D4: Rhetorical Carpentry: Reconstructing Video and Rescuing Critique
We worked through a set of short, modular presentations mostly in the form of videos. We included live narration of some videos as well as some presentation and performance. The image on the left depicts the "setlist" that we came up with for the presentation. All four session presenters created modular nodes that might be mixed and matched--although we eventually sequenced these nodes. The approach allowed us to break away from the typical fifteen-minute, one-speaker-at-a-time presentation model. The basic structure of the session moved from opening concepts to examples to classroom experiences to enactments. The opening concepts centered on establishing the need for alternative modes of scholarship and proposing zen-oriented, ambient and non-linear, maker-based, and affective modes of response. Among the most rewarding comments to come up during the discussion after the presentations was an observation that it was difficult to live tweet during the session; the videos engaged viewers' whole bodies and encouraged mindful attention. In many ways, we wanted to the time spent moving through all of these materials to create an experience of alternative scholarship. We include the major videos from the session below.
The opening segment pointed toward problems with critique. The segments that followed modeled alternative modes of response.
Our first alternative approach featured Zen Buddhism as a potential model for developing alt-scholarship. Zen practitioners reject subject/object dualism; the Buddha-body is an umbrella term for the substance underwriting all reality. Dainin Katagiri notes that to enter the Way, one must first realize "the truth that all beings are Buddha" (67). This solves what Ian Bogost calls the epistemological "problem of access": when we stop distinguishing ourselves from the things we percieve, no obstacle remains to our experience of those things. This is the foundation for Buddhist compassion: to love another, we must realize that there is no other. In a non-dualistic paradigm, it is not only unproductive but absurd for a critic to analyze an object as if it were a separate entity to be broken apart. This attitude finds theoretical support: Bogost, Bruno Latour, Thomas Rickert, and others urge attention to material objects to which agency is not typically attributed. German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk encourages us to give the lie to the illusion of dualism by following in the footsteps of the Ancient Greek kynic Diogenes, who flaunted his material body at those who held intellectual power. We build these videos with a kynical spirit, artifacts that perform criticism without eliding their similarity to that which they critique. These videos are not cleanly separated from their objects, nor do they pretend to an idealized, logical language that speaks for objects, rather than with them. Hence they are jarring at times, and they should be. Within what Sloterdijk calls "cheekiness," compassion arises.
Zen texts cheekily ask their readers to stop grasping at objects of desire. Since all forms we percieve are ephemeral, to follow desire leads only to suffering. Instead, Zen encourages us to accept and experience the phenomena we encounter with mindfulness. The radical shift in perspective that allows this is known as satori, and is often brought about by a Zen master abruptly challening a student to reach beyond the boundaries of logical thought. No master, however, is necessary for satori: this video suggests that satori waits in every moment, and the scholar can help trigger it in his or her audience. The immediate, senusous qualities of video make it a helpful medium for this mode of critique.
We next discussed ways that ambience might provide helpful models for moving beyond the linear perspectives that characterize typical modes of critique. Citing Thomas Rickert and Ian Bogost, the presentation linked ambience with alternative models of rhetoric, particularly procedural rhetoric, suggesting that movements toward procedural rhetoric and its affordance for alternative means of persuasion through games--while offering helpful alternative pathways--could also be extended with ambient models.
The session then took up making as a potential alternative mode of response. In this segment, we also took up what might be considered typical models for understanding video. In addition to the kinds of screen-oriented alternative video modes featured in the session, we argue for maker-based, physical instantiations as helpful for opening new pathways for the creation and understanding of moving images.
As we moved into the next major segment of the session--classroom practice--we hoped that student voices and projects might move to the fore. In order to demonstrate the pedagogical utility of kynicism or "dog philosophy," we played a sequence of three student videos that emulate the lesson of the following koan:
Hyakujo went out one day attending his master Baso, when they saw a flock of wild geese flying. Baso asked:
“What are they?”
“They are wild geese, sir.”
“Whither are they flying?”
“They have flown away.”
