Here’s the slide deck and script for my #cwcon 2016 talk, “The University Library as Junk Shop: Visualizing DIY Composition.”
Below is an approximation of the talk I gave at my CCCC panel in Tampa last week, called “Meaning Is In the Making: Three Responses to Shipka & Her Response”. You can view the slidedeck here. Special thanks for co-panelists Frank Farmer and Kristi Prins, and an extra special thanks to our respondent, Jody Shipka.
4Cs is a annual reminder that the most intriguing aspects of Jody’s work can be gleaned from her own composing practices, where she makes meaning by experimenting with [slides 3-6] forgotten technologies and alternative archives, purchased through dedicated Saturday afternoon visits to Maryland junk shops, flea markets, estate sales, garage sales, and thrift stores which then get reassembled in her house, then edited through film and circulated via social media, journals, workshops, and, of course, national conferences. Her work gives objects a memorable, visceral afterlife through accumulation, curation, resuscitation, and remediation. [slides 7-8] In her Inhabiting Dorothy project, for example, she [planning to ad lib briefly here based on your panel]. In this paper, I’d like to align myself with Jody’s gestures to reuse materials, but apply this as a communicative practice that is more political than has been discussed in her work.
The act of reusing materials seems powerful to me because it employs an aesthetic and politics that Adela Licona has called second order consumption — an oppositional process that “disrupts the capitalist imperative and circuits of production and consumption that rely on the individual to value the new, the first, the singular, and the latest, including planned obsolescence” (153n60). I realize Jody’s intention isn’t necessarily to promote second order consumption when she criticizes our tendency to equate multimodality with digital texts, tools and processes. After all, first order consumption is being showcased right now through this machine — and Jody herself uses programs like Adobe Premiere Pro, and equipment, like iPads to make her films. And yet, defining multimodality beyond the digital encourages an awareness of second order consumption — to look to our own embodied histories, experiences, and traversals, as well as to our search engines and applications for the available means. As she argues in a 2012 film for Enculturation, “research is a lived process.”
In short, Jody has both theorized and demonstrated throughout her work that all communicative practice is multimodal. That is, following Paul Prior and Jason Palmeri, she argues that multimodality is not a genre or a certain kind of text, but a “routine dimension of language in use.” In her essay “Including, but Not Limited to, the Digital” she echoes an emphasis originally laid out in her book, Toward a Composition Made Whole, that multimodality should call our attention to systems of activity that lead to meaning-making. She explains how multimodal production is a “complex and highly distributed process” that accounts for “the role that texts, talk, people, perceptions, semiotic resources, motives, activities, institutions and so on play in the production, reception, circulation, and valuation of” things — whether they are printed texts, digital films, material objects, machines, or other hybrid forms not yet imagined (75). Hence, rather than ask students to respond to assignments with specific, genre-driven products, Jody’s courses emphasize a variety of possible rhetorical and performative multimodal accomplishments — “things” that are not restricted by representational systems that were denied or made available to them by their instructors. Time permits me from fully explicating some of the rich examples from her classroom, but in short, Jody’s students make a wide variety of things — objects like ballet shoes, garbage cans, and shirts [slides 11-13].
In the time I have left, I want to quickly offer a multimodal accomplishment of the public kind by looking at zines — self-made, self-circulated, do-it-yourself print publications that obsess about something, whether that “thing” is punk music, anarchism, bisexuality, Thai food, dishwashing jobs, murder histories, or something else. Before I theorize a bit about the multimodality of zines, I thought I’d illustrate what zines are and what they can do through an example of my own zine, Hotdogz.
I’ve been waiting to make a zine about parenting for a while and so I began Hotdogz knowing that Cs would be a useful occasion to connect my complicated experiences with Florida to the state’s broader social history. But instead of beginning with my own writing, I started making issue 1 with “F 319” — the Library of Congress letter and number most relevant to Florida history. Because zines are a visual medium, I found the relevant shelves in our university library and sat and fumbled through the books, pulling titles off the shelf and marking intriguing passages and pictures [slides 18-22], which I then scanned using one of dozens of photocopy machines in the library. Meanwhile, I gathered family images from my computer files and Flickr account. Knowing that I would eventually make photocopies of my zine, I used Photoshop to adjust my images from color to halftone black and white [slides 23-31]. In between these processes, I read a few chapters from the edited collection, The History of Florida and took notes on the facts and stories from Floridian history that struck me; I also began to narrate my familial history as simply as possible. I then downloaded and imported a free comic book font into Pages and printed these with my images on my aging laser printer.
