Composition Studies vs. Creative Writing

May 31, 2010 § Leave a comment

>Brian Evenson is the Chair of the Literary Arts Program at Brown University. It is a well-respected writing program. A few years ago, after taking the position at Brown, Evenson published an article called “Notes on Fiction and Philosophy” in the journal, Symploke. It is significant because he was candid about writing, pedagogy, and the future of fiction. According to Evenson:

To move to an understanding of late 20th and early 21st century fiction, the first step is to move out of the 4th century B.C.: to let go of the Aristotelian notions that still dominate most thinking about fiction in writing workshops today. Indeed, one of the paradoxes of the institutionalization and burgeoning of writing programs has here been that most of these programs are much less interested in pointing to fiction’s present – let alone fiction’s future – than in preserving fiction as an eternal past tense. Discussions of setting, plot, character, theme, etc., their parameters derived from Aristotle, seem hardly to have advanced beyond New Criticism’s neo-Aristotelianism; and when a workshop student says “I didn’t find the character believable,” usually the model for believability is firmly entrenched in 19th century notions of consistency that have probably less to do with how real 21st century people act (not to mention 19th century people) than with specific, and often dated, literary conventions. (96)

The aesthetics of newness are just as present in the Creative Writing world as they are in academia in general. In my previous post, I discussed the “newness” that surrounds the term multimodality. In this post I want to make connections to the innovativeness a writer and teacher like Evanson calls for and the overlap in newness coming from Composition Studies and the pressures on writing programs from the university at large.

What’s interesting to me about Evenson’s lament above is that modernism, with its emphasis on the new, has been unable to shirk its own overwhelmingly conservative past. It is the aesthetics of modernism that dominate the educational (and presumably commercial) environment. This is not simply to label Evenson a “modernist.” I think Evenson’s aesthetic concerns speak to larger cultural forces, forces which affect the university at large as a place where human understanding is collected and produced.

No matter how much emphasis there is on experimentalism, experimentalism as a mode itself is constitutive of a limit experience. There is a boundary; it must be determined and broken. Again here, I see a connection to psychedelic culture, in which aesthetic decisions often arise from the perceived limits of perception or consciousness. Experimentalism remains the mode of modernity and postmodernity as well. Limits are sought, defined, and eventually broken. Or, as is the case with the Oulipo writers, constraint or limit becomes the source of the production itself.

I was recently in the audience for a graduate student presentation at the University of Denver. The student had received a fellowship for her fourth year of funding to write her dissertation. Her dissertation, as a creative writing student, was a version of her novel. The presentation was to be the summation of a year’s worth of work, a sort of public announcement to say, “This is what I’ve done with my funding; hope you like it!”

After the reading, during question and answer time, the student was challenged (rather aggressively), by a Literary Studies professor (a professor who specializes in drama from the English Restoration) on the basis that her novel had not actually done anything new. An argument ensued over what degree of control any author might have over the reception of his or her work, what sort of control the author has over the reader. The student, interestingly, played along with the challenge, defending what her intentions were.

It was a Poetry professor, who, after multiple attempts to get a word in, suggested that it may not have necessarily been the point to “reinvent” the novel. I thought about his comments in relation to Evanson’s piece. Evenson claims:

I am of the opinion that the most authentic service a writing program can do writing students is to give them an aesthetic base, introduce them to different philosophies and aesthetic ideas – current as well as past – making available to them different models for understanding fiction. For, just as what readers see in a text is determined by the models they bring, consciously or unconsciously, to bear on a text, so too the writer’s ability to construct and revise his own text is determined by the differing philosophical and aesthetic ideas he has both consciously and unconsciously internalized. What is important is not so much finding the right model – there isn’t one – as allowing writers to locate themselves within a field that contains varied philosophical and aesthetic possibilities, and to see their own position as always potentially fluid. Indeed, if there is a future in fiction, I think it lies in the active dialogue that can occur between fiction and philosophy / theory, a dialogue in which each prods the other toward new possibilities, where each poses questions that the other is compelled to answer. (97)

I go into detail to explain Evenson’s position as a counterstatement and a challenge to Composition Studies.

