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Composition Forum 29, Spring 2014

Review of Kristin L. Arola and Anne Frances Wysocki’s Composing (Media) = Composing (Embodiment): Bodies, Technologies, Writing, The Teaching of Writing

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Jason Palmeri

Arola, Kristin L., and Anne Frances Wysocki, eds. Composing (Media) = Composing (Embodiment): Bodies, Technologies, Writing, the Teaching of Writing. Logan: Utah State UP, 2012. 293 pp.

Kristin L. Arola and Anne Frances Wysocki’s edited collection Composing (Media) = Composing (Embodiment): Bodies, Technologies, Writing, the Teaching of Writing powerfully re-envisions current approaches to new media in composition studies by placing bodies at the center of our attention. Synthesizing the work of phenomenological, feminist, Marxist, and media ecology theorists, Wysocki’s introduction to the book argues that “what any body is and is able to do—and how any one body differs from other bodies in its affective and physiological capabilities—cannot be disentangled from the media we use” (8). In addition to demonstrating the ways in which shifting media technologies influence our understandings of our own embodiments, Wysocki, Arola, and the rest of the contributors to the book remind us that the body itself is always already a medium, “taking medium here in the grounding sense of that which is between, in the middle; without our bodies—our sensing abilities—we do not have a world” (3).

By centering our field’s gaze on the mediating and mediated body rather than simply on particular technologies, Arola and Wysocki’s collection productively resists the common tendency of scholars to focus attention too narrowly on the latest technological innovations—reminding us that a complex understanding of mediated composing necessitates a capacious engagement with the wide range of composing technologies that have shaped and been shaped by diverse bodies over time. Furthermore, by highlighting the role of the material body in composing, the chapters in this collection also call us to attend critically to the ways in which particular forms of media composing both reinforce and potentially subvert material hierarchies of race, class, gender, sexuality, and disability.

The first “body” chapter in the collection (also by Wysocki) takes up the question of how gendered and sexualized discourses of words and images have influenced the composition and reception of comics over time. After detailing the historic gender and class binaries that have led many in Western culture to privilege words over images, Wysocki then demonstrates how comics artists both build upon and productively contest the gendered and classed histories of both word and image. In particular, Wysocki offers a compelling reading of Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel Fun Home as a text that works both with and against conventionally gendered word / image binaries to construct a complex narrative of queer identity.

Continuing the project of historicizing contemporary forms of embodied composing, Paul Walker’s chapter places the 1930s “Mass Observation” collective journaling project in dialogue with the composing practices of 21st century bloggers. Teasing out the ways in which the Mass Observation project (like contemporary blogging platforms) offered a space for everyday people to share details of ordinary life with spatially dispersed audiences, Walker importantly demonstrates that “new media are not exclusive in the facilitation of networked writing and that a personal sense of satisfaction may accompany projecting one’s self, through writing, beyond body and spatial boundaries” (45).

Paying further attention to the everyday ways that embodied composers construct identities, Matthew S. S. Johnson’s chapter Authoring Avatars: Gaming, Reading, and Writing Identities draws connections between how video game manuals and composition textbooks articulate the rhetorical construction of identity. In particular, Johnson suggests that the playful practices that often accompany identity construction in gaming might be adapted to help students develop strategies for exploring multiple perspectives in persuasive academic writing.

In another compelling discussion of online practices of knowledge making, David Parry’s chapter takes up the question of how Wikipedia both builds upon and contests the embodied reading and writing conventions of the print encyclopedia. While acknowledging the ways in which print conventions have influenced the construction of Wikipedia, Parry also usefully suggests that scholars should resist print-centric models that would analyze Wikipedia as a static text—arguing instead that Wikipedia might better be understood as a networked “living organism” (81) that is constantly changing and evolving.

Extending Parry’s analysis of networked writing spaces, Jason Farman’s chapter Information Cartography: Visualizations of Internet Spatiality and Information Flows elucidates the ways in which visual-spatial mapping technologies can be employed to help web users and scholars recognize patterns of connection and exclusion on the web. Analyzing numerous geographic maps of internet connectivity and web traffic, Farman demonstrates that mapmaking can be a powerful tool for both uncovering and critiquing the persistent global inequalities in digital access that continue to structure our embodied experiences online.

