The Wealth of Rhetorics Michael Wojcik

The intersection of the sets “economists” and “historians” is not empty; it includes, for example, Robert Heilbroner and E. Roy Weintraub. Yochai Benkler, however, is apparently not a member. The Wealth of Networks has some useful observations, but it's definitely at its best when discussing economic theory. Benkler's work is often far more suspect when he turns to history, or to cultural observation, or to psychology. (On his political theory I have mixed feelings, mostly because at this point I've only given that material the most cursory of glances.) Perhaps that's not surprising when the author cites prophets of the Internet Age like Eric Raymond and Clay Shirky as if they were scholars (and not simply purveyors of bons mots and sweeping generalizations); but it's still disappointing.

That was only one of several reasons why Kendall's dissertation was a pleasant counterpoint to WoN. Her historiographic (“emphasis on ‘ographic’”, as she puts it at one point) method and emphasis on the structurally important texts of organization and reorganization serve as an excellent reminder that while theoretical grand narratives like The Rise of the Networked Information Economy can be highly productive of meaning (not least because they become prominent and reoccurring foci around which intellectual work accretes), we always need to pay attention to the minutia as well if we want to understand how people produce change and adapt to it while living their lives.

More than that, for me the articulation of these two readings opened a way to consider a question that I've often and lately found pertinent — a question that is also broadly relevant to our field (as seen in recent discussions about CCCC, for example) and specifically to our department. What does it mean to put cultural rhetorics in conversation with quantitatively abstracted modes of analysis like economics, and how do we go about doing that?

But before I get to that, I'd like to look at some strengths and problems in Benkler.

Nodes and edges

In {n1,n2,n3,…}, my response to Unit 2, I wrote a bit about the actual mathematical theory of networks — graph theory, which treats a network as a set of nodes (things the network connects) and a set of edges (the connections between nodes).

One of my complaints there was that if scholars are going to talk about real or metaphorical networks, and derive meaning from the shapes (topologies) and properties of those networks, then they needed to demonstrate a familiarity with actual, rigorous network theory, including graph theory. This is less of a concern in Benkler's case, because he doesn't really care much about network topology or the intrinsic properties of networks. He's much more interested in their emergent properties, such as the efficiencies they can bring to certain types of economic activity. (One network topology might be better at this than another, but that's an elaboration that Benkler, and we, can ignore when we're just looking at his general argument.)

But Benkler shares a weakness that's typical of many thinkers who appeal to “network” as a hermeneutic: he pays more attention to edges than to nodes. He's a lot more interested in how things connect than in the nature of what those connected things are. In part this is because economics operates at a relatively high level of abstraction — and more on that later — but partly it's because he valorizes quantity: the “Network Information Economy” is significant because many people can create and distribute information products.

And since he doesn't really care about the nodes, the historical networks he sketches out get many of the details wrong. To a first approximation, the historical claims of chapter 3 (“Peer Production”) are incorrect or at least grossly misleading, for example. The claim that “the story of free software begins in 1984” (76 [page numbers refer to PDF pages, and not to the page-number labels included with the page text]) at the beginning of his hagiography of Richard Stallman discards not only the long and vibrant histories of code sharing among commercial, academic, and amateur programmers going back at least to the early '60s (a major part of Usenet and BBS cultures, for example), but the fact that most software was free prior to court-ordered unbundling in the 1970s (the outcome of United States vs IBM). While Stallman did introduce a number of innovations to the free-software game, he did so in the context of an active, long-standing, diverse software-sharing culture.

Such examples abound. “[F]ree software products do not rely on markets or on managerial hierarchies” (72) is wrong in many cases — the Ducheneaut reading from a few weeks back is a good corrective to this claim. “[T]he many thousands of people involved in writing the Linux kernel” (79) is a useless gloss for a scholarly work: kernel contributors are too diverse a group to say anything very interesting about them, and kernel sources are ultimately controlled by a handful of gatekeepers. For that matter, it's rarely useful, in any rigorous context, to talk about “the GNU/Linux operating system” (76, 79, etc). That term is a convenient fiction; I might similarly talk about the “highway / my car system” which I used to get to class today. Benkler is also far too fond of non-scholarly work like Eric Raymond's (overrated) “The Cathedral and the Bazaar” (78), which is a popular manifesto but hardly rigorous, and of ostensibly-scholarly work that has been debunked, such as the abominable Nature article about Wikipedia (83). (Relying on this sort of material leads Benkler to completely ignore critical features of Wikipedia such as the Cabal.)

