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3: Laboring With Language/Modality

Photo of a turntable and a mixer used by a DJ. The DJ has one hand above the record and one hand on a knob on the mixer.
Scratch by Bill Kwok used via CC license.

Work on both translinguality and multimodality brings on and requires friction through the resistance arising from any encounter with difference. Work is, well, work: hard work on and with materials and culture—concrete labor. In our discussions, we identified two related forms of labor that those pursuing translinguality and multimodality must engage: 1) the labor of reception integral to the “production” of meaning, and 2) the labor, in the sense of the difficulty, in working across differences of language and modality/ies, especially when some of these appear to be unfamiliar to us.12

However, we recognize the tendency, in some discussions of language and modality, to elide this labor by treating languages and modalities as operating independent of practice and practitioners—in short, independent of concrete labor. These instances lead to the problematics ensuing from commodity fetishism.

Image of a brick wall, with bricks curving in different directions.
Curvy Bricks by Paul Cross used via CC license.

Sense 1: The Labor of Reception

Perhaps as a consequence of being in composition studies, the three of us tend to focus especially on production, conventionally defined: the writing/making of meaning by students and other writers/makers. This risks neglect of the important role played by those reading/listening to/viewing/touching what is produced in making meanings out of it—i.e., the role they themselves play in meaning production. 3 We’re thinking here of Jackie Royster’s (1996) and Krista Ratcliffe’s (1999) important work on listening as well as Bourdieu’s (1991) oft-cited statement on the difficulty of being heard. 4

To guard against this neglect, it seems that learning of production and circulation needs to be integrated with attention to the dynamics of reading / writing / composing (broadly defined), and to traditions of reception (reading / viewing / listening / interpretive practices). This more capacious understanding of production would necessarily include the dynamics of power relations 5 because people in positions of power (e.g., teachers, editors) are often positioned to assess the worth of the labor of the writers/composers 6 7.

One example of the effort to complicate understandings of the relationships between production and reception is John Trimbur’s (2000) “Composition and the Circulation of Writing.” In this article, Trimbur argues against the tendency to isolate “writing from the material conditions of production and delivery.” He notes,

neglecting delivery has led writing teachers to equate the activity of composing with writing itself and to miss altogether the complex delivery systems through which writing circulates. By privileging composing as the main site of instruction, the teaching of writing has taken up what Karl Marx calls a ”one-sided” view of production and thereby has largely erased the cycle that links the production, distribution, exchange, and consumption of writing. (pp. 189-190)

The accoutrements of being so positioned have historically included the authority to refuse to engage in such labor and to understand any engagement in such labor as not labor at all but mere glossing. Conversely, such labor in reading is historically demanded of the subordinate—the non-native, the colonized, the othered by race, class, gender, ethnicity—when reading the writing of the dominant (e.g., canonical British Literature, the law). Who is expected to learn and adapt to whose language and endure the cost of such labor?89

There is a parallel elision of the labor of reception in conflations of a medium with modality, whereby use of a specific medium is thought in itself to produce specific effects, rather than a specific social practice with a medium producing certain effects (all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding). The false assumption that what is called music, or some kind of music, will in itself have specific effects (in invocations, for example, of music as the universal language, or Bach as producing ethereal effects) illustrates this false conflation and elision of labor (of listening and training in a particular listening practice, leaving aside the labor of the production of specific acoustic phenomena). When the performance does not yield the expected experience, the listeners are judged as defective.10

Photo of Cindy Selfe

H'mm, in U.S. colleges, similarly the labor of reading texts that are primarily alphabetic is often assigned by teachers/scholars to students who must read the writing of published writers and who then must in turn try and replicate that performance in the papers they produce. This is often linked to an historically sedimented fetishizing of alphabetic/print text (a fetishizing of a set of modalities?) as the modality of education/reason.11

See also my metacommentary entry on page two.