This is because, in the professional sphere, there is a divide between Composition Studies and Creative Writing. It is an unbelievably stupid divide, but it is very present, and it nevertheless affects careers. It is not always a clear-cut divide. There are many creative writers who teach composition, and there are many within composition studies who write beyond the discipline itself. In a way, to write about the divide is to write the divide. And indeed, the climate will change from university to university, department to department, but it is relatively easy to note points of tension. Still, I believe the divide exists as a cultural force that is ultimately damaging.

I have been writing about multimodality lately, and I’ve been trying to tease out some of the implications, the connotations surrounding the term. In the writing world, multimodality is a term associated professionally with Composition Studies, not Creative Writing. This is not to say creative writers are not multimodal. Indeed, as one creative writer informed me, multimodality is merely a term Composition Studies uses to appropriate and colonize the “creative” disciplines, a domesticating term.

In some ways, it’s a tension between theory and practice. Arnold Schoenberg, in his Theory of Harmony points to ways music theory teachers of his time created a system of aesthetic rules which they dogmatically stood behind because they had no proper way to evaluate student innovation. The theorist was a theorist because he wasn’t a good enough practitioner.

In the writing world, the stereotypical example of Schoenberg’s kind of theorist teaches composition. Composition classes at their beginning were remedial and mandatory (see Robert Connor’s Composition Rhetoric for a more detailed account). They remain mandatory, and professionally, they remain remedial. This perpetuates the assumption that those who teach composition are doing so because they are not good enough at whatever academic area they “really wanted to be in.” It is similar to the stereotypes of the “Community College Professor” and the adjunct: not-quite-professional-or-distinctive-enough-to-be-taken-seriously-as-a-professional. Unglorified graduate students or non-intellectuals, content with a status quo income, whatever prestige comes with no manual labor, the perfect job for type-A’s who want to think of themselves as having some authority so they run their own classrooms, go home to suburban families, or to play Rockband on Wii. A friend of mine, a fiction writer, recently summed up the difficulties creative writers have in graduate school when they are “forced” to teach composition or take pedagogy courses related to composition: “It’s like getting married, being so excited to spend the rest of your life with that person, and then being told that you will have to accept that your partner will sleep with other people. It undermines everything you did to get where you are.”

Moving through the University system, one knows where the symbolic power lies. Let me give you another example.

At the institution where I am in progress toward my degree in Rhetoric / and Theory in English, the University recently instituted a Writing Across the Curriculum program. Separate from English Studies, the Writing Program emphasizes writing skills across disciplinary divides. In theory, this is well and good. This is partly because it emphasizes writing as a skill that is not learned at one time, as well as emphasizing a skill that does not remain the same in each context. It attempts to show professors from various disciplines that they must take a more active role in instructing their students as to the conventions specific to their discipline. Conversely, as a centralizing feature, there is an emphasis on rhetorical skills, writing for different audiences. Students explore a variety of exigencies and take writing intensive courses in their own majors. Instructors in those departments receive special attention to help create writing intensive courses.

Well intentioned as these goals are, the writing instructors for these courses continue to be the “bitches” of the university. Even in a writing program where most instructors already have PhD’s, there is the feeling that they merely do service work for the university at large – a university more concerned with training business professionals, soccer moms, and philistines in general – at the expense of research in their field. Perhaps my situation is different than other graduate students’ situations at large state institutions, where English professors are paid up to $30,000 more a year, despite my private university’s “elite status.”

As a graduate student, I worked for two years in the University Writing Center. During that time, I fielded phone calls from a Sociology professor who had been on sabbatical for a year and was wondering if, during her time away, writing had changed because her students’ writing was awful. She was calling to complain because she sent them to the writing center after their first paper, and now, grading their second paper, they had not improved. Anyone who has worked as a writing instructor or “tutored” in a writing center has a similar anecdote. Perpetually built into the narrative of that profession is that you are seen as the writing janitor by both students and academics outside the small enclave of people who regularly perform self-help types of staff meetings where we try to pretend that we are fun and maybe a little bit kookie. I personally enjoy one on one work with students, but I know damn well I will never get paid as well to be a writing center consultant than the two years I spent doing it for my funding in graduate school. Professors who claim that graduate student must accept that, whether they like it or not they will most likely have to teach composition wherever they land a job only reinforce the hierarchical structure which is itself destructive.

