Why do youth share so publicly? Or, privacy as a process for agency

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.

Reflections on Farmer’s After the Public Turn

I feel like I’ve mismanaged my very limited professional time these last few weeks, spending too many hours planning and responding to writing in my creative nonfiction course while reading two books on my exam list too closely. For anyone out there who’s ABD, I imagine this is a familiar story: without the weekly exigence of coursework or a scheduled exam, it’s easy to put other tasks in front of it — or to try to understand everything as deeply as possible or to get the writing just right. My saving grace, though, is that two conference proposals I wrote on zines this summer were accepted to both CCCC and RSA, so I do have more granulated goals to work toward as the semester develops and I’m hoping these papers will lead to chapters of the dissertation and/or publishable articles.

The paper for CCCC concerns something I’ve dubbed pedagogies of experiential circulation — the notion that students can distribute their work materially by doing it instead of simply learning about it. My example comes from students from my DIY Publishing class who distributed their zines at their self-organized zine fest last spring — Syracuse’s first. It was one of the best teaching experiences I’ve had, as students shared some very personal, risky work — both in terms of content and form — publicly. Importantly, we didn’t judge their “success” with this event based on traditional rubrics of rhetoric. Thus, in my presentation, I hope to reel in some of the loftier goals that pedagogies that take up rhetorical delivery/circulation/distribution typically engender — namely the idea that we measure rhetorical success on whether a student is able to observably change someone or something in their locale. Of course this begs the question, if rhetorical success cannot be measured by some sort of material, observable change, how can it be measured?

Originally I proposed that a re-articulation of agency — as a more emergent phenomenon — might help reconsider this question and I still think that move is helpful. That said, Frank Farmer’s new book, After the Public Turn: Composition, Counterpublics, and the Citizen Bricoleur (2013), considers how in certain communities, like zines, remaking is the assumed the rhetorical goal — of inspiring and influencing others to also remake or to become what he dubs a citizen bricoleur, “an intellectual activist of the unsung sort, thoroughly committed to, and implicated in, the task of understanding how publics are made, unmade, remade, and better made, often from little more than the discarded scraps of earlier attempts — constructions that, for whatever reason, are no longer legitimate or serviceable” (36). Importantly for public sphere theory, bricolage is figured as multimodal (my words, not Farmer’s), an expressive aspect of communication that resists the traditional notion of public discourse as “rational-critical debate.” As an assemblage of modes, bricolage and other expressive forms of discourse help to form counterpublics, or cultural publics, as Farmer calls them. An important aspect of zines, of course, is their materiality, which in the case of anarcho-punk zines, literally arises out of any remnants of fast-capital print.

Farmer focuses more on composition than distribution with his argument, but his attention to the rhetorical goals of DIY communities and his discussion of zine’s materiality in light of digital distribution channels has important ramifications for teaching circulation. For example, at one moment in the book, Farmer considers counterpublics as “widening gyres” — a term that gets at the paradox of circularity and mutation of social movement discourses. I have previously discussed these as ecologies or fluxes (to borrow from Edbauer), so I’m curious if there might be key differences in the language we use to describe these phenomena and how those differences might affect a methodology that is concerned with the movement of rhetoric. Nevertheless, the idea in introducing these terms to come to terms with the complexity and vastness of circulatory systems so as to almost render ridiculous the idea of agency at the individual level, which is why considering its definition is appealing to me.

It’s also appealing because of embodied and imaginative versions of agency associated with the idea of DIY, which Farmer takes up in the book. Specifically he considers the relationship between DIY practices and ethos and materiality. Obviously materiality is used to differentiate zines from other self-publishing venues on the web. Zines offer intimacy to certain communities, and as ephemera offer traces of its histories, leading Farmer to wonder if a DIY ethos can even exist on the web. This question is important if as Warner and Farmer argue, counterpublics exist as ways of being, not simply as deliberative discourses. As Kristin Arola has written, for example, certain forms of digital writing use templates that feature content — and take away from issues of design. Unless one knows how to code, options for form are limited. Moreover, what gets made in addition to the zine, is an important difference between print and digital self-publishing platforms. The materiality of zines also embodies an important opposition to media conglomeration. Borrowing from Tim Wu’s Master Switch, who argues that info tech is moving into increasing closed patterns — into a “master switch” — Farmer argues that zines show “what a publication looks like when you do not have free access to corporate-owned resources” (80). Farmer also notes how the surveilling features of the net might also sustain zine communities farther into the 21st century.

What seems interesting, then, is that while a DIY ethos might be unique to the composition of zines, it’s difficult to imagine that most zine makers are willing to forgo the internet entirely when its such a practical option for distribution. This has me going back to Trimbur’s work on circulation, as he uses Marx’s definition of commodity (as the contradiction that exists between use and exchange value) to complicate the production/distribution divide. I hope to blog about that complex article soon and rev some momentum back in to the blog this week.

Remediating the self, or: Why I left Facebook

155781_125349424193474_1654655_nThe Zimmerman verdict entered my world Saturday night as I peaked at my Twitter TL just after (appropriately enough) watching an episode of The Wire. I was shocked as I refreshed the feed on my phone, reading reports, outrage, and snark; the response was tremendous. But when I switched over to Facebook, my feed looked vacant. Hardly anyone was reacting to the verdict and the two posts that did made me angry. One argued in support of Stand Your Ground — an absurd manifestation of 21st century frontier justice — and another that asked why race had anything to do with the case (to be fair, this person lives in a state worse than Florida, if that can be imagined). Honestly, it wasn’t a totally unfamiliar feeling: I preferred Twitter to FB during the fall election and I felt overwhelmingly disgusted by a lot of what I read on FB after the the Newtown shooting last December. So, I finally did what I’d been thinking about for months: I went to my computer and deactivated my account (deleting it entirely requires more steps, unfortunately).

