The Figure of Oscillatio (Part 1)

[Image: Historiated initial from twelfth-century bible housed at the British Library (Harley 2803). More below.]

These remarks, dear reader, began as a preliminary section of the (alas, still unfinished) second post of the “Reading LABs” series. The explanation of the figure, though, was beginning to overwhelm that series’ official subject matter. So I’m spinning it off. I do so with the hope that readers unfamiliar with Lanham will benefit from my summary and comments, and I particularly have in mind past and present students of mine who, whether by inclination or compulsion, have become concerned with rhetorical figures. This post introduces Lanham’s concept. A second post discusses the matrices that he’s developed to explain it. That post concludes with a few very brief remarks about how Lanham’s ideas might help those who read poetry or enjoy a good technotext from time to time. Happy reading.


At the immensely useful Silva Rhetoricae, Gideon Burton observes that rhetoricians, that shifty brood, have a long history of familial disagreement about how to arrange their household goods: “Among the least consistent but most important aspects of the rhetorical tradition is the systematic arrangement of figures. The simplest arrangements have been broad dichotomies,” such as tropes and schemes and figures of speech and figures of thought. Those categories haven’t pleased any number of rhetoricians ancient and modern, and for a host of reasons, including the fact that lots of relevant material fits awkwardly (or doesn’t fit at all) within such two-trunk schemes. Burton takes advantage of his hyptertextual medium and arranges his figures multiple ways, including by “function or strategy.” That sort of thinking is useful in introducing the figure now in question because oscillatio doesn’t twist a word’s normal signification (as tropes do), nor does it play (or re-play) with familiar syntactic patterns (as in schemes). It’s not a “strategy” exactly either, though that gets us closer to what its coiner, the great contemporary rhetorician Richard Lanham, has in mind. Oscillatio is a figure that calls attention to the movement between strategies, between modes of attention. Indeed, oscillatio might be described as a “figure of attention.” Attention: that’s where oscillatio takes its turn (the meaning of the Greek “tropos”).

Although oscillatio makes its debut as a “figure” in Lanham’s The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information (2006), the hard thinking behind it was done (as far as I can tell) more than a decade earlier in composing the essays and addresses that became The Electronic Word (1993). My comments below and in the next post thus respond to the broader project that carries over between the two books. Here’s oscillatio‘s unveiling in the preface to Econ of Attn:

Before we start, here is an easy way to think about this book: it is a series of variations on a theme and that theme is a rhetorical figure. Rhetorical figures are patterns of speech or writing that provide patterns for thought. Hundreds of them have come down to us, usually under their Greek or Latin names. The one I deploy here, though, is both nameless and outcast.

The figure itself is dead simple: It is a fundamental template, a basic habit of mind in how we pay attention to the world. Viktor Weisskopf put his finger on it: “We cannot at the same time experience the artistic content of a Beethoven sonata and also worry about the neurophysiological processes in our brains … But we can shift from one to another.” We alternately participate in the world and step back and reflect on how we attend to it. We first write, absorbed in what we have to say, and then revise, look at how we have written it …

No reason why this fundamental rhythm of attention should not have a Latin name like all the rest: let’s call it oscillatio, from the Lain word for moving back and forth.

I don’t claim for oscillatio scientific precision, but it does prove useful, especially when you have to hold two kinds of economy in the mind at once, stuff and fluff.

Those last two nouns need a bit of explaining. We used to think of economics only as a matter of goods, Lanham argues, of “stuff.” Lanham is a few years ahead of the popular curve in calling his readers’ attention to a second economy, that of the “synthetic reality” sustained by digitalia. This is the “fluff.” In this new economy, scarcity operates at the level of attention. As Matthew Crawford has written more recently, “Attention is a resource; a person has only so much of it.”

