Contents | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Conclusion | References


Renaissance Mnemonics, Poststructuralism, and the Rhetoric of Hypertext Composition

by Richard Smyth, Ph.D.

Today, the primary responsibility of English departments in higher education, in terms of general education (or "core") requirements, calls for the teaching of composition and rhetoric (i.e. of writing skills) to freshman students. Beyond this fundamental role, instructors are then charged with introducing to their students "literature," which at one time encompassed the canonical classics (or "works") of primarily English and American authors but which now has opened up to include noncanonical "texts," including post-colonial, pop cultural, and feminist writings. Students studying in these courses are usually required to write interpretive essays that demonstrate a high degree of literacy--that is, the ability to read carefully the text they interpret and then to write skillfully a clear and persuasive argument supporting their position. Some of these students choose to major in English, for various reasons: to be public school teachers, to be future law students, to be corporate wizards (given the well-rounded education a major in English provides), or, perhaps, to be English professors.

Such instruction, limited as it is to the precepts of literacy, was fine prior to the age of electronics, but it is not any longer. The advent of new media such as video and hypermedia poses problems for those working in the humanities, namely the problems of reading and writing with these media and of teaching students to do the same. The filmic and multi-media qualities of these electronic technologies offer multiple tracks for a denser, richer information space. With talk of fusing the telephone, the television and the computer into a single communication medium which will someday be wired to a data superhighway, the necessity to embrace such compositional problematics becomes more apparent. Already, the new software MOSAIC, a tool for browsing the World-Wide Web which provides hypermedia links to visual and audio information as well as plain text, is encouraging a hypertextual form of composition within the Internet itself. My work focuses on the practical and theoretical problems involved in the invention of an electronic rhetoric suited to such a hypertextual method of writing.

The dominance of the entertainment industry's appropriation of electronic technologies, as witnessed in the hegemonic presence of television and video games, indicates the reluctance of the educational institution to appropriate these technologies for pedagogical purposes. Such appropriation is necessary because book reading has become less and less prevalent and will continue to diminish as the presence of consumer electronics becomes more pervasive. Haste is necessary, given the speed of the changes that are occurring and the degree to which English departments lag behind in responding to the challenge. By adapting to the present reality of this transitional shift, instructors concerned about preparing students to be critical readers and effective writers of the electronic texts they will most likely be encountering in their lives will help to bring about a pedagogy of electronic rhetoric.

Historians of rhetoric tell of how rhetoric [originally the "art of speaking," the curriculum which a future rhetor (Greek), or orator (Latin), or public speaker would undergo], so prominent at certain points in time, was subordinated to the emergent scientific paradigm of the seventeenth century, with its emphasis upon clarity and the transparent usage of language. As Walter Ong writes, those residual oral practices present for millenia after the advent of alphabetic literacy eventually succumbed to full-blown literate practices in the centuries following the emergence of the printing press as "hearing dominance yields to sight-dominance":

Today, when curricula list rhetoric as a subject, it usually means simply the study of how to write effectively. But no one ever consciously launched a program to give this new direction to rhetoric: the "art" simply followed the drift of consciousness away from an oral to a writing economy. (Orality and Literacy 116-117)
This "drift" shows itself most prominently in contemporary rhetorician Chaim Perelman's Theory of Argumentation, which only considers the first three of the five parts of rhetoric, "because he believed they [memoria and actio ] were not suited to a culture like ours, where discourses circulate all through the printed word" (Barilli 105).

