A bit exhausted this weekend after travelling to WNY to attend the Buffalo Small Press Book Fair (more on that below) and to catch up with some great friends in the Queen City. At the expense of having deep engagement with the other readings this week, I spent some quality time with James Aune’s “Cultures of Discourse: Marxism and Rhetorical Theory” trying to tag it with detailed marginalia since it’s one of the few pieces from Contemporary Rhetorical Theory that are on my exam list for comps. Being a neophyte when it comes to Marxist histories and theories, I’m sure I gleaned less than 10% of the text; nevertheless, I found it interesting and potentially and unexpectedly helpful.
The piece is pulled from (as far as I can tell) an unremarkable 1990 edited collection called Argumentative Theory and the Rhetoric of Assent. Aune begins by plotting “a map of [Marxism's] research program,” leaning heavily on Alvin Gouldner’s synthesis, and pulling a productive dialectic from a key tension between structure and struggle. By structure Aune means Marxism as a science, stressing “a deterministic view of ideology,” where capitalism’s fall is inevitable (citing Lenin and Althusser as key figures). By struggle Aune imagines the version of Marxism that foregrounds critique, and requires some form of organizing, resistance — and ultimately persuasion — in order to engender revolution (he cites Gramsci, Horkheimer and Adorno, and Eagleton as key figures in the second). He then sketches four ways that Marxism has traditionally attended to this tension, arguing that Marxism has only tangentially dealt with rhetorical theory, while rhetorical theory has only tangentially dealt with Marxism.
Aune’s hope, then, is to begin a conversation in the field that retains the ongoing critique of ideology while promoting some sort of material political and social change. To do so, he focuses on one of three levels of abstraction — the mode of production — in social analysis as articulated by Erik Olin Wright in Classes (1985).
Researchers focusing on the mode of production examine “the way in which dominant forms of argument relate to forces and relations of production in the most abstract way” (545; emphasis in original). For Aune, focusing on the mode of production helps dodge rhetorical studies’ “privileging of symbol-use over labor as the constitutive activity of human beings” which “risks being coopted by larger forces of domination in our culture” (546). Aune would have us pay attention to rhetoric’s dominant forms of argument — as cultures of discourse — as products of labor, “as material as a factory or a Hitler speech” (546). He describes these cultures of discourses in detail as traditional, critical, and poststructural and then proceeds to offer four takeaways on developing a Marxist rhetorical theory, including foregrounding the role of labor and class struggle in our theorizing, but also revisiting certain helpful aspects of the cultures of discourse that might contribute to Marxist theory, such as using common sense as the origin of enthymeme or thinking more broadly about oppression in terms of race, sexuality, or via the status of professionalized/specialized (and thus authorized) discourses.
As I returned from the Small Press Book Fair this weekend, of course, modes of production — specifically material ones — are front an center in my mind, especially since the purpose of the trip was to see how (1) I might propose a similar fest/fair here in Syracuse and (2) to think about potential sites for dissertation research. Zine and small press fairs exist all over the US. And although they are largely white, they are diverse in other ways and bring together a mix of working class/artistic subjectivities. What Aune’s piece does for me then, is help me think through “Do It Yourself” articulations from the perspective of Marxist rhetorical theory. The very phrasing of DIY emphasizes labor (“do it!”), but for much of my class and my blogging this semester I’ve been framing it via ecologic rhetorical theory — emphasizing the “yourself” part of the phrase, the part that considers the self as a node in a network. And while Aune also helps address co-optation, a Marxist rhetorical theory could help think critically about the craft of print culture and potentially address the question of why print still hold a special place in our hearts. Perhaps it’s because our labor is still marked, inscribed, and circulated though the paper, the binding, and the edges of the book. It’s maybe a reminder that writing is work.
A few weeks ago I reflected on the radical possibilities of zine (and other youth) subcultures by exploring texts about the rhetorical situation (i.e. Bitzer, Vatz, and Biesecker). I ended by raising a more recent argument by Biesecker that concerned the role of sublimation in radical political agency, considering how DIY cultures and amateur rhetorics use more affective approaches in scene-building in order to create alternative spaces — large-scale movements that widen the scope of the so-called rhetorical situation. I ended by citing Stephen Duncombe’s book, Zines: Notes from Underground, where he argues that zines — as politically conscious DIY publications — are radical simply because they “offer up an alternative, a way of understanding and acting in the world that operates with different rules and upon different values than those of consumer capitalism” (10). Mass media outlets, on the other hand, are very effective at negating the very possibility of alternative spaces.
But alas, the Internets! The Internets with their majestic, never-ending, completely democratic ones and zeros. Everyone has an alternative space in the digital era. Right? I’m being a little sarcastic here because I think it might be tempting to dismiss this week’s “Rhetoric in the Mass Media” readings from Contemporary Rhetorical Theory since not one of them was published after 1991. Yet, perhaps because of this, I found the tensions vetted in this set — between rhetor/audience, structure/agency, symbolist/materialist, psychological/cultural/economic perspectives — helpful in considering the various scenes of DIY publishing in the 21st century; of course, I’d also wager these tensions are messier than ever.
My go-to praxis this semester has been the course of that same name and since writing the post I referenced above, my students have moved from producing print zines in Unit 1 to experimenting with various web platforms in Unit 2. This unit, dubbed “Participatory Culture,” asks students to blog and tweet regularly (#WRTDIY) while also dabbling in seemingly less-agentive spaces like Yelp, Amazon, or Wikipedia as well as those that require them to compose with sound (e.g. Audacity) or motion (e.g. iMovie). It’s a quickly-paced unit so even though Twitter conversations bookend our meetings, we only spend on 80 minutes on each platform or mode. Still, it’s enough time to touch upon the major advantages and disadvantages of each space and provide students with enough information to decide if they want to explore that space further in the unit or in their final projects. We’ve also dedicated some time to evaluating the space’s independence or DIY ethos.
