playing the experience of cancer

I don’t know where to begin in writing about this, but this won’t be all of it. Radiolab’s “The Cathedral” (a condensed telling of a story done by Reply All of the same title) introduces Ryan and Amy Green, parents to a young child, Joel, with terminal brain cancer. Ryan and Amy are creating a video game as a way of processing their experience of Joel’s cancer. Ryan, a computer programmer, recalls the moment the idea came to him: the worst night of Joel’s illness, sick with a stomach bug, Joel wouldn’t stop crying. He was in pain, dehydrated, and throwing up; Ryan could do nothing to help ease his discomfort. Ryan felt helpless; Joel’s crying got more and more frantic, he hit his head against his crib’s walls. In that moment, Ryan prayed and Joel stopped crying. Ryan described a moment of grace in what was otherwise overwhelming helplessness.

And beyond just sheer relief, Ryan had this other thought. Frankly, a weird thought. This whole ordeal reminded him of a video game. Like, you have to get the baby to stop crying, so you keep trying things: give him juice, bounce him, talk to him…But the weird thing is, in this awful game, none of those things actually work. They’re all like, fake choices. Ryan thought, what if I could make a game like this? Where you, the player, you don’t really have control? Can I bring you to that place, the place that I’m in right now?

There’s a lot of coverage/exploration of this game and the family and experiences that created it to spend more time reading/watching/listening/playing (with my next paycheck I’ll download and play the game myself), including a documentary Thank You for Playing.

But for now I am so deeply hung up on this idea of playing the experience of cancer—that a video game is the medium of not just telling a narrative, but experiencing. I can tell the events of that last night/morning:

We finally realized that the painful fits/episodes my mother was having were not her body on the verge of passing, but violent seizures that had gone on days. Fits of calm breathing shallow near ceasing and sudden gulp inhalations that made you jump out of your skin to hear. The sound of her teeth cracking. The yellow lightbulb of the lamp that stayed on all night near her bed, tucked in the corner of the living room and the christmas lights strung on the wall opposite (we had Christmas in July). My grandmother’s crying as she restlessly slept on the couch next to her bed. My father’s sunken eyes. With the coming of the hospice nurse to deliver anti-seizure meds, we turned off the home movies running in the background. The nurse closed the IV fluids and took off the oxygen tube. We closed the blinds and turned off the lights. For hours my grandmother and father held her hands and sang to her as whispers, as I tried to recall any artist or album ever to play. In the few moments my grandmother went to make coffee and my father stepped away to use the restroom, she as she then left. It was only me crying on her stomach that she was not her body.

Like this event/moment(s), I can tell others. But I can’t tell my experience. Even if I was a more gifted writer, not even with photos or video captured, or if I could physically show the volume of my tears. These are not the mediums, but I wonder how video games are. And what it means to play mourning/loss/grief. And how we can experience and understand affect through simulation. And what experiential/emotional games with no win condition, no lesson, and little to no control can make understandable.

4C14 Cut, Copy and Compose: DIY Publishing and Rhetorical Ecologies of Materiality

Here is my talk I gave at 4Cs with Jason Luther and Becky Morrison. We created/circulated a zine to accompany our panel. We divided our panel into two sections, each taking turns.

(For my part, this is a messy first attempt at trying to relate: rhetorical ecologies, rhetorical carpentry, poeisis, materiality, techne and matereality.)

title slide

I: DIY Publishing/Practice Screen shot 2014-03-24 at 9.32.13 AM
I am interested in materialities of composing—not just in crafting texts that are multimodal, but in the experiences of materiality. In Jim Brown’s “The Decorum of Objects”, he asks “is it possible to speak of rhetorical exchanges between objects?” (2). My interest in zines comes from their object potential – what their materials bring forth: they are compositions of assembled parts, intended to circulate, be taken up, and to be broken apart (sometimes to make other compositions). They are not texts unto themselves in structure or content. They juxtapose, de/recontextualize, subvert, enact kairos, radiate cultural and subcultural rhythms.
I see them as a space to explore the concept of rhetorical ecologies, which Jenny Rice considers a process that operates within a “viral economy” of social forces, “an ecological, or affective, rhetorical model that reads rhetoric both as a process of distributed emergence and as an ongoing circulation process. Ecologies work to make poeisis, the act of bringing something into being, articulable, traceable, vocal and visual.

I am currently teaching a research course, which is themed around a topic of inquiry of the instructor’s choice; mine being “The Alien Everyday”. The basis of inquiry is for students to make strange their encounters with objects – to look differently, to allow for the articulation of poeisis in their materials. Borrowing from Ian Bogost’s notion of carpentry, and the work of Nathaniel Rivers and Jim Brown [bringing this into our field] on rhetorical carpentry, students are creating research projects that articulate how things make one another and their worlds. This dwelling in materiality is an attempt at embracing the potential of objects, but what I want to better embrace is the potentiality of objects, between object, in dynamic interactions. I ask of students to interact with materials in direct contact and through tool extensions of eye, head, and hand: gathering objects, measuring, cutting, assembling, inevitably making errors and trying again, trying differently, with awareness of resistance, breakdowns, the simulation and evocation of objects that we cannot understand. What we care for is materiality: the affordances and constraints of materials, the contexts, histories, and technologies, that through combination and manipulation, make a composition. What I’m working to get at are methods for helping students encounter materials from a material, that is to say—a nonhuman, perspective—in material worldlings that open on to somethings – to see materials as potential. And while this may seems to stray from a DIY mentality of composing and publishing, I wish to explore how materials might persuade, communicate, and identify both with us and with one another in materially minded composing. I would like to explore materiality beyond the moments of composition, beyond person to object affective bonds in making, to potentiality in materials interacting with other materials (object, semiotic, contextual)—how they might compose, decompose, and recompose material worldlings (from Kathleen Stewart) – bringing new materealities into existence as they shift, fade out, break apart.

