The New Work of Composing

Scene One: Invention is Juxtaposition

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Although popular conceptions of 'invention' often present lone geniuses who seem to come up with radically new ideas out of the ether, composition and rhetoric theorists have long recognized that 'original' compositions arise (at least in part) out of the creative juxtaposition of existing materials (Berthoff 1981; D'Angelo 1980; Elbow 1973; Jarratt 1998). As a classic composition textbook put it, “There is only one way in which a person acquires a new idea: the combination or association of two or more ideas he (sic) already has into a new juxtaposition in such a manner as to discover a relationship among them of which he was previously unaware” (McKowen and Sparke, 1970, p. 2). Composing is a process of making connections, rearranging materials (words, images, concepts) in unexpected ways. The first words, images, and concepts that come to our minds are often the most obvious / the most expected / the most banal. Thus, if we wish to be creative, we can benefit greatly by gathering a wide array of disparate materials and then taking the time to experiment with combining and re-arranging these materials in novel ways (Hogan 2003).

As Ann Berthoff argues, "meanings don't come out of the air, we make them out of a chaos of images, half-truths, remembrances, syntactic fragments, from the mysterious and unformed. When we teach pre-writing as a phase of the composing process, what we are teaching is not how to get a thesis statement but the generation and uses of chaos" (Berthoff 1981 p. 70). In order to generate chaos, writers need to resist narrowing focus and coming to closure too quickly; rather, writers who learn the "uses of chaos" (Berthoff 1981 p. 68) come to value the process of gathering and juxtaposing disparate materials in order to generate a 'new' idea.

Although it is certainly possible to craft inventive juxtapositions with pen, paper, and other analog technologies (as Berthoff, Elbow, Burroughs, and others have shown), it is also true that digital technologies open up new possibilities for practicing creative juxtaposition in our pedagogy and scholarship. Within the past twenty years, numerous scholars have explored how reading and composing "constructive hypertexts" (Joyce 1996) can enable students and teachers to draw associations among seemingly disparate ideas--crafting new knowledge through the process of making and interpreting unexpected connections (Bolter 1990; DeWitt 2001; Lanham 1995; Ulmer 1994, 2003).

In theorizing the inventive potential of hypermedia, compositionists have frequently returned to analysis of the boxed assemblages of Joseph Cornell, arguing that Cornell's inventive juxtapositions of found objects might usefully inform contemporary digital writing pedagogies that seek to use hypermedia as a tool of invention (Brooke 2007; Janangelo 1998; Delagrange 2009; Rice 2007b; Sirc 2004; Wysocki 2007). By paying close attention to Cornell's process of composing boxed assemblages, contemporary composition teachers can learn to recognize the "importance of interestingly associational juxtapositions of word, image, and sound" (Sirc 2004, p. 124). Ultimately, the process of composing unexpected multimodal juxtapositions can provoke "the discovery of affinity and meaning among disparate things... the discovery of similarities-in-difference that produce rhetorical grounds for action" (Delagrange 2009). Rather than focusing solely on teaching students to narrow and focus their thoughts to produce 'coherent' arguments, composition teachers might also engage students in crafting works of interactive hypermedia that value and enact the process of discovery through inventive juxtaposition.

More recently, computers and writing scholars have been articulating ways in which the radical appropriations and juxtapositions of audio and video remix artists might serve as models for rethinking writing pedagogy (DeVoss and Webb 2008; Johnson-Eilola 2005; Johnson-Eilola and Selber 2007; Rice 2007b). For example, Jeff Rice has drawn on analysis of hip-hop composing practices to argue for a writing pedagogy that "favors discovery over the restricted topic sentence since writers composing with juxtapositions do not begin with an understanding of what they will be writing about...Instead, writers look for ways to juxtapose from a variety of categories and subjects (the sampling process of juxtaposition) in order to invent" (Rice 2007b, p 91 ). Just as audio remix artists such as Paul Miller (2004) create new music out of re-arranging samples of other songs, so too can students re-invent digital essays by (at least in part) sampling images, words, and sounds from other texts.

Of course, such sampling can provoke anxieties about potential copyright infringement; although the quotation of small portions of alphabetic texts in academic scholarship is a well-established practice of fair use, the 'rules' for sampling copyrighted images and sounds are much less clear (Lessig 2008). Although we strongly support activists who seek to preserve and extend fair use protections for sampling images and sounds (DeVoss & Webb 2008), we personally have decided to use only self-created, public domain, or creative-commons licensed images and videos in our work—especially since we are presenting these still images and video clips as tools for invention rather than as objects for analysis/parody/critique.

Along with incorporating associative, remixed composing into our pedagogy, it's also important that composition and rhetoric specialists (at least sometimes) compose scholarly texts that resist linear print models--that we compose texts which show rather than tell (Ball 2004) about the ways in which associative juxtaposition can provoke new insight. Although much scholarship in invention studies continues to follow linear print conventions, numerous computers and writing scholars have begun the process of composing digital scholarship that radically enacts inventive juxtaposition (Anderson2003; Carter 2008; Cushman 2004; Delagrange 2009; Hawk 2005;  Kyburz 2008; Levy 1999; Wysocki 2002; Vielstimmig 1998; Vitanza 2008; Walker 2003). As Ellen Cushman explains in the rationale for her inventive scholarly webtext, "if the semiotic power of new media rests in large part on interrelation of sign technologies, then those interrelations are often generated by the (im)balances of competing tensions. Dissonant harmonies for composers lend to the saturation of meaning, and the revision of the typically separate roles of readers/texts/writers" (Cushman 2004). In composing the video montages of Act 2 and the randomized invention box of Act 3, we also seek to offer "dissonant harmonies" that invite readers to collaboratively re-invent invention with us.

Following Susan Delagrange (and Joseph Cornell), we believe that "designing visual spaces is a process of discovery through arrangement. And so is viewing them. Cornell did not expect his assemblages to sit on dusty shelves; he hoped that they would be handled and explored" (Delagrange 2009). With this goal in mind, we've constructed the assemblages of acts 2 and acts 3 as a series of brief 'scenes' that can be viewed / handled / explored in a variety of ways. Although we have arranged these scenes into a kind of linear performance, it is of course possible for you to resist this linear frame--to engage the disparate scenes in whatever order and whatever manner you find most conducive for your own (re)invention.

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