Dealing with the occasional family troll is something most people have to endure and, like most friends, I’ve endured them throughout two presidential elections. But there were other reasons for my departure none of which are unique. Like many others, I was concerned about my privacy (Instagram pictures, for example, started showing up in public feeds without my consent) and the growing intrusion of ads. But because I use Twitter, Instagram, Google, Yahoo, and others, these couldn’t be my only reasons. Actually, truth told, the primary reason is embarrassing — cliche, even. I had been checking FB incessantly, nay automatically, every time I’d open a browser or my phone, which was distracting me from other possibilities, from reading deeper content from my RSS or Pocket or simply paying more attention to my kids. Simply put, I don’t know if I had the self control to stop looking at it. Which is odd, actually, because it’s been almost a week and I simply do not miss it. At all. And that makes me wonder how it became such a part of my routine in the first place. What I realized over the last few months is that there was a fundamental difference between what I was reading there and what I was finding on Twitter, which is more open, active, and often awesomely weird. In composition terms, Twitter is way more of a happening, even if my interactions there are rare. I was thinking of this especially as I read a prediction by Bob Lefsetz that Twitter will soon be dead:

…there are too many people on the service. As a result, very few are heard. It’s happened over the past six months, tweeting is like a stone in a waterfall, or more accurately, pissing in the wind. In other words, if you tweet and nobody reads it have you wasted your time?

I don’t put too much stock in industry heads like Lefsetz, but the comment is representative of the prevailing critique of Twitter by users who don’t differentiate it much from other kinds of social media. Still, I’m guessing most people (and legal definitions to the contrary, businesses aren’t people) who love Twitter aren’t on it to be heard as much as to experience it, entering and exiting the interface as a moment, not in its totality.

One important difference between the two is who is representing your social reality. I’m not an expert on the technical aspects of either service, but there are fundamentally different ways each network controls your stream. FB uses an EdgeRank algorithm to decide which slice of your feed is relevant, while Twitter engages algorithms on their separate trending topics tab and probably via Promoted tweets. It’s true that I could tinker and manipulate FB to draw content out (starring certain friends, for example), but even at that moment I’m competing with the interface. What I have grown to love about Twitter is its unpredictability.

This week I’ve been reflecting on new media as I’ve been reading Bolter & Grusin’s older-but-fascinating book, Remediation. Their basic argument is that all media contains traces of old media and thus, remediation as a process that operates under a paradox of two logics: the logics of immediacy and hypermediacy. Put most simply, the logic of transparent immediacy seeks to erase media/tion through linear perspective (think virtual reality), erasure, and automaticity (24), while the logic of hypermediacy seeks to make it conspicuous and multiple through multiplicity and heterogeneity (33-34). Depending on the context, these two logics can compete, compliment or coexist — and they are not unique to digital media. The authors provide compelling examples of furniture, dioramas, and stereoscopes as hypermediated. Both logics work to form “the desire to get past the limits of representation and to achieve the real” (53). Transparent immediacy aims to make the users engagement feel natural while hypermediacy aims to create a “a feeling of fullness, a satiety of experience, which can be taken as reality” (53). As a rhetoric, remediation offers us transparency only to mature, which then “offers new opportunities for hypermediacy” (60). So before FB, we had YouTube, which remediated film which remediated photography, which remediated linear perspective paintings and drawings (excuse the reduction). FB and Twitter, in this sense, are both hypermediated, even if my engagement with them has become automated.

Or maybe not. In their discussion of networks of remediation, B&G explain how every medium “participates in a network of technical, social, and economic contexts,” which “constitutes [it] as a technology” (65). Thus, FB and Twitter offer different technical, social, and economic affordances based on their interfaces. Economically speaking, FB offers ads in my stream that other friends have liked (why some of my friends have liked Walmart, I’ll never know) whereas Twitter offers minimally intrusive “Promoted tweets.” And as I mentioned before, they’re technically different. As the Lefsetz quote suggests, many people are turned off by Twitter because of its singularity (not to mention the investment it takes to build more than one social network). But I’ve found Twitter to be tenfold more useful than FB for finding out about emerging scholarship because I can follow — not friend — smart, prolific DHers like Danah Boyd, Bethany Nowviskie, and Brian Croxall. But I believe it’s the social aspect that’s been the final push for me to actually leave FB. The authenticity of a medium is especially important to the social dimension and is, according to B&G, socially constructed through immediacy or hypermediacy. For me, Twitter has overtaken FB as a more authentic space, and I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s because of the technical affordances; as I’ve turned more in to a scholar,  and as a result value those open social networks more than the mundaneness of FB.