Photo of Bruce Horner

The notion of fetishizing a set of modalities seems crucial: we’re not just teaching a format but a modality, and not just in the sense of a medium but a way of engaging with and understanding engagement with that medium, and, as you point out, the status of that medium (as the medium of education/reason, as you observe).12

Some extreme examples of fetishizing specific languages—French as the language of reason or diplomacy, Italian the language of love (or is it the other way around?), English as the new global lingua franca, Spanish as the language of poverty, German as the language of science, and so on—more clearly illustrate the occlusion of language users’ labor with the language and their working/reworking of these with every utterance, whether produced or “heard.”13 14

The labor necessary to producing meaning, both by the “makers” and “receivers” (readers/viewers/listeners/performers) through a working/reworking of modalities/media, is occluded through fetishizations of these concepts. Even the notion of “affordances” seems to attribute to specific media/modalities the effects of specific practices with these, overlooking the role such practices play. It’s the training (in composition, performance, listening) that “affords” these effects, not the technologies of production as ordinarily defined.15

Beethoven’s Hammerklavier sonata (opus 106) exploits the extended range of volume that the “hammerklavier” offered in comparison to the harpsichord. In saying this, I am of course potentially shaping the listening practices of those hearing and seeing the performance of that sonata in the clip.

This treatment of modality and language as in themselves producing specific effects is encouraged by the prefix “multi-.” The term “multimodality” suggests an array of discrete modalities which one can then choose from among (viewed as resources), just as the term “multilingualism” suggests an array of discrete languages which one can then choose from among, switch between, or even “mesh.” Distinctions among these various “modes” and “languages” don’t hold up under scrutiny. Absent such scrutiny, there is a slippage between “modality” and “medium” (following the notion of “multimedia”) that leads to restricting understanding of the experience with a particular technological medium to a particular sense (say, printed text understood as associated with the visual).

That slippage overlooks the necessary labor of readers/viewers/listeners in their encounters with a particular medium and, more broadly, traditions of reading/viewing/listening practices, and the ultimate inextricability of the senses as they work and rework (with/on) particular modes and media, whether printed alphabetic words, film, audiotape, dance, f2f speech.

In other words, dominant understandings about the traditions of engaging with specific media and modes (for instance, that one approaches speech [and music] only as an aural/acoustic phenomenon, vs. also always simultaneously as visual and tactile, say) abstract from the complex of the experience/event. They yield a highly reduced understanding of the “mode of production” (to invoke a different sense of “mode”). This limited understanding in turn encourages the danger of treating modes and media and languages as an array of discrete resources rather than acknowledging the plurality of interactions and relationships present in the complex production of languages/language media/modes. 16

Labor, Sense 2: Resistance to Moving beyond SL/MN

There may be a parallel between the resistance folks have to the idea of learning new media and the resistance they have to the idea of moving beyond monolingualism. While it’s tempting to dismiss this resistance as a manifestation of adherence to SL/MN ideology (and while often enough that may well be the case), we need to attend to the work necessary to such shifts in practices and perspective. These are not simply beliefs to be shucked off, but shifts in material social practice that require not only access to hardware, say, but also time, effort, training, and so on. 17

However, part of the problem here may be that what seems to be demanded is more than what is actually being demanded: conventional definitions of multilingualism, for example, seem to demand that individuals develop a putative “native-like” fluency in more than one language (see Horner, Donahue, & NeCamp, 2011). Dominant understandings of language competence as an individual achievement of mastery of a “target” language, and the myth of native-speaker fluency (as if all speakers of a given language have identical fluency in all aspects of that language), then lead people to feel personally defective for failing to achieve native fluency in more than one language (or even one language) and to imagine that what seems to be asked of them is far more lofty and unreachable than it actually is.

We suspect a parallel/coterminous debilitating belief about communicative competence may be operating in people's resistance when they are confronted by demands to be “fluent” in seemingly “new” modalities and communication media. So how do we introduce and advance an alternative and more capacious view of competence in our work with our colleagues and students (e.g., one that locates competence as an ongoing and collaborative achievement)? This question, of course, leads us directly to matters of pedagogy.