Barilli's comments directly following this statement are telling, given my earlier description of the new technologies that will affect the twenty-first century English department:

But today this limitation [of rhetoric to the first three parts] is not at all necessary. When Perelman was trained in the 1940s and 1950s, he could not take into account the influence of new technologies such as the tape recorder and television--tools that made possible the rediscovery of the importance of pronunciation and gestures. . . . (105)
Barilli ends his contemporary history of rhetoric with a call for a new rhetoric, one that takes into consideration the responsibilities that the electronic technologies require of us: "In short, there are enough reasons to rewrite an Institutio for our time as comprehensive as Quintilian's, and one in which special care should be given to all the classical parts of rhetoric, overlooking none of them" (129).1 Recognizing the presence of technologies of communication that augment mere printed textuality, Barilli's call for an Institutio is directed to English departments, which have traditionally been responsible for instruction in rhetorical practices. Ong, too, writing earlier than Barilli, believes that the "'literate orality' of the secondary oral culture induced by radio and television awaits in-depth study" (Orality and Literacy 160). The goal of this dissertation will be to attempt to define where such a rhetoric might begin to seek its rules.

Taking Barilli's dictum into account, one point of departure would be the beginning itself--the Greek era--not in terms, however, of the history of rhetoric but in terms of the history of orality. Eric Havelock's The Muse Learns to Write, which offers a "special theory" of Greek orality, tells of the important "formula" that he derived from biologist Ernst Mayr's Animal Species and Evolution. Mayr spoke of cultural evolution as being equivalent to genetic evolution, which progressed by means of genetically stored information. Havelock focuses on the "key element in Mayr's account," determining this to be the "role played by the accumulation of information and its storage for re-use in human language" (55). This prompts Havelock to ask, "How can orality store its information for re-use? How can it preserve its identity?" (56). Much of Havelock's and Ong's work sets out to answer these questions.

In digressing to consider Greek orality, we return to the notion of rhetoric in a narrower sense than normally considered but one which derives from Havelock's work on orality: namely, rhetoric as the storage of information for the purpose of subsequent retrieval. This sense is justified not only by the anachronistic conception of Homer as an "oral encyclopedia" (Havelock 57), but also by the notion of the loci communes, the commonplaces, in which arguments were stored and could be found (via inventio, which means "to come upon" in Latin) to develop a speech (Ong, Orality and Literacy 110; Barthes, "The Old Rhetoric" 64-71). Indeed, even Winifred Bryan Horner, a contemporary rhetorician and author of the composition textbook Rhetoric in the Classical Tradition, conceives of rhetoric as information storage and retrieval, taking into account contemporary forms of cultural memoria: "As the classical rhetoricians devised ways to store and retrieve information from the human memory, the modern rhetorician must also consider ways to retrieve information from books, libraries, and computers" (339). Horner acknowledges that the printed book--deriving ultimately from the alphabetic literacy of the Greeks--is a form of information storage. Part of our task as English instructors, as mentioned above, is to teach students how to retrieve information from its source in the books and the place where books are stored, libraries.

Computers now, as Horner also acknowledges, are quickly becoming tools for information storage and retrieval, but their effectiveness has been limited by literate "book" strategies of storage (with the use of the list, the index, the "table" of contents, the menu, the desktop). Such limitations impose unnecessary restrictions upon the storage potential of electronic media. Applying a literate mode of consciousness to the use of computers, however, is to be expected in this period of transition from an alphabetic apparatus to an electronic apparatus. After all, Ong locates what he calls "residual orality" within Western civilization from Greek tragedy up to the Age of Romanticism, the time when he sees the transition to full-blown literate consciousness as being completed (Rhetoric, Romance, and Technology 294-295). But the transition period from an alphabetic to an electronic apparatus within the educational institution need not take so long if we work from an analogy of our present moment to these past moments of technological breakthrough. Despite the newness of the electronic apparatus, traditions exist within classical rhetoric as well as Medieval and Early Modern textual production that will offer models for writing within the "writing spaces" of electronic media.