After all in the third and final section of Remediation, B&G talk about remediation and identity:

…we employ media as vehicles for defining both personal and cultural identity. As these media become simultaneously technical analogs and social expressions of our identity, we become simultaneously both the subject and object of contemporary media… Whenever our identity is mediated in this way, it is also remediated, because we always understand a particular medium in relation to other past and present media. (231)

In other words, in moving to other platforms, I remediate myself — as a subject in a PhD program, a dad, a zinester, a collector of material things — and thus/because I cease to identify with/in FB. Likewise, my leaving FB could be a reaction to digital overload, one that I sense some of my closer friends also feel. Many of those like-minded friends — those I ceased to see on the interface — abandoned FB long ago. Meanwhile, others — folks I don’t identify with so much but maintain relations through blood, work, or other ties — were posting more frequently. (Then again, perhaps FB’s algorithm is inaccurate — or worse, corrupt.) The point is, in leaving FB, I’m engaging in a ongoing, never-ending process of remediating myself. There’s much more to reflect upon about this and I don’t know if it’s a permanent move. But for now it’s a good one.

Transformation & Rhetoric

I spent the last few days reading Burke’s Grammar of Motives and Wayne Booth’s Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent and trying to come to terms, temporarily at least, with the question of transformation.

For Burke, the question is conspicuous enough in the introduction: “What is involved, when we say what people are doing and why they are doing it?” (xv). His method for answering the question, of course is the pentad: “what was done (act), when or where was it done (scene), who did it (agent), how he did it (agency), and why (purpose)” (xv). For Burke, considering the relationships — or ratios — among these terms helps shed light on the why people do and say what they do. If I understand GOM correctly, the pentad can be used in a variety of juxtapositions in situations that have some degree of ambiguity, though various combinations of the pentad require certain considerations. For example, ratios making use of scene (as a container or boundary) are more spatially determined while act-agent ratios are naturally more temporal/sequential: “The agent is an author of his acts, which are descended from him…” (16). This isn’t to say, however, that such authorship is reducible or easy to understand. Motives are always essentially enigmatic and the pentad seems to disregard literal statements in order to embrace and reveal ambiguities, which provide a space in which transformation becomes possible. As a critical tool for drama, GOM seeks to identify the “the resources of ambiguity” (xix), as a lens of interpretation necessary for figuring out why (purpose) in a given setting (scene), a certain character (agent) decided to do X (act) by means of Y (agency). This makes sense for rhetoric too, if the goal of a person or thing’s communication or action is to change something else — a situation, a person, a behavior, or a means. We use rhetoric to transform within spaces of ambiguity. But the question of transformation for what purpose (i.e. motive) is complex.

I don’t claim to have much of an application for Burke’s pentad per se (see Allison Hitt’s smart use of the pentad in analyzing the overcoming narrative in disability studies) and I trust it’s going to be a matter of time before I see how the it functions consistently as a device in the field; however, the relationship between transformation and ambiguity discussed in GOM reminds me of Burke’s discussion of identification in Rhetoric of Motives. In ROM, Burke uses murder narratives (Milton’s Sampson being what I remember most) to frame the desire to transform; for Burke, the desire to kill is a “desire to transform the principle which that person represents” (13). Such transformation “involves the ideas and imagery of identification. That is: the killing of something is the changing of it and the statement of the thing’s nature before and after the change is an identifying of it” (20). In the past I’ve used this passage to explore arguments about the death of print — to understand its essence in the so-called afterlife — but if we tone down the drama and say that by “killing” we mean instead the changing of another’s mind, perhaps this idea can be expanded to broader conversations about the nature of rhetoric. After all, Burke does say this in ROM:

“Terms for identification in general are wider in scope than terms for killing. We are proposing that our rhetoric be reduced to this term of wider scope, with the term of narrower scope being treated as a species of it. We begin with an anecdote of killing, because invective, eristic, polemic, and logomachy are so pronounced an aspect of rhetoric.” (20)

In other words, killing is like rhetoric in that both share transformation as a goal; likewise, such transformation is also a way of identifying — of bringing two things closer together through consubstantiation. Soon after this passage Burke notes that we need rhetoric because we are divided. We need rhetoric for consubstantiation, or for acting together (21). “If men were not apart from one another, there would be no need for the rhetorician to proclaim their unity” (22). Without reducing too much then, an important purpose or motive for rhetoric is identification and consubstantiation — to bring people together in a world divided.

Booth’s argument in Modern Dogma is essentially the same, but his methods and warrants vary from Burke’s. He shifts from a dramatistic inflection to an explicit concern for the state of public rhetoric, asking: “How should men work when they try to change each other’s minds, especially about value questions?” and “When should you and I change our minds?” (12). The questions arrive as he sketches five dogmas created from two schools of thought deriving from 20th century modernism: a positivistic, behaviorist, empirically-driven view called scientism, and a value-ladden, romantic, relative view called irrationalism. Both’s five dogmas align with Burke’s pentad: The first, which is discussed in Chapter 1 is motivism (agency), which reduces all behavior to “non rational conditioning” (32). This dogma relieves people of responsibility since certain actions or behaviors can be explained through grand narratives or personae. The next four are discussed in Chapter 2 through a close reading of texts by 20th century philosopher, Bertrand Russell, who for Booth serves as the patron saint of modernism, embodying both the scientismic and irrationalist perspectives. Russell’s view of “man as an atomic mechanism” (agent) in “a universe that is value-free” (scene) (50) as well as his “principles of knowing” (act) (55), serve as dogmas two, three, and four. Dogma five considers the “the purposes of argument” (purpose) (77). Taken together, these dogmas shove reason aside “slic[ing] the world into two unequal parts, the tiny domain of the provable, about which nobody cares very much, and the great domain of ‘all the rest’ in which anyone can believe or do what he pleases” (85). In other words, Booth divides rhetoric into the proverbial open hand and closed fist and because of our inability to discourse, he worries that in a value-saturated world — where doubt and skepticism is the only means to knowledge — the closed fist has become modus operandi. Rhetoric in this sense is viewed as a means “to trick or sway or condition or force or woo men to believe or do what the persuader desires” (87) and Booth seeks to challenge this perspective an offer alternatives to modern dogma in Chapter 3. In many ways, he seeks to return rhetoric to the classical Roman ideal of “eloquence in the service of wisdom” (89), founded on some kind of stasis or shared agreement, or perhaps in the Augustinian ideal of using rhetoric to teach effectively, where “[t]he process of inquiry through discourse … becomes more important than any possible conclusions, and whatever stultifies such fulfillment becomes demonstrably wrong” (137). Another way of understanding Booth is to say he articulates a mean to transformation through Burke’s identification: to identify with another requires a process of consubstantiation configured through inquiry.