  1. We recognize that labor is necessary not only to both these but also to work ostensibly distinct from these—for example, work within ostensibly monolingual settings still requires translation, as does work within ostensibly monomodal environments. (Of course, there are no environments that are really monolingual or monomodal. There are situations in which the disposition to understand environments—and texts—as monolingual or monomodal is deeply sedimented and exceedingly strong in terms of its ideological functioning.)

  2. Avant-Garde composer Cornelius Cardew (1936-1981), influenced by John Cage's musical experimentation and Ludwig Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, experimented with graphical musical scores, characterized by abstract lines, shapes, and symbols as well as musical notes. Cardew believed that such texts allowed performers more space for the creative interpretation of his compositions. This video, from the Block Museum web site, provides an animated interpretive analysis of Cardew's 193 page composition, Treatise (1963–67).

    (For a full explanation of Treatise see Virginia Anderson's (2006) “'Well it’s a Vertebrate...' Performer Choice in Cardew's Treatise.” Journal of Musicological Research, 25(3/4): 291–317, 2006.)

    Similarly, Italian composer Sylvano Bussotti (1931-) experimented with the graphical notation of musical scores. A librettist, journalist, painter, film director, actor, and singer, as well as a composer, Bussotti was influenced by Anton Webern’s twelve-tone scale and John Cage’s musical experiments. Representing music through visual symbols outside of conventional notation, artists like Bussotti consider conventional musical notation inadequate to the challenges presented by their compositions and deployed shapes and symbols to convey information to performers about how this music should be played.

    These videos—one of Bussotti’s La Passion Selon Sade (1966) and the other of Raragramma (1982)—provide insight into both Bussotti’s music and the style of graphical notation he employed.

  3. Cindy says: Here, I’m reminded of the twinned rhetorical challenges of reception (speaking/listening, writing/reading, making meaning/understanding) as having parallels in other modes of expression as well. Consider the challenges, the urgency of twinned production/reception, signing/watching, communicating/making meaning, in this ASL video on YouTube, “I Don't Need Your Cure,” written and performed by Megg Rose. In this creative and richly dimensional text, Rose’s use of gestures, space, printed language, visual images, spoken words, music are all important components for conveying meaning in a rhetorically effective way. Because Rose composed the text by layering the meaning in a number of semiotic channels, deaf people can certainly experience and appreciate this text without hearing the music track. Similarly, hearing people who cannot read ASL can read and appreciate the text without understanding the signs.

    • Royster, Jacqueline Jones. (1996). When the first voice you hear is not your own. College Composition and Communication 47(1), 29-40.
    • Ratcliffe, Krista. (1999). Rhetorical listening: A trope for interpretive invention and a “Code of Cross-Cultural Conduct.” College Composition and Communication 51(2), 195-224.
    • Bourdieu, Pierre, & Thompson, John B. (Ed.). (1991). Language and symbolic power. (Gino Raymond & Matthew Adamson, Trans.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  4. Cindy notes that the complexity of power and its exercise is not to be underestimated—especially as it relates to the production and reception of meaning in cultural and rhetorical contexts. Theorists and scholars continue to build models for explaining these relationships like this rendition of Activity Theory by Matt Bury (2012).

    From a cultural studies perspective, Stuart Hall’s textbook Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices (Sage, 1997) helps us think about some of the complex power relationships that shape the production and reception of rhetorical texts. This diagram, adapted from Representation is featured on Derk Renwick’s web blog for his Cultural Studies 101 course.

  5. The early history of basic writing teachers is relevant here, too. Encountering students' errors, teachers commonly condemned students as ineducable and undeserving. Researchers such as Mina Shaughnessy then had to push against these attitudes—the misunderstanding of students' errors as a sign of their laziness, ignorance, and cognitive deficiency rather than effort. Shaughnessy's Errors and Expectations was instrumental in demonstrating, through close reading of student writing, the intelligence at work in the production of that writing. It's easy to dismiss that which we don't understand, or even perceive, as a failure of the Other to communicate, like complaining, "Why Don't they just speak English!" (said in France, China, etc.).