Benkler's cheerleading, which has a tendency to take over when he's not being economically precise, often lead him to make dubious pronouncements about the success of peer-produced goods. When he argues that GNU/Linux and Apache have succeeded because of qualitative superiority, for example (71-72), he dismisses out of hand the possibility that simple market economics (“free as in ‘beer’”) have anything to do with it. But in fact the successful value-added resellers of GNU/Linux, such as Red Hat, have always held up market price as the first point of their value proposition, and I'd claim that the general sense of the industry is in agreement, the FLOSS ideologues aside. (And this was particularly true in the late '90s and early '00s when GNU/Linux was ascending as a server OS.) Apache is arguably a better case, since it has both a commanding market share and a general perception of qualitative superiority; but even it rose at least partly because a new market (web server software) was created, which let small firms quickly come to dominance; and those firms naturally turned to free software because in that market they could substitute knowledge (of Apache) for capital (to purchase non-free web server software).

The Apache example, though, helps show why Benkler is indeed on to something, because the appearance of something like a fungible knowledge-money product (where knowledge can substitute for capital) is an unusual market feature. (This isn't a precise formulation, because we don't have a unit to measure knowledge with, but it illustrates the idea.) That suggests Benkler's Network Information Economy is a significant departure from the Industrial Information Economy. Again, Benkler's analysis of large-scale peer programming as producing “a functional good with measurable qualities” (76) is on target.

In general, Benkler's at his best when he's making specific, technical economic claims. Chapter 4 (“Social Production”) starts with a number of them, for example: The Network Information Economy arises simply because “the material conditions of production ... have changed in ways that increase the relative salience of social sharing and exchange as a modality of economic production” (104) — that's a solid, careful, plausible claim. Or “what has changed is that now these patterns of [social] behavior have become effective beyond the domains” where they used to be effective (104) — in other words, widespread access to broadcast communications (the Tuberwebs) has amplified effects of certain kinds of activity we've always engaged in. Or his following discussion of motivation (104-108).

I'd suggest that the value of Benkler's book — the wealth of The Wealth of Networks — is in the meanings it produces here at the economic-theory level. As I suggested above, that's a relatively high level of abstraction. It's too abstract to deal adequately with the details of history; to say much about culture (aside from acknowledging cultural difference, as Benkler does on 108); or to describe the lives of individuals.

Specificity and Abstraction

Kendall Leon's Building a Chicana Rhetoric for Rhetoric and Composition, on the other hand, is on the whole much less abstract; it's often all about the details, and cultural specificity, and the lives of individuals. But that does not prevent Leon from making higher-abstraction claims about rhetorical theory and the field of rhetoric and composition.

So while I enjoyed the dissertation for its own overt project, it was also valuable to me as an illumination of a problem that is of much interest to me, the R&W program, and the field in general. The problem is this: how do we connect cultural rhetorics with quantitative data-reducing modes of meaning production like economics? Or to put it another way, how to ascend the ladder of abstraction without losing human specificity and incomensurability?

Of late I've encountered this in reference not so much to economics (though it needs to be raised there) but to the nascent field of computational rhetoric, which is the use of information technology to mechanize rhetorical theory. That's a field founded on successive layers of abstraction; its fundamental tropes are accreting assumptions and reducing data (to sift out “interesting” information). But my intellectual trajectory was formed as much from non-reductive humanist vectors as it was from computer science: I worked with feminist theory as an undergraduate and postcolonial theory in my first graduate career; and though I've taken more of a philosophical and computational turn at MSU, questions of identity, politics, and individual meaning-production remain priorities for me.

So while at the moment most of my focus in computational rhetoric is establishing it as a viable field, I'm also conscious of the basic and inescapable problem of its persistent threat to suture over the dimensions of rhetoric that it cannot capture — the cultural and psychological dimensions, the ways rhetoric is fundamentally intertwined with the processes of our daily lives. And my interlocutors (at CCCC, on TechRhet, etc) have raised these questions explicitly, as I believe they should.

This is also an urgent problem for our program and for WRAC, because we claim special expertise in cultural rhetoric and in the often relatively abstract field of digital rhetoric (and we're building a similar claim for computational rhetoric). We need to be able to better articulate the articulation of those fields. At the undergraduate level, our Professional Writing program has largely lost touch with cultural rhetoric, which threatens two kinds of loss: to the program in its ideal conception as a richly humanized PW experience, and to one of its perceived advantages in a competitive field of PW undergrad programs. For the discipline of Rhetoric and Composition as a whole, it's simply an ethical and intellectual imperative: the theoretical insights of cultural rhetoric carry ethical weight which demands we acknowledge them in all our work, and we impair our claims to scholarly rigor if we allow our subfields to stand apart.

