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The Q Question and the Universe of Play

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You may distribute the text of this article freely, but I would
        appreciate knowing about anything interesting that you do with them.

                                              Tom Maddox
                                              [email protected]

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The Q Question and the Universe of Play

Tom Maddox <[email protected]>



        Richard A. Lanham's The Electronic Word: 
Democracy, Technology and the Arts (Chicago: 
The University of Chicago Press, 1993) does
not take computer networks as its subject,
but it directly addresses issues that anyone
who wants to understand networks--for
instance, the Internet--must confront.  These
include the relationship of the electronic
text to the printed word and to speaking,
writing, thinking, and doing--also, broadly
and, I think, interestingly, the relationship
of the electronic word to knowledge and
virtue. 
        
        Lanham comes to the discussion bearing
an impressive set of humanistic credentials. 
He is a professor of English at UCLA, where
he has taught since 1965, and a successful
scholar in a traditional mode:  his work
includes books about Renaissance literature
and rhetoric and studies of Philip Sidney and
Tristram Shandy.  Also, the essays collected
and threaded together in this book were
published in several estimable academic
journals, including New Literary History and 
South Atlantic Quarterly.  Which is to say,
taking these things together, that he is a
visible and productive member of the class of
professional humanists, whose duty often
seems to consist of despising all the works
of any given contemporaneity, and whose
particular duty in our times seems to be to
despise technology and its works, computer
technology most definitely included.

        However, early on Lanham shows himself
to be a maverick member of the breed, as he
announces quite cheerfully, :

Unlike most humanists discussing
technology, I argue an optimistic
thesis.  I think electronic expression
has come not to destroy the Western arts
and letters, but to fulfill them.  And I
think too that the institutional
practices built upon the electronic word
will not repudiate the deepest and most
fundamental currents of Western
education in discourse but redeem them.

I should quickly note that Lanham writes
without critical-theoretical jargon (though
learned humanist that he is, he does use a
variety of big words and foreign phrases that
the non-academic reader might find daunting).

        Lanham's central gift in discussing
these matters comes from his background in
the history and theory of rhetoric and his
conviction that present discussions about
electronic text fit into an ongoing argument
that dates back millennia.  He characterizes
this quarrel as one between philosophers and
rhetoricians (emblematically, Plato on the
one hand, Isocrates on the other) and their
attempt to answer what the calls the "Q
question"--named, he says, after the
classical teacher of rhetoric Quintilian, who
first posed it.  (I suspect he also alludes
to the hypothesized "Q"--thought to be the
lost original for the Gospels.)  

        The Q question is simple and deep: 
Lanham explains it as a problem that

has plagued Western humanism from first
to last.  We have a paideia, a
"discipline of discourse" . . . we all
like to teach and always, in one form or
another, have taught.  But no one has
ever been able to prove that it does
conduce to virtue more than to vice. 

In short, how can we know that a person
trained in rhetoric will be a good person?
And by extension, how can we know that
humanism works to train good people? 
        
        Lanham divides defenses of humanism into
"Weak" and "Strong."

The Weak Defense argues that there are
two kinds of rhetoric, good and bad. 
The good kind is used in good causes,
the bad kind in bad causes.  Our kind is
the good kind; the bad kind is used by
our opponents.  This was Plato's
solution, and Isocrates', and it has
been enthusiastically embraced by
humanists ever since.

However, as he points out, this answer does
not work in courts of law, where "the
advocate cannot prejudge the case lest he
threaten both justice and his own
livelihood."  Hence in the courts Lanham
finds the locus of the Strong Defense, which

assumes that truth is determined by
social dramas, some more formal than
others but all man-made.  Rhetoric in
such a world is not ornamental but
determinative, essentially creative. 
Truth once created in this way becomes
referential, as in legal precedent.

Lanham goes on to discuss the implications of
this question and these answers for a
university curriculum and for the debate
entered into by such figures as E. D. Hirsch,
Jr., Allan Bloom, and William Bennett.  Along
the way he makes excellent arguments for the
Strong Defense and, hence, for humanistic
pluralism.

        Lanham speaks throughout his book of the
"bi-stable" text, of oscillations between the
philosophic and rhetorical modes, of an
inherent bi-stability in culture, which needs
both modes.  Thus he does not, as do so many
commentators in these fields, seek to force
the reader to choose--between philosophers
and rhetoricians, great book and popular
culture artifact.  His vision is good-natured
and reasonable, democratic in its acceptance
of popular culture  

        However, at this point I trust my reader
is wondering what the hell all this has to do
with the electronic word.  It is this:

Print . . . is a "philosophic" medium,
the electronic screen a deeply
"rhetorical" one.  Once again, the
quarrel, the item on the intellectual
agenda, preceded the means of expression
it so badly needs in order to sort
itself out.  Technology is following the
main "operating system" disagreement in
our time, not driving it.

He sees the differences between print (he
refers to the "codex book" as its ideal
medium) and electronic text as profound.  The
considerable history of print technology can
be seen as working toward an ideal
"transparency" of typeface and writing style:

[T]his unselfconscious transparency has
become a stylistic, one might almost say
a cultural, ideal for Western
civilization.  The best style is the
style not noticed; the best manners, the
most unobtrusive; convincing behavior,
spontaneous and unselfconscious.

