REMIXING POLITICS AND PEDAGOGY
Irreverent texts such as the “Hillary 1984” video represent compelling modes of political critique leveled by “ordinary” citizens and offer a discursive platform that is simply not available in other forms of media. Print continues to be displaced by the image (Bezemer & Kress, 2008) as readers/viewers seek greater “immediacy,” the interface becomes more transparent in an attempt to more accurately reflect reality (Bolter & Grusin, 1998, p. 30), and many Web 2.0 applications and practices let users experiment with still and moving images as composers as well as consumers. In other words, the greater availability of images on the web, as well as software that let users download and manipulate existing video clips, allow users to produce their own representations of reality in visually-oriented arenas. Sites such as Google Images provide easily searchable databases of images that users may easily save and use without obtaining permission; consequently, the appropriation of images, audio, video, and other multimedia elements has become widespread, with considerable ramifications for composing practices.
Recent scholarship, such as that done by Lawrence Lessig (2005) and Johndan Johnson-Eilola & Stuart Selber (2007), has demonstrated that contemporary students live, think, and compose in a “remix culture,” blurring the line between invented and borrowed texts (Johnson-Eilola & Selber, 2007, p. 375). But “official” institutions, such as schools, corporate institutions, and political entities, are rarely comfortable with such seemingly irreverent assemblages between existing and “original” texts. In this section, I will attempt to sketch how, as Johnson-Eiola and Selber note, irreverent compositions “offer important new ways for thinking critically and productively about what it means to write, about what it means to read, and about what we value as texts in rhetoric in composition” (p. 376). Furthermore, I argue that irreverence as a rhetorical trope (which often relies on some variety of “remixing” pre-existing content) may constitute a vernacular rhetoric that can challenge institutionalized, dominant forms of discourse.
In “Toward a Civic Rhetoric for Technologically and Scientifically Complex Places,” Michele Simmons and Jeffrey Grabill note that if composition instructors wish to equip their students for citizenship beyond the academy, then we should consider integrating the rhetorical practices of those working for community change into our composition classrooms (p. 440-442). Irreverent composition in its various forms – pastiche, mash-up, bricolage, etc. – may be just such a strategy that enables “transgressive acts of the least powerful” (p. 442), or the “vernacular rhetoric” that Hauser envisions. Further, composition instructors “must also acknowledge that productive participation involves appropriation and re-appropriation of the familiar often in ways that accommodate audiences by speaking to shared values and working with discourse conventions” (p. 381). Thus, engaging students in the practice of composing irreverence immerses them in an epideictic ritual of drawing from established conventions, value systems, and literacies to invent new knowledge.
Since irreverent composition ignores or mocks authority, it seems appropriate that most texts of this caliber (including the ones I observed in the CNN-YouTube Debates) would rely on humor to some degree for their rhetorical effectiveness, and this may be one place to begin conceptualizing ways to integrate the rhetorical trope of irreverence into the contemporary writing classroom. While comedy continues to be used for dispatching political and social commentary (current examples include The Onion, South Park, and The Daily Show, to name a few), instruction in this rhetorical strategy appears to be absent from contemporary college composition curricula. Meanwhile, as other venues for composition – such as social networking sites – continue to revolutionize the ways in which people access information and communicate with each other, parody and other irreverent strategies continue to emerge as a privileged mode of argumentation in digital venues. As was noted in the earlier discussion of the CNN-YouTube Debates, many political figures and cultural gatekeepers are quick to dismiss such irreverent compositions in an effort to preserve the norms of discourses of power. In this way, irreverent strategies may exemplify the spirit of Hauser's “vernacular rhetoric” by highlighting the tension between official, institutionalized forms of discourses and the commentary produced by every day citizens.
