A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Maira Kalman and/as Choric Invention

Marc C. Santos, University of South Florida
Ella R. Browning, University of South Florida

(Published: December 8, 2014)


While our focus here is on developing a new theory of chorographic or choric invention, we wish to begin by introducing writer, multimodal artist, and contemporary philosopher Maira Kalman. Kalman, who is author of more than 20 books, began publishing in 1988 with a focus on children’s books. The tenets that categorize her work, which we explicate below, can act as a relay not only for further developing multimodal composition, but also for reprioritizing an affective sense of invention that emphasizes both the personal and the place. We examine two of her more recent works: her 2009 The Principles of Uncertainty and 2010 ...And the Pursuit of Happiness, the latter of which was also published in electronic form as a New York Times blog. Like all of Kalman’s works, these books are multimodal, combining text with both illustrations and photographs.

We place Kalman in conversation with contemporary rhetoric and composition scholarship working through Gregory Ulmer’s explication of choric invention, a notion of invention opposed to the static, topical heuristics that dominate rhetoric’s history (Ulmer Heuretics and Internet Invention; Rickert “Toward the Chora”; Hawk; Rice; Arroyo). Whereas topical forms of invention rely on fixed, generic heuristics, and predetermined analytical methods, choric forms prioritize the unpredictable, affective elements of personal experience across particular places and times as central to the inventive process.1 Our synthesis of the scholarship concerning choric invention identifies four primary principles: first, the consideration of space and place as agentive entities rather than as mere backdrop for human action; second, the juxtaposition of subjective experience against objective history; third, and quite similar to the second, a resistance to synthesis in favor of multiplicity; and fourth, and for our purposes here most important, its inability to be codified into a predetermined, stable, or teachable system. We believe both the creative process and products of multimodal artist Maira Kalman present compelling examples of choric invention, and our goal in what follows is to demonstrate how her work offers a possible methodology for working out conceptions of chora and choric invention.

Kalman’s creative process relies on three notions, which we explicate in more detail in later sections: first, the value of traversing a place or space in order to experience it; second, the benefits of doing so with what she calls “an empty brain,” or an open mind, a mind free of preconceptions; and third, the serendipitous nature of what could be discovered when one follows these first two principles. The work Kalman has created through this process emphasizes these same principles: it is deceptively simplistic; it has been called “quirky;” it is often vividly colorful; it juxtaposes personal experiences with objective history. Kalman’s work largely relies on personal observations of or musings on typically well-known places, people, events, and things. Often in her work, Kalman poses a series of questions that puncture commonplace notions and everyday habits that we take for granted or overlook. However, Kalman’s questioning is less an overt attempt to challenge authority or critique the commonplace than it is a process of coming to terms with the perplexities and paradoxes of a life filled with concepts as difficult to grasp as death, happiness, and sadness, and things as seemingly easy to understand as clothes, desserts, chairs, and politics, among other things. And often this is a rhetorical kind of questioning--not in the everyday sense of questions anticipating predetermined answers, but rather in a more dialogical sense of questions that intend to provoke an unpredictable response. Thus, we believe Kalman’s art offers fertile ground for pedagogical experimentation.

Consider, for example, her dwelling on the question of the meaning of life in Principles of Uncertainty:

Image 1

It can be tempting to reduce the “quirkiness” and simplicity of her illustrations and writing to her background as a children’s author. However, to do so would be to overlook the subtle complexity that close attention can reward. This image is a useful example of many of the tenets of Kalman’s work, and of how the idiosyncratic aesthetic style can subtly emphasize the rhetorically provocative and affective dimensions of her work. The text in the image above reads,

We could speak about the meaning of life vis-a-vis non-consequential/deontological theories, apodictic transformation schemata, the incoherence of exemplification, metaphysical realism, Cartesian interactive dualism, revised non-reductive dualism, postmodernist grammatology, and dicey dichotomies. But we would still be left with Nietzsche’s preposterous mustache, which instills great anguish and skepticism in the brain, which leads (as it did in his case) to utter madness. I suggest we go to Paris instead (p. 133).

The text begins in somewhat orderly rows before slipping haphazardly down Nietzsche’s shoulders and falling off the page. At the risk of overinterpretation, we might suggest that the text begins to wander, drift, or derivé. Kalman explains that it was Nietzsche’s mustache, rather than his writings, that has an intense emotional effect on her, on him, and, she generalized, probably on everybody else, too, leading us all to “utter madness.” “The meaning of life,” and with it an entire history of philosophical thought, is reduced to “Nietzsche’s preposterous mustache,” emphasized through the centrality of its placement and its visual exaggeration. For her, any overarching theory of happiness is as absurd as the moustache. Rather than focusing on all these abstract ways of considering the meaning of life, she reasons, why not go to Paris instead?

In Paris Kalman finds colorful coats, people struggling in the streets, and lots of rain - less an overt attempt to explore the meaning of life, and more of a focus on the commonplace aspects of living. In addition to its visual dynamics, we chose this image because it is a rare moment in which Kalman explicitly acknowledges the intellectual traditions and histories she is working against. She rejects overarching theories of happiness, or the meaning of life, in favor of travelling to Paris and traversing through the city. This suggests two major motifs of choric invention: its resistance to systemicity, and its interest in the unpredictable, dynamic and creative power of place. The Principles of Uncertainty exposes the tensions between life’s existential and material struggles and the great—even if seemingly trivial—happinesses it can hold. Just as Kalman is suspicious of these grand, universal, static theories of happiness, so the theorists we explore below are suspicious of grand, universal, static theories of invention. Happiness, or invention, isn’t found at the abstract level of an ideal, but in embodied, emplaced, material movement, in unpredictable adventures of body and mind.