As with the last unit, I’m learning a ton. Either I force myself to experiment in order to have better insight into the spaces/platforms/tools we’re using or my students introduce me to them. Last week for example, while discussing wikis, one of my students mentioned TV Tropes, a site that catalogues the “devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members’ minds and expectations.” TV Tropes allows users to describe or read about common — but not cliche — tropes used in various mass-mediated narratives: comic books, films, literature, TV, video games, etc. (in other words, the site isn’t limited to TV). The site is searchable and browse-able, linked through specific media, and its tropes are nested. For example, there’s a page called “Pregnancy Tropes” that has two pages dedicated to abortion tropes: “Good Girls Avoid Abortion” and “Magical Abortion.” Under each of these are numerous folders of various media that contain instances of the trope by way of plot summary. As if the site itself isn’t mind blowing enough, the list of contributors (“tropers” in the parlance of the site) tops out at more than 1,000.
Of course Barry Brummett’s essay, “Burke’s Representative Anecdote as a Method in Media Criticism” comes to mind as one looks at both the list of tropes and their examples to the point of objectification. Brummett borrows from Burke to argue that dramatic discourse as “widely used symbolic strategies” may serve to support audiences through the particular exigencies of their time. Exaggerated narratives — like both versions of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers — would help audiences deal with the technological shifts, economic instability, or big brother jeremiads pervading their pschye (to borrow from Rushing and Frentz).
So this argument goes, the tropes listed on TV Tropes, then, might “serve as better equipment for living” so long as the rhetorical critic can help others make the connection (480). While this assumes the public actually listens to critics, Brummett’s article has a forgiveness to it that allows the reader to not feel so bad about having recently watched yet another episode of Workaholics. For your health, as Dr. Brule would say.
A similarly optimistic perspective on mass media has been taken up by numerous cultural studies scholars and critical audience analysts since at least the 1980s and Celeste Michelle Condit references several of them in “The Rhetorical Limits of Polysemy.” She accuses John Fiske, Janice Radway, and others of being overly generous in their assertion that popular media allows for pleasurable, productive, and liberating polysemous readings. Condit then uses two case studies to show how an episode of Cagney and Lacey requires more work for a resistant reading — a decoding — depending on the viewer’s subject position.
Such additional work can preclude resistance because of its ability to silence viewers, qualify their pleasure, or suppress already limited or barely visible counter-rhetorics. Moreover, the elite public at the time influences the possibilities of kinds of abortion narratives aired or told (TV Tropes further supports this claim) so that the third personae must do “double work– deconstructing the dominant code and reconstructing their own” (504).
Condit does not want to guilt intellectuals into feeling bad about taking pleasure in decoding or simply viewing TV shows like Cagney and Lacey or reading romance novels; however, claims that polysemous readings lead to liberation must be qualified by considering “collectivized (group, internally organized through communication production) action and pleasure” (507). Without collectivization, social change is not possible by way of mass media. In this sense, zinesters in the 80s and 90s provided an important site for the possibilities of social change in pushing back against consumerist culture through mail-order circulation of their print zines that simultaneously adored mass media (think: sic-fi zines) and also rejected it. I believe their contributions have been unfortunately overshadowed by terms like “participatory culture” which have magically appeared once the internet became widespread. Before the web, we had zines and other small presses.
But that’s a historical take. I find Condit’s analysis compelling and wonder how it might be applied to more contemporary scenes of DIY production, namely by participatory cultures writing for sites like TV Tropes, or larger sites like Wikipedia, where ideally audiences are simultaneously positioned as rhetors — rhetors as coders and decoders. On one hand a powerful collectivization occurs when a reader witnesses hundreds of users exposing culture industry tropes — and the problems that occur when those tropes appease certain audiences’ expectations. On the other hand, one can watch the collective air leave the room when your average group of students — regular Wikipedia consumers — see how much effort goes into contributing to these sites, and how said contributions are a privilege in and of themselves.
For example, in an effort to demonstrate to my students some of what I’ve only read about re:Wikipedia, I made my first contribution to the site last week by adding one simple, seemingly-innocuous sentence about zine fests to the Fanzine page. To the benefit of my education I ended up in a minor editing war about my sentence’s weight and neutral point of view that took about 1-2 hours of my time. I won’t get into it here, because I’m running out of room. But that’s also my point: peep the Revision History and you’ll understand what went down only if you are literate in Mediawiki code and the revision interface. In other words, while Conidt applies terms of de/coding to mass-mediated narratives, the technological determinist mindset is quickly checked when one is asked to actually contribute to certain sites like Wikipedia.
Alas, this makes me wonder if code — HTML, java, AJAX, and hundreds more — is the way we must reconsider the encoding/decoding a world of 21st century composers and if print is in some way a moreaccessible space for the third personae — or even the privileged elite. Even to many professors at a private university, 21st century interfaces like WordPress and Twitter (never mind code), can be an intimidating space. Because, let’s face it, most of us in comp/rhet work within code, not with code. That is, we write within already mediated spaces: WordPress, Twitter, Facebook are all containers that we have some, but certainly not total agency over (and let’s not even talk about BlackBoard). So perhaps the current state of mass media isn’t so much negating alternatives, as Duncombe argued in 1998, but structuring/writing them for us. I’m not suggesting we avoid teaching with interfaces, but only that we consider their boundaries and not dismiss print wholesale just because our conception of it is the Times New Roman, double-spaced academic paper.