  6. Bruce—and maybe learning about production should include attention to the environments and methods for circulation?

    Yes, Absolutely. John Trimbur's response to this highlighted our need to attend to circulation.

  7. I am reminded here of Phillis Wheatley whose 1773 publication of Poems on Various Subjects Religious and Moral, was considered a transgressive appropriation by a person of color—both of print as a medium and the written language of poetry as an alphabetic mode of expression. So unusual was this activity of writing and publication for a Black woman that the book necessitated this accompanying letter signed by 18 white men attesting that Wheatley was indeed the author.

    Indeed, Wheatley's publication was so remarkable that the publisher included a frontispiece image of the author, by Scipio Moorhead, to call attention to her race. Ringing the image and adding further testimony to the visual information it contains, are the words "Phillis Wheatley, Negro Servant to Mr. John Wheatley of Boston."

    An image of the letter attesting Wheatley's authorship.
    An image of the Phyllis Wheatley frontispiece
  8. In terms of a multilingual and multimodal example of this power dynamic, I would point to Xuan Wang's 2010 paper “'I Am Not a Qualified Dialect Rapper': Genre Innovation as Authenticity.”

    In this paper, Wang describes “features of mixed, multi-layered language use in a hip-hop artist's rap produced in Enshi, China, which largely draws on the stigmatized fangyan/dialect local to Enshi, but breaks out of it by blending it with resources from the normative Chinese variety of Putonghua and the globally prestigious variety of English” (p. 2).

    The translingual features in the rap that Wang describes in this article are based in historical and existing power structures and conflicting ideological systems within Chinese society and the ways these have played out in shaping both dominant discourses (“the normative Chinese variety of Putonghua and the globally prestigious variety of English.”) and non-dominant dialects (“the stigmatized fangyan/dialect local to Enshi”). The authenticity of this rap is also constructed within the historical development and circulation of hip hop, rap, and English that are both increasingly globalized in their travel across geopolitical, cultural, and linguistic borders and increasingly localized in their appropriation and instantiations within specific politically/culturally charged contexts.

    Another interesting aspect of this article is its use of/and reference to different modes of expression to tell the story about the authenticity of raps as simultaneously constructed along both global and local axes. The article, for instance, includes both Chinese ideograms and English words—contrasting two different relationships between symbol systems, referents, and meaning. It includes as well a text (Zhao C's Identity Card) that incorporates a number of different semiotic resources and modalities of expression (a photographic image, an official seal, a letter in the English alphabet (the letter “C”), Chinese pictograms) to make a point about the ways in which this case study signifies in both globalized and localized contexts of meaning and power.

    Finally, the piece calls attention to the limitations of modality and context. Within the two-dimensional pages of a print journal—which is itself nested in an ideologically-freighted understanding of print and its legitimizing value in many contemporary academic contexts—the author has no choice but to render many of the sonic dimensions of the text in alphabetic, pictographic, or visual terms, which have limited amounts of success in representing a musical text like a rap.

    There's a twist here as well, illustrated by two examples, where different genres (understood here as modal configurations) are assigned different values. William Byrd's consort song “Why Should I Use” was printed and published without comment. The author of the “lyrics”/poem was beheaded, since the lyrics protest the beheading of English Catholic priests. Byrd himself was Catholic. Apparently, under that monarchical dispensation, what you can't read/speak you can listen to/sing/play. Details can be found at Joseph Kerman, “William Byrd and the Catholics,” New York Review of Books 17 May 1979.

    A second example are contemporary activist artists who resort to doing work that have no verbal, written text to avoid being persecuted on account of such text. Instead, they use other forms of expression whose political content is less identifiable.

  9. We are taught, of course, to associate certain kinds of music with certain feelings and to relate musical themes to culturally determined non-musical references. Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf symphony, for example, is commonly used to teach Western children how to listen to Western orchestral music and how to imagine—in a culturally appropriate way—the different characters (and personalities/qualities/emotions) they encounter (a bird, a duck, a wolf, Peter).