Despite the current lack of classroom practice in this area, history shows that humor is no stranger to the composition classroom. Early lectures in composition, such as the ones developed by Hugh Blair, point to the rhetorical, political, and civic value of comedy. In his lecture “XLVII: Comedy—Greek and Roman—French—English Comedy,” Blair discusses the social value of ridicule, arguing that it is “the chief instrument of comedy” and that satirical exploitations of human folly are “very moral and useful” (p. 542). Referring to ancient Athenian plays, Blair identifies parody as a tool for political satire, while also pointing out the importance of cultural literacy. Namely, Blair points out how these Athenian plays “are so full of political allegories and allusions, that it is impossible to understand them without a considerable knowledge of the history of those times” (p. 546). In other words, in order to understand the parody, audience members must draw from their knowledge of previous cultural texts and rely on multiple intelligences to form their understanding.
Contemporary authors are also noting the importance of cultural literacy in parody. In Rhetoric Online, Barbara Warnick (2007) uses the anti-consumerist spoof ads from Adbusters and the ever-changing Google logo as examples of how a parody’s effectiveness depends on the audience’s understanding of other texts. In this way, it seems that parody functions as an enthymeme: part of the argument is left unstated, with the understanding that audience members will be able to fill in the rest of the argument with knowledge gained from previous readings and experiences. Evidently, the Athenians – and Hugh Blair – recognized this literacy, as well.
As the most vibrant rhetorical arenas continue to be contested, it is essential that composition instructors aid students in developing these skills so that they might be better prepared to identify and critique discourses of power and resistance and to compose new forms of democratic engagement in offline and online arenas. The possibilities for such integration range from short, in-class activities to more complex, semester-long projects. One assignment might take the form of a writing prompt that asks students to analyze the use of irreverence in a specific text (such as an episode of South Park, an article by The Onion, or a viral video on YouTube that employs strategies such as the ones discussed earlier) and the extent to which irreverence as a rhetorical trope enhances the text’s overall impact: What is the overall impact of the text? Who or what is being mocked, and by whom? What kind of argument or commentary is being made through that mockery? How does the argument resist existing power relationships? How does the text change or break the rules about who is allowed to speak and what topics are allowed to be spoken about?
Such analyses need not be limited to people and events, however. Experimentation with irreverence may provide an entrypoint into student reflection on particular genres of composition – especially, perhaps, those genres that are unique to digital composing. An activity such as this one, provided by a new media writing course at the University of Minnesota Duluth, use parody activities to engage students in critique of digital genres such as MySpace and Facebook profiles, eBay listings, blogs, and even Powerpoint presentations. Other activities may ask students to compose their own texts using irreverence as a rhetorical trope. A major project for an intermediate or advanced writing course, for example, could ask students to construct a parody for the purpose of critiquing a person, place, event, trend, or other topic. Linking these projects to a current event or controversy (such as an election, local scandal, or on-campus trend) would encourage students to become critical observers, composers, and community participants.
Of course, encouraging students to engage in irreverent work – particularly that which draws from existing texts – is a practice that brings with it many ethical challenges. Teachers must learn to “balance cultural expectations of use with legal pressures of copyright in our classrooms” (McKee, 2008, p. 119). Thus, instruction in the use of parody in a remix culture will require instruction on the sometimes murky Fair Use Doctrine of U.S. Copyright Law. Unfortunately, this ethical responsibility to uphold intellectual property guidelines also may threaten students’ ability to critique the most dominant, institutionalized forms of discourse through the practice of appropriation and remix. As Danielle DeVoss & Suzanne Webb (2008) note, “If we teach students to ask for permission to fairly use media work in their educational endeavors, we risk pushing them into a wall—a wall that they likely will not be able to climb and conquer within the 15-week semesters in which we typically teach. It is phenomenally difficult—and deliberately so—to find out who actually holds the copyright to a work” (p. 95). Daunting as these challenges may be, they are issues that transcend the walls of the classroom; students must learn to interrogate the boundaries of intellectual property so that they might make informed choices about when and where to use irreverence in service of a vernacular rhetoric that resists dominant discourses of power.