Literature as Lyrical Politics

Article excerpt

I think we should never write out anything which we do not intend to commit to memory.

- Quintilian

"We are in one of those moments," a publishing colleague said to me recently, "when nobody knows what is happening." We were talking, as everybody in publishing now must in any conversation lasting more than a few minutes, of the impact of the new media on books and on consciousness. His words came as a relief because they voiced an image that confirmed my uneasy sense that all our talk on this subject had a strangely desperate quality - as if we knew something momentous was happening, but had lost the ability to name what it was we really wanted to talk about, much less decide what we wanted to do.

The comment implied that the technologies mediating our discourse were outstripping our discourse's ability to define those changes or formulate satisfactorily the terms with which to consider and debate their implications. In fact, his comment raises the not unreasonable suggestion that the discourses through which the "selves" and the "we" of our social and cultural interchanges are constituted have come under such intense and transformative pressures in recent years that, temporarily at least, a knowable context for discourse has become impossible.

In this destabilized and destabilizing atmosphere of publishing, I want to make the following straightforward argument: we need to reconnect publishing to the word public that is buried within it and to the "live," speaking (or singing) human voice through which any "public" or "people" is constituted according to our literary tradition's founding rhetorical assertion and assumption. That is, I want us to go back and take rhetoric as an organizing system of order, coherence, and community very seriously indeed. (I have come to this formulation and offer this suggestion, for whatever it is worth, as a result of having worked with Barry Sanders as his editor for A Is for Ox: Violence, Electronic Media, and the Silencing of the Written Word, published in 1994.)

Such an argument is necessary, first, I think, because it offers a method for specifying the social and cognitive terms in which unlimited access to unlimited amounts of information promised by the new technologies is not equivalent to rhetorical competence. Secondly, this argument is necessary because it offers a way to specify what distinguishes markets for information and entertainment - no matter how responsive, sophisticated, and efficient - from interpretive or "textual" communities. Thirdly, the prospective of the embodied speaking voice, as well as "the public" implied by the circulation of the printed word, is necessary because it can provide a way of specifying how writing and reading matter in the context of the changed human sensorium the new technologies imply and are bringing into being. Finally, such an argument offers a way of framing a sense of literature as a "lyrical politics" in which our discussions can be grounded simultaneously in the individual "citizen-self" as an embodied, spontaneous speaker and the contemporary commerce of symbolic interchange.

I feel some entitlement to speak on these matters because as an acquiring editor it is my business to imagine the contemporary transaction between readers and writers. And because I am an interested party. I am judged, after all, on my successes and failures as a broker of words, and I do have some say in how words are bound, commodified, marketed, and sold. My job no doubt accounts for my being struck increasingly by the thought that publishing now finds itself accountable to two contradictory systems of agency: the rhetorical - that is, that tradition and organization of linguistic resources directed toward action through the arts of verbal persuasion - and the cybernetic - that is, that recent ability through "the application of statistical mechanics to communication engineering" "to replace" "human control functions" through "mechanical and electronic systems" and thereby to organize, determine, and administer the commerce of symbolic interchange according to an instrumental logic not founded by language or rhetoric. …