One such tradition can be found in the Art of Memory. The highly visual nature of the Art of Memory, in the various ways that it was practiced from the time of antiquity to the sixteenth century, is well-suited to the new technology of hypermedia, with its capacity for graphics, animation, and even quicktime video.2 With the proliferation of video cameras and VCRs on the one hand and flat-bed scanners and quick-time desktop video on the other, the writing with images that teachers and scholars abandoned with the forsaken art of building memory palaces has returned with a vengeance. What was once considered science fiction in 1984 in the fiction of William Gibson is now being theorized by cyberspace architects.3 One scholar writes of the potential of drawing upon this earlier tradition of the Art of Memory:

The practitioners of mnemonics, especially Bruno and Leibnitz, had high hopes for a universal language based on spatial, visual systems. We may realize their hopes through the displays of our computers. . . . (Nickerson 390)
My purpose in this dissertation, in part, will be to explore these traditions in order to discover the kinds of strategies available for composition in hypermedia. The presence of technologies such as hypertext and virtual reality, after all, is a challenge to current scholars in the humanities to theorize compositional strategies for storing information in these new media.

Beyond the tradition of the memory palace, which, as I will show, provides a method of organization particularly well-suited to hypertext, there is need of a theory of composition that will maximize the potential of the hypertext medium. Its characteristic of speed, its three-dimensional writing space, and its capacity to connect information in a multi-linear network all point to the philosophy of Deleuze as a foundation for this theory. If the central question of this dissertation concerns the problem of how to write in hypertext--the problem, that is, of establishing the foundation for an electronic rhetoric--then, to use the language of classical rhetoric, the tradition of the memory palace within the Art of Memory will provide instruction for dispositio or arrangement within a hypertext program, while Deleuze and Guattari's concept of the rhizome will provide instruction for elocutio or writing.

But the steps of rhetoric will have to undergo revision to accommodate the ways that compositional practice changes in an electronic medium such as hypertext. The rhetorical procedure offered and justified in this dissertation is specific to one hypertext program, Storyspace, which has characteristics unique to itself; it may not be helpful for other kinds of hypertext programs such as Intermedia, Hypercard, or the html coding that creates hypertexts within the World-Wide Web. Storyspace allows for the fast generation of textual nodes and links to and from those nodes. This speed allows one to write as quickly as one is meant to when practicing brainstorming or inventio, so that the act of writing itself in Storyspace--elocutio, the third step--collapses into inventio in the process of composing. I suggest that this characteristic of Storyspace should be foregrounded in compositional pedagogy within Storyspace, such that, as one brainstorms, one is also writing. Associational nodes that occur to writers as they write ought to be generated as they occur to them and pursued either at that moment or left to be picked up at some later point. In this way the "metonymic slide" of associational logic will be privileged, and a multi-linear network of various pathways will be generated. The primary thesis that starts a composition in hypertext may be completely abandoned by the time the writer finishes, a practice that should be encouraged in hypertext but that is discouraged in traditional compositional practices confined to the tenets of print literacy.

Following the initial compositional process, a composer might then begin to seek patterns that exist among the nodes already generated for the purposes of dispositio or arrangement. One interesting feature of the Storyspace program is that it provides the illusion of a three-dimensional writing space, which challenges one to seek three-dimensional structures as organizational models for this process of arrangement. I suggest that the memory palace tradition within classical rhetoric can offer guidance with such an endeavor, given its three-dimensional illusion of a space that one fills with images meant to trigger one's memory. Of course, one might start with dispositio, conceiving of a three-dimensional structure that will govern the arrangement of the Storyspace before writing begins, as long as the metonymic style of writing described above is not hindered by such a procedure.

The confusion of terms, the blurring of definitions, and the possibility for variable ordering of these steps demonstrate the difficulties encountered when one begins to consider rhetorical instruction in a hypertext environment such as Storyspace. My project in this dissertation constitutes an initial attempt to rectify these difficulties by taking the medium's characteristics into account as I try to identify the steps of a rhetoric that are determined by the medium itself. My proposed procedures might be considered a mode or genre of hypertext writing, in the same way that traditional rhetoric, as many teach it today, identifies actions such as definition, classification, and narration as modes or genres of expository writing. I will call this new genre of electronic rhetoric that I am attempting to invent "rhizography" so as to invoke the rhizome as its governing principle.

