(Post archived here for Foundations of Technical Communication, Fall 2010)
(Yes, it says post 2 and this is the first one of its kind. I know. I’ll back it up soon.)
Overall, I’d say that computer writing encourages a hybrid visual/textual rhetoric. While it’s often necessary to split these to discuss particular discursive objects that might involve one or the other to a greater extent, this division might be more necessary for the sake of slim and trim theory, not actual discursive practices.
The binary itself might have once been a useful distinction, but is now becoming ever more arbitrary as the material and technological conditions of our work and our play are changing. Indeed, it is possible to discuss the textual as one especially peculiar and demanding kind of visual—reclassification is in order. (This is part of Hayles’ argument in Writing Machines) that literature and writing scholars have ignored visual and material aspects of texts to their detriment. We ignore the material/visual implications and design often to a fault, thinking only of the abstract existence of the text. But texts are material and technological—Bernhard’s statement that “text is inseparable from the machine” resonates strongly—we can’t de-materialize text. Then it becomes something else. There’s a connection to Wesch’s video here as well. Not only is text “inseparable from the machine,” but on top of that “the machine is us/ing us.” Texts in all situations are embedded in technologies—technologies that human beings have a complex recursive relationship with. Not only are technologies themselves the result of rhetorical and political (thus ideological) development processes, thus deriving their existence from humans, but we also derive (or are afforded) a great deal of agency from those technologies when we interact with them. As we generally proselytyze in rhetoric, texts are never abstract and disconnected from contexts—neither are they disconnected from bodies. This includes perception, which leads me to my next point.
Binaries aside, texts—hybrid or no—are visual, and have a rich history of visual development*. Consider the paragraph, for example. Lindemann notes in A Rhetoric for Writing Teachers (2001):
Medieval monks, for example, rarely indented their writing; parchment was simply too expensive to waste. Instead they indicated “paragraph” by writing in a different color, adding a decorative (illuminated) letter, or by separating them by a line of white space developed relatively recently. (16)
With the increasingly low cost of paper, we have moved from a simple five-space indentation to a full half-inch (the default “tab” in MS Word”), employing double-spaced texts in schools and finally embracing just a thick, clean line of “white” space on our websites and blogs—a practice unthinkable to the medieval scribe who had to consider the economic and labor impact of his writing surface. Prose texts transformed from words that ran together in what we’d today decry as Cummingsesque tomfoolery to words with interpuncts (the small dot for separation in ancient Latin scripts) to true whitespaces. Printed pages have margins that serve as a visual wall between the reader/text unit and the rest of the distracting world—and much like Cosmo Kramer’s ‘extra-wide lanes,’ we see a high-dollar text with huge margin space (art books and scholarly journals, anyone?) and think “how luxurious!” Punctuation marks are symbols that help us to interpret syntactic structures that underlie the mass of otherwise unindividuated text. Much as Barton and Barton point out in their fascinating cultural study of maps, where there are texts, there is ideology—in the case of much of writing studies, this ideology has “dissimulated” the visual and material nature of texts (not to mention the technological facts of their production and consumption). The computer text, with its affordances for visual discourse (along with many other modalities) is a forced “denaturalization” of our natural, universal assumptions about not only the primacy of textual literacy, but also the “textualness” of text itself. (where’s my soapbox?) Like Bernhard, then, it’s not about a categorical or essential difference between the kinds of texts, but rather an understanding that qualities of text (and image) like modularity, navigation, graphics, customization, and the like work not as fundamental qualities or concrete descriptors but rather like a set of sliding scales that discourse of all kinds take part in and can be mapped onto.
*I’m not using “text” here in its most expansive, Fish-esque sense, but rather in the standard sense of alphabetic/numeric texts.