Revisiting Rhetorical Peaks

I’ve spent the last few weeks at the Humanities Gaming Institute in Columbia, South Carolina.  My goal in attending the institute was to continue developing Rhetorical Peaks, a video game we have been working on in the Digital Writing and Research Lab at the University of Texas at Austin.  Two versions of the game – Flash and Second Life – have been tested in classrooms, and although both have been successful in some ways, neither is self-contained.  These versions lack definite endings and win-states, a condition that has proved confusing at times, especially as the game travels beyond UT.  While I believe that there is some pedagogical value in keeping the game open-ended (something I discuss in a piece in the next issue of Currents), I wanted to pursue the possibility of working toward the same rhetorical ends while conforming to certain game conventions.

At HGI, we have had the opportunity to work with Tracy Fullerton on prototyping activities, and one of our main goals has been identifying a core activity or experience that we want players to engage in or have while playing our games.  The question for me became the question of rhetoric’s activities, the way that we understand our own reading, writing, and thinking processes – how we act through them, and how they act upon us.  Of particular interest to me is the way that rhetoric’s activities can be read across the hermeneutic divide, the divide between rhetoricians who take our work as one of establishing the conditions for successful communication, understanding, interpretation, and identification and those who work toward recognizing the limitations of these practices.

Diane Davis’s work on post-hermeneutical rhetorics encourages us to consider rhetoric (in part) as an activity of listening, of attending to the other – but not in hopes of appropriating this other, not in hopes of (symbolic) identification or assimilation.  In “Addressing Alterity: Rhetoric, Hermeneutics, and the Nonappropriative Relation,” Davis takes up Steven Mailloux’s rhetorical hermeneutics and its supposition that “there is no absolute incomprehensibility between alien cultures. . . . With every community that we recognize as a community, our form of life always overlaps significantly…for it is only against such a background of commonality that we can perceive radical difference” (196-197).  Such a perspective implies a particular conception of the act of listening, one that seeks commonality with the alien, one that assumes that the perceived difference and separation from the other is ultimately a failure to recognize the same within the other.  Once this sameness is discovered, once one has heard oneself in the other, the foundation has been laid for successful communication.

But our ability to hear the voice of the same in the alien other says less about this other than about our own acts of listening, the way that any appropriation of the other already imposes the same upon them.  Of course we find the same in the other; we are just listening to the sound of ourselves, of our own processes of understanding.  For Davis, rhetoric’s ethical responsibility can only be taken up to the extent that we withhold the appropriative acts of understanding, interpretation, and identification.  In “Finitude’s Clamor; Or, Notes toward a Communitarian Literacy,” Davis frames the question of listening in terms of noise.  When our interpretive capabilities are running at high gear, when we are conditioned to hear the other in terms of the self, “the clamor of an inappropriable exteriority” becomes “almost unhearable-or else hearable only as noise, interference” (124).  The ethical response to this situation is to assume the (listening) position of “posthermeneutic noise freaks” (130), attending to the clamoring of the other.

Rhetorical Peaks has taken up the question of listening before, but it has not foregrounded this activity in the experience of game play.  I am imagining the next iteration of the game doing so.  Taking advantage of the space made available by the Unity version, game play can center on a quest that engages the player with a series of voices haunting the space (thinking of Mark Sample and Alex Reid here) and guiding the player toward different possible paths.  The voices would represent different characters from the town of Rhetorical Peaks, each seeking a different resolution to the trauma and mystery of the death of Lisa Sophist (a narrative arc presented in previous versions of the game).  In this sense, the voices – and the paths they guide the player down – would embody different conceptions and practices of listening.

This iteration needs much further conceptual development (something I am working on at HGI), but it opens the possibility of a game that more explicitly engages the player in the activity of listening while also making available different end states.

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