Baso, abruptly taking hold of Hyakujo’s nose, gave it a twist. Overcome with pain, Hyakujo cried out: “Oh! Oh!”
Said Baso, “You say they have flown away, but all the same they have been here from the very first.” (D. T. Suzuki)
In Suzuki’s koan, when Hyakujo (a monk) tries to point to the geese, they have already departed. By twisting his pupil’s nose, Baso arrests his futile logical pursuit of the experience that saturates this moment and all others. Because of this quick and kynical event, Hyakujo experiences satori. Very brief Zen texts like this wink playfully even as they describe the strict disciplinary relationship between master and pupil. To bring compassion to scholarship is to transform one’s pedagogical role from that of a dispenser of knowledge to that of a guide. Short video projects can reorient students away from the treatment of knowledge as a commodity, toward a compassionate, playful relationship with the phenomenal world.
Zen masters are famous for their pedagogical techniques. Infamous may be a better word, since these techniques usually involve a slap in the face or similar sudden shock. The sharp appearance of this teaching belies its compassionate implications. Katagiri explains for a modern audience:
When you have to help your children with school work, why don't you help with full devotion; at that time, your life can be found exactly in the children's lives. [. . .] Buddhism always teaches that you should find your time within another's. This is called full committment; this is called "help." There is no separation. You are the child; the child is you. (68)
Although Katagiri is speaking of young children, what happens when we practice "full committment" with our writing students? These students often do not relish the time they spend writing papers. The unpleasantness of their writing process has many sources, but distraction and boredom are among them. By reorienting "composition" to encompass not just the written word but the arrangement of media, and by allowing students flexibility in choosing their topics and approaches to these arrangements, teachers can help students lessen the sense of separation between themselves and their work. To assign a video project may seem a figurative slap-in-the-face to students who are unfamiliar with technology or simply not expecting it. However, this playful challenge is the sort of jolt which generates mindful attention to the process at hand--it is the jolt of satori.
For the closing, enactment segments, we again took up making, affect, and Zen-based approaches to scholarship and video.
The final item, a video poem, is a meditation on dhyana, the Sanskrit word for meditation practice meant to cultivate mindful awareness. The author mashes up footage of Tibetan monks constructing and deconstructing a sand mandala with footage of Dante, his German Shepherd. In various forms of Buddhism, mandalas represent the universe as a palace. Each region of the circular design is meticulously colored and detailed to symbolize virtues and deities. Both the construction and contemplation of a mandala aid dhyana: like a repeated mantra, the practitioner contemplates the mandala until its details cease to hold independent meaning. This falling away of boundaries is reified at the mandala's completion, when the monks sweep it up, process to the nearest water, and deposit it back into the world. Despite their constant work on the mandala, the monks are not oriented toward a product. The artwork's meaning resides in its transience. The practice of constructing or contemplating a mandala is the mandala: it exists as process. Similarly, when Dante the dog is driven forward by enthusiasm, he does not grasp at objects. He has no regard for destination. He just moves. The meaning of our experiences lies in our awareness of each moment's "just being," its suchness. This awareness is a critical attitude in Zen, composition, and teaching. By practicing it, scholars can learn and teach about art without taking it apart--and perhaps find art in surprising places.
Through hands-on and performative demonstrations, the presenters will reveal how our current constructions of digital video often rely on associations with cinema. Deploying moving images through game- and maker-based activities and developing screen-based scholarship brings to light surprising material dimensions and possibilities for further transformations of our compositional and scholarly approaches.
Presenters one and two will provide hands-on demonstration of videos developed through gaming and physical computing including games deployed in first-year writing courses and a “Sensible Phenaktistoscope” to reveal alternatives to our contemporary understanding of soundtracked film/video as the primary model of audio-visual experience.
Presenters three and four will discuss and demonstrate a series of digital videos developed to extend conventional critical approaches. As Clifford Clark notes, traditional scholarship is characterized by an objective, aggressive desire to study texts and arguments by analyzing them: to critique usually means to break apart.