    As examples, consider this still image from the 1946 Disney animated short of Peter and The Wolf. The image instructs us that humans (and other animals) should fear wolves as hungry, salivating killers with big teeth. Or consider this video version of the Vancouver Orchestra and Conductor Bramwell Tovey, who describes a "scary" wolf theme being played by the French horns. Tovey makes a joke by attributing the feelings we are supposed to have about the wolf ("hideous, nasty, smelly, ugly") to the French horns themselves. Both the Disney image and the excerpted Tovey clip teach us—using multiple modalities to drive home the point—how to feel/how to react when we hear the musical theme of the wolf and how to feel, in general, about wolves.

  10. No genre of text has been more fetishized in the past forty years in college English classrooms than the student-produced research paper, around which our profession has helped construct and support an entire industry of style guides, software programs that check for plagiarism, and guides to writing research papers.

    One element of this industry, the MLA, APA, Chicago style guides, discipline to the minutest detail the conduct of student writers and the appearance of the alphabetic page.

    In the following images, we see two examples of this disciplining force, indicating page size and margins, and headings, spacing and indentation.

    Image of the first page of a research paper with annotations.

    First page of a Research Paper, Hunter College Reading/Writing Center.

    Image of a research paper's first page in MLA style.

    Traditional MLA Style Examples, University of Tampere.

  11. Well, when we go wrong with first-year composition, I believe we do fetishize modality. As Patricia Dunn (2001) notes, we fall into the mistaken belief that “writing is not simply one way of knowing; it is the way” (p. 15), and, even worse, we come to equate writing with intelligence (p. 150). Thus, when we teach only alphabetic texts in first-year composition classes, for instance, it is no surprise that the texts we prize and the texts we ask students to read often look much like the texts we ask them to write.

    So when teachers use a textbook that that includes primarily readings that look like this:

    Image of the first page of Paul Krugman's California Screaming

    and they teach students that English composition as a disciplinary project prizes their engagement with such alphabetic texts above all others, they encourage students to produce texts that look like this paper:

    Image of a paper by Dylan Borchers for an English 102 class

    This fetishizing of modality happens even when teachers are encouraging students to “think critically” and in intellectual ways about their topic, to “dig deeply” into a research project. In most composition classrooms, the primary modality prized in thinking, the modality prized in research, is alphabetic writing on the printed page.

  12. The labor involved in learning a new language is always considerable and complex, especially when individuals must acquire linguistic facility later in their lives and under circumstances not of their own choosing. When languages are fetishized by dominant cultures—as English has been during certain periods of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries in the United States (e.g., when the English Only Movement was in ascendance)—the difficulties of learning English are often ignored or dismissed by native speakers.

    Consider, for instance, the case of Deqa Mahammed, who came to the United States from Somalia. In her literacy narrative, Deqa speaks of her mother's labor to learn English, and of the discouraging attitudes of individuals whose comments diminish or ignore the considerable labor involved in this task.

    Referencing similar attitudes of native English speakers, Bruce Beattie, a political satirist, published this cartoon in the Daytona Beach News Journal in 1998.

    A comic. A teacher is standing, talking to a student at his desk. In the first panel, the teacher tells says 'Sorry, Bilingual education has been vetoed down here in california.' The student has a question mark above his head. In the second panel, the teacher says 'so we can't help you anymore, understand?' The student still has a question mark above his head. In the third panel, the teacher says 'You'll probably fall behind.' The student has a question mark above his head. In the last panel, the teacher has left, and only her dialogue remains, saying 'oh, well.' The student remains, a question mark above his head.
  13. The current political climate of the United States, too often influenced by the combined strains of isolationism and arrogance, contributes to the fetishizing of languages—English as well as others.

    Marzia Zaidi's literacy narrative indicates a few of the consequences of such attitudes. Marzia, born in Afghanistan, speaks Farsi, Urdhu, Pashto, and Arabic, as well as English. Her narrative speaks volumes about the stigmatization she feels as someone learning English and her fear of making any mistake that may cause others to think "low" of her or identify her as a "FOB, fresh off the boat."

