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Published on November 26th, 2012 | by Thompson


Collections Shedding Containers

Collin Gifford Brooke’s Lingua Fracta seems an ideal closure to our course this semester, and “[c]losure is no less important now than it ever has been, but with the advent of new media and interfaces that resist closure, proairesis provides an important corrective to the hermeneutically oriented inventional theory that has prevailed in our field to date” (86).  Technology has certainly changed what we’ve come to think of as writing and even the brains we use to think about writing, but “our cortex did not specifically evolve for writing.  Rather, writing evolved to fit the cortex,” Stanislas Dehaene would most certainly say (Hayles 70).  Now that technology is forcing the evolution of our brains, it’s time we allow for the evolution of writing practices in universities and high schools by utilizing these technologies.

Brooke’s chapter “Proairesis” is a real eye-opener.  In fact, I had trouble staying awake until this chapter, but Brooke finally starts talking turkey (excuse the holiday pun) in Chapter 3.  “[M]uch of our theorizing about invention in rhetoric and composition remains bound by the particular media for which we invent, and for the most part we invent (and ask our students to invent) for the printed page,” (68) and although this book is just four years old, we, as academia, still seem to be stuck in the past.  N. Katherine Hayles reports in her 2010 essay “How We Read: Close, Hyper, Machine,” “Students read incessantly in digital media and write in it as well, but only infrequently are they encouraged to do so in literature classes or in environments that encourage the transfer of print reading abilities to digital and vice versa” (63).  Earlier in Lingua Fracta Brooke states “we appear willing to acknowledge that rhetorical practice changes as our technologies do, and yet we have maintained an oddly binary vision of that change” (35).  Many of the obstacles preventing this change may be due to the fears raised by Nicholas Carr and Mark Bauerlein.  (Interesting anecdote, Mark, since you seem to be so fond of them: I forgot your name but remembered the name of your book and Googled it.  So I forgot your name, but remembered what N. Katherine Hayles thought of your book.  Does that make me a member of the dumbest generation, or am I a member of the smartest generation for classifying keywords in order to better utilize my brain and technologies, or are you the smart one for coming up with a creative, memorable title?)  So “digital reading may be sloppy in the extreme,” as Hayles puts it, but “other research not cited by Bauerlein indicates that this and similar strategies work well to identify pages of interest and to distinguish them from pages with little or no relevance to the topic at hand” (66).  I admit, I have some of the same fears Carr and Bauerlein do, but I also believe in the philanthropic and educational opportunities new media provides.

One of the educational opportunities new media provides is a first-hand experience for students to shed light on the myth that academic writing is simply putting a container around words.  “Academics are trained to read networks of scholarship that, even in a print context, are densely interlinked and connected, if not digitized.  We learn to situate our own work within those networks, providing links in the forms of citations, foot-, or endnotes, and bibliographic entries.  The texts that we produce bear a strong resemblance to individual readings of a hypertext: We choose particular paths through webs of scholarship, keep track of those paths, and account for them by publishing essays and books that then occupy a place within the webs that we have engaged” (78-79).  The media itself has imposed this myth, and as Mark Richardson pleads in “Writing Is Not Just a Basic Skill,” it’s time we free our universities of it.  “Writing is not the expression of thought; it is thought itself.  Papers are not containers for ideas, containers that need only to be well formed for those ideas to emerge clearly.  Papers are the working out of ideas.  The thought and the container take shape simultaneously” (2).  Using blogs and even social media, like the example Hayles provides regarding the use of Facebook to learn Romeo and Juliet, will not only shed light on the issue of “containers,” but make students more comfortable while investigating and learning their own, personalized writing practices.

