Visible and Hidden Transcripts: Word Domination and Paths to Resistance




Claire's story

Clippie and friends

Word dominance

The public transcript

Transcript traces

Ideology saturation

Through thick and thin

Paths of resistance

Assignment Possibilities





Paths of resistance open up as soon as students have the tools to decode the ideologies behind software packages. Among these are what Scott calls negation. Here subordinate groups use the master’s tools in order to promote their own aims – for example, Scott describes how African American slaves transformed Christianity into a site for social change, protest, and community building. 

Similarly, individuals and groups all over the Web answer critiques of particular technologies' worldviews through thoughtful transformation of the tools themselves. Here lies a productive teaching opportunity. Instructors may invite students to examine Yale professor Edward Tufte’s argument against the atomizing, shallow-thought producing PowerPoint. Tufte suggests that NASA engineers' use of PowerPoint to emphasize the amount of damage done to the Columbia space shuttle during lift-off damaged their argument. The NASA bureacrats were unable to see past PowerPoint's hierarchal arrangement of bullet points to understand the import of the argument. The result -- disaster to the Columbia when she attempted to land without proper repair.

Next, students may consider David Byrne’s recent book of art, E.E.E.I. (Envisioning Emotional Epistemological Information), using PowerPoint icons and clipart. Composer, musician, and artist, Byrne notes that the premade icons, charts, and graphs availabe to PowerPoint are designed for “sales and marketing people” yet he uses PowerPoint to satirize itself and create art in the process.  He explains:  “Although I began by making fun of the medium, I soon realized I could actually create things that were beautiful.” Here Byrne obviates the difficulties of seeing PowerPoint as other than a tool for business presentations -- its constrictions made visible are negated through Byrne's art.

I suggest that students may usefully analyze these two views of PowerPoint, e.g., how are Tufte and Byre's views of PowerPoint similiar? What conclusions may we draw about PowerPoint on the basis of these two arguments?

Byrne's use of PowerPoint is a negation of the software package's purposes. This negation, known to cultural theorists as Guy Debord's "detournement" is both familiar and useful to students in the composition classroom, allowing them to define a worldview, consider the ideologies necessary to that worldview, and then, try to turn it upside down.

Certainly the examination of dissident subcultures is easily possible through exploration of websites.  Satiric discourses abound on the Web that can be analyzed and later designed by composition students. For example, Avant news satirizes Microsoft Word by imagining a poetry checker. Sam Gentle imagines an auto unsummarize button that will allow students to generate automatically from a scant paragraph the required number of words for a lengthy research paper.

Microsoft Word’s presence as part of the natural social order – what my student Claire called – “the way computers tell you to do things” is not immutable.  Ten years from now, an entirely new word processor may dominate.  What is more important here is an opportunity for students to notice what has been naturalized, to identify its claims, and to call into question its dominance.  Students may acknowledge the public transcript and make visible what has been unremarked through assignments constructed for that purpose. Finally, and most importantly, instructors should see strategies of negation as important rhetorical choices possible to our students. Critical literacies, thereby, clarified.

What Word renders – the future it tenders – is definable.  But when Word is god and its renderings of the world imbibed as immutable rationale, critical pedagogy is at risk. As Henry Giroux reminds us,: 

Education is a moral and political practice, and always presupposes an introduction to and preparation for particular forms of social life, a particular rendering of what community is, and an idea of what the future might hold (p. 173).