Bryn Mawr Classical Review 94.06.13

Richard A. Lanham, The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993. Codex version: ISBN 0-226-46883-6. $22.50. Pp. xvi + 285. Voyager Expanded Book version (floppy disk for Macintosh): ISBN 0-226-46884-4. $19.95.

Reviewed by James J. O'Donnell, The University of Pennsylvania.

'The "humanist" task may pass to other groups while the humanities dwindle into grumpy antiquarianism.' (Lanham, 228) None will know better than classicists the risk our profession faces. The humanities share their fate with monolithic, capital- and labor-intensive institutions that manage their internal economies through a curious mixture of state socialism and buccaneer capitalism. These institutions present themselves to the world as microcosms -- Ezra Cornell1 had it right when he wanted to found, and did found, "an institution where any person can find instruction in any study." In an age when education was confined to what you could find in the books and hear in the voices of people in a single geographical location, that microcosmic structure seemed logical, even necessary, despite the inefficiencies of scale created by distributing the practitioners of each academic trade thinly across many institutions rather than encouraging specialized clusters to emerge.

The ideological roots of our institutional structures run deep in western cultures and have the incoherence of ancient tradition. Though our university has a modern, indeed nineteenth-century, structure, it has chosen to see itself as heir of a medieval ideological tradition that in turn grew out of the seedbed of Hellenistic educational theory and practice filtered through late antique Platonism and Christianity. The liberal arts that took decisive shape in late antiquity as a program of training for philosophical mysticism2 become insensibly in American practice an omnium gatherum of ill-focused general education.

If there is a common thread to the ideologies of liberal education from Hellenistic times to the present, it is the belief that refined study improves the person: makes you a gentleman perhaps, in one ideological view, a mystic initiate in another, a good citizen in another,3 or simply a happy and well-rounded corporate raider in yet another view. The passion at the heart of Richard Lanham's important new book lies in his open confrontation of that long pious tradition with the ineluctable fact that the correlation between virtue and a liberal education is far too low to allow it to stand as a justification for what we do in our classrooms. He joins the debate in Quintilian and traces it episodically to the present, with full marks to George Steiner, who has argued one form or another of the negative in this debate for many years. As his most contemporary witnesses, Lanham invokes Anthony Grafton and Lisa Jardine, whose From Humanism to the Humanities (Princeton 1986) sturdily called into question whether our venerated Renaissance forefathers really practiced or achieved what they preached. Lanham pointedly shows that even Grafton and Jardine leave the issue unresolved -- still hoping that it might be possible to show a connection between the inculcation of knowledge and the promotion of virtue, but unable to make a convincing case.

Lanham's point is that as long as we go on bloviating about how virtuous we will make you, we face a tough sell merely in maintaining our relative economic position. The occasion for these reflections is, as the title of the book makes clear, the technological revolution that is upon us. As long, Lanham argues, as we could depend on traditional social structures to deliver us students in search of four years of youth camp and whatever else we put them through, and as long in particular as we had the long prosperity and demographic boom of post-war America to guarantee the academic enterprise sustained growth, we could continue to fudge essential questions about what we did and why it was worth doing. But if, as Lanham believes (and I concur), technological change has even only a moderate impact on our educational structures (and I would suggest that we need to keep in mind that the impact could be far more than moderate), our livelihoods are at risk, unless we see and say clearly and persuasively what we offer our students and our society.

There is one special feature to the way this discussion can be carried out. Given the professed subject matter of the book, it is appropriate that it was available from the outset in two forms, one the traditional codex book in hard cover, the other the untraditional form of a Voyager Expanded Book that runs on a Macintosh, displaying fully-formatted text and offering such features as user-inserted and searchable annotations, bookmarks, text-searches, etc. The screens have been constructed to mimic the experience of the printed book, with appropriate fonts and layout. I have used the book in both forms and find that for sustained reading, I still curl up with the codex, but that for analytical reading and dialogue with the author, the electronic form is more efficient.4