Below, we situate Kalman’s art and methods alongside contemporary notions of choric invention, concluding by sharing an assignment developed around her work. First, we synthesize contemporary scholarship on choric invention, paying particular attention to how it resists methodology. How can we institute something that resists institution? How can we “rite” something that refuses to be written? As we highlight below, this becomes one unifying concern shared by the myriad theorists who wrangle with choric invention. In fact, we take this gambit one step further by attempting to synthesize writers who resist the logocentric desire for synthesis. We believe, however, that such synthesis, while it cannot (and, honestly, does not aspire to) promise clear rules for ensuring creativity, it does offer productive suggestions for both conceptualizing and practicing choric invention.

Synthesizing Theories of Choric Invention

In Heuretics (1994), Ulmer ties his interest in chorography to the advancement of new media, arguing that rhetoric will be called to invent new ways of navigating through the (over) abundance of content produced in the digital (what Ulmer terms “electrate”) age. In place of literacy’s interest in fostering synthesis, Ulmer’s electrate invention prioritizes receptivity and reflection. Thus, rather than claiming mastery over a text, idea, or conversation, a writer explores and acknowledges her own limitations. Ulmer ties this inventive method to Derrida’s explication of the term chora in Plato’s Timaeus. Ulmer notes that “one of the special contributions of Timaeus to Platonic philosophy was to add between being and becoming this third kind of nature, identified as ‘space’ or “receptacle” (Heuretics 63). While chora can be defined simply as “an area in which genesis takes place” (F.E. Peters qtd. Ulmer Heuretics 48), when conceptualized via Derrida as a third space it troubles the established metaphysical binaries of being (Ideal) and becoming (material). The chora lies outside manifestation, signification, or comprehension. Like Levinas’s concept of the Other, it represents that which escapes all attempts at mastery, and thus insists upon a vitalist, enigmatic non-space resistant to codification and control as critical to invention.

While the inventive machinery of literacy operated around fixed mechanisms, such as the topoi, or stasis theory, electracy seeks something more transient, responsive, and ultimately elusive. Ulmer stresses that the central challenge of his chorographic desire lies in devising a “discourse on method for that which [...] is the other of method" (Heuretics 66). Ulmer draws upon Derridean grammatology to offer his own post-structural anti-methodology; he writes: “Here is a principle of chorography: do not choose between the different meanings of key terms, but compose by using all the meanings” (48).2 Working from post-structuralist assumptions, Ulmer embraces the proliferation and juxtaposition of meanings because he wonders, “what would a writing be that produces understanding without representation?” (Heuretics 66). While literacy was concerned with static representation (in terms of a transfer of knowledge), electracy concerns itself with dynamic affectation. Ulmer’s (1994) CATTt (contrast, analogy, theory, target, tale) is less a concern over what things mean (logos), and more an interest in how they affect us (pathos). But Ulmer’s methods represent only one possible solution to the problem of chora, new media, affect, and invention.3

While the theorists below all follow at least one of Ulmer’s two critical influences—Derridean post-structuralism or Barthes’s investment in affect and the punctum—they also operate from a more contemporary, materialist framework. From this conflux of influences (Ulmer, Derrida, Barthes, and materialism), we generalize four guiding principles for choric invention. First, choric invention supposes that environs operate as active agents in the inventive process, rather than as a mere backdrop for human acting and thinking. In short, choric invention often stresses the importance of traversing places and spaces. Second, choric invention involves a juxtaposition of personal experience alongside objective, public representation. The third principle is intimately tied to the second and that is—following postmodern theory and ethics—a general resistance to the notion of synthesis in favor of multiplicity. The third principle also predicts the fourth: the resistance to synthesis and preference for multiplicity, combined with chora’s Derridean explication, translates into an opposition to systemicity. Choric invention is radically idiosyncratic; it seeks to invent a method of inventing unique to each specific rhetorical situation.

Taken collectively, the principles articulated above stand more as a set of guiding beliefs and/or attunements than a series of techniques amenable to any generic situation. With a wink to Heraclitus, one cannot step into the same rhetorical situation twice; choric invention urges us to treat every situation as a unique exigence, a unique opportunity to invent a new means of inventing by attending to the peculiarities of place and the conflux of histories it presents us. That said, while it cannot be reduced to a clear, articulable system, we do believe that further explicating these four principles helps to give shape to how to practice choric invention. That is our immediate task below, as we examine how Thomas Rickert, Colin Brooke, Sarah Arroyo, Byron Hawk, and Jeff Rice each respond to Ulmer’s call. Then, in the following section, we trace overlaps between these theoretical articulations of choric invention and Kalman’s ambulatory and serendipitous methods for composing.

Prioritizing Space

We draw our first proposed principle from Thomas Rickert’s emphasis on the distributed, material, and environmental dimensions of choric invention. Rickert writes: “as deployed in the work of Julia Kristeva, Jacques Derrida, and Gregory Ulmer, the chora transforms our senses of beginning, creation, and invention by placing them concretely within material environments, informational spaces, and affective (or bodily) registers” (“Toward the Chora” 252). By locating the origins of invention outside the isolated, individual mind, Rickert argues that invention benefits from considerations beyond the traditional abstract topoi. Rickert follows Ulmer by turning to Derrida’s essay “Principle of Reason: The University in the Eyes of its Pupils.” Of course, the playful puns in the title anticipate Ulmer’s post-structuralist inventive practice of simultaneously deploying as many meanings as possible. But Rickert is specifically interested in the way Derrida drew upon the unique topography of Cornell’s landscape, the precipice upon which it was built, as a spontaneous heuristic for thinking Heidegger’s lectures on Decartes’s principle of reason across the play of subjectivity (the student as an “I”) and the play of signification “endangering” hermeneutics: the differance through which I “eyes” a text; how meaning emerges via unsure, unpredictable, uncontrollable interactions between subjects (I’s) and objects (eyes). The metaphorical danger of the University built upon a cliff, a danger the University hesitates to mitigate with fences or rails (which would deter from the campus’ sublimity), becomes an inventive trope for (re)thinking the limitations we might want to place upon meaning, language, and thought. We will return to this desire in our discussion of the third principle and choric invention’s resistance to synthesis.

