The Rhetorical Limits of Participatory Culture

A few weeks ago  I reflected on the radical possibilities of zine (and other youth) subcultures by exploring texts about the rhetorical situation (i.e. Bitzer, Vatz, and Biesecker). I ended by raising a more recent argument by Biesecker that concerned the role of sublimation in radical political agency, considering how DIY cultures and amateur rhetorics use more affective approaches in scene-building in order to create alternative spaces — large-scale movements that widen the scope of the so-called rhetorical situation. I ended by citing Stephen Duncombe’s book, Zines: Notes from Underground, where he argues that zines — as politically conscious DIY publications — are radical simply because they “offer up an alternative, a way of understanding and acting in the world that operates with different rules and upon different values than those of consumer capitalism” (10). Mass media outlets, on the other hand, are very effective at negating the very possibility of alternative spaces.

But alas, the Internets! The Internets with their majestic, never-ending, completely democratic ones and zeros. Everyone has an alternative space in the digital era. Right? I’m being a little sarcastic here because I think it might be tempting to dismiss this week’s “Rhetoric in the Mass Media” readings from Contemporary Rhetorical Theory since not one of them was published after 1991. Yet, perhaps because of this, I found the tensions vetted in this set — between rhetor/audience, structure/agency, symbolist/materialist, psychological/cultural/economic perspectives — helpful in considering the various scenes of DIY publishing in the 21st century; of course, I’d also wager these tensions are messier than ever.

My go-to praxis this semester has been the course of that same name and since writing the post I referenced above, my students have moved from producing print zines in Unit 1 to experimenting with various web platforms in Unit 2. This unit, dubbed “Participatory Culture,” asks students to blog and tweet regularly (#WRTDIY) while also dabbling in seemingly less-agentive spaces like Yelp, Amazon, or Wikipedia as well as those that require them to compose with sound (e.g. Audacity) or motion (e.g. iMovie). It’s a quickly-paced unit so even though Twitter conversations bookend our meetings, we only spend on 80 minutes on each platform or mode. Still, it’s enough time to touch upon the major advantages and disadvantages of each space and provide students with enough information to decide if they want to explore that space further in the unit or in their final projects. We’ve also dedicated some time to evaluating the space’s independence or DIY ethos.

As with the last unit, I’m learning a ton. Either I force myself to experiment in order to have better insight into the spaces/platforms/tools we’re using or my students introduce me to them. Last week for example, while discussing wikis, one of my students mentioned TV Tropes, a site that catalogues the “devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members’ minds and expectations.” TV Tropes allows users to describe or read about common — but not cliche — tropes used in various mass-mediated narratives: comic books, films, literature, TV, video games, etc. (in other words, the site isn’t limited to TV). The site is searchable and browse-able, linked through specific media, and its tropes are nested. For example, there’s a page called “Pregnancy Tropes” that has two pages dedicated to abortion tropes: “Good Girls Avoid Abortion” and “Magical Abortion.” Under each of these are numerous folders of various media that contain instances of the trope by way of plot summary. As if the site itself isn’t mind blowing enough, the list of contributors (“tropers” in the parlance of the site) tops out at more than 1,000.

Of course Barry Brummett’s essay, “Burke’s Representative Anecdote as a Method in Media Criticism” comes to mind as one looks at both the list of tropes and their examples to the point of objectification. Brummett borrows from Burke to argue that dramatic discourse as “widely used symbolic strategies” may serve to support audiences through the particular exigencies of their time. Exaggerated narratives — like both versions of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers — would help audiences deal with the technological shifts, economic instability, or big brother jeremiads pervading their pschye (to borrow from Rushing and Frentz).

So this argument goes, the tropes listed on TV Tropes, then, might “serve as better equipment for living” so long as the rhetorical critic can help others make the connection (480). While this assumes the public actually listens to critics, Brummett’s article has a forgiveness to it that allows the reader to not feel so bad about having recently watched yet another episode of Workaholics. For your health, as Dr. Brule would say.

A similarly optimistic perspective on mass media has been taken up by numerous cultural studies scholars and critical audience analysts since at least the 1980s and Celeste Michelle Condit references several of them in “The Rhetorical Limits of Polysemy.” She accuses John Fiske, Janice Radway, and others of being overly generous in their assertion that popular media allows for pleasurable, productive, and liberating polysemous readings. Condit then uses two case studies to show how an episode of Cagney and Lacey requires more work for a resistant reading — a decoding — depending on the viewer’s subject position.

Such additional work can preclude resistance because of its ability to silence viewers, qualify their pleasure, or suppress already limited or barely visible counter-rhetorics. Moreover, the elite public at the time influences the possibilities of kinds of abortion narratives aired or told (TV Tropes further supports this claim) so that the third personae must do “double work– deconstructing the dominant code and reconstructing their own” (504).

Condit does not want to guilt intellectuals into feeling bad about taking pleasure in decoding or simply viewing TV shows like Cagney and Lacey or reading romance novels; however, claims that polysemous readings lead to liberation must be qualified by considering “collectivized (group, internally organized through communication production) action and pleasure” (507). Without collectivization, social change is not possible by way of mass media. In this sense, zinesters in the 80s and 90s provided an important site for the possibilities of social change in pushing back against consumerist culture through mail-order circulation of their print zines that simultaneously adored mass media (think: sic-fi zines) and also rejected it. I believe their contributions have been unfortunately overshadowed by terms like “participatory culture” which have magically appeared once the internet became widespread. Before the web, we had zines and other small presses.

But that’s a historical take. I find Condit’s analysis compelling and wonder how it might be applied to more contemporary scenes of DIY production, namely by participatory cultures writing for sites like TV Tropes, or larger sites like Wikipedia, where ideally audiences are simultaneously positioned as rhetors — rhetors as coders and decoders. On one hand a powerful collectivization occurs when a reader witnesses hundreds of users exposing culture industry tropes — and the problems that occur when those tropes appease certain audiences’ expectations. On the other hand, one can watch the collective air leave the room when your average group of students — regular Wikipedia consumers — see how much effort goes into contributing to these sites, and how said contributions are a privilege in and of themselves.

For example, in an effort to demonstrate to my students some of what I’ve only read about re:Wikipedia, I made my first contribution to the site last week by adding one simple, seemingly-innocuous sentence about zine fests to the Fanzine page. To the benefit of my education I ended up in a minor editing war about my sentence’s weight and neutral point of view that took about 1-2 hours of my time. I won’t get into it here, because I’m running out of room. But that’s also my point: peep the Revision History and you’ll understand what went down only if you are literate in Mediawiki code and the revision interface. In other words, while Conidt applies terms of de/coding to mass-mediated narratives, the technological determinist mindset is quickly checked when one is asked to actually contribute to certain sites like Wikipedia.

Alas, this makes me wonder if code — HTML, java, AJAX, and hundreds more — is the way we must reconsider the encoding/decoding a world of 21st century composers and if print is in some way a more accessible space for the third personae — or even the privileged elite. Even to many professors at a private university, 21st century interfaces like WordPress and Twitter (never mind code), can be an intimidating space. Because, let’s face it, most of us in comp/rhet work within code, not with code. That is, we write within already mediated spaces: WordPress, Twitter, Facebook are all containers that we have some, but certainly not total agency over (and let’s not even talk about BlackBoard). So perhaps the current state of mass media isn’t so much negating alternatives, as Duncombe argued in 1998, but structuring/writing them for us. I’m not suggesting we avoid teaching with interfaces, but only that we consider their boundaries and not dismiss print wholesale just because our conception of it is the Times New Roman, double-spaced academic paper.