Sharon Daniel’s hypertext essay “Public Secrets” can be viewed as an example of what Carolyn Miller defines as a genre, that is, a “typified rhetorical action based in recurrent situations” (Miller 159). Allow me to unpack this definition before I proceed. A rhetorical action occurs as a response to an exigence, or social need that creates a social motive and gives purpose to the rhetor. A rhetorical situation is referred to as recurrent when it can be commonly defined and categorized (typified) based on its similarity to other situations. Miller refers to these social constructs of situations as social knowledge.
“Public Secrets” is a response to an exigence expressed by women in the Central California Women’s Facility, the largest women’s prison in the country. Their need was for the injustices they experience to reach the public eye, for the public secret—a secret that the public chooses to keep safe from itself—of a corrupt incarceration system to be exposed, and, ultimately, for justice. Such a need created a social motive for Daniel, and gave her the purpose, as rhetor, of her rhetorical action. This rhetorical action aimed to fulfill the needs of these women by allowing their voice to be heard.
This situation is recurrent because the incarceration system is not a singular, objectified entity, and rather a broad network of institutions operating within society that the public is well aware of (yet chooses to turn a blind eye to). The incarceration system can be categorized as a public institution, regulated by the law, and upheld by the judicial system. What is problematic in this categorization is that it lends itself to the conviction that because such an institution is reglated and upheld by the law and judicial system, it must be as efficient and justified as it can be. What the public may not be aware of, however, is the extent to which these institutions challenge the idea of justice and partake in corrupt practices involving manipulation of power.
Public Secrets, as a hypertext essay, is placed in a frame that creates a dichotomy between inside and outside, bare-life and human life. The frame draws the viewer’s attention to the issues at hand and allows the viewer to place themself in two positions simultaneously—that of the outside looking in and that of the insider looking out. The frame also contains an algorithmic arrangement, mathematically organized in a way that best communicates the intended message of the piece.