Classical Rhetoric Up In Smoke: Cool Persuasion, Digital Ethos, and Online Advocacy

by Mark D. Pepper | Utah Valley University

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In this digital information age, have we simply outgrown the need for Classical rhetoric concepts? How can they possibly still be useful considering how much the world has changed?

Classical notions of how persuasion and rhetoric operate should obviously change. Of course, rhetorical tactics need to be tied to the current contexts of any culture. However, Alan Liu's (2004) work with cool ethos and Teena A. M. Carnegie's (2009) more recent work with the interface as exordium demonstrate that Classical rhetoric concepts can be updated for the digital age and still provide a useful lens. In 2007, the online journal Kairos even offered an entire special issue on the intersection of Classical Rhetoric and digital media. Co-editors Cheryl E. Ball and Beth L. Hewett (2007) introduced the issue by suggesting, "The classical ancestors of Western rhetoric are undeniably important to contemporary rhetorical thinking; thus, it is valuable to consider what they might think of today's digital world." In this issue, Kristie Fleckenstein (2007) offered a complex look at participation, interactivity, and distribution of the author position across digital poetics (a term that "encompasses fictional/theatrical/poetic performances blossoming in cyberspace").

Fleckenstein (2007) saw these performative, interactive, and co-authored websites as digitally reflecting many elements of an Athenian citizen-rhetor's life, especially in regards to ethos. Athenian citizens were encouraged to attend the Athenian sites of rhetorical/political activity because "the see-er could not be separated from what was seen; people actively contributed to and engaged in the visual display . . . what was said was inextricable from what was seen. Seeing and saying were simultaneous performances." This co-mingling of bodies was necessary, for as Fleckenstein noted, "Ethos is not located in the speaker or in an audience or in a site. It is dispersed throughout the ecology of speaker, audience, scene, and city-state." Participation was nothing short of a civic virtue, and it was this maintaining of a rhetor/audience interaction that created a complex stew of ethos, arête (virtue), and phronesis (common sense).

Likewise, Fleckenstein (2007) saw a world of choices in a net user's decision to "attend" an online aesthetic performance. Even before making an active contribution to a text or poem, "like the Athenian citizen-rhetor . . . 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." Once at the site of their choice, the user must see what is already there and has an ethical responsibility "to act in such a way that the context—the resonance—survives." If their contributions do not maintain the harmony and balance of the emerging text, they may be treated as poorly as an Athenian rhetor who doesn't have the larger city-state's best interests in mind. Fleckenstein even drew a comparison to unequal participation. "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." Likewise, participation in digital poetics encompasses a wide range of activity from actual contributions to a piece to silently lurking or lacking the confidence to contribute.

Though Fleckenstein's (2007) article was a fascinating and well-researched account of digital ethos, the article seems primarily interested in how Aristotelian ethos can make an easy translation to today's digital texts. I am more interested in how the digital translation reveals how the concept gets changed. For example, the humanist roots of ethos are showing signs of cracking in our digital information age. For Aristotle, the audience decided if another person had good ethos; in other words, the speaker essentially appeared before them like an object that could be filled with the qualities of authority and credence. The audience fixed the speaker in this identity formation (of one that has good ethos), and essentialized this as an element of the speaker's identity perhaps even before he or she began to communicate. The speaker then possessed that ethos as if it were an object they had been authorized to hold dominion over, actively evoke, and use rhetorically. However, in most communicative situations, the speaker cannot be entirely sure that they've been granted the qualifier of "one with good ethos." The speaker speaks from the authority he or she cannot be entirely sure has been granted. The speaker risks losing that ethos at any time, as if their very subjectivity is like a sieve that cannot keep what it's been filled with forever.

Cool, like it or not, circumvents all these potential problems of ethos in its Aristotelian form. Information itself takes on ethos by virtue of its design and means of interface. Yes, the audience still decides the virtues of this ethos, but they do so by standards of self-reflection (as opposed to assigning virtue to a human subject). The information interface doesn't care if it essentially has "good ethos" because, at the risk of hammering the obvious, it doesn't have feelings or self-awareness of its own. The cool interface can't lose its ethos, as people often do, because it was never the interface's ethos to possess. The interface exists to be looked at and interacted with—ethos is the visitor's own pleasing recognition of this attention. Cool may or may not prove persuasive, but cool ultimately really doesn't care. Cool merely wants you to look at it and even revel in how potentially useless and unpersuasive it might end up being.

To what extent do these thoughts on cool affect webtexts in general?