In English Studies, if Composition classes are still held within an English department, they are taught by a majority of graduate students and / or adjunct professors. As such, they are looked down on by everyone. Even professors with positive attitudes toward teaching Composition have research interests above and beyond teaching Composition. I myself have now taught Composition for seven years, and though I respect it as necessary (and even enjoy it at times!), I can’t help feeling like an indentured servant. People in English Studies specialize in everything they can to avoid teaching Composition, leaving those who do teach it to be considered less intellectual and less important. This has been going on since the 1870s. Symbolic power goes a long ways.

As a result, a culture has developed – a self-perpetuating one – where not only is teaching Composition seen as unintellectual, but where those who do take teaching Composition seriously have insulated themselves against other academic disciplines as a defense mechanism.

Over the past forty years or so, Composition Studies has risen as a discipline whose identity is a reaction-formation against traditional notions of English Studies. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the parallel development between the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) and the conference of Associated Writing Programs (AWP). As Doug Hesse, who is among the elite in Composition Studies, claims in the tellingly titled article “The Place of Creative Writing in Composition Studies” [my italics]:

The distinctions between these meetings and their sponsoring organizations are tellingly metonymic of contrasts between academic creative writing and composition studies. CCCC features writing teachers who are also scholars of rhetoric, writing, and communication; AWP features writers who are often teachers and, very occasionally, scholars of writing. CCCC has maintained more or less a membership steady state with a fairly narrow target membership of people who hold teaching positions. AWP has been relatively entrepreneurial, seeking not only writers in the academy but writers beyond. Over the decades, the exhibits at CCCC have dwindled with every publisher consolidation to a couple of booths; in 2009 the exhibits at AWP occupied three large halls in the Chicago Hilton with hundreds of presses and journals. In 2010 the exhibit space at Denver’s Colorado Convention Center was even vaster. (2)

Hesse’s concerns in this paragraph speak directly to the ability of the AWP “types” to speak to a vibrant publishing world outside the university. While there is not necessarily an economical advantage to this wider exposure, it does arguably speak to a wider (and definitely more innovative) audience. This is odd because, as Hesse continues:

Content with growing on its own terms, creative writing in all but rare cases performs no service role, aspires to no “across the curriculum” infiltration of chemistry or sociology, worries little about assessment. (2-3)

So, while Creative Writing, according to Hesse, shirks a sort of civic responsibility, it maintains a cultural resonance that Composition Studies lacks. Hesse admits that Composition Studies “types” are envious of Creative Writers who get to teach “eager students, ” and “no one asks, ‘why can’t students coming from your course not even develop a single character” (3).

The Creative Writing world, meanwhile, if they hear these complaints at all, hear it as a kind of incessant moaning deserving the response: why do that? Or, as one Creative Writing professor explained to me: “It’s not that I don’t respect Composition as a discipline…I respect it the same way I do Engineering or Chemistry.”

With statements like this, Hesse’s job is challenging, for he concludes in his article that Composition Studies must be more attentive to Creative Writing.

When creative writing and composition studies have little to do with one another, the division truncates not only what we teach but how writing gets understood (or misunderstood) by our students, our colleagues, and the spheres beyond. (Hesse 5)

While Hesse calls for more integration, he also clearly reveals his allegiances, which does not necessarily make him a good candidate for peacemaker.

