Most broadly my research is concerned with composing technologies in the late age of print, focusing on how the transition from analog to digital and can be studied to better understand publics and counterpublics, past and present. More specifically, I’m interested in ways amateurs reuse, remediate, and publicly share texts, sounds, and images using a mix of old and new media — and what authorizes or motivates them to do so for a public sphere, an inquiry that has seemed more urgent for an attention economy; in my teaching, which I’ll discuss, I seek pedagogies and approaches to literacy that prepare students to engage and interface with publics effectively and critically, ethically negotiating delivery systems that are often driven by profit.
What I’ll attempt to do in this talk is explicate these interests by building outward from the work of my writing sample and dissertation, including what I mean by “delivery systems.” Since I’m not sure who has had a chance to see or read that sample, I’ll begin by summarizing the theoretical premise that paper made, updating it to explain some of the places I’ve taken my research in the last few years and plan to in the future.
As I said, most of my research focuses on amateur writers. I consider these authors to be multimodal composers, people who circulate public texts using an array of “stuff” — objects, sounds, archives, and where writing is somehow involved in that process or arrangement. Many of these composers enter publics as obsessive fans, but their participation shapes and is shaped by the politics of the systems by which they read, write, and mediate. My sample and dissertation focused on one subset of these amateurs — do-it-yourself (DIY) publishers — leftist writers and artists who produce and share print-based texts critical of capitalism or colonialism via their amateur production and circulatory practices.
DIY publishing’s primary forms include zines, comics, chapbooks, little magazines, posters, postcards, and any other self-made, self-circulated physical artifact. The diversity of zines — in form and content — is a little easier to comprehend when you see them, so I’m passing out some examples.
[PASS OUT ZINES]
These are publications I’ve bought, reviewed for a magazine called Broken Pencil, or received from friends or former students. While these DIY publications are often exchanged or delivered by mail, transactions are often facilitated online, a point I’ll return to in a moment.
Yet another important site of exchange is the zine fest. Every year tens of thousands of DIY publishers from all over the world convene in various gyms, auditoriums, churches, and community centers to promote, exchange, sell, and otherwise share their writing with friends and strangers alike.
These publishing festivals — held in cities like Scranton, Chicago, London, and Berlin— emphasize different genres of self-publishing, from zines to letterpressed postcards to handmade books.
For example, at Canzine, a festival hosted by the independent Canadian magazine Broken Pencil each fall in Toronto, Canada, 100-plus exhibitors publicly trade and sell self-made zines and comics at a rented space in the Art Gallery of Ontario. (I’ll talk about Broken Pencil more in a bit since its corpus has served as an important source of data in my research.)
Some zines, as you can see, are painstakingly hand- or typewritten, while others are laid out with software. Some include traditional comic panels; others are collaged using a hodgepodge of vintage materials; many are scrappy on purpose. Often, the copies and bindings of these publications are also self-produced, with writers scamming copies from work, paying for them at local presses, and using staplers, thread, or rubber bands to hold them together.
These activities come together through DIY publishing via what composition studies would call the extracurriculum of composition. This was an idea theorized by Anne Ruggles Gere in 1993 — more than 25 years ago — and serves as an important framing concept in the field as it has tried to understand out-of-school writing in the late age of print. Named as an alternative site to the formal classroom, the extracurriculum has long been a space where writers voluntarily meet in groups at “kitchen tables and rented rooms.” As Gere defines it, such spaces are “constructed by desire, by the aspiration and imaginations of its participants” who are accordingly “self-sponsored.” These two terms of the extracurriculum — self-sponsorship and, more importantly, desire — are the productive origin point for my work.
As I argue in my writing sample, the idea of the self-sponsored writer is a problem for writing studies. The term has been under-theorized to be sure, but when it is used in our scholarship it tends to overdetermine the agency of writers while also obscuring the kinds of invested intermediaries, tools, and systems that have become increasingly necessary for going public with the rise of the web generally, and social media specifically. The invocation of an unqualified “personal self,” that is, risks a foreshortened inquiry into the contexts, economies, or cultures in which these extracurricular literacies exist, the tools or technologies that facilitate the agency of writers, and, most importantly, who (or what) is rewarded by these literate acts in addition to the author. In fact, this mutual, often economic, interest in literacy by others is essentially the argument Deb Brandt makes with her influencing concept literacy sponsors.
At the end of Literacy in American Lives, Brandt reminds readers of these histories, agents, and intermediaries, arguing that in the information economy, literacy has become tied “less to tradition and social stability and more to competition and change” (190); writing in particular has become increasingly accelerated, diffused, professionalized, and privatized.
Indeed, the effects of these shifts might be described as forming a neoliberal rationality, what political theorist Wendy Brown defines as “a normative order of reason developed over three decades into a widely and deeply disseminated governing rationality” (9). Defined by its “practices of entrepreneurialism, self-investment, and/or attracting investors” (22) …“neoliberal rationality disseminates the model of the market to all domains and activities” (31; emphasis in original).
