For a few years when I was at the University of Toronto in Canada, I taught a course called Professional Writing and Computer Communications. My students’ main project was to propose and construct a Web site. But some of their projects challenged me and, perhaps by extension, should challenge us to question what kind of Web literacy we are trying to cultivating among our students.
One student, for instance, developed her Web site on the theme of Canada and the colour blue. Those of you Americans not familiar with Canada’s rich cultural landscape should note that the symbolic connection with that colour has eluded most Canadians too. This student, however, commendably exposed a seeming conspiracy of blues:
The irreverence of her Web site is familiar to me from my research on what people out there are doing with personal homepages. They are being humourous, playful, sarcastic-in short, irreverent. Indeed, irreverence is so typical that I’m going to argue there’s a strategic advantage to it. The Web doesn’t quite belong to people in the same way that e-mail and listservs and newsgroups and MOOs do. Cynthia Selfe and Richard Selfe (1996) warn that the new electronic media are already being shaped to limit certain kinds of participation in favour of institutional interests. One study estimates that of those Internet users who have the capacity to post Web pages only 6% bother to construct a personal homepage (Buten, 1996).
So I’m going to argue that what I’m calling irreverence and what I will focus on more specifically in a few minutes-parody-create a speaking space amidst “serious” Web discourse by contesting the dominance of institutional voices. First, I’ll develop a brief theoretical account of why individuals would seek recourse in irreverence. Then, to illustrate this account, I’ll draw on a couple of examples of Web rhetoric from an empirical study I did of 110 personal homepages and their authors. In closing, I’ll consider how the insight we may glean from these authors may guide us in teaching students how to become fully literate citizens of the Web.
Modality and parody
First, a theoretical account. While irreverence may seem an odd tactic, irreverence is intelligible as a sign of social disequilibrium. Irreverence calls attention to what social semioticians Robert Hodge and Gunther Kress call a text’s modality: its posited fidelity or infidelity with the world it represents, or as they describe it, “the status, authority and reliability of a message, . . . its ontological status, . . . its value as truth or fact” (p.124). Irreverence, which abandons a close fidelity with the “truth,” has a low modality. Hodge and Kress read modality as a function of a text’s context, specifically a function of the affinity between the text’s producers and the “system” they are in (p.123). Textual modality and contextual affinity rise and fall together. Thus, a text with low modality is a text with a low affinity between its producer and the prevailing system.
A familiar example would be political cartoons. Politicians are typically drawn with exaggerated features. Such exaggerations have a low “reliability,” a low “value as truth or fact.” This low modality corresponds with the low affinity being created between cartoonists and their readership on the one hand and the criticized politicians on the other.
So modality has a social and political edge. As Hodge and Kress write, “Modality is . . . one of the crucial indicators of political struggle. It is a central means of contestation, and the site of the working out, whether by negotiation or imposition, of ideological systems” (1988, p.123). Low modality can thus be seen as active in opposition to the hegemony sustaining institutional interests. Low modality spreads counterfeit discourses; its humor is humorous in part because it is incongruously related to so-called “serious” discourses.
Specifically, the irreverent texts on personal homepages are not just random acts of irreverence but, in many cases, low modality versions precisely of “serious” institutional discourses: parodies of discourses of management, marketing, advertising, law, science, and so forth. (I’m being very generous in my use of “parody”--small p popular parody rather than capital P literary parody.) Parody, according to Bakhtin, “ridicule[s] the straightforward, serious word” (1981, p.52) and hence undermines the truth status of the “serious word” or the serious genre (p.51, 61). In fact, we can bring into dialogue Bakhtin’s perspective on parody with Hodge and Kress’s perspective on modality and social affinity. Parody, by undermining the status of the serious word, essentially lowers a discourse’s modality, and thus parody manifests a low affinity, an alienation.
This conception of parody can account for some of the carnival atmosphere that animates much of the personal input to the Web. (Parodies are oblique acts of sabotage.) Let’s look at a couple of examples of how participants in my study used parodies of institutional discourses, first, to present themselves and, second, to present some product or service.
First of all, personal homepage authors do not necessarily present much of themselves; close to 45% of my sample of over 100 personal homepages did not make readily accessible even such basic personal information as a full name. Among those that did present something of themselves, several drew on the curious choice of a genre: the form. By form, I mean the genre with . . . Name: ___ Occupation: ___ Age: ___ etc.; they would produce this kind of structure on their homepages. The form is most recognizable as an institutional genre. Discourse analyst Norman Fairclough, writing about official forms, observes an increasingly prevalent “discourse technology” by which organizations both normalize our acts of self-revelation and control the content of such self-revelation (p.218, 222). That this genre would reappear on personal homepages suggests its success in defining, for some people, their subjecthood.
However, some participants resisted the expectations of this bureaucratically defined identity by writing against the genre. They reproduced its skeleton of official-sounding categories, and then gave irregular, unexpected responses. For instance, let’s consider how two participants represent what would otherwise be their most important institutional affiliation: their occupation. One, a 24-year-old male, writes:
Occupation: Technical Support for CIOE Corporation, where I sprout off technical information over a telephone to commputer [sic] illerate [sic] people on a daily basis (check out my really cool work page that has all kinds of useless information on it .... if you’re bored). [underlined words are hyperlinked; italics in original]While his first five words satisfy the normative expectation for a reply to the “Occupation” category, the remainder counteracts that norm by undermining the seriousness of the occupation category and thus undermining the public image of this prime institution of a contemporary life.
