Reading the creative <---> scholarly spectrum: A new media example
To build on Wesch’s argument for rethinking aesthetics and rhetorics in relation to new media technologies, we want to discuss a text that was designed by a graduate student in Cheryl’s multimodal pedagogy class in Fall 2006. Robert Watkins' 10-minute movie, "Words are the Ultimate Abstraction: Toward Using Scott McCloud to Teach Visual Rhetoric" [80 megs] represents the kind of classroom-based composition that Hardin and others called for in order to bridge the academic and popular split in English studies. Quite literally, Watkins seeks to move new media production out from the underground of composition studies (quoting Sirc’s work on punk) and into the larger department of English studies. His aim is to revolutionize the field of English; to, as Lyotard said, “make a new move and change the rules of the game” (p. 52). Watkins argued for the teaching of new media critical literacies by composing with new media. Form as content. In this particular movie (which is an early version; he later revised the piece as a peer-reviewed publication for Kairos’ special issue on manifestos, forthcoming May 2008), Watkins started with an idea from Scott McCloud’s book, Understanding Comics, and remediated it using all the modes in which he deemed necessary to communicate his argument. Movie 1 shows a 50-second portion of McCloud’s text as a visual and aural citation, on which Watkins expands to apply McCloud’s semiotic lessons using new media.
Watkins’ video succeeds as a bridge between high and low art-cultures, between scholarly and creative intentions, in part, through his soundtrack. It has three major movements, which use pop-punk songs, and a bridge, which Watkins authored himself. The first song, by the punk band Refused, is called “New Noise” and the lyrics, like the movie itself, set up a situation where the singer reflects on a stale music scene by singing, “How can we expect anyone to listen / If we're using the same old voice?” The loudness of the opening song catches readers’ attention and proceeds to enact, as Halbritter (2006) would say, the video’s thesis. That is, Watkins’ use of “New Noise” drives the argument laid out in the first scene of the video, which sets up the subsequent scenes. Although the lyrics are unrecognizable to most readers, they were easily googled after seeing the album cover in the video. Reading the lyrics added a layer of meaning made through words that reinforced the sonic qualities of the music itself. This is not to suggest that knowing the lyrics is a prerequisite to understanding the author’s argument. In fact, Cheryl had watched and appreciated the video about 20 times before googling the lyrics, only to discover the deep, rhetorical care that the author had put into each of the songs’ inclusion, all of which enact his argument in addition to the other creative and scholarly moves he made in the video.
For instance, the opening song by Refused ends by lamenting, “we’re not leading/ the new beat.” During this part of the video, the soundtrack was laid under Watkins’ voiceover. At one point during the opening scene, he argued that composition needs a revolution. Watkins quoted Geoffrey Sirc’s (1997) article “Nevermind the Tagememics, Where’s the Sex Pistols?” in which he argued that writing teachers should revolutionize their teaching by using punk rock lyrics as texts in their writing classes so that students can be more invested in their writing practices (n.b., the high/low convergence again). Watkins is then seen walking from a tunnel saying, “revolution comes from the underground.” Thus, the following elements coincide:
In the lead-up to that moment, the sequence and juxtaposition of these creative and scholarly elements converge in order for Watkins to argue for and represent the need for rethinking the divisions between creative and scholarly texts in English studies. His argument is an elegant enactment of that need.
There are many moments in this movie that come together in similar creative and scholarly ways, including, for instance, the use of his second song, "Anything," by a band called MAE—an acronym for Multisensory Aesthetic Experience, which is indeed the feeling one gets from viewing Watkins’ video. MAE’s music and lyrics provide a scene filled with possibilities, which matches the purpose of the middle scene in Watkins’ video. In that section, he offered opportunities for broadening readers’ thinking about what composition studies can teach students. (Movie 1 is from this scene.) The third song—"Arc of Time (Time Code)" on the album Digital Ash in a Digital Urn by Bright Eyes—introduces the third and final scene of the video and asked readers in its lyrics to rethink their assumptions about life (e.g., "You can choose the high / Or the lower road"). In a continuation of his argument from the first and second scenes, Watkins underscores (literally!) that composition studies can reconsider what it emphasizes, which is much in the same vein that Wesch’s video asks us to rethink aesthetics and rhetoric in a Web 2.0 world. Watkins’ concludes the movie by allowing the Bright Eyes song to play out as readers stare at a blank screen, the credits done. The final lyrics we hear are, “On a circuit board/ We’ll soon be born/ Again.” Um, yeah, that's what we say.
All of the modes of communication he uses—academically styled voiceover, punk- and pop-rock soundtrack, original video and audio, and written text—fulfill his purpose to persuade us that visual rhetoric and multimodal composition (produced with digital technologies) is a worthwhile, academic pursuit. Moreover, Watkins' is able to demonstrate that multimodal composition afforded him topoi and commonplaces (the materialities of his argument) that tradtional, alphabetic textual choices would not have. Watkins’ uses a popular medium to convey his academic purpose—often considered a contradiction in English studies—and he manages to entertain and persuade us.