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Composition Forum 29, Spring 2014

Review of Rice, Digital Detroit: Rhetoric and Space in the Age of the Network

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Liz Rohan

Rice, Jeff. Digital Detroit: Rhetoric and Space in the Age of the Network. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2013. 247 pp.

In Digital Detroit: Rhetoric and Space in the Age of the Network, rhet-comp scholar and former Detroiter Jeff Rice develops a theory for engaging with space using Detroit as a case study. Built for more than two million people, Detroit is among many of the world’s shrinking cities and is a city where blight unforgivingly and ubiquitously permeates every city block of its 138 square miles, on even its leafiest of streets in its swankiest of neighborhoods. Reflecting on his previous strong reliance on what he calls “a topos of Detroit” (9), Rice developed a critical apparatus that examines the city’s many layers while considering the multiple meanings that any place or space can embody. While doing so, Rice shows that he went native: Detroiters and Detroit advocates, including this reader, are very picky about how the city is written and spoken about, particularly in public. Rice’s theory, which situates places like Detroit “as a process,” uses digital culture as a metaphor for “networking” ideas without “purposeful order” with the rhetor at the helm in developing a “database that is personalized” (48). The network undercuts what he calls the “fixed topoi,” such as the “topoi of abandonment,” that fail to capture the complexities shaping and shaped by the seemingly incongruous but yet connected histories and artifacts—including those of its streets and buildings—of an always-has-moved, always-moving Detroit (43). Place as a process allows Rice to “assemble these items…in a variety of ways and produce more than one way to get to Detroit as well as more than one kind of Detroit” (52).

After outlining his theory of place as a process in two framing chapters, the following chapters are structured as “databases” for several metaphorically digitized networks organized around significant and symbolic spaces in Detroit: Woodward Avenue, the Maccabees Building, the abandoned Michigan Central Train Station, and 8 Mile Road, the city’s most famous border. The structure of the book parallels its meaning. A reader can conceivably access Rice’s argument via any chapter that can act as a stand-alone case study, a structure which also promotes the concept that places are non-linear and dynamic. As he puts it, “These explorations do not explain the topos of each space; instead they sort out and reorder each space as part of a larger network of meaning” (13-14). This ordered network, a kind of collage, transcends linear time, and even material reality, and can include imaginary or lost contexts during which a “folksonomy “develops (100). This folksonomy, like a rolling stone, is generative and promotes movement to capture places that are always becoming, like a kaleidoscope.

Throughout Digital Detroit, Rice builds his case for the value of the network by contrasting networked thinking to that of the straw people he names “spectators” (9). These spectators, who are presumably outside of the network or unaware of networked rhetoric, embrace and/or circulate binary thinking and grand/false narratives such as the rhetoric of hope and the rhetoric of despair. Some of these spectators, a group which included Rice himself at one point, are identified as the city’s mainstream journalists writing for the popular press and reporting the nightly local news; others are more anonymous, such as the authors of the probably too-optimistic mission of an 8 Mile economic development plan naively reliant on hope, which includes imagined redevelopment in this Detroit corridor via clichéd big box retail (189).

Rice’s method for networking place can apply to an analysis of any city, especially since this networking fuses a range of interdisciplinary ideas and also relies on references from popular culture that many readers can identify with. Emphasizing the elusiveness and inevitability of narrative, as well as any reader’s need for closure in a world in which new meaning can always be generated, Rice develops a fascinating concept for encapsulating meaning that he calls “good enough” (213-14). A “good enough” claim, point-of-view, or conclusion accommodates elusive meaning, an appropriate catch-all framing for a place in process. “Good enough” is about the best any rhetorician can do with Detroit as the subject at hand, considering that writing is too flat to accurately represent this moving subject. Overall, a networked Detroit recognizes place as a process, supersedes the development of grand theory, and undercuts grand reactions: too much despair or too much hope.

Not only does Rice develop a useful theory that can make any reader think more deeply about cities, places, and Detroit itself, the publication of his book is timely. A gold rush of books have been published about the city, and for general audiences, in the past year, such as Mark Binelli’s Detroit City is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis and Charlie LeDuff’s Detroit: An American Autopsy. Furthermore, contemporary Detroiters are purportedly at the centerpiece of rhetorical invention that names new human processes emerging from particular exigencies, processes that not only reflect place as a process but that have developed because of particular and measurable material conditions in Detroit: the poverty of its citizens coupled with the city’s biggest resource: space. A range of related practices are emerging to respond to Detroiters’ needs and to utilize this resource—as one example, urban farming. Detroit activist and philosopher Grace Lee Boggs has recently discussed this phenomenon on Kristen Tippett’s National Public Radio show. As Boggs asserts, “[L]anguage has to constantly change in response to changing events and how we are living in a time of enormous change. We have an opportunity to change our thinking, to change our philosophy by responding to and really understanding what is happening, what time it is on the clock of the world.” According to Boggs, language develops in times of change and transition for those trying to decipher what is happening “on the clock of the world.” “Good enough” solutions to Detroiters’ problems are emerging along with the language used to mediate experiences in the city, such as urban farming—despite the fact that much of the land is too contaminated by lead from decomposing houses to farm upon. Another “good enough” response to the exigence that is Detroit’s material space is simply keeping vacated land mowed in order to avoid its likely fate as a garbage dump.

