Writing. Design. Social Change.

Posts from the ‘Reviews’ category

Kostelnick, Charles and Michael Hassett. Shaping Information: The Rhetoric of Visual Conventions. Carbondale: University of Illinois Press, 2003.

Primarily written for designers, this book argues conventions are the key to shaping information. The book claims that although we live in an information age inundated with visual language (e.g. charts, texts, graphs, illustrations, icons, screens) the structure of that language evades scholars of rhetoric, design, engineering, etc. “Although scholars have theorized how visual language develops in social and cultural contexts, these avenues of inquiry remain fragmented across many disciplines. Furthermore, scholarship has failed to recognize the pervasiveness of conventions, how users shape and share them in groups, and how designers adapt and combine them for specific situations. As a result, insofar as it functions in any kind of orderly system across the broad spectrum of information design practices, visual language remains theoretically untamed” (4). In the face of that uncertainty, Kostelnick et al posits that in order for us to employ visual language in a way that reliably relays meaning, we must go through a process of normalizing or codifying its practices (for both those who design/create and those who read/interpret). The process the authors describe is shaped by conventional practices that are invented, codified, and then modified by users in (visual) discourse communities.

What I like about this book is the wide-ranging use of the aesthetic (although this is not altogether acknowledged). Sometimes it is referred to as a style or genre, sometimes a sensibility, at other times a cultural force. Most scholarship rarely deploys more than one use for the aesthetic. In general, the aesthetic in Shaping Information falls into the category of the discourse community which encompasses “groups of designers and readers and the hierarchical relations among group members that define and certify conventions” (82). The aesthetic is found in the cultural subset of the discourse community, which entails: “values, attitudes and knowledge, including aesthetics, that are shared by members of national or ethnic groups and that shape conventional codes” (82). [The authors claim this but then don’t discuss it].

Regarding the aesthetic, the authors point to two interesting studies: “In separate studies, James Mangan and Rune Pettersson, for example, outline how picture-making conventions reflect cultural and physical attributes of the designer’s environment, while William Horton illustrates the ways in which designers of pictures and icons can undermine their designs by ignoring the cultural values of the users. Those values are invariably linked to aesthetics, a key form of cultural knowledge that often plays an important, yet unacknowledged, role in conventional practices” (4).

Leave a comment

Wysocki, Anne Frances. “Impossibly Distinct: On Form/Content and Word/Image in Two Pieces of Computer-Based Interactive Multimedia.” Computers and Composition 18 (2001): 209-234.

In this article, Wysocki makes the argument that we need to rethink or expand the conceptual categories that we are currently using to better understand (and teach) the visual aspects of texts. Wysocki questions why we still hold onto so many common assumptions regarding (the teaching and understanding of ) visual elements. She argues that when dealing with the visual, form is not always separate from content, word is not always separate from image and information is not separate always from design, and when we do so, we seriously diminish our returns. She compares two interactive CD-Roms on modernist art to demonstrate this argument.

Wysocki claims that “the differences between the visual presentations of these CDs are differences of assertion and thought.” (224). She makes an argument for The Foundation Maeght CD because it encourages a kind of thinking about the role visual representation plays in meaning making, whereas the other CD (Barnes), took things at face-value/took much for granted in how meaning is constructed with visual elements. In other words, it simply gave the user the information in a kind of straightforward way and couldn’t escape from a prefab user experience. Wysocki describes in a close-reading of the two texts why the Maeght CD-Rom does a better job of “pulling her in.” Some of what Wysocki is doing is talking about aesthetic engagement.  She prefers the Maeght CD because: …”it is up to me to determine the relations between the parts; I have to think about why the CD has been arranged as it has; if I want to feel I have any sort of hold on the presentation, I have to make my own paths through it; they are not handed to me. Although the CD is not asking me to question my relationship to art—or to artists or to art foundations—it is encouraging me to question how the arrangement of the CD contributes to my understanding of it…a first step in encouraging me to be aware of my interpretative part in moving through such a piece” (230).

I find the following quotes useful:

“It is because the Maeght CD encourages me to consider how its structure contributes to my experience and understanding of the CD that I find it more appealing.” (231).

“We should be asking, along with other people in our classes, how the visual aspects of these texts work to compose us and how we go about composing pages and screens that encourage us to be responsible and critical readers.” (231).

Leave a comment

Wysocki, Anne Frances. “awaywithwords: On the Possibilities in Unavailable Designs.Computers and Composition 22.1 (2005): 55-62.

In this article Wysocki seeks to find what is gained and what is lost in communicative practices and is an extension of Kress’ article “Gains and Losses.” Specifically she focuses on how the digital age has changed our awareness of the visuality of texts. She reflects on our material choices in writing and how those choices can in/form us. She states: “I have learned in the process of developing communications that it is always worth asking how our materials have acquired the constraints they have and hence why, often, certain materials and designs are not considered available for certain uses” (Wysocki 2005: 56). Asking about our constraints, our assumptions “can help us understand how material choices in producing communications articulate to social practices we may not otherwise with to reproduce” (56).

