4C15: “No More ‘Moneypeople’: Politicizing Multimodality Through Zines”

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.

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[slides 1-2]

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.