Care and Caution: Rhetoric, Mashed Up

Image credit: “Girl Talk” by reallyboring

In my “New Media and the Futures of Writing” course, students are currently “mashing up” rhetorical theories. This class has been an attempt to answer the question: What are the futures of writing? The first half of the course offered one answer to this question: procedurality. We read research on procedural authorship from Michael Mateas, Andrew Stern, Janet Murray, Ian Bogost, and others, and each student engaged in procedural authorship by writing interactive fiction with Inform7. I was happy with how these projects turned out, and students did a nice job of exploring the possibilities of procedural writing. It’s not often that you get English majors to write code, and these students put together some interesting projects.

The second half of the course addresses the question of the futures of writing by examining the mashup. If procedurality was envisioned as one future of writing (both in theory and practice), this unit takes up the mashup as another promising theory of writing. We began by watching a portion of RIP: A Remix Manifesto, a film that deals with issues of free culture and copyright. My main focus was not actually on copyright but rather on the compositional method of the mashup. The film shows Greg Gillis (a.k.a. Girl Talk, pictured above at a performance in Chicago) explaining how he creates a mashup, and it makes the argument that all culture (music, film, etc.) builds on the past.

The remainder of the course will be devoted to reading rhetorical theorists and mashing up their theories. Students take one ancient theorist and one modern theorist, summarize each, and then mash them together to create their own rhetorical concept. The idea here is to make theory rather than apply it. The final project will ask students to show one of their rhetorical mashups in action (through some sort of multimedia project). The project is inspired by various theorists, not least of which is Greg Ulmer, whose Internet Invention was the first text to get me thinking along these lines.

Recently, I revisited Bruno Latour’s “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern,” an essay that also provides a justification for this series of mashup assignments. In this essay, Latour tries to come to terms with critical work (he includes his own in this group) that has insisted that knowledge is constructed. As he sees it, such work has ended up justifying those who argue that global warming is a hoax and that 9/11 was an inside job. For Latour, “a certain form of critique has sent us down the wrong path, encouraging us to fight the wrong enemies and, worst of all, to be considered as friends by the wrong sort of allies” (231). He is concerned that critique has led various academic disciplines away from facts (“everything is constructed, thus there are no facts”) instead of toward facts (“everything is constructed, thus we should look carefully at how they are constructed”).

Rhetorical theory has, like most humanistic disciplines, been guilty of this kind of criticism. We often use theory to pull back the curtain, to show how the mechanism works. This isn’t wrong. But it’s only one approach. Further (and this is not something Latour necessarily focuses on), we have been more likely to teach our undergraduates to apply theory than to teach them how to make theory. This is what I think these rhetorical mashups might help with. Latour’s description of the critic is helpful here:

“The critic is not the one who debunks, but the one who assembles. The critic is not the one who lifts the rugs from under the feet of the naive believers, but the one who offers the participants arenas in which to gather. The critic is not the one who alternates haphazardly between antifetishism and positivism like the drunk iconoclast drawn by Goya, but the one for whom, if something is constructed, then it means it is fragile and thus in great need of care and caution.” (246)

Care and caution. This is an ethical assumption that is not typically associated with the mashup. Most see a Girl Talk track mixing together 25 songs with very little care or caution. But if you listen carefully to these tracks and to how Gillis describes his work, you’ll hear a close attention to history. Gillis is attuned to the histories of music. Though he’s playing with music and rearranging it, he’s respectful of where each slice of culture comes from.

My hope is that the rhetorical mashups that students in my class are creating will have this same attention to care and caution. We’ll spend time understanding what these theorists are doing, and then we’ll see what happens when we put them together. What rhetorical resources emerge when we assemble these theories in new ways? What new rhetorical theories might these students develop as they consider the various futures of writing?

We may not write the equivalent of Aristotle’s Rhetoric with these mashups, but I do think that students will leave this class with a very different sense of what it means to write and to theorize. Their job is not to apply theory to a text. Instead, I am asking them to make theory.

If you want to see some of this work as it emerges, check out our blog: New Media and the Futures of Writing. A description of the rhetorical mashup assignment can be found at the course website.

One Trackback

  1. By Composition Mashed Up | jarg[]nc[]mputer on May 27, 2011 at 1:54 am

    […] to be the discipline’s concern for praxis.  To this end, I find promise in Jim Brown’s recent efforts; efforts which might be summed up by his suggestion that mash-ups provide students a way of […]

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