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Material-Discursive Entanglements: Matters in Digital Texts and Archives

Keri E. Mathis


Acknowledging the collection's focus on methods, Mathis invites us to consider how the texts can help us reenvision archival research and curation by responding to Gries's and Yergeau's essays.


This collection is about methods: why and how methods come to matter in rhetoric and composition and beyond disciplinary boundaries as well as how our discipline manages the complex material-discursive entanglements existing within our realm of responsibility. Responding to this body of work, I analyze specific essays to consider possibilities for rethinking archival methodologies—particularly curation—in order to heed recent calls in rhetoric and composition to close gaps between researcher and subject/participant, methods and methodology, and practice and theory (Clary-Lemon; Kirsch and Sullivan; Kirsch and Rohan; L’Epplatenier and Mastrangelo). Moreover, the “archival turn” in our field has been well-documented, and much of the research has considered the personal, embodied experiences of being in the archives and the ways such experiences guide the research as it becomes written (Morris; Gaillet). However, such embodied experiences are mostly considered from the researcher’s perspective. I want to consider how we might find more robust ways to represent readers’ and participants’ experiences and encourage future scholars to enact archival research that is dynamic, collaborative, and recursive.

Drawing from oft-cited scholarship on archival methods, in this response I specifically focus on curation as a methodology and define it in two key ways: 1) embodied, emotional, experiential interactions with scholarship presented in collections like Making Future Matters and 2) the physical gathering of and caring for materials that we, as readers/participants/co-curators, deem valuable to the emerging material-discursive work in the field. For both types of curation, which I do not see as discrete, I aim to re-see curation by closely analyzing two of the collection’s essays that rely on feminist-new materialist theories. In my future work, I hope to use the same theoretical lenses to consider other possibilities for curation (as defined here), but in this response essay, I merely examine curation as I see it enacted and emerging in Making Future Matters’s individual texts—specifically Yergeau’s and Gries’s essays—to offer a glimpse into what these essays suggest about curation processes that involve sensory and emotional research experiences and the physical gathering of data.

Significantly, the proposed understandings of curation encompass a broader range of participation and a productive blurring of researchers, participants, readers, texts, and artifacts. What my analysis begins to show, then, is how curation—as it is enacted beyond typical understandings—can further show the complex interactions among people and texts. Rethinking curation by looking at how it is enacted in this collection can help us see how archival work comes to matter beyond institutional spaces. Here I suggest we continually reflect on caring not only for the things we gather and assess, but also take care in designing research that considers the researchers’ and readers’ previous experiences and the possible emotional and physical reactions implicated in how we present archived texts and our participants.

Terms I Use and Explore

Admittedly, my expertise does not lie in the feminist-new materialist theories undergirding aspects of this collection, yet I have considered some ways these theories could influence my own work as an archival scholar while offering a deeper understanding of curation from researchers’ and readers’ perspectives. Expanding on recent conversations regarding curation to identify the two primary categories outlined above—experiential and physical curation—allows us to uncover some of the curatorial processes relevant to archival research in rhetoric and composition that also spill over into the everyday lives of individuals who engage in this work from various roles.

First, in using the terms curator and curation, I consider the Latin root of curate, which is curare, meaning “to care.” This etymology has broadened my own understanding of curation and archival research more generally. As the term is often used in archival studies, curation is regularly associated with individual researchers or institutions responsible for selecting, cataloging, and bounding documents or other materials. Yet the term’s root, “to care,” can help us as a field reconceptualize curation as a process that deeply involves emotions and sensory experiences of researchers as they interact with other people, texts, and things. Understanding the need to re-see the curatorial processes as messy and involving multiple matters is one way of responding to the 2014 call from Jennifer Clary-Lemon to re-see archival research. Clary-Lemon writes, “A rethinking of archival methods and methodologies together as archival research processes, then, places those processes in fluid tandem with the matter of the textual sites that we encounter as archival researchers and historians” (386). Her article uses the framework of rhetorical accretion to better understand how materials can be given more priority in archival research, claiming that it is her “aim to more closely attend to the relationship between matter and meaning in the archives” (387). In this response, however, rather than using Clary-Lemon’s own material/rhetorical heuristic, I consider a similar fluidity of curation and archival processes enacted and encouraged in Yergeau’s and Gries’ essays.

Furthermore, in an effort to encompass the material and physical processes engaging multiple individuals and matters, I use a new term—participant-curator—when referring to those who read and act on research by engaging personal emotions and experiences as well as using their experiences with the texts to contribute to our field’s scholarship. Furthermore, participant-curator is a term that emphasizes how individuals outside of the original gathering and analysis of materials nevertheless become directly involved in curating processes—through their personal experiences and collection of their own data—that contribute to their understandings of the archive and the research itself (as my response does in this collection). In this piece, I respond to the collection from my own role as a participant-curator and describe my experiences with Melanie Yergeau’s “Wandering Rhetoric, Rhetoric Wandering” and Laurie Gries’s “Swastika Monitoring: Developing Digital Research Tools to Track Visual Rhetorics of Hate.”