My sense is that the field’s continued use of self-sponsorship, a term coined before the popularization of the commercial web, is reflective of this rationality. And while I embrace literacy sponsors as a concept, I agree with scholars like Ann Lawrence who have pointed out that when Brandt’s term has been taken up by composition studies, it usually does so by foregrounding personal narrative genres such as autobiography rather than exploring the wider social histories and nonhuman intermediaries also responsible for literacy instruction, as Brandt’s work demonstrates.
So: rather than center sponsorship as a primary method of analysis, I am interested in the other term that defines the extracurriculum: desire. Our desires are deeply inherited from human influences, of course, but also our widespread access to participatory media — media that, as I argue, has increasingly blurred the boundaries between the personal, the civic, and the entrepreneurial impulses of writing. As such, I consider how technologies employed in an extracurriculum fundamentally require us to rethink not only its spaces, but the role that these tools play in producing authorial desire.
Writers-turned-exhibitors, such as those at Canzine for example, combine on-demand, micro-capitalist tools like iPads and Square to allow patrons to purchase their publications on credit. And far from being a simple throwback event or reenactment of pre-digital print culture, nearly every tabler supplements printed texts with some sort of web presence — important tools that help construct a scene of writing well in advance of the event itself. In this way, agency is made possible by an entrepreneurial mindset, making desire an effect of circulation as well as a cause. And as I suggest later, I believe this desire can be inspirational — but we can also blame it for many of the problems we find with public writing online, from fake news outlets to racist and misogynist trolls to alt-right YouTube channels.
Such a perspective complicates previous descriptions of the extracurriculum as an amateur, self-sponsored space filled with purified expression. Though Gere reminds us that the Latin root of amateur, amatus, emphasizes that members of the extracurriculum “write for love” (88), neoliberal rationality renders this subjectivity less authentic. Merging formerly separate economic, social, and political spheres into one, neoliberalism suggests “all action is principally economic action” (Davies 20), complicating the writing subject as the agent of the extracurriculum; thus, the study of its writers — and public writing more generally — is not just a matter of understanding how or locating where aspiring writers circulate, but the ways in which process and systems of circulation affects aspiring writers. How, then, do we consider the complex motives of amateur multimodal composers in this neoliberal context? In the remainder of our time, I’d like to share a few ways I am approaching this question currently.
Primarily, we might consider the delivery systems these composers use to reach publics. As I write in my sample, delivery systems help us rethink the scale from which we view public writing by considering the larger “circuits of production, distribution, exchange, and consumption through which writing circulates as it takes on cultural value and worldly force,” as John Trimbur tells us in his landmark essay on circulation. In the extracurriculum, this might mean identifying sponsors, but also considering the available materials and networks that coordinate with technologies and scenes to put writing in motion. How zinesters assemble their writing (using a laptop/Google Image/printer or found materials with paper/scissors/glue/photocopier), for example, is dependent upon the distribution, exchange, and consumption of the things being circulated — not only who will read it, but how it might get there (as a pdf, an art book on Etsy, or an anonymous copy left on a city bus), and how it might be felt both physically and emotionally. Put another way: delivery systems help us understand how and to what effect these circuits — the materials, sites, networks, sponsors, and channels — coordinate and to what affect. Trimbur, in providing a Marxist take on circulation, permits a widened scope that focuses on the historical, economic, and technological aspects of the extracurriculum — not only that of the individual.
Reimagining amateur writing as it occurs through delivery systems helps make visible how networks produce and recirculate desire through grassroots and entrepreneurial circuits that often appear naturalized via their “worldly forces” — that is, the affective flows and intensities that assemble or fall apart in a given network like DIY publishing.
I’ve used this approach as I’ve examined zine networks by collecting data from Broken Pencil, that Canadian DIY publishing magazine I mentioned earlier.
[PASS OUT BP]
Founded in 1995, right around the time the web was gaining in popularity, Broken Pencil is what sociologist Stephen Duncombe would call a network zine, providing a hub or nexus — “a means of association” that helps “cross-fertilize” or “cross-pollinate” the disparate underground in one textual space (50-51) made up of editorials, essays, letters, how-tos, and many many listings and reviews.
One such “textual space” I examine in my work is the 40-plus from the “Zine Philosophy” column, which Broken Pencil started publishing in 2004. These columns often spend no more than a page explicitly and implicitlycommenting on the circuits of production (typewriters, drawings, copiers), distribution and exchange (zine fests, PO boxes), and consumption (Etsy, Paypal), painting a portrait of how writers within the network wrestle with their feelings toward their political arrangements, or the worldly forces of zine-making.
In examining affective flows within these narratives, it is clear that many self-publishers struggle to accept the capitalist circuits necessary for building a platform for public voice and thus a movement. That is, they recognize the limits of an anti-consumptive platform in light of the accessibility and growth of information technologies. In an attention economy, the question for them becomes: remain pure and insular or shift outward, risking also a shift in politics? While there are plenty of voices in the magazine that embrace the protection that comes from an island of subculture, shifts in the politics of DIY culture can also be tracked at this scale. Whereas pre-web zines were primarily concerned with censorship, free speech, and critiques of corporate media, post-web they have firmly shifted to an important platform for identity politics.
