Cheryl Ball. “Show, Not Tell: The Value of New Media Scholarship.” Computers and Composition 21.4 (2005)

In “Show, Not Tell,” Ball is deeply concerned with the scholarship of new media and what it should look like. She discusses the changing nature of scholarly publications in relation to technology and promotion and tenure. She offers criteria for what constitutes “online scholarship”, “scholarship about new media”, and “new media scholarship.” She defines new media texts as ones that juxtapose semiotic modes in new and aesthetically pleasing ways and, in doing so, break away from print traditions so that written text is not the primary rhetorical means. By applying this definition to scholarly online publications, readers can be better prepared to recognize and interpret the meaning-making potential of aesthetic modes used in new media scholarly texts. Ball claims that

“New media scholarship has a necessary aesthetic component because of its designed, multimodal elements, and because these multiple modes can be read in conjunction with written text to form the text’s meaning” (404).

This article both thrills and perturbs me. I’m thrilled because Ball has set a definite springboard for my research study. She unflinchingly takes up the aesthetic and discusses its importance in composition with new media. She warns that “For readers unfamiliar with understanding how a video, sound, or photograph can function as a way of creating meaning in a scholarly text, new media scholarship may be dismissed as having an unnecessarily fussy “advertising aesthetic” (Glazier, 2001) making it unworthy as a scholarly text in the eyes of the reader” (411). Ball asks how can readers understand the potential of using artistic strategies in new media scholarship? (and points out that these modes are more often associated with art than composition studies). She claims that “It is the combination of understanding the use of aesthetic elements within intellectual meaning-making strategies that will best help readers interpret scholarly new media texts (411). She concludes with a kind of confession: “Compositionists, myself included, have much to learn about the role aesthetics can play in composing meanings” (414) This is why I’m thrilled with this article–I feel my research study can help to answer this question: What is the role of the aesthetic in meaning-making?

And yet, I am somewhat perturbed by this article.  In Ball’s conclusion, she offers  an analysis of a scholarly new media text, “Digital Multiliteracies.” My problem, I believe, is that Ball’s analysis of the aesthetic is too comfortably situated within the realms of the multimodal. She categorizes her analysis into Text Clips, Still Clips, Audio Clips, each referring to the “argument” or “underlying meaning” which the aesthetic elements help to facilitate. What bothers me is that the reading is limited and the wonderful questions that Lev Manovich poses about possible conceptions of the aesthetic cannot even be asked. Questions like:  “Is it necessary for the concept of the aesthetic to assume representation? Does art necessarily involve a finite object?” (Manovich). This is not Ball’s fault. She is doing everything she can to discuss the aesthetic. It’s just that we as a field are so limited… The closest Ball gets to this more expansive notion of other aesthetic possibilities happens  when she claims: that the Still Clips [of yawning, coffee cups, carpet, fluorescent lights]  show “the reader what it felt like to be there at the symposium. Though these clips, the audience can register a kind of felt experience of the symposium, can even make some meaning through their interaction with the “mollage” [montage/collage] of  candid still clips. Ball doesn’t really say this outright, though.