A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

"Frozen Music, Unthawed": Ka-Knowledge, Creative Writing, and the Electromagnetic Imaginary

Adam Koehler, Manhattan College

Enculturation 7 (2010): http://enculturation.net/frozen-music-unthawed

In 1999, Enculturation published a special issue examining the overlooked links between rhetoric and composition and music as it can be understood as a site in which culture is inscribed. Guest editors Thomas Rickert and Byron Hawk explain in the introduction: “On various levels, all of the pieces in this issue are dealing with the way culture comes in to write this ungraspable excess, music, and by extension those who consume it—live in it” (Rickert and Hawk). This plateau on which rhetoric and composition was able to imagine the repercussions of “living in music” brought together the fruitful combination of not only rhetorical and cultural theory and music, but also the digital ways in which such concerns interact. The articles underlined the ways that digital environments allow for multi-modal composition and the need to better theorize and understand the repercussions of such composition—and the role music and sound play in such theorization. Rhetoric and composition became musical in that it recognized the promise of examining its electronic environment(s).

In 2006, Computers and Composition moved into “the next step of multiliteracies,” publishing an issue on the role sound plays “as/in compositional space,” examining the role sonic literacy plays in our conceptions of rhetorical models and, again, digital environments. Attempting to “change the way we think about sound,” the issue collectively sought to unpack the theoretical and pedagogical task of asking scholars and students to examine rhetoric and composition by way of dwelling in a musical literacy, one that asks writers not only to compose through an emergent body of musical knowledge (in Jeff Rice’s “The Making of Ka-Knowledge: Digital Aurality,” the Beastie Boys provide a way to imagine the role of the aural in digital rhetoric) but also to compose with that body of knowledge by way of multimodal assignments and frameworks for imagining rhetorical models.

By attending to music as it can be imagined as a cultural site in which meaning is inscribed, consumed, and interpreted, as well as a tool for framing the relationship the aural has with the textual in digital forms of rhetoric, these special issues of Enculturation and Computers and Composition help imagine how rhetoric and composition can come to terms with that which escapes rhetoric, the “ungraspable excess” Rickert and Hawk refer to, as well as the multi-model way in which rhetoric thrives in digital environments. By virtue of turning toward music as a way to construct sound forms of rhetoric, I argue, these models can be extended into emergent discussions regarding the connections between rhetoric and composition and creative writing. By attending to the two levels at which music allows us to grapple with and understand rhetoric—as a theoretical entry point into rhetorical excess as well as a practical way to frame the aural and visual as they intersect across digital rhetoric—we are asking rhetoric to grapple with the aesthetic. More specifically, we are asking rhetoric, as a mode of production (rather than a mode of interpretation), to seek aesthetic ways of knowing, and as such we may begin to see a new way to imagine the interactivity between rhetoric and composition and creative writing.

In this way, I offer a double-layered argument. On one layer I am concerned with the ways that rhetoric and composition has grappled with music as a way to understand rhetoric’s theoretical excess and rhetoric’s multi-modal modes of production, and on the other I am concerned with how rhetoric and composition may be able to draw from these concerns a new way to imagine our field’s interactivity with creative writing. The bond between these two layers, I will argue, is the productive way in which we imagine rhetoric to be doing aesthetic work. How rhetoric and composition has so far concerned itself with music may be an entry point into an extension of recent complications of the way “craft” has been imagined as a productive point of interest between rhetoric and composition and creative writing.

By examining one cultural theorist overlooked in this lineage of cultural, rhetorical, and musical scholarship, Theodore Adorno, I argue that any rhetorical model that seeks to integrate music with rhetoric must begin by examining the way knowledge is constructed in such a synthesis. By turning toward Jeff Rice’s article from Computers and Composition’s sound issue, “The Making of Ka-Knowledge: Digital Aurality,” I aim to provide a way to imagine the aesthetic possibilities of such a hybridization of music and rhetoric – and how it can help rhetoric and composition imagine a new relationship with creative writing, one that goes beyond print-based discussions of craft as they have been set in motion by Tim Mayers’ pioneering book (Re)Writing Craft: Composition, Creative Writing, and the Future of English Studies. By working with Paul Miller’s manifesto Rhythm Science as a text with which to apply criticism of Adorno, I argue that what Rice refers to as “ka-knowledge” makes way for a synthesis that brings into rhetoric and composition’s interest in music a new way of imagining aesthetics—and our discipline’s relationship with creative writing, specifically in digital environments. In other words, rhetoric and composition’s interest in music as a rhetorical trope and digital rhetoric as a multi-modal method of production allow us to interrogate the ways that rhetoric can be imagined as aesthetic. In this article, I aim toward an understanding of such an aesthetic mode of production by exploring Tim Myers’ term “craft criticism” in terms of what it offers an aesthetic framework for digital (multi-modal) rhetoric and how such a framework may limit our understanding of the productivity of digital rhetoric. Using such a framework, I then examine the website flatmancrooked.com, a multi-modal literary magazine/website that demonstrates simultaneously the value and limits of the print-based way in which “craft criticism” imagines the productive interaction between rhetoric and composition and creative writing.

