Digital Rhetoric/Introduction to Rhetorical Practices

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Rhetoric has evolved from oration to print and from print to electronic texts; therefore, the ways we govern, practice, and theorize about rhetoric must change as well. These chapters explore the topics surrounding digital rhetoric and work towards a theory for connecting rhetorical practices to electronic texts.


The History of Rhetorical Practices[edit]

Rhetoric is "the art of speaking or writing effectively." Western traditions of rhetoric were founded in the ancient Greek culture. Classical rhetoric, which is associated with the growth of new governments and social movements, began with the development of Greek city-states, most importantly, Athens. According to Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Hersberg in The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present, classical rhetoric "manages knowledge, conveying but not creating it."


‎Great thinkers and orators like Aristotle, created oral tradition and Plato challenged the notions of form and reality. Aristotle created the classical conventions that governed rhetoric and brought life to the art of oration and public discourse. According to Aristotle, rhetorical discourse has three main areas: political, forensic, and the ceremonial oratory of display (Rhetoric, Book One Part Three). Cicero created the five canons of rhetoric: invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery. These conventions paved the way for rhetorical practices.


The Sophists claimed that all walks of knowledge were woven with rhetoric, because language itself is used to “construct a value-laden worldview" (Bizzell and Hersberg 5). In order to understand how to master the true potential of persuasive language and strive to truth, one had to teach him or herself in many areas of knowledge and life. The Sophists believed that humans could not obtain absolute truth, but probable knowledge is possible by comparing opposing positions and examining all arguments. This challenged the idea of conveying one message when there are multiple truths to explore.

What is Rhetoric?[edit]

Today, rhetoric encompasses almost all "forms of discourse and symbolic communication" (Bizzell and Hersberg 2). Rhetoric has developed into "situated, strategic discourse" (Traci Zimmerman). Strategic discourse, signifying the methodology of a writer's technique creates texts with specific persuasive appeals, which origins can be traced back to Aristotle's rhetorical conventions. These main forms are defined as ethos, pathos, and logos. They are effective because the writer's message is able to solicit the reader's moral stance (ethos), emotions (pathos), and logic (logos). The writer's choice of decorum including voice, style, and use of cultural symbols all play a part in creating discourse. These rhetorical forms are instrumental in addressing the audience, because "rhetorical analysis always takes into account how an audience shapes the composition of a text or responds to it."


The term situated places emphasis on the "when" of rhetoric, analyzing the audience of the moment and the relevant situation surrounding a topic, this is known as Kairos or the opportune moment. Stepping back from the direct relationship between the text and the audience, the text is also shaped by the social environment that it is situated in the occasion or Kairos. The kairos of a text is derived from the writer's purpose for developing a message from their socio-economic or political environment. The kairos transforms the language given the context and the relevance of symbolic understanding by the targeted audience. Symbols are used as a tool to communicate through familiarity and association (Traci Zimmerman). Ann Swidler, author of "Culture in Action: Symbols and Strategies" in the American Sociological Review explains that within a culture, "cultural practices such as language, gossip, stories, and rituals of daily life" are symbolic means to express particular behaviors or views with each other" (273). Thus, the writer's methodology, audience, and occasion are all strategically constructed to convey the writer's message during discourse.


Postmodern writers are not necessarily “learned in philosophy, history, law, literature, and other fields of study” stressed by classical Greek orators, but have greater flexibility to specialize in a particular field (Bizzell and Hersberg). In some way, shape, or form we are all rhetoricians, manipulating the texts around us, tailoring them to persuade or evoke change in an audience.

Introducing Digital Rhetoric[edit]

Our definition of digital rhetoric is similar to the classical rhetoric of ancient Greece and Rome. Today, rhetoric still conveys information and persuades readers or an audience to act or think a certain way. However, digital rhetoric uses the technologies of new media such as the Web, blogs, Websites, video games, forums, video, audio, PowerPoint, e-mail, wikis, and photoshopped images to construct messages, not just oration (Elizabeth Losh). As a result, these genres developed new practices for structuring and conveying discourse (e.g. web style guides or guides to netiquette). The development of new mediums has changed the way we apply rhetorical practices to texts.


As technology advances, so do the ways people communicate and interact with each other. Classical rhetoric originated as a dominant force in public affairs and education. Today, digital rhetoric is prominent in our politics, schools, religions, and homes. This phenomenon is still present but it is the way we create and convey information that has evolved. The two main differences between electronic texts and persuasion compared to traditional texts and persuasion is technology and access. New technologies offer new ways of presenting information, opinions, and ideas. Then, as new technologies become popular the public (you and me) gains access to information and other people’s opinions and ideas. Increased access to information leads to new knowledge, skills, and creativity. Unfortunately, the digital divide, "the gap between those who benefit from digital technology and those who do not," prevents many from accessing and participating in the devices of digital rhetoric.


