The SCOTUS decision on Obamacare and “Immediacy” (and digital rhetoric)

I’ve been reading the blogging carnival entries on digital rhetoric with some interest, hoping I could find a way to make a contribution.  I don’t know if this is really worthy or not, but here it goes:

My 1996 dissertation was called “The Immediacy of Rhetoric” and it was an examination of the impact of emerging and largely digital communication technologies (particularly the Internet, but television and lots of other things fit here too) on the ways rhetorical situations work.  I use the word “immediacy” to suggest the double-edged sword of these kinds of situations.  On the one hand, they have the potential of closeness and even intimacy since so many of the usual filters of message, rhetor, and audience collapse.  On the other hand, immediate situations are also sites of chaos and confusion precisely because of these lack of filters.  That’s the very short-hand/elevator-pitch version.

Two other things I’ll mention.  First, somewhere in The Archeology of Knowledge, Foucault says that when there are disruptive moments in history (I can’t remember the exact quote right now, but I think he and/or his translator even uses the term “rupture”), one of the first things we have to do to make sense of it all is smooth over that rupture with some kind of explanation.  Or something like that.  And one of the hallmarks that signals the end of discourse regarding a disruption in particular and a situation in general is self-reflexivity on the way the situation itself was communicated.  This happens in main stream media all the time.

Second, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how memory works and the things I’ve read that suggests true multitasking is impossible– that is, we can’t really process two or more tasks at once, but we can shift between multiple tasks very quickly, often in a fraction of a section.  I haven’t worked this out in my own head yet, but I think this is one of the reasons why that even with all of the speed, intimacy, and chaos possible with various immediate and fluid situations, we still ultimately make meaning of a rhetorical event afterwords in the same way we make meaning out of pretty much everything else, and we still need, desire and highly value a point of fixed closure– thus the ongoing role of articles, books, and similarly fixed vessels.  Interaction, exchange, and commentary are all fine and good as part of a process, but we value (in all senses of that word– as a cultural value, an intellectual value, money, etc.) the last and fixed word.

So, the reporting of the Obamacare decision as an example of immediacy:

I found out about the June 28, 2012 decision while driving through West Virginia and Annette told me.  She had found out via her iPhone while doing a reading of Facebook.  So that’s a a simple simple example of how current and future technologies change the potential to interact in rhetorical situations: absent these tools, digital rhetoric/immediate situations aren’t possible.  That might seem just obvious, though maybe not.  I am reminded of a discussion I had with my dissertation advisor about a chapter describing the context of the internet in 1996.  She didn’t think it was necessary because how much could change, really?  After all, there were already 30 million users and Netscape; how much further could this internet thing go?

In any event, tools matter a lot.  Of course, that isn’t necessarily uniquely limited to digital tools since the tools and technology of literacy, writing, printing (followed later by mass distribution technologies like affordable paper), audio recordings, film, video, etc. all have had significant technological/toolish impacts on how rhetorical situations in particular and rhetoric in general works.  Or even is, since rhetoric was classically limited to live speakers.

A lot of humanities and comp/rhet types (academics in general, perhaps) downplay the role of technology in our thinking about how rhetoric (and just about everything else) works, I think because many/most humanities and comp/rhet types understand the theory a whole lot better than they understand the tools (or coding or “computers” in general).  I’ve read lots of stuff in the name of “digital rhetoric” (and don’t get me started with “digital humanities”) where tools and technology are secondary at best, sort of the bottle holding the wine, and technology merely alters the speed and potential proximity of components of a rhetorical situation.  But in terms of both digital rhetoric generally and what I mean by immediacy, that’s the whole point:  the evolving speed and presence potential of new technologies have been in some sense gradual and historic (the way that postal systems and then the telegraph changed communication in the 19th century comes to mind now), and in other ways radically fast (the way we find out about emerging situations/events via social media on ever-connected smart phones).  The tool is not the only thing that matters, but when it comes to contemplating “digital rhetoric” generally or immediacy in particular, it’s critical.  Without contemporary and future-looking computer and media technologies, there’s no “digital” in “digital rhetoric.”

One of the first things that happened when the decision was announced (and that I missed because of being in the car and that I recap here with hindsight and memory) was CNN and FOX screwed it up.  As NPR reported, reporters literally ran with paper out of the Supreme Court so that the results could be digitized– that is, broadcast, posted on the web, sent out as audio (analog in how we hear it though digital in how it is posted)– by rhetors (news outlets) to the audience.  Dennis Baron had a blog post where he argued that this was an intentional misreading of the decision by these media outlets because they were mislead and because “everyone expected” the decision to be overturned.  The media simply reported what they thought they already knew.  But I think the right answer is it was sloppy reporting facilitated/enabled by the speed of immediacy, the lack of any interpretation/mediation of events, and the collision of the analog decision (available to reports first as dead trees text) with the digital world.  The Supreme Court’s decision Obamacare is of course complex, but it is not misleading.  The desire and potential to be the first to report the decision trumped the desire/need to actually be correct.

