Tradition, multimodal composition & Oscar Wilde

In March 2013, John Caruso posted a two-part series on digital democracy. Those posts prompted a lively conversation here at the Marylhurst blog about digital citizenship, digital writing, multimedia, co-learning and participatory culture. In response to this ongoing dialogue, Tiffany Timperman offers her perspective on composition and multimodality.

by Tiffany Timperman

“The moral life of man forms part of the subject-matter of the artist, but the morality of art consists in the perfect use of an imperfect medium.” – Oscar Wilde, “The Preface,” The Picture of Dorian Gray

I want to consider the ways that multimodality can enrich composition: process and product. Traditional composition focuses on alphabetic text styled according to a rhetorical mode of writing (narrative, descriptive, argumentative, expository), purpose (to convince, persuade, entertain, inform), audience, and disciplinary guideline (MLA, APA, Chicago Style). Multimodal composition incorporates, as the term suggests, multiple modes to create a whole, and in the sense that we now have new and emerging technologies and materials, composition has increased potential and design elements to draw from.

In 1996, The New London Group called attention to the “increasing complexity and inter-relationship of different modes of meaning.” They also identified six major areas of design and meaning: Linguistic, Visual, Audio, Gestural, Spatial, and Multimodal. Multimodal is unique as a design mode because it interconnects among the other five modes. As a style, then, multimodal composition is not linear, but layered and dimensional. It does not conform to a singular or prescriptive idea of composition; rather, it evolves with the modes of representation and means, medium, of dissemination.

In one sense, all writing is multimodal because life is multimodal, and a close reading of multimodal texts from the 19th century (consider William Blake’s illuminated books, Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s oeuvre, and the illustrated periodical The Yellow Book) shows that the concept is not novel. Rather, it is a movement of growth and addition, of recognition and renaming, as so often happens when critics perceive artistic shifts. Of course, we could trace the origins back further as well, but that is another discussion.

Balance of design is a significant lesson in my introduction of multimodal composition in Writing 323: Academic Writing: Research Paper. Students come to appreciate the practice after a period of recalibration that includes a review of select multimodal composition literature that they respond to, beginning with Tanya Sasser’s article: “Bring Your Own Disruption: Rhizomatic Learning in the Composition Class.” Overwhelmingly, students are engaged and welcome the approach. It does, however, take some rethinking and getting used to after being told how and what to compose for so long, if writing by formula or painting by numbers can even be considered composition.

Unfortunately, many students who enter beginning or advanced composition courses do so reluctantly when it is required. Many report that stale lectures and prescriptive assignments, in which they have no say or freedom of design, still exist. I am not sure if this stems from academic elitism or petrification, but the unwillingness to critically examine our role as educators in a complex social, cultural, and technological system, to reinvent, to test assumptions, and to abdicate authority in order to spark diversity, dialogue, and respect needs to be checked. When I hear faculty complain that students cannot write a decent paper, I wonder if the problem is not the student, but the lack of design and creativity of the assignment magnified by years of conventional and summative rather than experimental and formative teaching and assessment.

So my first call of duty in the composition classroom is to create an open and inclusive environment that fosters narrative imagination and critical depth. One way that I remix authority in the classroom is by asking students to create, design, and publish a blog. Unlike a typical LMS, a blog defers responsibility and accountability to the learner/designer: students are the authors and archivists of their learning objects. Blogging also fosters students’ self-esteem, and when they are comfortable posting, commenting on other blogs and tagging their posts, the magic unfolds and they attract followers, which reifies the sense of ownership and accountability. In this case, the digital sphere is an ideal studio/laboratory to create and test ideas. Blogs are also transferable and adaptable, so the blogger can take his design skills, ideas, following, and artifacts with him into a personal or professional context when he leaves academe. Blogging promotes 21st-century digital literacy skills that are diversifiable, so for me it is an ideal medium and teaching tool.

However, multimodal composition does not ask the author to forego non-digital in favor of digital representation; rather, as Jody Shipka argues, it “privilege[s] innovative, purposeful choosing and requires that students reflect on the meaning potentials of a wide variety of genres, methodologies, and technologies (both old and new)” (89). Take the opening passage of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, for example: “The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn.” Here, and there are multiple examples of this throughout the novel, Wilde captures the spatial (environmental), gestural (sensual), and linguistic (visual) effects of the setting in a decadent prose style. Though perhaps more subtle than a text that embeds a physical photograph or drawing of a portrait alongside narrative, Wilde’s stylistic use of ekphrasis is nonetheless multimodal, and one of the oldest forms of “the verbal representation of visual representation” (James Heffernan).

Now, Wilde was a keen observer of nature, artifice, and humanity, and it is not a stretch to propose that he might have embedded more technology in his full-bodied narrative than he already does, had it been more readily existent and prevalent in his surroundings, as it is in ours. When Wilde does narrate his experience with technology, it rises to the occasion of art, such as his quip about the typewriter: “The typewriting machine, when played with expression, is no more annoying than the piano when played by a sister or near relation.” We can only imagine what he would have made of 21st-century technology, but if his 19th-century treatment of tools is any indication, it would have been alive, animate, pulsing with waves and emissions: an aesthetic mix of nature and artifice for a desired (multimodal) effect. Capturing the typewriter’s musical potential in language and metaphor is no less effective than hyperlinking to a staccato audio clip or embedding a still image of a figure playing the machine with emotion. In fact, writing as the medium of expression is arguably preferred in this instance, as it not only mimics (represents) but transforms the sound, when written/played with expression.

Take, as one more example, Wilde’s grotesque animation of Dorian’s portrait: “What was that loathsome red dew that gleamed, wet and glistening, on one of the hands, as though the canvas had sweated blood?” I argue that this is precisely the type of dimension and movement that multimodal composition seeks to capture, and that it can happen with the old and new, and depends only on the author’s skillful composition of elements. Wildean invention and disruption can and should take place in the composition classroom; if not encouraged, we are promoting the circulation of dull, if not dead, ideas.

It is good to remember that pinning a name on an artistic movement does not necessarily make it new, but it indicates the malleability and regenerative nature of art. We owe a debt to our predecessors, and this should reassure the conservative or skeptical traditionalists who are reluctant to embrace “new” ideas and technology in the writing – and more broadly humanities – discipline. We also owe a debt to the future of rhetoric and composition studies, ourselves, and our students: a debt that we can begin to settle now by embracing multimodality, which encourages 21st-century digital literacy as well as an appreciation of the past. We have nothing to fear, as rhetoric goes.

Tiffany Timperman is an instructor in the Department of English Literature & Writing at Marylhurst University. Her interests include 19th-century British literature, language and decadence in the Victorian Fin de Siècle, rhetoric and composition.