Similar to Jody’s process for making films and her students’ processes for their projects, zines often take, borrow, and remediate from everyday materials. Mine came from the library and my own photos, but they could have just as easily come from printed matter found in junk shops, garage sales, or through Google Image. However, unlike the multimodal accomplishments articulated in Jody’s examples, the guiding force for making zines isn’t performance or interanimation but circulation; that is, although the epistemologies of our communicative practices are similar in our view of research as a lived process, success for a zine is determined by the rhetor’s ability to anticipate what happens after the prototype is built: how, where, and to whom the zine be distributed. This is facilitated by two critical encounters — one material, one cultural — that influence the goals and choices made in the production process: the copy machine and the stranger.
For example, in terms of materiality, not only did the copy machine dictate how my images would reproduce, but [slide 36] I chose to make my zine a fourth of the size of a letter sized sheet of paper since I could make 50 copies of a 24-page zine using only 150 sheets of doubled-sided paper. In other words, I could reach more people with less resources if I worked with less space. I then spent 3 late hours in my department’s copy room, printing, collating, cutting, folding, and stapling issue 1. And, of course, as a cultural encounter, Cs provided me with the temporal and spatial occasion to circulate a zine to you, strangers, all of whom will judge me on the appropriateness of the occasion, my awareness of kairos.
In their book The Available Means of Persuasion Sheridan, Ridolfo, and Michel suggest that “kairotic inventiveness” plays an essential role in public rhetoric since it not only requires an understanding of how composition anticipates circulation, but also how kairotic determinants — time, space, channels — are often beyond the rhetor’s control. This has particular importance for public pedagogies that make use of multimodal forms as the material and cultural contexts of those forms limit the available means for production and circulation. As Sheridan, Ridolfo, and Michel put it, “rhetorical theory has yet to confront the full implications of taking circulation into account” (61) realizing that it is at least partially “constitutive of rhetorical composition” (67; emphasis in original); this gap in our theory is reflected in our multimodal pedagogies.
For example, when I ask students to make zines in my undergraduate classes they fully immerse themselves in the production process — [slides 40-43] cutting and pasting covers from old copies of Seventeen, remediating their nonfiction through comics or handwriting and type, scanning old children’s books from the library to use as backgrounds, and even sprinkling glitter throughout. But sometimes when I remind them that the photocopy is what’s really important for zines, they seem a bit disappointed. For some of them who are used to the ethos of professional magazines, black and white just isn’t what they envisioned; if they want a color cover or stitched binding, for instance, they have to find a way to reproduce that effect 20, 30, or even 50 times. Some students do vouch for color copies, but even then they have to significantly reduce their print runs if they want to stay within a reasonable budget. The printed copy is the reality that part of circulating one’s work means loosing control — that it means coming to terms with kairotic determinants that bring rhetorical agency in sharp relief. They learn that to publish is ultimately to commodify writing and that the available means of production and mediation are based on their own resourcefulness and capital.
While it is true that Facebook posts, retweets, blog entries, and wiki edits constitute other ways in which students engage textual reproduction (and they do this for me too), new media can sometimes obscure the material aspects of circulation. I can create a blog in no time, but who will read it? When it comes to distribution, zines don’t work through bots or analytics. They are either seen or they’re not. Hence, putting all those copies to public use is part of the multimodal work of zines. For this reason, I’ve pushed students to organize, curate, and publicize zine festivals hosted on campus where they can distributed copies of their work to strangers. On Tuesday, for instance, my students made the decision to [not sure what they decided yet — put I was pushing for a public festival like my Spring 2013 students did!]. When my students did this in the Spring 2013, they circulated their work for more than 30 strangers made of writing professors and the friends of their classmates.