Re-immersing myself in the past and present of zines has allowed me to reconsider the larger network of youth sub/cultures that have used them for their own action and activism. For instance in Girls to the Front, Sara Marcus’s excellent book, feminist punk bands Bratmobile and Bikini Kill circulated their own zines, like Riot Grrrl, to promote their shows in DC, argue against Clarence Thomas’s justice nomination, and advance a DIY cut-n-paste aesthetic to contest glossy, teen-girl magazines like Seventeen. Another example: skateboarding culture in California in the 70s and 80s were helped by zines like Skateboarding Magazine and Thrasher, which featured overviews of skate spots, new tricks, profiles of skaters, and the visual rhetoric within: stunning photography of skaters and the designs of their boards. In many cases these zine scenes were made up of rhetors and audiences who reciprocated roles. The friends who were reading Riot Grrrl or Skateboarding were also in the bands, showcased in the pictures, etc.
While DIY communities exist across and within every age from carpenters to scrapbookers to micro brewers, I imagine that youth subcultures in particular present important affordances to rhetorical inquiry. For one, as teachers, it might help us to draw from examples that our students can relate to; perhaps more importantly for rhetorical theory is how such young rhetors negotiate being simultaneously vulnerable and emerging (that is, powerless but invigorated). This is especially interesting since so often youth subcultures are presented as flipping the script of the traditional rhetoric-action paradigm as action-first, rhetoric-later: the music came before the zines and the skating preceded the photos. Even if this is only a mirage (itself a rhetorical construction) or just a reduction of the rhetorical situation, I wonder why it seems this way? Probably more accurate is to say the action itself posits a certain kind of rhetoric. Certainly tricking rail slides and grinds at a local mall or playing a punk show in a bra has a certain effect on an audience.
In terms of audience, three concepts seem to dominate rhetorical theory: the First, Second, and Third Persona. The First Persona is the implied author, a self-constructed author. According to Philip Wander, the First Persona includes “a speaker and a speaker’s intent,” “the ‘I’” (369). The Second Persona is the listener(s), and conceives of the audience as auditors. Wander defines the Third Persona as “audiences not present, audiences rejected or negated through the speech and/or the speaking situation.” It is what’s negated by the Second Persona: “[t]he potentiality of language to commend being [the Second Persona] carries with it the potential to spell out being unacceptable, undesirable, insignificant” (370). The Third Persona functions as alienation, but also silence to prevent beings from producing texts or discourse that would circulate in public spaces.
Sara Marcus’s book might give readers a sense of this Third Persona as it existed for women of the late 80s/early 90s punk scene, who struggled to be visible both in and out of that scene. Even within feminist discourses of the early 90s, pioneers like Kathleen Hannah of Bikini Kill felt alienated by anti-pornography advocates like Andrea Dworkin. As a stripper who also worked as a counselor at a women’s shelter, Hannah felt the effects of the Third Persona running through feminist discourse. That said, after several attempts at writing an starting bands she met Tobi Vail and started Bikini Kill, thus starting a movement and engaging what Edwin Black calls the Second Persona.
According to Black the Second Persona occurs when rhetors use stylistic, idiomatic tokens — metaphors, topos — to tap into an ideology that influences the auditor: “auditors look to the discourse they are attending for cues that tell them how they are to view the world even beyond the expressed concerns, the overt propositional sense, of the discourse” (334). As Black sees it, the modern teleology is a “quest for identity” and as such auditors continually look for tokens that reinforce their imagined life (335). We are encouraged “not simply to believe something, but to be something” (339). As Wander puts it, the Second Persona reveals itself when the audience is “commended through discourse” (369). It “exists as a fact and an invitation” (369). A zine like Riot Grrrl, then, asked its readers to not just become part of the revolution, but to be it as the Hannah/Vail coined slogan was Revolution Girl Style Now.
As Sara Marcus reports, the first issue’s centerfold included a manifesto-like list of imperatives (which she says could be seen as Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hannah’s notes-to-self):
Recognize that you are not the center of the universe.
Figure out how the idea of winning and losing fits into your relationships.
Be as vulnerable as you possibly can.
Recognize vulnerability and empathy as strengths.
Don’t allow the fact that other people have been assholes to you make you into a bitter and abusive person.
Commit to the revolution as a method of psychological and physical survival. (85)
As Black would see it, the syntax, diction and second-person point of view of the imperatives serve as cues for readers to help picture an imagined life among a very small (at the time) riot grrrl movement that was working its voice into an already politically committed youth subculture of punk and underground music. Perhaps more interesting to me is how the visual rhetoric of cut-n-paste — the appropriated Superwoman iconography and potato chip logos — also serve as stylized tokens to export an ideology. In other words, while the content is fairly banal, the form of the zine is what made the riot grrrl movement persuasive to audiences.
For a time, anyway. As grunge became popular and rock stars like Courtney Love re-appropriated riot grrrl aesthetic in 1993, the original stylized tokens lost their potency. I’m not even mid-way through Marcus’s book but I’ll be curious to see how this narrative plays out. Regardless, the relationship between action and rhetoric may be slightly better understood through theories of audience that make room for more fluidity. Under what conditions, for instance, would an alienated youth subculture, which is born out of a necessity of talking to itself, break free and begin to reach other listeners? In terms of rhetorical theory, perhaps the question goes like this: what theories might account for how the rhetoric of youth subculture use the Second Persona to move away from its status of the Third? And how does this movement, paradoxically, risk sublimating itself back to a status of the Third (that is, via its subsequent appropriation)? Mid-way through my contemporary rhetorics course, I’m seeing rhetorical ecologies as the most useful approach to these sorts of questions.
I’ve gotten really into bookbinding this week. Really into it. Like, I-went-to-Commercial-Art-Supply-and-spent-$40-on-supplies into it. I picked up an awl, some waxed thread, and bone folder and a case for my .005 fine art markers. It was prompted by an amazing workshop in my DIY Publishing class generously led by Peter Verheyen, who is not only the Head of Preservation for SU Libraries, but also one of the most active members of the international bookmaking scene. He showed me and my students various examples of art books from our Special Collections, and taught us two simple binding methods: a single-pamphlet stitch (which requires nothing more than a piece of thread, a needle, and 8 pieces of letter-sized paper) and a book cover fold (a la high school textbook days).