There are two fundamental movements to Lanham's argument, interrelated but independent. The first is made chiefly in the first three chapters and suggests that the decorum of a text rendered digital differs essentially from that of print, just as the decorum of print differed from that of manuscript culture. With graphic samples from turn of the century Italian Futurism and the contemporary prophet of hypertext Ted Nelson, Lanham shows at least that the possibility of a far more colorful, diverse, and variegated presentation of text is facilitated by the electronic medium. Imagine reading Paradise Lost, he suggests, and looking to jazz things up by giving Lucifer his own gaudy typeface; and then imagine... And so it goes. Lanham's serious point is really about print, that between the efflorescence of the illuminated medieval manuscript and that day in 1984 when people discovered exotic fonts on their new Macintoshes lay the reign of an ascetic style of page layout, designed for self-effacing transparency.5 The world of print, says Lanham, is transparent, serious, and public; the domains of play and privacy, of ostentation and self-dramatization, are kept rigorously in check. What will happen, what could happen, if these lines become blurred, and if the mannerism of play impinges on the stolid classicism of serious work?

That argument wields a broad brush as a caricature of the last five hundred years (Mozart comes to mind, for example, as one who famously and blithely blurred those boundaries), and the inevitability of transformation in the half-seen world of electronic information is far from clear. What is quite true is that in some parts of our world, most visibly those of hacker-infested cyberspace, the invasion of decorum has been slow in coming, and a raffish populism prevails. But it must also be borne in mind that apparent indecorousness is not always what it seems. The contrary side to the freedom Lanham sees is that our ability to observe, measure, and control has become so precise, that even the regulation of very small gestures is sufficient to exercise fundamental control.

In his third chapter, Lanham moves from the novel terrain of cyberspace on to what is for him much more familiar ground. The organizing force he suggests will help us assimilate the possibilities of cyberspace is the ancient discipline of rhetoric. The Newtonian age of dialectic and objectivity has run its brief course, he argues, and in the world of the infonaut we will find a frankly rhetorical affirmation that style governs discourse more than truth does.

Now Lanham is already well known as a member of the rhetoric gang, those scholars and enthusiasts who take the contrarian position that the modern disrepute of rhetoric is unearned and that its excellences as an organizing principle in the organon of knowledge are many.6 Lanham himself is candid enough to admit some chagrin (54) at the thought that what he has believed in and studied all his life turns out, by marvelous coincidence, to be just what the world needs now. The rhetoricsters have their point, to be sure. Contemporary literary theory and practice are less persuaded than in a more Newtonian age we once were that reason can achieve some anti-rhetorical, impersonal, objective discourse; rationalism on this examination turns out to be the Enlightenment's preferred form of rhetoric.7 To see the ancient lineage of the preference for rhetoric, we need only recall the way the fierce and rebarbative bridesmaid Dialectica is hushed off the stage in Martianus Capella's De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii to make way for the elegant and all-swaying beauty of Rhetorica.

But the advocates of the rhetorical mode and discipline remain marginalized, much as do those who offer technologically determinist analyses of the history of western cultures -- the Havelocks, Ongs, McLuhans, and their followers. What is instructive, and provides a way to read this book fruitfully this side of both assent and dissent, is to consider the implications of these marginalizations. The determinists see culture as a series of behaviors determined by the powers and limits of each generation's "hardware", that is, the technologies of communication; the rhetoricians understand culture as the variable application in different technological situations of a consistent, as it were, "suite of software," the strategy and tactics of rhetoric. When we resist such views, what assumptions are we unconsciously making? We believe that the hardware that matters is our bodily frame, and that its functioning is unaltered by its encounters with different cultural forms and technologies. What changes is the software, constantly refined, improved, and rendered wiser and more humane, more objective and more efficient. In short, we live out our belief in the Whig interpretation of history, chapter and verse -- what Zorba turned intellectual historian would call "the full catastrophe". If we were to construct a considered theory more in accord with our own a priori modernist and post-modernist beliefs about the way the world works, we would grant the cultural environment has profound effect on behavior, and that linear progression in our development is questionable at best.

