Overview Sentence: Rhetorical velocity, as a concept, arose within the broader trend of digital rhetoric’s re-theorization of the traditional rhetorical canons. It focuses on how the knowledge that one’s writing will be shared and repurposed by others affects how one writes, and how that knowledge can be used to one’s advantage.
Theoretical Grounding Rhetorical velocity is a theory of rhetorical delivery that considers how texts are shared in digital environments. The term, which was coined by Jim Ridolfo, has gained some traction and is now in use in discussions of composition pedagogy, the canon of invention, intellectual property rights, and other topics within digital rhetoric. The term attained broad popularity within the field after Jim Ridolfo and Danielle DeVoss’s published “Composing for Recomposition” in Kairos. In the article, rhetorical velocity is defined as “an conscious rhetorical concern for distance, travel, speed, and time, pertaining specifically to theorizing instances of strategic appropriation by a third party” (“intro”). Their webtext offers a new way of understanding the rhetorical canon of delivery, which has long been bereft of scholarly attention because the ancient sources from which its definition derives refer to the delivery of spoken words. Ridolfo and DeVoss suggest a redefinition of delivery that acknowledges that, in a digital world, the way writers write is shaped by their plans for how and where their text will be shared, and how they can encourage that sharing.Tweets, for instance, are not written in a vacuum—they are often written in a way that encourages others to share them. This re-theorizing is couched in a larger movement among composition studies which considers how an evolving digital reality ought to prompt a reconsideration of theories about how rhetoric works. That movement, in turn, is an outgrowth of postmodernist calls for the reconceptualization of rhetorical theory. There is not enough space to identify the arguments of every giant upon whose shoulders Ridolfo and DeVoss stand, but it is important to acknowledge existing influences before talking about the evolution of rhetorical velocity and its application today.
Historical Roots The concept of rhetorical velocity could not have come into being without earlier arguments for the redefinition of invention. That redefinition hinges on ‘remix,’ which Ridolfo and DeVoss define as “the process of taking old pieces of text, images, sounds, and video and stitching them together to form a new product” (“remix”). If remixing others’ works to create new material was not seen as an ethical or credible rhetorical practice, rhetorical velocity—that is, composing with the goal of getting other people to share and remix one’s work—would also not be a sound practice. Of course, not all scholars agree, and resistance to the notion of recomposition as desirable logically stems from Romantic ideas about authorship, in which singular, ‘genius’ authors practice their craft in isolation. In contrast, postmodern notions of inventionsuggest that all authorshipis collaborative and resultant from the particular social context in which writing occurs (Downs & Wardle). Every thought of every person is shaped by other people before pen touches paper; there is no singular authorship. Similarly, all texts are dependent on other texts for their meaning (Porter). Even this text wouldn’t make sense without the concepts of other texts I used to write it. This postmodern reconceptualization of authorship as inherently social was a necessary predicator of Ridolfo and DeVoss’s idea of rhetorical velocity.
Ridolfo and DeVoss’s argument can be seen as an extension of postmoderntheories of writing into the digital realm where delivery happens differently than it has happened at any point in human history. Digital distribution offers unique affordances; the products of one’s writing labors no longer have to be published, printed, and physically distributed to one’s intended audience. Instead, a few clicks can bring readers to a range of texts on nearly any topic. More importantly, access to content creation has been drastically democratized. This idea is firmly rooted in Ridolfo’s prior scholarly experience, similar to how the theory itself is informed by wider intellectual debates. In Sheridan, Ridolfo, and Michel’s discussion of audience in “The Available Means of Persuasion,” which explores the evolving possibilities of delivery for and by members of the general public, there are hints of an emergent idea about rhetorical velocity—the evolving possibility of widespread access to creation for massive audiences (809, 811). Another idea is that students should be prepared for real composition situations and the variety of available means of communication, not just essays in black ink on white paper (814, 816). The digital world is different from the analog world, and new theories or re-theorization are a means of understanding and adapting to new circumstances.
Given the relatively widespread access to consumption and production within digital spaces, remix by third parties is going to happen, and it will happen on a broader scale than was possible with printed texts. Writing (or more broadly, content creation) is, in effect, more social than ever before. Rhetorical velocity is a strategic response to this reality. It revives delivery in its claims that a writer’s plans for how to deliver his or her content can (and should) shape the content itself. In this scheme, Ridolfo and DeVoss (explain that writers can craft snippets of text in such a way that they will be useful to their intended audience, thus extending the author’s reach beyond their initial place of publication (“velocity”). Likewise, writers can avoid including sections of text which, in isolation, could be used by third parties to discredit the author or misconstrue his or her claims. Delivery informs invention, so delivery matters again.
Implications and Predictions By grounding the concept of rhetorical velocity, Ridolfo and DeVoss opened it to critique. The process itself, like rhetoric, is a tool that can be used for ethically dubious purposes. Clickbait writers are mindful of rhetorical velocity when they write uninformative but interest-generating headlines intended to garner shares and clicks. Penney and Dadas, in “(Re)Tweeting in the Service of Protest,” initially discuss an affordance of rhetorical velocity—during the Occupy Wall Street movement, demonstrators’ Tweets were shared online in an ecology that valued copied text as much as original content, which contributed to their ability to create a counter-stream of information that stood in opposition to what many in the media reported. But, as Penney and Dadas point out, online sharing often happens within existing communications networks (Facebook, Twitter, etc.), and these networks are vulnerable to surveillance by government agencies. Similarly, Ridolfo and Rife offer a case study of a woman whose image was taken at a protest and used by a university without her consent for several years, an instance of negative appropriationthat has implications for how scholars theorize copyright law (240-241). But the potential harmful effects of remediation and message-spreading cannot be pinned on a theory that helps explain how remediation takes place in digital spaces and how to plan for it. Better understanding how content is created and shared is part of the essence of composition studies in the digital age, and rhetorical velocity presents another evolution of rhetorical theory.
Given that the concept of rhetorical velocity is relatively young, there has not been much time for it to deviate into something different than its initial conception or to develop its theoretical basis into pedagogical tools. That’s not to say that the idea of rhetorical velocity sprang suddenly into Ridolfo’s mind at some definable moment; just as the theory itself is informed by wider intellectual debates, Ridolfo’s prior experiences shaped his initial conception of the term. One interesting work on application is Lauren Goldstein’s “Multimodal Invention and Rhetorical Velocity,” a dissertation that suggests that rhetorical velocity could be a useful concept for helping first-year writers consider how to write while also considering how different audiences would understand and possibly remix their texts (32). For students, Goldstein claims, understanding how an audience might use a text is a useful stepping stone toward a broader understanding of how to write with an audience in mind (98-99). The term and its usefulness as a conceptual and pedagogical tool must necessarily evolve alongside technology.
The theorization of rhetorical velocity is one of many ongoing efforts to remediate existing concepts in rhetorical theory (the canons of delivery and invention, most particularly) into a working explanation of how persuasion and composition happen and how to teach students to adapt to different communicative contexts (consider Brooke and Banks). Because first-year writing is a nearly universally required class in the American higher education system, it is the duty of composition studies scholars to develop theory and pedagogy that, as effectively as possible, prepares students to seize upon the affordances and adapt to the constraints of different communications scenarios in an increasingly digitized world.
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