As Sheridan, Ridolfo, and Michel argue in the introduction to their book, when the field brings multimodality and the public turn together, it can more clearly see the importance of who has — or does not have — the available means of production and mediation. In other words: “who owns culture” (xvi; emphasis in original) becomes a paramount concern. This extends — but also politicizes — Jody’s arguments that multimodal frameworks should be “engineered to underscore the interconnectedness of systems of production, distribution, reception, circulation, and valuation” (77). DIY and zines have historically pushed the politics of this interconnectedness, always aiming to minimize or altogether eliminate “moneypeople” — what Mary Sheridan has dubbed “corporate intermediaries” — from their systems. Although their content isn’t always political, the anticipation of circulation in the material production of zines renders these intermediaries — human and nonhuman agents alike — more clearly.
Even as zines limit the available “representational system” to printed objects, the ecology of their multimodality — their original obsessions, their remediated scraps, their changing of hands — are worth exploring, not in spite of the late age of print, but because of it.
Note: This is part of collaborative book review of It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens by danah boyd that I wrote with other HASTAC scholars. My original post is here. The book is available as a free download on boyd’s site.
Early in her second chapter of It’s Complicated, danah boyd makes one thing perfectly clear: teens want privacy. To illustrate this, she shares a few pithy quotations from “Waffles,”one of many teens she interviews throughout the book:
“Just because teenagers use internet sites to connect to other people doesn’t mean they don’t care about their privacy. We don’t tell everybody every single thing about our lives. . . . So to go ahead and say that teenagers don’t like privacy is pretty ignorant and inconsiderate honestly, I believe, on the adults’ part” (55).
The rest of the chapter goes on to explain why adults —and the media at large —often misunderstand or understate this desire as they see teens negotiate what boyd calls in the introduction networked publics.
Networked publics are both the virtual common spaces arranged by social media (not unlike malls or parks) and the socially-constructed, imagined communities that develop from participating in them. For boyd, such environments are shaped by four specific technological affordances —persistence, visibility, spreadability, and searchability —that have always existed, but are amplified for teens who are using social media. It also serves as a convenient schema for analyzing and making clear the structures at play as teens do what they’ve always done: try to socialize their way into adulthood. In this sense Chapter 2’s focus on teens’desire for privacy stands in as an important metonymy for the ongoing desire to have more agency in their lives —as a way to assert control over their socialization in a network that is complicated by the affordances of persistence, visibility, spreadability, and searchability.
For example, the persistence and visibility of a teen’s Facebook feed allows for snooping parents or siblings to either monitor or even comment on a photo or status update. As spaces where context collapses (mentioned in Chapter 1), friends and family collide making it difficult to achieve any sort of intimacy. As a result, teens often switch between platforms for certain tasks —from Facebook to Snapchat or SMS —or abandon them entirely just to stay one step ahead of their parents. In a less common but more impressive example, one teen deactivated her Facebook account each time she signed off just to exert some control over the platform’s persistence and searchability —so that if anyone wanted to write on her wall, they’d have to catch her when she was actually online (and even then, she would delete it).
Still, boyd makes it clear that the more common situation is that teens control access of their public content through their discourse rather than through the interface. In one of the more interesting-yet-relatable sections of the chapter, boyd explicates the concept of social steganography:“hiding messages in plain sight by leveraging shared knowledge and cues embedded in particular social contexts”(65). This occurs through subtweeting, using pronouns strategically, referencing songs or other pop culture references, or other tactics that use a specific but shared context for its meaning to coalesce with a select few.
Yet a more paradoxical strategy is to overshare —to emote daily, to give a play-by-play on a breakup, or in the case of one LA teen, to post goofy selfies. For this latter teen it was a lot safer to share her images publicly because not only would she be in control of the context instead of her friends (who would likely take an opportunity to embarrass her), but also “her apparent exhibitionism left plenty of room for people to not focus in on the things that were deeply intimate in her life”(75). This is an important point since boyd makes a lucid case that these cases are ultimately about teens controlling privacy “in relation to those who hold power over them”(56) —parents, siblings, teachers, or even other peers.