Thorsten Dennerline’s Real Things People Said And I Didn’t Know What To Say
As Peter was walking us through examples of various art books from SU’s collection, I wondered about how the artifact’s materiality affected its rhetoric — or perhaps how it fit into a rhetorical situation. For example, he showed us Thorsten Dennerline’s Real Things People Said And I Didn’t Know What To Say, whose cover was made from one of the very plates used to produce the pressings within its pages. In other words, by incorporating the metal plates into the text, its circulation was limited by its materiality and thus its purpose/audience. This isn’t to say these art books weren’t political. The Myth of Justice, by John Pusateri is “Dedicated to Amadou Diallo, an unarmed West African immigrant who was shot 19 times in a hail of 41 bullets by four NYC police officers, February 4, 1999.” The book includes 41 ink blots, of which 19 are red. Despite (or because of) this exigence, only three copies of The Myth of Justice exist.
Thus, one of the most interesting moments for me in experiencing these books was that they pushed against some of my assumptions of what a publication can mean. After all, I’m teaching a class called DIY Publishing and had been approaching the class with a traditional definition of the rhetorical situation: the publication as a response to something. As Lloyd Bitzer notes in his famous essay (1968), a rhetorical discourse is distinguished from other sorts discourses (philosophical, scientific, poetic) by the nature of its response to a situation, which is usually required and fit for the occasion, be it by tone, genre, etc. Though Bitzer notes that any situation can be simple or complex, highly structured or loosely structured, can persist or decay, ultimately he understands rhetoric as making sense of knowable, objective reality where “the world presents imperfections to be modified by means of discourse” (225).
To me, the discourse of zines — and more largely DIY publishing — fits within this version of the rhetorical situation since most embody and articulate an expressed response to imperfections they see in the world. As Stephen Duncombe argues in Notes From Underground (1998), zines are a “vernacular” response to a marginalized subject position: “…what distinguishes zinesters from garden-variety hobbyists is their political self-consciousness. Many zinesters consider what they do an alternative to and strike against commercial culture and consumer capitalism” (8). Zines, then, respond to this imperfection through complex, loosely structured situations. A foodie zine (or blog even) might promote the slow food movement, a punk zine eschews the Grammy’s, etc. That said, I assumed that in order to supply a fitting response to these situations, the zine-rhetor must circulate their work widely enough to affect, but not so widely as to jeopardize their ethos with their community (i.e. not become a commodity themselves). What happens when an artisan book circulate with three copies? Will rhetorical discourse satisfy that occasion or is that meant for poetics?
With the proliferation of digital writing, many in the underground wonder if there is a rhetorical situation for zines at all or if that situation, which began to decay (to use Bitzer’s term) in the mid-90s, is actually dead. After all, many of the zines sold now are more products of craft, influenced by book arts and driven by a new economy of cultural capital: they circulate their work via precious fabric bindings, silkscreened color pages, or handmade, letterpresses covers. And though the consumer-capitalist critique hasn’t died in the underground, it has seemingly moved from traditional photocopied zines of circulations of 100-200 to (ironically) Tumblr accounts. However, if we look at any given rhetorical situation as being product of rhetors, as Richard Vatz does (1973), and not of an a priori reality, then we might say zine-rhetors are more powerful than ever. By using the Xerox machine, the needle, the laptop, the mail-order distro, and Etsy, zine producers have more choices for communicating and translating their situation (228) than ever before. After all, we have Urban Outfitters in Syracuse now, right?
The co-optation of indie culture by right wing douchebags like Richard Hayne is partial proof that these explanations of the rhetorical situation are too stable. Barbara Biesecker’s “Rethinking the Rhetorical Situation from within the Thematic of Différance” (1989) is helpful in that it denies an origin for either event or rhetor since language itself is as Derrida tells us, all symbolic action (i.e. language) is an interweaving: “no element can function as a sign without referring to another element which itself is not simply present” (qtd in Biesecker 236). As Biesecker later notes, with différance there is no origin, only process: “neither the text’s immediate rhetorical situation not its author can be taken as simple origin or generative agent since both are underwritten by a series of historically produced displacements” (239). This opens up a space for Biesecker to discuss the role of audience in the rhetorical situation since both Bitzer and Vatz have undertheorized (or at the very least homogenized) them. Instead of looking at the rhetorical situation as an “effect-stucture” as Biesecker calls it (event–>rhetor or rhetor–>event), we should look at it through a “logic of articulation” where audiences aren’t static essences or homogenized bodies, but constructed, “temporary displacement[s] of plurality” (239). They are made up of different people whose very humanness is predicated on their différance. With articulation, identities are in flux which is how possibilities can become radical through its refusal to essentialize. From this perspective, then, print zines aren’t necessarily more authentic than Tumblr sites; they might actually signify a changing of a DIY rhetorical situation.
