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As you know, Tuesday’s class is cancelled, and the following post contains all the information you need to be ready for Thursday. I have published the project details for the Research Journal, so you can review them before writing your first entry, which is due next Tuesday. Let me know if you have questions.
What follows are the reading notes for the Sirc article, including the homework assignment due Thursday (the homework takes the place of today’s class) and some brief instructions for how to read Joyce Walker and James Purdy’s article for Thursday. This post is long, but contains very important information, so please stick with it.
Reading Notes for Geoffrey Sirc’s “What is Composition After Duchamp”
The modernist art movement of the early 20th century is too complex for me to try and summarize here, but I will do my best to clarify how and why Geoffry Sirc compares it to the field of college composition.
Modernist art and Duchamp
Sirc begins by retelling the story of the rejection of Marcel Duchamp’s painting, Nude Descending a Staircase from the 1912 Société des Artistes Indepéndants exhibition. This exhibition was billed as embodying the ethic of the Cubist movement (a form of modernism), which claimed to break down the boundaries of what counted as art and to open the field up to new artists. Sirc’s point is that rather than breaking down the boundaries of art, Cubism was instead redefining/refining those boundaries. For example, modernism tried to figure out what qualities were inherent to different art forms. For sculpture it was it’s three-dimensional quality. For painting, it was the flatness of the canvas (two-dimensional) and its representation of one moment in time. The Cubists tried to break down their subjects into their basic shapes rather than representational art’s aim to paint objects as we see them. They also attempted to show objects from multiple points of view at one time, painting an item as if the artist were looking at it from the left and right side simultaneously. Picasso’sStill Life with Compote and Glass is a prime example of this.
What Nude Descending a Staircase does is attempt to show movement, the passage of time, which modernist painters had decided was not inherent to the art of painting. Duchamp further violated the rules by painting a nude moving. Traditionally, nudes were female subjects of representational painting and shown in lounging, submissive poses. In Duchamp’s painting the nude is moving and is not clearly male or female.
According to Sirc, Duchamp was actually doing what the Cubists claimed to be doing—he was breaking down the boundaries of what art could be. For him, “no juries, no prizes” meant no rules—anything could be art. This is the ethic behind his “readymades” and “assisted readymades.” A urinal could be art if plucked out of the everyday and seen in a new context.
Duchamp chose a bicycle wheel for his first readymade, not because it was beautiful (or rare or difficult) but because it was commonplace, easily available: if it were lost, it could be replaced “like a hundred thousand others” (Lebel Marcel Duchamp 35). Duchamp understood the necessity for de-valuing materiality in the new art, affording anartism to everyone. With writing now defined as choosing rather than fabricating, all material is equal; it’s whatever catches the eye. “We will sample from anything we need. We will rip-off your mother if she has something we find appropriate for our compost-heap creations” (Amerika). Material is chosen not because it’s a privileged text, a “difficult” masterpiece from the “history of writing,” but because it’s around, on hand. It’s whatever is noticed out of the corner of one’s eye from the endlessly-shifting screen before one. Gangsta rap is so commonplace as to almost be a readymade, especially given the way so many rap songs are based on sampling of previously-recorded material (Duchamp called readymades he messed with a little “assisted readymades”). (Sirc p. 44)
What does all this have to do with composition?
Sirc connects Duchamp to composition studies by arguing that writing teachers often engage in the same hypocrisy as the Cubist modernists. We (I am including myself in this group because I am a writing teacher and composition scholar) claim to want writing that is fresh and different and not writing that is just a highly polished version of already established forms and genres. Sirc uses David Bartholomae as his main example because Bartholomae is a composition teacher-scholar who has argued throughout his career that he wants students to wrestle with difficult ideas in their writing, that he would rather get a paper that was a little bit rough but took on challenging material than one that is highly polished but not taking any risks in its subject matter or the ways in which the writing approaches that subject matter. However, Sirc’s point is that Bartholomae (to extend the comparison) wants a cubist painting a la Picasso and not one of Duchamp’s readymades.
Bartholomae’s project is a modernist one: push the boundaries of writing not to destroy them, but to refine them. Bartholomae is not opposed to writing contests and prizes, he just wants to have better rules by which to make his judgements. Sirc makes this point through his discussion of the travel essay a student wrote about her missionary trip to St. Croix, which Bartholomae critiques in his article. Sirc claims that Bartholomae wants her essay to approach the topic the way Mary Louis Pratt would. Pratt is a composition scholar who coined the term “contact zone,” the space where two different cultures meet and wrestle with their political, social, and historical differences. The student’s essay is not like one of Pratt’s. Instead is more like something William Burroughs would have written—a recording of events as she saw them without analysis or critique of her viewpoint. For Bartholomae, a Pratt-style travel essay is the gold standard, and what the student wrote is thus not within the realm of art. It is outside the boundaries of what a travel essay should be.
It is at this point that Sirc begins playing with equations, and he brings in another example—the way that Richard Rodriguez (an academic) writes about the literacy work of Richard Hoggart (another academic). What Sirc wants is an approach to composition that would not hold up certain kinds of readings (they way Rodriguez writes about Hoggart) of certain kinds of material (Hoggart’s sociological work on literacy practices), but instead would value any kind of reading of any material at all.
