A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Review of Sarah J. Arroyo's Participatory Composition: Video Culture, Writing, and Electracy

Veronica Diaz, Nova Southeastern University

(Published January 7, 2020)

A Review of Participatory Composition: Video Culture, Writing, and Electracy by Sarah J. Arroyo (Southern Illinois University Press, 2013)

YouTube’s current atmosphere is an all-encompassing one, calling several images—nay, videos—to mind. When you think of the content on YouTube, you likely imagine a myriad of possibilities: comedy routines, recipe trials, illustrations of academic concepts from all subjects, celebrity talk-show interviews, makeup tutorials, vlogs, etc. And yet, many people (educators in particular) have been reluctant to look beyond YouTube’s original role, causing a rift in relevance between what students engage academically versus what they engage on their own time. It is this gap that Sarah J. Arroyo aims to address in her book, Participatory Composition: Video Culture, Writing, and Electracy. Arroyo examines the criticisms directed at YouTube and cites the likes of Gregory Ulmer, Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, Victor Vitanza, and many others to advocate for YouTube’s potential to push pedagogy forward, from a lateral literacy to a more dexterous electracy. Given that this book was written in 2013, it is interesting to see how spot-on her predictions were with regard to many of the practices adopted in the five to six years that followed. It is for this reason that I will toggle back and forth between her original text and both its implications and applications since its initial publication.

Arroyo begins by breaking down the complex notions of “participatory composition” and “electracy,” making them accessible and finding relevance for their exploration and use in the field of composition. She expands on Ulmer’s idea in Teletheory that electracy is an “‘apparatus’, a social machine that influences laws and conventions in a given historical era” (qtd. in Arroyo 2). This point rings especially true when one considers that Ulmer’s first mention of electracy was in relation to analogue video and computer hypertext—both of which would now be considered fairly obsolete (Arroyo 2). He understood that over time, our means of communication would likely morph and take on new responsibilities—as orality once did in its shift toward literacy—to better accommodate an ever-evolving society. What he could not have anticipated was how participatory these means would become and how content would evolve to reflect this transition (Arroyo 2). YouTube, as a platform, successfully fosters the creation of content that entwines various areas of interest.

Crucially, Arroyo emphasizes undoing the line between entertainment and education. Students, she notes, are producing media constantly, doing so at higher rates than they are reading or writing academically (9). As of summer 2019, YouTube boasts a whopping 2 billion monthly viewers (Wojcicki). If educators were willing to weave an electrate component into existing curricula, one that harnesses YouTube’s power, they could very well see results that show students’ full potential, as well as that of the field as a whole. It is no surprise that today, institutions and textbook publishers have incorporated video and online elements into their programming. The success of the now-noteworthy Khan Academy website is a perfect example of what can be accomplished by utilizing the conveniences of YouTube for academic purposes, proving that “shallow content juxtaposed with intellectual content is a rich learning experience” (Arroyo 7-8). Websites like Twitter and YouTube allow people to collaborate in creating everyday multimodal content by leaving “traces” of interaction through commenting, sharing, quote-tweeting, and the like (Arroyo 20-21, 45). Arroyo notes that these interactions are opening the door to entice further discussion and/or reinterpretation of that content—a practice, I noticed, that echoes the “forwarding” concept Joseph Harris discusses to elucidate written moves in his Rewriting: How to Do Things with Texts (34).