While I think I understand Biesecker’s argument in opposition to Bitzer and Vatz (i.e. that there simply is no origin for rhetoric), I’m not sure I fully understand the benefit of understanding the audience through a logic of articulation. Or maybe I do but I’m not appreciating its complexities enough, especially in the context of late capitalism, where anything DIY can be co-opted and then commodified by a corporation. Of course I understand audiences are different, even within the same scene: look at the various topics, forms, etc. of zines. They are the embodiment of articulation. How this links to radical possibility, though, I’m not sure. Based on Biesecker’s talk two weeks ago, I’m guessing she’s abandoned articulation in this respect. The thesis of one of the essays up for discussion at that talk was that radical political will or agency can be understood via sublimation — a concept that comes from Lacanian psychoanalysis and not Derridian post-structuralism. It’s interesting to me that she’s zoomed in even closer to the subject to see how desire and drive might help better explain radical possibilities. I’m seeing a vague but potentially important connection to the more subliminal approach to the underground rhetor. As I learn more about the histories of youth cultures like skateboarders or riot grrrls or zine writers of the 90s, I am drawn to how the relationship between their amateur rhetoric and the goals of their movements. What’s interesting to me about these movements is how they create a situation — a scene — in response to a more dominant one. Duncombe see it this way:
The powers that be do not sustain their legitimacy by convincing people that the current system is The Answer. That fiction would be too difficult to sustain in the face of so much evidence to the contrary. What they must do, and what they have done very effectively, is convince the mass of people that there is no alternative. What I want to argue in the following pages is that zines and underground culture offer up an alternative, a way of understanding and acting in the world that operates with different rules and upon different values than those of consumer capitalism.
In other words, the question for the skater in the 70s, the riot grrrl in the 90s and the contemporary radical DIY publisher is to define their alternatives via their own ecologies, their own rhetorical situations that, as Jenny Rice argues, bleed (and this bleeding is one of the reasons why these scenes have been co-opted). In any case, for my students, the questions surrounding the rhetorical situation are very real and disorienting. Write a zine? For whom? Why? Where do I circulate it? As my students ask these questions in this unit and during our conferences this week, I’ll try to resist supplying any answers. It won’t be hard, mainly because I don’t have any. And of course, it’ll be exciting to see the radical possibilities they come up with in their responses.
This semester I’m pumped to be teaching a pilot course called DIY (Do-It-Yourself) Publishing. This is one of several of the Writing Program’s 200-level courses designed to offer an elective among the lower-division (as opposed to the compulsory, lower-division service classes that teach academic writing). Someone once described these classes as gateways for our Writing major, which thrives, but is always in competition with either one of the other writing-intensive programs on campus (the Newhouse School of Journalism, English and Textual Studies, or Communication and Rhetorical Studies) or (more likely) content-driven majors like Psychology or Marketing. Planning and teaching this course has been an absolute blast considering I attribute my interest in comp/rhet to producing both print and digital zines throughout my youth. Yet, one of the questions we have struggled with early on is defining DIY. What does it mean? What does it look like? How can we know it? If we replace “publishing” with “rhetoric” our questions inevitably bring us to concerns with agency and authorship. Are zine producers, for instance, totally free to circulate whatever ideas they want? To what extent can cut-n-paste aesthetics or CSS’d blogs claim to be original? In applying the expression “DIY” to publications or performances throughout history — as I’ve asked them to do in the first unit — who or what are the selves doing the doing? What are they are doing and why? For whom? What are the limits and boundaries to their actions and effects?
For me these are fun, theoretical and rhetorical (which is to say natural) questions to ask, but for some of my students who have are charged with practical and accountable tasks (like trying to find examples of DIY publications from our library’s vast Special Collections) the questions can be frustrating. The root of that frustration — and this is true of any class that puts rhetoric at its center — is that is at odds with a long pedagogical history that posits knowledge as an objective (i.e. testable) reality.
Several of the readings in 631 this week challenge or nuance this traditional definition of truth, though the discipline clearly is fuzzy when it comes to the relationship between rhetoric and epistemology, which I’m defining as the philosophical tradition concerned with knowledge and truth. The question of “How do I know?” is complicated, bringing out the fundamental disagreements between philosophy and rhetoric, but also rhetoric and the sciences. Of the five pieces we read this week from Part II of CRT, I found myself agreeing vehemently with two — Robert Scott’s “On Viewing Rhetoric As Epistemic” and Barry Brummett’s “Some Implications of ‘Process’ or ‘Intersubjecitvity’” — and challenged by one (Dilip Parameshwar Gaonkar’s “Rhetoric and Its Double”).
Scott’s piece is the oldest (1967) and most cited of the bunch and argues that rhetoric is epistemic so long as truth is conceived of as meeting “the demands of the precepts one adheres to and the demands of the circumstances in which one must act” (138). Structures and philosophies may guide us, but truth is also something “created moment by moment.” Rhetoric as argument or persuasion thus helps us to predict those moments as they unfold in front of us and require action. It is through the action that we begin to know and shape truth. In the context of my class, then, we may have certain ideals of what DIY should look like — amateur in aesthetic, noncommercial in purpose, minimally mediated — but that knowledge is only as good as the occasion when we need to make arguments about the significance or consequences of a DIY approach to publishing, such as the extent to which corporate conglomerates control 90% of the media.
Admittedly, a more accessible version of this argument surfaces in Brummett’s piece almost ten years later. Borrowing from a different essay by Scott, Brummett argues that intersubjectivity is a view of reality that understands others as the source of meaning (e.g. truth), while objectivity sees it as objective reality and subjectivity as solipsism (159). (At scale in the realm of social knowledge, Thomas Farrell calls this consensus, or common sense, which is the MO of hegemony.) According to Brummett, the problem with objectivity is that in the realm of science — via the tradition of Newtonian mechanics — parts are singled out from the whole and thus reduced. The tools, lens and frames used to isolate parts essentially distort the truth of that phenomenon, yet the conclusions are often passed off as truth. Intersubjectivity is thus more real because it exists within a system of a whole where meanings shift because of happenings within that whole. Rhetoric is necessary for sorting out these meanings:
“Humans are necessarily involved in sharing and manipulating messages to give and gain meanings about experience. But what experience means is not by any means agreed upon. This ambiguity is a feature of the essentially rhetorical nature of reality. Ambiguity generates conflict and disagreement about meaning and a constant striving to resolve these divisions. This striving is rhetoric; while rhetoric may be defined in many ways and on many levels, it is in the deepest and most fundamental sense the advocacy of realities.” (160)
In other words, rhetoric is necessary for reaching some kind of agreement, which the authors call truth. In some ways, this is what I’m aiming for in my refusal to settle for one definition of DIY. I’m interested in seeing how my students’ research or experiences might help us define it. And rather than start the conversation completely ignorant, I can suggest or volley certain utterances to get us going — histories of zines, documentaries on small presses, reports on contemporary indie publishers. The hope is that their own research will contribute to a conversation that leads us to certain classroom-constructed truths about DIY, especially with regard to what works, what doesn’t, etc. The problem I’ve found with this approach is that students sometimes have trouble accepting this shift. As a colleague put it to me recently, they think it’s a trap.
This is something that became more real to me in reading Gaonkar’s “Rhetoric and Its Double,” which argues that rhetoric — as the search for the available means of persuasion — is always the supplement to knowledge and truth. Recent conceptualizations of rhetoric, epitomized perhaps by Scott and Brummett’s arguments, deny this role for rhetoric and thus, unendingly defers to a more dramatic role than perhaps it ought to. While I’m tempted to evoke Robert Hariman’s essay, “Status, Marginality, and Rhetorical Theory,” from last week to question some of Gaonkar’s framing for this essay, I’m at least partially convinced that our departments across campus consistently have to make the case for our legitimacy; yet, ironically, if we look at the market for comp/rhet folks, there are comparatively more jobs available for us than other sectors of the humanities. While the cynic might argue this has more to do with history of the academy than the any real need for teachers of writing (hey, anyone can do it!), surely we teach something in our classes (though intersubjectivity helps make a strong case that we do it better in the writing center). In the field of power that is the academy, Gaonkar’s arguments are consensus. The writing center serves the classroom, not the student. A long history of graded work hardens students to the expectation that the purpose of your classroom is to teach knowable truths — whether that knowledge is a process, a formula, or a text. This is what rhetoric, the discipline, is up against.
This week I’ve been knee-deep in ethnographic studies, compiling a bibliography on zines and self-sponsored writing. Depending on how you define ethnography, I’ve been hard-pressed to find any other method at work except historical analysis. Granted, some of these studies are more empirical than others, but pretty much every one of them has used a combination of textual analysis, interview, and observation (with some more emic in their perspective than others). Interestingly, in the intro to one of the least transparent studies (yet unarguably the most influential), Notes From Underground(1997), Stephen Duncombe illustrates “the anxiety of authority” that Patricia Sullivan identifies in “Ethnography and the Problem of the ‘Other’”:
Still others will be disappointed that I’ve written a book on zines at all. Isn’t this just another exploitation of zines, “selling out” the underground to the above-ground world? Perhaps. But alternative culture has already been discovered — the more important question is who will represent it and how. The ways in which I explore and explain the world of zines certainly bear the mark of my theoretical interests and political concerns, but I’m of the world I write and my concern for the underground runs deeper than its status as this (or last) season’s cultural exotica. More important, I’m a conscientious observer and a careful listener. And I believe that what zinesters have to say and what zines represent are too important to stay sequestered within the walls of a subcultural ghetto. (20)
Duncombe justifies his ethics by adopting the emic perspective of charitable participant-observer. And yet at the end of Notes he argues that as long as zines cling to a negative identity — an identity always at odds with but also attached to a dominant consumer culture — they will be politically ineffective. In fact, in a new afterward for the 2nd edition (2008) he accuses print zines of being little more than “an exercise in nostalgia,” characterizing zines as a bohemic ghetto (212). Of course Duncombe also lauds zines throughout Notes, but readers are left wondering how zinesters themselves — especially the thousands who still practice zine-ing — feel about this characterization of them.
Perhaps an even more problematic example is Fanzines (2010) by Teal Triggs, who has been accused of printing zine covers without the permission of the authors or barely dialoging with her research subjects at all, a problem that led her to get several facts wrong in her book. While Triggs employs a purely historical/textual analysis in Fanzines, if the accusations are true, this is not only a legal issue for the zine community, but an ethical one that puts folks like me — potential researchers of zine communities — on notice. At the very least, perception is reality and zinesters have good reason to doubt the intentions of academics who are interested in speaking for them. Luckily, as Janice Radway has recently argued, many zinesters are also academics and librarians (like Jerianne at Underground Press) so they’re not completely divided communities.
In any case, the ethics of ethnographers are taken up by several readings this week and I’d like to focus on two widely cited essays in particular from Ethics and Representation in Qualitative Studies of Literacy (1996): Tom Newkirk’s “Seduction and Betrayal in Qualitative Research” and Patricia Sullivan’s “Ethnography and the Problem of the ‘Other.’” Both advocate for a more critical understanding of ethnography, especially those that “study down” (e.g. examine the literate practices of those with less power), but represent slightly incompatible views of how to mitigate the ethical problems such qualitative work engenders.
For Newkirk, the problem is informed consent: how to make research subjects aware that the information they provide could render them negatively — as racist teachers, bourgeois professionals, or unethical citizens. For Sullivan, a research project should “ultimately aim to benefit those whose voices, texts, and circumstances make [our] understanding possible” (98). For Newkirk, ethnography should allow for (and probably require) some bad news; Sullivan, on the other hand, is less comfortable with those conclusions, seeking to not just inform subjects of their representation, but to include them in actively constructing it. For Sullivan, self-reflexivity — “the explicit rendering of one’s own theoretical and political assumptions and beliefs as well as one’s experiences and emotions in the process of fieldwork — isn’t enough. Power-sharing discourse should be present throughout the research process where, “[p]articipants are involved in framing research questions, collecting and interpreting data, commenting on, and sometimes in, the final text” (109).