Cultural Studies and Writing about Music

It’s important to begin by looking toward the discursive ways that cultural studies has imagined the relationship between music and the written word. In their collection of essays, Mapping the Beat: Popular Music and Contemporary Theory, editors Andrew Herman, Thomas Swiss, and John Sloop outline a framework for the study of popular music by way of a three-pronged production-text-audience configuration. They emphasize that scholarship has tended to work within one of those three categories: there are works primarily concerned with institutional analysis (the examination of the production of music, its political economy, and how such institutional forces shape musical production and the practice of music itself), textual analysis (analyses of the representations, structures, and iconography found within and around particular genres of music), and ethnographic analysis (work that concentrates on “the rituals of everyday life through which popular music is interpreted and used”). “According to this logic,” they argue, “musical texts can be analyzed as institutionally produced commercial commodities that function as cultural artifacts inscribed with meanings which are then consumed and interpreted by fans and audiences” (4). Music becomes not just a textual product here, but also an artifact of collective identities within and about which writers exert authorial power. We can, for example, write about the ways particular social values are represented in music and amplified out toward a culture that then consumes those particular values, and we can do so through employing rhetorical effect designed to signal to readers what a critical engagement with such representation yields. Thus the intersection of music, cultural studies, and rhetoric forms a very rich site for authors working with a variety of concerns, such as the social, the political, and the aesthetic. In this way, the relationship between writing and music privileges its discursiveness rather than its musicality. This privileged status of discursivity is exactly what those special issues of Enculturation and Computers and Composition sought to resist and re-examine. By recruiting sound, publishing the issues online, and providing an environment in which the visual interacts with the auditory, these special issues began to show us alternatives discursive forms.

Such an approach that privileges discursiveness, Herman, Swiss, and Sloop claim, stems from the work of Theodor Adorno and the Frankfurt School. “The holistic critical analysis of popular music,” they point out, “as it moved through the circuits of production, textualization, and audience reception was central to understanding the politics of mass culture in modern capitalism. Popular music was a rationalized, standardized, and pseudo-individualized artifact that produced rationalized and standardized responses of emotional sentimentality and ‘false consciousness’ in the consuming audience” (4-5). Adorno’s understanding of “the culture industry” has itself undergone significant criticism and, to this effect, met quite a few excellent counterpoints by scholars concerned with the ways ritual, recontextualization, and alternate readings are not accounted for within his paradigm. However, even such criticism depends upon a logic set in motion by Adorno’s paradigm: both Adorno and his critics rely on a production-text-audience logic in order to reveal the innerworkings of political economies embedded in a capitalist society. On both sides of such a debate, rhetorical intervention assumes a static form—it becomes a mode of writing and rhetorical effect that rationalizes our response to music. The special issues of Enculturation and Computers and Composition to which I referred at the start of this article, once again, worked towards resisting this. Furthermore, not only did they work toward resisting such calcification, but they also actively came out from Adorno’s shadow by providing an alternative, by becoming digital, by using sound “in order to change the way we think about sound,” and by showing us what can result from the synthesis of the academic and the creative—as “creative” can be understood as a new way of practice and thinking.

Adorno’s attention to the discursive possibilities of examining the innerworkings of the culture industry paved the way (in both the static and productive senses of that phrase) for critics interested in the way Adorno understood art: as the recognition and illumination of human ache and oppression. As technologies evolved, as attempts at such an understanding of art came to speak out of that evolution, culture—and the ways in which its writers, artists, and musicians grappled with it—began to present new opportunities. The proliferation of inscription technologies, in other words, requires that we examine methods of production as they emerge not only in discursive contexts, but also digital ones.