Byron Hawk offers a similar perspective of the agentive/inventive dimensions of space and materiality, with a focus on highlighting a pedagogic practice conducive to choric invention. In addition to the work of Ulmer, Hawk turns to the Heideggerian-inflected pedagogy of Paul Kameen, specifically his practice of the “read around” (229-234):

At the beginning of each class, everyone reads his or her paper. [...] After each presentation, there is no response or commentary, only silence, until it is broken by the next speaker. Class discussion follows these readings and focuses on selected texts from the syllabus. [...] Such localizing establishes a rhetorical situation for both the students’ and the teacher’s knowledge production: it provides a background from which the participants in a class can interpret the poetry and criticism and produce knowledges specific to them as well as to the class. (226)

Hawk argues that Kameen’s insistence on opening classes with students listening to each other transforms their perception of and relations within the classroom space. In terms of the first principle, that environs operate as active agents in the inventive process, this pedagogical practice is an attempt to attune us to the agentive dimensions of mood, atmosphere, and space; Kameen seeks to transform the classroom into a space more conducive to unpredictable emergence by encouraging listening. But this passage also anticipates the second principle of choric invention, and its interest in juxtaposing subjective experience against objective history.

Juxtaposing Subjective (Affective) Experience Alongside Objective History

In addition to reiterating Rickert’s emphasis on the importance and potentiality of material context, Hawk also places added emphasis on choric invention’s subjective dimensions. Hawk notes that Ulmer borrowed the term chorography from geography, in which the term marked an idiosyncratic mode of analysis that attempted to capture “particular connections between people and places” (Ulmer qtd. in Hawk 241). Obviously, our first principle speaks to places. Our second principle emphasizes the role of people, specifically, the particularities of the individual composer and her relation to the places she traverses. There is a connection between geographic chorography and the kinds of psychogeographic experiments conducted by Debord and the situationists in the 1960’s; that experimental attitude underwrites both Kalman’s process and the inventive pedagogy we aim to extract from it. Doing choric invention equates to what Jill K. Berry calls “personal geography,” an exploration of environs and experiences that aims as much at mapping external relations as it does at self-discovery (17). Here is another reason why choric invention resists systematization; its unfolding will be as distinct and idiosyncratic as the minds and bodies it passes through.

Beginning with Ulmer, a number of theorists recognize the power of juxtaposing personal experience and convictions against objective history and social norms as a fuel for invention. Ulmer describes the development of his mystory project in terms of an ideological awareness, recognition of the role various institutions and discursive networks (professional, familial, cultural, and historical) play in the formation of the subject. The mystory, Ulmer explains, is a transformation of history into herstory into mystery into mystory (Teletheory 82-89). Sarah J. Arroyo extends this chain, from history to herstory to mystery to mystory, via Vitanza’s suspicions toward negative dialectic to cover (logocentric) history’s fear of (feminine) “hystery.” That is, history exhibits a hysterical obsession with repressing its own violent and repressive reliance on synthesis.

Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, however, we want to pull back and explain how Ulmer’s interest in the mystory as a mode of ideological analysis operates according to a juxtaposition of personal experience and public historization. While there is an autobiographical dimension to Ulmer’s pedagogy that traces itself back to Socrates’ mantra that “the unexamined life is not worth living” (Internet Invention 8), a core component of Ulmer’s articulation of choric invention lies in recognizing fault lines between the underlying assumptions and subject positions offered by different institutional discourses. It is a mode of self-discovery meant to reveal the ways in which the subject is composed (rather than surrounded) by these discursive networks. To be surrounded would mean the subject precedes contact with these networks, that she is a coherent whole perhaps interrupted by the overflow of these networks. But, to recognize that the subject is constituted by these networks means both recognizing our debts to such networks and forgoing the fantasy of an original coherence.

Ulmer grounds this process in Barthes’s distinction between the studium and the punctum. The studium speaks to the objective representation or dictionary definition of an entity, object, or event. Barthes refers to the meaning of the studium as “acute”—it is narrow, focused. The studium representation is a synthetic reduction of multiple possibilities that filters out the idiosyncratic or personal in the effort to make a generalized representation. The punctum, on the other hand, is “obtuse.” It captures the wide personal experiences excised in the construction of the studium. Ulmer, via Barthes, frames the punctum as a kind of experience, a prick or sting:

[...] some detail of the photograph stings or pricks the viewer (the punctum), which is to say that in viewing certain images (but certainly not all images) I have an experience in my body, an emotional, pathic response, and it is at this point of the me that the discursive abstract information and my unique existence intersect. (63 emphasis original)

Ulmer’s mystory and MEmorial projects juxtapose personal experience against objective, cultural/historical representations. Santos et al. describe the mystory and the sting of the punctum as a kind of exploratory self-surgery, one that can trigger powerful emotions and conflicted responses. This is perhaps unsurprising given Ulmer’s interest in psychoanalysis in addition to post-structuralism. Ulmer’s interest in generating these powerful affective responses lies in their potential to (perhaps) push a student toward ethical or political change. As Rickert (“Toward the Chora”), Hawk, and Santos et al. stress, the advantage of Ulmer’s approach is that it resists the direct confrontation that can often undermine more traditional cultural studies approaches, such as the socio-epistemic rhetoric advocated by Berlin. One facet of Kalman’s compositional process that caught our attention was how it frames the “ah ha!” moment, the choric and kairotic inventive spark, as something other than strictly painful.

Resisting Synthesis

Inspired in part by Ulmer’s forays into electracy, Collin Brooke draws inspiration from Ulmer and Barthes’s opposition to traditional, authoritative heuristics. Rather than the distinction between the studium and the punctum, Brooke points to Barthes’s distinction between the hermeneutic and proairetic interpretive codes. The hermeneutic code pushes narratives toward synthesis, toward the resolution of a narrative’s central enigma, while the proairetic deals with choice, actions, and causality. Brooke notes that we are so dominated by the hermeneutic that any and every proairetic action comes to be interpreted by its relation to the enigma (the plot): “Actions or events that fail to move the reader toward the resolution of the hermeneutic enigma are quite literally extravagant: they are off-track and may even be resented as wasteful or distracting” (76).