It remains to be seen whether “creative writing” will soon explore multimodality to the extent composition studies has, or whether many of its practitioners and apologists would see student videos as manifestations of “creative writing.” I hope it might be because the new media offer a complex (if not altogether neutral) turf to which we might bring our different traditions, exploring more commonalities even as we respect our dissimilar orientations and aspirations. Failing that, though, I suggest that composition studies unilaterally explore the place of creative writing – of creative composing – in teaching, in scholarship, and in our expanded sense of ourselves as textmakers. (25)

I fundamentally disagree with Hesse when he says, “It remains to be seen whether ‘creative writing’ will soon explore multimodality to the extent composition studies has.” However, reluctantly, I agree with his conclusion. I say reluctant because, as Hesse’s sentencing suggests, the cultural divide between Creative Writing and Composition Studies may be too difficult for academics of his generation to bridge. From what I see as a young professional, the disciplinary divides between these two disciplines are poisonous, and Hesse is too quick in his last sentence, his research (which relies on creative writers’ statements published in Composition Studies sources), and the title of his article to relegate creative writing beneath the disciplinary heading: Composition Studies. My fear is that Hesse’s article, well-intentioned as it seems – and correct in some ways – insulates his community while ostracizing “Creative Writing.” If it is read by creative writers at all, it will be read as imperialistic and uninformed as to what actually occurs in Creative Writing Classrooms.

My next post will try to explain some of these concerns in detail.

>Multimodality and Writing

May 25, 2010 § Leave a comment


The term multimodality is a charged word in current educational environments.

In its productive sense, multimodality refers to more than one way of producing. In relationship to writing, it broadens the meaning of the word.

In a more connotative sense, multimodality is a catch-all term for the way educators in traditional classrooms react to, incorporate, and predict the advent of new technology according to the skills they perceive as necessary to their students’ learning. Therefore, when someone uses the term “multimodality,” the conditioned response is to think of new technology and future educational environments, even though people have been composing in multiple modes for a long time. The connotation assumes, then, a kind of progress.

We like to see progress in education, so when a term like multimodality comes along, the affective response is to listen-up. This is because things are changing rapidly, “whether we like it or not.” And so in order not to sink like stones we try to adapt to the changing current. As a buzzword, it becomes a rich ground for professional conference panels and publishing. Practical guides appear alongside more theoretical approaches predicting coming changes, the best ways to adapt, etc. Voices compete with each other, coming up with strategies applicable to education environments with limited resources.

So, “multimodality” also connotes a condition of crisis, intensifying the education crisis. As a result of the crisis, experimentation makes its way into educational environments causing trouble for what has traditionally been perceived as a controlled space.

We love crises in America. From oil-spills to terrorist alerts to wars without end to corporate scandals to smear campaigns to tea parties to education ad infinitum – at least until 2012.

In Reinhart Koselleck’s “The Conceptual History of Crisis,” he discusses crisis as an important part of modernity. With crisis comes acceleration, and “the acceleration of the means of communication has made the earth shrink to the size of a spaceship.” Hannah Arendt discusses a similar shift with the advent of space travel in The Human Condition. The earth becomes a prison to humanity, no longer a home. Koselleck goes on to say:

The question can be raised as to whether our semantic model of crisis as final decision has gained more chances of realization than it has ever had before. If this is the case, everything would depend upon directing all our powers toward deterring destruction. The catechon is also a theological answer to crisis […] Perhaps the answer to the crisis consists in looking out for stabilizers which can be derived from the long duration of prior human history. (247)

This is not to merely say that there is nothing new under the sun. It is perhaps to say that the answer lies within the realm of human history, a collection of gazings. I should (with a sigh) express that what Koselleck means by “theological answer” is not the everyday use of the term theology. We’re not talking about prayer in school. A theological answer would imply a belief in the invisible in the very way that a belief or a concept is invisible. That belief would itself be a mode, a mode different from crisis, though not necessarily naive.

Indeed, words like “sustainability,” like multimodality, have become buzzwords for concepts which carry symbolic capital. Combined with “sustainability,” there is an efficiency to multimodality, to seeing and making in different ways, considering the best approach. In this respect we can see the crossover between multimodality and recycling or DIY culture – the adoption of objects for uses not necessarily intended by the original designers – the composer as designer.

