Friday, June 6, 2008

The 9/11 Digital Image Essay

How many words does it take to make a persuasive argument? What if images were used not just to supplement but to forward and develop an 'essay' in which words did not have obvious priority? I imagine a blog posting assignment that would require students to make an argument out of culled images (from Google images, camera phones, digital cameras, etc.), followed by a very deemphasized amount of written explication. For example:

Two of these photos are of Dennis Oppenheim's art installation "Flying Gardens" (2004) at the Sacramento airport, two photos are from 11 September 2001, and two are of a collapsed section of Charles de Gaulle airport outside of Paris (23 May 2004). In each of these pairs, one photo was taken from a personal camera phone. My argument is that post-9/11 airport aesthetics—ranging from visual art to camera-phone photojournalism—reference the images produced by the spectacle of 9/11.

This aesthetic trend comes through literature, as well. Don DeLillo’s 2007 novel Falling Man imagines the videotaped specter of a 9/11 hijacker-in-training. Hammad, the terrorist-to-be, dwells on his own spectacular exposure two times: “He watched TV in a bar near the flight school and liked to imagine himself appearing on the screen, a videotaped figure walking through the gate-like detector on his way to the plane” (173). And a few pages later: “When he walks down the bright aisle [of a supermarket] he thinks a thousand times in one second about what is coming. Clean-shaven, on videotape, passing through the metal detector” (177-178). This literary scene alludes to the widely disseminated photo of Mohammad Atta clearing airport security in Portland, Maine:

There are ties between the ways that airports and terrorism are rendered aesthetic through contemporary visual media.

Works Cited
DeLillo, Don. Falling Man. New York: Scribner, 2007.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Posts instead of papers

When I consider using blogs to teaching literature/writing, I am not simply talking about transposing the forms (and formalities) of syllabi, essays, rubrics, etc. onto an electronic medium. No, I am talking about rethinking what it means to write—what it means to describe, explain, cite, argue, and allude in writing. New questions would drive such an experiment: Has intertextuality been trumped by hypertextuality? How can image montages (which fit into blog spaces nicely) make arguments? How can shorter pieces of writing (e.g., the 'post') be as (or more) effective than the traditional essay?

And I am not gazing wide-eyed into this abyss. Part of me wants to teach classes in which students hand write everything, in-class style. It seems like writing on the spot is more and more difficult as we come to know writing as something that is A) private and personal—like me sitting here in the early morning, alone and quiet at my very personalized computer, and B) entirely connected with what we still call a 'web' of information networks. To have students sit and write spontaneously in class (formal, graded prose) disorients both of these standards. So I still find myself attracted to an older (or simply slower, more public) model of composition.

But then I think: perhaps these two impulses could be merged. What if students wrote in-class essays (short ones), and then had to post them on their blogs, complete with at least four hyperlinks per post? This might attain both aims at once.

One more thought I had was that blogs depend on regular (and frequent) upkeep. Blogs lose their dynamism if new posts are not continually appearing. Thus if used in class, students should be required to compose a new post at least four times a week. Also, how does one encourage intelligent, focused commentary—but not too much? (Comments can run rampant and become the worst kind of 'postmodern' textuality.)

Sunday, June 1, 2008

On revisions and archives

I'm in my office right now trying to revise a piece of writing. I have revised this particular essay at least 30 times; its scope has significantly changed, and parts of the earlier drafts are completely gone. Blogs are funny because you don't ever really revise your postings, or at least it's not what the logic of archiving advocates. The blog archives itself, and promotes new postings rather than revisions of old postings. On the other hand, with essays or stories or poems it's all we do: revise and revise and revise until the textual object is 'done'—but it's always a 'done' in scare-quotes. We know that we could never really truly be DONE. Blogs are dated, and thus literally done when the date changes. This seems to be almost an epiphany, like the end of James Joyce's "Araby": Gazing into the blog I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my postings burned with anguish and archive fever.

(Curiously, I have returned to this posting and edited it a little; I also revised "Moving Rocks" days after it was initially posted.)