As a teacher, I’ve always hoped for such consubstatiation. As Selber mentions in Chapter 5 of Multiliteracies for a Digital Age, as teachers we should take more (albeit smart) risks with our students and co-learn or co-inquire into emerging technologies. That said, as a rhetorician, a zinester, and an occasional activist, there aspects of Modern Dogma that seem naive. Aside from its methodology, which rests an entire argument on one close (if that) reading of a 20th century logician, I’m uncomfortable with Booth’s cartooning of public demonstrations. Perhaps I’m too far removed from the 60s to know, but the problem seems to lie in the lack of discussion of agency in the Burkean sense: as “the means or instruments [an agent] used” (xv) or “a means by which one gets reports of the world at large” (xx) in a rhetorical act. Considering media conglomeration, for example (a problem even in 1971), only a select few have any control over — or access to —  certain kinds of knowledge. It’s fitting that he uses an underground, anonymous, pro-cannabis zine called Seed in the first pages of Modern Dogma to illustrate the fall of reason, or what he later sketches as the irrationalist perspective. As counter-rhetorics, zines have traditionally served a specific function — providing an alternative voice when none seemed to be available. This leads to another part of Booth that’s unnerving: a lack of properly contextualizing some of these dogmas. Though I agree that one of the fundamental challenges of subcultures is progressing beyond a negative identity (that is, defining one’s self as “over against everyone and everything else” (130), as he mentions of the irrationalists in Chapter 4), such a negative identity begins as a response to a hegemony that always already attempts to subsume (or more accurately, consume) it.

How, for example, would Booth interpret the Trayvon Martin protests happening this week in NYC, LA, Oakland and even in smaller cities like Syracuse? Would he call them part of “a national habit” existing “partly because people seem convinced that they cannot try them out meaningfully in other ways” (146)? Or would he deem them legit because they’re based “in fact (not just personal conviction) supported by good reasons, good reasons shared or potentially sharable by the community that is relevant” (148)?

As with most of the readings I’m plowing through the first time this summer, I need to re-read parts. I understand Booth is trying to theorize a rhetoric that reconciles  reason and value  through a process of identification. In the last chapter he uses art as a potential means for this. And while I agree with this, and agree we need strategies for assent, I still understand the necessity of a collaborative, organized (yet peaceful) closed fist when faced with dense and disgusting forces: laws like Stand Your Ground that are embedded in a scene of creepy American gun culture and a racist  justice system that allows six white jurors to acquit a murderer or expects one in three black men to be jailed in their lifetime. Progress and transformation takes time. Without rhetorical accretion that is public and embodied, such change takes even longer.

Selber’s Multiliteracies for a Digital Age

Stuart Selber’s Multiliteracies for a Digital Age (2004) develops a tripartite approach for teaching computer literacy, drawing from: (1) the functional approaches that treat students as users of tools, (2) critical approaches that treat students as questioners of cultural artifacts, and (3) rhetorical approaches that treat students as producers of hypertextual media (25). A key problem for Selber is reinserting a humanist, or what he calls “post critical” (3), edge into the more positivist orientations of digital work — stances that too often “consider technology to be a self-determining agent” (8). This instrumental view of technology (a term borrowed from Haas and Neuwirth) views technology as neutral and leads two problematic perspectives in English departments (and other depts imbued with liberal humanism): they either jettison everything tech because hermeneutics and close reading is their business, or embrace it but only as a handmaiden to the larger agenda of textual study.

MFDA is broken into five chapters: Chapter 1 outlines the recurring problems with computer literacy as currently articulated and deployed at universities; the middle three chapters sketch functional/critical/rhetorical approaches to literacy; the last chapter, Chapter 5, addresses the implementation of said approaches both across a program (i.e. one class per approach) and within individual courses (i.e. one assignment/unit per approach). Within each of the middle chapters, Selber provides helpful parameters for each approach. For example in Chapter 4, on rhetorical literacy, he considers how persuasion, deliberation, reflection, and social action all might play a role in teaching students how to design interfaces using a “thoughtful integration of functional and critical abilities” (145). In general, this is a praxis-oriented book and a text I’ll go back to when it comes to rethinking and/or developing curricula on digital writing.

