digital rhetoric

exposing assemblages: ten years on

A decade ago I published an article in Enculturation titled “Exposing Assemblages: Unlikely Communities of Digital Scholarship, Video, and Social Networks.” It concluded with this.

Through the mapping of the social-material assemblages of scholarly video production, one can develop tactics for investigating and activating these thresholds, these relations of exteriority. From this perspective, one would see exposure as an integral element of all composition and communication, with the added caveat that, within some assemblages, processes of territorialization and coding tend to limit the potential for mutation. At the current moment, the overcoding and territorializing forces common to print scholarship are not as strong or prevalent for video scholarship, and media networks further deterritorialize these practices by disseminating video beyond the reach of disciplinary organizing forces. Instead, in the crowded space of a social media network where scholars post videos and texts, sometimes in direct response to others, other times as tangential compositions, and yet others as intentionally collaborative efforts, there are regular opportunities for exposure. In a way, it is what scholars fear most: to be exposed (as frauds, etc.). Perhaps it is that fear that keeps many scholars from blogging or Facebook or even posting on email listservs, or perhaps it is the recognition that scholarly identity and authority are secured by remaining within disciplinary territories. In this same moment, however, these overcoding and territorializing forces appear to be approaching a crisis in operation as the traditional mechanisms of scholarly publication, hiring, and student enrollment in our majors falter. It is here that one might think in terms of Agamben’s apparatus. The pseduo-sacred qualities of the humanities, if not the university in general, face exposure and profanation in social media. This is both threat and opportunity. Exposure to the decoding, deterritorializing potential of a communitarian video network might present scholars with opportunities to produce new assemblages, new relations of exteriority, that might lead scholarship and discipline into new, more productive and dynamic activities. Davis has already suggested how communitarian writers might take up relations of exteriority: “They do not aim to establish a stable and authoritative ethos nor to put forth an unambiguous message; they aim to amplify the irreparable instability and extreme vulnerability to which any writing necessarily testifies” (139). As such, the point is neither to turn scholarship toward video because it is intrinsically better than print, nor because video represents something exciting or attractive. In fact, scholarly engagement with video may only be transitory on a path elsewhere. Indeed, that engagement will undoubtedly be transitory, if only in the sense that one may now realize that our engagement with print has been transitory. Instead, the “point” is to consider what particular opportunities for transit video networks might offer. This consideration will include an examination of, and experimentation with, the technical, rhetorical, and disciplinary parts of scholarly video network assemblages, where one will engage the particular capacities that emerge among these relations of exteriority. Through video network scholars’ exposure to these thresholds new potentials for humanistic scholarship and community might emerge.

(This video was part of that essay. It’s 10 years old now, but I’d still love to hear what you think of it.)

I will confess that I did not remotely anticipate the unlikely video and online communities in which we find ourselves today. Since then we could say we have learned a great deal more about how we’ve exposed ourselves to surveillance, data mining, algorithmic manipulation, etc., to say nothing of the more obvious exposures of social media posts, photos, videos, and now, of course, zooming into our students’ and colleagues’ homes.

There is an extensive, though increasingly familiar, list of cautions and critiques that stem from this exposure. I write a fair bit about those. But here, just for a change, I’m more interested in the experimental opportunities to expand our capacities for communication and collaboration, for rhetoric.

For 25 years, one of the challenges rhetoric/composition scholars have faced has been adapting to the reality that we can’t “just” help students learn how to communicate by writing essays in MS-Word. Part of this has been the longer struggle with recognizing the many print-based genres across disciplines and professions, but even that (never-overcome) struggle is ancient history now. The other, and I’d say larger, part has been responding to the digital shift in communication practices. The current crisis has only amplified an evolving situation that we have largely ignored as a discipline. As I (and many others) argued 10, 20 or more years ago, we made a gamble that digital media wouldn’t transform our lives. And we were wrong… so very wrong. And maybe, right now, we should be thankful, because as much as we all might hate Zoom or teaching online, at least we didn’t have to cancel the spring semester. At least, we haven’t had to tell students “don’t bother registering for classes in the fall.”

In our current situation, I recognize that I have the benefit of affording the necessary technology and a room in my house that is a dedicated office/stage for working and synchronous video instruction. At the same time, I recognize that the same structural advantages accrued to me in face-to-face classes. In short, it’s harder to be a TA or adjunct regardless of the modality of instruction (though our current crisis makes that more evident).

But let me take you back to the passage I quoted, because, let’s be honest, who reads block quotes? We are in a moment of transit. I suppose we should say that’s what time always is, a point of departure, in media res. And we feeling exposed and uncanny in this moment where we are unexpectedly revealed on video, in our homes, etc. We are exposed by simultaneously disconnected. As Jean-Luc Nancy might say (and I’m paraphrasing here), what does our online community share? Nothing except the space between.

That is, we share our disconnection.

But that’s an “always already” condition. It’s one to which we’ve acclimatized in our legacy media ecologies but feel poignantly now: exposed before, but separated from, our community. We all feel that way. Our students feel that way.

In this context the challenge is building new rhetorical assemblages. And I get it if you want to say that now is not the time, that we are all just trying to get by and survive. I can agree to that, if you can agree that the exigency we feel so strongly now has been around for 20 years and will be here once we get past this crisis. I am sure there are many lessons we might learn from this experience… about social justice, about the environment, about our economy about our communal values, about education, and so on. I will just add that another we can learn is about digital rhetoric, and though it may sound narrow or esoteric it lies at the heart of our ability to move forward as a community and polis with this medium.

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