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The Q Question and the Universe of Play

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.