This article is helpful in two ways:

1) It discusses the push toward a more rhetorical focus on teaching new media: Wysocki engages Kress’s scholarship on word and image and agrees with his call to promote a more rhetorical focus on teaching. As Kress writes: “In this social and cultural environment, with these demands for communication of these materials, for that audience, with these resources, and given these interests of mine, what is the design which best meets these requirements?”

2) It discusses another trend—the theme of design: “As the New London Group described the design process, communicators draw on available designs in designing (which includes ‘reading, seeing, and listening (New London Group 2000: 22) which involves re-presenting and recontextualizing available designs in order to develop the redesigned, which is always a “transformed meaning,” “founded in historically and culturally received patterns of meaning” (New London Group 200: 23). It would seem appropriate to link this with Kostelnick’s Shaping Information. Wysocki sys: “this process can imply certain circularity, with the redesigned then becoming itself an available design for the next go-round.” (Wysocki 60).  

1 Comment

White, Michele. The Body and the Screen: Theories of Internet Spectatorship. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2006.

I had almost given up on this book until I came to Chapter 4: The Aesthetic of Failure. This chapter discusses how the “Spectator’s engagement with net art aesthetics is informed by contemporary conceptions of art and new media” (White 2006: 87). The chapter cites the Oxford English dictionary’s definition of aesthetics as: the philosophy or theory or taste.” [White is one of the few scholars who make the move of consulting the dictionary to define the aesthetic.]

The chapter goes on to discuss how the field of aesthetics has been understood as a set of standards with which to judge art (based on visual, social, moral aspects). The chapter then goes on to discuss hot recent arguments insist that the social elements in the form of social and cultural meanings, values and beliefs also inform the domain of the aesthetic. “Aesthetic engagement is always an aspect of spectatorship since objects are understood through particular embodied positions, cultural values, beliefs and points of view” (White 2006: 87). White goes on to explain that people are also understood (judged?) by aesthetic criteria: “power is delivered to certain individuals through seemingly universal codes of beauty, which include particular body shapes and skin colors” (White 2006: 87).

Leave a comment

Sutton, Damian, Susan Brind, and Ray McKenzie. The State of the Real: Aesthetics in the Digital Age. London; New York: I.B. Tauris, 2007.

This publication was preceded by a conference of the same title at the Glasgow School of Art in 2003 and serves to stand as a partial representation of the thinking at that conference. Tellingly, the editors note that the conference suggested that “the need for a more in-depth investigation was evident” (xiii). This collection of essays sends two messages. The first involves the notion that a major process of cultural transformation is taking place, with potentially far-reaching implications for the way we come to experience the real world. The second message implies that visual practices are/will be one of the most important elements through which transformation is brought about.

For the purposes of my research questions this book raised some important issues regarding visual primacy of the GUI.  Michael Smyth suggests reintroduction to the other senses, in particular touch and the physical manifestation of space. Another interesting issue involves the phenomenon of  hyper-representation. The chapter entitled “Between the Representational and the Real: A Sampling Sensibility” may be of help when talking about remediation. This chapter ultimately takes up and elaborates the notion of an aesthetics of sampling. I see this notion as speaking to Bolter and Grusin’s concept of remediation, in that its aesthetic element “consists in the prevalent re-presentation of fragments and/or races of pre-existing media material” (Saether 49). Sampling, as it is used in the fields of musicology and electronic music deal with the “aesthetic” representational strategies of repetition and return. Saether goes back to Duchamp’s readymades to locate the “aesthetics of sampling” within the world of art. In this chapter Saether discusses the importance of transposition to Duchamp and his readymades: “Duchamp’s objects were not of great significance in themselves, so that attention was directed to the processes of transposition rather than upon meanings attached to the objects themselves” (Saether 51). This process implies that new associations are produced by placing elements from a work already known within a new framework. The central idea here implies that objects, elements, etc. are not of great significance in themselves–instead they point toward the process of transposition rather than on the meanings attached to the particular elements that comprise the whole. 

Leave a comment

Munster, Anna. Materializing New Media: Embodiment in Information Aesthetics. Interfaces, Studies in Visual Culture. 1st ed. Dartmouth, N.H.: Dartmouth College Press: Published by University Press of New England, 2006.

Munster’s project involves the argument that: “information aesthetics is capable of offering us both a critical commentary that folds back upon the broader flows of a more reductive information culture and a new kind of aesthetics that unfolds into new sensory spaces for lived experience” (Munster 2006: 38).  It is this “new aesthetics” that I am particularly interested in, which she discusses in the last chapters of the book. This is important because it is going to help us move beyond the visual and toward a theory of embodied aesthetic engagement with new media. Munster discusses many accounts of new media art. Munster writes “These kinds of new media artworks neither promise a direct relation to the sensorium rendered by informatic visualization nor bypass the body altogether. Rather they suggest that any future for embodiment in the landscape of information must leave space for the aesthetic processes of composition. This is not a space marked by a controlling, organizing subject or cogito who looks back at its body from the outside or a technology that adopts a similar position of knowingly representing the body. This space is instead inflected by the shadow and absence of the self, as the bodily silhouettes of participants are projected onto the  topology of biological visualization. This shadowy figure is the mark of the death of the subject as knowable, manageable or reducible to a recognizable pattern of information.” (145).