On that reading, the rhetorician's posture, leaving aside the question whether it can claim to be privileged over all others, emerges as theoretically viable. The dialogue between the rhetoricians and the mainstream remains fruitful, but for the moment, it can be set aside, the rhetorical position assumed, and we can ask where it gets us. With Lanham, it takes us back to what he calls "the Q question", the debate from Quintilian on about the function and value of humanistic study. He characterizes the traditional argument, that study makes us better people, as the "Weak Answer" to that question, vulnerable to the criticisms outlined above. In its place, he proposes a characteristically rhetorical "Strong Answer", which he sees adumbrated in Baldassar Castiglione's Il cortegiano. The Lanhamite answer to the question is roughly that rhetoric as discipline makes us sensitive not merely to what we say, but to how we say it. If that sounds crudely simple, it can perhaps be stated in a more Foucauldian way: makes us sensitive not merely to what we say, but to the power relations that underlie our discourse and the ways those relations are manipulated by discourse. Lanham's model does not replace dialectic with rhetoric, but imagines language used both ways at once in what he calls a "bi-stable illusion" -- he does not evoke the ambivalence of wave and particle physics, but the analogy seems strong. He commends self-consciousness, or call it perhaps Zen-like mindfulness, an attitude that restores speaker, hearer, and their relations to the discursive act. Print technology, on this analogy, offered for five hundred years a dangerously deceptive illusion of objectivity, of separability from a human mind and voice. Electronic technology, in Lanham's view, restores consciousness and personality to discourse, and so there re-enters the rhetorician -- or, to be a little trendier, the self-fashioner, the person identified by a distinctive, even perhaps mannerist style. Dry, ascetic, and impersonal discourse vanishes, and a livelier speaking voice is heard.

Lanham does not address the risks of loss associated with this re-dramatization of discourse. Suppressing the speaker has given us a species of technical discourse that has made possible magical advances in the manipulation of material things. To valorize discourse by its persuasiveness and stylishness is to give the advertising profession even more moral support than they already find in our willingness to buy whole mountains of cubic zirconium jewelry. His long seventh chapter on "The Q Question" is difficult for precisely this reason: Lanham's partisanship is for one of the polarities of discourse that he thinks neglected (the rhetorical, conscious, playful) and he does a less than convincing job of describing the double polarity of objective/subjective, serious/playful, dialectical/rhetorical, public/private, etc.

He is more convincing and more helpful in applying the practice of the Strong Answer to concrete social situations. He argues that where people differ over facts or principles, the dialectical model of discourse perilously commands that a single objective truth be discovered and enforced. Ironically, this has the effect of making Thrasymachean fascism the practical upshot of the social veneration of Socratic dialectic. What Lanham proposes as paradoxical counterpart is a model derived from the most rhetorically conscious fora in our society, the law courts. The principle there is that persuasion makes the community's truth for it. The rules are clear, the opportunities fair, the playing field level (at least in theory), and the judge and jury are swayed not by whatever may be the (unknowable) objective truth of the matter, but by whichever party presents the best case. The goal is not indeed achievement of objective truth, but a practical outcome of equity and honor acceptable to the whole community. Lanham argues that all of human life, democratically understood, is that kind of encounter, where conflicting interests and views come together in dialogue to make a world out of a welter of solipsistic world-views. To claim absolute validity for a world so made leads to fascism, but to accept community of interest as a practical way of making community without large truth claims, in an open-ended, contingent sort of way, seems in fact the way good societies live. Our task is not to create and then preserve an American democracy, therefore, but to live and go one making one. "Western civilization" on that view is not what we study in universities, it is what we are. The humanities contribute to what we are by adding points of view derived from geographically and temporally remote parts of our world, selecting from time to time those objects of study most suited to contribute to the contemporary making of our common society.