As boyd puts it, privacy isn’t something to be had but something to be continuously strived for, “a process by which people seek to have control over a social situation by managing impressions, information flows, and context”(76). For teens socializing in networked publics this means doing whatever possible to control those affordances. And for boyd, it’s critically important to their psychosocial development, including their self-efficacy and self-esteem since “[p]rivacy doesn’t just depend on agency; being able to achieve privacy is an expression of agency”(76). Importantly, then, adult surveillance shapes teens’understanding of privacy; when good parenting is defined as striving for omniscience, as is often the case in our culture, it sets up a pernicious cycle of distrust that will haunt teens —and their parents —well into their adult years.
If there’s a limit to boyd’s chapter is that it doesn’t go far enough to explore some of nuances of these problems; although she justifiably harangues adults for homogenizing teens into a bunch of drama-whoring oversharers, as a young parent and longtime teacher, I found myself hungry for some of the more complicated examples where adults and teens were able to negotiate public/private thresholds that didn’t always pin one against the other. Moreover, as a scholar interested in zines and other forms of alternative media, I became a bit depressed by the implication that the only way to socialize in networked publics is by using the fast capitalist tools of Silicon Valley. By her own admission, boyd “take[s] for granted, and rarely seek[s] to challenge, the capitalist logic that underpins American society and the development of social media.”This statement is indicative of boyd’s honesty in terms of audience, methodology and purpose throughout the book, but when teens are implicated in this logic throughout, it is hardly reassuring. For example, in Chapter 2 she notices that teens struggle to control their identity in the midst of “a media ecosystem designed to publicize every teen fad, moral panic, and new hyped technology”(55).
Despite these limitations, I’m finding It’s Complicated accessible, engaging, and important for parents and teachers as they seek to better understand how technology affects their relationships with teens. This chapter in particular not only paints a vivid picture of several teens negotiating privacy in the digital age, but also shows how timeless that struggle really is.
UPDATE (3/31): The Syracuse U student paper, The Daily Orange, ran a story on HappyCUSE on March 31, 2014, including a brief quote by yours truly.
I ran this workshop for a 400-level community writing class yesterday and it went pretty well. It took longer than I imagined (about 90 minutes as opposed to the 60 originally allotted), but the variety of mini-zines that came out of this workshop was impressive. I copied their zines while they moved on to another activity with the instructor (this is a 3-hour class) and dropped off the pile of 100 unfolded zines before I left.
Most useful to me was to discover yet another way to experiment with experiential circulation, but without dedicating an entire unit or course to DIY or zines. I didn’t say much to the students in terms of what they could(n’t) or should(n’t) write about. I only suggested that if students were stuck, that they could imagine where their zines might be shopdropped; that is, by imagining the possible publics who might read their zines, they could think of the various messages they wanted to circulate. The original plan was to exchange multiple zines in class and work together to shopdrop all 100 zines around campus. The exchange also made it so that if they did have ideal drop sites in mind, they could make them explicit through their content (a zine with a card catalog number on it for example, might suggest placement at the library).
Also interesting was the fact that students improvised a range of tools and invention strategies when they were asked to physically make a zine. Some used stats or images they got from their smartphones and copied them with pens; some ran downstairs to grab a newspaper to cut and paste using the scissors and glue stick we brought; others dug in their bags for different sized pens or used ours; and yet others still simply talked through their ideas in groups.
At least one writer took it to a pretty amazing, and surprising extreme, shopdropping more than the expected five zines around campus:
— happyCUSE (@happyCUSE) March 25, 2014
Over the last 10 hours, @happyCuse has tweeted over 45 times and gained 62 followers by shopdropping what appears to be at least a dozen zines all over campus. And while I assumed shopdropping was a critical act of dissent, it was interesting to me that @happyCuse circulates what Catherine Chaput would call positive affective energies: “pathways that invite human connectivity and constitute knowledge as an ongoing, creative pursuit” (22). Folks who found the zine must have seen the hashtag and handle because they tweeted back once they’d found the zines. This is the kind of exchange that happens all the time in zine communities, but I didn’t think it could approximated in such a short workshop.
Anyway, I’d love to explore this connection further in the future, and think about shopdropping as a teachable, everyday circulatory practice, but for now, I’m simply going to accept the unexpected and look forward to the second workshop next Monday.
