Carnegie Mellon University

From Rupture to Closure: How Communicators Resolve Signal From Noise

Author: Gilbert Vanburen Wilkes IV
Degree: Ph.D. in Rhetoric, Carnegie Mellon University, 2003

Rhetoric is a normative science, like aesthetics or logic. It is normative in that it prescribes the correct or appropriate or effective elements of discourse, their arrangement, their delivery, in whatever conditions. Formal rhetorics, the rhetorics students discover in textbooks, specialists in manuals, rhetoricians in the rhetorical canon, may be reduced to the normative, social-technical specifications for producing, sorting, classifying, and winnowing texts, written or spoken. Formal rhetorics are articulate documents or fully realized practices, highly specified, where categories like proof or epideictic reticulate into systems of terms. Formal rhetorics may be thought of as simply special cases - codified, systematized, highly specified cases - of the common sense norms and conventions that legislate discourse, spoken or written.

Folk or practical rhetorics, on the other hand, are rhetorics that legislate communications in practice, in practical life. They assume the character of sorting behaviors, of rules-of-thumb, of the often intuitive grounds, or only partially realized or articulated grounds, on which communicators decide that one sort of message is e.g. good, appropriate, timely, and another is not.

Folk or practical rhetorics specify in advance the normative and interpretive criteria that govern both the production and reception of discourse. The question then becomes, how, or when, do new folk rhetorics or practical rhetorics or new codes arise? Or can a written message exist that calls into being its own standards of value, its own conditions of interpretation, its own codes? The question has been asked before in the rhetorical tradition, principally by Giambattista Vico, later developed by Ernesto Grassi. It is also a pressing question in the history of typography or graphic design, as it manifests itself visually in the incunabula phase of early print production, a phase that historians and theorists are still trying to explain.

To address this question, I selected three contemporary cases of groups of communicators struggling to make sense of new or newer media, cases where sites, economies, and pedagogies were also in dispute. Based on my interpretations-analyses of the datasets generated by these three cases, I propose a description of norms in formation, propose corrections and additions to the accounts of those who, in the rhetorical tradition, addressed this problem, and develop grounds on which to describe rhetoric at the furthest frontiers of document production and distribution, where research and development and support are most required.