II. Theorizing

Potentiality in materiality cares for what becomes available when the connections that exist between ourselves and materials, and between materials are considered and perhaps estranged. The form, or materiality, of the composition may vary based on the at-hand circumstances, variances in contexts, but what is established is potential in its assemblage, its combinatory capabilities, its ability to break, its capacity to be cared for differently. Envisioning composition with interest in materiality troubles the artificial boundaries that separate what Jody Shipka describes as “the mental and the material, the individual and the social aspects of people and things interacting physically and semiotically with other people and things” (Jody Shipka). Composing becomes more action based: the looking for objects, the collection of materials, the tracing of resources, establishing connections, and crafting — text that leaves space for composing, recomposing, and decomposing in rhetorical ecologies. Texts move from passive or invisible intermediaries between ideas, to compositions of composites, of parts, that mediate further composing, that illuminate the fluidity, dynamism, and contingency of our complex web of activity-relations between us and other materials. Our means for making meaning and texts begin to fit our in flux material conditions, of which we are a part.

In “Weak Theory in an Unfinished World”, Kathleen Stewart cares for this flux, this dynaimicism of the cultural poesis of forms of living – objects as textures, rhythms, trajectories, and modes of attunement, attachment and composition. The point is not to think of materials as objects of value or understanding their meaning and representation just right but to wonder where they might go and what modes of knowing, relating, and attending to things are present in them. She describes potential as some thing throwing itself together into some thing. I wonder what does it mean to think of composition as the potential in some things thrown together into something?

I am asking my students to consider materealities in doing research as rhetorical carpentry. How might constructing a Rube Goldberg machine out of items common to a college dorm room make visible the complexity of things interacting in the clicking of a computer mouse to open a new tab on a web browser? Instead of reading an overview of the mechanics and technology and writing about what happens, students are simulating the experiences of the some things thrown together. In doing so, an inquiry of how a mouse works has elicited considerations of the necessary technologies and their design, questions of the relationship between human and nonhuman, and questions of the historical development of the mouse in relation to other technologies have arisen. For other students, how a clock works has unfolded to questions of how metaphors of time and devices of time influence us socially and culturally; and for yet another, creating a composite advertisement of an assemblage of found advertisements and cultural depictions of diamonds as emblematic of love in contemporary Western culture have juxtaposed money with demonstrations of emotional and ecological effects. These are research wordlings in which students are not only engaging with materials as a means of composing, but are uncovering and following traces of rhetorical ecologies that these materials—semiotic and object—exist with.

poeisisThis work, for me, is getting at means of considering materiality unto itself; estranging the way we consider the wherewithal of materials. Relating materialty to rhetorical ecologies and carpentry are methods of letting materealities articulate themselves. What is materiality as some things thrown into relation with some things? In your hands you hold a something – an assemblage of things found, made, and remade, thrown into this some thing of a zine, a panel, of a conference, of hands and bodies that will disperse in their journeys in planes and vehicles back home to indeterminate and unfinished worldlings. I would like to make visible the ecologies that made this zine possible with the composition efforts of my comrades. To explore how a text was assembled to circulate in a dynamic space, a world of many wordlings as we are representatives of many institutions, interests, and networks. Matter in an unseen world is indefinite (Kathleen Stewart); what if we pause in materiality? What might we notice in these emplaced materials, tracing their into being, some thing different for each depending on the some things they encounter in simultaneously mundane and possibly complex material domains?

Camera Lucida

[ENGL 527]

Citation: Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New York: Hill and Wang. 1980. Print.

Summary: The photograph touches, has an effect, when it is withdrawn from its usual context of composition talk – technique, art, reality, etc.- to allow it to rise on its own accord into affective consciousness (55).


  • studium
  • punctum
  • animation
  • adventure
  • operator
  • spectator
  • spectrum
  • biographemes
  • camera obscura
  • sign/signifier
  • affect

Passages to Keep:

“I may know better a photograph I remember than a photograph I am looking at, as if direct vision oriented its language wrongly, engaging it in an effort of description which will always miss its point of effect” (53).

“What I feel about these photographs derives an average affect, almost from a certain training. I did not know a French word which might account for this kind of human interest, but I believe the word exists in Latin: it is studium, which doesn’t mean, at least not immediately, “study”, but application to a thing, taste for someone, a kind of general, enthusiastic commitment, of course, but without special acuity” (26).

“The second element will break (or punctuate) the studium. This time it is not I who seek it out (as I invest the field of the studium with my sovereign consciousness), it is this element which rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me. A Latin word exists to designate this wound, this prick, this mark made by a pointed instrument: the word suits me all the better in that it also refers to the notion of punctuation, and because the photographs I am speaking of are in effect punctuated, sometimes even speckled with these sensitive points; precisely, these marks, these wounds are so many points. This second element that will disturb the studium I shall therefore call punctum; for punctum is also: sting, speck, cut, little hole – and also a cast of the dice. A photograph’s punctum is the accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)” (26-27).

Accepted Claim:
Last thing about punctum: whether or not it is triggered, it is an addition: it is what I add to the photograph and what is nonetheless already there” (55).

Claim of Some Doubt:
Since every photograph is contingent (and thereby outside of meaning), Photography cannot signify (aim at a generality) except by assuming a mask…the mask is the meaning insofar as it is absolutely pure (as it was in ancient theater)” (34) (and the intermediary is by way of Death 31).

3 Sources to Aid with Reading:

Not sure of which texts, but Barthes references Nietzsche, Brecht (weakness of critical power of photography) , and Sartre (posture of existence)Post-class (Re)Focus: