Tag Archives: materiality


While I haven’t really written here since June, I’ve been busy on the back end, revising my exam article, passing my exams (hooray), falling into various research rabbit holes about anarchism, talking with faculty about directions for my diss, and on the home front, working on our house to prepare for our 5th family member (due in October). I’ve also been meeting with folks about planning Syracuse In Print, a small print festival to be held in late February as part of my fellowship for NY Council for the Humanities. In August I’ll be flying down to NYC for a 2-day orientation with folks there. 


My type squeezed into a chase using quoins & furniture.

But one of things I wanted to do over this summer was experiment with other methods of bookmaking, to experience more sophisticated methods  so that I would have a better understanding of what that process is like, especially how it might be different from publishing on a computer, something I’ve done since I started making zines almost 25 years ago. But in order to do that, I needed access to tools I don’t have. So I took a letterpress workshop at the amazing Western New York Book Arts Center the last two Wednesday evenings. There I learned about tools like composition sticks and quoins, terms like pica and points, and how to set moveable type — a totally different design process than I’ve ever experienced.


The studio in the basement of the WNYBAC

Probably the most interesting thing about setting type had to do with how the space — not a screen — served as the primary means for composition. Not only does the WNYBA studio embody the materiality of writing, but combing through shelves, drawers, and cases looking for lead or wood fonts, wingdings, and symbols, required me to bricolage my way to something. So as I produced mockups with my composition stick, I never really knew how it would turn out. Unlike digital layout, where everything is WYSIWYG, as a newb to typesetting, I just wasn’t really sure how my project would come out. But after several gaffes (i.e. using layers of slugs instead of spacers, which would have been the same point as the type), I squeezed the type in a chase using furniture and quoins, hopped on an Excelsior platen press, and went to town, making 100 or so business cards. There’s lots more to say and reflect on about this, but for now, I’m thankful to have a reference point as I continue to explore questions of printmaking in the 21st century. 

One of my business cards

One of the business cards made on a platen press

During my visit I was also able to chat with Christopher Fritton, Studio Director and the founder of the Buffalo Small Press Festival (BSPF) about some of the things he’s learned in running that festival for eight (!) years. While Syracuse in Print won’t come close to the scale Chris has achieved with the BSPF, he had a lot of smart, practical ideas for carrying out such an event.

Suarez on materiality & “the coalescence of human intention”


Suarez commenting on the 1785 promissory note from the French

As part of their Critical Connections series, the Special Collections at Syracuse sponsored a pretty amazing lecture last Thursday by book scholar and Rare Book School director Michael Suarez called “‘Industry Need Not Wish’: Benjamin Franklin’s ‘The Way to Wealth’ As a Publishing Phenomenon.” This was followed up with a 2-hour discussion on Friday with Prof Suarez that allowed about 12 of us talk with him more intimately about the lecture and get a close look at some other important texts associated with Franklin in the late 18th century that the SCRC has in its collection.

I wasn’t familiar with Suarez and since I didn’t have time to read his most renown work — the 1,400+-page tome, the Oxford Companion to the Book — I opted instead to read the 30+-page  “Historiographical Problems and Possibilities in Book History and National Histories of the Book,” which is a surprisingly accessible article for outsiders (like me) who are not familiar with the field of bibliography. And when you read this, everything about Suarez’s approach makes sense. As he puts it, book history doesn’t really belong to any one discipline, but “as a multidisciplinary practice that is necessarily collaborative” (170). Not only did he touch upon this throughout his lecture and workshop but he showed it, walking us through the transnational life of Franklin’s most popular book, The Way to Wealth (TWTW) with grace, style, and joy. Dare I say it was one of the best lectures I’ve attended at Syracuse. Maybe ever. No wonder dude is also a preacher.