In Looking to the Future: Electronic Texts and the Deepening Interface, Barbara Warnick asks "How can rhetoricians adapt to the new rhetoric of technology?" (329) Warnick explains that "the implications of new media forms apply in at least two areas of rhetorical practice--production and criticism" (329). Creators of electronic texts are concerned with "audience appeal" which in return leads to "market success" (329). On the other hand, critics of electronic texts have the opportunity to "consider how these producers have exploited the affordances of new media for rhetorical purposes" (329). Thus, the rhetorical practice of analyzing audience, purpose, and occasion of a text still occurs but through new mediums.


The old cannons of rhetoric such as invention, arrangement, and style are present in electronic texts, while the practice of memory and delivery have faded with the emergence of new mediums for communication. Electronic texts are visual documents that can be referenced at any time; therefore, there is no need to memorize the information or text. In addition, classical rhetoric may not be able to determine a specific audience for an electronic text. These texts do not always reach their intended audiences and may attract unfamiliar and diverse audiences. The evolution of communication has revolutionized the way we convey ideas to others.


Rhetoric is everywhere; it is the driving force under everything we do to persuade or manipulate an audience. James Zappen in Digital Rhetoric: Towards an Integrated Theory explains that communication in digital spaces not only persuades by "moving audiences to action or belief, but also self-expression for the purpose of exploring individual and group identities and participation and creative collaboration for the purpose of building communities of shared interest" (322). These communities of shared interest represent the public sphere. The public sphere can be defined by the breadth of people who have access to public discourse. The expansiveness of the sphere can be as large as a major network broadcasting company or as small as a town council meeting. Jürgen Habermas an authoritative figure on the public sphere, examines "communicative action" (18) situated within discourse in different "social systems" (19) as progressing systems that are linking together more and more.


These new mediums create limitless access points for more individuals to voice their opinions and challenge the mainstream thought. Thus, as more people begin to have a voice, the public sphere is less likely to present a united, clear message.

Digital Rhetoric: Changing the Way We Read and Write[edit]

With new technologies and increased access, emerges the question of authorship. In “Who is the author?” Barthes (“The Author is Dead”) explored the issue of authorship by giving the power to understand and interpret texts to the reader. He speaks of a text’s author as its origin and the reader of a text as its destination. Barthes explains that the destination is where the text comes to life (so to say) under the culture and experiences of the reader. But Barthes could not have imagined a World Wide Web, where the lines between author and reader are barely visible. Today’s question of authorship deals with intellectual property right laws, the rights of authors to distribute, sell, and provide permission for use of their works. New media brings new challenges to the current laws and regulations regarding copyright law. This leads to the progressive ideas of Lawrence Lessig, who seeks change in legislation regarding intellectual property right laws to preserve creativity with new media.


In Free Culture, Lessig writes, “Just at the time digital technology could unleash an extraordinary range of commercial and noncommercial creativity, the law burdens this creativity with insanely complex and vague rules and with the threat of obscenely severe penalties” (19). As new media’s emerge, more and more people will have the opportunity to be creative and be inspired by other people’s work. For us to move forward as a creative society, we need to update and change our laws regarding intellectual property law. In addition to updating our laws, we need to educate the public about these laws as to what they entail and what are the consequences for breaking the laws.

Timeline: Evolution of Rhetoric through Examples[edit]

The following is a time line outlining the evolution of rhetoric, listing some great thinkers who have challenged or invented new conventions of rhetoric and their examples. (Timeframe - Source - Example)

ca. 385 BCE Plato, Gorgias Gorgias

ca. 332 BCE Aristotle, Rhetoric Metaphysics

ca. 87 BCE Cicero, De inventione

55 BCE Cicero, De oratore

95 CE Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria

426 Augustine, De doctrina christiana

524 Boethius, De topicis differentiis

630 Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae

1512 Erasmus, De ratione studii

1532 Juan Luis Vives, De ratione dicendi

1550 Richard Sherry, A Treatise on Schemes and Tropes

1553 Thomas Wilson, The Arte of Rhetorique

1555 Peter Ramus, Dialectique

1563 Richard Rainolde, The Foundacion of Rhetorike

1577 Henry Peacham, Garden of Eloquence

1589 George Puttenham, The Arte of English Poesie

  • Modern

("A General Introduction to Rhetorical Theory and Practice" from The Rhetorical Tradition, eds. Bizzell and Herzberg)

1700s George Campbell The Philosophy of Rhetoric

1800s Alexander Bain Education as Science

1900s Kenneth Burke Language as Symbolic Action, Michel Foucault Archaeology of Knowledge, Virginia Woolf To the Lighthouse


2000s Barack Obama Inaugural Address