virtual dis/locations cont.–practices & pedagogies

The previous post ended by suggesting that the challenge of new media rhetoric is to develop strategies (or perhaps tactics is a better, more mobile term) that draw on the singular, material encounter with media as a counter to the cybernetic, gravitational pull of a dis/locating virtual that categorizes and generalizes (i.e. our conventional epistemological practices).

I want to amend/extend that and delve into what some tactics, compositional and pedagogical, might be.

First, this critique of conventional epistemology is all-too-familiar in postmodernism and cultural studies. Ported into new media, it is specifically a critique of the will to transparent communication (e.g. usability, human-computer interaction, search engine optimization, database management etc.).

It should be noted that the logos and its devices, such as the concept and the category, have proven to be immensely powerful cognitive tools. That should be obvious. The error lies in mistaking the concept for the real. For example, we have a real-time, lived, experience that we call "freedom." By the time that affect reaches our consciousness and is put into a word, it has been apprehended by ideological cybernetics; the affect has been drawn into a concept, a culture, and a history.  Being idealistic about it, one could say we develop a concept of freedom to better understand this experience, to discuss it with others, and to seek to reproduce it. More critically, we might say that our actual, cultural-historical use of the concept does not nothing like this, that it is just an ideological mechanism of subjective control.

So, as the familiar argument goes, the defenders of humanism decry that postmodernists want to strip us of our "freedom," our free will and agency. Perhaps it does seem like that in some cases. But here, I am suggesting that the problem is that the categorical concept, as a cogntivve-epistemological technology, is insufficient to the task of understanding embodied affects.

What does this have to do with compositional tactics for new media?

Well, usability, for example, is also a concept, a way of trying to understand users’ embodied encounters with web sites. A site is "usable" if its design allows users to quickly perceive the purpose of the site and use the site for its predetermined purpose. (If users don’t want to use the site for its predetermined purpose, then that’s a different kind of problem.)

Like the problem with freedom, usability fails to incorporate the richness of our encounters with media. Furthermore, it simply cannot do so; it cannot reconcile itself with the unusable, the non-communicative, let alone the singular event of our encounter. To the contrary, usability seeks to reduce or eliminate these elements through its cybernetic-ideological processes so that user experiences become codified and predictable.

So, to bring my examples together, the extent to which we can say our experience of "freedom" is codifiable and predictable is the extent to which our experience of freedom exactly resembles "not-freedom." To talk about the usability of sites in this manner immediately begs the question, "who is the user and who is the ‘use-ee?’"

However it’s not necessary to get all paranoid about this. Nor is it necessary to go in some radical, experimental, counter-direction from usability (though experimental practices are crucial to unfolding the potential of media). Just b/c usability and related concepts of media and communciation are lacking does not mean that we should give up on trying to communicate. Similarly, while the concept of freedom sucks, we can still try to engage the embodied affect it sought to apprehend.

That is why I would suggest that new media composition pedagogy needs to engage not in the concepts of new media communication and design but with the singular, embodied encounter with media. This post is getting long (again), so I’ll give one example of how this works.

I touched on this in my earlier post on Web 2.0. Sites develop a richness and value (and yes, even usability) through trusting the collective intelligence of their users. Conceptually, usability might suggest that folksonomy practices like tagging muddy the usability of the web by not providing clear, categorical usage. However, what folksonomy demonstrates are records of the singular encounters users have with media; we don’t experience the web categorically and even folksonomy itself is only a shadow of a deeper, more varied richness of singular, affective encounters.

In thinking about composition (and composition pedagogy), this suggests a few things:

  1. Authorship is multiple, even when it is one person. That is, composition need not be about a single author mastering a text and directing readers/users to a predtermined destination. This is also about the way we evaluate texts as teachers.
  2. Pedagogy must also consider its relationship with "usability," particularly if it claims to be "student-centered." Trusted student-users developing a folksonomic encounter with disciplinary structures and knowledges, potentially through the digital apparatus of the web.
  3. Shifting composition from its focus on the organization of discrete elements to a realization that we are composing dynamic networks. This was always-already the case with print; it’s just that the fixity of the media deluded us. Revision is not about re-fixing a text until it is "done." It’s about the ongoing generation of media in a network in which the "author" participates but does not control.

In short, each singular encounter with a piece of media constitues another layer of composition, another affect, another folksonomic connection, which, as with the rhizome, holds the potential to radically mutate the network.

That’s composition. It is that rich communal network of symbolic behaviors, with its resevoir of affects, that we try to use when we speak of usability, that we conceptualize in our concepts, that we engage and add to in our singular encounters with media.

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