As someone with a background in digital rhetorics and cultural studies, I critique precisely because I care about the possibilities of digital spaces (and the cultural forces that come to shape them). Webtexts can obviously be exciting pieces of work that do things and make arguments that traditional print simply cannot. The possibilities they offer ("generous interfaces," interactivity, non-linearity, timeliness, etc.) have altered the ecology of persuasion in ways that anybody who is reading these words is well aware of. Some of the most interesting ones (heck, I'm biased) can be experienced by visiting any of the academic journals in the field of rhetoric and composition. These journals are noteworthy for the ways they take the possibilities and values of digital rhetorics and "generous interfaces" without sacrificing the credibility and reason that truth so readily jettisons.

The journal Vectors aptly sums up the most important mantra of any webtext: "Simply put, we publish only works that need, for whatever reason, to exist in multimedia." Webtexts haven't abolished print, so there's nothing worse than a print essay that merely adds some color, adds some paragraph tags, and calls it good. Vectors takes this simple mantra and includes a number of features that encourage participation and transparency. There are links for users to report technical issues to developers, which creates a community responsibility to keep the site functional. Each article includes technical specs (like a list of plug-ins required for optimal viewing) which highlights a commitment to access. Designers' statements are nice touches that not only give insight into the reasoning behind the multimodality but also allow designers to shine while teaming up with authors who lack coding skills.

A newcomer to the scene, Itineration, seeks "non-traditional" texts that take "risks." Of particular note is their "Big Ideas" feature which is a "monthly video series that features a member of the academic, para-academic, or non-academic community responding to a predetermined prompt or question." Though at this moment the videos have been mostly "talking heads," there's something inviting and novel about actually seeing the face of someone articulating his or her ideas (an opportunity the academic community usually only gets at conferences). By also posting these videos on YouTube, Itineration is making a wonderful attempt to open up these ideas to audiences beyond the traditionally academic.

Finally, Kairos has been publishing webtexts since 1996 (three years before any web browser was fully compliant with CSS 1 specifications). From a site design perspective, Kairos probably offers the easiest path to information about its board and staff, so a user is never unsure about the credentials behind this information. Kairos has consistently published a wide variety of multimodal texts from HTML websites, embedded Scribd documents, interactive Adobe Flash pieces, and professional quality videos. More impressively, it's not uncommon for published texts to make specific calls for audience participation. For example, Claire Lauer's (2012) piece in the 17.1 issue included a link to contribute a definition of digital texts to the Sweetland Digital Rhetoric Collaborative. In the 16.2 issue, Jeremy Cushman and Alex Layne (2013) have invited rewriting and remixing of their wiki on Gregory Ulmer's notion of electracy (such PraxisWikis are common across Kairos's archives). Such efforts mirror Fleckenstein's (2007) notion of an ethical responsibility for a community to compose collaboratively, and everything I've mentioned about these journals suggests a strong dedication to a digital ethos that still values logical, researched, and deliberate discourse.

Despite all this praise, these journals are certainly not cool; at least, they're not cool as I've defined the concept here. At the same time, it doesn't take a PhD to recognize that statement is not criticism. I often notice my own attention while reading these journals (and feel cool for doing so); however, we can't forget that "curious contradiction" of cool where the uselessness of useful information is celebrated. I'd like to think that our community of scholars finds this information very useful, inspiring, and generative. Though, I do sometimes wonder. Look at and you'll see plenty of great posts . . . very few comments. Lauer's (2012) invitation for definitions at the Sweetland Collaborative has received two contributions (after four months). The forums sections over at Vectors (or the comments section under each article over at Present Tense) aren't exactly empty, but they're not exactly hotbeds of communication either.

I am in no way faulting the respective journals. Maybe if you build it . . . they won't come. Or maybe any webtext ultimately faces some of the same problems as cool. Put differently, Jodi Dean (2009) may be more correct than many of us would like to admit. Sometimes just "being there" feels like enough. Spaces can be opened for participation, but it can't be forced. Persuasion can be attempted, but it can't be easily measured. I'm left banking on the fact that our community of scholars is affected and inspired by these webtexts even if the texts' invocations for additional contributions are not always met with astounding numbers (a look at the history of intertextual citation could help prove this). However, the second I acknowledge this possibility, I have to acknowledge that perhaps the same is true over at thetruth. If truth is actually persuading teens not to smoke, we must first commend them because their cause is noble. But if they're doing it without the same dedication to credentials, transparency, and reason so well highlighted by the aforementioned journals, it's worth asking who has the better plan. I'm not sure that question is as easy to answer as I'd like it to be.