A longtime advocate of Detroit who has lived her life blocks from the 8 Mile border for more than three decades, during two different stints and living in two different houses, each time on the suburban side, who also teaches about Detroit in various writing classes, I appreciate Rice’s theory of place as a process, his attention to the city’s layers. I also understand well the usefulness of moving any writer or reader beyond the mass production or mass consumption of grand claims that fail to honor the complexities of a subject. Using differing language and methods that may or may not employ the “networked” Detroit that Rice values, I have promoted the concept of Detroit as a process and place as a process in the many courses I have taught requiring hands-on learning in the city, which scaffold to writing assignments developed in conjunction with this hands-on learning. I am wowed by Rice’s synthesis of a wide range of ideas that straddle the disciplines from place theory to popular culture and also by his brilliant microhistories of the places in which he was most invested during his five-year stint in Detroit, such as Wayne State’s Maccabees Building. I found his “networked” reading of the 2002 movie 8 Mile, which includes an analysis of the “good enough” conclusion to this fictionalized rendition of some early days of hip hop artist Eminem’s career, particularly engaging. In this same chapter—his microhistory of Creem magazine, founded in Detroit—Rice demonstrates well the blending of personal and public histories as well as the relevance of lost items and lost contexts, such as Rice’s no longer accessible back copies of Creem magazine, which link him, in a time machine, with contemporary spaces such as Detroit’s 8 Mile as well as with people, such as Creem writer Lester Bangs. The book’s introduction also makes an original and strong case for the foundational theory of the book that places, like identities, are not fixed.

Yet, Rice’s out of the box argument and out of the box methods would be more persuasive to this longtime Detroit advocate if he spent more time looking inside the box, considering the groundbreaking work of contemporary people living, working, and writing about Detroit, such as Boggs and many other producers of rhetoric about Detroit, including its so-called “spectators,” such as the newspaper reporters working for the Detroit Free Press, a paper whose producers of rhetoric are among Rice’s aforementioned straw people. He asserts, for example, that “on any given day,” either one of the city’s newspapers, “through unchanging reporting on the city’s financial woes,” repeats one of the city’s inadequate grand narratives (40). Rice is a critic of binary thinking, but from this reader’s interpretation he sets up a false binary between his project and the work of other writers developing methods to represent Detroit responsibly in the media. For example, the author of one of the 2007 articles Rice cites as an example of “unchanging reporting,” is Detroit journalist Bill McGraw (40). In 2007 McGraw wrote a series of stories for the Free Press after he traveled every street in Detroit as a flaneur Detroit style: he didn’t walk, he drove. By driving every street, he arguably partook in the type of self-propelled networking enterprise that Rice values, an on the ground, embodied version of “chora,” which under Rice’s definition, and borrowing from Gregory Ulmer, “shifts rhetorical production from the singularity of place to the gathering of items and details” (12).

In McGraw’s lede about the “Driving Detroit” project, he nods to the agreed to clichéd binaries oft-used to describe the city, a lede that also promotes an arguably “good enough” claim because it leaves room for ambiguity and reader participation: “It’s worse than you think, but better too.” McGraw identifies some of the inevitable absurdities that Detroiters are used to and have learned to tolerate, an approach in the spirit of a “good enough” project that according to Rice “recognizes the formation of relationships in the network as a practice without a purposeful order” (226). In the case of McGraw’s Detroit: water gushing through the pipes of a long ago abandoned home and a prostitute on a bicycle. Furthermore, McGraw doesn’t write about every street he drives on, which draws attention to the failure of writing to fully represent place. The lack of closure to this “good enough” project leaves a gap for readers to participate in their own networking exercise.

Analysis of the rhetoric and processes of flesh and blood writers mediating Detroit who, upon further investigation, are arguably complicating received narratives and binaries while also contributing to networks of other stripes than Rice’s might be on the one hand beyond the scope of Rice’s project. But this omission or blind spot is also symptomatic of what I interpret to be one of the book’s awkward missions: persuading Detroit to change—Detroit itself, sans a specific body or a group of people. For instance, when concluding the book, Rice asserts that “the city becomes over-dependent on promises of resolution and ignores the overall network” (228). If a place is a process, and Detroit itself is a process that is always becoming, with the risk of stating the obvious or sounding too obnoxious, it is unclear how a place can be an audience or how a place can be persuaded to change. It is clear on the other hand that Rice himself was transformed by his engagement with Detroit as he changed his perspective and his methods when learning more about the city and spending time in it. The profundity of his change is reflected in the complexities of his theory. Rice’s transformation from a “spectator” of Detroit into a participant as part of a network works therefore as a kind of testimony that honors the city as a complex subject and provides tools for readers, if not Detroit itself, to mediate place using methods that are not only generative but also groundbreaking.

Works Cited

Becoming Detroit: Grace Lee Boggs on Reimagining Work, Food, and Community. On Being/With Krista Tippett. National Public Radio. 18 July 2013. Radio.

Binelli, Mark. Detroit City is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis. New York: Picador, 2013. Print.

LeDuff, Charlie. Detroit: An American Autopsy. New York: Penguin, 2013. Print.

McGraw, Bill. Driving Detroit. Detroit Free Press. 16 Dec. 2007. Web. 15 Oct. 2013. <>.

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