Wysocki, Anne Frances, Johndan Johnson-Eilola, Cynthia L. Selfe, and Geoffrey Sirc. Writing New Media: Theory and Applications for Expanding the Teaching of Composition. Logan: Utah State UP, 2004.

This is a collection of six essays by Anne Frances Wysocki, Johndan Johnson-Eilola, Cynthia Selfe, and Geoffrey Sirc. In addition to the theoretical essays, this book offers practical assignments for composition teachers. In the introduction Wysocki explains why she thinks that new media needs to be opened to writing: new media needs to be informed by what writing teachers know, precisely because writing teachers focus specifically on texts and how situated people (learn how to) use them to make things happen. Such consideration is mostly lacking from existing writing about new media.

In the essay “Toward New Media Texts: Taking up the Challenges of Visual Literacy,” Cynthia Selfe claims the route to understanding new media is to gain a better understanding of visual literacy. (Selfe’s argument is supported by The New London Group, Gunther Kress and Theo van Leeuwen, Sean Williams, and Diana George). Selfe argues that we need a better understanding of the visual in order to understand how students are communicating and reading/viewing in a rapidly changing and “image-filled” world.

In the chapter titled: “The Sticky Embrace of Beauty: On some formal relations in teaching about the visual aspects of texts,” Wysocki argues that many common and accepted approaches for teaching the visual aspects of texts are “incomplete and in fact may work against helping students acquire critical and thoughtful agency with the visual” (149). She uses the popular The Non-Designers Design Book to analyze an advertisement to illustrate her point that “what we make when we shape the visual aspects of texts is reciprocal communication” (Wysocki, 2004,149). In short, Wysocki’s point is that everything we make does communicative work. She recommends that “we don’t teach students formal vocabulary and principles for visual analysis and production unless we also consider the visual aspects of texts through the lenses of specifically gendered (and so on) material lives. She suggests that we couple the formal aspects of design with a critical consciousness.

Writing New Media is helpful to me in setting up the argument that the aesthetic in rhet/comp is often imagined in lackluster or anemic ways—if at all. Here the authors provide questions and opportunities for reflection that would allow the field of rhet/comp to go beyond the technical and functional aspects of the aesthetic in terms of the production and consumption of texts. In “The Sticky Embrace of Beauty,” Wysocki asks: “How might we develop senses of beauty and pleasure that allow us to see that beauty is something we construct together, that it is a way we can reciprocally share with each other the pleasures of being with in the world together, of appreciating what is particular about our lives?” A good, generative question.

One of the key points Wysocki criticizes is how our aesthetic/design analysis tools in rhet/comp tend to separate form from content. Wysocki criticizes this point forcefully but I don’t ever see her do anything differently. Her critique of the Peek advertisement in “The Sticky Embrace of Beauty” never moves beyond the form of the composition. I find this really strange. At first I thought she might be confusing/mistaking the woman’s body for the image’s “content”—but certainly the woman’s body is actually one more element in the design of the overall image/package. The image is not really about the woman’s body. The content has to do with the fact that this image is trying to sell a book. One of the first things we would do in an aesthetic encounter with the advertisement would be to read the image and the text. We would want to know: what is this an advertisement of? This might sound obvious, but in her analysis, Wysocki did not approach the content of her selection—only the form. Perhaps this is one reason why Wysocki’s reading seems unsatisfactory, and disinterested. And why she reads the composition out of context, and becomes angry at culture’s objectification of women’s “aestheticized” bodies. What is wrong with this reading is that the subject at hand, the advertisement, is not an advertisement for advertisement’s sake. Her incomplete reading sounds strange, feels hurried. I can only guess that this is her point. Her very point. Our tools are limited. We need new tools that can help us deal with form and content.

Her critique does do a good job however of accessibly dealing with Kant’s aesthetics via Bourdieu’s  and I find this useful, (besides I am sure it cost her a headache or two to write, which in turn saves me one or two less when I too must turn to Kant).