Experiential Curation

Using the terms outlined above, in this section I specifically focus on my own experiential interaction (as a participant-curator) with Yergeau’s emotional representations in “Wandering Rhetoric.” While not a typical definition of curation, in reflecting on my emotional and experiential engagements with Yergeau’s piece, I understand experiential curation as not just an emotional response to the writer and her text but also as an emotional/experiential working through of the text that ultimately shapes personal and scholarly developments. Put another way, this type of curation—while sometimes more tacit and less visible than physical curation—should be seriously considered in that it has the potential to deeply affect the participant-curator’s design of her own research studies and the evolution of her research positionality. The experiences are thus not only reactions to what is already written, but also have the potential to accumulate and emerge in the design of future studies and in the written scholarship. As an archival scholar, Yergeau’s piece has led to my own rethinking of archival work so that I might more fully consider the implications my work has on others who engage with it. In addition, as I have worked with “Wandering Rhetoric,” I have found curation to be collaborative and recursive—both characteristics that are important to archival scholars wanting to continuously highlight their own positionalities as researchers and collaborators with their participants.

While I do not want to focus solely on the digital affordances of Yergeau’s text in this response, the webtext’s design is relevant to how the participant-curator embodies and experiences the anxieties Yergeau represents. Responding to her essay has been, in fact, an experiential and emotional “wandering” exercise, to use Yergeau’s central metaphor—one that has facilitated meaning-making for me as I have engaged with the text. Significantly, the tools employed in Yergeau’s essay facilitate my internalization of Yergeau’s experiences as represented in her text. For instance, Yergeau’s chapter does not adopt a traditional linear navigation; instead, her design provides more freedom than others in the collection for wandering, getting lost, repeating steps, and returning to a single location via multiple avenues of navigation. Yergeau’s design is necessarily rhizomatic, serving a rhetorical purpose to support her argument on neurodivergence and rhetorical wandering.

As a result, the design of “Wandering Rhetoric” facilitates participant-curation by providing the freedom not only to respond to the text, but also to internalize the experiences that can be transformative in ways that come to matter outside of the individual chapter. For me, it was transformative in aiding my reflection on my positionality as a researcher engaging with the text, the tools it employs, its modes, and other potential readers of this work; most importantly, experiencing this chapter’s design helped me think through alternative ways of designing and presenting my archival research—perhaps through added visuals, audio reflections of the research process, or creating digital scholarship that provides other entry points into studying manuscripts that otherwise might be inaccessible. I see the effects of this experience as part of the curation process because the emotional experiences accumulate and come to matter not just in my own personal response to Yergeau’s text, but also in the design of future scholarship that could similarly impact those who interact with the work.

In an effort to expand on the possibilities for presenting archival research in alternate ways, l want to briefly reference some concrete examples of how Yergeau brings together the embodied experiences of the webtext designer and user (though, as I have noted above, I do not wish to create a binary between researcher and reader). Such moments of shared or similar embodied experiences allow for the possibility of collaborative and recursive meaning-making. Yergeau, for instance, materializes her own experience through the digital rendering of her asking Siri a question about “deadly shits.” Similarly, in her video on movement, she overlaps narrative and other semiotic modes to recreate her own autistic movements and simulate an embodied experience of neurodivergence for the participant-curator. The chapter’s materialization and its prompts make possible the participants’ embodiment and wandering thoughts/experiences in the chapter’s material-discursive realm.

As a participant-curator in Yergeau’s text, perhaps one of the most meaningful take-aways was that I found myself internalizing Yergeau’s experiences (as represented in her text) and reflecting on/reliving my own histories of anxiety and depression. For instance, in Yergeau’s opening she includes a trigger warning or a “content warning” for “obsessions, compulsions, and distressing thoughts.” As someone who has been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and depression, I found myself particularly attuned to Yergeau’s warning, but I also appreciated the juxtaposition of the trigger warning with the silhouette of the dog that made the content seem more lighthearted and the potential for vulnerability more acceptable and inviting. The design of the text thus encouraged (and really required) that I connect with my own history and experiences with similar “distressing thoughts,” but it was designed in a way that enabled me to do so cautiously and without fear of serious triggers. Such experiences with this text have encouraged me to envision alternative ways for representing similarly distressing and traumatic stories in my own archival research—stories of domestic abuse or emotional hardships of minority groups who have experienced hate crimes and other harassment, among other troubling narratives. I briefly return to this reshaping of my own research in the response’s conclusion, but in this section, I merely wanted to highlight how these experiences with Yergeau’s text have led me to reflect on my personal history and my past (and future) experiences as an archival researcher. In sum, this experience of the text as facilitated by Yergeau’s chapter design not only leads to immediate emotional responses from the reader, but also to these experiences becoming curated in the studies and scholarship that emerge from internalizing these emotional realities.