Here Lanham's concerns return to those of curriculum-makers and shapers. Several of the chapters in this book began as contributions to the canon wars of the 1980s. The most powerful feature of this book is that it takes up those now trite issues and handles them in a fresh and original way. Lanham successfully brings out the way the left and the right, theory buffs and Great Bookies, participate in their own "bi-stable illusion" of mutual neediness and interdependence. They share a common intellectual project, they share more assumptions than not, and precisely in their eery re-enactment of the Battle of the Books between the Ancients and the Moderns8 they play out again an ancient drama. Lanham shows good reason to be impatient with the parochiality of that debate, and while insisting on its importance, suggests that it is precisely in a rhetorical awareness of its pathology and its contingency that we can see the way past. Here his recommendation approaches that of Gerald Graff in Beyond the culture wars: how teaching the conflicts can revitalize American education (New York 1992), but with more ironic detachment. Precisely his affection for and appreciation of the power of the electronic media give Lanham his distinctive distance from the combats that have wearied us all by now.

So what becomes of our humanistic curriculum? For a professor of English literature, long-time director of a freshman composition program in a major state university, and author of books on Philip Sydney and Laurence Sterne, his suggestions will still seem perhaps perilously unsettling to traditional practitioners of the humanities. He speaks optimistically of a "new core curriculum in language, the arts, and democratic politics" (114-5), but is suggestive rather than prescriptive. He warns us that our traditional institutions face increasing competition from "the training world" (John Cleese, in retirement from that little foray into hotel management, now makes piles of money as a teacher, not in any of our conventional institutions but on videotape for the business market) and quotes with approval (67) Peter Drucker, for example:

Management is thus what tradition used to call a liberal art -- "liberal" because it deals with the fundamentals of knowledge, self-knowledge, wisdom, and leadership; "art" because it is practice and application. Managers draw on all the knowledges and insights of the humanities and the social sciences -- on psychology and philosophy, on economics and history, on the physical sciences and ethics. But they have to focus this knowledge on effectiveness and results -- on healing a sick patient, teaching a student, building a bridge, designing and selling a "user-friendly" software program.
A classicist transcribing those words has no difficulty imagining his colleagues reading them, and reacting as they do to fingernails on a blackboard. The institutional culture of the "humanities" in the universities violently opposes such a view, or espouses part of it only to condemn the narrowness of vision of the people who teach management. But in so doing, we run the very great risk of having our lunch eaten before we ever get to the table. Because we take such a view, for example, at the University of Pennsylvania, two different programs in the Wharton School to my knowledge are quite cheerfully doing our business for us. They invoke faculty from the School of Arts and Sciences, but the curriculum is designed and built in Wharton. And in Arts and Sciences, we wring our hands if enrollments and majors decline. That grumpy antiquarianism I quoted Lanham dreading at the outset is close at hand at moments like this.

Lanham's prescription and his hope is that we will fight our way back from the marginalization we have inflicted on ourself through our professionalism and recover from our deep rhetorical past a rationale and a technique, starting with our recognized skills but taking an ambitious view of what we can do to equip our students to manipulate all the possible media of communication.9 In some cases, we have let opportunities slip away. Once again, at Penn, a decision was taken long ago that the modern media were best excluded from the School of Arts and Sciences and a separate Annenberg School of Communications10 was founded and a gleaming structure erected; now in great old age, Walter Annenberg has found $120 million to give us, and every dollar of it goes to endow the School of Communications. Where will the new rhetorical paideia be fostered and taught? Will the grumpy antiquarians rouse themselves from their shells?

If we imagine ourselves as defined by our content and by skills needed to approach that content at a high level, we are in trouble. If we assume that the "economics of attention" is an economics of scarcity, then every new competitor for attention is an enemy of ours -- small liberal arts colleges that have added Asian studies to their curricula in recent years have had to find the resources somewhere, and I know one case where the number of positions in classics has declined in just such a period.

Perhaps we can preserve the institutionalized discipline just to be ironized, just to be the rhetorical pretext for alternate modes of expression and alternate ideological attachments. David Konstan suggests just such an ironic approach.11 Given that classics is a subject of study, then the appropriate behavior is to attack the injustices of antiquity; Konstan does not that I can see offer any further reason why "classics" should be an object of study at all, and presumably ideologically conscious study of the human past need not in principle be confined to the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome. But a classicist kept on staff so that Greece and Rome may be suitably dispossessed of their fame may soon begin to feel like a professor of theology in the old Soviet Union, kept around on purpose to that people would still know what it was they were to hate. It's not a career track with a lot of security to it.