Practices: DIY Publishing
[Slide 1] I’m going to discuss zines in the context of a 200-level course I taught at Syracuse University last spring called DIY Publishing. This was an open-enrollment pilot offered to all undergrads at Syracuse University — students ranged from mostly freshmen to a handful of upperclassmen. The course was initially set up so that students would experience and experiment with various approaches to publishing on their own throughout the 15 weeks — whether it was through informal print networks or online with WordPress, Twitter, Kickstarter, etc. Our work with zines occurred in the first unit as I sought to work with students to define and historicize the idea of DIY.
Alongside readings about zine histories these students visited the University Library’s Special Collection Research Center, which houses several old publications that qualify as DIY: abolitionist newspapers, Dada booklets, Tijuana bibles, various underground newspapers from the Sixties, and hundreds more. With the help of a talented archivist and our subject-specialist librarian, students got to handle these items from the Collection, research their histories, and teach the class about one of the items they pulled during a special class we held in the Collection [Slide 2]. Specifically, students had to show off their publication and discuss it in terms of its origins, significance, audience, materiality, and circulation. [Slides 3-4] This was meant to serve as a text that would inspire their own zine, leaving them to interpret “inspiration” broadly: it could mimic the artifact in terms of form or content, take a more reflexive approach by making a zine about the artifact, re-interpreting the research process, or by doing something else entirely [Slide 5].
Meanwhile students also brought in contemporary zines they ordered from several outlets, including distros like Sweet Candy or Nieves, online underground bookstores like Atomic or Quimbys [Slides 6-7], or directly from the writers through metazines like Broken Pencil. We used these to speculate on the variety of tools and processes necessary for making them: their covers, colors, sizes, bindings, and arrangements. Students also attended a bookbinding workshop hosted by a book-arts scholar at SU.
Distribution is a fundamental aspect to any zine experience and so this unit culminated in Syracuse’s first-ever zine festival, where students peddled multiple copies of their zines in a rented room down the hall from the Special Collections [Slides 8-10]. Although I imagined this event to occur within the confines of our classroom, perhaps inviting our librarian allies, the class decided as a group to invite anyone we could via our social networks [Slide 11]. This produced a pretty good turn out of 20+ strangers. Special Collections also blogged about it.
Toronto’s Broken Pencil [Slide 12], one of the few contemporary publications dedicated to zine culture, recently ran a thoughtful story about using zines in the classroom. Author Lindsay Gibb cites several academics who argue that the issue of grades is one of the main challenges when adopting zines for school. As U Iowa librarian Kelly McElroy says: “What makes an ‘A’ zine, and who the hell are you to decide that?” In both classes, then, I relied on process texts — proposals, contracts, emails, and reflections — to help me make sense of the rhetorical goals of each author’s zine. [Slide 13] First, students had to draft a proposal that asked them to pitch an idea for their zine that included details about its format, materials, content, circulation, and connection to the course. After meeting with me to discuss it, they revised these into more solid “contracts.” Scare quotes seem necessary because as any crafter will tell you, nothing was really set in stone; students made important discoveries through the acts of making. For that reason, and others, the contracts were more or less used as a starting point; students then completed the project by composing a reflective statement on the entire process. You can see some of their reflective questions in your zine [Slide 14]. I’ll talk more about some of the affordances and limitations of this unit, but next…
Theorizing the limits of protopublics
[Slide 15] The experience of leading students to curate their own festival was a first for me. Although I had used blogs in my classes, led peer tutors in our community, and even advised a student paper as a high school teacher, there was something different about the way students were putting themselves out there. And this led me to a series of questions about the nature of DIY and the publics my students might have imagined. Certainly the unit was compatible with prior scholarship on circulation pedagogies. Although there are several texts to evoke here, especially Kathy Yancey’s call at this conference 10 years ago, in the interest of time, I’ll discuss two that have appeared in CCC in the last five years — two texts I admire quite a lot: Mathieu and George’s 2009 article, “Not Going It Alone,” and Rivers and Weber’s 2011 article, “Ecological, Pedagogical, Public Rhetoric.”