Landscape as Canvas: Rhythm Science

To help continue rhetoric and composition’s move toward these alternative methods of production, I begin with musician and writer Paul D. Miller’s (AKA DJ Spooky’s) manifesto, Rhythm Science:

There’s something about the labor of writing and the sense of being part of the continuum of writing that goes back thousands of years. It is an ancient form, and in some ways it doesn’t quite fit what’s happening. The challenge then is to describe or characterize what it feels like to be alive now in the midst of it, but using this other mode of communication. . . . There’s a reflexivity that comes with having to compose and letting language come through you. It’s a different speed, there’s slowness there. And I’m attracted to writing’s infectiousness, the way you pick up language from other writers and remake it as your own. This stance is not contradictory: DJing is writing, writing is DJing. (56)

“DJ Spooky,” he goes on to explain,

is a living engagement with an ultra media-saturated youth culture. Creating this identity allowed me to spin narratives on several fronts at the same time and to produce persona as shareware. I started DJ-ing as a conceptual art project, but as the Spooky persona took on a life of its own, I came to regard it as a social sculpture, coding a generative syntax for new languages of creativity. “Spooky” grew from the fact that the disembodied music I loved—hip-hop, techno, ambient, futurjazz, spacedub—was itself a syntactic space reflecting the world I knew. (13)

The machinery of the culture industry that Adorno fears becomes, for Miller, the very fabric of expression. Miller constructs an avatar that he describes as “a social sculpture, coding a generative syntax for new languages of creativity.” To engage in digital environments, in other words, requires acknowledging that not only is multi-modality a rich site in which to examine the ways textuality and aurality refract through each other, but also that there are “generative” possibilities “for new languages of creativity.” Rather than surrender to the machinations that, for Adorno, wash out truth in art, Miller constructs a method for sustained creativity within the digital environments that have grown out of industrialized cultural production. Rhythm science grows out of not only the nostalgic sense of tradition as Adorno conceives of it, but also the ways in which multiple traditions collide and refract in cultural environments that, to be fair, Adorno could never have seen coming. In “The Making of Ka-Knowledge: Digital Aurality,” Jeff Rice explains:

In digital culture, the process of interweaving composition and identity, of becoming an extension of one’s own writing, of assembling various genres of discourse, has come to be known not as the stitch, but the mix. “In the mix,” DJ Spooky wrote, “creator and remixer are woven together in the syncretic space of the text of samples and other sonic material.” In the mix, we generate ka-knowledge. (273)

Ka-knowledge, for Rice, resists the exclusivity of visually based rhetorics for the sake of examining how aurality contributes to our technologically situated rhetorics. Rice carves out a kind of knowledge that values new kinds of knowing processes, processes that disrupt the privileging of print culture—its linearity and syllogistic reasoning—in order to “map out a ‘ka-knowledge’ necessary for a digital writing whose logic stems from aurality” (268). Miller wants to show us a writing built out of and with music. Rice wants to show us a writing built out of listening, a writing produced by ka-knowledge that reproduces new processes of knowing. In order to do so, he recognizes that we need to examine the limits of heuristic ways of knowing and move toward a knowledge designed from methods of production, rather than, for example, critical, consumptive methods.

Miller yields to multiplicities of traditions that inevitably interact (often in surprising ways) across “the electromagnetic canvas” of our digital environments. For both Adorno and Miller, music will always be a social construct; however, for Miller, that social realm is compounded and shaped by the inscription technologies used within it. That realm, Miller suggests, is not at odds with a conception of art that seeks to awaken human needs and desires oppressed by political and institutional forces by virtue of the alternative configurations possible through using that realm as a canvas across which to write. In other words, a networked culture in which technologies of inscription ranging from print to software make possible a proliferation of cultural patterns, the creation of art from the flow of such proliferation can make possible a sustained examination of as well as participation in oppressed human needs and desires—the interanimation of the rhetorical and the creative. The DJ, seen here, is a rhetorician; the rhetorician is an artist. By sampling from multiple cultural contexts and modes, the DJ makes new ways of imagining these contexts possible, and in this way we can begin to make sense from out of the fractured, contingent, and often contradictory ways in which those contexts engage. In other words, the composition of art from out of the digital flow of a culture seems to be an act that requires simultaneous attention to the act of creation as well as the act of examination. In this way, the work of Miller and Rice help us see more clearly a way for rhetoric to thrive in a postcritical culture.1

Rice’s theory of digital-based aurality—ka-knowledge—differs from other rhetorical examinations of music and hip-hop in that rather than calcify aurality into a critical or rhetorical trope or figure—a move we inherit from Adorno—ka-knowledge works as a sort of loosening of the tropes and figures used to write about music. “To enact or practice ka-knowledge as digital writing,” Rice explains,

our narrative of literacy acquisition can no longer be topos based . . . ka-knowledge . . . is a mixing, a usage of a variety of ideas, events, moments, and texts for the mix and the subsequent identity of ‘being mixed,’ not for the demonstration of expertise (a fixed topos-bound concept). (276)

Indeed, such an unmooring is what makes ka-knowledge so valuable. “Ka-knowledge is the digital rhetorical practice of assemblage,” Rice claims (277). By drawing from DJ Spooky, the Notorious B.I.G., and the Beastie Boys, Rice has himself constructed an assemblage in the form of a theory that allows us to approach digital literacy and writing in a way that doesn’t ask such literacy and writing to be new uses of the old (visual, print) ways. The mix is as auditory as it is visual, and these have a stake in the ways in which we derive rhetorical value from digital writing.