Brooke then imagines, via Barthes, a kind of invention that celebrated proairetics, understood as action, reaction, and relation, free from the domination of hermeneutic expectation (77). What results is a kind of composition that focuses on the transformations between subjects engaging with objects, rather than an unfolding of a central narrative. In other words, Brooke advocates for a digital invention that places emphasis on process rather than finished product (81). This attention to process, which Brooke identifies as ecological, as an unfolding of action, relationship, change, and encounter recalls Rickert and Hawk’s prioritizing of the environmental and material and marks a core component of choric invention.

Working from Ulmer, Brooke, and Rickert’s articulations of chorography, Arroyo stresses how Barthes trained himself to attune to the stings of the punctum in order to resist the urge to perform studium, the pull toward hermeneutic synthesis, to dismiss the irrational as irrelevant. Arroyo reads Barthes and Ulmer across Victor Vitanza’s (1997) suspicions toward negative dialectic. Vitanza, working from Burke’s paradox of substance, challenges the logocentric tendency to purchase identity by eliminating difference. For Vitanza, the way we treat words translates into the way we treat people. For Arroyo, chorography offers us a mode of invention that forestalls the desire for synthesis and closure.

Anticipating reductive dismissals of chorography as either navel-gazing or obsessive obfuscation (O’Gorman qtd. Arroyo 58), Arroyo reads these complaints as manifestations of the will-to-master that Vitanza identifies at the core of the Western philosophical tradition (67). Arroyo connects chorography to Deleuze and Guattari’s distinction “between chronos and kairos: the former is quantitative, whereas the latter is qualitative and thus subversive to control and dominance” (67).4 While we might question the presupposition that qualitative temporality is inherently resistant to domination—and the converse, that quantitative temporality is inherently caught up in the desire to control—we agree that at the very least choric invention works to resist explicit explication, quantification, or manifestation. This brings us back to Ulmer’s Derridean explication of the term; in Platonic metaphysics it marked the boundary of being, an attunement to the enigmatic processes by which being comes to be. Also arguing from a Derridean and Barthean frame, Vitanza targets the logocentric drive to rationalize, objectify, and “purify” reality of cognitive dissonance or subjective impression. Choric invention, for Arroyo, becomes an attention to those “irrational” facets that get excluded and purged in the drive toward objective representation (Arroyo 51-54).

Resisting Codification

One of the vexing questions raised by Rickert, Ulmer, Derrida, Arroyo, Hawk, and Brooke is the extent to which—if at all—this form of inventive, rhetorical attunement can be taught. We feel this might be the largest hurdle facing proponents of choric invention: how, in an era of increased standardization and prefabricated curriculum, do we advocate for the third space, for an elusive ideal that escapes clear, consistent, articulable practice?

Hawk helps to supply an answer for this question by clarifying that adopting a choric approach to invention does not mean utterly rejecting heuristics. It does, however, mean recognizing that every heuristic is only a work in progress, requiring unpredictable and idiosyncratic revision based on the contingencies of a particular rhetorical situation. Similarly, Arroyo poetically reminds us that the lack of a strict system does not denote the lack of systemicity: “losing oneself in the fog is not aimless drifting” (68). Santos and Leahy describe the challenge in terms of designing spaces, assignments, and problems that provide students the opportunity to discover multiple solutions. Such experimental pedagogy can frustrate students; as Jody Shipka notes, it can be a painful experience. But, Shipka insists, and we agree, such disequilibrium is part of a productive inventive process. Under choric invention, the art of teaching involves carefully riding the cusp between painfully productive and hopelessly lost, providing students with a sense of direction without insisting upon the only direction they should follow.

Despite the depth and obtuseness of choric invention’s theoretical foundations, and the vexing questions surrounding its pedagogic feasibility, it is not necessarily difficult to put into practice. It does, however, require that one suspend the desire for a clear reliable and repeatable methodology.5 Jeff Rice’s work stands as perhaps the best extended example of what choric invention looks like in practice. Rice echoes Ulmer’s (Internet Invention) ambitions for the MEmorial project from Electronic Monuments: to juxtapose subjective, personal experience against objective, public representation not to “critique” that representation as much as to compliment or complicate it, to address what, in the course of generating and sustaining that representation, gets written out.6 Like Ulmer, Rickert, Hawk, Brooke, and Arroyo, Rice frames choric invention in terms of escaping the confines of generic, objective representation.

Rice’s ingenuity involves thinking of analogue, material places in the language of digital computing and digital computing via the logics of analogue materiality. He wrote:

To call Detroit a network is to call it an account, not a fixed representation of space. [...] Situations are not permanent fixtures. To think of Detroit as a situation and not only as a physical space is to engage in a project about invention, rhetoric, and how we engage with spaces of meaning. It is to think about relationships. To pose the city as a series of relationships is not, as a cultural critique might require, to identify its economic, gendered, or racial histories and the consequences of such histories. To pose the city as a series of relationships is not to perform a genealogy either. Rather, it is to extend such familiar, critical gestures to other kinds of relationships as well so that “the stale assemblage” yields to the “circulating entity.” (6-7)

So, it is not a matter of getting to the singular truth of the city. For Rice, Detroit’s generic representation (its studium, to recall Barthes’s language) has been overdetermined by issues of poverty, crime, and racial discord. And, while he in no way wants to suggest that these are not real issues affecting Detroit, he equally wants to assert that Detroit cannot solely be understood across those problems. While Arroyo’s oppositions are largely ethical, Rice’s are equally pragmatic: the dominance of the studium narrative often prevents us from imagining, inventing, or pursuing other alternatives to our problems. His methodology involves traversing spaces, popular representations, artistic images, and peculiar moments to juxtapose details and histories that problematized any singular representation of Detroit. Assembling these various threads together creates not only new representations of Detroit, but also new possibilities for inventing and enacting solutions to its “generic” problems (37, 225).