But we must not mix our -isms indiscriminately. Though only lately come to fashion, the guilty conscience of classicists and the beginnings of an acerbic demolition of some of the claims we have made for our subject in the past is scarcely a great novelty. It represents a nineteenth-century, modernist move, however long delayed, and is quite independent of the more original cultural movements of our time. If the notion of rhetoric appealed to by Lanham has validity, it lies in its power to detach us from such traditional binary oppositions and to make us self-conscious practitioners with a common purpose. Both proponents and critics of the wisdom of the ancients base themselves on just the sort of metanarrative that Lyotard defines as the object of true postmodern incredulity.12 To suspend that credulity is to accept the bi-stable illusion (in Lanham's terms) that classics is something we do and something we worry about doing, and both the doing and the worrying are legitimate objects of concern. To take that position gives us one strategic advantage in the institutions we inhabit: it would encourage us to be aggressive in defining our classical content broadly (the reasons that keep us from comprising all that is Greek and Latin to begin with are old and unworthy ones, themselves mainly ideological) and second in pursuing the ramifications of the classical style wherever they lead. I do not mean simply Nachlebenforschung, but outright colonization, the reciprocal move to that already made with great facility by our colleagues in other departments (it is easy to think of examples from religion, philosophy, history, political science, and at least all the modern European literature departments) when they annex this or that piece of the classical past to their scholarship and their teaching. It is perfectly reasonable that a Ph.D. in English should teach Jonathan Swift, but it is surely equally reasonable that when Swift begins launching darts against a Richard Bentley, a classicist might be at the head of the table.

To imagine a classical profession that engaged in that kind of friendly colonization, exploring all the ways in which the world has used our ancient texts to knit together its cultural manifestations, asking seriously the question why the Greek and Roman past should have seemed so reassuring for so long (which is the same as asking why that reassurance has faded so strikingly in our time, but yet not disappeared) -- this is to imagine a classical profession that could learn from Lanham the rhetorician a style of postmodern self-fashioning and that could learn from Lanham the prophet of post-print technology an enthusiastic embrace of all the cultural forms that humankind can contrive. Such a classical profession might well deserve to survive, to call itself unblushingly "humanist", and to forget its grumpiness.

Does Lanham himself achieve this? Only partly. The most venturesome rhetorical gesture in the book is the last chapter, "Conversation with a Curmudgeon", in which "Lanham" and "Curmudgeon" enact the musings of a divided self in the face of a still-bewildering future. Though the discussion is made to end on an optimistic note, the effect of the frank display of doubts and irresolutions is to liberate the reader from the usual obligation to make up one's mind about the book -- good or bad, right or wrong, agree or disagree. The dialogue dis-authorizes "Richard Lanham" far enough to give the discourse of the nine chapters that precede it a life of its own. My own experience of this book, over a swift and voracious reading in the dead of winter, and now a long, lingering, line-by-line rereading piecemeal over six months, has been to find its importance not in any absolute position it takes and argues for. This review has indicated clearly enough my hesitation in the face of the ideological attachment to the rhetorical tradition that Lanham himself displays. But I have found that the construction of the book has presented it to me as precisely the kind of bi-stable illusion that Lanham proffers as a reasonable way of viewing the world. To consider the book and its ideology (to look at the book) and to reflect on the history and prospects it discusses (to look through the book) are both valuable ways of forcing myself to enact a comparable examination of my own ideological habits (to look at my own thoughts) and of the phenomenology of contemporary American academic culture and contemporary cyberspace, the interpenetrating twin cultures that I inhabit by preference (to look at those cultures). Lanham's book offers the classically trained humanist one nearly ideal vantage point from which to make those observations; but he does not claim nor does the book by its structure and argument claim to be the only such vantage point, or even a privileged one. Readers of many kinds and backgrounds can come to this book, think with it and through it about the issues it raises, and go away enriched by it, even while they may be vehemently in disagreement with each other and with its author on many of the points at issue. It has an importance that is very much of this time, and though it may well be read with great interest in fifty years, it will be for very different reasons than those that impel us to read it today. In this regard it reminds me of Julien Benda's La trahison des clercs of 1927. It is, or at least it can be, a wake-up call for a tradition of scholarship and pedagogy that has sleepwalked far longer than one might have imagined possible.