In the multimodal educational world, the student becomes the prototypical producer of cultural material – Not just author, not just auteur, but producer, scorer and arranger, actor, and marketer. Citizenship becomes based on the ability to participate in this culture. Participation is key.

Deborah Brandt’s historical research in Literacy in American Lives and has contextualized current tensions relating to literacy in the United States. According to Brandt, over the past hundred and fifty years literacy has become essential to full citizenship, but the idea of what literacy is can change every year. Particularly since World War II and the role the military played in defining minimum education standards for troops, literacy has been defined in terms of functionality and efficiency. This idea also reflects America’s economic system; advanced capitalism creates a perpetual need for more productivity and efficiency. Because efficiency must be constantly measured, standardized tests have been developed to help determine how well America’s public schools are doing. Competition becomes the driving force at every level of education: classroom, school, district, and state. Government initiatives based on political promises which necessitate quick results fuel the competitive environment with the impossible task of demanding more efficiency while making the claim that every child will be accommodated. As Brandt says in “Drafting U.S. Literacy,” “The interest our government shows in literacy education seeks to speed up the race, not equalize the pace” (500). Competition and democracy walk hand in hand. The atmosphere in American educational policy is essentially agonistic. Digital literacy as a civil right indeed intensifies this. But the digital technology changes the concept of the traditional classroom.

The teacher as personal coach replaces the lecturer. The teacher fosters participation. Collaborative learning becomes the emphasis – group projects like videos where there is a division of labor for students, leadership in these groups is managerial. Experience in organized sports actually helps students in this academic environment. There is also a market value to the relationship between pupil and student, and since the young are one of the most marketed to demographics in existence, they come to school younger and younger having learned that some people will make it easier on them. The dedication to learning a video game shows a great deal of commitment, the kind of commitment many teachers dream of. The teacher competes against mass-marketing and its multimillion dollar resources, yet the teacher gets pay-for-performance. The teacher must be a facilitator of learning rather than an expert. While Paulo Freire’s reactions to the “Banking” model of education in Pedagogy of the Oppressed may have seemed liberating at the time, his educational concepts become appropriated as the very fuel of advanced capitalism.

Whimsical is the aesthetic of the currently successful teacher, not expert. Notions of teacher as authority become archaic. Collaboration is key. The teacher is not good if he or she acts from a position of accumulated knowledge or wisdom. Divisions of intellectual tasks into so-called disciplines are archaic (if they weren’t already so). The student becomes the research subject, just as the museum-goer is a research subject. In Museum Studies, Anthropology and Art discourse feed one another. Art installations become ethnographic and authentic interactions with “culture” are not “displays.” Displays invoke the window of window-shopping, of the 19th century. According to Adam Lerner, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver, the window metaphor for art in the 19th century is replaced by the corner metaphor in the 20th century ( In some ways, the corner metaphor overlaps Pierre Bourdieu’s conceptions of a subject neither fixed by social influence nor in an authoritative position. The perspective of the corner is in a way fixed but simultaneously points to the colonizing gaze of the onlooker; the onlooker corners the subject with its look and must engage more directly. But the looker is unhoused and unprotected, the looker is the exposed invisibility of “white” culture – the colonizing phantasm that forgets its own emptiness. A more direct approach becomes necessary.

Education, at least in the traditional sense, imposes limits onto a situation in the form of the hypothetical, the subjunctive. It is entrepreneurial. The modern classroom was a hypothetical space; it is much closer to the virtual classroom than many may think. Even the conception of “classroom” carries a lot of semiotic weight. What makes it different now, with the advent of the specialized concept of multimodality, is the exigency for experimentation verified, documented, and recorded into databases. But it is the very space of the experimentation which acts as a formal constraint. Those who celebrate the affordances of the digital age see a breakdown in traditional power structures, yet on an institutional level not much changes – indeed, the institution must learn to swim, or at least float, to escape the flood. As of now, not much has changed; a different set of skills has merely taken priority. Academic positions for handwriting analysts disappear, for example. IT and Computer Science classes become as fundamental as the three “R’s.” I don’t necessarily lament the “lack of real change” so much as I lament the guise of “change.”