[Slide 16] Mathieu and George argue that because “public writing can be an agent of social advocacy and of political action … it is important that any class focused on public rhetoric or public writing examine independent media texts in the contexts of their histories as social agents” (133). These histories are powerful because they teach students that social change occurs through networked relationships that move together to circulate texts. Students in DIY Publishing who looked at Diane diPrima’s Floating Bear, for example, saw she coordinated with other Beat writers like Frank O’Hara, Allen Ginsberg, and William Boroughs; those who looked at the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator saw Garrison’s paper had an impact that went well beyond its circulation of 3,000; and Karen Funk’s Trek fanzine, 2-5YM, was coordinated through the Trekie club, STAR. In nearly every case, such historical work shifted our definition of DIY as something more like what Ian Reilly has recently suggested as do-it-yourselves, where the “DIY ethic is only truly effective when actions take on a cohesive collaborative bent” (128).
[Slide 17] Rivers and Weber also see collaboration as a key tenet to teaching circulation. They imagine using an ecological framework so students see rhetorical action “as emergent and enacted through a complex ecology of texts, writers, readers, institutions, objects, and history” (188-89) where “change often happens when publics are generated by … multiple texts and individuals” (190). While my DIY Publishing students did not work with mundane documents as their students did, the ordering of zines and the coordination of the zine fest were important components of the course as students saw how DIY ecologies, group decision making, microcapitalist tools like Etsy or Paypal, social media, and our combined presence is what helps carry individual work to larger publics.
And yet there are essential differences between this scholarship and what I witnessed. Primarily, much of the research on pedagogies of circulation either implicitly or explicitly imagine their classrooms not as publics so much as “protopublics” — what Rosa Eberly [Slide 18] calls spaces where we consider (among other things) “the different subjectivities students might try out for different publics at different points in their formation or disintegration” (175; emphasis mine).
For example, Mathieu and George end their essay describing an advocacy project where a student addressed her boyfriend and his friends’ harassment of the homeless. In a footnote, they confess: “If one were to follow Michael Warner’s definition of a public, this example would not count as public writing, because, according to Warner, a public relies on an address to strangers (74–87). But we agree with Rosa Eberly that writing classrooms constitute ‘protopublic spaces,’ and as such, we believe that addresses to other students can constitute effective protopublic discourse” (147).
Warner is an important source here as he’s been widely cited in conversations on rhetorical circulation. For Warner, the reflexive circulation of discourse “among strangers” is constitutive — that is, there no thing that comes before it, which is why it’s different from terms like “communities” or “cultures.” Rivers and Weber concede to this constitutive public, and raise the question “of whether or how our pedagogy might enact the ‘concatenation of texts through time’ within the rhetorical laboratory of the classroom (194). Within the lab, students develop a robust, comprehensive — but imaginary — local campaign using mundane texts, similarly developed out of Eberly’s protopublic, “which allows students to practice the skills of public advocacy and safely produce texts that could become public” (207; emphasis mine). The unit is meant to replicate a public using genres necessary for everyday civic action, but Rivers and Weber hold back from actual advocacy since as first-year writers, “they are not all ready for the messy and risky engagement that advocacy often entails” (206).
Importantly, these aren’t the only two texts that imagine circulation operating within a protopublic classroom. In less explicit examples, students translate scientific discourse to journalistic discourse (such as in Trimbur’s “Composition and the Circulation of Writing”) or study press releases and practice writing them to anticipate re-circulation (as in Ridolfo and DeVoss’s “Composing For Recomposition”).
My thinking is that although these essays provide rich ideas for approaching circulation in the classroom, by envisioning students acting within a protopublic I wonder if, when it comes to teaching circulation, we’ve gone far enough as a discipline to frame rhetoric as what Laurie Gries calls a “a distributed network of becomings in which divergent consequences are actualized with time and space” (346). What the Syracuse Zine Fest afforded is a real, material experience worth reflecting on — it is, per Warner, a circulation that has the potential to encounter strangers who produce “divergent consequences … actualized with time and space.” That isn’t to dismiss these other approaches to circulation, only to think upon the opportunities we have as teachers to make circulation more real for our students — to have them experience it. Of course a more experiential approach also begs additional questions: what would are these approaches ethical? Or what other forms of public writing might strike a balance between the risker real writing of zines or activism and the safer replicated scenes of Habermasian rational-critical discourse? Ultimately which discourse do we believe leads to social change? Which in the short-term versus the long? Which give students more agency?
A few months ago I came across a retweet by Henry Jenkins about a blog theme (dubbed a “Hotspot”) by Civic Paths focused on the Dark Side(s) of DIY. I was planning my DIY Publishing course at the time and was intrigued that someone was trying undo some of the romanticism the term professes even in the most critical research. Civic Paths includes a group of scholars and activists at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism invested in the effects of participatory culture; the group was started in part by Jenkins whose books and white papers on digital media’s effects on participatory culture are foundational.
The range of issues covered in this Hotspot included some of DIY’s more obvious problems –the creation of audience/community, struggling to fund projects, and sorting through the various stacks of aesthetic failures — but a few of the pieces looked at how a DIY framework can harm what’s defined as legitimate political knowledge. Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, for example, looked at Kony 2012 and the internet memes that made fun of the people (i.e. youth culture) for not understanding the full implications of their support of Invisible Children — and inadvertently propagating its misleading campaign in the process. Such memes painted them as gullible, hypocritical, or simply ignorant. Kligler-Vilenchi’s concern is that although we want knowledgeable citizens, the Kony memes served to discourage political participation by setting up a standard for the “informed citizen ideal” instead of striving for a more “collective intelligence model,” where the cumulative affect of Kony was more knowledge about Uganda. Don’t participate, the memes imply, unless you are willing to understand the full capacity of your participation.
In another brief-but-insightful post, Kjerstin Thorson compares the slogans of news programs of today and yesterday. Contemporary news taglines, which boast of reporting facts and letting viewers decide, significantly differ from Walter Cronkite’s “And that’s the way it is.” Cronkite’s slogan is obviously problematic because it “cuts off debate about alternative interpretations of the news, and closes down the possibility that the news agenda is larger than the artificial container of a TV show.” But Thorson’s essential point in the piece is that the we-report-you-decide rhetoric of contemporary broadcast news interpellates audiences as wholly responsible for the formation of their opinions (or in the context of this week’s readings, their morality). Thorson’s problem with such interpellation is similar to Kligler-Vilenchi’s: it leads to an informed citizen ideal that positions the audience as timeless, endless researchers:
“DIY-powered notions of informed citizenship imply that this kind of information consumption—across multiple sources, always seeking out the story behind the story, never trusting, getting there first, doing it not only yourself but by yourself, on your own is the only right way to arrive at a “real” opinion, one that qualifies citizens to vote or to take other political action.”
In terms of rhetoric, this leads to an endless rabbit hole of inquiry in search of a nebulous truth. An honest example: I am perhaps as guilty as the next citizen of engaging in a political debate online and using a recently-googled source — usually from Pew, the government, or something from a hazy memory — to establish a fact that provides some public capital but faithfully attests to my lived experience. For example, in a recent gun control debate with my cousin on Facebook, I was invited to research gun-related crimes in states with strict gun regulations. Instead, I pointed him to the AAP’s statement on guns in the home to explain, statistically and rationally, why I don’t have one in my house. Later, in a separate post, another family member pointed me to this. From what I observed after Newtown, this kind of discussion — where “rational” arguments and data fly past users at record speeds — went on in several online discussions on FB. While there are plenty of disadvantages of this kind of civic discourse, the benefit is that users — whether they admit it or not — have a better understanding of how gun control debates generally flow (providing they are actually reading each other’s “proof”). Nevertheless, as I mentioned to my cousin, I would rather have the discussion at a bar — what Goodnight calls the private sphere — instead of FB. Because the truth is, I often run out of time in the endless forum of social media. This is a variation of Thorsen’s point: who has time to be an ideally informed citizen? Moreover, can we embrace Kligler-Vilenchi’s collective intelligence model if the 21st century expectation of an informed citizen overwhelms us to the point of disengaging from the political process entirely (or at least discursively).
Of the four articles we read this week in 631, all but one were published before the social web. G Thomas Goodnight’s “The Personal, Technical and Public Sphere of Argument” is the exception (1999); it circulated era where two-way website communication was increasing, but blogs were still in their infancy. That said, because of her insistence on a model of public morality centered on active craft by humans — “daily and locally” — Celeste Michelle Condit’s “Crafting Virtue” (1987) initially feels most compatible with contemporary, networked public discourse. My larger question this week is how networks have impacted this set of readings and if it is ever possible to participate in the crafting of public morality given some of the limitations raised by the Civic Paths bloggers. Do these networks and ecologies simply overwhelm us and, thus, our responsibilities to a public morality?