I won’t dedicate too much space to my personal connections to the book, but there is one I want to mention. Selber begins Chapter 4 by introducing Johnson-Eiola’s discussion of production/connection from his article “Negative Spaces: From Production to Connection in Composition.” By emphasizing connection in our classes, J-E informs us, writers might “write with fragments,” focusing on “reorganizing and representing existing (and equally intertextualized) texts — their own included — in ways that are meaningful to specific audiences” (135). This reminds me of the difficulty in focusing on both — production and connection, or composition and circulation (see George & Matheiu) — and how important it is to consider shorter forms in curricula that want to do both. For example, in my DIY Publishing course last spring, asking students to produce a zine in 5-6 weeks privileged form(s) and arrangement, but it didn’t leave much time for content and the sort of inventive work that might help with it (actually, the same can be said for other aspects of the course, including our work with new media). Thus, it is important to be open to short forms and visualization, and other ideas of connection and curation so teachers have time to support students who have trouble making objects and texts.

In terms of how this book aligns with others I’ve read from the list, Selber, while critical, is interested in working from within institutions, offering a different approach than someone like Sharon Crowley, for whom the entire institutionalization of universal requirement of FYC is the essence of the discipline’s problem. That said, while Crowley critiques the entire structure, she is also clearly writing from within it. And what I appreciate about MLDA is its ability to use theory to richly qualify the recommendation it makes about practice. This seems necessary since Selber’s audience is broader than the traditional comp/rhet crowd — a strength and a weakness of the book. A strength because it is able to articulate a broad rhetorical vision for computer literacy to a wide camp of folks (English profs, deans, even students); however, at times his “heuristics,” although always carefully qualified, still feel too prescriptive. Certainly someone like Byron Hawk, who argues for a more ontological, vitalist approach to composition would take issue with both the structure and the tone of some of Selber’s recommendations.

Finally, MLDA would be a useful book for approaching exam questions about critical pedagogy/literacy, humanistic approaches to technology, discussions on the role of heuristics in the field, the purpose and function of composition, local v global curricula, self-reflexive methodologies and praxis, or conversations about the view of tech as tools.

Marxist rhetorical theory and DIY print cultures

Buffalo Small Press Fair
Buffalo Small Press Fair: view from upstairs

A bit exhausted this weekend after travelling to WNY to attend the Buffalo Small Press Book Fair (more on that below) and to catch up with some great friends in the Queen City. At the expense of having deep engagement with the other readings this week, I spent some quality time with James Aune’s “Cultures of Discourse: Marxism and Rhetorical Theory” trying to tag it with detailed marginalia since it’s one of the few pieces from Contemporary Rhetorical Theory that are on my exam list for comps. Being a neophyte when it comes to Marxist histories and theories, I’m sure I gleaned less than 10% of the text; nevertheless, I found it interesting and potentially and unexpectedly helpful.

The piece is pulled from (as far as I can tell) an unremarkable 1990 edited collection called Argumentative Theory and the Rhetoric of Assent. Aune begins by plotting “a map of [Marxism’s] research program,” leaning heavily on Alvin Gouldner’s synthesis, and pulling a productive dialectic from a key tension between structure and struggle. By structure Aune means Marxism as a science, stressing “a deterministic view of ideology,” where capitalism’s fall is inevitable (citing Lenin and Althusser as key figures). By struggle Aune imagines the version of Marxism that foregrounds critique, and requires some form of organizing, resistance — and ultimately persuasion — in order to engender revolution (he cites Gramsci, Horkheimer and Adorno, and Eagleton as key figures in the second). He then sketches four ways that Marxism has traditionally attended to this tension, arguing that Marxism has only tangentially dealt with rhetorical theory, while rhetorical theory has only tangentially dealt with Marxism.

Aune’s hope, then, is to begin a conversation in the field that retains the ongoing critique of ideology while promoting some sort of material political and social change. To do so, he focuses on one of three levels of abstraction — the mode of production — in social analysis as articulated by Erik Olin Wright in Classes (1985).

Researchers focusing on the mode of production examine “the way in which dominant forms of argument relate to forces and relations of production in the most abstract way” (545; emphasis in original). For Aune, focusing on the mode of production helps dodge rhetorical studies’ “privileging of symbol-use over labor as the constitutive activity of human beings” which “risks being coopted by larger forces of domination in our culture” (546). Aune would have us pay attention to rhetoric’s dominant forms of argument — as cultures of discourse — as products of labor, “as material as a factory or a Hitler speech” (546). He describes these cultures of discourses in detail as traditional, critical, and poststructural and then proceeds to offer four takeaways on developing a Marxist rhetorical theory, including foregrounding the role of labor and class struggle in our theorizing, but also revisiting certain helpful aspects of the cultures of discourse that might contribute to Marxist theory, such as using common sense as the origin of enthymeme or thinking more broadly about oppression in terms of race, sexuality, or via the status of professionalized/specialized (and thus authorized) discourses.

As I returned from the Small Press Book Fair this weekend, of course, modes of production — specifically material ones — are front an center in my mind, especially since the purpose of the trip was to see how (1) I might propose a similar fest/fair here in Syracuse and (2) to think about potential sites for dissertation research. Zine and small press fairs exist all over the US. And although they are largely white, they are diverse in other ways and bring together a mix of working class/artistic subjectivities. What Aune’s piece does for me then, is help me think through “Do It Yourself” articulations from the perspective of Marxist rhetorical theory. The very phrasing of DIY emphasizes labor (“do it!”), but for much of my class and my blogging this semester I’ve been framing it via ecologic rhetorical theory — emphasizing the “yourself” part of the phrase, the part that considers the self as a node in a network. And while Aune also helps address co-optation, a Marxist rhetorical theory could help think critically about the craft of print culture and potentially address the question of why print still hold a special place in our hearts. Perhaps it’s because our labor is still marked, inscribed, and circulated though the paper, the binding, and the edges of the book. It’s maybe a reminder that writing is work.