So Leon's call to acknowledge, on the one hand, the importance of the details of institutional writing, and on the other, the importance of Chicana rhetoric for rhetoric at large, are powerful moves back down the abstraction ladder, to greater specificity and connection to the human in general and individual lives in particular. She turns rhetoric away from mimesis (which modelling approaches like computational rhetoric are grounded in) to an ontologically-grounded engagement in the world: “a position from which people in the world do things ... not only reflecting a reality” (12).

But she is still able to make broad — that is, abstract — theoretical claims, for example about the “theorization about the body and one's experiences living in it” (25); this reclaims the human dimensions that aren't quantifiable (because we don't have sufficient rational access to them — we run up against the epistemological limits of phenomenology, or our ability to know ourselves), and so are unavailable to higher-level abstractions like economics or computation. Coupled to “experiential knowledge” and “bodily semiotics”, this becomes an epistemology of how we live, which in turn becomes one of how to live, at once something like Giddens' idea of “how to go on” and an explanation of how to effect change. This last is visible, for example, in her chapter 4 (“Acts of Connectivity”), when she discusses concrete examples of network information building with economic and political consequences (eg 132), as when Chicanas “placed other Chicanas or like-minded people on the boards and commissions” (136).

Rhetorics to the Rescue?

So it is tempting, then, to appeal to the rhetorical affordances Leon illustrates, such as “difrsismo” (26), in order to answer the question I posed above about connecting specific and abstract approaches. But she warns us specifically against this very move! In one of her first discussions of the reception of Chicana rhetoric, Leon points out that when cultural rhetorics are not simply partitioned off from the field at large, they are often used as a repository of hermeneutic tools which can be harvested from them without retaining their intellectual and political contexts (18).

Thus Leon alerts us to a second problem arising from the first. This kind of lifting of metaphors is a form of value extraction — a way of extracting value from a rhetoric. And since a rhetoric is a form of network knowledge production (as I hope is obvious), this is precisely the kind of intellectual work Benkler is advocating! The problem we're faced with is not just a matter of integrating high-abstraction knowledge-work (economics, computation) with close-to-the-human work, but one of at the same time avoiding the colonizing moves she identifies: token inclusion, specialization (partitioning the domain of rhetoric into special interest areas), value extraction, and so on.

Rhetorical work is networked work, in Benkler's sense; and this is particularly true of organizational rhetoric, as we saw in Yates and Spinuzi and Winsor and once again in Leon, because we can easily see how organizational writing is embedded in relations of production and consumption, unlike most conventional &ldqou;artistic” writing where market fluidity hides many of those relations. If, as Leon says, “a purpose of the CFMN as an organization was to be connected” (33), that was in part to capture some of the efficiencies Benkler discusses. But Leon explains that these are not simply economic advantages but “strategic acts of connectivity” which become “a type of knowing” (110). If Benkler's book recapitulates a problem we identified in earlier readings like Yates, where human actors are homogenized, Leon demonstrates how to recover at least the traces of individual meanings in these network productions.

Cultural rhetorics can point toward a solution to the first problem — the problem of operating across levels of abstraction — as Leon demonstrates. They may also offer hints to solving the second problem, which is precisely the problem of not reducing them to solutions.

One of those hints, I think, is in Leon's description of her “recursive” methodology (29), and her narrative of how it emerges as she studies her source materials. Her disinclination to predetermine an epistemological framework, and to let her approach develop as she accumulated data, implies a continual revisiting of multiple levels of abstraction. Why? Because when each new document has the opportunity to reshape the project, the scholar has to continually review both the minute details of the data and the abstractions into which it is being fitted.

Further, this methodology (if carried out sincerely) has, I suggest, inevitable reflections in the meaning produced out of it. In Chicana Rhetoric we can see that in a number of places. I particularly noted moments that celebrated incommensurability, a refusal to reduce explanations to a consistent set. It's difficult to work with incommensurate explanations at high levels of abstraction because most of our intellectual tools for those levels gain much of their power from assuming consistency. (In fact, this is almost a definition of abstraction: treating a set of more-or-less consistent entities as a single collective entity.) One of the ways in which specificity shines is in its ability to account for the incommensurable.

Incommensurability appears in Leon's work early on, as in her discussion of the “production of something new from alterity” (25) and of “stories that stand in contradistinction” (26), or her references to difrasismo. But it's threaded throughout her discussions, and finally makes perhaps its strongest appearance in her critique of stasis theory, when she declares that “perhaps coming to a consensus is not only not desirable but is not possible” (144). And it is here, perhaps, where she comes closest to Benkler's enthusiasm for networked plurality, as she notes “one of the subjectivities that are frequently not included [in rhetorical scholarly work] ... are groups” (145-146). And perhaps when we are tempted to turn to the abstraction of networks in thinking about mutual human action, we'd do well to pause a moment to consider the specific cultural, organizational, and individual subjectivity of groups first.