Monday, July 19, 2004

Reading:: Rhetoric and the Arts of Design

Originally posted: Mon, 19 Jul 2004 19:25:00

Rhetoric and the Arts of Design

by David S. Kaufer, Brian S. Butler

I first read Rhetoric and the Arts of Design in fall 1999, and was inspired to do so again after talking with Dave Kaufer at this spring's RSA conference. Particularly after Dave pointed out parallels between it and my own book.

What has always interested me about this book is that it puts together such a careful, ordered model of rhetoric. The book takes the Lincoln-Douglas debates as an extended example, dissecting them in terms of the different components in each speaker's arguments. These arguments, Kaufer and Butler assert, are actually designed, and that's important:

The public would like, collectively and as individuals, to live with sturdier bridges, safer buildings, more reliable computer programs, and easier to read manuals.

Rhetorical design should be no exception.

You can see why I'd be intrigued. Kaufer and Butler likens rhetoric's relationship with literature to graphic design's relationship with the fine arts: in both cases, the former is practical and oriented to action. And in this book, they argue at length for seeing rhetoric as a design art that, once understood in that way, can be examined and taught more systematically. Their system is rooted in blackboard architectures, "a well-known cognitive science paradigm" that is

especially robust for modeling systems, like design, that where a task requires the opportunistic application of many heterogeneous "experts" all looking at the same problem (represented ina common workplace called a "blackboard") but with each expert looking at the problem from a specialized set of competencies and goal priorities. (p.267)

In Kaufer and Butler's scheme, these "experts" are "modules," particular rhetorical strategies mobilized in service of the emerging argument design. The most relevant modules are plans, tactics, and events. Kaufer and Butler tend to anthropomorphize these modules as experts in some places. For instance, this (initially) disconcerting passage appears on p.151:

Douglas' dilemma was skillfully crafted to make Lincoln say something that would force an inconsistency in his Plans. The Plans module, knowing nothing about the rhetorical situation, would have no awareness of the tactical threat against it. Indeed, if the Plans module were able to understand Douglas' questions, it would have no idea how to respond, for it knows only how to tell what is predictably true and false about the social world. It is left to Lincoln's Tactics to deal with the dilemma, and the Tactics module understood there is pressure to answer a question even if the answer causes further problems down the road. Lincoln's answer, because it shares the same structure as plans, throws a wrench into the Plans module. When Lincoln's Plans module next sampled the design structure, it finds a structure like "I do not pledge to the Republican platform at Springfield" in the midst of its public module, seeming to disenable Lincoln's organizational authority. Plans had no idea where this type of structure comes from but it does understand that the structures create personal inconsistencies in the public model, and that the inconsistencies need to be reconciled if the rhetor is to continue to tell predictable truths and falsehoods about the social world. (pp.151-152)

Kaufer and Butler admit to "partial anthropomorphizing" (p.263) like this, but they do it in service to the blackboard architectures approach they're pursuing. And although this sort of anthropomorphizing sounds suspect -- reminding me of Hutchins' critique of cognitive psychology in Cognition in the Wild -- it begins to make a lot of sense if understood analogically. In short, Kaufer and Butler aren't proposing homunculi, they're proposing a heuristic model, and that distinction is vital to understand if the book is going to make sense. Once I got that distinction, Kaufer and Butler's modules turned into powerful categories for examining public debate; I found myself applying them with great success to the current political debates in this current, superheated primary season.

What Kaufer and Butler are after, essentially, is a model of public rhetoric as conscious design. At times I found myself thinking of similarities with Latour's sociotechnical graphs, which also attempt to model statements -- and Freed, Freed, and Romano's Writing Winning Business Proposals, which continues to be one of my favorite heuristic approaches to argumentation. Rhetoric and the Arts of Design takes its place next to these as an enormously useful resource for understanding and modeling public rhetoric. But what struck me as I read this book was that it doesn't address the sorts of things I've tried to address: the materiality of rhetoric, its ad hoc and convergent nature in private and semipublic practice, and particularly its use outside of argumentation and debate. Which is to say that Kaufer and Butler have set themselves a task that is separate from mine. But they've provided tools and an example of modeling that will be enormously useful to me as I proceed.

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