Booty from Buffalo Small Press Book Fair 2013
Booty from Buffalo Small Press Book Fair 2013

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.

Concurrent session titles as ideographs?

Just getting back into the week after being at my 4th CCCC last week in Las Vegas. This was my first time actually presenting and I’m pleased to say that it went pretty well, despite having gone dead last (#N.08). I’m intending to post something more extensive on our talk sometime soon, but in the meantime I want to reflect briefly on some of the common terms that were used, explored, critiqued this year by way of a tag cloud of the titles of concurrent sessions.

Yes, the methodology is crude, can’t touch the depth of the individual panels, and lacks any sort of comparison, but here’s what’s revealed when I dump the titles into TagCrowd and limit the frequency to ten.

Screen Shot 2013-03-18 at 7.00.12 PM








Nothing too surprising here. “Writing” and “composition” makes sense given the field’s teleos, and “public” is up there because of the conference theme (“The Public Work of Composition”). But as we read Michael Calvin McGee’s “The ‘Ideograph’: A Link Between Rhetoric and Ideology” this week in Contemporary Rhetorical Theory, I wonder if I can consider these terms as ideographs, “the basic structural elements, the building blocks, of ideology” (428). Ideographs are assuming, abstract terms like “liberty” or “rule of law,” “representing collective commitment to a particular but equivocal and ill-defined normative goal” that “guides behavior and beliefs into channels easily recognized by a community as acceptable and laudable” (435). Ideographs are necessary, argues McGee, because of the materiality they may provide for the symbolist critique that overly relies on myth to explain hegemony. In short, McGee borrows a symbolic unit of analysis in order to develop a Marxist critique that goes beyond materialism.

In treating the above words as ideographs, we might understand the use of “public” or “literacy” or “community” or even “student” as givens for our work that require more critical reflection. As Raymie McKerrow notes in “Critical Rhetoric,” a “permanent criticism” might be our only means to understanding freedom in the context of social movements. That is, by using ideographs to understand common terms at CCCC, it might reveal assumption, or what McGee calls the “interpenetrating systems or ‘structures’ of [our] public motives” (427). In short, ideographs hold vast symbolic ideals of consensus, where community members will “inflict penalties on those who use ideographs in heretical ways and on those who refuse to respond appropriately to claims on their behavior warranted through the agency of ideographs  (436).

Of course while those heretics and refusers have likely already been denied access to the program by one of two stages of readers, McGee tells us we can read the words from the tag cloud as developing via two different ideologies: one diachronically and one synchronically. Ideographs develop diachronically, “expanding and contracting” throughout a term’s history; by understanding its subsequent applications, we begin to understand a particular grammar or logic to the term. At the same time, the ideology can be viewed as synchronic , as horizontal, rhetorical and context-bound. A synchronic structure allows us to consider how certain ideographs clash to create what McGee calls “synchronic confrontations” (433). Moreover, “[n]o ideology can be divorced from past commitments, if only because the very words used to express present dislocations have a history that establishes the category of their meaning” (434).  Kathi Yancey’s keynote at Qualitative Research Network Forum last Wednesday provided an interesting example of such dislocations as she traced the uses of “transfer” throughout the last 10 or so years. She didn’t, however, appear to expose any ideology embedded in the term; I wonder, then, what we’d understand of “transfer” if she treated like an ideograph.

Perhaps the most relevant ideograph for my work, however, is “digital,” especially, if I follow up on the last post, when we think of it in opposition to print. A quick search of the CCCC program app this year reveals that while “digital” received 30 hits, “print” received none. At the same time, print might be receiving a revival in  the term “multimodality,” but one has to wonder how that term gets conflated. As Jody Shipka and Jason Palmeri can attest, there is a gross equivocality given to “digital” and “multimodal” composition. And as Chris Anson noted in his chair’s address this years, MOOCs might also complicate ideographs like “access” or “public.” This post is too brief to experiment with the use of McGee’s framework, but I do wonder how a diachronic and synchronic view of any one of these terms might help reveal some of the ideologies that circulated last week in Vegas.

Burke and the Late Age of Print

As we transition from print communities to digital, participatory cultures in my DIY Publishing class this week, I’ve been of course trying to theorize some of the important differences between these various technologies and/or scenes. The concept of a participatory culture was first articulated by Henry Jenkins in his famous 2006 MacArthur white paper about media education. From the executive summary:

“A participatory culture is a culture with relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations, and some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices. A participatory culture is also one in which members believe their contributions matter, and feel some degree of social connection with one another (at the least they care what other people think about what they have created).” (3; emphasis mine)

In this sense, any DIY community is participatory; political pamphlets, zines, art books, and independent journalism match these same general properties: anyone can cut and paste, learn from the more experienced members of the scene, and of course feel socially connected with one another. Most importantly, in any DIY publishing community, the work circulates among audiences who also produce the content. This begs the question, if participatory cultures have existed with us since the beginning of mass literacy, why has the digital privliged DIY now more than ever. The obvious answer might be located in Jenkins’s first characteristic where contemporary participatory cultures have “relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement.” That is, anyone with a smartphone or access to a library computer can technically self-publish. You don’t have to spend $50 at Kinko’s to circulate your ideas on Facebook. I don’t want to contest that common sense response as much as I want to think more critically about how the field of comp/rhet has been perhaps eager to claim the digital as the dominant narrative for the imagined future of writing.

