The Resurgence of a Visual-Oral Culture

Fourth century BCE Athens and the twenty-first century West are not as disparate as might be initially concluded. For instance, both are marked by a visual-oral culture, and that similarity provides connective tissue linking rhetoric and aesthetics, ethos, and the author position in digital poetics.

As it developed in Athens, rhetoric was an art of display, a dynamic process in which sign and design—saying and seeing—were inextricable. Historically, the orality and aurality (not the visuality) of classical rhetorical speech has been emphasized. Walter Ong (1982) highlights the temporal quality manifested in the orality of ancient rhetoric in contrast to the spatial quality of visual print rhetoric, which focuses attention on the page. Steven B. Katz (1996) has similarly argued for a renewed attention to the "aural" aspects of language, and thus, its temporal quality, in conjunction with affective engagement. What is elided in this scholarship is the degree to which orality/aurality were inextricably linked to the visual in fourth century BCE Athens.

Art historian Barbara Maria Stafford (1997) notes: "[W]hat has been insufficiently emphasized to date is the fact that this past oral culture was also fundamentally visual" (p. 48).The speaking voice fused with the places and spaces crafted to enhance that speaking. Sociologist Richard Sennett (1994) describes the architectural structure of Athens, a city marked by open, exposed spaces that invited visual and verbal display, as a harmony of flesh and stone: naked spaces designed for naked speaking (p. 33). Classicist Simon Goldhill (1996) concurs: "The institutional spaces of the democratic city thus established the citizens' gaze as the field in which position was contested and made the collective, participatory spectator the role of the citizen" (p. 19). More specificially, fourth century BCE Athens and twenty-first century cyberspace share the quality of spectacle. Goldhill defines spectacle as a participatory and collective form of visual regard in which seeing and saying are mutually complementary. The fourth century BCE Athenian citizen perceived his social-political identity as a fluid amalgamation of his performances as see-er/listener and as do-er/speaker in the agora, law courts, and assembly hall (pp. 18-19). It was within this milieu of spectacle that an Athenian rhetor crafted his ethos: the powerful persuasive appeal of a speaker's identity, of his good character evoked by his words and his physical presence in a specific site.

Digital poetics, as it developed in the twentieth and twenty-first century, is also an art of display, of spectacle, in which sign and design—saying and seeing—are inextricable.[2] Hypertextual voices fuse with hypermediated spaces and places, yielding a blend of discourse and iconography variously called "visual writing" or "lex-icons" (Lennon, 2000, p. 64) and "collage-writing" (Landow, 1999, p. 150). Especially apparent in cybertext poetry, an artform that turns the production of text "into a spectacle" (Ryan, 1999, p. 9), words and meanings morph on screen in what John Cayley, designer of Indra's Net, calls a visual performance. In poetry websites we can read a poem, view pictures (static and moving), and listen to the author read the poem via an audio interface all at the same time. Within this verbal-visual nexus, readers and writers morph into what cybercritics call "wreaders," a fluid amalgamation of see-er and do-er (Ryan, 1999). Thus, the experience of digital poetry, like the experience of rhetoric, is a multimedia event—an art of display—one that shifts across hearing and visuality, time and space.

Along with sharing a corresponding visual-verbal milieu, the two eras also share the problems attendant to spectacle. For instance, in such a shifting participatory field, where do we locate the site of authority, of persuasion, of beauty? How do we determine who's speaking, who's writing, who's listening, who's reading? How do we know who's who?

Lodged within a context that blurs seeing and saying, Aristotle constructs a concept of ethos that emphasizes the liquid movement among speaker, audience, scene, and context, offering a powerful lens for re-seeing author positions in digital poetics.