In tracing these flows throughout autobiography, I draw from the concept of de/re/territorialization from Manuel Delanda via Deleuze and Guattari, noticing when zinesters articulate their desires to deterritorialize from previous arrangements and reterritorialize with others via different circuitry. The broader concept of assemblage is a useful one — not only for studying the delivery systems of authors but of the networks themselves. Building from this work with assemblage theory in another project, I compare Broken Pencil to its American predecessor, Factsheet Five.
[PASS OUT F5]
Factsheet Five was a network zine launched in 1982 by sci-fi-nerd-cum-anarchist Mike Gunderloy using nothing more than mimeo machine; however, by the early 1990s F5 had a circulation of nearly 15,000. The story of Factsheet Five is a fascinating one that I am desperate to tell.
What’s important about comparing the assemblages of Factsheet to Broken Pencil is how radical, amateur authors approached publics and publication pre- and post-web over the course of 35 years.
Whereas the alt-right currently barks from amplified, hypervisible social media handles and channels, in the age of print they often opined in the same dank networks and assemblages as zinesters, sharing the primary political aim of offering an alternative to mainstream/corporate media. And these clippings from reviews are really just a quick take from the copies I own. There are more examples based on the research I conducted last June in the New York State archives, where F5’s early issues and correspondence are housed.
Within these pages and the archive’s correspondence boxes you can see evidence of DIY digital networks, rhetorics of techno-utopianism, and many of the prominent actors responsible for spreading that rhetoric in Silicon Valley since Stuart Brand was delivering his Whole Earth Catalog to communes in the late 1960s.
One current project of mine is to tell the story of Factsheet’s process via this archive in part to better understand how neoliberalism and various delivery systems changed the politics for alternative media assemblages on both the far left and the far right, in print and online. While both fringes continue to use their respective delivery systems to redress the scale and reach of mainstream corporate media, these systems are hardly equal, with the alt-right embracing entrepreneurial digital platforms that spread white supremacy and the left embracing modes of critique, leading me to explore yet a third project: are we living with a crisis of fact or the fact of a crisis?
That’s the question rhetorician Dana Cloud raises in her recent book, Reality Bites, and it is an important question, I think, for writing teachers and scholars.
The crisis of fact refers to the widespread circulation of misinformation and fake news — which has been taken up by writing studies scholars like Bruce McComiskey in his book Post-truth Rhetoric and Composition. McComiskeysuggests we live in a moment where too often “language lacks any reference to facts, truths, and realities” (6) and where ethos and pathos are more powerful than logos. All language, that is, is simply a performance of ideology or emotion and that has led us to this crisis of fact. The crisis is that we can no longer participate meaningfully in a democracy since it requires a commitment to a stable epistemology. Thus McComiskey argues for a “doubling down” on the guiding values that our discipline has created through policy documents such as The Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing and The WPA Outcomes Statement for First-Year Composition, values and habits of mind like openness and metacognition or practices and skills like critical thinking.
I agree and I think getting students to explore the delivery systems of the web and social media can help. Writing majors in my junior-level research and tech course at Rowan, for instance, interrogate fact claims in memes by searching specific sites like Factcheck.org and Wikipedia; follow sources by going upstream on links in articles from Breitbart and Alternet;
and trace how public health studies circulate from peer-reviewed research to local news broadcasts, sorting out socially-useful knowledge from not-so-socially-useful knowledge. Learning these critical thinking processes and representing them for audiences is tedious, difficult work and it powerfully demonstrates the true challenges of being a responsible citizen in the digital age. And it also raises questions about rhetorical efficacy.
While such pedagogies can be useful to students, they also overvalue the epistemic. Even as fact-checking seeks to synthesize consensus, for example, it often participates in a reverence for corporate delivery systems that are too-often as invested in communicative capitalism as clickbait and fake news. Hence, another project of mine looks for pedagogies that encourage students to shape, publicize, and spread their own truths though strategies of mediation that are sometimes fast, sometimes slow, do not require permission, and do not always proceed from an epistemic premise but rather experience or lived truths. This second approach thus exchanges a passive, voter-based approach to citizenship for explicitly political projects that are both multimodal and public.
Cloud’s Big 5 strategies of mediation — affect, embodiment, narrative, myth, and spectacle — suggest that we make a case that combating the sources of fake news also means teaching how to publish and make public the kinds of writing that can be rhetorically and politically effective. In this ongoing project I hope to draw from several examples from the field, including my own courses on student activism and self-publishing, suggesting that curricula mired in the epistemic should be balanced with offerings that demonstrate what’s possible when writers are encouraged to publicize themselves.
As we work with students to understand and experience the thrills and disappointments of delivery systems, my hope is that they inevitably learn that the motivations and imaginations of writers — their authorial desires — are often affected by the circuits that give them shape and life, and not something deep within themselves. This lesson is especially important in a public sphere whose circuits seem democratic and accessible, but are increasingly based upon logics of competition, self-investment, and entrepreneurship. Rendering that relationship more visible means attending to both the material and affective aspects of rhetoric, the pure and the impure impulses of our politics, and the public and private notions of authorship.