Mary's Reviews > The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts

The Electronic Word by Richard A. Lanham
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's review
Jun 10, 2011

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bookshelves: conversation-makers, composition-pedagogy, field-exam, rhetoric
Read from June 10 to 15, 2011

I agree with all of Lanham’s conclusions and none of his premises. I like his list of ideas on page 116 about how to focus on each discipline’s rhetorical methods. I like his description of new “writing” assignments on 127-8. But I dislike the “gee whiz,” of his enthusiasm of this technological revolution. It’s partly his generataion, I think. Just because things are changing, even radically, does not mean that we’ll sudden start behaving like different creatures. After all, the print revolution didn’t radically change even aesthetic—Homer and Grimm fairytales are still good reads. The primary flaw I find, I guess, is his insistence that technology comes from “the play spirit” (17). Rather, I think, technology comes from filling an existing need—for online banking, for coordinating business meetings, for keeping in touch with you 783 closest friend—which is based in pragmatics, not play. We use technology to fulfill some aesthetic or attitude that was already pre-existing. Lanham’s excited suggestion of using different fonts for God and Lucifer in Paradise Lost isn’t tied to new media—we could write in stupid fonts by hand before ad during the advent of the typewriter—but the reason we didn’t is because it’s freaking annoying to read anything, print or electronic, in obnoxious fonts all the time. Similarly Lanham’s suggestion that we can have “the colors of rhetoric […] indeed, multicolored” (128) seems like an ill-conceived MySpace page rather than a revolution in the making. My complaints are probably only complaints against the era when Lanham was writing—in the mid-nineties, the Clinton administration was endorsing computers as a panacea for failing inner-city schools, Sandra Bullock starred in the improbable film The Net, and our discipline’s infatuation with new technology was only marked by our adoration for Continentialist theorists. There’s little surprise, then, that Lanham foresaw a world quite different from the needs-driven present where students resist electronic multimedia homework just as they have always resisted written homework, online scholarly journals provide hyperlinks as analogs to footnotes, and Kindles present searchable, sharable, but nonetheless recognizable iterations of the codex book. Things have changed, but then, they’ve stayed very much the same.

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