Participatory Authorship and Civic Virtue

Aristotelian ethos provides insight into the phenomenon of the "wandering author" in the digital poetics, especially the way in which the position of author shifts in the creation and experience of a digital poem. As the website author of The Word Project (n.d.) highlights, a significant characteristic of digital poetics is its interactivity: to differing degrees, audiences physically as well as psychologically participate in the creation of the poetry itself. They are co-creators, and their response to the poetry is predicated on that active participation.

Participation was also a significant characteristic of fourth century spectacle and of Aristotelian ethos. Here, the see-er could not be separated from what was seen; people actively contributed to and engaged in the visual display. In addition, what was said was inextricable from what was seen. Seeing and saying were simultaneous performances.3 Thus, the central sites of democracy in Athens—sites of rhetorical/political activity such as the assembly hall, agora, and theater—were also the central sites for display. Participation permeated political/rhetorical life, and, as configured by Aristotle, ethos enjoins this participatory process. Ethos cannot be constructed or deployed without the fusion of seeing/saying and of performing/listening. The qualities of arête and phronesis, two of three means by which an ethos is crafted, illustrate the participatory quality of an ethical appeal.

Arête, or virtue, exists via a double presence in Aristotle's ethos. On one level, it is a trait the rhetor establishes through his speaking and his physical presence as intrinsic to his character. Behold. I am a virtuous man. But virtue in fourth century BCE Athens, especially as conceived by Aristotle, also functions on a second level. It is a product of a citizen's participation in his city-state's educational system and his representation of that system. Virtue cannot be isolated from the polis, nor is it located solely within the individual. Virtue is the polis. Self-virtue is inextricable from city-virtue, from each citizen's participation in and manifestation of city-virtue. Classicist C. D. C. Reeve (1996) reminds us that the soul of the politikos is inextricable from the soul of the city-state. Therefore, this second level of virtue is a participatory co-production jointly constituted by rhetor, audience, and city-state.[4]

Phronesis, translated as wisdom or common sense, is similarly constituted, similarly participatory. If a rhetor consistently offers advice that secures the city-state's best interests, he will sustain a reputation for phronesis across time. On the other hand, if he panders to a citizenry's immediate desires, he will eventually be perceived as lacking phronesis. As Amélie Oksenberg Rorty (1996) wryly notes, the city-state usually gets the rhetorician—wise, corrupt, self-serving—that it deserves because, as it validates a rhetor's display of wisdom, it simultaneously constructs and validates what constitutes wise advice for the polis (p. 9).5

The participatory nature of Aristotelian ethos highlights the materiality of participation in digital poetics and the range of that participation. For example, ethos emphasizes that immersion in cyberspace is not a passive process; a user is not, willy nilly, tugged along by the Internet's undertow. Rather, like the Athenian citizen-rhetor, the unique quality of cyberspace revealed by Aristotle's ethos is that a user must actively participate before immersion and as a means to immerse. She must make decisions about access providers, about entry and exit points, about search engines, about self-configuration, and so forth. And all this happens before she contributes the first line of poetry to an interactive site, before she clicks a mouse to initiate a multimedia program.

Furthermore, just as the demarcation between citizen-see-er and citizen-speaker existed as a fluid interface in the fourth century BCE agora, so too does the demarcation between user and maker exist as a fluid nexus in the electronic agora. Especially in hypertextual narratives, fiction that builds on the interactive quality of the World Wide Web, readers can with the click of a mouse become writers, resulting in a restive text and restive author position (Page, 1999). But what ethos exposes is that participation need not require a user's textual contributions. Participation can be anticipation as well. One can participate solely by lurking, by remaining in the "background" and browsing through a site or eavesdropping in a digital poetics listserv. Merely inhabiting cyberspace—anticipating a possible verbal contribution—alters a user's habits of seeing and saying, fostering attitudes of readiness, absorption, and commitment. Participation and anticipation are linked in digital poetics as well as in Athenian citizenship. Cyberspace dissolves the stable separation between self and text, rendering both interactive. So one becomes a netizen-poet in a similar process by which one became an Athenian citizen-rhetor.

In addition, the participatory/anticipatory quality of Aristotelian ethos and its inextricable connection to the polis underscores the importance of the range of participants welcome into the polis. Not all inhabitants of Athens were allowed to engage in the democratic process; only a small percentage of native, property-owning male Athenians had access to the public sphere. Thus, the constitution of virtue and wisdom—the constitution of the polis itself—was an outgrowth of the literal body politic. A similar dynamic holds sway in digital poetics; engagement in the participatory creative act is limited to only those "citizens" who possess access to providers, entry/exit points, search engines, and appropriate software. Just as the material constraints in ancient Athens implicated political engagement, so do the material constraints on digital engagement implicate the virtue and the wisdom that emerge from a particular performance of digital art.

The ethical insights into the author position in digital poetics grow out of this netizenship. A key quality of Aristotle's ethos, is the civic responsibility such participation implies, and a sense of civic responsibility is important to digital poetics. According to Sherry Turkle (1995), the temptation within virtual spheres is to act without accountability, to act under the misapprehension that one's cyberspace performances are ephemeral, possessing no material, real world impact, which gives rise to frivolous, if not malicious, poetic interactivity.

However, Aristotelian ethos belies the specious separation between virtual and material. One listens and sees as a rhetor because one speaks and displays as a citizen. Applied to digital poetics, this perspective induces a netizenship where one's actions in the virtual sphere cannot be separated either from the configuration of that virtual sphere or from the configuration of the real world. Like rhetorical citizenship, poetic netizenship highlights one's civic responsibility within the digital realm and within the material realm. Thus, hyperfiction novelist Carolyn Guyer (1998) can interrogate her antagonistic responses to another writer's contribution to her hypertext fiction and find in that interrogation of digital aesthetics a way to respond ethically in cyberspace and in the real world. Annie Abrahams (1999-2000) can ask wreaders to abstain from contributing pornographic desires to her "wishes" cyberpoem and find in that limitation an ethical stance for "wishes" as well as for the larger web project (being human) of which it is a part.