There is nothing new about multimodality itself. What is new is the focal attention it receives in negotiating power. Power in the institution comes through the ability to produce results because that is what is valued. Experimentation produces results, even if they are failures. It produces something new. It is not just that it is new; it is that it is posited. Experimentation is the result of positivism. Experimentalism, even in the postmodern classroom, is fundamentally modern with an extra spin.

By stressing the term experimentation, I wish to distinguish two associations of the word with regard to writing: first, modernist aesthetics favors the entrepreneurial or avant-garde aspects of “experimentation.” Second, the historical trajectory of “making it new” throughout the twentieth century accompanied a taxonomic division of specialties. As a reaction to this, philosophy, hermeneutics, and the humanities in general embraced an openness to mysticism that, for a while, seemed in opposition to “scientific” thought. While it is no longer in opposition to scientific thought at high levels, a less educated population and a less mobile institution continues to navigate according to archaic conceptions of disciplines. Much of the “crisis” perceived along with multimodality is part of this.

What has become increasingly pressing in the last ten years or so is an anxiety over modes of existing and behavioral control. I do not simply mean this in an alarmist sense that the “powers that be” seek to dominate individual subjectivity. To be sure, powerful forces are in the business of maintaining power, and power is less locatable in space than it perhaps ever was. What has become necessary in terms of behavior modification, especially in “developed” nations, is adaptability to a metaphysical reality where virtual-being is everyday-being. This need not be as abstract as it sounds. We live in a world where a South Korean couple let their real baby die because they were addicted to a videogame where they were nurturing a virtual child. Mimetic distinctions, while useful, are perhaps less relevant.

Again, some may argue that this has always been so. At least, that human imagination has the power to forget the material present. But in the material present I am discussing, we have more opportunity than ever before to document the digressions of our imaginations. We can claim, verifiably, our addiction to videogame roles as a defense against child neglect. It may be that the virtual world will make more relevant the idea of the mythical creature as a human projection. Avatars give us a physical manifestation of Jungian archetypes, and perhaps this is one of the reasons fairy tales have resurged in popularity among alphabetic writers of the past generation.

The world exists at our fingers. I type. I research. I come up with the entire history of humanity boiled down to a few paragraphs.

In many books on the topic of multimodal writing – Dennis Baron’s A Better Pencil, Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy, David Shields’ Reality Hunger, even Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics – authors feel the need to explain the entire history of human literacy and writing. To what result? David Shields attempts to write in fragments to demonstrate to the uninitiated reader that we exist as fragmentation. Writing is fragmentation, imposing form. Writing is death. Such theory was sexy in the sixties, but now it is lukewarm.

I remember once reading an interview with Brad Meldau, a great jazz piano player, who discussed the difficulty of being a jazz musician in the age of information. Meldau is now 39, and he discussed the impossibility of the feeling that one must know everything about music history before embarking on a musical career. Getting over that thought, was foundational to Meldau. In a 2003 article for Jazz Times, Meldau expanded on the notion:

I’ve discovered something great about listening to music and playing it. You may necessarily exclude great chunks of music in the process of building up your aesthetic. You can always surprise yourself later on, though, when music that you weren’t initially ready for reveals itself to you in all its beauty. (

Writers considering multimodality should take Meldau’s words to heart. It is not a matter of escaping history by fetishizing the new, nor can it be an attempt to cover everything. On the flipside of writers who try to incorporate all of the history of writing into discussions of multimodality, Henry Jenkins in Convergence Culture: Where old and new media collide attempts to deal with the new. Inevitably, dealing with the new involves dealing with the ephemeral. In “‘What South Park Character Are You?’: Popular Culture, Literacy, and Online Performances of Identity,” Bronwyn Williams writes:

as Jenkins (2006) pointed out, much of the daily content and practices in convergence culture involve popular culture. This is particularly true for practices that take place outside of school. If we are to understand how students’ literacy practices grow and change in a culture of media convergence, then we must pay attention to how they are shaped by the discourses of popular culture. (

This is sound advice, and it represents the sociological approach where the student is the research subject, as discussed above. Its title, and indeed much of the content in the Jenkins book, however, reveals the tremendously dated nature of using material from popular culture. Jenkins’ book is filled with reference after reference to news stories and movies from the time he wrote his book, making it feel old, even when it is fairly recent as far as books go.

