technological proliferation renders many foundations obsolete.
Despite the project's interest in revision, Lingua Fracta does not jettison tradition in favor of the emergent. As the title may allude, the project seeks both to occasion a fracture in the ways rhetoric is practiced and to maintain a productive continuity with its rich past. These propositions make difficult the task of reviewing Lingua Fracta because it openly questions the value of critical reception. So, under those considerations, I offer a review that strives to inhabit a median between opposing flows, the critical characteristics inherent in a typical review and the noncritical response the work calls for.
This review will proceed by covering each chapter in turn. In 'Interface' Brooke outlines the need to shift our unit of analysis from textual objects to interfaces. 'Ecology' explains the need to embrace an ecological orientation to rhetoric by reframing the classical trivium as a response to new media. The next five sections (Proairesis, Pattern, Perspective, Persistence, and Performance) each reframe the rhetorical canons to articulate renewed potential through an ecology of practice that takes account of medial interfaces. Finally, 'Preview' speculates on possibilities that Brooke's project opens for further scholarship.
'Interface' opens the project's first of two conceptual foundations. This chapter locates the interface as the site for a rhetoric of new media. Brooke finds that much new media scholarship neglects the gap between perspectives of what Anne Francis Wysocki's (2004) claims as individual texts and broad contexts of media structures. Brooke explains both perspectives to be invested in critical projects, neither of which focuses on production. He further separates his own work from similar new media explorations, citing George Landow's first two installments (1999, 2004) and work by Bolter and Grusin (2006). Brooke identifies in this work useful but limited ways to approach new media. Instead of producing with new media, each of those projects traces a rhetoric from stable and produced textual models, repeating a pedagogy wherein one "learn[s] to write by reading exemplary texts" (p. 15). Instead of repeating familiar new criticism or post-structural agendas, "[a] rhetoric of new media, rather than examining the choices that have already been made by writers, should prepare us as writers to make our own choices" (p. 15).
Lingua Fracta creates the space for such choices in the middle of Wysocki's perspectives. Brooke's project pursues this excluded middle for rhetoric, a space where P can also be not P, or, perhaps more apt, where Proairesis can also be Invention; Persistence also Memory; Pattern, Arrangement; etc. He carves out this space conceptually by drawing on terms and concepts that seek to trouble positivistic perspectives of discursive formation, Such concepts include Kenneth Burke's dialectical terms, Ulmer's "middling term" (puncept) and interfaces themselves. The move to the interface, Brooke claims, can show us that "...what we think of as products (books, articles, essays) are but specialized instances of an ongoing process at the level of the interface" (p. 25).
If the new unit of analysis should engage the dialectical and avoid positivistic or ultimate
designations, then it's important to utilize light categories, or a way of
defining that tries to avoid reducing productive overlaps. As a way to fashion such tools, Brooke
turns to recent work in ecologies (Cooper, 1986; Syverson, 1999; Spinuzzi, 2003) to reconstitute a
notion of the classical trivium that articulates categories without absolute definitions. This move
allows the trivium to be rethought from separate and sequential disciplines into a "layered
ecology" that focuses our attentions in different ways. Brooke revises the familiar trio of
grammar, rhetoric, and logic into code (the varied expressive resources available) practice
(conscious, directed activity that produces discursive effects) and culture (heterogeneous set of
factors that shape discursive possibility at several levels). Taken together, the revised trivium
offers a way to encounter discursive possibility without completely displacing activity in another
scale, a fractal orientation.
Fractal orientations and scaled interactions are areas of continued interest in the social sciences and the humanities. It is becoming increasingly important to generate attentiveness to the varied scales of operation in any given moment. This attention is seen as we continue to articulate several notions of agency that combine both human and/or nonhuman agents, and this revised trivium might prove helpful to extend that scholarship. In the discipline of rhetoric, however, readers
might pick up on what is less emphasized in this work. Brooke's focus on the ecology of
practice, the middle term in his trivium, as the most fertile for rhetoric, leaves available his
two other ecologies for further exploration (code and culture). However, despite the focus on
practice in Lingua Fracta, the other two ecologies are far from absent, especially when
situating how practice occurs.
The chapter concludes with an insightful example of an ecological encounter with an interface. Brooke explores the trackback feature of blogging platforms and shows its affect on how we might think of the canons in light of the constraints and affordances of the interface. The demonstration is brief, but it adeptly establishes a representative example previewing the following chapters. Unlike each of the following chapters that focus on one particular canon for examination, this concise exhibit illustrates how the canons might function more fully in the ecological model that Brooke proposes.
