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Composition in a Larger Frame? Updated 2.27.11

April 26, 2011

So several years ago, I gave a talk at Wayne State focused on composition studies as cultural studies.  In that talk, I looked at some of the questions we might ask about composing, about texts, about the technologies and social relationships that are both motivated by composing and that motivate new composing practices, texts (genres), and responding practices. I haven’t read it yet, but I think that’s in part what Sid Dobrin is advocating in his new Postcomposition, due out in June. And at some level, I think that’s what this sabbatical project is about: a cultural and historical study of vernacular writing in America in the 20th century–and peeking into the 21st.   It’s writing studies as writing studies without reference to students. (Not that I don’t like students: I do. )

Several points that need exploration here:

One is that we have used activity system theory quite usefully to help us understand both the situated-ness of writing and the relationship of one genre to another (ie, by means of genre families).  So there’s a local/larger at play here. But what we haven’t done is take activity theory and use it as a frame to think about writing in moments in time. Henkin, for example, makes the argument that in NYC in the 19th century, there were many public texts–both visual and verbal–that basically enculturated people into literate behavior. I think that’s so. A trivial example: when you look at images of old building, their surfaces often functioned as billboards, with many of them having wonderful visual compositions on them (even if they were advertising). Look at the sides of buildings today: in part because of new materials (think of glass replacing brick and how the materials function or not as a writing surface), our buildings are very plain. The writing surface has disappeared. My point:  environment makes a difference in the way we understand composing. And activity system theory could help us locate writing relative to its environment, both as a tool of analysis and as a heuristic for design.

Another area that I want to explore is the set of networks that always locate composing and composers. And it’s a set, not  a single one.  How does the set function? How are networks over/layered on each other, and to what effect? Where is the point of purchase for a composer? As composers, what kinds of engagements do we have with/in networks?

Sometimes, as in the case of one scrapbook commemorating (or documenting, constructing representing, narrating, reporting?) the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, it seems more a representation of what is, which representation is implicated in networks of commercial manufacturing. In a 1942 diary from the Santa Anita assembly camp, it leads to the creation of a new network with personal, social, and explicitly ideological dimensions to it. Another case is the so-called Red Orchestra, a group of German resistance fighters during World War II: as in the case of the diary writer, the purpose here was to create a network of resistance, largely through newspapers and flyers. In the case of the website Patients Like Me, a network of participation is available, one that has the collective aspirations of the diary but the technological networked materiality and affordances of the web. And the website quakebook.org is providing space and publication for the stories of Japanese earthquake survivors.

So composing is more than process, more than genre, and more than grammar 😉 It’s a set of  human technologically mediated verbal and visual situated practices located in environments that foster attitudes and imitations and in larger networks with multiple dimensions to them that offer different kinds of engagements.

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