In analyzing the elements of YouTube’s edutainment content, Arroyo elaborates on the idea of subjectivity in video culture by introducing in her second chapter such concepts as the “deoedipalized subject” and “whatever being” (Arroyo 33). These two entities exist in denial of authority—they are able, that is, to successfully traverse the aforementioned entertainment/education line by giving prominence to otherwise trivialized or ignored material. Indeed, the examples Arroyo provides vary in their degree of seriousness: from the constant forwarding and “remixing” of memes to the cell phone journalism used to capture the 2011 uprisings in the Middle East (38). This formation of collective memory still occurs today, as the internet en masse took a turn for the politically charged since the election of 2016 (Arroyo’s commiseration regarding the 2004 election has me wishing for that blissful ignorance). While current memes can be used to illustrate a variety of sentiments—from pure joy to existential dread—the cell phone journalism and participatory nature of 2018’s internet culture are geared toward increasing awareness and starting uncomfortable conversations (e.g., the barrage of videos depicting anti-immigrant sentiments and Bana al-Abed’s Twitter account chronicling the Syrian crisis in Aleppo first-hand). Arroyo attributes the popularity of vlogs to the relatable vulnerability that vloggers share with their audience, anticipating an even more electrate future with similar content. In the same way that Twitter engages in an “inverse of narcissism,” vlogs allow their contributors to connect with viewers in a richer way than only text would allow—they’re exposed to criticism from all angles (Arroyo 45).

Arroyo forwards each of Vitanza’s three countertheses—definition, authorship, and pedagogy—and applies them to multimodal classroom content, building on the edutainment potential of YouTube culture. She begins the third chapter by presenting Ulmer’s dichotomy of stasis and chora and explains how participatory composition breaks that traditional pedagogical binary. Arroyo’s issue with the standard is not what is presented, but rather what is left out because it does not fall neatly into the established framework. She encourages a shift from stasis to chora, to alleviate writers’ penchant for “shortcuts” (Arroyo 53). Rather than simply reiterate existing points, Arroyo asks that writers employ a kind of forwarding that would generate what Roland Barthes calls a “third meaning” via a punctum (54, 56). What Barthes attributes to photography, Arroyo forwards to video: the punctum (or wound) through which knowledge seeps allows concepts to converse with one another and “set future linkages in motion” (58). She furthers this point by incorporating Collin G. Brooke’s idea of proairesis, which has the aim of “not...defining that which unsettles us, but rather...encompass[ing] both critique and performance in a...reappropriation” (Arroyo 59). This state of perpetual forwarding and “countering” (another concept from Harris I connected to this book) is fertile ground for reinterpretation/reinvention (Harris 54). Arroyo considers YouTube the ideal vessel for Ulmer’s chora because it allows proairesis to happen constantly and uninhibitedly. She solidifies her stance by providing multimodal examples (Lisztomania and its video homage responses) to supplement the text (Arroyo 74-75).

The collaborative nature of YouTube’s constantly recombinant content makes the question of authorship a complicated one, but Arroyo dissects it deftly in her fourth chapter. Jean Burgess and Joshua Green highlight the importance of YouTube’s sharing backbone and emphasize the platform’s inability to succeed if it were a “closed system” (qtd. in Arroyo 77). Participation is imbued in the medium, forcing people to relinquish their roles as “masters” and take up roles as “listeners” (Arroyo 85, 88). However, as people are creatures of habit, they have a hard time forgoing their privileged roles; in being asked to shift perspectives, they can become hostile. This inflexibility is met with varied responses from YouTube users. The “comment wars” that ensue beneath videos can either produce communities of social support or spawn a base of relentless “haters.” The latter links back to the “underbelly” of videocy, a notion Arroyo emphasizes at the very start of the book by making an example of Alexandra Wallace’s hateful video commentary on UCLA’s student population (13). The ease with which ideas can be disseminated via videocy coupled with the ubiquitous nature of the platform underscore the need for a nuanced understanding of the responsibility that accompanies this “participatory blending of the public and private” (Arroyo 14).