It's fitting that, for this project, Brooke selects an even more antiquated word to revise the
canon of invention. This revision, though, is needed as Brooke finds that "...restrictive attitudes
toward invention--invention's ecologies of culture--are tied closely to the modernist figure of the
author as well as a fairly limiting model of textual economy" (p. 62). These criticisms repeat the
initial chapters' call to recognize the technological as a way to better understand how we produce
texts. Citing LeFevre (1987), DeWitt (2001), and Barwashi (2003), Brooke shows that, while
understandings of invention are beginning to have fuller technological and distributed features,
current models of invention over simplify its activity by relying on romantic notions of
authorship, particular media, and/or stable texts. To arrive at the complexity of invention, Brooke
turns to Roland Barthes' (1974) distinction between the hermeneutic and the proairpetic modes of
While our discipline is quite familiar with the hermeneutic code that seeks resolution and conclusion, the proairetic offers a mode of invention that resists closure. Instead of the hermeneutical goal of having a goal (meaning), the proairpetic allows for an open-ended space for generative possibility. Tracing this dynamic in the interface offered by the popular social bookmarking sites, especially del.icio.us, Brooke discovers that the interface's ability to save, store, tag, and share bookmarks offers a prime example of invention that generates without a set end, deferring endlessly any sense of resolution.
As the book moves toward building a rhetoric of new media, this section begins to distance writing and rhetoric from invention that is based in traditional conceptions of authorship. One important facet here is an attempt to move the notion of author from an intent-expressing meaning-machine into the relations that occur in a site of distribution, at the site of an interface. An open-ended, generative invention is vital considering the proliferation of networked communication environments. "Proaiesis" replicates this style of invention by collecting ideas that emerge from Levy (1998), White (1987), and Ulmer (1994) to provide a concept for invention that is itself resists closure.
One of Lingua Fracta's central conceits is that our sense of the canons shift as
differing forms of communication emerge to shape those texts. The canon of arrangement is
concerned, traditionally, with the sequencing of rhetorical appeals. Sequentiality gets intensified
spatially with the rise of print and its logics of linarity. "Pattern" shows how arrangement, like
memory and delivery, is now being reshaped by new media.
To save arrangement from the same fate that memory and delivery suffered, fates that Joyce (1995), Bolter (1993) and Manovich (2002) trace, Brooke's fourth chapter argues that "with new media the traditional understanding of "arrangement as sequence is more productively conceptualized as arrangement as pattern" (p. 92). Pattern, then, becomes the way out of limiting "containerism" on which print relies. Citing Weinberger (2002), new media objects create a "'a sense of place that creates its own space'" (p. 95). In the spaces of tagclouds, relational databases, and bibliographies, patterns emerge as generative relationships. Instead of establishing a set order within a strictly defined space, the new media rhetor should aim to create the conditions of various possible arrangements that contract and expand what relationships are available.
In moving away from sequential order, the chapter also resists an explicit engagement with the
temporal aspects of the canon. Working against both Manovich and Elbow, Brooke in both instances
avoids the binary opposition between the spatial and temporal, but perhaps in ways that limits
those temporal elements. He does acknowledge this when he states that "every technology gives us
not only a different space, but a different time as well" (p. 93). Despite rendering the temporal
inherent to any discussion of space, the subsequent rise of status updates, feeds, and real-time
RSS syndication might offer productive interfaces to engage the temporal intensification of pattern
"Perspective" considers the function of style in new media. Style's traditional concern for the
relation between form/content is radically undermined in new media that avoids the kinds of
containerism found in speech or print. Unlike the printed page's single focus, the interface
situates a user to interact with several perspectives through the many modes available that allow
for multiple orientations/scales to a single text. This dynamic initiates a detailed
review of scholarship on style wherein Brooke traces, from Aristotle, an understanding of style
that propels us toward a grammatical or mathematical orientation (and the visual). The problem with
understanding style and visuality as only grammatically/mathematically, according to this project,
is that it locates style in an ecology of code and away from the productive spaces found in
ecologies of practice.
Perspective emerges as the concept through which a style for new media might be understood because of the interface. Citing Lanham's (1993) "looking at/looking through" distinction for considering style, Brooke adds "looking from" to account for the situated and partial position of the interface's user (p. 140). This addition to the at/through distinction recognizes the interface as multiple or "[t]o paraphrase Heraclitus, we never use the same interface twice" (p. 133). This move troubles the assumed stability of the interface while also allowing for a category to help explain perspective and positionality as a site of style.
This chapter's finer details are no doubt lost in this summary but its importance, I believe,
will certainly unfold in our near future (if not in the reading of this "review"). A reader should
look closely in this section as the boundaries between code and practice have been shifting in
recent years, and this chapter stands to participate in informaing the countours of such shifting.
For instance, while Brooke stages a compelling narrative for rescuing style from an ecology of code
(grammar), recent work in software studies (Mackenzie 2006; Manovich 2008) might contribute
resources to extend discussions of code as perhaps more entrenched in ecologies of practice than
one might read here.
While the waning of the canon of memory should be an indication of rhetoric's inherent
technicity (p. xviii), the discipline is only beginning to realize the extent to which memory has been
and will continue to be a major factor for rhetoric and writing studies. This chapter attends to
this emerging concern.
