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The Classical Trivium: A Heuristic and Heuretic for New Media and Digital Communication Studies


by Kevin Brooks and Andrew Mara

Theory is assimilated into the humanities in two principal ways—by critical interpretation [heuristics] and artistic experimentation [heuretics]. — Gregory Ulmer, Heuretics, 3.


Exploring the value of classical rhetoric in the context of contemporary digital communication and new media studies in this special issue of Kairos, "Classical Rhetoric and Digital Communications: A Canon Blast Into the Net," provides an opportunity to explore conceptual and pedagogical retrievals and remediations of various concepts and practices from classical rhetoric. But to limit this exploration to classical rhetoric potentially limits or narrows this opportunity to think about the breadth and possibilities of classical education for new media and digital communication. In an attempt to keep our still developing thoughts about classical rhetoric and education broad and open, this project will offer:

  1. An application of the classical trivium—grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic—as a heuristic for interpreting contemporary theories, practices, and curriculums of new media.
  2. An exploration of additional possible projects influenced by the contours and concepts of the trivium.
  3. An invitation to participate in both projects, going so far as to question and disassemble the project itself, whether on the dialectic board or in the wiki space itself.


We use as our starting point for applying the trivium Marshall McLuhan's recently published (2006) dissertation from 1943, The Classical Trivium: The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of His Time rather than more familiar accounts of the liberal arts and the trivium because McLuhan himself, over the course of his 40-year career, explored the question that motivates this special issue of Kairos: What is the role or the place of the classical rhetoric and education in contemporary education? Although anti-dialectical, McLuhan understood that classical education was shaped by all three branches of study, and for us to maintain a trivial perspective for understanding digital communication and new media will avoid some of the binary formulations of contemporary education and English studies that tend to shape disciplinary, and even inter-disciplinary thinking. (Want to read a short literature review?) The following three linked sections briefly summarize McLuhan's perspective on grammar, rhetoric, and dialectics as developed in The Classical Trivium. Each section follows the McLuhan summary with an account of some contemporary scholars we think embody the attitudes and practices of each realm of the trivium, and then a speculative sketch of the kind of work that could be done in the tradition of grammar, rhetoric, and dialectics. These sections, while substantially developed, are open for revision, refinement, and replacement.

Grammar: collecting texts, making links, teaching content. The grammarians of antiquity, the middle ages, and the early modern period functioned analogously to contemporary linguists, historians, literary scholars, and anthologizers.
Rhetoric: political engagement, formal techniques. The rhetoricians of antiquity are the most stable figures in the history of the trivium, and rhetoric has proven to be the most stable category, despite its fall from prominence in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Dialectic: from abstracting spirit to paying attention. The dialecticians of antiquity and the trivium are seldom called dialecticians, but instead labeled philosophers, stoics, scholastics, and even rhetoricians, although in the case of Ramus they were called anti-Ciceronian rhetoricians.


As we try to explore and invent new uses for the trivium, we draw more heavily on the work of Gregory Ulmer, a scholar like McLuhan who has spent most of his career asking questions like

Y-shaped Trivium

"What is the role of the humanities, and by implication grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic, in the changing literacy environment of the late 20th, early 21st century?" While Ulmer's work, from Post(e) Pedagogy (1985) to Electronic Monuments (2005) searches for new tools and heuretics of invention relevant to the emerging apparati of electracy, rather than re-use or re-purpose the educational methods of classical rhetoric and education, we hope to sufficiently stretch, spin, and rework the trivium as heuretic so that it captures the spirit of the classical trivium - the broad and holistic education - without remaining dogmatically tied to the fundamental principles and content of the trivium. We are particularly indebted to Ulmer's recent meditations on the letter "Y": "every Y-binary becomes a multiplicity" says Ulmer (2005, p. 160). The "Y/T" of our trivium logo is broad and rounded, "a formless (holistic) tangle of discursive lines . . . mark[ing] not a parting of the ways but a merging (an interdependence)" (p. 160). (Want to read more about the "Y" of the "Y/Trivium"?


The following four sections of this project are wiki-stubs, possible topics for exploration spinning out from the classical trivium applied to new media and digital communications. Each section attempts to foreground one way in which new media and the web specifically supports grammar as the organizing and collecting of texts and knowledge, rhetoric as tools and know-how for political engagement, and dialectic as a method of reflection and paying attention. We have added a fourth section to explore - existing and speculative curriculums. The real generative power of the classical trivium for the 21st century is likely to be in its ability to guide, shape, and balance new media and digital communication curriculums, either as stand-alone curricula for New Media departments and programs or integrated within English, Communication, or Writing and Rhetoric departments.

