Following Quintilian in book XII of the Institutio Oratoria, Richard Lanham asks what he calls the ‘Q’ question: Is the good (read: persuasive) orator always also a good (read: truth telling) person? Is there some necessary relationship between language and truth wherein neither has priority, or is language a mere tool that can be misused like a hammer working as a doorstop rather than on the doorframe? Lanham identifies two primary answers to the ‘Q’ question, one philosophical and one sophistic, one weak and one strong, which subtend the whole of Western knowledge.
Those, like Plato or E.D. Hirsch, who claim the Weak Defense argue that Truth-with-a-capital-T exists objectively, out there irrespective of our interaction with it; there is thus “good rhetoric” that mirrors a reality that resists rhetorical redescription and “bad rhetoric” that seeks to lead people astray. On the other hand, there are those who promote the Strong Defense, like Richard McKeon or Kenneth Burke, which suggests that truth always should be written with a miniscule t since reality is not a priori to rhetoric but determined by architectonic deliberation and persuasion. The implications of the split between responses and the dominance of the Weak Defense over the Strong—do we note a hint of Nietzschianism here?—are enormous for Lanham. For one, it schematizes and specializes knowledge, transforming the aim of liberal education from moral humanism into the modern humanities and undermining the ability of students to comprehend precisely what E.D. et al. seek to uphold: A pragmatic paideia that teaches democratic values.
Following Richard Lanham in chapter 7 of The Electronic Word, we ask what we call the Q[WERTY] question: Is the good (read: persuasive) online profile always also a good (read: to tell the truth) person? Is there some necessary relationship between the virtual self and the offline self wherein neither has priority, or is the virtual self a mere mirror of some authentic individuality that can be manipulated for misrepresentation? In posing the Q[WERTY] question in these terms, we seek to explore Lanham’s contention that electronic texts can help us attend to the oscillation already at play between reality and its terminal construction, that virtual writing encourages us to recognize how rhetorical virtuosity and ethical virtue are (hyper)linked by virtù.
Those, like early Mark Zuckerberg or later Shirley Turkle in Alone Together, who claim that there ex-ists a knowable, codable reality beyond any binary representation, a reality that even gets filter bubbled out by those alogrithms, provide something of a Weak Defense to our Q[WERTY] question. The digital environment, in this sort of conception, concomitant with the origins of the Internet, primarily offers an ornamental virtual reality, a new and neutral tool that can be taken up as easily for good as for bad purposes online. The Net is understood as inessential in this iteration; social media profiles or a personal webpage are little more than an accessory to physical experience and never more than a partial snapshot.
Those, like post-Zuckerberg programmers or Turkle in her earlier work Life on the Screen, who claim a Strong Defense to the Q[WERTY] question give a definitive yes! to the question of whether a good profile makes for a good person, whether the veracity we ascribe to an account is a matter of creation rather than discovery. In this paradigm, identity becomes something fungible and fragile; assumed characters are not simple forgeries, but a matter of forging in the smithy of the virtual the uncreated conscious of the Internet. With the Strong Defense, a horse, of course, like an absurd bird, is able from the (un)stable to tweet equestrian non sequiturs, and any number of people capable of being John Malkovich, if you can profile picture that—and not just any-one, but any-x, for an (uncountable) account might have as many creators as it does followers and friends, passing from Person A to Person B without need for permission or permanency.
Following this shift in how truth comes to be written—whether with a majuscule or miniscule t—the bi-stable oscillation between rhetoric and reality, the virtual and the actual, the symbolic and the imaginary, comes to the fore. Decisions online begin to have more than a tangential effect on everyday experience: The pictures a user posts online of a rager she attended last weekend might deny her a job, not because—as the Weak Defense would have it—those images reveal her “true” self as irresponsible, but because the very choice to post indicates a failure in judgment and a misunderstanding of online etiquette. Having some autonomy over your web presence—because no doubt there is a you shaped lack created by the symbolic interactivity of friends whether you are online or not—is no longer a choice: As journalism, education, entertainment—you name it—move more of our social infrastructure online, the ability to engage in contemporary democratic processes becomes increasingly tied to technological access and digital knowhow.
Those, just like Lanham suggests the electronic word makes possible, who claim the Strong Defense might ultimately hold more water in today’s social media ecology as traditional definitions of objectivity and subjectivity, morality and authorship are conceived as participatory and precarious. By placing our ideas into <brackets>, we have finally brought to its finish what Bruno Latour has named “the modernist parentheses”, at last returned to the rhetorical paideia Lanham longs for. Gone is the metaphor of viral content that infects our social equilibrium from the outside, and in its place we talk of spreadable media that turns users into jam: Extended across the web, yet somehow still c(l)ustered together. All it takes to explore untaken dimensions of reality, to expose untrodden virtualities, is an intrepid imagination and a reliable Internet connection—a head in the clouds and headway into the Cloud. And yet…
Following you constantly is the gaze of digital networks, like the hollow eyes belonging to a patriarchal portrait in a Scooby-Doo episode, the Other of the Other watching the gang as they scramble around someone else’s mansion. That gaze misses nothing, captures every movement, stores every interaction, and just as our own minds reflexively bridge the gaps produced by the nasal bridge or links what was lost by our blinking, so too do unconscious algorithms reconstruct where you have been and what you have done according to peripheral sociality. Whatever potential for self-creation the virtual sandbox affords, whatever donning of identity those at the dawning of the Internet celebrated, the computerized gaze sees through it to some personal, apparently inescapable facticity: Your gender, your ethnicity, your likes and dislikes, your current and future location—data collected to power a buy-stable market.
Those rhetorical devices designed to help us escape the bonds of our bodies, personal and political, have turned out to have turned on us, betraying themselves as always betraying their users, fooled as they were into believing in anonymity: You, then, are the focus of Lanham’s “economics of attention.” As our computers have disappeared into the banal circuitry of daily life, as invisible as a pair of glasses, they have only made a part of us more visible, and so reify a sense of sensible and objective reality, Truth-with-a-Capital(ist)-T. Of course, we can always reprogram computers according to new values, to tell truth from fiction without resorting to a metaphysics of presence or logocentrism, but until then, if we retain some hope of finding a virtual blindspot, we just might need to rephrase the Q[WERTY] question another way: Is the good (read: persuasive) profile always also a good (read: trust fund) to be processed, purchased, and possessed?