Like all things internet, many iterations of this “underbelly” operate along a spectrum of significance—what starts off as a harmless tweet from a troll can quickly turn into a parade of vitriol that sends the recipient offline to escape. For instance, consider the racist attacks aimed at Leslie Jones when she promoted the all-female Ghostbusters reboot, or the perpetual harassment of journalist Lauren Duca by former pharmaceutical executive Martin Shkreli (Duca; Silman). And yet, these cases show only a fraction of the dangers that stem from the accessibility afforded by online participatory culture. Terrorist organizations like ISIS have taken advantage of YouTube’s features to amass a following by broadcasting the abominable acts they commit to an impressionable audience (Arroyo and Alaei). This sinister side of videocy emphasizes the point that while online participatory culture does much to propel productive conversations, it can be indiscriminate with regard to content, allowing those with ill intent to misuse its collaborative function to propagate their messages. The rhetorical velocity associated with both videocy and electracy is one that has surpassed that of the written word. If left unchecked and unmonitored, it poses a unique threat to discourse communities on a global scale.

Arroyo’s final two chapters situate all of the aforementioned concepts in the composition classroom, further pushing for a shift toward a pedagogy—or post-pedagogy—that is more participatory in nature. She notes that unlike the bedrock of theories in composition that are established and “aged,” electrate theories are meant to be “practiced as they are emerging” (Arroyo 104). Such an approach can be applied not just to the resources she is keen on incorporating, but also to the classroom dynamic itself. In rethinking practice and theory, electracy calls on educators to “create the conditions of participation” by “relinquish[ing] the discourse of mastery” and “plac[ing] value on the aspect of chance and emerging networks” (Arroyo 111). The multimodal projects she encourages throughout her text (the MyStory, the popcycle, The Dancing Floor) all serve as fodder for her broader point: the way students and teachers engage in discourse is what needs to “get with the times,” so to speak (Arroyo 4, 14, 26).

Our current electrate state is one that is incapable of being turned off. Technology’s constant presence in our lives is one that has led to an increasingly interdependent relationship—as users, we influence the needs tech aims to meet, and in turn the introduction of this new tech impacts society from the very moment it is released, remedying certain issues while giving rise to others. Thus, we are living in a “post-human” time in which electracy acts as “a prosthesis that enhances and augments a natural or organic human potential” (Arroyo 58). In Participatory Composition, Arroyo refutes typical criticisms lobbed at edutainment by arguing that YouTube as a platform can foster content that straddles that line, offering opportunities for both leisurely entertainment and constructive academic deliberation. Our classrooms and the conversations had within them are evolving as quickly as our culture. The best way for educators to serve their students is to get electrate by promoting participatory pedagogy both in their assignments and their discussions.

Works Cited

@Alabedbana. "This is our house, My beloved dolls died in the bombing of our house. I am very sad but happy to be alive.- Bana" Twitter,  29 Nov. 2016, 5:37 a.m., twitter.com/AlabedBana/status/803593621366771713

Arroyo, Sarah J. Participatory Composition: Video Culture, Writing, and Electracy. Southern Illinois University Press, 2013.

Arroyo, Sarah J., and Bahareh Alaei. “One More Video Theory (Some Assemblage Required).” Present Tense: A Journal of Rhetoric in Society, vol. 5, no. 2, 2015, www.presenttensejournal.org/volume-5/one-more-video-theory-some-assemblage-required. Accessed 18 Mar. 2018.

Duca, Lauren. “We Need to Talk About Online Harassment.” Teen Vogue, 11 Aug. 2017, www.teenvogue.com/story/online-harassment-lauren-duca-thigh-high-politics. Accessed 18 Mar. 2018.

Harris, Joseph. Rewriting: How to Do Things with Texts. Utah State University Press, 2006.

Silman, Anna. “A Timeline of Leslie Jones’s Horrific Online Abuse.” The Cut, 24 Aug. 2016, www.thecut.com/2016/08/a-timeline-of-leslie-joness-horrific-online-abuse.html. Accessed 18 Mar. 2018.

Wojcicki, Susan. “Appeal of Conscience Foundation Remarks.” YouTube Official Blog: Broadcast Yourself, 24 Sept. 2019, https://youtube.googleblog.com/2019/09/appealspeech.html. Accessed 24 Oct. 2019.