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CCCC 2004: Review

Review: Featured N session: “Some Things That Matter About New Media for Composition”
Reviewed by: David Hudson, Dhudson@gw.hamline.edu
Posted on: April 9, 2004

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Chair: Scott Lloyd DeWitt

The new writing will be “ugly, strange, and rude” according to Anne Wysocki, speaking at the featured session, “Some Things That Matter About New Media for Composition.”  This must be so, she said, if we are to open ourselves to writing and design paradigms that challenge inherited and often unseen conventions.  Wysocki’s theme was taken up in a variety of ways by the other speakers, who each presented examples of work that reconstructed notions of text, language, authorship, and medium.

In “New Media Materials: the Matter of Software,” Madeleine Sorapure discussed the creative community that has gathered around Macromedia’s multimedia development program, Flash.  Flash isn’t just for animation anymore.  At least partly in response to users, Macromedia has redesigned Flash as a vehicle for textual, as well as graphic, communication.  Sorapure points out that this is part of an ambitious business strategy, but it has also, perhaps unintentionally, created a space where the traditional boundaries of writing and reading can be expanded.  The promise of hypertext was to break text out of its linear confinement.  Now, as content, text is truly free to move around the page/screen, “morph” into something new, and do these things often in response to an “event” initiated by a user.  

But the implications for definitions of text and writing are larger than this.  Sorapure identifies three other “modes or types of writing in Flash: writing as . . . image, as code, and as conversation.”  In the Lycette brothers’ work, letters become part of an animated structure; the world we see is literally constructed out of an alphabet.  And, of course, underlying and controlling all Flash productions, as it does HTML, is code.  Sorapure draws our attention to the political function of this formal and restricted language, which is “given” to the initiated user and both enables and restricts her or him in the creation of meaning.  Finally, Sorapure identifies the conversational and community-building function of writing engendered by Flash, as users include comments and helpful information in the code to be shared with other developers.  

This sharing of expertise characterizes the Flash culture, according to Sorapure: “Although Flash is proprietary software, there is something like an open-source feel. . . .”  Had there been more time, it would have been interesting to discuss the potential conflicts inherent in this statement.  How, for instance, do the goals and interests of collaborative writers and artists relate to the corporate strategy of the program’s marketers?

In “Seeing Stereoscopically, Seeing Generously,” Anne Wysocki is interested in the ways that meaning, or as she says “depth,” can be created out of antithesis.  Just as the brain creates three-dimensional perception, or depth, out of two images, one from each eye, a similar process can add another dimension to writing that presents alternating and/or contrasting perspectives on its material.  To illustrate this point Wysocki used a book written by one of her students, Karen.  Karen’s sister has William’s Syndrome, a congenital condition that has affected her development, and particularly the way that she is seen and treated by others.  In constructing her book, Karen juxtaposes pages of journal-like reflection with authoritative and impersonal medical information.  These contrasting elements are never resolved or even referred to.  The “tension is,” as Wysocki puts it, “held on the page, but we create the depth within us.”  This stereoscopic analogy (“not quite a metaphor”) allows for a bridging of traditional modes of expression and the necessary participation of readers, who, one might imagine, reconstruct that stereoscopic image in different ways.  As if to reinforce this point, Karen’s book also invites the reader to write on its pages, thus blurring the line between author and reader and emphasizing the collaborative ethos of the book.
 
Wysocki’s model evokes a suspended dialectical movement: thesis and antithesis remain un-synthesized.  Just as in the stereoscope, the two images must remain distinct for the extra-dimensional effect to occur.  Of course, the deliberate use of juxtaposition isn’t new; it’s a recurring feature of modernist and post-modernist literature.  And Wysocki points out that her print example isn’t really “new media” at all.  But thinking about this work within the frame of reference of new media, where writing technologies have thrown traditional relations and techniques into play, reveals something about the invisibility of choices that have already been made for us.  It helps us, as she says, “see rhetorical potential where rhetorical decisions had already been made.”  Thus the writer, and presumably the reader, is freer to explore new relationships with the work and with each other, but only if, she urges, “we are generous to production.”  

The question, I suppose, is how generous we are prepared to be in allowing the meaning of a text to fluctuate, in confounding expectations, and in demanding the collaboration of readers.  I suspect some environments (the arts journal, the creative writing classroom) will tolerate more tolerance than others.  Ellen Cushman confronts this question in “The Changing Nature of Readers, Writers, and Literacy.”  Here we encounter “Phil,” a computer-literate “usability tester” trying to make sense of a website (Cushman’s) that refuses to behave as a website should: no identifiable menus, no apparent organizational logic, and, worst of all for the computer savvy, no readable code to decipher.  Phil reacts with perhaps justifiable frustration.  Of course the secrets of the site will give themselves up eventually to the “performer” who has patience, time, and the inclination to solve puzzles.  But, as in Wysocki’s example, the reader/performer must have a high tolerance for dissonance, and a willingness to collaborate with the “composer,” in a sense to become a composer as well.  And this runs counter to our rhetorical inheritance, where “we have tried to mitigate, avoid, or eliminate dissonance.”  Rather, Cushman argues, we must use dissonance to “excite interest and learning.”  In this context, usability conventions, rather than being helpful guideposts, actually limit our performance and creation of new media.

There’s a kind of optimism in all of these accounts of the changing relationship of readers to texts and readers to writers.  They depict a new writing landscape where we are free, free of the restraints of proscribed spatial arrangements, of static ink on paper, free of the need for binding conventions, and finally free of the limiting roles of producer and consumer.  This is heady stuff, and empowering for students and instructors alike.  I particularly like the idea that new media reveals the arbitrary nature of writing conventions and thus their availability as choices.  It has also made me consider how often I have, following the lead of available textbooks, enforced conventions on beginning web designers.  (“The menu has to go over here or users won’t know where to find it.”  “You need to explain the purpose of your site on the home page.”  “Visitors won’t work so hard to figure out what you are doing.”)  I have probably been more insistent about these matters when dealing with new media than I have been with traditional kinds of writing, feeling that the new landscape of the web needs a set of rules, a navigational grammar.  

Perhaps this is why I keep coming back to Phil, scratching his head and floundering with his mouse in a vain attempt to find a link, figure out a connection.  He may be on the verge of a great experience if he has “time and luxury,” in Cushman’s words.  But he may also be on his way to another site, somewhere less coy, where the information he needs is accessible and the “process” doesn’t substitute for, or at least compete with, the product.  I think I am more like Phil most of the time, when I am looking for a tax form, or accessing my e-mail, or researching hot water heaters.  I want the writer to anticipate my needs, to reduce ambiguity, and to meet me far more than half way.  I want conventions.  Other times, in other contexts, I will enjoy meeting a writer in a place where we can make meaning together.  It may be online, or it may be in a volume of Faulkner.  

My reading practice, then, if not my writing practice, exists in a suspended dialectic of its own, and I suspect I am not alone.  But the proliferation of new media and new forms promises to free us (or prevent us) from relying so much on our expectations.  We will cultivate a tolerance and even a taste for dissonance.  This re-mapping of the writing landscape, as these speakers have shown us, will not only add “depth” to the two dimensions of the linear page, but it will also reveal something about the constraints of the path we have taken to get here.  


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