The New Work of Composing


Installation Rhetoric

image of screen that links to webtext homepage

Multimedia[ted] [E]visceration was a multi-media installation designed specifically for presentation at the Seventh Thomas R. Watson Conference in Rhetoric and Composition, held at the University of Louisville, October 16-18, 2008. The installation invited participants to enter into a semi-dark room, upon the walls of which were projected images of texts and bodies. The texts rotated between various quotations from N. Katherine Hayles’s (2002) Writing Machines and Michael Warner’s (2005) Publics and Counterpublics, followed by these questions:

  1. Where is my body?

Where are my desires?

How can I imagine my body?

After the last question, a series of quickly changing images flashed across the screen. While none of the images was pornographic, many presented a variety of bodies in a variety of positions and states of undress. The presentation then repeated itself, again and again. Simultaneously, a hidden spycam projected shadows of participants onto various parts of the enclosed space. A quiet soundtrack of mixed voices and whalesong could be heard; a significant portion of the soundtrack consisted of greetings in multiple languages, remixed from the Voyager Space Probe recording (the “Golden Record”) sent into space in 1977. Participants could also play portions from our 2008 CCCC workshop presentation in which we discussed how composition studies calls for “composed texts” seems parallel to the normative culture’s call for “composed” bodies (e.g., normative, able-bodied, usually heterosexually reproductive) . Finally, lying on the ground and across the stands holding the projection equipment was a large-scale replica of the plaque included in Pioneer 10 (1972) intended as “a first attempt to specify [earth’s] position in the Galaxy, our epoch, and something of our nature” to potential interceptors of the craft (Sagan et al., 1972,  p. 884). The experience of the installation was thus one of bodily/sensory excess: quick images loop through soundscapes that puzzle as they intrigue. Such an embodied experience serves as the multimedia counterpoint to the “debate” between Hayles (praising the capaciousness of multimedia composing) and Warner (pointing out the ideologically gendered and [hetero]sexed nature of discourse).

The combined effect was (intentionally) somewhat disorienting to viewers, many of whom came back several times to (re)experience the piece. Because the soundtrack and visual presentation played at different times, no exact “pairing” of sounds and images ever occurred more than once; given that participants’ shadows were projected differently depending on when and where they entered the room, each experience of the installation was unique. Our project’s readers/viewers were pushed to reflect on our simultaneous immersion in language, our attempt to control discourse, and the bodies through which such control is mediated, complicated, foiled, and itself further provoked. Like the extraterrestrial recipients of Pioneer 10, our viewers got a glimpse of our position(s), our “epoch” (kairos), and something of our nature(s). As Sarah Ahmed (2006) noted in Queer Phenomenology:

The body emerges from [a] history of doing, which is also a history of not doing, of paths not taken, which also involves the loss, impossible to know or to even register, of what might have followed from such paths. As such, the body is directed as a condition of its arrival, as a direction that gives the body its line. And yet we can still ask, what happens if the orientation of the body is not restored? What happens when disorientation cannot simply be overcome by the “force” of the vertical? What do we do, if disorientation itself becomes worldly or becomes what is given? (p. 159)

We intended the piece to be an experiment in provoking critical thinking about rhetoric—a provocation, specifically, to re-consider how bodies and rhetorics intertwine in the creation of normative notions of composing selves. Much recent work in composition (too much to cite adequately here) plays with the notion of space in the compositional process; we might even argue that the intersection of composition with new media and the fetishizing of multimedia and multimodal compositions has been all about the fetishizing of new spaces for composing practices—those spaces figured themselves as spaces. Indeed, the theme of the conference at which Multimedia[ted] [E]visceration first appeared was “The New Work of Composing.” Nedra Reynolds (2004), in Geographies of Writing: Inhabiting Places and Encountering Difference, has perhaps been at the forefront in arguing for the need to understand the many and varied spaces of composition. Following de Certeau, among other postmodern thinkers, she argued that the “spatial practices—acts of writing—are enacted not in stable, always-the-same places but within shifting senses of space, in the betweens, in thirdspace” (p. 5).  Reynolds rightly pointed out the instability of composition’s numerous spaces for its work, and we intended our installation, at least in part, to serve as a salient reminder of those numerous spaces and of the fact that the “new work of composing” means that our understanding of composing practices must encompass a variety of practices and modalities, not all of which will be equivalent.  But we also intended it to be a material reminder—a reminder, perhaps even a provocation, about the ways that bodies move through those compositional spaces as well.

The pairing of quotations from Warner and Hayles, we believe, speaks critically to such an enterprise. Hayles consistently reminds us of the materiality of the images—textual and visual, and the textual as visual—that surround us, while Warner insists that we understand both our own bodies as “texts” and the textually and visually rich public sphere as densely eroticized. More specifically, we contend, the rich material textuality that Hayles foregrounds must also be mined for the ideologies of intimacy that ground our reception of that textuality. Indeed, as Hayles (2002) noted, “simulations are everywhere around us” (p. 21), just as Warner (2005) reminds us that “the mass-cultural public sphere continually offers its subjects an array of body images” (p. 169). How does our understanding of materiality, and the materiality of textuality, change with a recognition of the ubiquitous presence of simulated bodies? Even more specifically, when Hayles wondered about “the implication for studies of technology and literature” in light of the fact that the “materiality of inscription thoroughly interpenetrates the represented world” (p. 130), we wonder what those implications might look like when faced with the recognition, as Warner (2005) put it, that “heterosexual culture achieves much of its metacultural intelligibility through the ideologies and institutions of intimacy” (p. 192). Those “ideologies and institutions of intimacy” circulate everywhere in the public sphere, forming part of the material realities through which bodies and texts move. The multiple languages, the eroticized flashing of images, and the interpolation (as it were) of participants’ own bodies into the installation itself—all served as a provocative reminder that bodies intricately, intimately, insistently form a crucial part of any persuasive enterprise.

image of person in hotel room doorway that links to a page discussing a blog that was set up to plan the installation well before the conferences
image of projector that links to page with remediated videos from the installation
image of the word multimedia visceration that links to the theory page
image of a silhouette that links to a page discussing the testing and setup process of the installation
image of person bathed in the light from the installation that links to a page showing video of the Watson Conference installation
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