Cynthia Davidson, Stony Brook University
The ever-changing face of media
Photo used under Creative Commons from blog.eyemagazine.com
This type of learning, new media literacy or mediacy, is central to the future of composition studies. In Acquiring Literacy: Techne, Video Games and Composition Pedagogy, techno-compositionist James Robert Schirmer analyzes “video games as a techno-pedagogical manifestation of techne” and discusses how this may be applied to the teaching of composition. Techne is, of course, the Greek root of the word technology, but it has a long history and many reverberations. By analyzing the word in relationship to other ancient Greek rhetorical concepts, episteme, ethos, phronesis, and kairos, Schirmer is able to define techne as the acquisition of literacies:
In writing of technology’s influence, scholars return to the root of the word, techne, which is rather ambiguous in meaning. Most often defined as art, craft, skill and/or the active application of knowledge, it is the very ambiguity of techne that many scholars find intriguing and beneficial to their ends, even though the pervasiveness and scope of techne also remains a point of contention. Techne is both a tool utilized, working in tandem with knowledge/wisdom to produce an effect or event, and more than a tool, often exhibiting a kind of autonomy which some embrace and others fear. Divorced from or saturated with emotion, separate or inseparable from knowledge and science, ‘mere craft’ or exalted art, these various interpretations of techne illuminate an interesting effect of multiplicity as our lives become increasingly seamless with myriad technologies...(4)
Techne is to be distinguished from episteme, usually defined as knowledge of unchanging truths about the world. It can be related pragmatically to the learning of what we’d normally call content learning, learning facts about the world. Schirmer also discusses the relationship of techne to phronesis, which Dunne defines as knowledge enacted through personal experience, characterizing and expressing the kind of person that one is, “acquired and deployed not in the making of any product separate from oneself but rather in one’s actions with one’s fellows” (244 quoted in Schirmer 36-37). Phronesis is related to situated ethos (the relative social standing between the participants in the rhetorical situation), but one might say it is an ethos situated in a person’s abilities rather than in character or social standing alone. Schirmer says, “If techne embodied is understood as what we do, phronesis embodied should be understood as who we are” (36). In Isocrates’ discusses of techne, the occasion for techne is supremely contextual and “allows an orator to better endear oneself to a particular context, to kairos” (40). Schirmer finds video games to be a compelling ground for the development of techne and phronesis, in that, in the examples he provides, a player draws upon multiplicity of resources associated with who she is (phronesis), what is available to her at the moment and how she knows to apply it (techne), and what the moment calls for (kairos).
Schirmer’s many sources include Bolter and Grusin’s work as well as that of James A. Inman in his introduction to Computers and Writing: The Cyborg Era. Inman defines cyborg literacy, a term founded on the work of Donna Haraway in her seminal essay "The Cyborg Manifesto," as “the integration of a series of systems that compel simultaneous attention to individuals, technologies, and other elements in the contexts they share” (160). While Schirmer agrees with this as an important aspect of new literacy, he takes issue with the practicality of Inman’s insistence that cyborg literacy “relies…on individuals to choose which systems prove important and allows for the pursuit of “whatever is interesting whenever it is interesting” (164)” (15). Schirmer thinks that such open-endedness will not succeed in a classroom because it lacks a “workable heuristic” “within a compositional context, almost impossible in which to engage students” (15). With video games, Schirmer finds there is a built-in engagement factor that keeps the player moving onward. In video games, there are achievements, levels, a feedback and reward system that seems somewhat opposed to this complete freedom to do whatever interests one at the moment.