Keynote ~ Alex Reid, “Composing Objects: Prospects for a Digital Rhetoric”


Review by Mariana Grohowski

Alex Reid’s visually and intellectually stimulating keynote address “Composing Objects: Prospects for a Digital Rhetoric,” called the field of computers and writing to turn its investigation of composing objects to how composing objects as we engage in future investigations and “constructions.” (You can read or watch Reid’s keynote address.)

Standing in front of a screen composed of four quadrants of visual stimulation (Top left: were various images of “composing objects” from the new aesthetic // top right: GoogleDoc slideshow-like presentation of still images including important quotations from his talk // Low left: TweetDeck live feed of #cwcon // low right: live video steam of audience), Reid provided his audience with the opportunities to consider the objects of composing themselves, the potential objections these tools create for us, and the inherent agency these tools / objects possess.

Reid supported his claims by showcasing the movement of the “new aesthetic,” through still and moving images, along with an explanation of the movement. Reid defined the new aesthetic as “an investigation into digital objects / experience of the objects themselves, how they perceive and respond to the world.” Reid contended that this movement should persuade teacher-researchers in computers and writing to embrace hybridity, thereby abandoning our longstanding allegiance to modernity, in order to advance our field. Quoting the work of Lester Faigley, Bruno Latour, and Ian Bogost, Reid fleshed out a poignant and compelling argument.

Because Reid has offered full visual and written renderings of his address, I will not outline his entire speech in this review. Instead, I offer a list of six key points, which will no doubt stimulate future scholarly conversations.

  1.  We must “extend agency to objects.”
  2. “Rarely have we considered objects themselves, let alone the objections they might raise.”
  3. “If we imagine knowledge as built from a network of other objects, then perhaps we can also see the way in which those objects’ objections would participate in the act of composing.”
  4. “Consider the ‘glitch’ as a key ontological condition. Glitches as features instead of bugs. What if glitches were the source of agency? If so, then we might also recognize the objections in composing as integral to the process.”
  5. “An object-oriented rhetoric does not emerge suddenly as a result of technological developments. It is instead a realization that rhetoric was never and could never have been a solely human province.”
  6. “We must now compose rhetorics that incorporate technoscientific objects and build a future that includes them rather than divides them from us.”

Taken individually, each of these claims promise compelling and far-reaching implications for the future of the field of computers and writing. For example, the sixth and last claim noted above is of particular interest to me, as I think about composing an epistemology (rhetoric) to be more inclusive of our use of technoscientific objects for better health care. As Eric Topol, M.D. outlines, many patients are utilizing technoscientific objects (e.g., wireless communication technologies; smartphone applications) to monitor blood pressure or regulate Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I too wonder if and how the field of computers and writing could approach an episteme surrounding this use of “composing objects” to assist users, patients, and the field of medicine?

Although I considered Reid’s talk to be inspiring and persuasive, I also found it to be overly stimulating. Due to the multifaceted nature of Reid’s claims, the four screens and Reid’s voice were in constant competition for my attention. More often than I would like to admit, my attention diverted away from the oral delivery of Reid’s claims to the flashing of images (to the top left quadrant: the “composing objects,” and to the series of silly tweets from the audience via the TweetDeck in the lower left quadrant of the screen). Perhaps the only additional multimedia element Reid could have included was singer/songwriter Bjork’s song “All The Modern Things,” which speaks to Reid’s notion that we consider the agency objects have always already had. Due to my feelings of over-stimulation, I am so pleased that Reid has offered a written and visual form of his work, so that each of us are able to grapple over and meditate upon his many compelling ideas.

During the short question and answer session following his speech, an audience member asked how what Reid proposed happens to be different from feminist notions of hybridity. Sharing similar sentiments with this audience member, I was pleased Reid took the time to address the question during and after his address (he addresses this question further in the comment section on his blog). In essence, Reid responded by suggesting that researchers should remain open to various methodological approaches for addressing his claim for paying attention to composing objects and their objections.

I offer the employment of Judy Wajcman’s theory of technofeminism as yet another epistemological approach for appropriating some of Reid’s claims—claims that highlight an exigency for shifting our scholarly considerations to more humbled and inclusive endeavors with the technologies we use for composing. Wajcman’s theory fuses gendered notions of technological use and design with studies of the technoscientific (see also Feminism Confronts Technology). Thus, technofeminism may be another way to approach some of the implications Reid posed.

Mariana Grohowski is a second year PhD student in the rhetoric and writing program at Bowling Green State University. She is researching the digital writing practices of servicewomen of the U.S. Armed Forces.

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