I work in the Digital Writing & Research Lab in the Department of Rhetoric and Writing at The University of Texas at Austin. Given my situation, it is understandable that my scholarship combines rhetoric and technology. My rhetorical interests focus on various understandings and instances of mimesis, from the pedagogical to the performative. Using mimesis, I attempt to examine and explain how rhetorical change happens through repetition. Richard McKeon and Edward P.J. Corbett argue that there are a variety of meanings of mimesis that go back to antiquity. In this way, mimesis is, as Matthew Potolsky explains, a "memeplex," a protean theoretical cluster of ideas often repeated together. Rhetoric is in many ways governed by these concepts of imitation, from the Platonic idea of physical manifestations of ideal forms, to the Aristotelian performative re-presentation of human activity, to the act of copying or using models and templates in rhetorical pedagogy and practice. I look at the way the cluster of ideas known as mimesis reverberates between online and offline life, breaking down the distinctions between the "real" and the virtual.
In my scholarship, I draw on the skills, technologies, and conversations offered in the Digital Writing & Research Certificate program, which has transformed the way I think about my digital work. Through the certificate program, I have started to think of my work online not as digital drops in a bucket, but as a coherent flow of information. This information flow augments, informs, and illuminates more traditional scholarly projects like my dissertation, conference presentations, and publications. As my portfolio illustrates, I've created digital artifacts that use a variety of tools and techniques.
The attunement to technology that I've gained in the DWRL also helps me focus my research on cases in which historical or emerging technologies are particularly rhetorically significant. In my research I analyze the way that large corporations use video games, online videos, and social media to enchant and persuade customers. I look at how the proliferation of emerging media destabilizes genres attached to older media like books and television. I examine how underground subcultures use new media networks to connect. And I write about how digital tools shape our identities, even when we are offline.
All of my objects of study relate back to food in some way. For me, food is rhetorical. For Roland Barthes, food is rhetorical not only because it is accompanied by social and cultural sign systems (cf. Montanari 2006); food is expressive in and of itself. In “Toward a Psychology of Contemporary Food Consumption,” Barthes writes, “an item of food sums up and transmits a situation; it constitutes an information; it signifies. That is to say that it is not just an indicator of a set of more or less conscious motivations, but that it is a real sign, perhaps the functional unit of a system of communication” (24). For Barthes, food is language and, as such, a system. Once systematized, food cannot cease to signify. “As soon as a need is satisfied by standardized production and consumption, in short, as soon as it takes on the characteristics of an institution, its function can no longer be dissociated from the sign of that function. This is true for clothing; it is also true for food” (24). And, by the way, Barthes is not writing about only the overtly demonstrative aspects of food service, but all of it. He writes, “I mean not only the elements of display in food, such as foods involved in rites of hospitality, for all food serves as a sign among members of a given society” (24). For those who might think that food is a fundamental human need, Barthes agrees, but his point is that even our most basic needs signify through their structure. “Substances, techniques of preparation, habits, all become part of a system of differences in signification; and as soon as this happens, we have communication by way of food” (25). Or, to put it another way, “ever since man has ceased living off wild berries, this need has been highly structured” (24-5). Finally, the fact that food is a fundamental human need, and that people continue to treat food this way despite its communicative power, in no way changes its rhetoricity. Barthes writes, “People may very well continue to believe that food is an immediate reality (necessity or pleasure), but this does not prevent it from carrying a system of communication; it would not be the first thing that people continue to experience as a simple function at the very moment when they constitute into a sign” (25). I can, and often do, experience the simple function of food, choosing not to read too deeply into its subtext. But most of the time, I revel not just in the language in, around, and of food, but also in the social relationships formed through it. It is the fuel that keeps me going when my emphasis on technology becomes too cold or rhetoric becomes too analytical. It grounds my research in the everyday.