As we explicate below, Kalman frames her methodology in terms of a serendipitous walking and an emptying of her brain. We believe this methodology echoes Rice’s and can be seen as an attempt to suspend the dominant, generic, expectations that overdetermine experience in order to see what we haven’t been seeing. Rice opens Digital Detroit recalling the impact de Certeau’s essay “Walking in the City” had on him: “de Certeau’s essay, a rejection of the ‘totalizing’ experience many of us make when we imagine space, is a call for the details, the banal, the mundane interactions that can reinvigorate a spatialized experience—whether of the page, the city, the street, the concept, or some other moment” (1). In our introduction, we suggested that Kalman shares a similar interest in mundane materiality and its extraordinary significance on our perceptions, feelings, and actions. Our next section further demonstrates how Kalman uses details and everyday interactions to transfer her experiences of a place. While Rice draws upon Ulmer’s explication of Barthes, he attunes to affective sensation otherwise than as Barthes’s painful sting. In his earlier work, he talks about this inventive spark in terms of “cool.” For Rice, invention can emanate from any number of “nodes” in Detroit’s “networks:” an appearance by Bob Dylan, the history of Woodward Avenue, the shadow of a forgotten high school. Not all of these carry the painful prick that Barthes, Ulmer, and others associate with the punctum. This, we argue, is a major dimension of Kalman’s particular contribution to choric invention: Kalman isn’t necessarily interested in understanding or static representation, as much as a rhetorically provocative affectability. She is not always interested in telling you what to think, as much as she works to shape the way you feel.

Explicating Kalman’s Aesthetic

In her 2012 talk “Art and the Power of Not Knowing,” Kalman reveals that there is a deliberate process driving her interest in the seemingly mundane. She emphasizes the importance of learning to traverse places alone, without agenda, with “an empty brain.” To approach an experience or environment with an empty brain means to suspend the Ideal/meta/grand narrative that might lead to overdetermination or reductive synthesis. Kalman repeatedly links her creative process to specific locales and idiosyncratic experiences, urging would be artists “to be aware of the moment.” She stresses “whatever you tackle can be tackled from a personal point of view and can have serendipity.” We believe this emphasis on subjective experience, the power of place, and the significance of serendipity mark her inventive approach as choric. In this section, we look to highlight resonances between her methods and the principles of choric invention explicated above. We begin by briefly reviewing her reflections on her own methodology before sharing and examining a representative example of her work.

In Kalman’s interview, titled “Thinking and Feeling,” with THNKR, the web series produced by @radical.media, she reiterates the importance of “allowing her brain to empty.” This resonates both with the first principle of choric invention and with Rice’s particular interest in network historiography. For Kalman, the key practice for this emptying is walking. She explains:

Walking enables your senses to really pick up lots of things. You can feel your body going through space. I’m sure there is some kind of explanation for it in physics and biochemistry or something like that. But walking clears your brain and fills your soul and makes you quite happy.

Rickert (2013) identifies the “something like that” as neuroscience, connecting choric invention to much of the recent research on ambience and brain activity. Of course, walking here isn’t simply walking--it is walking with a purposeful purposelessness, akin to the surrealist practice of the derivé (Debord). “Walking” isn’t even necessarily ambulatory, though it is experiential--it is trying to achieve a state of attunement that looks past ordinary associations and expectations, much like Rice’s network historiography. And like the first principle of choric invention, the insistence upon prioritizing the agentive dimensions of space and ambience, Kalman’s process and her work emphasize the importance of traversing space or place and actually experiencing it rather than simply observing it. That is: in traversing a space there is the possibility of unpredictable and un-recreatable experiences which can stimulate the inventive process (if we let them). Eat cake. Talk to strangers. Smell the flowers.

Key to Kalman’s strategic walking is the ability to attune oneself to the serendipitous:

A lot of my work is waiting for the unexpected and to be surprised, to be walking down the street and to not know what I’m going to see and go “Oh! Ah ha! Of course, that’s what I was going to see today!”

Though she doesn’t mention Derrida or Barthes, Kalman’s sense of surprise requires that she suspend expectations. For Kalman, the “Ah ha!” moment is when something “makes your heart go “ah, that’s really fantastic!” The “Ah ha!” moment is a critical component of Gregory Ulmer’s pedagogy--a moment of unexpected (self) discovery. Before becoming too prescriptive, however, we should return to our fourth principle of choric invention: that it resists codification. In short, as Rickert (“Toward the Chora”) emphasizes, surprise cannot be guaranteed. For Kalman, the experiences generated by this traversing of place are serendipitous. They cannot and should not be planned. Therefore, one cannot generate a prescriptive method for choric invention that insures results, at least not one any more prescriptive than the one we encourage below: go someplace and do things. We believe that one can encourage particular practices that increase the probability of a eureka! or ah ha! moment. And what is rhetoric if not an embracing of the probable?

But we do want to stress Kalman’s potential contribution to our understanding the role a “eureka!” moment can play in invention. What for Ulmer and others is akin to a potentially painful sting is for Kalman a moment of affective delight, and a core component of her choric inventive process. This is perhaps Kalman’s most significant contribution to a choric theory of invention: to demonstrate how the bodily, affective encounters rupturing commonplace expectations and conceptions need not necessarily be born from pain or loss. Rather, one can be pricked by delight.

Kalman’s emphasis on emptying her brain resonates with the second and third principles of choric invention—principles that ask us to consider the uniqueness of our own experiences, to actively attempt to forget our prejudices and preconceptions of a particular person, place, or event, and to resist the desire to synthesize complexity into something more simple and digestible. Additionally, in our introduction, we already touched upon Kalman’s resistance to synthesis, for instance, her opposition to overarching theories of happiness and the meaning of life. This resonates with Brooke’s and Barthes’s suspicions toward the dominance of the hermeneutic code. In fact, we read her ambulatory, serendipitous, empty-brained methods as an attempt to embrace the proairetic.

