Cruel Auteurism: Affective Digital Mediations Toward Film-Composition

This book articulates some of the rhetorical dimensions and pedagogical implications of film work in writing classrooms and as digital scholarship. Cruel Auteurism: Affective Digital Mediations toward Film-Composition characterizes our investments in digital filmmaking as engaging rhetorical practice. Using affect theorist Lauren Berlant's concept of "cruel optimism" to articulate the findings of my archival, analytical, and experiential methods, the book describes a cultural shift within the discipline, from the primacy of print based arguments, through an evolving desire to generate cinematic rhetorics, toward increasingly visible forms of textual practice currently shaping composition classrooms and digital scholarship. The book is under contract with the Colorado State University Open Press #writing series, and West Virginia University Press (print).

To keep this introduction somewhat light and hopeful, I want to explain how "cruel" may operate in excess of its normative signification, even toward something resembling "kind." Whereas Berlant identifies the complex relation of "cruel optimism" as a state of affairs in which a particular desire may become "an obstacle to your flourishing," (2), she also illuminates potential for what she calls "zones of optimism" (48). In these zones of optimism, various pleasures may emerge, even if only to flicker in the shade of conventional "success." Cruel Auteurism wants to revise the flickers to shimmers.

Here is a bit more detail ...

We are making films in composition classrooms. Composing with playful joy and passion, we craft rhetorically sophisticated works that radiate far beyond the contours of an 8.5 X 11” page (or screen approximation of the same). Beyond watching, drawing from content to generate topics, practice summary writing, or highlight cultural rhetorics for analysis and critical intervention (all good moves), we are making films.

I have been making films as my primary form of scholarship since around 2004 (publications surfacing in 2008, unspooling into the present). As I have conceptualized, shot, and edited my films and their contextualizing webtexts, I have been writing this book. I have been writing with a view toward capturing “How We Have Talked About Film in Composition.” I am interested in illuminating obvious rhetorical trends, mapping developments in the field and in culture at large, and hoping to discover support for what I have been finding in my DIY (“do it yourself”) digital filmmaking activities — that filmmaking is powerful, affectively-charged, and critically revitalizing rhetorical training. This book seeks to articulate the history of film work in Rhetoric and Composition. Cruel Auteurism tells the story film-composition.  

“Film-composition” is a term I’ve been using throughout my filmmaking career in academia. It attempts to capture an area within Rhetoric and Composition, an area of appreciable momentum that is invested in generating films and rethinking the construction of “things” and “thinginess” in ways that reimagine the critical value of production, of making at all — of making a paper, a book, a collage, a craft beer, a working computer, a film. The book’s title suggests evolution “toward” film-composition. This "toward" belies my efforts to illuminate a historical tradition and to see it evolving into the present in order to capture a persistent turn toward practices and artifacts we find vibrating on a timeline of scholarship, theory, and practice. This, “toward” hovers dynamically, moving in both directions -- back, historically, to earlier whispers of hope, fear, and desire, and forward, toward increasing work in film production in writing classrooms. Both moves make clear the breadth of what it means to study writing and those theories and practices that are central to our always evolving, persistently dynamic field, within which film-composition shines ever more brightly.

As I have studied history of scholarship on film in Rhetoric and Composition, I have seen that many of the works falling under my improvised “How We Have Talked About ...” heading seem to articulate through rhetorics of affectively-charged desire. This did not surprise me, given my own love of film, filmmaking, and the heightened rhetorical sensitivities that are activated in processes of spectation and production. My findings were additionally unsurprising because as a “film person” I am inclined to think through desire via the powerfully resonant works of Gilles Deleuze (1983, 1985), who has so famously shaped film theory and cinematic rhetorics. Naturally, teacher-scholars in English departments have long been invested in narrative structure, which has at its heart an investment in character motivation (desire), a conceptual frame uptaken widely and persistently by rhetorical theorist extraordinaire, Kenneth Burke (1950). I began to read as far back as I could, and the affective intensities obtained. Shimmering to the surface of my readings were memories of explorations into affect in the history of Rhetoric and Composition. I had long been drawn to such thinking, so this did not surprise me. I began to see that this book might do more than provide a historical record of conversations on film in the history of Rhetoric and Composition but that instead it might also enable me to theorize my own ethnographically-derived knowledge of the power of filmmaking to enhance rhetorical knowledge and skill. And, because so many of my contemporaries have been working in film-composition, the book might afford me space on a timeline with them, locating my work within an emerging tradition in the field and potentially supporting would-be film-compositionists.  

