Rhetoric & Apparatus Theory

Rhetoric is the study and practice of persuasion, communication, and identity. Apparatus theory suggests that each of these goals receives different emphasis depending on an era’s dominant communicative technology.    

What is Rhetoric?

The term “Rhetoric” has meant different things in different eras. Historically, there have been three distinct conceptions of the role of rhetoric—each corresponding to a different era and communicative media

In the era of orality, before written language, rhetoric operated primarily in terms of persuasion. The job of the rhetorician involved captivating and purposing human attention, either to remember history, celebrate achievements, encourage change, or consider legal matters.

In the era of literacy, rhetoric formally concerned itself with interpretation (what is called hermeneutics). The job of the rhetorician involved carefully reading texts and engagingly sharing the products of that reading. Religion, history, and law where no longer contained is stories and speeches—now they found their homes in letters and books. The rhetorician was tasked with writing, reading, and interpreting these new technologies.

Post-literacy (Electracy)
In the contemporary electrate era, rhetoric emphasizes the importance of ethics, focusing on responsibility and relations. Under this developing rhetoric, the task of the rhetorician is to analyze social systems and maximize opportunities for engagement, sharing, and diversity. These aims are affordances made possible by digital connectivity (through radios, telephones, televisions, computers, mobile phones and whatever comes next).

What is Apparatus Theory?

“Apparatus Theory” presumes the communication technologies we use shape how we think, communicate, and inhabit the world. A key concept of apparatus theory is that communication technologies are never just neutral tools we use to communicate with each other. Communicative technologies influence how people think and navigate their world.


Apparatus Theory is very similar to Affordance Theory, an approach to media studies that focuses on what new actions or perspectives a technology makes possible.

Related Concepts: Hermeneutics; Interpretation – Interpretative Frameworks; Rhetorical Knowledge

How Apparatus Theory Helps Examine Rhetoric’s Role in Orality, Literacy, and Electracy

Apparatus theory is originally credited to cinema theorist Jean-Louis Baudry, who explored how film shapes the ideological dispositions of viewers. Scholars in Rhetoric and Composition and Media Studies, including Walter Ong, Marshall McLuhan, Elizabeth Eisenstein, and technorhetorician Gregory Ulmer have broadened the scope of the term to help us understand how the emergence of new technologies influences human thought and communication. These scholars trace how in three different communicative epochs–orality, literacy, and electracy–the definitions of rhetoric evolved in response to the creation of new communication technologies:

  1. In orality, rhetoric focuses on developing persuasion and sustaining community
  2. In literacy, rhetoric focuses on interpreting texts and composing clear and logical prose
  3. In electracy, rhetoric focuses on subjective experience and feelings and ethically negotiating difference

It is important to note that these technological epochs do not replace one another. Rather, they are additive, overlapping and influencing human thought and communication in increasingly complex, and sometimes antithetical, ways.

Rhetoric and Orality

Two scholars are generally credited with describing orality in the Ancient Greek world: Walter J. Ong and Eric Havelock. Ong notes how the immediate proximity of oral audiences, the face to face relationship a speaker would have with their audience, led to an emphasis on remembrance and persuasion. The job of the rhetorician involved captivating and purposing human attention, either to encourage change, consider legal matters, remember history, or celebrate achievements. Rhetoric of this era was heavily invested in audience analysis, public performance and oral delivery. Dale L. Sullivan identifies another important dimension to oral rhetoric, beyond direct persuasion: rhetoricians in this era are responsible for (re)establishing a collective, communal ethos through epideictic performance: that is, as the rhetorician Isocrates described, there is a need to continually reassert the values that keep a community together. Speeches that praise or blame public and historic figures and/or celebrate or criticize past events are essential to reminding a community what holds them together.

Ong and Havelock are often (and fairly) critiqued for framing orality as a counterpoint to literacy and sometimes oversimplifying or ignoring the complex and subtle nuances of oral communication. In this they are guilty of what the french philosopher Jacques Derrida termed “logocentrism,” a privileging of supposedly rational and objective nature of written language. Other contemporary scholars have pointed out that their characterization of oral cultures often frames them as more primitive or underdeveloped, fails to properly acknowledge their dialogic dimensions, and reinforces negative stereotypes (Sterne, 2011; McDowell, 2012). As Ong himself acknowledges in his book Orality and Literacy, he thinks of those terms more as abstract concepts to describe shifts in our ideas about and practice of ontology, epistemology, and communication across time than as historic descriptions of any specific culture. At the very least, they give us a vocabulary and a framework to think about how our thoughts about thought have changed.

Representative examples of oral rhetoric would be Aristotle’s On Rhetoric and Isocrates’ Antidosis, both of which sought to prepare students for participation in the Greek Agora, the Greek term for the public, democratic deliberations in which citizens passed laws, heard legal cases, and performed public orations. Isocrates stressed to his students the importance of performing the proper Greek ethos, to demonstrate to the audience the authenticity of one’s communal identity. Aristotle’s rhetoric, while more abstract and influenced by the emerging technology of literacy (discussed further below), also contains heavy traces of orality. Particularly, Aristotle labeled his system for finding common argumentative positions and propositions as topoi, which literally translates to “common place.” Such labeling emphasizes how thought in Greek oral culture was specific and concrete.

