Embracing the purposefully impermanent

Sometimes our setbacks lead to insights. And so, I begin this blog post by sharing two of my recent setbacks.

Setback #1: I am currently working on my dissertation: a tripartite case study analysis of feminist activist efforts. One of my case studies focuses on the Guerrilla Girls, an anonymous feminist art activist group known for their visual, creative, and humorous approach to activism. Earlier this summer, I set out to collect and analyze the Guerrilla Girls’ texts. Upon receiving one of their books in the mail, my eyes were drawn to a promise on the front cover: “Free inside: Your own Guerrilla Girls postcards!” I immediately flipped through the book, eager to get a glimpse of the postcards. However, when I found the page where they were supposed to be, I was dismayed to find that they were missing. They had already been torn out, and I could only see the perforated edges that remained. I was frustrated. ‘Great. I just paid for a book with missing pages.’

Setback #2: Several weeks later, I was attempting to secure texts for my second case study – an analysis of a set of feminist zines. I found a feminist zinester named Catherine and saw that she had issues 4-13 of her zine for sale online. Although she was technically giving the zines away for free, she did request that readers pay for shipping. I immediately purchased the available zines, and then emailed her to ask if I could also buy the first three issues. She responded that she had given away all of the first three issues and did not have any saved copies, not even for herself. Again, I was frustrated. ‘Great. I just paid for an incomplete set of zines.’

zpostcards

Although these setbacks were initially aggravating to me, they have since proven to be fruitful and productive mishaps. As I continued to think about the missing postcards and the incomplete set of zines, I realized that neither the Guerrilla Girls nor Catherine would share my frustrations. The Guerrilla Girls intend for the postcards to be removed from the book – that is why they perforate the edges. Similarly, Catherine hopes to pass along her zines – that is why she gives them away via her website and platforms such as zine distros. Neither the Guerrilla Girls nor Catherine seems to see the preservation of their texts as top priority. Perhaps my initial frustrations are understandable to you. After all, we live in a culture and age that privileges permanence, especially in terms of the digital. Sites such as iCloud and DropBox allow us to indefinitely store and access photos and documents. Apps such as Evernote invite us to “keep the physical and digital details of [our] projects with [us] at all times.” We even seek to defy the temporality of life through sites such as “Permanent Memorial,” which promote “unexpiring” access to our lost loved ones. It can, therefore, be jarring to encounter texts such as the postcards and the zines that seem to purposefully eschew permanence. And yet, it is to our benefit to pause within these unsettling moments and investigate what we can learn. So, I’d like to do this here, using the rest of this space to explore the potential value of temporality and what this perspective might offer us in terms of our approach to the writing classroom.

zcatherines zine

Besides the aforementioned postcards and zines, purposeful impermanence can be found elsewhere. For instance, in 2011, craftivist (crafter + activist) Sayraphim Lothian started a guerrilla kindness project called “For you, stranger.” Using builder’s foam, spackle, paint, and cupcake liners, Sayraphim creates fake cupcakes by hand and anonymously leaves them in public places such as on pedestrian bridges, in windowsills, and on park benches. She attaches a small tag to the top of each cupcake that reads “For you, stranger.” The hope is that unknown people will spot the colorful cupcakes, pick them up, take them home, and pass them on. Similarly, last summer, Kayla, one of my upper-level writing students, knitted small blue fortune cookies, stuffed each one with a positive message, and brought them to class as part of her digital-to-non-digital remediation assignment. When one of the other students complimented her on her handiwork, Kayla gave her one of the fortune cookies and told her to pass it on when she was done with it. Similar to the Guerrilla Girls and Catherine, neither Sayraphim nor Kayla created their texts with the intention of keeping or preserving them. The goal for each of these creators is to have the texts for a short time, to keep them for a temporary basis, just long enough to get rid of them.

 zhomemadecupcake

Postcards. Zines. Fortune cookies. Cupcakes. What can we make of this embrace of the temporary? I’d like to offer two specific observations:

  • Observation #1: These texts have creators, but they do not have owners. For those of us who teach composition, thinking of texts in terms of creation rather than ownership might be an odd thought. After all, many of our practices are rooted in the perspective that texts are owned by their creators: we teach students to avoid plagiarism by giving credit to the original author of a text; we grapple with copyright laws and the ethics of fair use when it comes to digital publishing; we cite texts and ideas by authors’ names. However, if we privilege temporality, ownership takes a back seat and creation takes stage. We come to see the creator of a text as just that: a creator, not an owner. She creates her texts in order to give them away. The postcards, zines, fortune cookies and cupcakes are all created in order to be circulated, to indefinitely leave the hands of their creators. It is in this circulation where the purpose of each text is realized.
  • Observation #2: The circulation of these texts leads to the formation of a community. The postcards, zines, fortune cookies and cupcakes are tangible, material texts that move from hand to hand, each one held, touched, and physically experienced. As the texts move from person to person, they form a textual, material connection between people – mirroring what Jacqueline Rhodes calls a “community-through-text” (“Substantive and Feminist” 118). Unlike traditional communities, however, this “community-through-text” is not premised on person-to-person interaction; the people within these communities may never even meet to face-to-face. Instead, these communities are predicated on physical embodied interactions with the text, what we might think of as person-to-text interactions as opposed to person-to-person interactions. The texts serve as links between the people, and as people participate in the continued circulation of the texts – as they mail the postcards, give away the zines, pass on the fortune cookies, and share the cupcakes – they sustain this “community-through-text,” functioning as active agents rather than as passive recipients/consumers.

zfortune cookie

We might turn the above observations into an “if-then-therefore” statement: IF we privilege temporality in our texts, THEN we shift our focus from the ownership of texts to the creation and circulation of texts; THEREFORE, privileging temporality invites the building of a community based on physical, embodied interactions.

What might it look like to privilege temporality instead of permanence in the writing classroom? In an effort to inspire productive thoughts in this direction, I pose the following questions:

  • What sorts of assignments, modes, media, and distribution platforms are most conducive to texts that are purposefully impermanent?
  • How can we encourage students to see themselves as creators rather than owners of their texts? How might this challenge traditional notions of authority within the classroom?
  • What are the risks and rewards of asking students to relinquish ownership of their work, to place their work in real, living contexts so that circulation might be fostered and experienced?
  • What are the risks and rewards of circulating texts beyond classroom walls? How might we help our students responsibly engage in textual movement in these spaces?
  • What might it mean to evaluate writing based on its temporality?
  • In what ways do/should/can we build classroom communities predicated on physical, embodied (inter)actions between our students, ourselves, and our texts? At what point do/should/can these communities extend beyond classroom walls?
  • How does our understanding of “writing” enlarge if we consider texts such as postcards, zines, fortune cookies, and cupcakes as valuable and valid texts within and beyond the writing classroom?

By: Christine Martorana, cdm11b@my.fsu.edu

Work cited

Rhodes, Jacqueline. “‘Substantive and Feminist Girlie Action’: Women Online.” College

Composition and Communication 54.1 (2002): 116-142. Print.

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