The extent of my knowledge about books from this period is limited to a phenomenal social history of Christmas I read last December so I can’t really put much of the lecture in a larger context. But put simply The Way to Wealth was a wildly popular anthology of aphorisms collected from Franklin’s 25 years of Poor Richard’s almanacs. Between 1758-1800 it went through 144 editions — that we know of. Of course it was popular because of the textual accretion from a quarter century of publishing Poor Richard’s, but also, according to Suarez, because it was cheap print. At the time, books like TWTW were printed through a jobbing press, which was quick and easy for the printer to make. (What surprised me is that in the 18th century colonies, most books were imported from England. Publishers in the states would take about 12-18 months to print a book because it took longer to make a profit from them; jobbing printing took priority.)

By contrast, in France, where Franklin became a celebrity, his works were printed on vellum, treated as an Enlightenment text (incidentally, I had many flashbacks to the HBO miniseries John Adams during this lecture).

What they had in common, however, was that Franklin’s book was a fashionable commodity. Back in the states, it became bundled with other important texts and sold to former agrarian workers who were urbanizing, becoming literate, and seeking (or rather, were told they should be seeking) civilizing texts. Sometimes these books had advertisements right in them (Suarez gave an example of a list of patented medicines to be sold at the end of one edition of TWTW). The most fascinating aspect of the lecture for me was the tension between what these books said and what they actually did. That is, it seemed to me from the lecture that the materiality of book in commodified form contradicted Franklin’s aphorisms about thrift, meritocracy, and savings:

  • Early to bed, and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise
  • If you would know the value of money, go and try to borrow some; for, he that goes a borrowing goes a sorrowing
  • Sloth, like rust, consumes faster than labor wears; while the used key is always bright

Suarez closed the lecture with what he later described as a “pivot,” showing  a series of statistics on illiteracy in the US, making the case that we should fight, among other things, to fulfill the promise of making literate the 32 million adults who can’t read. As a member of the LOC’s Literacy Advisory Board he said the issue was near and dear to his heart.

But having started the lecture with the overwhelming figures for student debt and having walked us through the ways literacy was literally fashioned in both America and France, it indeed felt like a pivot.  Literacy, of course, is more desirable than illiteracy (as Suarez pointed out in the discussion), but I found myself wanting to reach for Elspeth Stuckey’s 1991 book The Violence of Literacy once I heard this. Essentially, Stuckey does not see literacy as necessarily liberatory since  ideologies and contexts cannot be separated from words, including when literate people use them: “the society that fixes the worth of speakers fixes the worth of their words also” (92). Thus, the violence of literacy is found in the processes that seek to mark and dehumanize subjects, through such discursive practices as academic research and the systematic collection of data used for surveillance. Both are targets for Stuckey because both “regulate relationships” through literacy.  For me, this is exactly what TWTW did for the newly urbanized working class of the 18th century. The increased privatization of the University is perhaps the 21st century manifestation of this tension. Rather than provide money to the colleges to support programs like we did in the 60s with open-admissions, the neoliberal reality is that students take out loans to support their own literacy, taking on a sizable debt that never leaves them.

During the 2-hour discussion we considered Franklin’s own wealth, especially in contrast to Jefferson, who was born privileged but died in poverty (the opposite of Franklin). Although it seems there were several complicated reasons for Jefferson’s poverty the discussion implied he spent too much money on books and wine. You could do worse than squander a fortune on those two goods, but it was a helpful analogue to larger class tensions that have existed since the rise of capitalism. And as we looked at some amazing pieces from the SCRC having to do with Franklin — a 1775 sermon from the same press as the Declaration of Independence and a 1785 promissory note from the French that bankrolled the war — I wondered that without this larger historical context we were unintentionally perpetuating the myth of exceptional individual.

That said, I was felt privileged myself with the opportunity to take an evening and morning to learn more about Franklin, 18th century print culture, and the materiality of ephemera, which Suarez described as the “coalescence of human intention.” In terms of my own interests, Suarez reminded me that such coalescence — when it comes to literacy at least — might be best understood to take place through the commodified form of books, zines, laptops or ipads.

Experiential learning and materiality

kolbOne of the more interesting questions to come out of my recent teaching experiences with DIY publications like zines is how teachers measure rhetorical success of their students’ public texts, whether they take the familiar forms of civic writing, multimodal embodied forms of protest, or through more ephemeral social media. More specifically, I’ve been asking and speculating about the role rhetorical circulation plays in that question, and what it might mean to differentiate between learning about the concept (i.e as a subset of critical reading skills) and experiencing it (i.e. producing texts that actually circulate). In short, what does it mean to really experience circulation — and by extension what does it mean to experience rhetoric?

Lately I’ve been looking in a few disparate places to answer that question. Thinking about it literally has led me to experiential learning theory (ELT) — originally conceived by John Dewey, developed in various ways throughout the 20th century (by folks like Vygotsky, Piaget, Lewin, Jung, and Freire), and more recently theorized and applied by David Kolb. Although he developed his theory in the early 70s, Kolb’s book, Experiential Learning: Experience As the Source Of Learning and Development (1984), is widely influential, having been cited more than 20,000 times (including a few times in the pages of CCC). In a more recent text from 2005, Kolb and Kolb define experiential learning as “the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience. Knowledge results from the combination of grasping and transforming experience (Kolb, 1984: 41)” (194). This grasping was initially characterized via two pairs of dialectically opposed modes: Concrete Experience (CE) v Abstract Conceptualization (AC) and Reflective Observation (RO) and Active Experimentation (AE). As the authors put it:

Experiential learning is a process of constructing knowledge that involves a creative tension among the four learning modes that is responsive to contextual demands. This process is portrayed as an idealized learning cycle or spiral where the learner ‘touches all the bases’ — experiencing, reflecting, thinking, and acting — in a recursive process that is responsive to the learning situation and what is being learned. (194; emphasis mine)

This creative tension is created by asking learners to scuttle between acting and observing, analyzing and experimenting, consuming and producing. Yet because human experience is the basis for this model, such tensions cannot occur in just a classroom. Central to ELT is Lewin’s notion that transactional learning occurs via the interdependency of individuals and their environments. Kolb and Kolb use this to create what they call learning spaces, which emphasize learning as “a map of learning territories, a frame of reference within which many different ways of learning can flourish and interrelate. It is a holistic framework that orients the many different ways of learning to one another” (200).

Conceptual map of a learning space using nine modes of experience (Kolb and Kolb 2005)

Conceptual map of a learning space using nine modes of experience (Kolb and Kolb 2005)

As I re-read Anne Wysocki’s intro to Writing New Media (2004) this week, I was struck with the similarities between the ways both ELT and new media attempt to highlight this interdependency between agency (individual) and structure (environment). More specifically for Wysocki, a materialist definition of new media allows students to “see a possible self — a self positioned and working within the wide material conditions of her world, even shaping that world — in that object” (21). Aside from Wysocki’s decision to reject traditional definitions of new media as inherently digital, I love this piece for how it pushes teachers of writing to consider not so much “technology” as monolith as much as the tools and materials with which we ask students to write. Interestingly, many of the lessons in the Activity portion of her chapter ask students to occupy various positions within ELT’s learning space. In one exercise, students take two hours out of their weekend to observe and jot down any and all visual texts. When they come to class, Wysocki asks them a number of reflective questions about how and why they chose those texts, how they shape action and ways of thinking, etc.  As she argues at the end of this section, she’s “not trying to lead the class to definitive conclusions about sight,” but “to see how much visual attentions are called upon in our day-to-day actions” (25). There is more to this lesson, which is connected to other lessons, but I point out this sliver to note how some of tensions articulated by ELT are working in this example. Students are asked to use concrete experience (CE) — writing down what they see — as a occasion for reflective observation (RO) —  via large-group discussion — which is put into tension with abstract conceptualization (AC) when they are ultimately asked to conceptualize the role visual rhetoric plays in our moment-to-moment material experience.

I realize I risk bastardizing ELT with such an application, so I’m not totally committing to this analysis, but for now I am interested in ELT enough to see how it might help me start to approach a question like “how do students experience rhetoric or rhetorical circulation?”

Next up is to look back at Michael McGee’s “A Materialist’s Conception of Rhetoric” to think about what he means when he drops a knowledge bomb like this one:

…the whole of rhetoric is “material” by measure of humans experiencing of it, not by virtue of our ability to continue touching it after it is gone. Rhetoric is “object” because of its pragmatic presence, our inability safely to ignore it at the moment of its impact … From the material perspective “speech” is an integral part of a “speaker/speech/audience/ occasion/change” phenomenon, peculiar as an element of rhetoric because it survives and records the moment of experience. (23; emphasis in original)

Teaching preciousness

2013 Buffalo Small Press Fest

2013 Buffalo Small Press Fest

Last week I posted a relatively brief description for HASTAC’s Pedagogy Project about how I’ve used zines in the classroom in my last two classes: a 200-level pilot course called DIY Publishing and 100-level regularized course on creative nonfiction called Writing Culture. My intention, of course, is not to suggest a monolithic approach for teaching writing, but to use DIY culture and zines as a pedagogical moment to consider larger issues in composition, especially problems related to agency, circulation, assessment, mediation, and materiality. Still, I ended that post somewhat hastily, claiming that student-made zines — as print art/ifacts — have the potential to produce for students a feeling of preciousness that is largely absent from scholarly papers or more ephemeral digital projects. But such a claim raises some questions: What is “preciousness” and how is it measured? Why might “preciousness” as a quality for a student text be valued — and what are its rhetorical effects? Its social value? What is its place within the institution? Can we assume preciousness is a quality absent from academic or digital projects? And if it is, what are the affordances of those forms that might be lost when teaching students to make things like zines?

Before I go further, I have to say that my use of zines were particular to these two classes — one which made self-publishing its chief object of study and another whose genres have a long tradition of circulating texts via independent print media (i.e. poetry chapbooks, underground newspapers, comix, and, of course, zines). Hopefully my post made clear that I’m not claiming that zines should be assigned in every writing class or in FYC. That said, I would argue that self-publishing has a place within courses or units that emphasize particular concepts that have been widely discussed in writing studies: multimodality, circulation, mediation, social justice, etc. And to argue that zines in particular have a place is to argue that at least some of the time student writing should be seen by both their makers and readers as precious. So what does preciousness mean and what can it afford?

At a glance, preciousness connotes both childlike innocence (i.e. darling, beloved, dainty) and an aesthetic judgement based on scarcity (i.e. rare, valuable). It evokes an interesting tension between production and circulation that was first articulated 14 years ago by John Trimbur in “Composition and the Circulation of Writing” (2000). Trimbur saw an unavoidable characterization of students in composition studies that figured them “as an active meaning-maker in relation — in loco parentis — to a powerful teacher figure” — that is, as a subject who is asked to give an account of things akin to a father at the dinner table (193). For Trimbur, the field’s default stance of in loco parentis comes from its tendency to equate writing with the moment of production, which is typically accounted for within the home space of the classroom. In so doing, we fail to raise questions about writing that go beyond assuming bounded, close readings of texts.

Trimbur thus suggests we ask what it means to look at writing “as it circulates through linked moments of production, distribution, exchange, and consumption” (196) by re-theorizing the thing that circulates. He borrows from Marx’s Grundrisse to suggest that we use the category of commodity — “the materialization of an underlying and contradictory social process” exposed through the dialectic between use value and exchange value (207) — to understand how instantiations of materiality (newspapers, TV programs, etc.) contain traces of labor in its forms. For Marx and Trimbur, it “is not so much where the commodity goes as what it carries in its internal workings as it circulates” (209). More to the point, Trimbur is interested in how processes of knowledge distribution reveal a commodity’s dialectic — that is, when its use value (the degree to which it satisfies material needs) is or isn’t rewarded by its exchange value of the market (profit/capital extracted from the process of labor). To get at this in his teaching, his students examine various forms of professional knowledge as it is distributed (from journal article to new article, for example) in order to understand how their “systems of distribution, exchange, and consumption enter into and determine consequentially how the means of production operate” (215). Ultimately Trimbur hopes such work can help increase public participation in order to more widely distribute the making of knowledge — that is, he uses circulation as a means to imagine a version of writing as DIY.

A zine from one of my DIY Publishing students.

Aside from opening a space in composition studies for thinking about writing beyond production, Trimbur’s analysis asks us to look at how we teach circulation to our students in terms of the means of production. What I’ve found is that digital writing provides several occasions to think about how new forms of production — writing with audio, video, html, etc. — move throughout the web. The anticipation of circulation,  like all assignments that make publishing their goal, in turn, effect decisions in production (for more on this, see Ridolfo and DeVoss on “rhetorical velocity“). But zines, as precious commodities that move from dispersed materials — cut and pasted texts, strings or staples, folded pieces of paper — to idiosyncratic booklets that travel through the mail or are showcased by the author at a marketplace (i.e. zine fest), provide occasions for students not just to learn about circulation, but to actually experience it. Although economically speaking, zines have little to no exchange value, symbolically their materiality — based on scarcity — provide them with an edge over digital productions. In fact, the word “precious” comes from the Latin word pretiosus, meaning “of great value,” and from pretium, meaning “price.” Whether or not readers see a zine as having any use value, as precious objects they highlight rather than obfuscate the commodification of writing.

Another zine from one of my DIY Publishing students.

A quick example: students in my Writing Culture class made at least five copies of their zines — at least two of these went to classmates and the others to whomever they wanted after the last day of class. They had to consider how to arrange their writing from part to whole, thinking about how they might differentiate the zine in terms of layout, weight, size, color, binding material, etc. In this way, this process isn’t all that different from designing a website — except that the raw material is more scarce. Students had to think carefully about what to include since each of them had between 40-60 single-spaced pages of drafts to choose from. In this way, to ask students to produce and exchange zines materially is to ask them to bring together aspects of aesthetic judgement with the goal of commodification. It asks not only what design would be rhetorically effective, but how those designs are limited by the materials at hand and how they might be distributed. I don’t expect any of my students to become makers of zines after my class, but I do expect them to better understand the relationship between writing and materiality in ways term papers or blogs simply cannot get at.

The embodied search and zine materiality

Every so few weeks Pitchfork runs a funky little feature called 5-10-15-20 that asks artists — folks like Neko Case, Nas, Erykah Badu — to talk about the music they listened to at different points in their lives. I always love these features not only because the artists talk about records I’ve never heard of and/or expected they to list (Badu apparently listened to Nirvana a ton in her 20s), but they show that such eclecticism is arguably necessary to one’s artistry. Anyway, on its most recent feature, Kathleen Hanna talks about taping reggae from the radio, explains how she jogged to Public Enemy, and reminisces about fellow riot grrrl band Bratmobile.

When it comes to her talking about her most recent age — 45 — she shares her adoration for Montreal electro-pop artist Grimes (AKA Claire Boucher), loving that’s although Boucher is 20 years younger than her, she embodies some of the feminist ideals the riot grrrl movement energized in the 90s. And yet, Hanna quickly notes her disgust with how women artists like Grimes are taken up on popular music blogs:

“I read some of the worst shit I’ve ever read in my life about Vivian Girls on BrooklynVegan. I clicked on a link because I wanted to see a show, and I made the mistake of reading the comments, and it made me want to cry. It was like the 90s all over again. But people in the 90s had to take out a piece of paper and write you a letter. It’s taken me a long time to not take that stuff seriously. I feel like people who are younger than me understand better. When Le Tigre started, people felt like they had to respond if someone said something negative about you online. As a political musician you felt obligated to have a dialogue. Now I realize.”

Grimes, ‘Oblivion’ from Somesuch & Co. on Vimeo.

Hanna’s observation about “that stuff” — the negative discourses of the web, specifically the comments section — resonated with me for two reasons. First, with hesitation, I reactivated my Facebook account a few weeks ago. Second, I’ve focused nearly all of my reading time on three recent books on zines. For sure, my decision to come back to Facebook is the result of a variety of forces, but I think my primary reason is one articulated in these books; it’s the same response as Hanna’s in understanding of how certain online spaces work. It’s a kind of letting go — a way of limiting my time on those spaces, but also filtering discourses and refusing certain kinds of dialogue. This is something, it seems, certain makers of zines understand quite well.

In Girl Zines (2009), Alison Piepmeier borrows from Mimi Nguyen’s work in arguing that the Internet is generally still a pretty hostile place for women, a place that “replicates many of the structural inequalities of the nondigital world” (15). In a more recent piece, for example, “Google Search: Hyper-visibility as a Means of Rendering Black Women and Girls Invisible,”  Safiya Umoja Noble shows subtler ways this hostility is perpetuated by critiquing the neoliberal logic undergirding a search engine like Google:

“Commercial search implodes when it comes to providing reliable, credible, and historically contextualized information about women and people of color, especially Black women and girls, which serves as a means of silencing Black women and girls as social and political agents.”

As a result, the materiality of zines — as paper that mediates one body to another — allows them to circulate differently in what Piepmeier calls embodied communities — collectives that activate bodily experiences through paper, string, and the otherwise tactile pleasures of zine making which serve to humanize discourse in ways that are difficult to sustain and control digitally (63).

This isn’t to say, of course, that vibrant feminist spaces don’t exist on the web. Feministing, to give one example, has been going strong for years. However, recent scholarship on zines make a compelling case for the affordances of embodied analogue media. Farmer (mentioned in my last post), for example, argues that the affective qualities of zines create important alternative spaces for dissent that are directly linked to their materiality through bricolage — ““the artful ‘making do’ of the ‘handyman’ who, using only those materials and tools readily available to him, constructs new objects out of worn ones, who imagines new uses for what has been cast aside, discarded” (31). Because zines appropriate literal scraps, often relying on the unpredictability of embodied search — collecting said scraps at thrift shops, garage sales, etc. — they differ from deliberative public discourses that often take place in commercial online spaces using the tools of the commercial search (i.e. Google). In short — “that stuff” Hanna found repulsive on BrooklynVegan.

What Hanna “realizes,” I think, is that when it comes to the political work of the artist, it’s the art itself that makes a difference. In Zines and Third Space, Adela Licona takes this up by examining how zines build coalitions and a coalitional consciousness in their makers — “a practiced articulation or deliberate bringing and coming together around social change that can be witnessed in zines” (3). The difference between coalitional and critical consciousness is that the former implies action. For Farmer and other scholars of zines, it’s the zine’s capacity for “poetic world-making,” its rhetorical goal to inspire making itself, that differentiates it from other forms of public discourse.

I’m interested in the zine’s ability to perform these gestures through their materiality, but I’m equality interested in the ways other pockets of zine activity make use of both embodied material and commercial digital channels to effect change, especially when it comes to their circulation. One example of this is how coalitions build (or fail to build) depending on the type of search one engages. An embodied search — garage sale/sailing for ephemera, for example — is going to yield very different results than Googling a phrase, both materially but also epistemologically. Posting a zine on Etsy is different from selling it at a zine fest. It’s different in terms of how its found, its encounter between the maker and consumer, and how the event itself is figured into future circulations.