Rhetoric and Literacy

In the era of literacy, rhetoric formally concerned itself with interpretation (what is often called hermeneutics). Obviously, literate rhetoric still involves persuasion, but the focus shifts from the public audience to the individual reader. Ong argues that because reading and writing are solitary activities, society becomes more individualized and people increasingly think of themselves as “separated” individuals (pp.36-37). If orality continually reinforced the collective community, then literacy manifests the individual subject. Thought also becomes more complicated, as writing affords us more nuanced and specific vocabularies (Ong, p. 42). Thought becomes increasingly more abstract, as literacy allows us to think about ideas as independent of human beings and “separated from time” (Ong, p. 43). “Justice,” for instance, ceases to refer to the idiosyncratic outcomes of specific court cases; it can now be a concept in and of itself–not just the recorded outcome of a deliberation, but something that can itself be defined. In this way, Aristotle is perhaps the quintessential “literate” philosopher, since his system focuses on identifying and defining an object’s essential essence. Finally, because writing allows us to think of concepts isolated and abstractly, it invents the possibility of “objectivity,” of the true form of an object existing transcendent of subjective human perception (p. 37). In short, literacy inspires philosophy because it affords abstract thinking about thought itself. Plato feared writing would cause misinformation and a decline in critical thinking, which is ironic as Eric Havelock points out, since Plato would have been unable to develop his ideas as thoroughly as he did without the aid of writing.

As literacy develops and expands across centuries, the job of the rhetorician shifts from the public speech to carefully reading texts and sharing the products of that reading. Legal, literary, and religious commentary become the chief literate activities, reshaping education, politics, and church. Religion, history, and law were no longer contained in stories and speeches—now they increasingly found their homes in letters and books. Literate education focuses on three of rhetoric’s five canons: invention, arrangement, and style.

An example of such a literate rhetoric would be that of St. Augustine of Hippo. Augustine tackled these problems by formalizing methods for textual analysis. He took the tools for audience analysis developed by oral-persuasive rhetoric and applied them to reading texts. His focus was on resolving ambiguities and conflicting passages. This version of rhetoric would be called “hermeneutic” and is particularly invested in the development of literacy. The printed word calls for close interpretation in a way that orality does not —allowing for critical reflection, abstraction, and intense precision. Augustine’s rhetorical system was not only designed to help clergy deal with conflicts in biblical meaning but also drew on persuasive rhetoric to help priests engagingly deliver their interpretations to their parishioners. The Humanities reading strategies are descendants of Augustine’s early treatises on signs, language, and human feeling.

Elizabeth Eisenstein and Marshall McLuhan have both written about how the invention of the printing press intensified literacy’s transformations by making writing texts more widely available. McLuhan notes how, prior to the printing press, different copies of the same book would always be unique, since they were written by hand. Reading then, still reinforced the idea of the individual author. However, the printing press “homogenized” writing; the mechanical imprint experienced on the page intensified Greek values of uniformity, continuity, universality, and objectivity (Gutenberg Galaxy, pp. 40-41).  The printing press is thus integral to the development of the Enlightenment’s concept of reason and abstract, objective, universal Truth.

The emphasis on interpretation and reading developed by Augustine is amplified in the Enlightenment. Just as the study of vernacular languages (such as English, Italian, and French) called for robust interpretive tools, so too the scientific developments in the Enlightenment called for a form of rigid argumentative reading and writing (to facilitate the sharing of new knowledge across universities, countries, and continents). Enlightenment rhetoric, such as that developed by Campbell, Blair, and Whatley in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, develops an emphasis on clarity of expression and structural procedures (such as the thesis) that remain fundamental expectations for scholarly writing to this day.

Rhetoric and Electracy

In the middle of the 20th century, media theorists begin to explore how the rise of new communication technologies–particularly the photograph, the radio, and the especially the television might engender new transformations to human thought and communication. Ong’s proposes the idea that these technologies might inspire a “secondary orality” Ong sees computer technology as a kind of “secondary orality,” amplifying the reach of literacy’s emphasis on rationality and objectivity beyond even that of the printing press (p. 23). Later theorists, inspired by Ong, challege the assumption that digital technologies will continue to amplify literacies emphasis on singular truth and rationality, arguing that these technologies will transform not only the way we think about truth, but also the way we relate to our fellow human beings.

One such theorist is Gregory L. Ulmer. Ulmer coins the term “electracy” in an attempt to follow up on the work of previous media scholars like Ong, Havelock, Eisenstein, and McLuhan. Ulmer, influenced by postmodern and poststructuralist theories of language, sought to anticipate how emerging digital technologies such as photography, radio, television, and, later, the internet might again influence or transform human thought and communication. While inspired by Ong’s notion of secondary orality, Ulmer also offers a counterargument to it–he proposed that if literacy emphasized objective and abstract thinking, then electracy, given its visual and aural impact and immediacy, might develop an increased appreciation for affect and emotion.