[S]ampling, linking, glass, wires, photo-transfer, sound-bites—these are the materials of composition-in-general, the teleintertext; composition as I know it and love it: as blueprint, How-To Book, a sort of catalogue or “a sort of letter-box” (Duchamp 38), just putting stuff together—that’s the way I work—to see what I could get out of it; very very plastic. Writing full of new definitions, double-exposures; writing across all curriculums, kicks in all genres (Cabanne 82); amazing anel forgettable, wonderful and oddly hollow; new adventures in hi-fi, just messing around. (Sirc p. 66-67)
This is a radical idea because school is all about teaching students how to think the right thoughts about the right things. Hamlet = yes. Fifty Shades of Grey = no. A travel essay about your trip to St. Croix = yes, but only if you approach the topic as Pratt would.
What does this have to do with writing in the digital age?
Everything. Here is how Sirc puts it.
Contemporary composition insists on the literary aesthetic of the Contact Zone but electronic writing operates in the anti-aesthetic of the Interzone, where “‘content’ is what the mediaconglomerates deliver into one’s home via the TV screen, and form is the ability to level out or flatten the meaning of all things’ (Olsen and Amerika). […] The Web, then, is the New Independents’ Salon, Malraux’s Museum-Without-Walls built on the shards of the now-fractal Palace of Modernism.
The means of production are in the hands of the consumers; the specialized knowledge of the academy becomes again increasingly beside-the-point for the now on-going intertextual salon. Increasingly new composing technologies means the media has no time to be practiced, perfected, conventionalized, ritualized. What aesthetic remains lies in capturing, choosing, from what is in front of his senses at the moment of writing; the hurried snapshot of life on the run, not a stylized drawing. “The important thing then is just this matter of timing, this snapshot effect” (Duchamp 32). (Sirc p. 52-53)
The web does not make distinctions between high and low culture and does not respect the boundaries of juried art or disciplinary (academic) writing. All texts (written, visual, aural) are equally available for consumption and remix.
Sirc also makes the point that the art of Duchamp and other avant-garde artists privileges “use value” over “exchange value.” That is, the art that we typically see in museums is valued not because it is useful, but because it has been deemed artistically significant by the art world and that is where its value comes from. We hang it on our walls because it signifies our level of education, our refined tastes. The Web also privileges use value, and the meme is the ultimate example of that—it is the 21st century assisted readymade.
Memes have a limited life span because they rely on timeliness (kairos) and their value is “used up” once the culture has moved on to a different topic. Each meme serve a specific purpose at a particular moment—it has a use value. The meme is similar to Duchamp’s parody of the Mona Lisa. He took a cheap, postcard-style reproduction of the painting and drew a mustache and goatee on it and titled it with the letters L.H.O.O.Q, which, when said quickly sounds like a crude, sexual statement in French. Duchamp made the Mona Lisa into a meme. High art is taken out of context and made into a low culture scribble for the purpose of critique and humor. But the original context is important. We must know the status of the Mona Lisa in the art world to get the joke.
One of my favorite memes was Texts from Hillary, which took a photo of Hillary Clinton working on Airforce One (and looking like a bad-ass while doing it) and added text and additional images making it look like she was exchanging texts with various famous people. My favorite incorporates another meme Feminist Ryan Gosling:
The Hillary meme is no longer active because cultural moment is past. She is no longer Secretary of State and in the public eye on a daily basis. This meme’s use value is used up. You can see from other Tumblr meme sites—Binders Full of Women, McKayla is Not Impressed—that this happens to some of the most popular memes. The site owners retire them and move on to other readymade projects.
As you might imagine, I am Team Sirc and not Team Bartholomae. I see your blogs as spaces to remix and reimagine your topics by pulling from the culture-at-large. All sources are legitimate material. It is the use you put the material to that matters and there is no privileged way to use your material.
With this in mind, here is your homework assignment. On Thursday bring to class one example of a readymade and one example of an assisted readymade.
- For the readymade, find an object, a text broadly defined, that you wish to put in a new context so that we might view it as art.
- For the assisted readymade, create a blackout poem a la Austin Kleon. Take a page of text (preferably from an academic article like the Sirc’s), and blackout with a marker all the words except the ones you wish to use to form your poem.
See. Easy and fun. (see below for more HW reminders)
How to read Digital Breadcrumbs for Thursday
Below is some guidance on navigating the reading for Thursday’s class session, Jim Purdy & Joyce Walker’s Digital Breadcrumbs: Case Studies of Online Research.
The navigation is actually very simple, just don’t get fooled by their clever visual design that makes the article look like a Google search. Purdy and Walker did a study of how researchers (undergrads, graduate students, and professionals) do online research, hence the clever visual design. There are many audio files in the article that are recordings of people actually doing their research and discussing what they are doing. Please listen to those as well as read the text.
The article is very linear. Simply click on the word “introduction” on the main page.
Then you can navigate the rest of the article in one of two ways. Click the next button at the bottom of each screen or click to each section using the table of contents on the right-hand side of the screen. That’s all there is to it!
If you have any other questions, let me know.
See the readymade and blackout poem assignment described above.
Complete your second blog post–again, I will be rather lenient for this week as you find your voice, but from this point on I will be more stringent in my expectations that you abide by our criteria of rhetorical concepts (purpose, audience, context, appeals, modes of delivery, etc.). Impress me!
Tech presentation #3 will present YouTube
Read: Purdy & Walker, Digital Breadcrumbs: Case Studies of Online Research (and Sirc, What is Composition After Duchamp? if you did not read it over the weekend)