To arrive at that destination, however, a seemingly circuitous pathway must be taken in order to demonstrate the connections between the sixteenth century and the twentieth century. The sixteenth century saw a period of transition similar to our own, with transformations in the technologies of communication, in institutional practices (specifically in the realm of pedagogy), and in subject formation. Like the printing press, twentieth-century electronic technologies promise to transform the way texts are read, written, disseminated, valued, and taught as well as the way we conceive of our bodies, our selves, and our interaction with others. Though these latter concerns are addressed by poststructural theorists who have worked to implement such transformations, our present methods of instruction and evaluation are still based in the values of print literacy, and, while they may be slowly evolving away from such values toward a pedagogy more appropriate to the electronic age, our discipline has been slow to respond to the challenge posed by electronic media. This dissertation is an attempt to set a foundation for remedying this state of affairs.

The theoretical framework that justifies a look to the past can be found in grammatology, understood very simply as the history of reading and writing practices. The grammatologist believes that technologies of communication, considered within particular social contexts and taking into account the institutionalized modes of utilizing these technologies, have an effect upon communication itself. Achieving an understanding of the dynamics of these components as they interact in past configurations helps the grammatologist with his or her primary purpose--the invention of new institutional practices that will fully engage the present technologies of communication. By finding examples of individuals who have negotiated a period of transition, the grammatologist can discover in these dynamics heuretic inspiration for such invention. A large part of this dissertation, then, focuses primarily on the sixteenth century as a transitional moment similar to our own. I believe that we can learn about our own moment and how to negotiate the present transition by examining in detail that prior analogous moment.

With this goal in mind, I start in chapter 1 to set out grammatology as a particular application of poststructural theory which differs from strictly deconstructive applications to literature. My task here will be to discuss grammatology as a term, define it as a theoretical field of study, and then situate it within Renaissance studies alongside other poststructural approaches to the period. While the first section of chapter 1 will gesture toward a definition of grammatology, it will be through the second and third sections, in which I will discuss the deconstructive criticism of Jonathan Goldberg and then the new historicist work of Louis Adrian Montrose and Stephen Greenblatt, that I will more clearly define it as a term, using these two poststructural approaches to clarify what a grammatological approach to the Renaissance will be. While deconstruction and new historicism are not the only established theoretical approaches to the Renaissance, these happen to be closely akin to the tenets of grammatology.

Having worked in chapter 1 to legitimate grammatology as a viable course of study and to demonstrate its relationship to other poststructural approaches, chapter 2 takes on the problem of studying history from a grammatological perspective. Its purpose is to identify institutional changes in pedagogical practices--specifically in strategies of mnemotechniques--with the intent of better understanding the possibilities for improving our current use of electronic media. In the first part I work to resolve the orality-literacy debate by positing grammatology as a theoretical solution to the problems that deterministic histories cause. Doing so clears the way for a grammatological history of the sixteenth century in the second part, one that looks at the changing pedagogical practices and how these result in the decline of the memory palace tradition as the primary art of memory. The transition was facilitated by the effects of the printing press in conjunction with the rise of Ramism as a new, literate mnemonic system more suitable to the print technology of the day. The third part introduces a treatment of Edmund Spenser that will be further developed in the third chapter; this third part serves to show Spenser's awareness of the efficacy of the memory palace and his use of the memory palace tradition in his epic poem The Faerie Queene. The conclusion of the dissertation will provide an example of how I employed this knowledge of Spenser's use of the memory palace as a way of organizing a Storyspace hypertext that I authored.

Chapter 3 then performs close readings of Spenser's minor poems in order to show his employment of the soon-to-be popular format of print, which monumentalizes the once ephemeral status of mnemonics in its permanence. These poems exhibit an understanding of prosopopoeia as the tropic form that mnemonics takes in the era of print literacy, and one can see Spenser persistently reminding his patrons of this as he pressures them for funding. This treatment of Spenser's minor poems will include a detour through the poststructural theory of prosopopoeia and will end with a reading of Spenser's Prosopopoia, or Mother Hubberds Tale, as Spenser's poetic manifesto that affirms his poststructural sensibility toward language. The chapter will end with a recognition of the role that depth plays in demonstrating Spenser's ambivalence toward the mnemonics of print literacy, as the privileging of depth is a direct result of alphabetic (and especially print) literacy.