The catch, of course, is that assemblages resist a stabilized methodology. Precisely what makes ka-knowledge important—its insistence on alternative processes of knowing and producing knowledge—is exactly what makes it so difficult to adopt as writers or as teachers in a writing classroom. Rice looks toward blog writing as a site in which ka-knowledge (re)produces itself in valuable ways. One could argue that Rice’s ka-knowledge is one way to revisit the age old rhetoric/poetic debate—but such an argument would overlook the importance of examining digital writing in its natural (i.e., electronic) state. In a digital environment, in the mix, we encounter an immersive experience with language, one that uses print, sound, image, video, song, etc. In the mix, we find the fashioning of poetic knowledge alongside the fashioning of rhetorical knowledge. We might be able to call such fashioning the reproduction of ka-knowledge—the synthesis and (re)creation of new processes of knowing.2 We might be able to say that this is where the field of rhetoric and composition and creative writing can begin an alternative way of imagining “craft.”

Re-crafting Creativity

The scholarly and theoretical relationship between rhetoric and composition and creative writing has so far emphasized the value of narrative and poetics as they come to bear on ways to understand the “craft” of writing. Short stories and poetry have come to be regarded as sites in which students can examine the fashioning of meaning and organization in their writing. Wendy Bishop and Hans Ostrom’s Colors of a Different Horse, a collection of essays that asks not just what goes on in creative writing classrooms but also how we might be able to re-imagine that space at the end of the twentieth century, helped launch an interdisciplinary relationship with rhetoric and composition and creative writing and in so doing emphasized the print-based concerns of craft. Twelve years later, Peter Elbow’s 2006 CCC article, “The Music of Form: Rethinking Organization in Writing,” still recruited print-based craft-oriented concerns of temporality in writing. The direction these scholars take writing and the ways to imagine its “creativeness” do much for imagining the value of craft but shed little light on the electronic environments in which “creative” writing often takes place.

Tim Mayers’ 2005 book-length examination of the way craft has been recruited on both sides of the creative writing and rhetoric and composition divide of English departments, (Re)Writing Craft: Composition, Creative Writing, and the Future of English Studies, is also the first sustained examination of how to complicate notions of craft in productive ways—ways that would lead naturally to a closer (and more theoretically sound) relationship between creative writing and rhetoric and composition within English departments. In his book, Mayers defines what he refers to as “craft criticism:” “an engaged theorizing about creative production—theorizing that arises from and is responsive to the social, political, economic, and institutional contexts for creative writing” (46). By turning toward the ways in which academic creative writers have addressed “the craft” of writing fiction and poetry (mostly poetry), Mayers unpacks the range of theoretical concerns at stake in those discussions—ranging from Heidegarrian notions of concealment to relationships with language that go beyond mere representational models of language. In short, Mayers provides rhetoric and composition with its first theoretical model through which to imagine the framework that a synthesis of creative writing and rhetoric and composition provides.

As important as this achievement is (and I’m on the same page as Mayers), he still privileges the discursivity of creative writing. To be fair, Mayers’ argument is not concerned with the theoretical links between music and rhetoric and composition (however, music as it can be understood as a rhetorical model in antiquity might be another way of merging rhetoric and poetics, an act that would further reinforce Mayers’ argument that creative writing and rhetoric and composition should be linked), but it is concerned with composition and creativity—a great deal of which, as Rice points out, takes place in digital environments. Mayers’ argument contends that the future of English departments depends a great deal upon how well we balance methodologies of textual production with methodologies of textual interpretation, adding that tipping the scale back toward methodologies of production (because English departments tend to privilege methodologies of textual interpretation) will require rigorous theory that not only addresses craft criticism but also the genre-bending ways in which such criticism has taken shape. One important way this becomes valuable to rhetoric and composition is the degree that craft criticism provides a way for us to illuminate the kind of work done and knowledge produced in creative digital environments as well as the way it limits the possibilities of the work done and knowledge produced in such spaces.

That is to say the recruitment of the term “criticism” in Mayers’ terminology suggests a return to an understanding of “craft” that is print based. Although his urgency to use “craft criticism” as a method to theorize about methods of production is, I believe, a necessary move for our fields to make, it is also one that overlooks the ways that methods of production have been imagined across digital environments, an “electromagnetic canvas” across which creative writers very often write. While the pursuit of craft criticism as Mayers defines it is necessary, the pursuit of the way in which craft—which will not always be able to recruit the term “criticism”—works in digital environments is equally important.

