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REVIEWS BOOKS THE ELECTRONIC WORD: DEMOCRACY, TECHNOLOGY AND THE ARTS by Richard A. Lanham. Univ. of Chi­ cago Press, Chicago and London, 1993. 285 pp. $22.50. ISBN: 0-226-46883-6. Reviewed by David Carrier, Department of Philosophy, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA 15213-3809, U.S.A. The personal computer has dramatically changed the way writing is produced, and promises very soon to utterly trans­ form die ways texts are read. In universi­ ties, the faculty that have had to teach newly multinational student bodies and address the concerns of multiculturalism now must ask itself how to re­ spond to diese absolutely pervasive tech­ nological innovations. The dramatic suggestion that lies in the background of Richard Lanham's highly stimulating account is that die nature of writing and reading are changed drastically when the traditional book is radically trans­ formed. He proposes that faculty mem­ bers pay more attention to the rhetori­ cal tradition, which offers a way of dealing with electronic media. Then "die Dead White males, digitally galva­ nized, will rise again" (p. 132). The Greeks were already concerned widi the batde between die philosopher, who claims to tell "die Truth," and die rheto­ rician, who seeks merely to present his case as suasively as possible. What we find today, Lanham urges, is a return of diis ancient batde. At a time when the traditional hu­ manities are having difficulty justifying their survival in die postmodern uni­ versity, any attempt to deal seriously with these important issues deserves at­ tention. Unlike scholars who discuss problems of concern only to fellow specialists, Lanham is brave enough to tackle larger questions. So the ques­ tions that naturally arise are: Is his di­ agnosis of our present situation plau­ sible? and, if so, are his remedies likely to work? The availability of cheap, powerful personal computers is a dra­ matic development. How does it affect writing and reading? Here Lanham cites a number of phenomena: futur­ ism, pop art and other attempts to abolish die distinction between popu­ lar culture and high art; Kenneth Burke's literary criticism and Jacques Derrida's writing; and, above all, the work of Marshall McLuhan, who antici­ pated some parts of this book. What, in general, all these figures share is an interest in abolishing or overcoming the traditional division between the ac­ tive, creative writer and the passive reader. Instead of marking the pages of textbooks, students can play with die texts diey read on personal com­ puters. Once interactive texts are readily accessible, every reader can also be an author, changing die text at will. Become active, the reader will be­ come a commentator. The humanities can justify themselves and overcome the threat of marginalization by em­ bracing this technology. The first problem with Lanham's analysis is diat it relies upon an unde­ veloped contrast between philosophy and rhetoric. Like a lawyer, Quintilian's rhetorician seeks to present any posi­ tion as persuasively as possible; die guilty client may dius be defended as well as die innocent one. This is why philosophers have traditionally been critical of rhetoricians. The philoso­ pher aims to find die truth. The rheto­ rician, like a good novelist, aims merely to seem suasive. When, then, some 1980s literary critics tried to undercut die traditional distinction between text and commentary, their aim was to sug­ gest that philosophy is no different in kind from literature. Now, of course philosophers seek to persuade dieir readers. But the obvious difference be­ tween George Eliot and David Hume is that she tells a convincing story, while he presents an argument. Middlemarch tells of love and death in provincial En­ gland; A Treatise ofHuman Nature offers a theory of mental activity. Lanham does not show how reading and writing about Eliot and Hume on a personal computer would undermine this impor­ tant distinction. The second problem is that his pro­ posals about how to identify the present day relevance of rhetoric are highly problematic. Certainly Derrida deals with texts in ways diat frustrate philoso­ phers, but identifying him as a rhetori­ cian is an over-simplification; and Lanham's suggestion diat art con­ cerned widi popular media is somehow connected...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1530-9282
Print ISSN
0024-094X
Pages
pp. 73-74
Launched on MUSE
2017-01-04
Open Access
No
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