Spenser's ambivalence is a direct result of his anxiety during this transitional period of shifting mnemonic systems, an anxiety which is equivalent to that being experienced today as our culture moves from the familiar mnemonics of print literacy to the now emergent mnemonics of "computeracy."4 Moments of transition cause anxiety, as in the transition from a chirographic to a print culture that I will describe in chapter 3, or Michael Near's description of how Beowulf demonstrates an anxiety for early Anglo-Saxon culture over the transition from orality to literacy. Near closes his essay with a general statement that can be applied to any transitional moment during which a new technology of communication challenges established ideological practices: "[Beowulf ] anticipates the advent of an intruding technology that promises to undercut the psychological foundations of an entire way of life" (329). One can see a similar kind of anxiety in current perceptions of virtual reality and its potential effects upon society. Brenda Laurel writes of her investigation of virtual reality's reception by the general public, an investigation which found people perceiving the new technologies as intrusive and as a potential threat to people's psychological well-being: "The callers were convinced that VR 'providers' are dealers of a new and powerful drug, luring their hapless victims into a shadowy world of un-life" ("A VR Field Report" 17). This anxiety is also indicated in the reluctance of humanities educators to embrace the new technologies as pedagogical and scholarly tools.

One perceived advantage of the permanence of print is that it also provides the illusion that language can be controlled, and prosopopoeia becomes one means for achieving this illusory power, both in the controlled representation of the voices of the dead and in the dialogue with the book that allows for hermeneutic closure. I will argue in chapter 3 that the desire to control language--a desire characteristic of some twentieth-century critical movements which claim access to a poet's intention, to the historical context alluded to in a writer's work, or to some essential meaning that can be determined by proper reading practices--begins with the era of the printed book. This desire to control language is currently being challenged, however, by the advent of electronic technologies that render the illusory permanence of print entirely defunct. The ultimate purpose of this chapter is the identification of the main features of print literacy as they are manifest both in Spenser's texts and in the characteristics of prosopopoeia as the trope which can provide within print a manner of controlling language. An understanding of the dynamics of print literacy will better help us to understand how computeracy can and should differ.

With chapter 4 comes the move to consideration of present-day technologies of communication. The first part considers the poststructural focus on language and how this has brought about a return of allegory and its privileging of the surface, in opposition to the reign of symbol during the centuries of print literacy and its privileging of depth. Allegory is shown to be a surface phenomenon and is thus affirmed to be amenable to the emerging electronic apparatus. Various poststructural philosophers speak of surface effects, the turn to which results from a desire to find an anti-Platonic philosophy that undermines logocentrism, and Deleuze is chosen from among them as the representative theorist of electronic rhetoric. Before providing that theory of electronic rhetoric in the fifth chapter, I first explore the writing space of the computer screen as it is employed in hypertext, first tracing the history of the organizing of information in space and then asserting that, given the three-dimensional nature of hypertext programs, the mnemonic practice of building memory palaces should be remotivated in our current context. In order to minimize the hindrance of "residual literacy," in order, that is, to fully engage the communicative potential within the new electronic media, we must address hypertext as a medium with its own characteristics that differ from those of print literacy. Chapter 4 amounts to a contextualization of hypertext within the history of information storage and retrieval and a brief analysis of book metaphors in electronic interface design as an indication of our continued investment in the methods of print literacy.

Having chosen Deleuze as the spokesman of a philosophy of the surface and of a return to allegory, I then set out in chapter 5 to define "rhizography" as a method of writing in hypertext. This method is derived from Deleuze and Guattari's concept of the rhizome, which embodies the interconnected network that hypertext manifests in its presentation of a text. I argue that three characteristics of the rhizome--speed, nomadism, and density--should govern writing in Storyspace, a hypertext program that is extremely user-friendly and promises to make the act of brainstorming the primary aspect of writing, rather than just the first step, as in classical rhetorical training. In its similarity to the neural networks of connectionist theory, the rhizome can provide the bridge to a writing that more closely resembles the workings of the mind, as some currently theorize.

