Reflections on Farmer’s After the Public Turn

I feel like I’ve mismanaged my very limited professional time these last few weeks, spending too many hours planning and responding to writing in my creative nonfiction course while reading two books on my exam list too closely. For anyone out there who’s ABD, I imagine this is a familiar story: without the weekly exigence of coursework or a scheduled exam, it’s easy to put other tasks in front of it — or to try to understand everything as deeply as possible or to get the writing just right. My saving grace, though, is that two conference proposals I wrote on zines this summer were accepted to both CCCC and RSA, so I do have more granulated goals to work toward as the semester develops and I’m hoping these papers will lead to chapters of the dissertation and/or publishable articles.

The paper for CCCC concerns something I’ve dubbed pedagogies of experiential circulation — the notion that students can distribute their work materially by doing it instead of simply learning about it. My example comes from students from my DIY Publishing class who distributed their zines at their self-organized zine fest last spring — Syracuse’s first. It was one of the best teaching experiences I’ve had, as students shared some very personal, risky work — both in terms of content and form — publicly. Importantly, we didn’t judge their “success” with this event based on traditional rubrics of rhetoric. Thus, in my presentation, I hope to reel in some of the loftier goals that pedagogies that take up rhetorical delivery/circulation/distribution typically engender — namely the idea that we measure rhetorical success on whether a student is able to observably change someone or something in their locale. Of course this begs the question, if rhetorical success cannot be measured by some sort of material, observable change, how can it be measured?

Originally I proposed that a re-articulation of agency — as a more emergent phenomenon — might help reconsider this question and I still think that move is helpful. That said, Frank Farmer’s new book, After the Public Turn: Composition, Counterpublics, and the Citizen Bricoleur (2013), considers how in certain communities, like zines, remaking is the assumed the rhetorical goal — of inspiring and influencing others to also remake or to become what he dubs a citizen bricoleur, “an intellectual activist of the unsung sort, thoroughly committed to, and implicated in, the task of understanding how publics are made, unmade, remade, and better made, often from little more than the discarded scraps of earlier attempts — constructions that, for whatever reason, are no longer legitimate or serviceable” (36). Importantly for public sphere theory, bricolage is figured as multimodal (my words, not Farmer’s), an expressive aspect of communication that resists the traditional notion of public discourse as “rational-critical debate.” As an assemblage of modes, bricolage and other expressive forms of discourse help to form counterpublics, or cultural publics, as Farmer calls them. An important aspect of zines, of course, is their materiality, which in the case of anarcho-punk zines, literally arises out of any remnants of fast-capital print.

Farmer focuses more on composition than distribution with his argument, but his attention to the rhetorical goals of DIY communities and his discussion of zine’s materiality in light of digital distribution channels has important ramifications for teaching circulation. For example, at one moment in the book, Farmer considers counterpublics as “widening gyres” — a term that gets at the paradox of circularity and mutation of social movement discourses. I have previously discussed these as ecologies or fluxes (to borrow from Edbauer), so I’m curious if there might be key differences in the language we use to describe these phenomena and how those differences might affect a methodology that is concerned with the movement of rhetoric. Nevertheless, the idea in introducing these terms to come to terms with the complexity and vastness of circulatory systems so as to almost render ridiculous the idea of agency at the individual level, which is why considering its definition is appealing to me.

It’s also appealing because of embodied and imaginative versions of agency associated with the idea of DIY, which Farmer takes up in the book. Specifically he considers the relationship between DIY practices and ethos and materiality. Obviously materiality is used to differentiate zines from other self-publishing venues on the web. Zines offer intimacy to certain communities, and as ephemera offer traces of its histories, leading Farmer to wonder if a DIY ethos can even exist on the web. This question is important if as Warner and Farmer argue, counterpublics exist as ways of being, not simply as deliberative discourses. As Kristin Arola has written, for example, certain forms of digital writing use templates that feature content — and take away from issues of design. Unless one knows how to code, options for form are limited. Moreover, what gets made in addition to the zine, is an important difference between print and digital self-publishing platforms. The materiality of zines also embodies an important opposition to media conglomeration. Borrowing from Tim Wu’s Master Switch, who argues that info tech is moving into increasing closed patterns — into a “master switch” — Farmer argues that zines show “what a publication looks like when you do not have free access to corporate-owned resources” (80). Farmer also notes how the surveilling features of the net might also sustain zine communities farther into the 21st century.

What seems interesting, then, is that while a DIY ethos might be unique to the composition of zines, it’s difficult to imagine that most zine makers are willing to forgo the internet entirely when its such a practical option for distribution. This has me going back to Trimbur’s work on circulation, as he uses Marx’s definition of commodity (as the contradiction that exists between use and exchange value) to complicate the production/distribution divide. I hope to blog about that complex article soon and rev some momentum back in to the blog this week.

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