Area #2, Question #1: Neal Stephenson, Rhetorician


One of the more interesting insights within contemporary rhetorical theory has to be the growing field called rhetoric of technology. Problematically, however, many scholars working in this field often approach new and emergent technological forms from the perspective of text. For instance, much of the literature on computers in contemporary rhetorical scholarship is on how computers change the way composition students write papers. These sorts of essays suggest a model of scholarship that looks at technology asking "how do these technologies facilitate what we are already doing," assuming that composition in a word processor is the same as on a typewriter or in a hypertextual environment. It seems that this misses the potential implied by calling the field "the rhetoric of technology." A true rhetoric of technology should attempt to capture the persuasive forces of all technologies. While rhetoricians may not have caught up with this concept, the science fiction author, Neal Stephenson, has been developing a fascinating theory of the rhetoric of technology throughout his body of work.


In his first major novel, Snow Crash, Stephenson begins to play with the persuasive forces of technologies, often contrasting these persuasive forces with the powers of linguistic persuasion. In an example from this book, the main character, Hiro Protagonist, is trapped on a life raft with a number of Mafia agents when their ship is set upon by pirates. As the fearsome pirates loom overhead, the lead mafioso assures everyone that the pirates will listen to reason. While everyone balks and this mafioso seemingly attempts to negotiate for his own safety, the pirates suddenly explode into a red cloud of gore. Everyone looks down to see the mafioso holding a large firearm, and he says "I told you they would listen to Reason." The shift from reason to Reason is suggestive as Hiro, on closer examination of the firearm, sees a label that refers to the weapon as Reason, an experimental rail gun system, that contains the motto "Ultima Ratio Regum." Later we learn that this motto, which means "The Last Argument of Kings," was stamped on all of Louis XIV cannons. While it may seem like a bad joke, Stephenson's connection between firearms and argumentation (through the image of [R|r]eason) highlights his theory of the rhetoric of technology that is, interestingly, also connected with theorists thinking along these same lines.


The connection between guns and rhetoric is larger than one may think (going beyond Mao's famous dictum). For instance, Bruno Latour's "On Technical Mediation" details the persuasive power of the gun. In a lengthy analysis of the NRA slogan, "Guns Don't Kill People, People Kill People," Latour builds up a theory of technical mediation that can ultimately be summed up by remixing the slogan into "A Hybrid Actor Network of Gun and Person Kills People" (which probably doesn't look as good on a bumper sticker). For Latour, technological mediation is about the creation of hybrid networks of actants. He argues that technologies like guns have their own agential power within a system of action due to their ability to represent an encrusted history of past actions (in terms of, say, ballistic discoveries, propellant experiments, etc.). This theory fits into a framework in which goals detour around and through technological artifacts: to paraphrase his example, "I am angry. I have a gun. I am a murderer." This theory of the swerve or the detour within technological agency implies that neither the firearm nor the firearm holder is uniquely responsible for a shooting. Instead, the act results from the detour in goal-oriented behavior suggested by the persuasive affordances of the technological artifact.


Similarly, Richard Doyles Wetwares accounts for the rhetorical agency of the firearm through the discussion of the technological familiar. Routing his discussion through William Burroughs's quasi-Western, The Place of the Dead Roads, Doyle offers a similar account of technological hybridity again through the figure of the firearm. Doyle connects this hybridity to Deleuze & Guattari's theory of the machine that is about both connection and cutting, highlighting how in Burroughs's account of learning to shoot involves both merging subjectivity with the gun and allowing the gun to do the thinking. While it is interesting to see two thinkers of technology arriving at similar theories of technological rhetoric, it is most interesting that they arrive at them through the figure of the gun.


Returning to Stephenson, though, we see in the [R|r]eason incident that Stephenson also shares this view. While the mafioso does starts out using reason to attempt a settlement with the pirates, once he has Reason out of its case, his goals move from his own survival to the elimination of his enemies. Of course neither of the above theorist think of the role of the audience in this technological persuasion. While it may seem simplistic, the use of Reason does manage to persuade the pirates just as much as any use of reason would have (perhaps more so). The difference, though, is that, while reason acts on the mind, Reason acts on the body (by vaporizing it). This distinction is important to understanding the stakes in Stephenson's theory of technological rhetoric. For Stephenson, the contemporary moment is post-rational and so we are more being persuaded by post-rational systems of persuasion like Reason or one of Stephenson's favorite topics, television.


In Stephenson's more obscure collaborative novel, Interface, we can once again see a discussion of the rhetoric of technology, this time focused through televisual culture. Interface is largely about the interconnection between television and American politics in the late-postmodern era (in fact the novel has some eerie connections to the 2008 presidential elections). Stephenson continues to highlight the importance of understanding these technological persuasive forces in a post-rational age. One of the major moments of this discussion comes when one character in the book expounds on the relationship between appearances and television. He suggests that with the dawn of HDTV, Americans will begin to see a different category of politicians. This character goes on to explain that this because of the gamma curve of television. In regular TV, he says, the tube projects an image that makes white look too white and black look to black. As such, politicians have to wear huge amounts of makeup and be very wary of creating too many shadows on their faces (or sweating too much). In HDTV, however, the gamma curve is flat, as it is in our eyes, and whites and blacks appear like the do in real life. He says that this switch will cause current politicians to look absurd, monstrous, and in-human (due to the degree of make-up and hair spray). Instead, he says, we will get a generation of politicians who look more like movie stars due to HDTV's similarity to film (one need only think of the differences in appearance between Joe Biden and Barack Obama to see this difference). In any case, the shape of tube design has huge effects on how politicians are perceived by television viewers. It would be hard to argue that this persuasive effect is anything other than the result of the non-linguistic persuasive power of the cathode ray tube.