Although Lanham voices concerns from time to time about the new economy, for the most part he is optimistic. The key to success (for persons, for the economy, maybe for democracy), in his view, lies in developing an appropriate educational model. What’s needed is an education that enables citizens to “toggle” back and forth between the realms of “stuff” and “fluff,” and even to toggle within these realms. Students would, in the ideal, become skilled in oscillating between modes of engagement and possess analytic vocabularies appropriate to each. In Lanham’s view, there’s no need to start from scratch: the resources for such an education are already available in the rhetorical tradition. (Don’t call it a comeback, Rhetoric says, I’ve been here for years.)

Lanham draws from a range of disciplines in making his case (among them Deirdre McCloskey’s work on the rhetorical nature of the discipline of economics), but he is most at home in discussing art and literature. Indeed, one of the running arguments of both The Electronic Word and Econ of Attn is that the humanities have much to offer in an “Age of Information” because their practitioners are, perhaps without knowing it, consummate oscillators. Unsurprisingly, the best explanations of how one might exercise oscillatio appears in his discussions of art and literature, with Marcel Duchamp and Filippo Marinetti repeatedly serving in his books as exempla.

All of Lanham’s remarks on this issue build on the basic observation (noted in the long block quote above) that our attention can switch from being engaged in an activity to reflecting on that same activity. In artistic–and especially textual–contexts, Lanham characterizes this capacity as the toggling between looking THROUGH and looking AT (n.b.: he favors capitals). When we look THROUGH a text, we are oblivious to the medium. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, mind you, since the transparency of the medium frees our attention up to focus on its content. It’s as if we receive thought “unintermediated.” Print–when employed according to certain conventions–stages this disappearing act for us easily (as Lanham observes, this experience was a long time coming, even if, in theory, an ideal held by the Greeks). The page could now, in an image Lanham borrows from Beatrice Warde, “stand to its thought as a fine crystal goblet stands to the wine it contains.”

But we can also, whether through our own cunning or authorial or editorial exertion, look AT a text. In such circumstances, what’s there on the surface commands our attention. Not the wine but the glass (which, for this metaphor to work properly should probably now be stained glass). How something is composed becomes our primary concern rather than what it says. Now our attention can turn, for instance, to elaborate verbal patterning and a series of nifty similes. In this light, perhaps, we can name oscillatio as a meta-figure of sorts because it acknowledges the kind of critical attention that analyzes the use of other rhetorical figures. Oscillatio recognizes our ability to be moved by a poem’s music and imagery and turn a critical eye to its metonyms and chiasms.

The medium may now resurface. This is where Marinetti’s experiments–with sound poetry, or is it concrete poetry? or is artist’s bookery? or technotextuality?–are such useful examples. In so many ways, Marinetti inhibits the reader’s passage THROUGH a work like “Zang Tumb Tuum” (whose title tellingly varies in the criticism), demanding instead to be looked AT. Indeed, it works, quite forcefully, against not just vision but the broader sensorium’s conventional experience of printed poetry. It doesn’t just look strange: it’s odd sounding to the ear (aloud or subvocally) and, given the chaos of its text, a curio to the hand.

The so-called “historiated initial” from a twelfth-century bible featured at the top of this post presents another example. The text here is the opening of the book of Joel: Verbum Domini quod factum est ad Iohel filium Fatuel (“The word of the Lord that came to Joel son of Pethuel.“). But, of course, that initial “v” might not be registered as such at very first glance. Or, even if so, its elaborate design invites us to linger over it before putting it to narrative use. The illuminator’s work causes the reader to change his or her mode of attention: we pause to look AT the page–and we may spend quite a bit of time looking AT this picture–before we look THROUGH it to follow the story of the prophet whose image the letter contains (or maybe it’s better to say we look AT it before we listen TO what the prophet has to say). In short, the reader is invited to oscillate. As Lanham takes pains to emphasize, the same object can invite both forms of attention–and in rapid succession. It is a faculty that belongs to both artist and viewer, writer and reader. On this issue, the second post has more to say.

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