I called this blog “Collections Shedding Containers” because I think Brooke’s discussion of collections, especially the use of data mining to produce tagclouds and the example of Google Reader as a collection that allows for searchable content, is indicative of how these databases are a form of writing.  “In itself, language does not actually mean anything; it is only when it takes the form of utterance, when it is put into practice, that meaning is generated.  The same is true of databases” (101).  Brooke certainly utilizes the multi-modality we all wanted from Manovich, and I think the full-page screenshots in the book may have been part of the reason I thought he did a better job describing databases and how they too are writing despite what Manovich would call an absence of narrative.  These collections are representative of a larger whole that many readers may not understand, but those that hold a common interest or a relevant question will find them helpful because “we as users participate in the construction of our interfaces” (134) and “[t]he more intimately we are involved in the assembly of a collection, the more likely we are to perceive it incrementally and narratively, while different patterns may emerge in a casual encounter of someone else’s collection” (110).  That, of course, reminds me of a movie, one I’ve used for this blog before, but a different scene.

“[T]he technical structure of the archiving archive also determines the structure of the archivable content even in its very coming into existence and in its relationship to the future.  The archivization produces as much as it records the event” (qtd. in Brooke 143).  I love this Derrida quote because I think it encompasses what Brooke is saying about databases and collections.  The act of archiving is a form of writing itself.  The simple act of Owen (Danny DeVito) collecting “change my daddy let me keep” gives the collection a narrative to those he shares the collection with and is absent of narrative if Larry (Billy Crystal) were to pry the box of change from beneath the floorboards without Owen present.  We could say the same thing about the team WHIP of the Minnesota Twins in 2012.  WHIP is a baseball statistic that stands for Walks/Hits per Innings Pitched, but for those of you who don’t know that, the statistic is simply a meaningless collection of numbers.  For me, it’s a way to determine a pitcher’s value through an analysis of balls batted, bases on balls, durability, and, in a way, composure.  “We take in information, sometimes without being aware of it, and only notice it when that information connects with other data to form a pattern worth investigating” (166).  At least you now know what WHIP is, and that collection of numbers will no longer be meaningless.

With that said, I think it’s beneficial to consider some of the proposed changes Brooke suggests to the rhetorical canons because the suggestions are based on McLuhan’s idea that “the medium is the message,” and our writing practices are relative to our technologies.  I also think Hayles presents plenty of examples of our technologies being used in ways to bring about a change to our writing practices that teachers should consider.

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About the Author

When Thompson isn't busy writing for Go Gonzo Journal, you may find him drunk at the movie theater with Professor Heinous or stirring up trouble in a bar with his attorney. Thompson also enjoys skiing, hiking, camping, and watching and betting on baseball and football.

4 Responses to Collections Shedding Containers

  1. Deb B. says:

    I agree that “one of the educational opportunities new media provides is a first-hand experience for students to shed light on the myth that academic writing is simply putting a container around words,” it is a freeing and energizing concept that I’ve been contemplating for next semester’s Writ 101 class. I have already noted a shift this semester is loosening up and approaching the writing assignments in the context of “papers [that] are working out ideas” (Brooke 2).

    I thought the “Proairesis” chapters was interesting too — particularly the discussion about “metatextuality” that Brooke discusses ( 79). I think this relates to the genre of blogs and the flexibility that blogs give use when writing in an academic forum. I think the use of the blog may be something I utilize in the future for my classes. Reading your “new media journalism” has been interesting for me this semester (even more than in Dr. Sexson’s class). I think helping students see that there is a way to adapt to an in-between the “academic” and the “informal” and still have it read “academically” is something that I have learned from reading your work, and if you don’t mind, I will probably use your site as an example in the future.

  2. ARRIVES says:

    Your anecdote to Mr. Bauerlein made me laugh. Every time his name is mentioned I cringe remembering how angry I became reading his book. Like you, Hayles, Carr and Bauerlein I have reservations about where all of this new media may be taking us. It’s scary, and I worry about how much reading my students are or are not doing. Heck, I worry about how much reading my younger cousins are or are not doing, but I think going into it with the whole “our world is coming to an end and people are getting dumber” attitude of Bauerlein is unproductive. Part of the problem, I would assume, is that when people like Carr and Bauerlein write their respective books, they are assuming all reading done on the web must be shallow just because of the medium. However, Brooke cautions that “Too often hypertext theory assumed that a change in medium automatically entailed leaving the features of the other media behind” (97). There seems to be an interesting contradiction here. On one hand, we have spent an entire semester discussing how using new media in the classroom has yet to be successful because we treat it like old media. In other words, what we create for new media looks just like what we create for print media. This seems to go against the ideas of Bauerlein, on the other hand. If this is true, then much of what is on the web should resemble what we read in print. To complicate matters, Hayles gives an example of students reading Frankenstein and Patchwork Girl: “By the end the students, who already admired Frankenstein and were enthralled by Mary Shelley’s narrative, were able to see that electronic literature might be comparably complex and would also repay close attention to its strategies, structure, form, rhetoric, and themes” (77). I’m not really sure where I’m going with this, but I see two opposing forces at play. In one sense we want new media to be different than print/old media. However, when this happens we complain that we have lost the depth and complexity we have with print media. When, like Patchwork Girl, the depth and complexity is there, we complain that it is too much like print media. I’m now talking in circles. I’ll keep working on this idea.