This goal of achieving a kind of writing that manifests the associational leaping of brain activity may seem to some a form of anti-rhetoric, since it does not require the imposition of organization upon the jumble of thoughts that is required for communicative efficacy. In such an approach, logos is privileged over pathos and ethos as the significant defining feature that makes of rhetoric a form of science akin to biology, geology, pathology, and so on in that logic and logical development of a persuasive argument are taken as the norm. This traditional sense of rhetoric emphasizes persuasion and logical development and is oriented toward a single thesis or a particular goal of moving an audience to action. Because hypertext allows for multiple theses and lines of argument that might reach opposing conclusions to coexist simultaneously in one document, this traditional criterion for the purpose of rhetoric must be adapted, I am arguing, to allow for the new capacity of communication that hypertext provides. To conceive of it in terms of the three appeals, hypertext composition will privilege pathos as much as if not more than logos, in following with the recent assertions of cognitive science, which finds in the physiological workings of the brain a common denominator between logical thought and pathical feeling.5 Hypertext promises to return to scholarly writing and compositional pedagogy in the humanities an aesthetic emphasis which will by no means eclipse the anaesthetic impulse of logical argument but which will supplement that impulse to make of reading and writing a richer experience.


1In "The Old Rhetoric: An Aide-Memoire," Roland Barthes also calls for a new rhetoric: "At the source--or on the horizon--of this seminar, as always, there was the modern text, i.e. the text which does not yet exist. One way to approach this new text is to find out from what point of departure, and in opposition to what, it seeks to come into being, and in this way to confront the new semiotics of writing with the classical practice of literary language, which for centuries was known as Rhetoric. Whence the notion of a seminar on the old Rhetoric: old does not mean that there is a new Rhetoric today; rather old Rhetoric is set in opposition to that new which may not yet have come into being: the world is incredibly full of old Rhetoric" (11). While Barthes may not necessarily be referring to the new rhetoric as a specifically electronic rhetoric, his purpose in offering a seminar on "the old Rhetoric" is to prepare, as he terms it, a "point of departure" for the new Rhetoric which, according to Barilli, will be a rhetoric that incorporates electronic writing.

2In his video entitled Virtual Play: The Double-Direct Monkey Wrench in Black's Machinery (1984), Steve Fagin acknowledges the potential of using the Art of Memory by directly alluding to the memory palace. For an interview with Fagin, see Wollen, October 41 (1987): 75-100.

3See Benedikt for the "first steps" of such theorization.

4"Computeracy" is a term I will use throughout to denote the "electronic literacy" that Richard Lanham calls for in Revising Prose. See especially chapter five of Revising Prose, entitled "Electronic Literacy." For a source of the term, see R.A. Shoaf's use of "computeracy" in "Gonzo Scholarship: Policing Electronic Journals." This special issue of Surfaces, an electronic journal based at the University of Montreal, publishes the proceedings of a panel held at the 1993 MLA meeting. Shoaf's essay introduces the three contributors to the panel, whose essays concern the impact of the Internet upon the profession as well as upon publishing. The essay by James O'Donnell, in Shoaf's words, works to perform the same task as this dissertation: "It is the great merit of O'Donnell's contribution that he can analogize so clearly and helpfully between the transition from literacy to computeracy and the transition from manuscripts to print literacy five hundred years ago. The analogies are extraordinarily helpful in thinking through the implications of the changes confronting us" (7).

5See Marvin Minsky, The Society of Mind, chapter 16.1: "In any case, our culture wrongly teaches us that thoughts and feelings lie in almost separate worlds. In fact, they're almost always intertwined. In the next few sections we'll propose to regard emotions not as separate from thoughts in general, but as varieties or types of thoughts, each based on a different brain-machine that specializes in some particular domain of thought" (163).

Contents | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Conclusion | References

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