Drawing particularly on theorists Roland Barthes, Jean-Francois Lyotard, and especially Jacques Derrida, Ulmer identifies resonances between postmodern and poststructuralist philosophy and emerging digital technologies. By allowing for more creativity and individual participation, digital technologies allow for more subjective expression, echoing postmodern investment in subjective meaning-making. Similarly, the increasing availability and accessibility of digital technologies allows for more sharing of diverse viewpoints and perspectives, challenging the literate emphasis on objectivity, homogeneity, and synthesis. Perhaps Ulmer’s understanding of electracy is best captured through his invention of new genres–the “mystory” (instead of traditional history) or the “MEmorial” (instead of the standard memorial); both call upon a writer to put their subjective experience of an institution or event in juxtaposition to its objective cultural representation (see Santos et al., 2014).

McLuhan famously suggests the idea that television creates a sense of a “global village,” bringing us closer to distant cultures and peoples then we have ever been before. The internet intensifies this sense of the global village, allowing us not only to see but also to interact and communicate with others in a way previously unimaginable. Ulmer’s experiments attempt to help us prepare for those interactions with difference. Electrate rhetoric emphasizes the importance of ethics and diversity, focusing on responsibility and relations. Unlike orality, the task of the rhetorician isn’t to reinforce the “one” shared community so much as to underwrite the necessity of honoring differences between communities. It seeks to develop empathy and tolerance, to help us learn to listen to others. Under this developing techno-rhetoric, one task of the rhetorician is to analyze social systems and maximize opportunities for engagement, sharing, and diversity.

This emphasis on difference and diversity changes the way electrate rhetoricians think of ethos. Ethos is less communal identity (orality) or individual credibility (literacy) and more about performing a kind of self-reflexive hospitality, a welcoming of others. If McLuhan’s right and digital technologies thrust us into a wider global village, then it is the task of rhetoric to teach us how to exist in such a diverse plurality. Jim Corder’s “Argument as Emergence, Rhetoric as Love” and Lisa Blankenship’s Changing the Subject: A Theory of Rhetorical Empathy are two such works that promote self-reflection and ethical listening. Both work to increase our ability to “listen”–to open ourselves up to alternative perspectives by first examining ourselves. Both suggest that the first task of rhetoric might not be to influence others, but rather, to think about how one might change oneself, making oneself more collaborative and open to productive dialogue.

Electrate rhetoric still values persuasion, but less as a one-way activity (how a speaker can impact an audience or a writer a reader) and more as developing a collaborative ecology. It asks:

  • How can we foster partnerships?
  • How can we become more inclusive?
  • How can we invite and make accessible the ability to respond?

If orality focused on persuasion, and if literacy focused on interpretation, then it is the radio, television, and especially the Internet that has peaked rhetoricians interest in participation, in ethics, alliances, networks, and relations.


Rhetoric is the study and practice of persuasion, communication, and identity. Apparatus theory suggests that each of these goals receives different emphasis depending on an era’s dominant communicative technology. Persuasion and community are the dominant emphases of orality, laying out strategies for maximizing a rhetor’s ability to reach an audience, inoculating audiences against malicious manipulation, and renewing the values that bind community together. Interpretation and communication are the dominant aims of literacy, rhetoric provides strategies for reading and understanding texts and for improving the clarity, rigor, and emotional impact of a writer’s ideas. In the era of electracy, as in the era of orality, rhetoric highlights how communities are formed and sustained through discursive performances, textual rituals, and patterns of response. However, given the increasing reach of human communication, the way technologies expose us to so many other cultures and values, rhetoric trains us to expand our ability to encounter different communities without expressing condemnation or disdain. Throughout all eras, rhetoric is concerned with helping us better deliberate and communicate with each other.

Works Cited

Augustine. (2008). On Christian teaching. R.P.H. Green (trans). Oxford University Press. Originally published in 397 A.D.

Corder, J. (1985). “Argument as emergence, rhetoric as love.” Rhetoric review, 4(1), 16-32. https://www.jstor.org/stable/465760

Eisenstein, E. L. (1982). The printing press as an agent of change. Cambridge University Press.

Havelock, Eric A. (1988). The muse learns to write / Orality and literacy from antiquity to the present. Yale University Press.

McDowell, P. (2012). “Ong and the concept of orality.” Religion & Literature, 44(2), 169–178. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24397676

McLuhan, M. (1962).The Gutenberg galaxy / The making of typographic man. University of Toronto Press.

Ong, W. J. “Writing is a technology that restructures thought.” The Written Word. Gerd Baumann (ed). Clarendon Press.

Sterne, J. (2011). “The theology of sound: A critique of orality.” Canadian journal of communication, 36, 207-225.

Sullivan, D. L. (1993). The ethos of epideictic encounter. Philosophy & rhetoric, 26(2), 113–133. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40237759

Ulmer, G. L. (2003). Internet invention / From literacy to electracy. Longman Press.

Ulmer, Gregory L. (2005). Electronic monuments. University of Minnesota Press.