The electronic text, on the other hand,
reintroduces the text as visible object:

        Pixeled print calls this basic
stylistic decorum, and the social ideal
built upon it, into question. 
Electronic typography is both creator-
controlled and reader-controlled.  
........................................
All kinds of production decisions have
now become authorial ones.  The textual
surface has become permanently bi-
stable.  We are always looking first AT
it and then THROUGH it, and this
oscillation creates a different implied
ideal of decorum, both stylistic and
behavioral.  Look THROUGH a text and you
are in the familiar world of the
Newtonian interlude, where facts were
facts, the world was really "out there,"
folks had sincere central selves, and
the best writing style dropped from the
writer as "simply and directly as a
stone falls to the ground," precisely as
Thoreau counseled.  Look AT a text,
however, and we have deconstructed the
Newtonian world into Pirandello's and
yearn to "act naturally."

Lanham goes on to talk about the electronic
text as the fulfillment of the central
aesthetic of 20th century art as it has found
expression through movements as diverse as
the Futurists, Dadaists, and postmodern art
in general.  In fact, he sees the
digitization of the arts as a kind of
universal (and democratic) solvent:

What will emerge finally is a new
rhetoric of the arts, an unblushing and
unfiltered attempt to plot all the
ranges of formal expressivity now
possible, however realized and created
by whom- (or what-) ever.  This rhetoric
will make no invidious distinctions
between high and low culture, commercial
and pure usage, talented or chance
creation, visual or auditory stimulus,
iconic or alphabetic information.

Here we have an expression of his
proposition, quoted above, that "electronic
expression has come not to destroy the
Western arts and letters, but to fulfill
them."  I find Lanham's vision genuinely
humanistic--which is to say, liberal,
pluralistic, inclusive.

        Lanham also believes that the ascendancy
of the rhetorical mode that must naturally
occur with the displacement of print text by
electronic text will restore a fundamental
balance to culture and the debates about it. 

Our present squabble in the public
prints about teaching Western culture is
usually animated on both sides by a
radical misapprehension about what
"Western culture" has always been.  We
are asked to believe that it has been a
print-stable collection of Great Ideas
enshrined in Great Books. . . . But
Western education has in its essence
been rhetorical, has been based . . .
not on a set of great ideas, but on a
manner of apprehension; it has taught as
central not knowledge but how knowledge
is held.

Here as elsewhere, Lanham does an excellent
job of bringing several contexts together.

        Lanham takes up other interesting
questions (such as the extraordinary
readiness of people to use the personal
computer) and engages in a series of detailed
analyses of other commentators on these
matters.  I find his demolition of Neil
Postman--exemplar of the type of the kneejerk
technophobe--especially enjoyable, likewise
his rebuttals of Hirsch and Bloom.  Lanham
also reads Jay David Bolter's Writing Space
(one of the first and still one of the best
books about hypertext and the technology of
writing in general) with a sympathetic and
critical eye.  

        Concerned primarily with the transition
from print text to pixel text, Lanham does
not directly address computer networks, but
his arguments certainly apply there.  The
worlds of the Internet (and quasi-connected
systems such as America Online or quasi-
isolated systems, such as Compuserv, GEnie,
or Prodigy) present us with the new
rhetorical mode in full force:  a radically
destabilized arena where reality is defined
through ritual and drama, and the very
identities of the participants are often
unclear.  

        Lanham connects the resurgence of the
rhetorical mode to drama, play, and lies--to
the destabilized self trying out new
strategies, playing through language at new
kinds of becoming.  And these are the aspects
of the networks that captivate many people
who spend significant portions of their time
there.  Along these lines, I am amused by the
indignation expressed by writers on the nets
(many of them journalists, usually new to the
milieu) concerning such commonplaces as false
or gender-crossed identities and flaming. 
How dare they? ask the indignant.  How dare
they pretend they are someone they are not? 
How dare they use such language or provoke
such pointless quarrels?  The answer Lanham
provides:  because the network makes such
things possible, and human beings love to do
them.  

        In fact, I believe such play explains
what would otherwise seem the inexplicable
popularity of the nets.  They are an arena
for fully human, fully adult play:  for
assuming fictive identities or, more subtly,
for creating new modes of one's own; for
making elaborate flirtations, even those that
one would find threatening or shocking in
real life; for threatening, strutting,
posing, and any number of other similarly
tasteless or unacceptable kinds of un- or
anti-social behavior.  To make an untenable
but perhaps instructive generalization: 
children and adolescents play games on
computers and networks, while adults play
computers and networks as games.

        Also, as Lanham shows, the nature of
reality is unstable on networks.  His central
metaphor here is the courtroom, where reality
becomes what the judge says it is (in Samuel
Johnson's words), but networks present even
more unstable microcosms.  As part of the
play impulse, there we create fictive worlds
(I think one could argue that the networks
themselves are fictive worlds) and invest
them with human meaning.  New participants
join in all the time, and the worlds change
with their contributions--these things are
obviously true of MUDs, MOOs, and the like,
the multi-user role-playing environments; I
believe they are also true of a Usenet
newsgroup.

        The experiences of play and reality-
creation unite to form a special kind of
subjectivity that is common to the networks. 
Space and time there acquire a strange
elasticity; as I've discussed in previous
columns, distance is a function of
connectivity, not geography, and time may
loop back on itself in counter-intuitive
ways.  

        However, every age has its serious
philosopher-kings, who would banish poets and
play from all universes, and would freeze
reality into whatever forms they think it
should contain, and the networks certainly
provoke such people.  As Lanham makes clear,
however, the resurgence of the rhetorical
mode in our time takes place across a wide
variety of practices and disciplines--from
physicists to musicians, we're all infected
with it.  And perhaps we're all morally or
otherwise doomed unless we repent and change
our ways, as Neil Postman, Allan Bloom,
WIlliam Bennett, among a host of others,
assure us; but I think not.  I think we bear
the curse of living in extremely interesting
times, to which The Electronic Word provides
an excellent guide.

e-mail address:  [email protected]

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