Dialectic: From Abstracting Spirit to Paying Attention
The dialecticians of antiquity and the trivium are seldom called dialectians, but instead tend to be labeled philosophers, stoics, scholastics, and even rhetoricians. McLuhan (2006), like most scholars, identified the roots of dialectic in Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Socrates as dialectician was not interested in organizing knowledge eloquently but instead examining the status and nature of things (p. 45). Plato’s physis of being versus the emergent nomos of Heraclitus and the Sophists drives a wedge between that which is being represented and the representation that must make the case for what it describes. This wedge between status and eloquence did not take hold immediately, however, as the form of dialectic was still conveyed using the eloquent practices of the day:
- In the Cratylus, . . . Plato asserts the superior claims of dialectics [as opposed to grammar] for the same work [exegesis of the natural, linguistics, and literary world], but, as a philosopher who habitually employed the grammatical modes of poetry and myth to express this own most significant and esoteric teachings, he is far from confident that grammar can be or ought to be entirely superseded. Shortly afterwards, however, Aristotle established the nature of non-grammatical scientific method in the Posterior Analytics. His achievement bore no fruit until the twelfth century. Until the twelfth century, therefore, grammar reigned unrivaled as the prime mode of science, and, for the patristic period, of theology as well. (McLuhan, 2006, p. 18)
Dialectic, according to McLuhan, was vigorously practiced in the middle ages, but seldom given privilege over grammar or rhetoric—the middle ages were grammatical in emphasis (p. 106). McLuhan went so far as to say that Plato and Aristotle were "mere froth and verbage" (p. 56) in the middle ages, and that the vast majority of educated men at the time were influenced by Cicero and The Sophists, while Aristotle and Plato were important to only a handful of people (p. 64). Dialectics pushed grammar and rhetoric aside in the 12th century with the founding of modern universities and through the work of scholastics like Peter Abelard and Thomas Aquinas. McLuhan’s history points out, however, that these labels are points of emphasis, not totalizing terms. Abelard worked in the method of the grammarian—encyclopedic, gathering collected texts—even as he championed dialectics (p. 103). Dialecticians, from Socrates to Descartes, are defined not only by their quest for “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” (p. 53) but also by their distrust of, and distaste for, rhetoric.
McLuhan (2006) argued that the spirit of scholasticism was misapplied in the 18th and 19th century as the “abstracting spirit,” which in turn influenced literary historians of the late 19th and early 20th century (p. 183). McLuhan, from his dissertation through to his final book, The Laws of Media: A New Science, aligned himself with the grammarians and rhetoricians, and against the dialecticians from Plato and Aristotle to Derrida and Ricouer. Without putting McLuhan’s negative baggage at the doorstep of 20th century philosophy and the multidisciplinary theory that has enriched rhetorical studies and English studies, we would like to simply (and obviously) acknowledge that there is valuable work in the dialectic tradition being done outside and inside the field of English studies. The trivium as storage device and heuristic, however, can be useful in clarifying why scholars like Katherine Hayles, Jacques Derrida, Deleuze and Guattari, and Jean Baudrillard might be sorted and stored under the category "dialectic" rather than "rhetoric," even though contemporary philosophy has increasingly sought to be embodied and practical. The engaged intellectual, as Martin Jay (1973) explained in the introduction to The Dialectical Imagination, is challenged to maintain critical distance from social problems even as he or she seeks to make a political and social difference: "The critical intellectual is in a sense less engagé when he [sic] is self-consciously partisan than when he adheres to the standards of integrity set by his craft" (p. xiv-xv). The dialectic tradition in the early 21st century has largely been subsumed by critical theory, critical thinking, and critical technological literacy—to name a few descendants—and can be seen at work in the technological skepticism of political theorist and philosopher Langdon Winner and clearly emphasized in Stuart Selber's (2004) "Technological Dramas: A Meta-Discourse Heuristic For Critical Literacy."
Langdon Winner's (1977) Autonomous Technology laid the groundwork for a more sustained dialectical critique of the technological change that underlies much of new media practice. His critical stance toward the philosophical teleology of contemporary digital and automated practices forge a usable heuristic for seeing the negative impacts of technology on embodied practices. His foregrounding of the material consequences of particular technology philosophies grounds later new media dialecticians—particulary the notion of reverse adaptation: "the adjustment of human ends to match the character of available means" (239). Winner's study decoupled particular artifacts from their philosophical trajectories, and created a space for an eloquent reflection that helps forward more careful production practices like critical technological literacy.
The powerful influence of critical technological literacy in the field of computers and writing hints at the possibility that the field is currently as much or more dialectical than rhetorical or grammatical. Cindy Selfe's (1999) Technology and Literacy: The Importance of Paying Attention was an influential call to pay attention to the status and nature of technology and literacy in the dialectic tradition, while Stuart Selber's (2004) "Technological Dramas" played the role of dialectiacian par excellence. In this article, he "steps back from [. . . pedagogical] activities in order to offer a meta-discourse that is conceptual in nature, one that provides a theoretical toolbox for understanding the politics of technology" (p. 172). He continued to summarize and offer possible applications for Bryan Pfannberger's heuristic for understanding the "technologoical dramas"—the statements, counterstatements, scenes, actors, and actions—that are performed in higher education and other institutions (p. 175). Selber acknowledged, however, that Pfannberger's heuristic "is not as rhetorically sensitive as it might be," leaving Selber to apply the heuristic to situations relevant to "computers and writing specialists" (p. 172). His application, however, is not the application of the rhetorician or grammarian, but instead remains the application of the dialectitian, encouraging computers and writing specialists to be active critics of their institution's technological forces, design cultures, use settings, and popular representations of technology. Selber resisted exploring pedagogical applications, and did not even recommend this particularly complex heuristic for students, preferring to encourage critical technological literacy on the part of teachers and administrators.
The battle between philosophy and rhetoric that Stanley Fish sketched has, at least within the computers and writing community, subsided to the point where the philosophers seek political action and the rhetoricians seek space and time to reflect more carefully on their work. But maintaining some separation, distance, and/or database tags that can identify the technological skepticism of Langdon Winner and the critical technological literacy of Cindy Selfe, Stuart Selber, and much of the computers and composition community, as emerging from a dialectical tradition seems relevant to thinking about the direction of scholarship, courses, and curriculums in digital communication. "Paying attention" requires ongoing vigilance, and Selber ended his article with a reminder that he had offered only one meta-discourse heuristic, and that there remains much scholarly work to be done in this area (2004, p. 193). Critical technological literacy is undoubtedly incorporated into many courses, from first-year composition to graduate seminars, but do our minors and majors in writing studies, new media studies, and digital communication devote curricular time and space to full-scale philosophy of technology courses?
The expansion of the locus of dialectic away from the right/wrong or embodied/disembodied quarrels can position dialectic as a useful point in the trivial triangle. Seen not as a quarreling sibling, but rather as a productive triplet, the New Media scholar/artist/rhetor can deploy dialectic as a type of productive analysis. Rather than a reductive debate or a static picture, the dialectical tradition of skepticism and analytical precision provides a useful complement to the eloquent wisdom of the grammarian and the skillful performance of the rhetorician.
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