Part of the problem with a true rhetoric of technology is that much of the persuasive force is extra-linguistic, suggesting why many contemporary rhetoricians may fail to see the full rhetorical impact of emerging technologies. In Interface, another suggestive moments begins to point the way between connecting a rhetoric of technology and a rhetoric of language. During the sequence where a team of political spin doctors watch footage of the main character attack a racist politician at a rally in Colorado, they begin to discuss the sequence of shots as though they were a system of tropes and figures (a shot from below with a close-up of the politician suggesting that he is a villain, the shots of the main character suggesting that she is an avenging angel). Where tropes and figures mark the artful substitution and arrangement of words in a rhetorical argument, this sequence illustrates that the interplay of light, camera angel, and zoom can equally establish a system of persuasion. Even more suggestively, the spin doctors are watching the video with the sound off. On of the viewers even declares that even though he can't hear what she's saying, he knows it's the truth. This televisual rhetoric works like linguistic rhetoric, but it is not linguistic and while it may be connected to language, Stephenson's construction of this scene highlights the fact that the linguistic content of the video's soundtrack is immaterial. In the post-rational age (which Stephenson describes as "alliterate" in Snow Crash), the rhetoric of the image has more power than the rhetoric of the word.


So far, these examples have been in contrast to language, but Stephenson's interest in the rhetoric of technology also extends to language. He outlines the relationship between his rhetoric of technology and language in two major works, Snow Crash and Anathem, both books that deal with the role of magic words in persuasion.


In Snow Crash, much of the plot revolves around the quest for magic words, called nam-shub. Nam-shub are Sumerian spells that operate on a linguistic virus embedded within the pre-rational parts of the brain. Having access to these magic words gives the speaker the ability to control people and have them do anything. These nam-shub seem to map, in interesting ways, onto Richard Doyle's discussion of "rhetorical software" in On Beyond Living. For Doyle, the concept of rhetorical software refers to the system of tropes, figures, and images that must be loaded into the brain in order to participate in a given knowledge community. On Beyond Living seeks to show how a certain set of rhetorical software, written by the molecular biology community, underscores many of the discoveries about life made by the community described by the software. Stephenson's model of "rhetorical software" is an interesting, speculative extension of Doyle's model. While it seems obvious to see how Stephenson's zombie-like nam-shub victims are programmed by their software, Doyle's book details the ways in the practice of molecular biology has been equally programmed by a set of rhetorical software.


While comparing Doyle's model of rhetorical software to Stephenson's is most suggestive, Stephenson, in Snow Crash, is still interested in suggesting that this linguistic programming is part of the pre-rational brain and that reason, in some way, does actually work differently (Stephenson's libertarian, ultra-individualist politics probably colors his own insights into and prevents his making the more radical claims we see in Doyle). In fact, so far, all of our examples have either dealt with the pre-rational or the post-rational aspects of rhetorical technologies. It is not until his most recent novel, Anathem, that we begin to see Stephenson exploring the implications for his theory of technology within the sphere of the rational mind.


One of the many plot points in Anathem concerns the split between Incanter and Rhetor monks in the Mathic world being described by Stephenson. We learn early in the novel that Incanters have magic words that let them control the future and that Rhetors have magic words to control the past. The history of monastic communities in this world revolves around this split. As the novel progresses, and we learn more of this history, it becomes clear that, in many ways, both sects do in fact have these magic words. Fraa Jad, an Incanter, reveals to the narrator, Erasmus, that, through the chanting of specific resonances, he can manipulate his brain's ability to travel between possible, parallel universes and determine the best course of action. While this technology would clearly be regarded as a magic word, Erasmus's encounter with Rhetor power is more interesting and more complex.


After Erasmus's adventures arriving at the convocation of monks, he is publicly interviewed by Lodrighir, a powerful Rhetor. During the course of the questioning, Lodrighir begins to deploy a series of classic rhetorical figures and tropes to suggest a radically different interpretation of Erasmus's journey than the one we have been reading. Erasmus struggles to defend himself, but, ultimately, he is unable to and feels defeated and hurt following the interview. What is most suggestive, though, is his reaction to his encounter with the Rhetor: he becomes convinced that Lodrighir actually used his magic words to change the past, rather than merely having used rhetorical language to suggest a different model for past events. In this moment, we can say that Stephenson's thought on technological rhetoric becomes complete: we see that language becomes just another technology of persuasion (on par with Reason or the gamma curve). In this episode, we see the blurring between the technological artifact and the linguistic utterance: Erasmus is convinced that some sort of diabolic Rhetor technology--a time machine perhaps--has been deployed to change the past, when, in fact, all that was used was the magical words of linguistic rhetoric.


Ultimately, the conclusion that may be drawn from Stephenson's account of technological rhetoric is that all rhetoric may be thought of as a rhetoric of technology. While much of the rhetoric of technology has been thought of as being supplementary to the rhetoric of language, we find in Stephenson the ultimate revelation that language is, itself, another technology. Thinking back over Bruno Latour's discussion in "On Technological Mediation," this makes sense: of course language impacts our goals and our actions. The problem is that, given that our actions and goals have been for so long determined through language, we regard language as transparent when, in fact, Stephenson's theory of rhetoric shows that language is equally as much a persuasive technology as a gun or cathode ray tube.