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Democracy, Technology, and the Arts
By Richard A. Lanham
University of Chicago Press, 1993, 285 pages, $22.50

In this collection of ten essays, Richard Lanham explores how electronic text is transforming the structure of contemporary communication. Unlike printed text which is fixed and authoritative, digitized text is interactive, dynamic, and capable of blending word with image and sound. It challenges the traditional concept of "text" derived from the printed book, he claims, and since printed books are still the cornerstone of Western culture, the electronic word prompts a basic reassessment of the liberal arts and how they should be taught.

The emergence of digital technology has paralleled the return of rhetoric as a legitimate form of human inquiry, according to Lanham. Rhetoric, traditionally defined as the art of persuasion, can also be understood as the ability to present information so that others can "look at things from our point of view." The rhetoric of the electronic word often presents itself "under the guise of an outrageously didactic postmodernity," for "in the rhetorical tradition, language comes not transparent and neutral but intrinsically colored (hence the "colors" of rhetoric) with ornament and inherently nonneutral, weighted by play or purpose."

The emergence of electronic text can be understood in light of the ancient quarrel between Plato and the Sophists, the philosopher versus the rhetoricians, according to Lanham. Plato disdained style and verbal artifice, believing that it reduced truth to mere persuasiveness. He believed that language should be clear, precise, and immutable. The Sophists, in contrast, looked upon language as versatile and idiosyncratic. They were concerned with speaking effectively, often with style and flourish, and were willing to teach anybody to be convincing about anything, for a fee. The fundamental polarity was, at bottom, a matter of presentation, not of claims to truth, Lanham observes.

This same dichotomy is at work in the shift from conventional print to electronic text. In today's digital society, we are confronted daily with a deluge of information. "Dealing with this superabundant flow," Lanham says, is like "drinking from a firehose." The most precious commodity is no longer information itself but rather the attention required to cope with it. Consequently, how information is presented is critical.

The quarrel between Plato and the Sophists also reflected the struggle between elite wisdom and public knowledge, according to Lanham. While the philsophers reserved instruction to a small number of privileged students at the academy, the Sophists created an education open to all citizens that was based on shared knowledge. Today, with the future of democracy again on the agenda, established restrictions on information, whether copyright or patent law, government secrecy, or sheer physical inaccessibility, are being increasingly circumvented by the electronic reproducibility of text, pictures, and sound. Copyright laws, for instance, invented with the printed word, have recently been "stretched" to protect audio-visual materials, "but the stretching has always shown, and now electronic text breaks the intellectual fabric down completely."

The expansion of rhetoric's sphere of influence during the last twenty years is astonishing, Lanham states, "so astonishing that I have come to conceive the intellectual history of this period as the return, after a long Newtonian interlude, of the rhetorical paideia as our dominant theory of knowledge and education." By "rhetorical paideia," he means a classical system of knowledge based on an applied, rather than pure, and interactive, rather than passive, conception of the liberal arts. This form of education prevailed in the West from the Greeks onward, he claims, until it was set aside by Newtonian science which introduced a radical separation between neutral and factual language on the one hand, and the persuasive, ornamental functions of language on the other.

The emergence of digitized text has widespread implications not only for the traditional humanities curriculum, Lanham suggests, "but school and university structures, administrative and physical, are affected at every point, as of course is the whole cultural repository and information system we call a library." This development puts a new spin on the controversy over the Great Books, an argument which Lanham believes is really about the enduring values of Western culture and how they ought to passed on to future generations. As text shifts from print to screen, we must ask ourselves perhaps the hardest question of all, "The 'Q' Question": "What are we trying to protect? The old technology itself or what it carries for us, does to us?"

Defining what it is in books that is of value so that we can make sure we don't lose it if the book itself is killed off by the screen is an urgent task, according to Lanham. It requires searching for the point of our whole tradition of education. "Can we really argue that the arts and letters make us better?" he asks. As one answer, he quotes George Steiner's less than positive statement: "I find myself unable to assert confidently that the humanities humanize."