We have attempted here to map Kalman’s inventive process onto the four choric principles we explicated in the previous section: prioritizing space; juxtaposing subjective (affective) experience alongside objective history; resisting synthesis; and resisting codification. However, we believe the best way to convey the unique sensibilities of Kalman’s work and the ways her strategies reflect choric invention is through an extended example, and so we offer below an excerpt from ...And the Pursuit of Happiness (2010)’s chapter subtitled “April: May it Please the Court.” These images have been taken in sequence from the online publication of the work by the New York Times.7

We recreate the chapter here without interruption or explication in order to provide unfamiliar readers with an extended sense of Kalman’s work. In the following series, Kalman recounts a visit to the US Supreme Court and explores how the court both matched and defied her expectations. We ask that readers pay particular attention to a number of things in reading the following images. First, Kalman’s use of color. The contrast of color becomes important throughout this series of pages, as Kalman juxtaposes the cold proficiency of the laws (the inherent desire for black and white, right and wrong) against the raging, desiring, “full color” world in which we live. Second, the juxtaposition of objective people, places, and events, against Kalman’s often playful, subjective experience of them. Her encounter with Ruth Bader Ginsberg, for example, doesn’t include a Wikipedia-like description of her accomplishments, nor does it touch upon questions of law. Rather, it concerns cake, clothes, and childhood photos. And third, the way serendipitous encounters in these places and spaces lead to unexpected moments of affective delight, or painful stinging: Kalman’s eureka! moment or Ulmer’s and Barthes’ punctum: for instance, the juxtaposition of the women in the pink coat upon her arrival against the schnooks with the sign that stop her in her tracks as she leaves.

Figures 2–9.

Kalman raises a number of dialogical questions that intend to provoke an unpredictable response. Some of these questions are explicitly asked in the text, including, “How do people handle that? I wonder,” in response to the court clerk’s statement, “In the court, your adversary is not your enemy.” Kalman openly wonders how people can practice such intense agonism without sliding into antagonism—a question subtly answered through her use of details: the dapper suits, the decadent cakes, the banal fried chicken. All serve as reminders that it is people who adjudicate the law, people who wear clothes, eat food, and, sometimes, come face to face with schnooks.

Those schnooks demonstrate an example in which Kalman’s question is more implicit, though we would argue still rhetorically dialogic. “Well, I think everyone has a right to be heard,” Kalman wrote, “But then I think, what a bunch of schnooks. So much for believing everyone should have his day in court.” Kalman asks readers to consider who, exactly, has a right to be heard. Should everyone really have his or her day in court? Even schnooks? Here is an example of how Kalman’s work resists telling you what to think in favor of provoking you with an open-ended, explicitly unanswered question. We say explicitly because we think her use of color suggests that black and white law is an impossible desire in such a colorful world—a world colored with real people, good and bad. And the power of Ginsberg and her peers lies in knowing how to listen to people you might, at least on the surface, despise.

As Kalman asks these questions, she allows a multiplicity of positions to co-exist. At one moment she is a believer in everyone having a right to be heard; a moment later, she is not sure if she agrees with this belief. Kalman welcomes the messiness of unanswered questions, even, and especially, when those questions betray her own shifting subjectivity. Here we would recall Arroyo’s use of chorography as a mode of invention, which resists synthesis and avoids closure, as an intensification of Ulmer’s post-structuralist interest in composing through multiple meanings. Kalman isn’t necessary interested in offering a synthesis of these positions, offering one answer, but rather in letting them linger, in holding open the question.

In its entirety, we believe this selection from ...And Pursuit of Happiness echoes Rice’s framing of invention as an attunement to overlapping networks—complicating and complimenting each other—that compose our understanding(s) of an object, event, or idea (in this case, the Supreme Court and our desire for law). The final image in this series is actually a photograph—a rarity in Kalman’s work, which so relies on her visual, artistic interpretation of what she has seen. In this case, however, she provides readers with a photograph of something her mind, and her art, cannot quite digest. The radical change in aesthetic—from her quirky hand-drawn art and eclectic mix of cursive and handwritten script to the photograph with its strong black and white block lettering is clearly no accident. The people on the steps and their questions are what interrupts her narrative, her subjective experience of the Supreme Court and our judicial system, and so interrupts the flow of her aesthetic style. They are not wearing a “shocking pink coat,” though they do shock her a little bit.

In this series of images from ...And Pursuit of Happiness, we see representations of our four principles of choric invention: a prioritizing of space / place; a juxtaposition of subjective (affective) experience alongside objective history; a resistance to synthesis; and finally, a resistance to codification. As we have said, in line with this fourth principle, we cannot generate a prescriptive method for choric invention that guarantees specific results. However, Kalman’s processes and her work provide suggested practices that increase the possibility of moving through a particular space and experiencing an “ah ha!” or punctum moment, whether it is one of affective delight or a painful sting. This series of images, then, serves as an exemplary model for choric invention, and for all of its theoretical complexity, and all of its challenges to traditional notions of teaching, we believe choric invention lends itself to practice, particularly through the use of Kalman’s suggested principles.

“Making a Kalman”

In what follows, we analyze three different student-created “Kalman projects.” For all of its theoretical complexity, and all of its challenges to traditional notions of teaching, we believe choric invention lends itself to practice. Given the extent to which choric invention emphasizes an attunement to the moment and a sensitivity to serendipity, we believe it begins by asking students to go somewhere and look around. Or, in Kalman’s language, to walk around. But just as with Kalman, we are asking them to do more than walking. We are asking them to engage in a careful attunement to their environs, and to engage in the kind of research that marks Rice’s engagement with Detroit.