Inspiring the name “film-composition,” I have turned to Robert Connors’ (1997) Composition-Rhetoric: Backgrounds, Theory, and Pedagogy. Connors’ desire to generate a coherent narrative about the work of Composition wisely took form via attention to the rhetorical nature of composing. His work validated the field of Composition in ways that are difficult to measure. His use of the hyphenated term, “Composition-Rhetoric,” to link the (then) young field of Composition to the robust and well-aged field of Rhetoric is a move I mimic by using“film-composition” to describe film in the field — its history, potential, pedagogies, and creative and critical scholarly practices.

Cruel Auteurism is inspired by my experiences as a scholar and practitioner in the field of Rhetoric and Composition. Initially arguing via anecdotal elements, I explain how I was drawn to using film in composition classrooms by hearing that others were doing so — I was shocked and secretly thrilled, but I didn’t think it was something I could do. I didn’t feel it would be “allowed.” Film work didn’t seem “texty” enough. Only after post-graduate school pedagogical training did I find ways of integrating film that seemed theoretically and rhetorically defensible. Later, in 2004, when I started making digital films, I sensed that this book might emerge to advocate for the ways in which filmmaking and composition are disposed to share classroom space and time. This is when I began my historical research. My reading in the archives confirmed my suspicion that others had similarly desired this potential. Now, with the affordances of digital tools, we have a thrilling array of composing options, and many are working with digital video in ways that honor the desire for film production as rhetorically-rich, pedagogical activity (Alaei, 2013; Arroyo, 2013; Carter, 2011; Hidalgo, 2013; Kuhn, 2008; kyburz, 2008, 2010; 2011; Leston, 2011, et al). Tracing this history is thus inspired by experience and a shared desire to engage students in the affectively intense and rhetorically complex work film-composition. 

Cruel Auteurism is framed by theories on affect while performing a historical overview and review of a current state of affairs. My use of the titular “toward” suggests a theoretical envisioning of a thing — an area of study as material rhetoric — a thing observable in our historical record and in present theory and practice. This attention to thinginess resonates with current work in material rhetorics and hints that at some future date, film-composition, may move into the production of analog bodies, acetate products in addition to the our digital cinematic works. Initially, however, I am proposing a history traced through theories on affect in scholarship and current day practices in Rhetoric and Composition, all of it sufficient to claim a vital area within the field, film-composition.

Finally, throughout my attempt to narrate the emergence of film-composition, I trace my own affective experiences, which reawakened my desire to engage existing and enact emergent forms of rhetorical knowledge and skill. To help illustrate the value of this reawakening beyond my particular experience, I review prominent works that draw upon affect theory in ways that illuminate the value of DIY digital filmmaking, toward film-composition. Chapters are guided by affect terms and theories that have been instrumental in articulating rhetorical activity; I integrate, for example, Thomas Rickert’s attentiveness to “ambience” and Giles Deleuze’s theories of cinematic desire in order to articulate certain moments in the history of film-composition. I draw upon Lauren Berlant’s “cruel optimism” to map the early hopes for film in writing classrooms, and, later for thinking about the limits of DIY digital filmmaking and the return to film.

Further arguing for a robust, multidimensional, and crafty version of film-composition, I explore DIY digital filmmaking as a kind of improvisational invention activity that is pedagogically available and instructive. Digital filmmaking enables multiple takes, endless editorial possibilities for revision, for seeing anew through the iterative processes how the refined filmic text might best argue, how it might best radiate its meaning through the multimodal affordances that radiate potential for generating (in audiences) certain affective intensities. I am thus on the one hand grounding film-composition in ongoing discourses about film (with its history rooted in the production of tangible filmic objects), and I am also suggesting that DIY digital filmmaking creates potential to enact a complex rhetorical vision. 

Forecasting future value for film-composition, I will venture to argue that DIY digital productivity may return us affectionately and in critically vital ways to the production of filmic objects through networks of technically skilled maker-agents who participate in the emergence of the film (analog film, with sprockets, silver acetate). In this way, film-composition participates in a sort of affectively intense “calling” -- to return to film, to join in efforts to revalue film as special and worth retaining, particularly in light of digital’s powerful reign. This vector of the argument is guided by works that draw upon affect theory and have emerged in Writing Studies as particular areas of study and production, including the Maker Movement (Sayers), Object Oriented Ontology (Bogost, Harmon, Hawk) and the project of “making composition whole” (Shipka).