Original Proposal

Space | Action | Movement: Understanding Composition as Architecture

CCCC 1999 Proposal
Johndan Johnson-Eilola
Purdue University

The very heterogeneity of the definition of architecture--space, action, and movement--makes it into that *event*, that place of shock, or that place of the invention of ourselves. The event is the place where the rethinking and reformulation of the different elements of architecture, many of which have resulted in or added to contemporary social inequities, may lead to their solution. Bernard Tschumi, Architecture and Disjunction, p. 258

Although several composition and literary theorists and teachers have noted the ways text is now as much a spatial as temporal object, we have only now begun to think in systematic and critical ways about that relationship. Mary Louise Pratt's cultural critiques of travel narratives and border discourses; Pat Sullivan and Jim Porter's postmodern mapping techniques; and Jay Bolter's emphasis on the spaces of writing provide useful and important suggestions about the importance of such work.

Our current understanding/pedagogy of text grow out of linear narratives. We're currently experiencing the breakdown of these narratives from literary theorists (Jameson, Baudrillard, Derrida), cultural theorists (Pratt, Cushman, Cooper), and technology theorists (Bolter, Landow, Moulthrop), all of who work at various breakdown locations in the notion that text is a linear thread. Derrida situates meaning within contexts, then notes somewhat happily that contexts are never recoverable, are always reconstructed in new ways by readers as well as writers; Pratt understands travel narratives as imperialism and primary school exercises as contested border discourses; Cushman theorizes the rhetoric of urban spaces and urbanizes rhetoricians; Joyce builds multilinear narratives that reorganize themselves during use.

I am repeating the obvious here in order to point out that traditional understandings of text cannot be supported by a narrative approach that assumes readers begin at the beginning, work their laborious way through the middle, and slip inevitably into the end. Although there will certainly continue to be texts that operate as single lines--this presentation will be one--we'll increasingly find ourselves called on to help writers (and readers) understand texts as spaces. We have already begun investigating the importance of theories of geography to critical cultural understandings of text at a broad scope; I'd like to begin investigation at the other end of the spectrum, looking to the ways that architecture can help us understand texts. Two elements about architectural theory are important here: architectual projects, like texts, are constructed artifacts; second, contemporary architecture understands those built artifacts in ways both spatial and temporal, both structured and contingent based on inhabitants and institutional programs. The complexities of these views can, with some work, be mapped against composition to provide new ways of thinking about and teaching text production. This presentation will work through three architectural schools or approaches (postmodernism, syntax diagrams and cinegrams, and urban planning). The last portion of the presentation will apply these approaches to a single, web-based text.

    1. Postmodern Architecture: Contingent Spaces and Visions
      I'll begin with a brief historical sketch of postmodern architecture, noting the ways in which it (like composition and literary theory in the late twentieth century) responded to cultural shifts in economics and art (Tschumi; Venturi). The relations between architecture and composition here can be seen in the ways that postmodern architects such as Tschumi read buildings as texts, complete with references to psychoanalytic and poststructural theories, similar to those made by postmodern composition theorists and teachers.

    2. Sytax Diagrams and Cinegrams: Understanding People Moving Spaces
      Next, I'll explore some of the visual language drawn on by many architects to understand the ways that people inhabit, use, and transform the meaning of buildings and other built spaces, including syntax diagrams and cinegrams. Here, we can relate the visual language of architecture to work in composition that attempts to map writers, contexts, and readers (from Flower's early work on invention in composition to Porter and Sullivan's recent efforts to understand texts as postmodern geographies).

    3. Urban Planning: Cultural Power and Social Possibilities
      Finally, I'll turn to discussions of contemporary urban planning (Dueny; Koolhaas; Krieger), an architectural and city planning movement designed both draw from and move beyond postmodern architecture in an attempt to create community spaces that are open to multiple uses without degenerating into confusion and emptiness. Important work in composition that attempts a similar movement includes Cushman's work on rhetoricians as actors in urban spaces.

    4. Practicum: Applying Architectural Ideas to Postmodern Texts
      The presentation will conclude by working through these three architectural approaches on a single text, a website. In constructing visual diagrams, postmodern understandings, and urban/community analyses and plans, I'll illustrate the concrete and critical benefits of understanding texts as complex architectures--spatial, inhabited, dynamic, and contested.