Pedagogy 5.1 (2005) 117-129
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Richard Lanham's The Electronic Word and AT/THROUGH Oscillations
Heidi A. McKee
Little did I think a sixty-something professor of classical rhetoric could be the one to sweet-talk me into hypertext . . . rich, complex, and utterly fascinating.
Unlike the reviewer in the epigraph, as a composition and rhetoric instructor I am not surprised that a professor of classical rhetoric has much to offer in terms of analyzing and interacting with texts. I am a bit surprised, however, to realize as I write this reflective essay how much a book first published in 1993 affected and still affects my teaching and thinking about computerized technologies. In 1993 the World Wide Web had not yet been launched, most schools did not have computers, there were no blogs or instant-messenger services, people could not check e-mail on airplanes or with cell phones, and Google was not yet a word, much less a verb. In terms of changing computerized technologies, 1993 seems an eternity ago. Yet Richard Lanham's The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts (1993) still has much to offer humanists and teachers, and I think it will in the future as well.
Lanham focuses on the impact of digitization upon the Western arts, and he argues for the centrality of rhetoric for thinking about people's interactions [End Page 117] and perceptions of digital texts.1 He addresses a number of issues in the ten essays that comprise the book (essays that can be read in sequence or individually), including the future of the book, potentially different ways for teaching canonical texts, revisions that may occur to university departmental organization, and the digital possibilities for democratizing the arts. There have been a number of more detailed examinations and reviews of The Electronic Word (e.g., O'Donnell 1994; Poggenpohl 1994; Lanham et al. 1995), so that is not my purpose here. Rather, I want to focus on the ways Lanham's text has influenced my pedagogy, specifically the ways his key concept of an AT/THROUGH bi-stable oscillation has affected and continues to affect my teaching and thinking about digital media.
I will first summarize the opening chapters of The Electronic Word in which Lanham repeatedly discusses the AT/THROUGH bi-stable oscillation—"a toggle to boggle the mind," he calls it (1993: 81)—and then I will examine how I have used this concept to reflect upon and to develop my own pedagogical approaches to engaging students (and myself) with digital texts. I close by proposing an expanded understanding of Lanham's concept, an understanding that enables more multiple approaches to analyzing and situating individuals' interactions, relations, and communications with computerized technologies within broader sociopolitical contexts.
A Toggle to Boggle the Mind
In chapter 1, "The Electronic Word: Literary Study and the Digital Revolution," Lanham argues that as printing techniques evolved, the physical, constructed nature of printed texts took on the goal of unselfconscious transparency—to convey "unintermediated thought, or at least what seemed like unintermediated thought" (4). Rather than notice and question, say, the 8 1/2 x 11-inch paper and Times New Roman typeface, traditional print media (to be judged successful) often positioned readers to read through the structure of the text to the message being conveyed. But as Lanham repeatedly asserts, all text is, of course, mediated, and it is important for people to recognize the mediated nature of texts. Such a recognition is made easier by computers, Lanham claims, because with computers people can create malleable, interactive digital texts2 in which "the textual surface has become permanently bi-stable. We are always looking first AT it and then THROUGH it, and this oscillation creates a different implied ideal of decorum, both sylistic and behavioral. Look THROUGH a text and you are in the familiar world of the Newtonian interlude. . . . Look AT a text, however, and we have deconstructed the Newtonian world" (5). Lanham goes on to note that "we [End Page 118] have always had...