In understanding the desire for the new that comes with multimodality, it is necessary to reflect on the desire itself in relation to modernist experimentalism and how that relates to the educational environment, particularly in America. In Francios Cusset’s book, French Theory, Cusset traces the role of French theory and philosophy in American education and politics since the late 1960s. Cusset argues that, unlike the way the theory was received in France, which was directly related to the country’s politics due to the more intimate relationship between the state and the education system in France, in America, many of the ideas of post-colonialism became abstract and experimental arguments for college students and graduate students. Along with the abstract nature, debates about the theory became radicalized, and in some ways more violent, because American students and professors had little intention of grounding theories in cultural practice with society wider than higher education. He argues, “one could say that, although it is separated from civil society, the university nevertheless maintains a closer link with American political society, because of its role as an ideological crossroads and in the formation of elites”(39). Everything became a thought exercise cut off from real life by the hypothetical nature of a higher education environment where students leave home, experiment with drugs, alcohol, sex, gender roles, practice sympathy for less developed countries and the holocaust, and return from their time away with a character ready to start a career. The college “experience” in America is therefore a product of an enlightenment state. Communism has not been any real threat in American domestic politics for a long time, but its relationship with literary theory has been quite useful while simultaneously removing the field away from tangible cultural practice. Or, to take a more “French” example, Deconstruction as a literary theory in America took on a highly ironic, methodical or scripted nature altogether different than Derrida had intended. Only in a radically abstract way, over-time according to Cusset, did these ideas begin to show in American politics, which over the past forty years have become increasingly surreal.

During a visit to a Law and Public Policy Class at the University of Denver in the fall of 2009, distinguished linguist and researcher of metaphors and the brain, George Lakoff spoke about his involvement with the Obama election campaign. Lakoff argued that conservatives have been relatively more politically successful than liberals since the Reagan administration because they have long accepted a more fluid approach to truth, myth, and identity. Liberals, he argued, remain stuck in modernist debates over verifiability and consensus. His example was Obama’s healthcare plan, which lacked identity and was too complicated with too many divisions, each which were able to be contested ad infinitum. A conservative approach would have been to label the plan something like “The Freedom Health Plan,” which rhetorically situated the opposition as freedom-haters. Whether Lakoff is right or wrong (we’ll never know for sure), it is undeniable that the fluid nature of identity comes into play along with multimodality. Authorship is no longer centralized, nor the role of experts alone. Authorship and readership blurs. Conceptions of writing and composing blend and widen.

Here is Jacques Derrida on writing over forty years ago:

For some time now, as a matter of fact, here and there, by a gesture and for motives that are profoundly necessary, whose degradation is easier to denounce than it is to disclose their origin, one says “language” for action, movement, thought, reflection, consciousness, unconsciousness, experience, affectivity, etc. Now we tend to say “writing” for all that and more: to designate not only the physical gestures of literal pictographic or ideographic inscription, but also the totality of what makes it possible; and also, beyond the signifying face, the signified face itself. And thus we say “writing” for all that tends to give inscription in general, whether it is literal or not and even if what it distributes in space is alien to the order of the voice: cinematography, choreography, of course, but also pictorial, musical, sculptural “writing.” One might also speak of athletic writing and with even greater certainty of military or political writing in view of the techniques that govern those domains today. All this to describe not only the system of notation secondarily connected with these activities but the essence and content of these activities themselves. (Of Grammatology, 1967)

In many ways, Derrida’s words sound as if they could have been composed yesterday. Perhaps the resonance speaks to an accuracy on his part about the way the world is changing and has changed. Or, perhaps his thinking widens the definition of writing so much that the term is no longer useful.