Munster offers her thoughts in several places, regarding what a new aesthetics can do:

“These experiences of crossing thresholds between here and there, continuous and differentiated, corporeal and incorporeal, are common facets of engaging with virtual and telepresent technologies and environments. Thought about the body and actual sensory participation and engagement must be re-engaged in our analysis of digital culture in order to assist with this kind of threshold experience” (9).

“But if we recast the digital as an aesthetic force capable of producing new kinds of sensations and affective responses, we might instead see it as belonging to the activity of imagining” (94).

“Information aesthetics now needs to invent an affectivity for its culture from the sensations and perceptions that its technologies produce.” (116).

Leave a comment

Kress, Gunther R., and Theo Van Leeuwen. Multimodal Discourse: The Modes and Media of Contemporary Communication. London, New York: Arnold; Oxford University Press, 2001.

Kress and Leeuwen’s Multimodal Discourse outlines a “theory of communication” for interactive multimedia. As we move from a mono-modal to multimodal culture lines are blurred between modes and media of communication. The authors claim that what is needed is a theory which describes what happens in sites of practice: for example, when designers freely move between different modes and media. So, the question the authors ask throughout the book is: how do people use communicative modes and media in actual, concrete, interactive instances of communicative practice? Also of note is the authors definition of mode: “a mode is that material resource which is used in recognisably stable ways as a means of articulating discourse” (25); a mode is the abstract organization of specific material drawn into semiosis” (27). In their view modes always have meaning where some media actually contribute no meaning to the text. (!)

While this book doesn’t deal explicitly with the aesthetic, it does devise a theory of discourse in which color plays a role equal to language. The book opens the door for these sometimes overlooked, sometimes considered intangible modes of meaning, such as color and affect.  The authors state: “In our view, pleasure (or un-pleasures) are always (though not always to the same extent) attached to meanings, and a vital aspect of communication. Communication never just ‘communicates’, ‘represents,’ and ‘expresses’, it also always and at the same time affects us. The two cannot be separated. Even when communication seeks to do the opposite, the very fact of negating materiality affects us–by failing to engage us affectively” (71). Thus, for my purposes, the most important aspect of this book is how the authors stress that “meaning is made in many different ways, always in the different modes and media which are co-present in a communicational ensemble” (110). The key point here is that meaning is made in a multiplicity of modes and media AND meaning occurs at different places within these. They stress that in every mode of the multimodal, there is communicative “work” being done, with all the available representational forms and such work is always meaningful.


Jones, Caroline A., and Bill Arning. Sensorium: Embodied Experience, Technology, and Contemporary Art. 1st MIT Press ed. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press: The MIT List Visual Arts Center, 2006.

Sensorium aims to examine “the current mediated status of the percipient center of human consciousness, while also historicizing the present condition and delineating trace elements from our collecting past” (Jones 4). The term sensorium refers to the sum of an organism’s perception, the “seat of sensation” where it experiences and interprets the environments within which it lives. The short essays in this volume focus on variations in the sensorium across social contexts. Most importantly the kind of sensorium we are talking about here entails the relations between the body and electronic technologies. The editor, Caroline A. Jones argues that while our sensorium has always been mediated, over the past few decade, “the condition has greatly intensified” (Jones 5).  She claims that this is “a moment for artists and other cultural workers to interpret, think, and reckon with the sense of our mediation sensorium (5).  The argument of the book is that “embodied experience through the senses (and their necessary and uncessary mediations) is how we think” (5). The authors suggest that the world is explained and experienced differently depending on the specific “ratios of sense” that members of a culture share in the sensoria they learn to inhabit—perhaps the contextual and socially learned nature of sensation. Importantly, new media artists work to make the sensorium visible. Practicing new media artists “are not interested in having us disappear within a given apparatus. They work to surface the effects of technology, making the viewer question mediation even within the pleasure of media” (Jones 3). [This can indeed be used to support Wysocki’s definition of new media for the 21st century].

At one point in the forward the editor, Caroline A Jones claims that: The only way to produce a techno-culture of debate at the speed of technological innovation itself is to take up these technologies in the service of aesthetics. Aesthetic contemplation buys us time and space. Aesthetic practices locate how bodies are interacting with technologies at the present moment, and provide a site for questioning those locations “(Jones 2). Jones says this only to abandon the aesthetic. What is the aesthetic here? What questions can it pose? Once again I’m left wondering what work the notion of the aesthetic does here? Why can’t any treatment of the aesthetic be sustained? Why do authors proclaim its importance only to drop it the first chance they get? Why can’t they define or operationalize their notion of the aesthetic? Why can’t they acknowledge there are varied notions of the aesthetic and be more specific of how they are using it? What kind of communicative labor does mentioning the aesthetic achieve? Jones might very well know what she is talking about, but she cannot leave statements like this laying around unturned on the page. This is simply not good scholarship.  But then again, I see this happening almost everywhere. Why do people to refer to the aesthetic but not define it? Or acknowledge which definition they are using and why? I know how difficult this is to do. But it must be done.

Leave a comment