As an educator of students who teaches rhetoric, argumentation, and digital texts, how can (or should) the idea of cool digital ethos affect my pedagogy?

The voices calling for an invisible interface have largely disappeared in rhetoric and composition circles. The work of Cynthia L. Selfe and Richard J. Selfe (1994), Anne Wysocki and Julia Jasken (2004), and many others has set a firm foundation for considering the rhetoricity of the interface and how its construction can affect the audience. When I teach interface construction in my web design classes, I encourage my students to see the importance of their interface and to craft strategies that serve their rhetorical purposes. I encourage them to consider their web site's potential audience and to predict that audience's needs and preferences. No, none of this is exactly radical.

In Richard Lanham's (2006) "attention economy," I do not believe that taking steps to capture that scarce resource of attention is a negative tactic, and interface design is certainly an effective way to do so. Wanting someone to recognize that it feels good to be using a site is not a goal that is suspect in and of itself. At the same time, I don't want my students thinking that interface is everything. I don't want them to think that obfuscation of reason, citation, and credentials is a best means of persuasion (even if it is technically available). But that's the tricky part, right? This is an available means of persuasion, or sites like truth's wouldn't be banking on it. We live in a culture inundated by cool, and the more problematic aspects of this fact will not go away simply by ignoring this fact.

I've shown truth's site to students who probably skew a bit out of the organization's target age bracket. They almost unanimously think the site is ridiculous. This outcome brings up a host of questions for future exploration including: What does it mean when adults think this is the best way to persuade teenagers? How do the tactics of cool ethos prepare young learners for truly engaged activism and passion for a cause? But the question I'm most concerned with as an educator is: How do we make cool the very things that parts of culture insist are very uncool (logic and reason, fact checking, in-depth dialogue, etc.)? My use of the word "cool" here refers to the aspects that can work in an educator's favor. Put differently, how do we alter the attention economy in such a way that people will notice themselves giving attention to reasoned debate and feel personally rewarded by the depth, nuance, and respect of their communications with others versus their mere acts of creating communication for the sake of its creation? This is the work that needs to be done. Cool is not going anywhere. But what constitutes cool can change. There's a middle ground where a pleasing and interactive interface can be the pathway to complex, democratic, and effective discourse. In this middle ground, an individual sees themselves looking at an interface and at useful motivating information. doesn't seem to think so. As educators and instructors of design, we need to believe it . . . and make it happen.

Uncool Sidebar

In another section, I made the analogy that cool is like a magician's trick. All that matters is the flashiness of the end result; revealing the how-to (the reason, the credentials) would ruin the trick. So allow me to be uncool and make a note on the sidebars throughout this webtext. In design and tone I have strived to model throughout my work and this modeling is especially true in the sidebars. Perhaps they have proven humorously silly, aesthetically punchy, or trivially interesting. I highly doubt they have proven to be a persuasive element of this work, nor is that their intention (at least not directly). Think of them as the music, sports, and games of truth's site—the elements that pander to truth's target audience by having nothing to do with their persuasive message. The difference is—whereas truth hopes the audience will see their lifestyles and interests in these elements (therein transferring truth's message without being preachy or uncool), I fully expect my frivolous asides to awkwardly stand out in the context of academic publishing, which even at its most playful moments, still maintains standards of relevancy and usefulness.

This comparison to academic journals reveals a final problem with cool. By its very individual meta-awareness nature, it can't be used very successfully to target specific audience groups. In other words, if it's up to an individual to feel validated by his or her own attention to the information interface, how can cool hope to produce that effect across a demographic? truth is obviously targeting teens, but they have to do so in such a broad way (Teens like music! Teens like sports! Teens like games!) that it's virtually impossible to delight the attention of such a broad swath of people. Teens (and consumers in general) are far smarter than a lot of cultural theory gives them credit for, and I firmly believe that many visitors to thetruth can immediately sense the deep pandering and ironic posturing (this could account for that 69% single page view statistic).

I'm not suggesting the academic audience is homogenous, so I have no way of knowing how any element of this text affected you. I can't directly gauge if you felt self-consciously pleased at the attention you bothered to give this interface. However, knowing enough about the conventions of scholarly writing, in these sidebars and other elements I have tried to produce that feeling of distraction, pandering, and uselessness that many one-time visitors to thetruth might feel. At the same time, maybe these distractions were refreshing. Maybe you came to celebrate their uselessness in the same way I have while composing this text. If this is true, it only proves that while digital cool may be easily critiqued, it shouldn't be easily dismissed.

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