Frozen Writing, Unthawed: Creative Writing and the Electromagnetic Imaginary

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the web has a strong and healthy population of not just on-line creative writing journals but also websites devoted to the various mutations electronic environments make possible. One of the best examples of this is the website for the literary magazine Flatmancrooked (www.flatmancrooked.com). On this site, the magazine (“magazine” is probably the wrong word, but for lack of a better one I will use it here) offers daily blog posts that demonstrate the kind of (re)mixing Rice discusses in his use of blogs in addition to access to its print version, videos juxtaposed with the print version, a “raudio” section in which podcasts on a variety of subjects can be found, as well as music, readings, and other “found” recordings that the editors feel are interesting. Flatmancrooked as a publishing house is also interested in the current state of publishing—the social, economic, and political influences on what gets printed as well as what becomes electronic—and among the various creative pieces readers/listeners can tune into (on the raudio section or as articles on the site) pieces discussing creative writing in its broader social, economic, and cultural context. In other words, in many ways, the site Flatmancrooked practices a (perhaps not always academic) form of craft criticism. On the “About” page of the site, the editors explain:

Flatmancrooked is dedicated to identifying, recording, and disseminating good stories. Flatmancrooked strives to promote the narrative form in all of its manifestations, be they fiction or nonfiction, written, spoken, or visual. As we progress, the projects and products we produce will be only of the utmost quality and craftsmanship, with focuses on content and design. If the year were 1973, for instance, we would probably be an independent book publisher. But, seeing as it’s 2009, we’re a multi-media production company.

Flatmancrooked has many tentacles: a website devoted to more than information dissemination (it works as an assemblage that links its various tentacles), a radio version, a print version, a visual art version—and all of these work in tandem to provide an immersive experience with not only language but the other media that we inevitably encounter in digital environments. Flatmancrooked is developing an environment in which ka-knowledge is regularly fashioned and refashioned—alongside craft criticism.

And here we can begin to see the value in growing both these ways of knowing alongside each other. While craft criticism exclusively recruits print-based terminology to reinstate a critical methodology, ka-knowledge and craft criticism frequently interact across the “electromagnetic canvas” on which flatmancrooked is written. This is creative writing that becomes creative not exclusively by virtue of the print-craft employed, but by virtue of the mutations of craft assembled. The “craftsmanship” that they refer to on their website is one equally devoted to print and electronic notions of that word. The result is an environment in which craft is re-crafted and discussed in self-reflective ways.

Mayers’ argument in (Re)Writing Craft is an important one. However, we cannot afford to forget about the dominance of print and criticism in our discussions of craft. As those special issues of Enculturation and Computers and Composition remind us, rhetoric thrives in electronic environments—as does creative writing. Expanding Mayers’ notion of craft to include electronic environments, I propose, while often requiring us to shed the “criticism,” can begin through extending the work those special issues have already done. In any digital writing situation that seeks to value the immersive possibilities attendant to writing in an environment in which sound, image, and language interact, we can begin to see what DJ Spooky means when he writes, “writing is music.” It is not only musical insofar as it recruits a musical vocabulary, or system of organization, or even, as Rice shows us, sound. It can be musical insofar as, in its digital environments, writing can sing as much as it can rationalize. It can flow as much as it calcifies. This interanimation can begin to take several forms, many of which are extensions of how Mayers imagines the work of situating the social, cultural, and institutional forces surrounding a piece of creative writing: creative writing assignments that ask students to experiment not only with cross-genre assignments, but with multiple modes; composition assignments that ask students to attend to the ways that “texts” like flatmancrooked’s website ask us to re-evaluate issues ranging from print-based rhetorics and digital rhetorics to our larger cultural shift toward networked ways of knowing. But perhaps most importantly, that interanimation is one that will continuously grow out of the ways craft and criticism, whether print or electronic or both, is imagined and challenged across both fields.


  • 1. Postcritical, as I am using the term here, comes from the work of Greg Ulmer. For more on the ways in which postcritical thought materializes in digital environments, see his book Internet Invention: From Literacy to Electracy.
  • 2. For more on music as a rhetorical trope, see Steven Katz’s book The Epistemic Music of Rhetoric: Toward the Temporal Dimension of Affect in Reader Response and Writing, Thomas Rickert’s article “Language’s Duality and the Rhetorical Problem of Music,” and Brian Vicker’s article “Figure of Rhetoric/Figures of Music.”