While Jody Shipka, Jay David Bolter or Ted Striphas might be more useful for exploring this question, I turn to Burke’s Rhetoric of Motives (ROM) not only because it’s our required reading in 631 this week, but because his concept of identification might allow us to better understand the new status of print inside and outside the classroom.

By the time Burke reaches his section on identification in ROM he’s discussed, among another things, the poems of Milton and Coleridge as they evoke the complexities of death in their work. In the case of both authors murder/suicide resists being reduced to a single motive. As such, no term can capture the motives in these cases, which is a purposeful move of the poet so as to employ image as transformation more generally. Burke chooses death/killing as topoi in ROM in order to illustrate the complexity of motive — as “proportions of a motivational recipe” (17) — but also to argue that depictions of death also identify a thing’s essence through its transformation. This is important for the concept of identification since “transformation involves the ideas and imagery of identification. That is: the killing of something is the changing of it, and the statement of the thing’s nature before and after the change is an identifying of it” (20). I may be perverting Burke here, but I wonder what the essence of print becomes when we declare its death. In a Burkean Burkeian sense, what is it transformed to?

I suppose, per usual, it depends on the context. When Kathleen Fitzpatrick describes the scholarly monograph in Planned Obsolescence, she calls it undead: “not viable, but still required” in the humanities. That is, while “the book” is indisputably the “gold standard for tenure” and promotion, the presses that publish the bound codex cannot support the number of academics writing them. As the title may suggest, Fitzpatrick argues that networked technologies such as Commentpress – which was used throughout the review process of Planned Obsolescence – are necessarily changing the way texts are born. Necessarily because ultimately Fitzpatrick’s argument is that the more grave obsolescence is not technological at all, but institutional: the process by which we produce, circulate, vet, and value the print monograph in the humanities is unsustainable. By declaring the scholarly monograph undead, Fitzpatrick is able to essentialize print, via the image of the zombie, as obsolete. What’s more, Fitzpatrick uses a material consubstantiation of the peer-to-peer network to propose a new way of doing peer review that is more in line with the academy’s needs in the 21st century.

According to Burke, consubstantiality occurs when two identities join as one:

“A is not identical with his colleague, B. But insofar as their interests are joined, A is identified with B. Or he may identify himself (sic) with B even when their interests are not joined, if he assumes that they are, or is persuaded to believe so… In being identified with B, A is “substantially one” with a person other than himself. Yet at the same time he remains unique, an individual locus of motives. Thus he is both joined and separate, at once a distinct substance and consubstantial with another… To identify A with B is to make A ‘consubstantial’ with B.” (20-21)

He goes on later in the section to argue that “[a] doctrine of consubstantiality … may be necessary to any way of life. For substance, in the old philosophies, was an act; and a way of life is an acting-together; and in acting together, men have common sensations, concepts, images, ideas, attitudes that make them consubstantial” (21). Fitzpatrick’s suggestion in Planned Obsolescence, then, is to increase the chances and frequency of consubstantiation via networked technologies. In doing so, our academic communities will limit the role of the monologic reviewer, but permit themselves to create something she calls “peer-to-peer review,” networked spaces such as blog-based platforms that “not only brings in more voices (which may identify more potential issues), and not only provides some ‘review of reviews’ (with reviewers weighing in on the issues raised by others), but is also crucially, a conversation.”

Through the process of conversation where rhetoric is at its center, identification and division compete. As Burke writes: “…put identification and division ambiguously together, so that you cannot know for certain just where one ends and the other begins, and you have the characteristic invitation to rhetoric” (25). Peer review, then becomes a contact zone for consubstantiality — and eventually as identifications takes hold, consensus and truth.

I think Fitzpatrick makes a fascinating and important case for how and why digital publishing networks can help bring the humanities into the 21st century. I’m on board. Yet, as my posts have asserted this semester, context is key. Again: how might the rush to declare print dead or undead transform it for other communities of practice? As Burke writes in Part II of ROM, how one uses rhetoric to gain advantage is dependent on audience: “The same rhetorical act could vary in its effectiveness, according to shifts in the situation of in the attitude of audiences” (62). Advantage, in other words, is defined by its context. Burke uses Aristotle, La Rochefoucauld and others to explain the different fruits that result form the concept of advantage: “happiness,” “love of glory,” “envy of others,” “desire for money,” etc. For Burke, the 21st century’s screen saturation might give print’s death a new meaning. For book makers, zine writers, and others who are involved in various DIY print communities, cool become that transcendent term. Advantage is gained through cultural capital (and obviously material capital since distinction in this context costs money). Yet as some would argue, DIY print texts are fundamentally detached from corporate networks, free from privacy compromises, terms of service agreements, and the like.

Aside from this, this semester is teaching me more than ever that print’s death can help defamiliarize visual rhetoric for “digitally native” students. That is, by asking students to put together booklets or zines, they literally see how form affects function and that they must think about audience in perhaps more experimental, riskier ways. In Burkean Burkeian terms, it helps students think that consubstantiation isn’t always intentional, but incidental.