  • [1] Cornell was the man who really built the national information superhighway, once he figured out how to put glass insulators atop wooden poles for his client Samuel F.B. Morse; 24 May 1994 was the 150th anniversary of the media stunt ("What Hath God Wrought?") with which they trumpeted their project. For the tale, prophetic and familiar all at once, of the rush to built that superhighway, see Carleton Mabee, The American Leonardo (New York 1943).
  • [2] See I. Hadot, Arts liberaux et philosophie dans la pensee antique (Paris 1984).
  • [3] Compare for example the first and second editions of Mortimer Adler's How to Read a Book in this regard: between 1940 and 1972 the eloquent pages (which I devotedly cribbed for a high school salutatory address a quarter century ago) on the Great Books and good citizenship were diluted into an unmemorable suggestion that through the Great Books lay the path to personal fulfillment.
  • [4] One transient advantage of the traditional codex book comes into relief in this situation: I like to use them because I have a lot of other information stored in the same way, and there is efficiency in familiarity. For now, no such standard form helps you navigate electronic information and so each new product like this still requires acquisition of new skills and leaves you feeling a less than fully competent reader.
  • [5] Here Lanham's argument dovetails with a book he does not cite, G.G. Harpham, The Ascetic Imperative in Culture and Criticism (Chicago 1987), which is excellent on the persistence of forms of late antique ideology in the most unlikely modernist and postmodernist places. The trope returns, with no citation of Harpham anywhere that I can see, in William E. Rogers, Interpreting interpretation: textual hermeneutics as an ascetic discipline (University Park, Pa. 1994).
  • [6] This is no organized claque, but the apologetic program is clear, from the deliberately jarring book-titles of Kenneth Burke and Wayne Booth -- there is a similar provocation in Lanham's repeated analysis of rhetoric as "the economics of attention" -- to Brian Vickers' In Defense of Rhetoric (Oxford 1988); lightest-hearted on such studies, but still very serious, is Donald McCloskey's Rhetoric of Economics (Madison, Wisc., 1985), a devastatingly funny and insightful examination of the way metaphorics and even narratology can help interpret the most forbiddingly pseudo-mathematical of economists' screeds.
  • [7] That case can be made philosophically, as by Richard Popkin in his History of Skepticism from Erasmus to Spinoza (Berkeley 1979) and more recently in his The Third Force in Seventeenth-Century Thought (Leiden 1992), where he pursues a long investigation into the ways rationalism and irrationalism alike were seventeenth-century reactions to the frightening prospect of the revival of ancient academic skepticism and the failure of organized religion to hold the bulwarks against a nihilist alternative. The same argument against the rationalist pretensions of modernity has also now been made with rollicking polemical verve by John Ralston Saul, Voltaire's Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West (New York 1992).
  • [8] See now Joseph Levine, The Battle of the Books (Ithaca 1991), for an impressive reading of that conflict with a good sense of the relevance of our own contemporary concerns.
  • [9] Peter Brown's most re cent book, Power and Persuasion in Late Antiquity (Madison, Wisc., 1992), makes good reading when we try to consider that past and its possibilities, inasmuch as he takes a distinctively post-modern, post-Marrou approach to the realities of education and power.
  • [10] So we regularly refer to it, but the sign over the door is more venturesome: Annenberg School of Communications Arts and Sciences.
  • [11] In an article on "Classics" in the Encyclopedia of the American Left (New York, 1990, one of the endless series of encyclopedias -- Penn owns 53 so far and more are in preparation -- with which Garland Publishers achieves the capitalist dream); I know the article from its reprinting in the spring 1994 newsletter of the Women's Classical Caucus.
  • [12] The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Minneapolis 1984), xxiv. It is worth remembering that this early (to the keyword "postmodern?" the Penn library OPAC proposes 637 matches in reverse chronological order, of which Lyotard's book in the original edition is item number 628) brief for the postmodern stance was written as a commissioned government report by the Conseil des Universites of the government of Quebec.