In some ways, a thinker like Derrida is old hat, and that’s the point. In discussions about multimodality and education, there is a competition for thinkers to come up with solutions to a situation in crisis. The way French theory was abstracted in American education, according to Cusset, left it so much an intellectual gymnastics tournament that it could not be practiced. Allergies developed.

As one aged literary studies professor said to me recently, “In a faculty meeting, or in an administrative division meeting, the newness of anything carries a certain amount of rhetorical weight.” “Make it new” – the modas operandi of the modernist, drives academic corporate culture. In this sense, academic culture is behind pentecostal and charismatic churches in terms of imaginative ways of being and imagining the invisible in the same way Lakoff claims that the left in America is behind the right in political argumentation. As our politics and our educational system moves toward the virtual, everything becomes belief-based and symbolic. Econonomists after the recent recession sound like theologians when they discuss “belief in the market.” Interestingly, the academic disciplines which traditionally dealt with symbology, English, Philosophy, Linguistics…are in decline. What is favored are more “practical” approaches. Writing courses are skill-based while interpretation takes a backseat.

The invisible is key to the multimodal. Multimodality in the educational setting means making the invisible visible. Much emphasis has been placed on process and context.

However, if one takes a briefer look at history – not the wide histories of the writers mentioned above – it’s easy to make meaning and context for the current changes outside of “the invention of the internet.” One can see elements of this in the psychedelic movements in the sixties, the new age movement, and the technological developments of virtual spaces, from multi-track recording to chatrooms and interactive media.

Over half a century ago, Martin Heidegger explained the new reality where the individual human’s existence was entrenched with the products of human science. The user of the TV, the radio, modern appliances may be used by those who do not possess the technical knowledge of production and physics that allow such items to exist and function. “Normal” human reality becomes much more dependent on the collective history of the species. Millennial anxiety arises out of the fear of Y2K, the internet “crashing,” etcetera. Faith itself is the crisis.

Consider a literary example. Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow makes an intellectual splash in 1974 winning the National Book Award and resulting in no Pulitzer Prize for fiction. The book carries a reputation as an archetype of postmodern avant-gardism. It is considered difficult to read. It also tells the story of rationalism at its extremes in World War II, as psychics and statisticians work to predict the location of the next V2 rocket to hit England. It’s wildly absurd, but it’s real and historical, blurring fact and fiction. Or to take another example, Aleister Crowley is purported to have been hired by Ian Fleming, working for the British Government, to give false astrological charts of British officials to the Nazis via Rudolph Hesse as a form of false intelligence to Nazi psychics.

Recently, The Men Who Stare at Goats and primetime’s Lost have brought government experimentations with psychology and physics into popular entertainment. The common person need not do the intellectual work deciphering Pynchon’s novel. And while one may arguably benefit from the experience of reading a Pynchon novel, there is a behaviorism at work in mass media that more economically ingests the metaphysics of hyper-reality. We do not need to read Calvino’s If Upon a Winter’s Night a Traveler to understand the interactivity of authors’ and readers’ identities. We live them already.

All this literature can do is provide discussion points for understanding the metaphysical philosophical implications necessary to understand our reality. Multimodality, as it is currently considered, is the opposite of contemplation; it is doing, it is being. It is going too far to even say that it is the “will of the powers that be,” that we are automatons in an Orwellian nightmare, that we are Borg, or the depictions of humans in WALL-E. We need not be shamed into the need for contemplation or critical thinking, etc.

We do need to understand that the divide between contemplative, interpretive interaction with our labor are at the heart of debates surrounding multimodality. These debates are entrenched in ethical and cultural values. Any discussion point pauses the project of doing if we conflate doing with producing. Multimodality, as a term, already over-emphasizes production in a world where production and consumption happen simultaneously. It must be part of the educational goal, then, to understand our approaches to the invisible and how those approaches are embodied in our production, our writing – the evidence of our destruction.

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