Riot Grrrl & the Second and Third Persona

Re-immersing myself in the past and present of zines has allowed me to reconsider the larger network of youth sub/cultures that have used them for their own action and activism. For instance in Girls to the Front, Sara Marcus’s excellent book, feminist punk bands Bratmobile and Bikini Kill circulated their own zines, like Riot Grrrl, to promote their shows in DC, argue against Clarence Thomas’s justice nomination, and advance a DIY cut-n-paste aesthetic to contest glossy, teen-girl magazines like Seventeen. Another example: skateboarding culture in California in the 70s and 80s were helped by zines like Skateboarding Magazine and Thrasher, which featured overviews of skate spots, new tricks, profiles of skaters, and the visual rhetoric within: stunning photography of skaters and the designs of their boards. In many cases these zine scenes were made up of rhetors and audiences who reciprocated roles. The friends who were reading Riot Grrrl or Skateboarding were also in the bands, showcased in the pictures, etc.

While DIY communities exist across and within every age from carpenters to scrapbookers to micro brewers, I imagine that youth subcultures in particular present important affordances to rhetorical inquiry. For one, as teachers, it might help us to draw from examples that our students can relate to; perhaps more importantly for rhetorical theory is how such young rhetors negotiate being simultaneously vulnerable and emerging (that is, powerless but invigorated). This is especially interesting since so often youth subcultures are presented as flipping the script of the traditional rhetoric-action paradigm as action-first, rhetoric-later: the music came before the zines and the skating preceded the photos. Even if this is only a mirage (itself a rhetorical construction) or just a reduction of the rhetorical situation, I wonder why it seems this way? Probably more accurate is to say the action itself posits a certain kind of rhetoric. Certainly tricking rail slides and grinds at a local mall or playing a punk show in a bra has a certain effect on an audience.

In terms of audience, three concepts seem to dominate rhetorical theory: the First, Second, and Third Persona. The First Persona is the implied author, a self-constructed author. According to Philip Wander, the First Persona includes “a speaker and a speaker’s intent,” “the ‘I'” (369). The Second Persona is the listener(s), and conceives of the audience as auditors. Wander defines the Third Persona as “audiences not present, audiences rejected or negated through the speech and/or the speaking situation.” It is what’s negated by the Second Persona: “[t]he potentiality of language to commend being [the Second Persona] carries with it the potential to spell out being unacceptable, undesirable, insignificant” (370). The Third Persona functions as alienation, but also silence to prevent beings from producing texts or discourse that would circulate in public spaces.

Sara Marcus’s book might give readers a sense of this Third Persona as it existed for women of the late 80s/early 90s punk scene, who struggled to be visible both in and out of that scene. Even within feminist discourses of the early 90s, pioneers like Kathleen Hannah of Bikini Kill felt alienated by anti-pornography advocates like Andrea Dworkin. As a stripper who also worked as a counselor at a women’s shelter, Hannah felt the effects of the Third Persona running through feminist discourse. That said, after several attempts at writing an starting bands she met Tobi Vail and started Bikini Kill, thus starting a movement and engaging what Edwin Black calls the Second Persona.

According to Black the Second Persona occurs when rhetors use stylistic, idiomatic tokens — metaphors, topos — to tap into an ideology that influences the auditor: “auditors look to the discourse they are attending for cues that tell them how they are to view the world even beyond the expressed concerns, the overt propositional sense, of the discourse” (334). As Black sees it, the modern teleology is a “quest for identity” and as such auditors continually look for tokens that reinforce their imagined life (335). We are encouraged “not simply to believe something, but to be something” (339). As Wander puts it, the Second Persona reveals itself when the audience is “commended through discourse” (369). It “exists as a fact and an invitation” (369). A zine like Riot Grrrl, then, asked its readers to not just become part of the revolution, but to be it as the Hannah/Vail coined slogan was Revolution Girl Style Now.

As Sara Marcus reports, the first issue’s centerfold included a manifesto-like list of imperatives (which she says could be seen as Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hannah’s notes-to-self):

Recognize that you are not the center of the universe.
Figure out how the idea of winning and losing fits into your relationships.
Be as vulnerable as you possibly can.
Recognize vulnerability and empathy as strengths.
Don’t allow the fact that other people have been assholes to you make you into a bitter and abusive person.
Commit to the revolution as a method of psychological and physical survival. (85)

As Black would see it, the syntax, diction and second-person point of view of the imperatives serve as cues for readers to help picture an imagined life among a very small (at the time) riot grrrl movement that was working its voice into an already politically committed youth subculture of punk and underground music. Perhaps more interesting to me is how the visual rhetoric of cut-n-paste — the appropriated Superwoman iconography and potato chip logos — also serve as stylized tokens to export an ideology. In other words, while the content is fairly banal, the form of the zine is what made the riot grrrl movement persuasive to audiences.

For a time, anyway. As grunge became popular and rock stars like Courtney Love re-appropriated riot grrrl aesthetic in 1993, the original stylized tokens lost their potency. I’m not even mid-way through Marcus’s book but I’ll be curious to see how this narrative plays out. Regardless, the relationship between action and rhetoric may be slightly better understood through theories of audience that make room for more fluidity. Under what conditions, for instance, would an alienated youth subculture, which is born out of a necessity of talking to itself, break free and begin to reach other listeners? In terms of rhetorical theory, perhaps the question goes like this: what theories might account for how the rhetoric of youth subculture use the Second Persona to move away from its status of the Third? And how does this movement, paradoxically, risk sublimating itself back to a status of the Third (that is, via its subsequent appropriation)? Mid-way through my contemporary rhetorics course, I’m seeing rhetorical ecologies as the most useful approach to these sorts of questions.