  14. Bruce, here, I’d love to show a series of college research papers—the first page only—from the early 1900s until now. The first pages of these would look fairly similar, I suspect, and make the point about disposition and inertia?

    Here, for instance are photographs three English papers from 1988 (Allain), 2004 (Koch), and 2011 (Thompson). In terms of their format, they are shaped by similar cultural dispositions and genre expectations.

    Image of an English assignment titled 'my bedroom.' It is one paragraph, written in cursive on lined paper. The teacher's comment says 'good focus' and has a grade of A-. Image of a typed essay annotated with teacher comments. Image of a student paper with many teacher comments.

    And I’m not sure that the “technologies of production” don’t have a role in the effects—for example, until desktop publishing software came along for the personal computer, it was possible to manipulate the visual elements on the page, but it was much, much, much harder to accomplish. Imagine for instance the various difficulties of producing concrete poetry. In this instance (with handwriting) it is fairly easy. In this instance, with typesetting (Lewis Carroll's “Mouse's Tale” in 1922), it’s hard. And in the case of tattoo poems, like this one it’s really hard!

    This is an important point to add to our understanding of fetishizing media and modalities. Although fetishizing can occlude the labor of making meaning with media and modalities, it never entirely eclipses human creativity in doing so.

    Here, we can take a lesson from Michel de Certeau (1984), who reminds us about the secondary production activities that always transform the intention of primary production. Producers/designers, for example, create technologies to support a set of specific primary-production intentions (for instance, an email system that is meant to improve the communicative productivity of a corporation), but users engage in secondary-production techniques, too: tactics of re-fashioning, re-making, re-conceiving technologies for their own uses.

    How about a few other examples? The iCut: Interactive Cutting Board on iPad and New iPad videos provide some secondary-production takes on the iPad as a chopping board...

    Yes, that kind of thing is what I'm alluding to unsuccessfully with the qualifier “as ordinarily defined.” Though it's also worth emphasizing that technologies develop to support specific intentions, e.g., the pianoforte to allow for alteration of volume less possible with the harpsichord.

  15. Thinking about an opera like Gaetano Donizetti's Roberto Devereux provides great examples of our argument here.

    We can, for instance, watch and listen to the opera in person, or we can look at a video version of an opera with subtitles, or we can listen to the audio track from that same performance, or we can read the libretto in Italian or in English, or we can read or play the opera's score or examine the score as annotated and sung by Beverly Sills, or we can look at images of the opera as it was staged in particular places (as performed at the Wales Millenneum Center, or from the performance of Roberto Devereux at Opera Holland Park in London), or we can read a review.

    And these are only a few of the ways we can encounter the text of Donizetti's Roberto Devereux. Each of these presentations provides different experiences and understandings. Each of these texts requires multiple kinds of training, understandings, labor, and skill both to produce and to interpret. No one medium or modality is entirely sufficient to the task of either representing or understanding.

    And I'd add that even in our experience with any one of these versions, all our senses are operating in cooperation. It's just that we tend to recognize just one or another of these as not simply the dominant but the only sense engaged in our perception/reception of that text version.

  16. I’m not at all sure people have a resistance to learning new media—people are always already learning new media. My problem is with the conservative forces that privilege certain media over others without acknowledging the power relations and reasons for doing so.

    What’s more disturbing is, I think, the uncritical embrace of pre-designed new media, e.g., iPads. In theory these are heralded for their (user-friendly, optimum) “design.” But the design assumes a specific set of practices. I have yet to find a new gadget that seems to have my own practices and preferences in mind as “intuitive.” They are counter-intuitive, at least to me. I’m thinking here especially of the all too heady embrace of everything Steve Jobs has ever supposedly had a hand in.

    And have you been listening in to my private, irate conversations with MY iPad?

    “H’mmm so you don’t agree with this depiction of Jobs by Jib Jab?

    Screenshot of the jibjab Steve Jobs parody. Jobs is portrayed with halo, clouds behind him, holding an iPad with an image of a harp on it.

    So we need to distinguish between 'medium' and 'packaged technology designs.'