Offering another important take on the embodied politics of internet research, Jen Almjeld and Kristine Blair’s chapter outlines a transformative, technofeminist methodology for qualitative research in online spaces. Challenging conventional notions of “objectivity” that suggest that a researcher should be distant from the sites she or he studies, Almjeld and Blair suggest that the validity of online writing research can be enhanced by researchers’ own embodied participation in the communities they study. Offering Almjeld’s research on women’s MySpace profiles as a powerful example of technofeminist research methodology in action, Almjeld and Blair conclude the chapter with a list of useful heuristic questions that can help researchers reflect critically about their own embodied positionalities as well as about the broader patriarchal discourses that influence the social construction of gender in online spaces.

Similarly highlighting the centrality of embodied difference for studying and teaching composing, Jay Dolmage’s chapter “Writing Against Normal: Navigating a Corporeal Turn” draws on the crip / queer theory of Robert McRuer to demonstrate how conventional process pedagogies position revision as a linear process leading to an improved “normative” product—thus eliding opportunities for students to explore revision as a complex embodied process that can lead to multivalent insights. Outlining an alternative pedagogy that privileges revision as a collaborative process of engaging with embodied difference, Dolmage discusses how he employed both a digital wiki and a print-based, revision gallery to help students attend more closely to their own embodied and collaborative processes of knowledge-making.

Further drawing connections between digital and nondigital forms of composing, Kristin Prins’s chapter Crafting New Approaches to Composition elucidates ways in which multimodal composition pedagogies might be productively reimagined by engaging with embodied craft traditions. In particular, Prins demonstrates that conceptualizing composing as a craft can help us attend broadly to a wide range of composing technologies from knitting needles, to notebooks, to blogs and beyond. Furthermore, Prins offers a powerful critique of the ways in which the New London Group’s notion of design implicitly reinforces capitalist structures, suggesting (along with feminist economist Gibson-Graham) that a turn to engaging with “craft” might better enable us to imagine pedagogies that offer resistant alternatives to hierarchical, capitalist modes of production.

While Prins’s discussion of embodiment takes the conventional form of an academic essay, Aaron Raz Link’s chapter Bodies of Text presents a performative script that explicitly demands embodied audience interaction as a key part of its argument. Drawing on his own trans experiences inhabiting diverse embodied positionalities in relation to gender, sex, ethnicity, and class over a lifetime, Link powerfully argues for the need to attend to the ways in which our experiences of the body shift in diverse times and places. Link’s text frequently breaks the academic fourth wall to address readers directly, imploring us to account for own embodiments. For example, Link instructs his audience to read one paragraph aloud and then give that paragraph to an other person to read aloud—noting the ways in which the meaning of the text changes depending on the embodied positionalities of the person reading it.

Just as Link’s text seeks to make visible the embodied act of reading, Ben McCorkle’s chapter highlights how embodiment both shapes and is shaped by computer interface designs. Tracing the current move from graphical user interfaces to voice-activated and haptic / gestural interfaces, McCorkle compellingly critiques the ways in which shifting interface paradigms privilege some kinds of bodies over others. While the vocal and haptic turn in interface design is often touted as a way to make computers more transparent or natural, McCorkle importantly notes that the move to make interfaces “invisible” ultimately works to reinforce a limited vision of a “universal user [that] serves as a mechanism to devalue those bodies outside that position” (174). Given the political implications of interface design, McCorkle calls on rhetoricians to engage more critically and actively in both analyzing and producing accessible interfaces.

Further challenging normative constructions of embodiment in digital spaces, Jonathan Alexander and Jacqueline Rhodes’s chapter radically enacts “disorientation” as a multimodal, queer rhetorical strategy for resisting normative constructions of sexuality. In a braided, nonlinear, multimodal essay, Alexander and Rhodes recover Jean Cocteau as a queer multimodal artist who “beautifully resists categories of knowability”(199)—an artist whose work is particularly worth re-engaging at the present moment when commercial, online GLBT spaces too often work to reinforce normative identity categories. Notably, Alexander and Rhodes also share and theorize their own work as queer artists, powerfully demonstrating how Photoshop collages and interactive art installations can be employed as tactics of queer resistance. Ultimately, Alexander and Rhodes show us how “what is most attractive about queerness—theoretically, personally, and politically—is its potential illegibility, its inability to be reductively represented, its disruptive potential—in a word, its impossibility” (212).