    This idea of personalized writing practices that you bring up is also interesting. I think it is something that we’ve been discussing via Deb’s blog in terms of how computer readers promote or really don’t promote personalized writing practices. Does new media inherently promote personalized writing practices as opposed to old media? I don’t think so. Brookes points out that we often treat “‘currently existing theories’…more narrowly than they deserve” (127). In doing this, “new media scholars are often guilty of characterizing the users of older media as straw people—as ‘passive’ consumers of works forced on them by ‘tyrannical’ authors/designers/artists…This faux politicization of the medium has been thoroughly discredited…but the argument, built on a sloppy, overgeneralized contrast, persists in some accounts to this day” (127). When we characterize old media as constraining and new media as liberating we are being too general. Considering the prominent rise of computer readers, new media is in fact becoming more restrictive and not liberating. Also, I’m not sure that writing in old media has always had to be constraining. I agree with your ending sentiment that we need to move forward and try some new things, and I’m on board with including more new media in my classroom; however, I’m cautious to think that new media is inherently better, more liberating, and will produce more personalized writing practices. There are limitations to what it can do.

  3. jenny thornburg says:

    I like your train of thought here:
    “(Interesting anecdote, Mark, since you seem to be so fond of them: I forgot your name but remembered the name of your book and Googled it. So I forgot your name, but remembered what N. Katherine Hayles thought of your book. Does that make me a member of the dumbest generation, or am I a member of the smartest generation for classifying keywords in order to better utilize my brain and technologies, or are you the smart one for coming up with a creative, memorable title?)”
    You make an excellent point, for this is precisely a microcosm of the hyperreading/close reading situation. Your thinking represents the networking, the connections made in a new type of reading. Admittedly, I am not a student of ‘hyperreading,’ though I may become one. As Forest Gump’s Mama always said,
    Stupid is as stupid does.” And what you represented does not appear stupid to me at all. It seems quite smart.
    So I’m reading your blog, saying ‘yup, yup, yup’ to your cogent discourse when I remembered a line that struck me from Chapter 5 in Lingua Fracta. “The move to new media, and to users who are much more “active” by contrast, ends up appearing (and is sometimes characterized as) liberatory. This faux politicization of the medium has been thoroughly discredited, as I mention in chapter 3, but the argument, built on a sloppy, overgeneralized contrast, persists in some accounts to this day”(127). That brought me up short. What does he mean? I wondered. I returned to the text:
    “The static styles and literacies with which we have worked are no longer sufficient the argument goes, and so we must disrupt them, eventually rethinking our approach…” Brooke goes on to say that we treat existing theories more narrowly than they deserve. In attempting to ‘bust’ out of this container, I’m sure I have ‘characterized new media as liberatory’ and frankly, I still think it is. I invite anyone who reads this to join the conversation, as I’m still not entirely sure what he’s getting at here.
    I agree that Brooke makes better use of multi-modality than Manovich, but I found myself unimpressed with some of his image choices. Honestly, they were so small that they were nearly unintelligible(or is that my aging vision?) I think he should have oriented them differently, or used a partial close-up. I know he had to work with borders, etc., but images don’t ‘perform’ if one can’t discern them. Or maybe he wanted the overall form, the screenshot, to be the message rather than the content.
    Finally, loved that film clip. How poignant it was, and how astute your linking of it to the Brooke quote on collections. I had missed that one—it’s lovely. Rock on.

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