"Persistence" explains memory as divided between "personal acts of memorization" and "public
memorial acts." Brooke finds in the first category Plato's lasting critique of writing as a
continuation of a presence/absence distinction and, therefore, situated in the limited ecology of
code. In the second category, memory occurs in an ecology of culture which extends out of our
reach. Taking into account issues of distributed cognition, the chapter then turns to Hayles'
"semiotics of virtuality" as a way out of the strict presence/absence binary and introduces a
pattern/randomness to open memory to the ecology of practice. Brooke recalls from his article
(2000) on memory and posthumanism two instances, Rodney King video/trial and the Challenger
disaster/investigation, to illustrate the ways in which pattern/randomness work to create a
practice of memory. In both cases, there is a reversal of kairotic codes (randomness) and
chronological sequence (pattern) that reveal memory as involved in an ecology of practice, not in
the unconscious ecologies of code and culture most commonly associated with memory, especially in
an age of massive textual recordings.
Brooke confronts this seemingly overabundance of stored "memory" as the final move for this
chapter. Instead of viewing memory as a simple storehouse of networked data, Brooke makes a
distinction between the quantitative dimensions of memory in a distributed model and traces a
qualitative shift in this arrangement. He finds here a practice of memory that relies on a notion
of persistence, like a film's persistence of vision, that establishes a memory practice that is "an
ability to build and maintain patterns" across several texts and interfaces. Brooke concludes the
chapter by tracing a memory practice across interfaces of Google reader, situated tagclouds, and
site aggregating presidential tagclouds. In varying degrees, he shows how memory takes on an
aggregative quality that opens further memory to an ecology of practice.
Brooke opens this chapter by troubling current discussions that the art of delivery has lost a
place in our discussions on rhetoric. Locating a faulty notion of delivery in the transactional
classroom model, the chapter argues that our conception of delivery had been stunted by considering
the canon as only ever a transitive operation, a speaker's/writer's delivery of an object to an
audience (be it an academic paper or a speech). This dynamic of delivery fails to recognize the
intransitive or performance aspects. Not to wholly displace a transitive notion, an intransitive
orientation offers a more productive understanding of practice than previously considered,
especially considering the many media through which delivery occurs.
Brooke outlines recent attempts to align delivery with the increased ability for circulation in our abundant media environments. We read here, implicitly, the same move found in the memory discussion. Circulation adds a quantitative element to delivery where attention to a medium stands to contribute a qualitative distinction. This latter distinction is important, Brooke argues, because a delivery overly focused on circulation suffers the same transitive fate that confines our conception of delivery. A medium's affect on circulation shapes and defines what is circulated; thus, the dynamic introduces performance as a necessary inclusion to delivery.
"Performance" concludes by examining delivery as both a practice and a performance. Two examples show how credibility, ethos delivered, as it is performed by pseudonymous bloggers of through discursive activity in a Wikipedia entry. In each example, delivery cannot be a simple emission of content cleverly packaged to decisive but must, in an interconnected medium, be cultivated and curated as if in the site of a growing archive. Brooke shows how delivery, perhaps a demonstration of ethos, must be performed in a consistent and regular manner. This conception of delivery can be explored further especially, as Brooke himself points out, in performances of identity and, one might suggest, in performance of code itself.
While the book will find its main audience with those studying at the intersection of technology
and rhetoric, scholars outside these narrow confines will find a project that attempts to remap the
viability of such confined space. Lingua Fracta continues a line of recent book-length
works attending to rhetoric's reshaping in the spaces of emerging discursive
technologies. While such works vary in their explicit engagements with technology, each does seek
to revise some form of rhetorical history in favor of a more expansive orientation to rhetorical
production. Brooke's project extends this movement in recent scholarship by
proposing a rethinking of classical concepts in ways that augment the tradition without replacing
It's likely this project will be cited most for its revision to the canons, but the work it does for the trivium should not be ignored. As a layered set of concepts whose operation occurs simultaneously, the ecological frame for the trivium reveals a notion of complexity to the sequential nature of our classical education and inaugurates many new engagements for pedagogy and, further, ethics. Lingua Fracta does not exhaust the possibilities for these ecologies. I've already mentioned a few spaces where the ecologies of code might present several opportunities for future work, but more work might be done in the ecology of culture as well. However, such work in the latter ecology should guard itself from replicating some of the post-structural encounters that Brooke is working against.
Another area that might prove open for several possibilities is a further articulation of the relationship between Brooke's revised canons. Brooke certainly mentions several spots where one canon influences and shapes another, but these mentions occur most frequently as a forward progression (e.g. proairesis' influence upon pattern). It would be interesting to see Brooke's own mention of Burke's "ratios" (p. 44) applied in a more thorough fashion as it is briefly done with the trackback example in "Ecology." For example, what influence might Persistence have on Perspective? Again, it's not that these avenues are left untraveled, just that Lingua Fracta does not close down this work but, rather, leaves its possibilities for exploration open.
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