Tag Archives: memes

The Badness Catalog

TBC Screenshot
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Description:

The Badness Catalog is a hybrid digital essay and ongoing project (more on that in “Affordances”). The project argues, in essence, that writing on the internet, and particularly writing that at first appears to be “bad” (unconventional, grammatically erroneous, et cetera) is actually performing serious discursive work, and often takes on a deeper, symbolic meaning than its obvious features. In short, The Badness Catalog argues that meme-phrases (things like “I can’t even”) point to deeper meanings, often unique to life on the internet. Instead of reading them as degenerate writing performances (basically, instead of disciplining them as bad performances), we might read them as deliberate rhetorical or discursive choices, indicating a specific phenomenon or signaling membership in an online community. The Catalog takes a serious, but often humorous, look at these phrases and tries to illustrate how they can be used.

Process:

In my head, I began with my impatience for “Grammar Nazis” on the internet–particularly when those lexical fascists are so fixated on a prescriptivist use of the language that they ignore that new meaning is made in “mistakes” (also, incidentally, I was frustrated by how frequently incorrect the Grammar Nazis were). So I rallied to the defense of these “bad” phrases, because in using several of them, I began to realize they serve an important function–they often describe phenomena that are the result of life on the internet, like “I can’t even”‘s breathlessly dorky enthusiasm, or the flat, perhaps sardonic tonality expressed by a lack of punctuation in certain contexts. I drafted a brief manifesto (originally entitled “The Mission”) and began writing posts. I didn’t necessarily want people to read this in a linear fashion, especially since I fully intend on adding new posts frequently, compiling a sort of menagerie of internet phrases and the phenomena they signify.

In a strange way, I knew the politics of the mission before I really had people or scholars in mind. The site acts as a sort of public pedagogy–a resistance to prescriptivist grammarians and those who imagine a literacy crisis. It took quite a bit of soul-and-hard drive searching before I traced the genealogy of my sentiments back to an interaction between Min-Zhan Lu and a bunch of other comp/rhet scholars and my cultural-studies/postcolonial training, and so I re-wrote my mission statement (now the “Why Do This?” page) to be the scholarly manifesto of my project. The “What Is This?” page is the general population explanation, the PR release–the “Why Do This” page is the scholarly heart of the matter.

Incidentally, I coined what I thought was a new term, “multiliteracy,” but it turns out other scholars beat me to it–and thankfully, they meant almost exactly the same thing I did.

Affordances and Constraints:

Because I’m not exactly a pro at web design, I had to settle for a pre-made WordPress theme–and it’s a wonderful theme, but it imposes a bit of a linear structure on a nonlinear idea. Ultimately, I had to make certain affordance choices in order to present The Catalog as something that continues on–it’s not a one-off WordPress site, but an ongoing project. This meant that I had to really emphasize the new content, which meant moving the manifesto off the front page, since repeat readers don’t need to see that every time. But, at the same time, I didn’t want to hide it from new visitors–hence my constant anxiety about “Why Do This?”, which got moved, renamed, and rewritten half a dozen times, with infinite thanks to the Woodchucks for reading it more than once.

Right now, the biggest constraint I have is organizing my project according to the theme WordPress gives me, which means there’s a way of thinking built in to the site. I’m big on multiliteracy, and so that made me “have a sad,” to quote the LOLcat.

Not to mention the fact that I can’t change the font size. I kid you not.

My face when I couldn't change the font size.
My face when I couldn’t change the font size.

What this form was wonderful with doing was treating and maintaining images–the format is .gif friendly, displays header images on posts without those images having to be in the post, and there’s not a lot of aggressive graphic design interfering with the presentation of the images. Embedding html elements gets a little wobbly, but WordPress and the theme I chose clings happily to practically anything visual. The form also allows a banner menu, footer elements (for categories) and categorical reorganization–meaning the reader can screen posts by category easily, helping with the whole nonlinear thing.

URL: http://badnesscatalog.wordpress.com/

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The Badness Catalog: Digital Essay Draft 1

Yo Woodchucks!

The Badness Catalog is basically live. (Click it to view.)

TBC Draft Screenshot

SUMMARY

While you can read all about the project on the About page (general population) and The Mission page (academic audience), I’ve distilled the salient points here:

This site examines the way a key series of apparent “literacy errors”—errors of established language or custom practices—take on a new life on the internet. Instead of being failures of linguistic proficiency,  these apparent errors in digital discourse take on a metonymic role: they become stand-ins for other ideas altogether, the original apparent error erased and repurposed for new meaning. These “bad” practices—viewed in meatspace as mistakes—become markers of proficiency on the web.

The site focuses on those practices where the experienced writer knows that these behaviors are in violation of traditional literate convention, and uses these “bad” practices to signify in a new discourse community. The focus of this project is to elucidate how this “badness” signifies both meaning and membership: in the words of Michele Zappavigna (thanks Callie!) in Discourse of Twitter and Social Media, how this badness is both ideational and interpersonal, searchable (in that it reaches out to other instances of itself to create new meaning) and indicative of community.

There are basically two major arguments going on here:

  1. “badness” is more often an indication of an unwillingness (or unpreparedness) to read a text. In other words, badness on the internet  is not always the result of a mistake, but sometimes a marker of something other than expected being said.
  2. the process by which apparently bad textual performance is actually expressing something else is not new or unique to the internet. Communication depends on a panoply of external cues  and modes (multimodality) to make it legible–it’s simply that the internet has developed, as all cultural sites do, new cues and modes to suit its needs.

