Saturday, November 30, 2013

Reading :: Digital Detroit

Digital Detroit: Rhetoric and Space in the Age of the Network
By Jeff Rice

First, a confession: When I read Jeff Rice's first book, I don't think I really got his project. Rice was patient enough to explain it a bit in the comments. I suspect that I wasn't the first person he had to wearily correct.

Over the intervening years, I've become better acquainted with Rice's trajectory and his writing style (which Cynthia Haynes describes as "a cross between Rod Serling and Bob Dylan") and am perhaps in a better position to get what he's doing. In this book, he's interested in applying the concept of network to Detroit—network in the sense of associational links—to analyze how implicit and explicit arguments can resonate across these associations. As he says in the introduction, after name-checking chora:
I am... networking Detroit by tracing its accounts. Despite the possible readerly discomfort, I find this method advantageous for how it allows me new kinds of opportunities to explore a space; by using a network to examine Detroit as a digital concept, I am made aware of connections I would not have discovered otherwise. The disadvantage of this method, however, is that it can, at times, feel confusing. (p.13)
At times, yes. In fact, Rice's writing style is sometimes arresting, relying sometimes on repeating the same noun at the end of subsequent sentences, putting the emphasis on old rather than new information, sometimes sounding weary. Haynes hears Rod Serling in this voice; I hear Andy Rooney. Either way, it's a very different style, one that often seems to circle around to (or build slowly to) the point. This style is sometimes disrupted by uncharacteristic, heavy forecasting and other metadiscourse—I suspect that these are due to reviewers' comments rather than being organic to Rice's style. Too bad. Although I'm a big fan of clear signaling and forecasting, there's something to be said for following along at the pace the author sets.

And that style and pace are well suited for what Rice is trying to do here. Rather than describing a phenomenon out there, a shared social phenomenon, he is describing an idiosyncratic understanding based on associations:
All of my information is a network. All of my information I gather and assemble is internal to that network. These previous references—a contemporary op-ed, a 1940s historical book, a kitschy song, a novelist's travel memoirs, a car commercial—are database items within that network. Everything I produce, therefore, is a network as well. ... This book is an exploration and creation of that network. It attempts to be an information system. (p.24)
Readers might naturally wonder why the idiosyncratic network of associations that Rice describes could be useful to them. What's intrinsically more interesting about the network of associations that Rice pieces together about a specific time and place, versus, say, our own associations? Essentially this is the question that I asked about the year 1963 when I reviewed The Rhetoric of Cool. The answer that I was too task-oriented to see back then, but that I think I see now, is this: What's interesting is not the topic around how the network forms, nor the person who has assembled the network, but how such networks work, both for individuals and communities. In particular, how they function rhetorically, persuading and shaping perceptions. "Indeed, as I will argue throughout each chapter of this book," Rice adds halfway through, "networks move and are moved; they transform and translate experiences and ideas as they form and break connections. They do things" (p.70).

In his earlier book, Rice discussed such associations via the notion of chora. In this one, he draws on Latour, particularly Reassembling the Social. But whereas others in writing studies have applied Latour to empirical studies, Rice applies Latour to circulating rerepresentations in much broader, more idiosyncratic ways. As he does so, he opens the possibilities for applying such associational insights to rhetoric, demonstrating how they can help us to understand why these associations can be so persuasive in shaping our understanding of identities. Detroit is the case, but the real contribution of the book is the approach. I hope I've done justice to it—and if you're interested in networked rhetoric, I recommend you read the book.

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