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Techne

Posted by on September 20, 2012

When we hear the word craft or craftsmanship, we tend to think of the material arts, ie. building something with one’s hands: cooking, carpentry, sculpting, painting, etc. We understand craft to be the method of making or doing, of using specific materials and tools to accomplish specific tasks, and to do so in an aesthetically pleasing fashion—artistically. Thus the artisan is one accomplished at the craft of making.

The ancient Greeks had another word for this concept of a craft, of making or doing: techne. Here is Aristotle’s definition:

“[S]ince (e.g.) building is an art [techne] and is essentially a reasoned productive state, and since there is no art that is not a state of this kind, and no state of this kind that is not an art, it follows that art is the same as a productive state that is truly reasoned. Every art is concerned with bringing something into being, and the practice of an art is the study of how to bring into being something that is capable either of being or of not being . . . For it is not with things that are or come to be of necessity that art is concerned [this is the domain of episteme] nor with natural objects (because these have their origin in themselves) . . . Art . . . operate[s] in the sphere of the variable.” (From Book VI of the Nicomachean Ethics)

So techne is not limited to the material realms of art, but to the philosophical as well. And in his systematic treatment of the craft or art of argument—strategies and proofs, appeals to ethos, pathos, and logos, for example—Aristotle firmly established the techne of rhetoric.

“[R]hetoric is techne in the fullest sense: the activity it performs is not only cognitive but also transformative and practical as well. It does not limit itself to conveying neutral, sterilized facts (that would be docere), but its aim is to carry away the audience; to produce an effect on them; to mold them; to leave them different as a result of its impact.” (Renato Barilli, Rhetoric)

As Jay David Bolter points out in Writing Space: Computers, Hypertext, and the Remediation of Print, “[t]he Greek root of ‘technology’ is techne, and “ancient and modern writing are technologies in the sense that they are methods for arranging verbal ideas in a visual space” (15). In fact, “spoken language can itself be a techne, for it can require method” (16). For example, take the techne of the teleprompter speech, a mainstay in modern political rhetoric. In this blog article from The New Yorker, Nathaniel Stein describes how President Clinton has taken the method of writing a speech for teleprompter, and then rewriting that speech in the moment of delivery based on audience response, to a new level of artistic craftsmanship.

So as we shift from composing in our (modern) traditional surfaces—the material page and the word processing screen—to digital surfaces—the hand-held touch screen and the hypertextual webspace—we must become intimately aware of the techne of composing these digital or new media texts. How do the materials and tools at our disposal, and the “surfaces” upon which we apply these tools, change our method and craft of composing? How might they shift our relationship with our audience? Where do the technes of new media/digital writing and the techne of rhetoric intersect, clash, create tension, create new forms of art? To become true craftsmen/craftswomen and artisans of new media rhetoric, we must understand the techne(s) of this art.

There is also a relationship between techne and culture. As Bolter points out, “[t]he very materiality of writing binds writing firmly to human practices and therefore to cultural choices” (19). The various technes of writing are not limited to the materials and techniques, but also the social and cultural uses of such practices. Techne are developed through cultural and community values, experiences, and needs. The teleprompter speech referenced above works because of the expectations American audiences have of political speeches: we watched them on T.V., we see the orator as an elevated character, and we expect flawless performances in an age of where even “reality” television programming is highly scripted and edited. In another cultural context, the teleprompter speech could appear contrived and stilted, an impersonal lecture rather than a dialogue with a real audience.

Here’s an example of the techne of a very specific discourse community that I am involved in, Kelticos. This is an online community of history buffs interested in the specific time period of Iron Age Celtic Europe. Many of the community members are graduate degree holders in history, archaeology, and linguistics; their geographical locations spans from Southern California to Slovakia (and everything in between; and their main shared interest is in re-enactment.

The technology this community has chosen to use in creating their discourse consists of the online discussion forum website. This “surface” consists of a page designed to represent the artistic swirl patterns of Iron Age Celtic art, with a gray and green color design that evokes the image of ancient forests and stone ruins. The technology of the discussion forum fits the rhetorical needs of the community; it allows the organization of various topics into specific forums—“Ancient crafts,” “Agriculture and means of survival,” Weapons and Armor” to name a few—where community members can create discussion threads for any number of topics. There are search features to browse for topics, links to “unanswered posts” or “active topics,” and settings that allow members to receive notifications when someone posts in a certain forum or replies to one’s own thread.

The community’s need was to create a space for lively discussions where time zone and geographical location do not matter. Because much of the discourse revolves around the creation of re-enactment kits, an image gallery was created for members to upload their photos to. Most interesting, however, are the unofficial “rules” or norms for discourse that have developed.

Historical re-enactment is not just a game of dress-up for these people. It is a serious form of research that attempts to recreate the past using currently accepted evidence, ie. archaeology, written accounts, and accepted theories. When topics are argued, the discourse community’s expectations are that any claim will be supported by these accepted forms of evidence. Hyperlinks to online resources—a material unique to this technology and surface—are common, as well as bibliographic citations of print materials. Images from archaeological finds as well as self-crafted materials are frequently used as support.

In this way, the techne of this specific form of discourse—the community discussion forum of Kelticos—is shaped by both the available materials that best fit the rhetorical needs and values of the community created that discourse.

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