digital rhetoric

Geoffrey Sirc @ Computers and Writing

Geoffery Sirc spoke this evening at the Computers and Writing conference and raised a number of thoughts for me.

Sirc approached composition from the context of Minimalism, in particular the sense that composition is combinatory and iterative, with an emphasis on the materiality of the combining units rather than on their message/content or on relations/tensions between units (as in a classic formalist approach common to both rhetoric and literary studies). Of course, I started putting this in my own context (oh, to be a better listener!). My main experience with Minimalism is with Donald Judd and visiting his installations down in Marfa, TX (if you’re ever in Big Bend country, it’s worth the trip to Marfa–which is, I believe, the only town in the state with an elected Green Party official). But I digress. Anyway, I can certainly see this combinatory/iterative method in minimalism.

It also makes complete sense in digital composition. What could be more combinatory/iterative than a series of zeroes and ones? Damn the content they make!

But Sirc doesn’t stop there. He also wants to talk about what I would term selection in composition, specifically the phenomenon of the mix tape. As Dan Anderson (who gave a great presentation on my panel btw) asked, are we supposed to see the songs on the mix tape as analogous to the iterative combinations of materials in a minimalist sculpture? Clearly we can’t, at least not exactly. I mean digital songs are ones and zeros, but the songs themselves?

No, there’s certainly something else going on here that perhaps can be reconciled to the iterative and combinatory. Sirc discusses this selection process in terms of the sublime, of flow, and a sense of cool. That is, how do you know how to make a good mix tape? Put simply, you just have to put together songs that sound cool. Then, I suppose, there are other rhetorical considerations depending on the occassion for the mix tape.

Affectivity is the workaround for the formalism that the selection process might imply. Song selection on the mix tape is not a formal tension of elements a la New Critical formalism. That is, we’re talking about a feeling here, a mood. Affect is combinatory and iterative. Think about it strictly on sensory and cognitive terms. The music is sound waves: frequencies and amplitudes striking the ear and sparking electro-chemical reactions. When we remark, "this mix is cool," we gesture to a somewhat ineffable, sublime affective experience. Then perhaps we attempt to formalize that experience, to apprehend it, but that’s a matter to discuss at a different time.

So what might this have to do with writing?  The other element Sirc introduced was composition pedagogy, and what in this context we might term an overdetermined sense of formalism. And here one must distinguish between formalism and form. I don’t mean to suggest a binary where form is "bad." Form just is; there’s no need for judgment. On the other hand, form is our partial apprehension of materiality. It can be useful, but not if we mistake it for materiality. We don’t compose in forms. We compose in combinatory, iterative materials from which we might apprehend forms.

Anyway, I’ve been up since 5AM. Must sleep.


2 replies on “Geoffrey Sirc @ Computers and Writing”

Molecules don’t behave according to the properties of individual atoms but to their interactions. So, it’s not strange that mood doesn’t correspond to the individual elements of the mix tape, but to understand mood, we would need to look at the interactions of those elements, which brings us to the ways in which they combine and iterate.
Along these lines, I wouldn’t make a distinction between material and form, but between the behavior of materials at one level and the behavior of materials at another level. Or perhaps we could say that form and material simply refer to differ levels similar to the levels of nucleons, atoms, molecules, etc. That is, the form of one level becomes the material of another level.


I agree. In a way it’s a whole is greater than the sum kind of perspective, which I guess is necessary to sublimity. It’s also what is problematic for formalism, which wants to understand the whole through relations between parts.
You’re right also that form is another kind of material, that when we apprehend forms we are producing more material–which is somewhat related to my next post or at least I think it will be since I haven’t written it yet.


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