Watson Session H.2: Theorizing Effects and Interactions of Texts Across Time, Space, and Culture


Presenters: Julie C. Bates (Milliken University), Chris Mays (University of Nevada Reno), and Sarah Warren-Riley (Illinois State University)

Julie C. Bates, “Little Moments of Intervention”

What is success in situations where communities are working to circulate materials with the aim of communicating environmental risks? Ultimately, the metric is less risk. But that goal is a long term one, and so Bates is working to develop criteria for near-term measures of success that can work as formative feedback. Bates calls this an “interventionary” approach, wherein community activists can approach their work as a series of specific interventions over time, each measurable with a specific set of situated goals. Bates draws on examples from her research on community campaigns, including the Flint water crisis, throughout the presentation to illustrate a three-part framework for communicative interventions.

The framework for this interventionary approach comes from a synthesis of Haas & Frost (2017) and Grabill (2014), incorporating an intersectional feminist ethic and orientation toward action with a grassroots and participatory approach to shared decision-making and deliberation.

Three of Grabill’s commonplaces help hone in the sort of “little moments” that Bates is describing: Detection, Rendering, Assembly. These help to make a less tractable problem/solution framework more readily actionable because each of these phases can be conceived as a communicative intervention.

  • Detection involves inquiry to frame the dimensions of an environmental problem, including talking to community members about their experiences. Detection is a narrative process of building a shared and sharable story about the challenge(s) facing a community.
  • Rendering involves making the problem more fine-grained and actionable, aligning different dynamics of the problem with specific parties who may have responsibility, resources, and expertise to address it. Rendering includes gathering data, reporting, analyzing, seeking feedback, and working toward consensus about actions.
  • Assembly involves constructing public coalitions to begin responding to the rendered problem. It includes organizing and motivating work, as well as follow-up and relationship building efforts.

Digital genres and tools are often involved in each of the little moments. And, most certainly, the ability to build and maintain coalitions is what Bates calls “a comprehensive multimodal effort” to “coordinate information and interaction on websites and social media with protests and art installations on the ground.”

Bates concludes by noting that with years-long campaigns that change over time, a focus on “little moments” can keep community members engaged, motivated, and aware of small changes that move the community toward shared goals even when the major objective – e.g. access to clean water throughout the city of Flint – is yet to be achieved.

Chris Mays, “Emergent Effects & ‘What’s in the Air’: Or How Writing Affects Travel Across Time & Space”

Mays invokes the childrens’ game of telephone as a limited model of communication as signal transmission, wherein each transaction degrades the “signal.” Mays proposes instead that we think of each handoff as a moment of reinvention rather than transmission.

Given this revised model, how might we account for the ways that ideas travel? Mays takes up this question by looking at how ideas expressed in multimodal ways circulate, are reinterpreted and changed. An example from his class looked at Jenny Edbauer’s (2005) work on the “Keep Austin Weird” slogan as well as a more local version wherein an older slogan – “Keep Tahoe Blue” – parallels the form of “Keep Austin Weird” and in the present morphs into variants such as “Drink Tahoe Brew,” a reinvention by a local craft brewery.

Mays notes that it is not only textual pattern, but the visual layout, color palette and visual contrast, and font choice are at work in both clearly intentional and coincidental reinventions.

Mays points to these broadly isomorphic similarities – blends of form and content in multimodal composing – as explained by “something in the air.” Mays notes that Rickert’s (2013) notion of “ambient” rhetoric is useful here as way to account for the currency of useful, popular and persuasive isomorphisms. While there could be direct influences, an interesting dynamic is that there need not be any. The more interesting phenomenon, for Mays, is the pervasiveness of isomorphic reinventions themselves, not as degraded or even adapted versions of an original, but as relatively parallel and even stochastic instances of multimodal invention. Thus, the evolution of contexts and motives may be the more interesting phenomenon to track. Mays says “the phrase itself does not travel,” but the context, something we think of as particular to a time and place, may be the thing that appears and reappears.

A critical takeaway for multimodal composers feels very, very timely: multimodal composers should be conscious that their work may be relevant in one or more present moments, each with compelling exigencies that have some things in common. But these moments may be quite distant from one another in time. TL;DR – be careful what you multimodally write, today’s digital utterance is tomorrow’s meme or remix.

Sarah Warren-Riley, “#MeToo, Multilayered Platforms, & Platforms of Power”

Warren-Riley presents work from her in-progress dissertation examining social media advocacy, focusing in this presentation on the #MeToo movement protesting sexual harassment, assault, and discrimination. It presents an interesting case due to the way both social and mainstream media have become intertwined in the movement.

Warren-Riley analyzes an important dynamic of #MeToo, wherein the originator of the Me Too movement and the ethical argument it represents, an African-American woman, survivor, and community activist Tarana Burke, was seemingly re-discovered only after a contemporary use of the label circulated via Twitter as #MeToo by Alyssa Milano, a white actor who is also engaged in public activism.

What are the factors that explain the difference between the response Burke originally saw when “Me Too” was first used ten years before in 2006 compared to the re-emergence of it in 2017? Warren-Riley offers the following list of multilayered reasons, moving from instrumental to critical/social effects:

  • Technology: “Me Too” emerged on MySpace originally, a platform that preceded the rise of Facebook, Instragram, & Twitter as the dominant social media platforms we see today. The platforms of today make it easier to share information and support tagging in more robust ways (e.g. by automatically turning tags into links of related content and allowing for cross-platform sharing) in ways that were not as widespread in 2006.
  • Social Reach: Billions of people use social media on a daily basis in 2017, so the potential for reach is vastly different. Milano’s celebrity in conventional media, along with a high-profile story about sexual assault in the entertainment industry (the Weinstein case) provided a kairotic moment for an actors’ voice to be especially effective in #MeToo. Milano arguably seized that moment.
  • Networks of Power/Influence: Milano’s cultural capital as a white woman and a celebrity gave her privileged access to not only the technological affordances of social media, but also to the power dynamics of these vast and growing networks. Milano faced greater “conditions of possibility” to spread the #MeToo message due to her embodied privilege and her position as a hub/influence in social media. Tarana Burke had much more limited conditions of possibility in 2006 (and arguably, still does today).

Warren-Riley’s analysis of the #MeToo case has inspired a model of conditions of possibility on “platforms of power” that can help to both explain and perhaps predict how other messages and activism campaigns might work.

Toward a Synthesis

The panelists are all contributing to our understanding of circulation and rhetorical effects on what Warren-Riley calls “platforms of power” and in networks of influence, online and off. Warren-Riley’s model helps to bring the work by Bates into focus as planning for “offense” – that is strategically approach the way messages might spread in networks of influence – and the work of Mays as articulating principles of “defense,” how we might take care to avoid what Ridolfo (2012) calls “negative appropriation” as messages circulate and re-emerge in new, unanticipated contexts.

Works Cited

Edbauer, J. (2005). Unframing models of public distribution: From rhetorical situation to rhetorical ecologies. Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 35(4), 5-24.

Grabill, J. (2014). The work of rhetoric in the common places: An essay on rhetorical methodology. JAC, 247-267.

Haas, A. M., & Frost, E. A. (2017). Toward an Apparent Decolonial Feminist Rhetoric of Risk. In Ross, D. G. (Ed.) Topic-driven environmental rhetoric. London: Taylor & Francis. 168-186.

Rickert, T. (2013). Ambient rhetoric: The attunements of rhetorical being. U of Pittsburgh P.

Ridolfo, J. (2012). Rhetorical delivery as strategy: Rebuilding the fifth canon from practitioner stories. Rhetoric Review, 31(2), 117-129.

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