audience (un)addressed

Matt Weiss’s post on audience from a month or so ago got me thinking again about audiences. After reading up on Lyotard for my Watson Conference talk, I was struck by his take on audience in Just Gaming. Some thoughts:

I wonder if some “texts” online aren’t akin to how Jean-François Lyotard views his book Libidinal Economy. In Just Gaming, a conversation between Lyotard and Jean-Loup Thébaud, Lyotard notes that his book “is generally taken to be that of the rhetorician,” which, since Plato, “is precisely the one who seeks to produce effects that the other does not control” (4). But Lyotard doesn’t see himself as in control of the effects of the book. Instead, he sees his Libidinal Economy as “the delivery of a mass of statements barely controlled in themselves,” a “bottle tossed into the ocean” so that the effects are not returned to the author, himself (4-5). Like a poet, he isn’t concerned with entering into dialectic “in order to establish whether or not [others] understood him” (5). For Lyotard, his book is rhetoric, or persuasion, but not in a way that controls his audience or asks for a response: “This is a book that aims to produce effects upon the reader, and its author does not ask that these effects be sent back to him in the forms of questions” (4).

Part of modernity, for Lyotard, is writing without an addressee, like a bottle sent out in the ocean without a knowing where it is going (9). “One writes only in the reader’s absence. […] The reader’s solicitation, or what one imagines it to be, must be suspended, and, in a way, one must have no interest in it” (8). “[A]s to what may happen to the book, what its actual reception may be, no one really knows” (9). He continues that “if the artifact produced is really strong, it will wind up producing its own readers, its own viewers, its own listeners […] it will produce people to whom it is destined. It will elicit its own addressees” (10).

It seems that much — though certainly not all, and I would hesitate to say even most — of the discourse online isn’t directed toward an addressee. Much “speech” online is “the delivery of a mass of statements barely controlled in themselves,” bottles tossed into an digital ocean. “Intended” audience is ambiguous online. Lyotard’s translator in Just Gaming explains in a footnote, Lyotard believes that modern texts address the volk, the “people,” whereas postmodern texts “have no assigned addressee” (16 n.*).

Matt wonders if “the field of Rhet/Comp really needs more work on audience,” and I share some of his wondering. Outside of work on public sphere stuff, I can’t think of much that’s been written that directly relates to audience, except for Elbow (sometimes you gotta ignore audience!), Ong, and Ede and Lunsford.

Perhaps this is something to return to. Right now I should be working on a paper for class.

Lyotard, Jean-François, and Jean-Loup Thébaud. Just Gaming. Trans. Wlad Godzich. Theory and History of Literature, vol. 20. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1985.

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