This is perhaps where Sullivan and Newkirk are incompatible. While Newkirk argues for dialogue with participants within the process — especially with the consent agreement and “interpretation of problematical situations” during data gathering. Sullivan, though, would give participants more agency than this, involving them from the get-go when framing research questions and deciding which data is relevant data. I wonder, though, if Sullivan is painting too idealistic a picture of the research process. I wonder this partially because I can’t imagine wandering into a zine convention on onto an online zine community and asking them what questions should be asked. I’d receive empty looks or snide rebuttals. After all, if I don’t know what I’m looking for, then why am at that site.
One study I’ve encountered through my bib that does emulate an ideal research practice is Katherine Schultz’s “Looking across Space and Time” from RTE in 2002. In that fairly influential study, Schultz uses multi-site ethnography to understand the literacy practices of high school students across contexts, in school and out. From her data analysis, Schultz find three themes from out-of-school writing: “(a) writing was largely a private practice they kept separate from their school lives, (b) writing was used to take a critical stance, c) writing was a bridge between their homes and school worlds” (368). One of the major and important conclusions to evolve from this last pattern is that once students graduated, they stopped writing out of school. Part of what I liked about this study was Schultz’s narration of how she triangulated data with her student participants even as she helped cart them back and forth from school to job in her car: “I showed the findings to the research participants to determine if the findings seemed valid from their perspectives” (367). And when she discusses the teachers in the study, she characterizes them as thoughtful and relevant. In fact, one implication of her findings is that school sponsorships of literacy have an indirect effects on self-sponsorships of literacy.
Even though I think this is an ethical study, it makes me wonder what kinds of decisions she had to make throughout the process. Did she show her work to the teachers, who more or less have a back seat in the study? I wonder what other example studies in the field are useful for discussing Newkirk, Sullivan, and others this week. Thoughts?
When I booted up Taxomania! last June I set three simple (perhaps unsurprising) goals for maintaining a blog: to professionalize and establish an scholarly identity, to practice composing and tinkering, and to connect with other folks. While I was blogging fairly regularly over the summer, the real question, I thought, would be how I’d sustain it when the semester workload kicked in. “Will I be able to keep up on my writing between doctoral classes, teaching, and being a dad?” I asked, “or will Taxomania! go the same way as my jogging shoes?”
Strangely enough, those jogging shoes have actually gotten some use this fall. Since school started in August, I’ve managed to run several times per week. Part of the reason I’ve been able to sustain the regimen (not to mention a better diet) has to do with a shift in my material conditions. After (finally) rejecting a 12-month, 9-5 routine that increasingly depressed me, I can now schedule runs when my body best responds to them, which is typically early or mid-afternoon. More honestly, though, the change in my routine has served as an occasion to re-imagine my values. I’ve tried to jettison the unhealthy parts and account for those that have been missing since moving to Syracuse more than six years ago. And part of what’s been missing is time to write.
Incidentally, I’ve self-published in one form or another for 20 years, but only when I’ve been in school. When I produced eight issues of my print zine, Mud, I was in high school and college. Later, when I edited the webzine The Onanist, I was working on my MA in Nevada. And although I started each project myself, they have always fairly quickly evolved into a collaborative. So the idea of putting my shit out there isn’t as intimidating as the invention process itself (which, I admit, has always been an issue for me). What should I write about? What do I have to say? Should posts be about academe only, or any facet of my life that I feeling like writing about? How long should they be? How often should I be posting? No doubt I have struggled and continue to struggle with these questions.
And yet another part of the trouble is working within a form that so closely braids authorship to identity. There’s something about blogging that feels like the perzine’s digital doppelgänger. The blog is me | glob eht ma I. Some writers have handled this by distributing their work among various spaces: a blog for academe, another for cooking, one for travel, etc. I imagine this works well for invention and for audience. If a blog has a specific function, then there is probably less existential crisis when it comes to writing. You made French lentil soup last week? Post the recipe on the food blog. You went to NYC? Post your adventures on the travel blog. You read Derrida? Post your summary on the doc blog. I know my friends would appreciate such compartmentalization; I could spare them my arguments on multimodal writing and they could just read about my weekend in Ithaca, or my thoughts on parenting.
Another strength to that approach is that it permits the author to treat a project as contingent — product as process — instead of permanent (product only). As Jason Jones argued a few weeks ago on ProfHacker, perhaps the blog’s vulnerability is actually it’s key affordance, a reminder of the tenuous moves writers go through as they work on a project or line of inquiry. “When folks blog about their research or their teaching,” he writes, “they can make that work visible, even if it’s work they either can’t or don’t intend to sustain forever. To at least some extent, then, even abandoned blogs are sometimes a perverse illustration of the platform’s strengths.” That partially explains why so many bloggers write earnestly in graduate school, but abandon their blogs once they enter the professoriate.
Ernesto Priego and others blame the failure of the professor’s blog on a lack of recognition in tenure and promotion. The genre and the work are not valued. On one hand, I have a hard time understanding this; if a professor is given sponsored (i.e. given time and space to conduct research), what is so difficult about making the blog part of that process? That is, how do these authors get from the kernel of an idea to a monograph? Why isn’t that work-in-process made more transparent? Some scholars, such as Kathleen Fitzpatrick, seem to make this her mission alongside fighting for more recognition for online publication among MLA and T&P committees. She has argued persuasively in Planned Obsolescence that the culture of academe has constructed the author as someone who both researches, reads and tests ideas in physical and virtual isolation. The only thing rewarded is the product. Nothing else matters.
