Procedural Rhetoric

In the first chapter of his book, Persuasive Games, Ian Bogost coins the term “procedural rhetoric.” First he goes on at length about procedure; then he goes on at length about rhetoric. Finally he pulls them together to make the argument that procedures themselves can make arguments. Since I’ll be discussing this in class tonight, I’m going to use this blog post to go over some of what won’t make it into my presentation.
I’m a technical writer, so I document procedures for a living. I also audit procedures, which means that I read written procedures and look for evidence that they are being followed. Both of these tasks are soul-suckers because life isn’t about procedures, it’s about goals. I want, for example, to feed my kids. There’s a procedure for that, and it goes a little something like this: 1) plan menu; 2) go to grocery store; 3) cook food. Yes, it’s a grand oversimplification, but even at that macro level, there are flaws. What if I didn’t plan the menu and go to the store, and it’s already dinner time? What if I did plan the menu and go to the store, but the lettuce is starting to turn brown, so I decide to throw it out? What if I planned the menu and went to the store, but the power went out, so I can’t cook? I can still feed my kids under any of these circumstances, but the procedural rhetoric tells me that I’m doing it wrong.
The procedure, which may be helpful in many circumstances, makes an argument for the right way to do something. So now if I order a pizza, I’m doing something wrong. If we eat cereal for dinner, I’m doing something wrong. If we go over to my mom’s house for dinner, I’ve failed. This is why people hate procedures. They don’t account for our human ability to reason and inject logic and creativity into our lives.
The computer can’t deviate from its established procedures. It is programmed to do one thing, and it can’t reason its way into a creative solution if it hasn’t been programmed to do so. That’s why procedural rhetoric is a topic worthy of exploration: it can weasel its way into your psyche with its intractability. It makes limits your creativity and your autonomy.