Another participant-a 17-year-old high school student with, apparently, no formal occupation-nevertheless includes the occupation category, and then adapts it to her own purposes:
Occupation: Student / Webmaster of das Spaß Haus / part-time fiction author / original member of the Huge Quintumverate / online virtuosa / Member of the Luke Skywalker Estrogen Brigade (LSEB) / Stosh-Fu fighter (quite the Renaissance Woman, eh?)Notice how she adopts the discourse otherwise reserved for those who have institutional sanction to claim proper nouns through their professional titles and affiliations: “das Spaß Haus . . . the Huge Quintumverate . . . the Luke Skywalker Estrogen Brigade (LSEB).”
The writing of these two participants illustrates the degree to which institutional discourse exercises a prerogative on the Web. Yet the excesses these authors offer in response lower the modality of institutional discourse, creating a parody of its officious model of our subjecthood. Their subjecthood emerges in using the bureaucratic form as a proxy to position themselves against bureaucracy and its practices.
* * *
For a second example, let’s look at what personal homepages offer to the Web community. Homepage authors may be forgiven for sometimes sounding like advertisers; everyone else in the media does too. Norman Fairclough, writing about the ubiquity of advertising and promotional messages, observes a trend toward a “promotional culture” overtaking other cultural practices:
The concept of promotional culture can be understood in discursive terms as the generalization of promotion as a communicative function . . .-discourse as a vehicle for ‘selling’ goods, services, organizations, ideas or people-across orders of discourse. (1993, p.141)As we enter into the new order of Web discourse, promotional culture is coming with us. Most homepage authors, of course, have little suitable to sell and thus often exercise the promotional function by hyping their own sites. However, one participant who actually does have something very real to advertise finds herself embracing the promotional function, but at arms length. A freelance poet, she uses part of her site to market a small-press book of her poetry. Her site features a sample of her poems, scanned images of the front and back covers of her book, several brief sales pitches, and instructions on how and where to send the $6.00 payment. We learn that this aspiring poet is a single parent, earning her living “work[ing] various meaningless blue-collar day jobs,” “a disenfranchised member of an indifferent society.”
As someone who is on the margins of both the publishing community and of middle-class America, trying to engage in an activity-marketing-independent of marketing enterprises, she has few credible models to emulate. What she does is appropriate the most garish clichés of the advertising industry to use as titles and slogans on the pages devoted to the sale:
Her response is to display a low-modality reproduction of marketing. Her text engages her in, but also distances her from, the act of promotion. Her parody of marketing contests not only the legitimacy it ordinarily has, but also her own disenfranchisement as an unrecognized poet whose message to the public must be promotional rather than poetical.
In these cases, we’ve seen how the low modality of individuals’ Web writing can manifest their lack of affinity with the institutionally dominated Web marketplace. Parody gives them a way to insert their voices, virus-like, into the commerce of the mass media, while at the same time expressing their estrangement from that media.
Educating citizen rhetors
How might all this be of use to us in educating student Web writers? Imitation is one of the oldest pedagogical methods, and parody, which Linda Hutcheon characterizes as “a perfect postmodern form” (1988, p.11), is a fitting contemporary application of imitation. Hutcheon locates some of parody’s impulse among the demographic of “those who are marginalized by a dominant ideology” (p.35). I would include in this population individuals who, despite their privileged access to the new technologies, are seen to have little business being in the mass media, perhaps especially young people. Parody creates a viable speaking space for student publishers, without implicitly committing them to the ideology sustaining the institutional interests now dominating the Web. A successful student project, for instance, might not so much emulate the Microsofts of this world as undermine those Microsofts.
In this light, composing Web parody is one answer to a call by many scholars, such as Johndan Johnson-Eilola (1997) and Cynthia Selfe (1999), for greater critical awareness of the role of new technologies and a call by, among others, Billie Wahlstrom (1997) for a greater role for our students as technologically supported agents of social change. The Web must not be left to brand itself as an electronic shopping mall, and our students certainly must not be positioned just as its shoppers and shopkeepers. Cynthia Selfe and Richard Selfe have called for electronic landscapes to be occupied by our “nomadic, feminist, cyborg guerilla” alter egos engaged in small-scale “tactical” actions (1996, p.354, italics in original). Some manifestations of these stances are already familiar among habitués of the Web; the Web site “whitehouse.net”-a parody of the official White House site-(www.whitehouse.net) being perhaps the best known of these. Over a hundred similarly parodic sites, many targeting specific companies, may be found at dir.yahoo.com/ Entertainment/Humor_Jokes_and_Fun/By_Topic/ Computers_and_Internet/Internet/Website_Parodies/. The emerging genre of Web parody can be cultivated as part of our objective to develop among our students a critical Web literacy for their roles as citizen rhetors. Giving citizen rhetors a meaningful public role might raise the public authorship rate above the paltry 6% level. My hope is that, as the Web develops, students like my former student with the quaint fixation on the colour blue will have more yet to say to the world.
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Fairclough, N. (1989). Language and Power. New York: Longman.
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Selfe, C.L. (1999). Lest we think the revolution is a revolution: Images of technology and the nature of change. In G.E. Hawisher and C.L. Selfe (Eds.), Passions, pedagogies, and 21st century technologies (pp. 292-322). Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press and NCTE.
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