So again, immediacy is a double-edged sword.  Digital media technologies can break down the boundaries between audience, rhetor, message, and interpretation itself, which has the potential for great intimacy.  We can “be there” during riots in Egypt as part of the “Arab Spring” through not only major news outlets but thousands of participants in social media and video sites.  On the other hand, these immediate situations also have the potential for great chaos and confusion precisely because of the lack of boundaries that define interpretation and expertise.  Again, think of the chaos of the Arab Spring, especially through the filter of media, and the confusion of being flat-out wrong as was the case with the decision on Obamacare.

Speed matters a lot, too.  Clearly that’s what is at work with the misreporting from CNN and FOX.  Sure, this is far from the first time this sort of thing has happened and “scooping” the competition has been the hallmark of journalism dating back to its most yellow days.  But the rapidness/simultaneity that is cause and necessity of digital media makes the speed all the more important.

Very shortly after the reports emerged, the efforts at closure (and to seal the rupture in the narrative) began. It’s an understatement to describe the decision as a surprise.  Shortly after Annette shared the news via her iPhone, I turned on the radio.  All I could find out in the middle of nowhere West Virginia was a conservative talk show, and clearly, the decision was an enormous rupture for these folks.  The fact that Chief Justice John Roberts sided with the liberal minority on the court was inexplicable to the commentators and callers.

But within hours, explanations to close and reconcile the rupture emerged (and they continue, too).  One theory was that Roberts’ decision based not on the commerce clause but on taxation was in reality his effort to give conservatives ammunition in the fall elections, and conservative commentators immediately changed their attack from being about “individual freedom and choice” to “the largest tax in history.”  Quasi-conspiracy theorists suggested that Roberts changed his mind at the last minute, that Justice Anthony Kennedy was pressuring him to switch back, and that this last minute switch is evident in the text from the various decisions.  Another theory suggests that Roberts made his decision in the name of protecting his legacy as Chief Justice in particular and the institution of the Supreme Court in general.  And so on.

Interestingly enough, I have yet to hear a commentator on either the left or the right suggest that Roberts made the decision he made based on his interpretation of the law. Given that a lot of law professors thought the law was constitutional before the decision, perhaps the real answer is that Roberts did his job as a scholar of the law and a judge.  But that account doesn’t explain how a conservative (Republican) judge could possibly side with a liberal (Democrat) policy, which is why I suspect this explanation has been largely discarded.

Neither speed nor the seeking of closure are uniquely digital, though I think they’re altered by the digital in some interesting ways and I think they are inescapable in digital environments.  Even as we celebrate the fluidity of possibilities in digital rhetorical spaces, we crave and value in all senses of those terms the closure, finality, and even authority that comes from “print” (either the old-fashioned paper kind or the electronic new-fashioned kind exemplified by eBooks and electronic journals).

I haven’t thought this all the way through yet (or even partly through), so I’ll refer to two other blog posts I had on this.  First, there’s my reaction to seeing David Weinberger at U of Michigan talking about his latest book, Too Big to Know.  It’s not that I disagreed with Weinberger about the nature of knowledge has changed as a result of the digital age and the internet and such.  That’s all fine and good, but Weinberger hasn’t earned intellectual and actual (e.g., money) capital from his blog; he earned it from his book.  The same goes for folks like Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s book about the future of academic publishing, Doug Eyman and his (hopefully) forthcoming book, Liz Losh and her excellent book, and so on.  Even the prize the U of M Press/Digital Rhetoric Collaborative is based on publishing a book.

I don’t say this to dismiss digital rhetoric; I say this to simply point out that there still must be some unique value to books given that is where most of the scholarship on digital rhetoric has appeared.

Second, as I mention indirectly in this post about Daniel Kahneman, everything we describe about rhetoric (digital or otherwise) is definitionally a memory.  This post– which I’ve been writing off and on for over a week now– is an effort to examine a specific event that I see as demonstrating characteristics of immediacy, but like any other analysis, it takes place in hindsight.  We cannot really think about digital rhetoric as we experience it.

Anyway, a rambling what digital rhetoric means to me.  I’m anxious to get back to reading others’ thoughts on this.


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