In yet another powerful challenge to fixed identity categories, Kristen L. Arola’s chapter explores the complex constructions of identity in the social networking profiles of mixedblood Native Americans. Drawing connections between the material Indigenous practices of powwow regalia and the online practices of mixedblood identity construction on MySpace, Arola innovatively offers regalia as a theoretical perspective “to investigate identity not merely as a costume worn in online spaces to shun bodily binds such as race, class, and gender, but instead as a continuum of the offline self which remixes components of the past and present to arrive at an unfixed identity” (219). Demonstrating the complex nuance of regalia as an analytic, Arola offers three carefully situated case studies of the diverse and complex multimodal rhetorical choices that mixedblood Native Americans make in representing their identities both off and online.

Similarly exploring tactics of embodied composing in both on and offline spaces, Karen Springsteen’s chapter “Visible Guerrillas” offers a rhetorical analysis of the Guerrilla Girls’ use of visual composing strategies to challenge patriarchal structures in the art world. Looking carefully at the Guerrilla Girls’ feminist art practice of remixing dominant patriarchal texts (including canonical paintings and “homeland security” graphics), Springsteen elucidates a rhetorical strategy of “appropriative reproach,” which entails “taking possession of a…normalized form and altering it in such a way that disgraces, discredits, shames, or blames an offender” (234). In particular, Springsteen demonstrates the power of “appropriative reproach” as a persuasive rhetorical strategy for calling out and transforming sexist spaces that exclude women’s embodied perspectives.

In a fitting conclusion to the book, Kristie Fleckenstein’s chapter Affording New Media: Individuation, Imagination, and the Hope of Change outlines a capacious vision for an embodied, multimodal composition pedagogy. Synthesizing insights from the feminist performance art of Coco Fusco and the feminist legal theory of Drucilla Cornell, Fleckenstein calls us to develop pedagogies that foreground the role of both physical and imaginary bodies in social change—pedagogies that then enable embodied composers to exercise agency through multiple symbol systems to “envision a different world” (258). Fleckenstein importantly grounds her vision for embodied pedagogy by closely reading the activist media projects of two students—demonstrating ways in which these students employed multimodal composing in order to critique and challenge injustice.

In addition to the theoretical chapters, the book also includes a collection of classroom activities / assignments that engage students in theorizing and enacting embodied composing with a wide range of tools. For example, one activity offers heuristic questions students can use to critically analyze the affordances and limitations of particular social media interfaces for representing embodied identities and relations; students then follow up the critique by visually redesigning a social media interface that better enables them to represent their embodied social relationships. Another innovative assignment sequence asks students to observe their own and others’ embodied composing practices in diverse spaces—powerfully engaging students in making knowledge about the mediating and mediated body. By bookending both major sections of the book with classroom activities, Arola and Wysocki convincingly articulate practical pedagogical implications of embodied theories of mediation.

Taken as a whole, Composing (Media) = Composing (Embodiment) is both a theoretically sophisticated and pedagogically useful text—a text destined to be a mainstay on grad seminar syllabi and reading lists for years to come. Although it takes the form of a print book, this collection powerfully pushes against the traditional print conventions that work to erase the body—offering instead a diverse assemblage of feminist, queer, crip, Indigenous, Marxist, cartographic, ludic, and crafty approaches to theorizing and practicing composing as a deeply embodied art. As I read and reread this collection, I found myself inspired to work to enact performative, multimodal, nonlinear arguments even within the confines of the printed page (Alexander and Rhodes; Link); to think deeply about how engaging with nondigital forms of composing might help us develop a more capacious vision of new media scholarship and pedagogy (Arola; Prins; Walker; Wysocki); and to attend more carefully to how particular technologies and social formations both enable and constrain access for people with differing embodiments (Almjeld and Blair; Arola; Dolmage; Farman; McCorkle; Fleckenstein; Springsteen). In addition to inspiring compositionists to analyze the ethical implications of the mediating and mediated body, this collection also importantly helps us all collectively recognize and enact tactics of pedagogical, scholarly and activist resistance to the normalizing technological regimes that continue to deny the importance of embodied difference and thus work to reinforce social and material inequalities.

In the end, the power of this book cannot be contained in the words I’ve written here; it’s a book that will make you feel; it’s a book that will make you move; it’s a book whose meaning must ultimately be reimagined every time another body holds it, touches it, reads it aloud, listens to it with a screen reader, converses about it, draws on it, takes it to a coffeeshop, leaves it in a queer sex club locker, gives it to a friend, remixes its classroom activities and so on. Although I would argue that the diverse bodily meanings of Composing (Media) = Composing (Embodiment) are ultimately unfixed and perhaps unknowable, I can say definitively that it has transformed me on a deeply embodied level, and I’m certain it will do the same for you and for the field.

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Return to Composition Forum 29 table of contents.