Just because it is a simple practice to enact, does not mean it is an easy one to administer or assess. Difficulties inevitably emerge from students who are expecting a more traditional, topical, approach to invention. Santos has experienced student expectations as an ethical dilemma: to what do we owe students, whose performance in a class is often contingent upon a grade, a clear explanation of process or expectation? As indicated in the above discussion of Shipka and Hawk, this dilemma involves walking a line between productively confused and hopelessly lost. Santos attempts to teach choric invention in an ethical, productive manner by using Kalman’s work as a “relay” (Ulmer Internet Invention) for generating their own “recipes” to follow.8 We approach this difficulty via some advice from the poet Robert Pinsky, who advised young writers to learn to read like a good chef eats. This piece of wisdom forms a founding principal for our enactment of choric invention. We begin to move students toward this sense of invention by providing them with a copy of Kalman’s ...And the Pursuit of Happiness. To which we attach a “simple, ” though not easy (Shipka) assignment: to extract from Kalman’s text a recipe for invention.9

In the many times that Santos has assigned this project, across graduate and undergraduate classes, he has been surprised how many students, even after articulating the importance of place in Kalman’s work via their recipes, end up producing a project that focuses on their history by falling back into personal narrative; however, part of advocating for a choric approach to invention is to endorse a pedagogic model less interested in whether students “got it right” and more interested in what students invented.

Below we analyze three different Kalman projects. These are meant to suggest the range of possibilities opened by allowing students to extract their own method from Kalman’s work. Two, by Sarah Beth and Kristen were composed by members of a fall 2012 graduate seminar in New Media Production at the University of South Florida. Anela was an undergraduate in a fall 2011 course on New Media and Technical Communication at the University of South Florida. In the following analyses we explore the ways that we see principles of choric invention at work in these student projects.


Kristen’s Video

Kristen’s project starts with a piece of art by Dale Chihuly. We are immediately reminded of the whimsical way with which Kalman approaches her subject matter when we read handwritten text in the subsequent scene. “The artist who made this is Dale Chihuly,” the text reads, “This is what he looks like. (He has great hair.).” We then see a photograph of Dale Chihuly, with his signature wild hair and eye-patch, standing in front of swirling pieces of his own art in bold reds, turquoises, and yellows. During most of this video, a lone violin plays in the background. We do not hear Kristen’s voice, but, very much like Kalman, we see her narration written as text in some scenes, guiding us along. Throughout the video, Kristen shows us images of Chihuly’s art, zooms in and out to show us how the light reflects on the multi-colored glass pieces, and her narration tells us about the people she encounters in the museum: a man who wants to show her all the pictures he’s taken, a woman in a wheelchair. She provides commentary and insights into what she sees, drawing out idiosyncratic observations like we see in Kalman—for example, her aside that Dale Chihuly has great hair. In short, Kristen has most accurately captured the dimensions of Kalman’s aesthetic.

About three-quarters through the video, the song the violin has been playing ends. We hear silence, but we continue to see video of pieces of Chihuly’s art alternating with Kristen’s written narration. Then a voice starts speaking, and it is Sylvia Plath reciting her 1960 poem, “Candles.” The sudden sound of Plath’s voice, sharp and precise in its pronunciation, is startling after the silence. At this point Kristen moves outside the museum and shows us images of the city of St. Petersburg and we see connections between the themes in Chihuly’s work and the place in which this experience is played out (glass, water, plastic) as we listen to Plath recite her poem. There is a juxtaposition between the beauty of Chihuly’s glass and darkness of Plath’s persona.

Kristen’s work represents both Kalman’s joyous “ah ha!” and Barthes’s painful sting. In her case the sting is caught up in fragility. She explains, Chihuly “works with glass because it is fragile. He says that people collect glass because it is fragile. Because the danger of fragility is so intriguing. Because our fragility is so intriguing.” This insight highlights the dual nature of Kristen’s project. For Kristen, fragility does not just apply to the glass pieces in the museum, but also to the people, and she is interested in the ways these two notions of fragility overlap and intersect. Kristen’s visit to the Chihuly Museum can be broken down into a series of moments—joyous or painful—that are connected to the larger project she is pursuing, exploring representations of fragility, femininity, and embodiment in various environments. Kristen describes seeing the fragility of a woman visiting the museum: “In the gift shop, a woman sits in a wheelchair. She wants information. Her wig falls off and she is embarrassed. It doesn’t look like a wig until it falls,” she writes to us. The experience of seeing this woman in a moment of vulnerability is juxtaposed against the fragility Chihuly’s art, displayed publicly, for all to see but not to touch, and we are reminded of the ways that Kalman, too, overlaps multiple environments and rhetorical situations, inhabiting many subjectivities at once.

Near the end of her video, Kristen tells us: “You cannot tell what you see because you see so much at once. There is no focal point. Nothing on which to rest your eyes.” Kristen’s project transforms what is displayed for public consumption, art in a museum, into a very personal experience filled with her own observations, acknowledgements, curiosity, and empathy. Her finding theoretical resonances in the fragility and multiplicity of the glass stresses the personal dimensions theorists ascribe to choric invention. This is a key tenet of this kind of composition, and one that lends itself to a celebration of subjective experience and the potential for serendipity in even the most controlled environments.


Anela’s PowerPoint available here.

Anela begins her project by writing to us, “Any worthwhile trip begins with a desired destination.” But, she says, “On this particular day...I had no idea where I was heading.” Like Kristen, Anela utilizes written text to guide us through her project. Whereas Kristen used video clips, Anela supplements her text with still images of her experience.10 Anela describes traveling to Sunrise Farms Stables. Although Anela tells us that she does not travel to this place alone, she does not know where she is going when she sets out on her journey. Because of this she approaches the place with, as Kalman would say, an “empty brain,” and without agenda.

Upon arriving at the farm, Anela experiences a moment of affective delight when she realizes she will get to spend the day with these animals. This delight, however, quickly turns to concern. Anela notices that the horses at the farm are far too thin, and she is worried that they are not being fed properly. Anela learns that many of these horses came from farms where they were deemed not fit for racing, and because of this, they were being slowly and deliberately starved to death. Sunrise Farms, an organization that rescues neglected animals and educates the public about animal cruelty, rescued them. Anela’s initial Kalman-like delight upon arriving at the farm takes on the addition of Ulmer and Barthes’ punctum; she is happy the horses are being cared for, but also disturbed by what she now knows about their previous homes. With this new knowledge, the painful sting of the truth about these animals and the delight Anela felt when she first arrived at the farm become inseparable.