Physical Curation

The second type of curation discussed here involves the physical gathering and contribution of materials to ongoing research. As noted, curating does not simply involve collecting and gathering things; curating is a methodology in which emotions and other participants are also entangled. I also want to reiterate that I do not see this type of curation as bounded or discrete from the experiential type discussed in the previous section. Rather, both types work together to inform our interactions with texts and the material-discursive becomings of texts and archives.

This section on physical curation focuses individually on Gries’s “Swastika Monitoring.” Gries provides an example of how the human participant-curator becomes entangled in the circulation of harmful rhetoric through her gathering of photographic data and location points where swastikas have been reported. Not unlike Yergeau’s emotional and psychological investments discussed in the previous section, Gries herself notes the emotional investment and consequences that result from doing this research. She writes of her own experience: “Tracking swastikas has proven to be an emotionally charged and deeply affective experience. It is not rare for tears to stream down my cheeks as I read about transgender folks waking up to find swastikas with the words ‘Die He She’ spray painted on their car or Jewish commuters encountering swastikas with the words ‘Jews Belong in Ovens’ on their way to work.” The design of the collection recognizes the likelihood of such emotional reactions by including a trigger warning for Gries's chapter, as well.

Gries's trigger warning
Gries's Trigger Warning

Perhaps an unexpected emotional response, Gries writes, is that in doing the research and seeing others’ comments to this hateful rhetoric she has been given hope. It is clear, then, that this research experience has not just been about tracking and curating data but has resulted in mixed emotional and embodied experiences for Gries. By providing links and references to her own experiences, she opens similar opportunities for those who interact with the text to mix in—or curate—their own emotional experiences and potentially conduct research that thus, once again, exceeds the “bounds” of this particular chapter.

Additionally, Gries has provided an interactive story map titled “Swastikas on the Rise” with a similar cautionary warning. This map emphasizes curation as collecting with each point on the map containing an image with accompanying narratives about the located swastikas and the targeted groups. After interacting with Gries’s map, I felt committed to collecting my own data to contribute. Having read an early iteration of Gries’s essay, I took this photo of a swastika at a national forest located in eastern Kentucky that was carved into the natural stone of a rocky precipice:

swastika carved in rock
A swastika carved into rock in an eastern Kentucky forest.

Upon seeing this carving, I immediately thought of Gries’s essay and snapped the picture, showing that I had internalized the importance of her documentation of this hate rhetoric. In this instance, then, my participation in Gries’s project extended beyond the digital text into my own exploration of a natural landscape that had been tainted by this symbol. As a participant-curator, my extended interaction with the text has led me to think critically about how I will present texts and images in archival research. My entanglement in this curatorial process also begs the question of responsibility of digital archivists as they (physically) curate, document, and map trajectories of alphabetic texts, images, audio files, or other modalities. Such a responsibility is a through-line in the collection, as Sheridan has invited us to think through the ways we make opportunities for meaning-making and how we take responsibility for the worlds that we shape.


In writing this response essay, I want to be careful to acknowledge that I cannot speak on behalf of all of the collection’s readers or all archivists; I am simply using my own experience with the collection to think through ways I have become entangled with these researchers’ experiences and their texts presented in MFM. In my wanderings throughout the collection and in my everyday discoveries, I have experienced how we can become entangled in this work through our experiential and physical participation in curating, participation that goes far beyond the digital representations included in this collection. As an archival researcher, this experience has led me to think through implications of my own research and how readers will internalize my presentation of the research and the stories of the participants. As a result, I am confident that my experience as a participant-curator within Making Future Matters will help me carefully and thoughtfully design future research projects by considering complex and emergent everyday realities as the scholars discussed here have done.

Works Cited

  • Clary-Lemon, Jennifer. “Archival Research Processes: A Case for Material Methods.” Rhetoric Review, vol. 33, no. 4, 2014, pp. 381–402.
  • Gaillet, Lynée Lewis. “(Per)Forming Archival Research Methodologies.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 64, no. 1,2012, pp. 35–57.
  • Kirsch, Gesa E., and Liz Rohan, eds. Beyond the Archives: Research as a Lived Process. Southern Illinois UP, 2008.
  • Kirsch, Gesa, and Patricia A. Sullivan. Methods and Methodology in Composition Research. Southern Illinois UP, 1992.
  • Morris III, Charles E. “The Archival Turn in Rhetorical Studies; Or, The Archive’s Rhetorical (Re)Turn.” Rhetoric and Public Affairs, vol. 9, no. 1, 2006, pp. 113–15.
  • Ramsey, Alexis, Wendy B. Sharer, Barbara L’Epplattenier, and Lisa S. Mastrangelo, eds. Working in the Archives: Practical Research Methods for Rhetoric and Composition. Southern Illinois UP, 2010.