  • New Media Anthology. As digital resources on the web expand, a robust New Media Anthology is increasingly feasible, and a wiki-based anthology will allow for widespread participation and flexible classroom use.
  • Handbook for Rhetorical Heuristics and Heuretics. Is it possible to write a handbook of rhetorical principles for typified or recurrent situations, with a specific emphasis on the new and evolving principles of digital communication? If so, we think that handbook is going to need to offer robust and flexible tools for producing new media texts, and as the nature of this project would suggest, we have found heuristics and heuretics to be just those kinds of tools.
  • The Discussion Forum. Although each wiki-page can support its own discussion forum, we hope that participants will use the discussion forum linked from this page to reflect on not only the content of this project, the viability and limitations of the classical trivium for new media, but also the nature and possibilities for wiki-based scholarship.
  • Trivial Curricula. We invite readers to describe existing or speculative courses and skills in terms of the trivium. Individual courses can be labeled grammatical, rhetorical, dialectical, or blended, and whole curricula can be described or linked to.


[Note: This project, was available in wiki-format until January 1, 2008. The authors invited participation at all levels, from simple editing changes to corrections of facts to substantive contributions and re-organization of content. They also invited contributions from individual readers who stop by to whole classes that might want to develop an existing or new section. ( Want to read more about participation?)]

We see possible implications for reviving the classical trivium, either as a touchstone for curricular design or more conceptually as a guide to sorting texts, scholars, and rhetorical / intellectual practice, but we hope that readers / contributors might also flesh out and/or add to the possible implications.

For scholars, we think that drawing on the trivium as a sifting heuristic while reading and incorporating the work of other scholars from the diverse fields in which new media is studied has the potential to increase interdisciplinary understanding. McLuhan, for example, is often derided as an arhetorical "technological determinist" rather than being understood as a contemporary grammarian, a scholar who favored collecting loose threads from various disciplines and creating eloquent (or, in his own terminology, "cool") texts. To understand what McLuhan's work can do for rhetoric, rhetoricians need to understand they are appropriating a grammarian. Well-received contemporary texts like Lev Manovich's (2002) Language of New Media also need to be understood as "grammatical" and "dialectical" in nature, and then rhetoricized by those who want to apply the five principles of new media, as Madeleine Sorapure (2004) has done in " Playing Lev Manovich." Brooke Rollins's (2006) "Inheriting Deconstruction" points out that the field of rhetoric and composition asked too insistently of the philosopher Jacques Derrida, "What can I do with theory in the writing classroom?" and in wanting Derrida to be immediately relevant as a rhetorician, or for rhetoricians, the field perhaps missed a fruitful encounter with a philosopher of language.

For departments and programs, the classical trivium can provide a guide to units looking to shape a balanced approach to understanding, producing, and analyzing new media and digital communications. Working with the trivium may seem like a more limiting and narrowing heuristic than our currently diverse educational scene requires, but the trivium as image—the rounded Y/T of our logo—has the potential to communicate clearly and visually to external constituencies, yet preserve the complexity of contemporary course offerings and specializations. A reconsideration of the value of the trivium as heuristic for developing curriculums that might balance and merge, rather than specialize, departmental approaches to new media, might invigorate and unite departments that would otherwise turn the incorporation of new media into yet another turf war structured around a problematic binary. An exclusively rhetorical approach to new media and digital communication in the 21st century seems too narrow; to produce new media without knowing the history and breadth of new media, or without analyzing and philosophizing digital communication, is to offer up a narrow and specialized education. Individuals in their courses and departments in their programs may already offer micro-versions of the trivium as part of an educationally sound attempt to offer a broad education in the liberal arts tradition; we offer the trivium as historical grounding and organizational pattern for such existing courses and programs, as well as a heuretic for shaping new programs.

At the start of the 21st century, rhetoric, production, and the applied/practical arts seem poised to push aside the recently dominant abstracting, objectifying, and theorizing tradition of contemporary dialecticians. While this shift in power and practice may seem like a good thing to us rhetoricians, classical and medieval rhetoricians were dependent upon grammarians, and contemporary rhetoricians have drawn extensively from contemporary philosophy and theory-in-general as it unfolded in the 20th century. In offering up the trivium as a potential heuristic and heuretic for 21st century new media studies and teaching, we think the retrieved trivium brings with it an uneasy but productive cohesiveness that is worth maintaining.


Created by admin. Last Modification: Sunday 06 of July, 2014 00:50:04 UTC by admin.