The Currency of Emergent Participatory Economies
What if we asked students to tell us how they will participate?
This project has considered how Critel's work on participation rhetorics in the classroom enriches an analysis of participation rhetorics on the Web. I focus on Web memes because these singular cultural objects not only draw the viewing and composing attention of young people but also depend upon participation in order to function. Memes enact a composing space that takes full advantage of the Web's immediacy and reach. And some memes participate in embodied dissent. The bodies of the young men and women, faces bowed, arms grasped around knees or hooked around neighbors' arms are erased from the pepper spraying cop meme and anonymous in videos of the UC Davis student protest. But the meme invokes dissent with its brilliant use of iconic place (a famous painted field, a New York street on V-E Day, and so forth) to suggest that violent oppression may invade any place.
While the Don't Tase Me, Bro meme sprang from what I have argued is a disruption of community norms, the Casual Pepper-Spraying Cop meme invokes the power of generally accepted values and ideals. Americans believe in dissent, when the time and place are right, that is. Moreover, many students are part of a generation brought up and living among digital images of violence and oppression. In the age of the Internet, these images erupt and circulate at spectacular speed, blurring before viewers' eyes. Their frantic pace may reduce their significance.
Remarkably, then, the Casual Pepper-Spraying Cop meme demonstrates how an emergent participatory economy may, in effect, take advantage of speed on the Web and cleverly invite its viewers to identify and participate in its message of dissent. In other words, this meme reminds viewers of community-shared values and thus refuses to be blurred. And Critel's interrogation of participation underscores the importance of developing community-shared values.
At the end of her project on classroom participation, Critel asks the question that begins this section. This question asks students to reflect on their values and consider the expectations they bring to the classroom. In other words, it provides a space for both teachers and students to push back against the commonplaces of participation in the classroom. Similarly, I might ask students how they would participate in the instances of dissent that led to these memes and to interrogate how each meme represents those moments. Here, students evoke community, one of Critel's topoi, as they consider how and when a community might come together in virtual spaces in order to dissent. What values does a virtual community enact as it circulates a meme? What criteria must memes meet in order to be judged effective by the circulating community? These are important questions to ask.
Memes are thought of as insignificant ephemera. In order to trouble that assumption, I argue for meme embodiment. Memes appear to be nudged across the Web by anonymous hands, but they are not. While discussing the difficulties of assessing embodiment, Critel describes bodies with varied abilities and capabilities. By doing so, she makes varied and variable bodies visible and achieves a more nuanced approach to participation.
Similarly, analyses of emergent participatory economies, memes, fan fiction, live blogs written with a favorite television show, and social media discussion threads, may be rendered visible embodiments of their emergent participatory economies. As scholars continue to investigate memes' varied evanescence or immortality, they will enrich their work by considering memes' commonplaces, approaches to participation, embodiment, and evocation of norms and values.
Indeed by, in effect, refusing meme disembodiment, instructors may invite students to deeper interrogation of a meme. Seeing memes as participatory acts embodied in material practices of reading and composing provides insight into emergent participatory economies. And, as I have previously suggested, the currency of this Web economy is reading and composing.
Critel argues that we rethink our pedagogy in light of technological affordances. At its least complex level, the success of Web reading and composing is measured by number of views and number of responses. In other words, the material practice of reading and writing—participation—denotes a vibrant, living participatory economy. On the other hand, Critel describes classrooms in which the normalized practice of participation assessment informs writing instructors' grading strategies. She analyzes and identifies the many problems the practice ensures. At root, Critel asks that we concretize our definitions of participation, interrogating obfuscatory commonplaces.
The provocative question she asks, quoted in the right sidebar, prompts me to ask, similarly, What if we asked students how we should design our own emergent participatory economy? What will we value in this classroom, and how will our reading and writing practices evoke those values?
For Genevieve Critel, the heart of the matter was always her students—their reading, their writing. Her work reminds us to remember this.