GAPS

In its current state, the framework and scaffolding of the site are complete (the Readings page, notably, is empty as I haven’t yet compiled all my secondary material in one place). About 60% of the evidence/case studies/entries are fully posted at this point–the project will ultimately be longer than 2000 words and will likely not “end” with 685, as I have about a dozen catalog entries of various length planned. By the final submission deadline I plan to have about 10 entries. So keep in mind that while the site’s idea is complete, the project is ongoing and not all the “categories” have been filled out. In short, you could read it in its current state and probably get a very clear idea about the point–but I am going to add more stuff. The posts that exist right now should give you a good idea of what I’m doing–and I wanted to check in before I post more, in case something central isn’t working.

USEFUL FEEDBACK PARAMETERS

The tone is hard to capture here–I’m trying to do intellectual work, but I’m also not trying to crush the thing under the weight of complex prose, except where setup has made that viable. So really, there are three major areas of feedback I’d value:

  • are the entries answering the call I set out, as evidence that badness on the internet is often signficant/signifying? 
  • is the website organized in an easy, but nonlinear fashion? 
  • does it cite sources effectively? There aren’t many, but the affordances of the website make citation a tricky business.

A smaller, more specific question is: should I continue to put a sort of academic-style mission statement as the lead thing in the “The Mission” menu category? Right now it’s “hidden” in the master category itself–meaning you have to click on the words rather than click on an item in the drop-down menu. Should this be more prominent?

Not Newness: Wherein I Don’t Say Anything Unexpected

Banks’ first moves threatened to drive me nuts. He posits, as many other eminent compositionists have, that we now live in a remix culture, and that this paradigm was launched by DJs. That scared me, as far as an assertion goes, because (as you all now know), my whole soapbox is: We have already, always lived in the RW, remix, intertextual culture, this paradigm is not new at all, perhaps only disrupted by the Enlightenment’s love of the image of the lonely artist operating in a vacuum to create works of sacred creativity. This is not new!

No doubt part of this is me taking pleasure in everyone else finally realizing, as I have in the course of accidentally becoming a genre theorist, that all writing is remixing (genre, after all, might be seen as a shared convention of what you remix from, with deviations/scratches being celebrated as innovation) and that the stodgy literary elitism of the past century (and this century still) has no legs left to stand on: it posits that remixes are inherently derivative, that genre texts are inherently inferior to the romantically-conceived, independent artiste writing a truly unique work of universalizeable and immortal literature, and this position simply cannot be sustained. Neither, really, can the laws that pretend it’s true. Just ask the RIAA.

Even if you literally show me pictures of myself writing my novel at 4am in a locked room, I will not buy the idea that there’s an un-remix-ed version of writing, or that this is new. There are novels in the room, and in my head, so no. Nope. No.

Nope.
Nope.

But then, within syllables, Banks saves himself (see page 2)–this is a book about locating African American cultural agency inside a paradigm that has suddenly returned to the fore after being mythologized out of modernity by a system built to construct African American as “other” (in the same way non-Enlightenment, non-European, “non-modern” groups get Othered to create the Us). The DJs hearken back to oral storytelling–the griots–meaning that this is not new, that this is just one way of looking at it that might be cool.

Digital Griots is a tool for reimagining what is going on–for scholars who have discovered the model in a new fashion, not an absolute pronunciation of the newness of the system itself. The DJ is “a figure through whom African American rhetoric can be reimagined in a new century” (2). The griot maintains the past within the present (see epigraph on 10), which of course makes the distinction really fuzzy. The way it ought to be.

That, at least, makes the academic in me happy. And it also helps to explain the really weird phenomenon that happened on Twitter–somehow, Tweetku has taken on a life of its own and has its own twitter, but we’re not sure if we made it or if we just happened to be doing the same thing while it was already there all along. Remix obfuscates historicity. The agent (the romantic author) blurs into the griot (the person speaking right now, the re-vision) (156).

My attempts, and our fixation, with locating an originator are probably possible but really counter to how the internet works structurally–the internet does not make allowances for the purity (and the myth) of the original. CNN’s silly attempts, every week, to find out about the source of viral things feels about as in-touch as their five weeks of coverage for a plane crash: they’re fixated on originators. Likewise, TV news networks talk about the hacker collective Anonymous as if it’s a thing, with leaders or consistent members. It is *not*. That’s the point. There’s no satisfying author at the end of the trail of remixes.

I did not make this image. It did not spring solely from me. I do not know who made it, and even if I did, it's an appropriation of another text.
I did not make this image. It did not spring solely from me. I do not know who made it, and even if I did, it’s an appropriation of another text.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t protect remixers work, or reward particularly effective innovation, its just that we need to acknowledge that

  1. we’ve been doing that to certain remixers, called authors, but not to others,
  2. nobody operates in a vacuum (see the most recent presidential election’s key debate), and
  3. academic culture still creates systems of value, good or bad, around arbitrary distinctions between remix and original, derivative text and magical “springs fully formed from the head of the author, like Athena from Zeus” literature.
  4. Tweetku probably went viral somehow.

    This image is a pastiche of several memes, combined with a famous internet haiku. There are too many potential layered remixes here.
    This image is a pastiche of several memes, combined with a famous internet haiku. There are too many potential layered remixes here.