>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 (http://www.belmarlab.org/cgi-sys/suspendedpage.cgi). 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. (http://www.bradmehldau.com/writing/papers/jazz_times_01.html)

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. (http://www.sciencedirect.com/)

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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