In that case, perhaps some of the other authors in this set — Goognight, Thomas Frentz, or Walter Fisher — have significant points, and public morality is now more than ever necessarily “privatized,” to borrow from Condit’s characterization. That is, Condit posits Fisher and Frentz especially as making a case for the privatization of morality through three assumptions: (1) a generally pessimistic view of the state of public morality and (2) employing a “conversational” model of moral discourse, which (3) emphasizing individual moral growth over the collective. These assumptions, according to Condit, subvert the fundamental functions of public discourse where “[p]ublic advocates rarely convince each other, but given a rhetorical model, they do not have to do so.” Instead she argues, “[c]ompeting rhetors persuade third parties–audiences–and create a ‘public consensus’ that does not require the approval of every individual on every point–although it requires a general minimal satisfaction” (308). Condit, in effect, supports the sort of collective intelligence model touched upon by Kligler-Vilenchi where public participation in moral argumentation can be limited so long as people — many people — do it. Though our participation is imperfect, in other words, we are morally obligated to do it.
Although Condit positions herself as incompatible with Frentz, I wonder if what Frentz is advocating, the practice of rhetorical conversation, can add up to Condit’s view of public morality as collective craft. That is, the millions of FB conversations about gun control add up to a collective clarification of our moral imperatives. For Frentz, a rhetorical conversation is “a narrative episode in which a conflict over opposing moral viewpoint re-unites the agents with their own moral histories, with the moral traditions of which they are a part, and–perhaps mod important–with an awareness of the virtues” (291-92). Rhetorical conversation, then, requires participants to evaluate their own moral histories which (perhaps) leads to a stronger awareness of their individual telos. In a social system, of course, such telos are not unique. Perhaps for me it is a pacific existence (or at least a resistance to rhetorical fear), but for others it might be the rights of the individual (and I’m trying to be generous here).
Finally, I think Goodnight’s various spheres are useful in understanding the difficulty Thorton is trying to describe in her blog post. Goodnight argues that as social(ized) rhetors, we participate in various superstructures called spheres, constructed by discourse practices, in order to deal with uncertainty. According to Goodnight, within the personal sphere rhetors make unpreserved oral, impromptu, time-bound arguments using evidence from memory or whatever is immediately available. The technical sphere on the other hand consists of a requisite, professional community that communicates discursively through refereed platforms. This is, of course, the court of law, the world of academia, etc. The public sphere transcends both the personal and technical spheres to apply to the entire community or citizenry. The problem for Goodnight, and for Fisher as well, is that the public sphere has been diminished by two forces: a dominant technical sphere (Fisher might call this the rational paradigm) where “specialization is necessary to make knowledgeable decisions” (258-259) and a narcissistic private sphere, where the “celebration of personal lifestyle” which inspires politicians to offer only “personalities” and “false intimacy” (259). This “decline of deliberative practice” is only more depressing to Goodnight with the advent of the web technologies where said deliberation if “replaced by consumption” (260). Goodnight ends his piece suggesting that “[i]f the public sphere is to be revitalized, then those practices which replace deliberative rhetoric by substituting alternative modes of invention and restricting subject matter need to be uncovered and critiqued.” By whom? By none other than “the theorist of argument” — the professor — who “could contribute significantly to the perfection of pubic forms and forums of argument” (261).
As elitist as Goodnight’s conclusion sounds, I actually agree that one of the most promising solutions for a reassertion of deliberative practice would be schooling (and the humanities more specifically); however, his goal of perfection is what reminds me that the informed ideal citizen often comes from academia in the first place, whether its from arrogance or complex self-righteousness. So what responsibility do we as teachers and scholars have for suggesting to students (and even ourselves) manageable ways to think critically without asking for an endless pursuit to truth? When is closure necessary and productive? Finally, what responsibility do we have as theorists and teachers of argument to empower students to become more than consumers without being consumed by the responsibility of that pursuit?