So I give my blog permission (admission?) to be temporary — and wrong. And even though I struggle with the authorship/identity thrust of the blog, I appreciate the challenge to balance it all here. Lord knows I’ve failed at it (porridge, anyone?), but at this point in my life not only could I not sustain more than one blog, but the blog has to be more than a cookbook, travel journal, or a database; it has to allow for a space to practice the hard part of being an academic: summarizing, synthesizing and translating complex ideas while maintaining a healthy work/life balance. In short, the blog is exercise for the day-to-day need to think like a writer. As Derek Mueller and Krista Kennedy have also argued, the blog is a laboratory (see “Every Mad Scientist Needs a Tower, a Monster, and a Telegraph Wire”). And having accountability to this laboratory means forcing myself to regularly wrestle with rhetorical choices with respect to invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery.
Finally, because a reflection should be about looking forward as much as it looks back, I want to establish as few goals for the blog next semester:
Get in a rhythm. At one point this semester I went a month without writing. It was at that point when I picked up Paul Silva’s How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing, a breezy, helpful approach to writing. In chapter 1 he writes about allotting time to write (Kennedy & Mueller also talk about as “mak[ing] a commitment to rhythm”). I’d like to commit to that rhythm — and to finishing Silva’s book.
Write more. Speaking of regularity, this semester I wrote 20 entries, or an average of 1.3 per week. Since I have a lighter teaching load next semester, I think it’s reasonable to write 2-3 per week, or aim for 30-40 total. I’ll also blog during the break.
Write shorter pieces. I recognized (and thanks to Collin for this) that when I take it upon myself to write longish pieces they would either: (1) take too much time to post or (2) prevent me from write soon after (this principle also applies to jogging). The other problem with this approach is that it didn’t respect the medium: I’d write, encounter something that would impact that composition, then revise. If the purpose of an academic blog is to track the evolution of an idea, it’s probably better to write in shorter bursts that add up to something bigger.
Design assignments. Speaking of short bursts, I’d like to think of some short, simple prompts or memes to revisit when I’m feeling bullied by the white space. Threat + Constraint has always been great at this.
Network. Thanks for Google Analytics, I know you’re reading this. I can’t tell who you are, per se, but I know you’re there. That said, there isn’t as much conversation happening here as I’d like and from what I remember in the zine days: if you give love, you receive love. So in addition to writing more on my own blog, I’ll also try to write on other folks’ blogs as well.
Before the service economy/information age 2.0, I imagine that life as a “document designer” was more or less straightforward. I picture a garden-variety computer geek using Pagemaker or Quark to layout product manuals for telephones or lawnmowers with more or less fixed deadlines, formats, and boundaries.
At least two of the texts we’re reading for 760 this week on information design, however, emphasize the need for technical communicators to consider function over form because of the sheer expansion of information available. As Albers puts it “People simply cannot efficiently sort through and process the amount of information they have access to” (1); similarly Salvo and Rosinski note that “Search and retrieval – or findability – as well as navigability become increasingly important as the information age produces more documents than ever before” (103). As obvious of a problem as this is, I dig Salvo and Rosinski’s call for real digital literacy, an attempt at understanding what this saturation means for writers. When I think about this saturation, I think about how much it’s impacted authorship beyond the technical writer. As Salvo and Rosinski note, “Attention to design most recently has focused on the placement and articulation of information (data) within documents as well as on finding, contextualizing, and placing any document within larger conversations and collections (metadata)” (105; emphasis mine). The spatial metaphors become essential, as Salvo and Rosinski make clear, to placing documents in a context that communicates scale, navigation, locatability, etc. (110). This applies to researchers in graduate courses as well as zinesters.
Alright. While editing, writing, and laying out two fanzines hardly qualifies me as an “information designer” – or maybe the zine’s ethos actually precludes me from weighing in here — these chapters had me thinking back to those DIY days, especially since my two zines were designed in different mediums (print/web), in different decades (1990s/2000s), and in different subjects (music/creative NF). Mud, my print zine from the 90s, were released as separate issues (twice a year, maybe?) whereas The Onanist, my webzine from the 00s, eventually became an ongoing, weekly endeavor. In fact, by the end of its two-year run, we were microblogging daily on side frame while rolling out new content – stand-alone stories, interviews, art – weekly.
Thinking back, though, I had trouble with the transfer from print to digital – the same trouble that Salvo and Rosinski mention technical communicators had in the late 90s: “At that time, designers of new Web site construction ignored effective design principles, even at times asserting that effective document design developed for the page did not and could not apply online” (106). Despite having purchased Dreamweaver and Photoshop how-to manuals, I initially started The Onanist by rolling out separate “issues” (see Issue 2 right there) and changing the masthead each week. These were print decisions in hindsight – leftover principles from Mud.
After a while I figured out that the best set-up would be something more fluid, a model that worked with the boundlessness of the web. After two years we actually produced so much content that management became a major issue and transferring the architecture or look of the zine was a major hassle. CSS? XML? CMS? Whatsa what? The only acronym I knew was PITA. And now that the project is defunct (died the day I left my MA program, sadly), the zine exists only as a chopped-up relic on my hard drive with files scattered and links broken. At least I still have every copy of Mud, right through to the last issue (above, left).
While I have no intentions of starting another webzine soon, the major lesson here seems to be that when it comes to information design, it’s important to think about broader contexts for which individual documents will be designed into (“the sponsors,” as Carliner put it). As the Writing Center considers building a stronger, more expansive resources page, for example, it’ll be important to think through the designs of those pages within the larger context of the institution, the WP, and the WC sites. In fact, as I think back to last week’s discussion on CM and the WC, I wonder how much of that conversation would fit into our discussion tomorrow. Are other folks seeing some strong overlap between CM and ID? I have a feeling there will be more when we get to usability after break.
I'm a grad dad studying & teaching composition at Syracuse. I collect zines, LPs, and stuff in between. Email me at jwluther at gmail dot com. Or follow at: