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

by Mark D. Pepper | Utah Valley University

piece of digital computer art
Burning Cigarette

Digital Cool: Digital Culture

If the concept of cool is always affected by cultural changes, then the dawn of the information age and the networks of computers that made it possible must also transform the concept once more. As might be expected, how cool operates in digital environments is a point of contention. While cool may be appropriated into a manner of purposefully creating and living in digital space, cool might also be a threat to established traditions of how knowledge is created and transferred. But is the debate really that simple?

Cool Meets the Information Age

When approaching the idea of cool's rhetorical function and its latest incarnations in the digital/information age, there have been at least two excellent sources to cover this ground—Jeff Rice's (2007) The Rhetoric of Cool: Composition Studies and New Media and Alan Liu's (2004) The Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information. My own argument will be located within a tension between the two works, but both have a wealth of insights about cool since the age of computers and networks.

Rice's (2007) work is instrumental in taking cool away from the realm of an attitude, an ideology, or a sensibility, as he firmly declares cool to be rhetorical action. Like Dick Pountain and David Robins (2000), Rice acknowledges that the term is incredibly difficult to pin down and thusly uses that malleability to produce his own definition of what cool writing (or cool school) might be. Rice stated, "I am interested in how cool functions as a rhetorical act . . . how cool shapes an emerging technological apparatus we are living, working, studying, and teaching in" (p. 2). More specifically, "I am writing against the status quo [a cool move of Rice's own writing] by arguing the cool writer as not cool for her identity . . . but rather how she is cool for the way she uses specific rhetorical practices to make meaning in electronic environments" (p. 6). Rice's own rhetorical move is to return to Aristotle's topoi which establish common meanings, ideas, and assumptions that allow a rhetor to structure his or her argument in familiar (and therefore assessable) ways. Rice works from Gregory Ulmer's critique of the topoi as serving print culture's need for expectation and fixed–places of argument (paragraphs, tables, footnotes, etc.). He adopts chora (originally from Plato) to update the topoi for a digital age where "choral writing organizes any manner of information by means of the writer's specific position in the time and space of culture" (Ulmer, 1994, p. 33).

Out of this return to choral writing, Rice (2007) proceeded to outline cool strategies such as appropriation, juxtaposition, and nonlinearity. All of them, he suggested, "challenge and disrupt print–oriented conventions and structural logic" (p. 21). Rice readily admitted that his definitions of cool are appropriations themselves; therefore, the narcissism and hedonism focused on by Pountain and Robbins (2000) didn't necessarily have a place in Rice's exploration of the concept (though the rebellion aspect certainly remains in his sustained assault on the conventions of print culture). Rice ultimately saw cool as a rhetorical stance that an author can adopt for positive purposes. His focus on the productive aspects of cool in digital environments brings his argument into confrontation with the other work I'm considering, Alan Liu's (2004) Laws of Cool.

Rice's Coolest Practices
outline of the Beatles rock band on brick wall

In the simplest of terms, appropriation is the borrowing of pre-existing items for incorporation into a new assemblage of meaning. A more complex take would also suggest that specific subcultures, generational nostalgia, and contextual signifiers can also be borrowed and, in a cool fashion, brought into a new time and space of meaning. As many digital theorists do, Rice (2007) evoked the image of the DJ when discussing appropriation. While the DJ is certainly cool for his or her appropriation and mixing of music, a specific example from musician/producer Brian Burton (Danger Mouse) shows the complex layers. The Grey Album, released in 2004, mixed a cappella versions of hip-hop artist Jay-Z's raps from The Black Album combined with cutup samples of music from the Beatles' White Album. The mix showcased Burton's lifetime love of hip hop while simultaneously appropriating the psychedelic pop culture of the late 1960s. The album at once repositioned the Beatles in a new context for modern listeners, while simultaneously associating hip hop with the nostalgic connotations of a bygone era. Without owning the rights to legally make this work (which was not sold but went viral after initially going out only to Burton's close friends) The Grey Album was even cooler for the rebellious cultural questions it provoked about copyright, ownership, and artistic license.

photo manipulation of Paris France and Niger Africa seamlessly juxtaposed

Juxtaposition takes potential meanings of individual signifiers and forces us to fashion new meanings from viewing them in close proximity. Juxtaposition is the cool rebellion against normalized meaning in favor of the often concealed intentions of a composer and the preferred interpretations of the individual subject. In the photo above (click photo for link to website and larger images), artist Samuel Gondolo creates seamless digital photo juxtapositions made from scenes of Paris and Niger. The photos are aesthetically interesting merely for the technical skill used to make them. They also create a pleasing cognitive dissonance as the brain tries to process the impossibility of an image that looks incredibly real. On a deeper level, Gondolo is making a statement about France's colonial influence on Niger throughout history by literally putting the geography of Paris inside Niger. Gondolo uses the cool of juxtaposition to create a message that would not exist with separate images of the two geographies. As cool as this is (especially under Rice's (2007) definition), cool is not about conformity. This new meaning can be ignored or rejected. A viewer could simply choose to enjoy the photos on a purely aesthetic level. This might even be the cooler path to take, for as Pountain and Robins (2000) suggested, actually having too strong a message is so very uncool.

no exit sign

The non-linearity of digital texts highlights that they have no true entry or exit point. There is no mandated path that the "text" is best navigated though. They are almost always works-in-progress that will morph and change often through the intentions of multiple authors. The power of the viewer to navigate their own path is very cool in that it highlights the importance of individual selection. The Web is a lot like the classic "Choose Your Own Adventure" children's books. They're not called choose "my" adventure for a reason. Cool narcissism wins again.cover of
Image from

Liu's (2004) book was quite a different beast from Rice's (2007). Liu was primarily concerned with the status of "knowledge work" in a society now focused on the production and transfer of information. Liu was also on a quest—to save the future of the Humanities when that area's focus of interest and study (art, literature, aesthetics) seemingly have nothing to offer the profit motivated, homogenous output of knowledge work in a world of hyper-capitalism. Liu's motivating questions include: "What is knowledge work? How does information sustain it? And how might the culture of such information—self-named 'cool'—challenge knowledge work to open a space, as yet culturally sterile . . . for a more humane hack of contemporary knowledge?" (p. 9). As Rice pointed out, "Cool, in this definition, is something to be avoided for how it hinders the production of information" (p. 5). Rice believed Liu's tome was not about "Laws of Cool" so much as how to resist cool in order to overcome its cold, passive, and sterile co-opting of our knowledge systems. In Rice's perhaps most crushing critique, "Cool, as Liu understands it, has nothing constructive to do with rhetoric or with writing . . . if you engage with cool, this argument follows, then you engage with the superficial" (p. 5).

Liu (2004) never mentioned Pountain and Robins's (2000) cool touchstones of narcissism, irony, and hedonism by name, but they are heavily implied in Liu's definition of cool with other words like "remoteness," "distantiation," and "impersonality." It is not my intention to imply that Rice (2007) was reading Liu incorrectly. The Laws of Cool does operate, on some level, as a warning about the powerful seduction of cool to make knowledge insignificant and trivial. However, Liu's dissection of cool was much more complex than Rice gave him credit for. Specifically, Rice, in his careful explication of "cool," was not as careful to pause and explore the complexities of "information." Further, Liu's ideas about the often paradoxical nature of cool ethos, in my reading, cannot be so easily cast off as simply productive or destructive. Finally, whether we like it or not (and I suspect Rice would not, hence the omission), Liu's notions of cool's possibilities for persuasion are prevalent in culture's current digital texts; therefore, his ideas deserve a closer examination.

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