The context of rhetoric has evolved dramatically from traditional to digital rhetoric. Rhetoric began as speech primarily for political or public purposes. The digital arena has morphed rhetoric into a malleable forum that blurs the line between author and reader, that allows the author to convey a message in one way, and leaves open the possibility for the audience to absorb, interpret, and interact with the message. Rhetoric has survived in the digital world by adapting to the new contexts of audio, visual, text and remix that web 2.0 has allowed.
What is context?
According to Merriam-Webster, context is the parts of a discourse that surround a word or passage and help to explain it's meaning. In other words, context is the situation, which has a direct or indirect effect on the message, content, and overall purpose of a rhetorical situation and the discourse contained within that situation. The importance of context in rhetoric, especially digital rhetoric is that it has the potential to completely change or even slightly alter the purpose of discourse. Ideally, context is always changing, therefore the idea of context is forever changing how discourse is presented, received and understood. Walter Ong, for example, has pointed out that “the revolution of the digital era is the continuation of a tradition begun many centuries ago, in which the organization of signs used in social life into words, not only written but also spoken, and images, had become devices for the mobilization of ideas" (Tapia, 8)
New Approaches to Rhetoric
In New Approaches to Rhetoric by Patricia A. Sullivan and Steven R. Goldzwig, they discuss situations in which rhetoric can be applied effectively. Their untraditional rhetorical contexts allow us to look at rhetoric outside of scholarly settings and outside the conventional world of argument and persuasion. One context they talk about is the presence of rhetoric in the Human Genome Diversity Project (not to be confused with the Human Genome Project). The HGDP is a group of scientists whose main goal is to map the DNA between humans that vary less than 1%. The scientific situation of this context has allowed for discourse to appear, involving issues such as debating the rights of the target group of people and determining the legal and ethical areas this study would be effective. The book goes on to suggest different forms of rhetoric, including rhetoric during the civil rights movement and rhetorics during the cold war.
Rhetoric in Different Contexts
Web 1.0: Web 1.0 is the context that consists in the symbolic cyber space in which everything is static. Nothing changes, there is no interactivity, and it’s just a giant arena for a plethora of information. While it is true that rhetoric can exist in this context, the digital rhetoric that we focus on is going to be most effective and most beneficial in the web 2.0 context.
Web 2.0: Web 2.0 has gone to the next level by taking the information that can be found all over the web, and has changed and adapted it to fit with the digital rhetoric that is developing. Web 2.0 now allows for more interaction and control by the user, and has blurred the line between reality and cyberspace. When referring directly to digital rhetoric, web 2.0 has opened the playing field for the user to now control the context, and the audience to now control the message. While there are still author and creators, the line between them and the audience has been dramatically changed and projects involving remixing and remediation have allowed for more control from the other side of the line in cyber space.
Web 3.0: It’s true that web 3.0 has yet to be defined and classified as a new form of web media. However, we can be sure that rhetoric, especially the interactivity and development of digital rhetoric will survive and ultimately prosper in this new context.
The Rhetorical Situation
In Contemporary Rhetorical Theory they address the importance of the rhetorical situation, including elements such as audience, speaker, subject, occasion and speech. They focus on the importance of a situation in relation to rhetorical discourse but make very clear that the situation doesn't exist because of the discourse. The situation or the context itself calls up the discourse, and that a certain work is rhetorical because of the situation it is in. They say, " ...a work of rhetoric is pragmatic; it comes into existence for the sake of something beyond itself; it functions ultimately to produce action or change in the world; it performs some task."
We can't generalize rhetoric by saying that it's created in effect change, but that a "particular discourse comes into existence because of some specific condition or situation which invites utterance." This challenges our previously ideas that rhetoric exists because something needs to be changed, but that the rhetorical situations are in fact contexts that call for rhetoric.
A rhetorical situation contains three main elements that allow it to function as a rhetorical context. Exigence, audience, and constraints. An exigence is simply defined as an obstacle or something to be done, and comes about of necessity and cannot be changed but can becoming rhetorical when the modification requires or can be assisted by discourse. The one exigence of a rhetorical situation that cannot be changed but has the most impact on the situation is audience. A rhetorical audience "consists of only those persons who are capable of being influenced by discourse and can mediators of change" (pg 221). Constraints are events, persons, and objects that keep the decision or action to modify the exigence from happening. These include, but are not limited to, beliefs attitudes, documents, facts, images, motives, etc. All of these will influence the change the message is trying to invoke within the rhetorical situation.
In a perfect world, exigencies would not exist, we would all get along, and there would be no need for rhetorical discourses or situations. But the world invites change and "creates" situations in which discourse can appear to inflict that change. Thus, rhetoric is separated from the "craft of persuasion" because it does include more elements than merely presenting a message in hopes to invoke change. It requires investigation, motivation, and presentation.
Context and Interpretation
The rhetoric of focuses on hypertext and how it has changed and reorganized how we read and interpret content. In Graphic Design in the Digital Era: The Rhetoric of Hypertext, an article by Alejandro Tapia appeared in Design Issues in the winter issue of 2003, there are several great ideas throughout the article regarding rhetoric and how is it has evolved but remained in its original state.
One idea mentioned right off the bat is that grammar is an expression and form to "regulate our interpretation as we read"(1). While context specifically was never specifically addressed it was stressed throughout the article as having a huge effect on how information is portrayed, for instance, "On a digital soundtrack, for example, a tone of voice easily can be modified or mixed with another. A photograph can be altered by manipulation of pixels, and its traditional referral procedure can be substituted by electronic randomness" (6). Thanks to new technologies such as Photoshop and iMovie anyone with access to a computer has the ability to alter the context of a work; whether it be text, hypertext, video, audio, and/or a visual.
Another concept that is stressed is the idea that as readers we need to look at the content as a whole. Classically we have learned to read linearly but now with the ability to hypertext we are able to recreate the structure of the material we are trying to convey. What does this mean? This means that as a reader we can actively jump from one topic to another freely without being forced to read about a topic in a chronological order from start to finish; instead we can jump from one area to another to read the middle before reading the beginning or the end. Tapia explains this in a far better way than I could, “In classic theories of hypertext, such as Bolster’s or Neilson’s, it also was said that the novel possibility of thinking in complex and multiple structures, with different ways of approaching the text available to the reader, nonlinear process which were better than the old ‘surpassed’ linear systems, and with textual systems than have no beginning, middle or end, was quite unheard of, and that one now must think in terms of interconnectivity and multi-order rather than consecutiveness and hierarchies” (7).
Throughout this semester we have discussed the concepts of web 1.0, 2.0, and what the next phase will be, web 3.0. Tapia gives insight to the value of rhetoric and the different forms it has taken and where it might go. He cites a study on hypertext which states, "Both forms can continue to coexist since, although there are those who argue that multimedia and interactivity alone will survive into the future, the writer believes that pure text also will have a place while there are still those who have something to say in this form" and that the possibilities of nonlinear literary writing have yet to be explored" (9). The concept of hypertext and linking ideas from one page on a website to another that might explain that specific idea further is a perfect example of how web 2.0 allows people to interact with the web and in many ways points to where web 3.0 will go when it finally happens. Web 3.0 is not a matter of if it will happen but when.