This complicated feeling sheds light on the principles of choric invention we see demonstrated in and by Anela’s project. First, in Anela’s project, Sunrise Farms Stables is more than just a backdrop. Sunrise Farms Stables is an active agent with its own exigence; it invites Anela to respond to what she sees and experiences in that place, rather than acting passively as her project’s background. The place raises questions in her (rather than she asking questions about the place). Second, we see Anela’s personal experiences juxtaposed against two more public narratives: Sunrise Farms Stables and their mission; and the topic of animal rights, highlighted by Anela’s references to Tom Regan’s The Case for Animal Rights. Anela uses both the farm’s mission and Regan’s argument for animals rights to shape the rest of her visit, framed by overlapping of pictures of the animals she sees with her thoughts on animal cruelty.

Third, choric invention resisting synthesizing the multi-layered, and at times contradictory, subject positions we inhabit in different environments. In Anela’s project, we watch as she explores Regan’s argument and attempts to take a stance in line with his. She wonders if riding horses is akin to “using them as a resource,” a key tenet in Regan’s argument against how most animals are treated today. She concludes that Regan would approve of riding horses. In clarifying what Regan means, Anela goes on to explain, “Using the animals includes using them as a means for commercial agriculture. Or for the sport of hunting. And finally, for scientific purposes. None of which I agree to or take action in.” While Anela may not be consciously aware of agreeing to or taking part in any of these uses of animals, she may be doing so without realizing it in the food she consumes and in the products she uses. Although she critiques these subject positions, she may in fact be simultaneously inhabiting contradictory subject positions herself. The point of Ulmer’s MEmorial project isn’t necessarily to solve problems, but rather to expose them.

Anela tells us that visiting the animals at Sunrise Farms Stables “gives me hope that there are still good people in the world.” This echoes Kalman’s tendency to ground profound philosophical observations in everyday life experiences. Anela, too, ultimately finds hope, idealism, joy, and a bit of insight into the best features of humanity in a place that exists to combat some of the worst.

Sarah Beth


Sarah Beth’s Video

Sarah Beth’s Kalman project is particularly striking. The video begins with a traditional Vietnamese story of the origins of the world told quietly, almost sung, in the background. Over this softer voice, the audience hears the story told in English, spoken by Sarah Beth. These two voices, a telling of the same story in two different languages, is juxtaposed against a number of images of the natural beauty of Vietnam and the Vietnamese countryside ravaged by the Vietnam War. We hear Sarah Beth’s voice continue, explaining that her stepfather was stationed in Vietnam in 1968 and she chose to visit the country herself in 2010. The various histories of Vietnam woven together—public and personal—become an agent producing in her the conflict, the punctum sting, that the project seeks to, if not rectify, at least expose.

Videos of planes spraying chemicals on vast jungles and images of Vietnamese children suffering the severe physical effects of Agent Orange are juxtaposed against Sarah Beth’s voice describing the many bureaucratic decisions and justifications that supported the use of these powerful chemicals during the Vietnam war. We hear Sarah Beth describing her childhood fascination with the lumps on her stepfather’s back, and explaining the health problems her siblings have experienced since birth, juxtaposed against images, again, of Vietnam. She shows us several versions of herself—the naïve self who discovers the lumps on her stepfather’s back; the explorative self that returns to visit Vietnam decades after her stepfather was stationed there; the wizened self that knowingly dismisses a Vietnamese girl trying to sell her a souvenir in a shop, acknowledging that her family “has many souvenirs already.”

Kalman emphasizes the importance of learning to traverse places alone, without agenda, with “an empty brain.” The subjective experience, the power of place, and the significance of serendipity that we see in Kalman’s choric compositional approach are also at work in Sarah Beth’s; her project, too, emphasizes the importance of learning to traverse places alone, even if she is unable to empty her brain. In fact, she invents something powerful with what remains stuck there. She goes to Vietnam to experience the place that has had such an impact on her family. From a choric perspective, this begs the question of whether she could have produced this work without visiting Vietnam. We would argue that she could not.

Sarah Beth’s project demonstrates that one does not necessarily need to follow Kalman’s lead of finding a delightful “ah ha!” moment in order to create a powerful narrative. Ulmer asks, how do things sting us? Sarah Beth’s project answers that question in more ways than one, and leaves her audience thinking about her story, her stepfather’s story, and the story of Vietnam long after the video ends. “Horace tells us,” Sarah Beth explains in the project’s last scene, “‘Mutato nomine, de te fabula narratur.’ Change only the name, and this story is also about you.”


While Kristen’s project remains close to Kalman’s style, Anela’s and Sarah Beth’s each, in different ways, moves toward something entirely different. Our discussion of these projects has concentrated on the first three principles of choric invention: the agentive and affective dimensions of space and context, the tension between subjective experience and objective representation, and the resistance to synthesis. We have largely overlooked the fourth—its resistance to systemicity. We hope that the idiosyncratic nature of the projects themselves testify to this fourth principle—that each product is the result of a different choric process. Drawing upon Derrida, Ulmer (Heuretics) stresses that “there are not deconstructive objects [...] but only deconstructive processes.” We believe the projects shared here, as well as Kalman’s work, testify to the power of an inventive process that begins by walking with an empty brain.

Notes 1 In our discussion of Ulmer below, we address the discrepancy between how chora defies systemicity yet is capable of having a resemblance of an approach. In short, one can develop a fluid sense of process that neither 1) solidifies into a fixed order of operation or 2) guarantees any kind of particular product. For a similar discussion, see Santos and Leahy’s discussion of postpedagogy and the role of teachers as architects of kitchens rather than as master chefs.

2 As more robust solutions to his own problem, Ulmer later developed the mystory (Internet Invention) and the MEmorial (Electronic Monuments), two processes that seek to juxtapose personal experience against objective, cultural/historical representations and to explore how an individual can inhabit, or be inhabited by, competing value systems. For more on the mystory, see Santos et al.

3 It should be noted that Ulmer worked primarily with avant garde male artists. In addition to acting as an example of the possibilities of choric invention, Kalman also adds a much-needed female perspective. While this is beyond the scope of this current article, we believe this is worth exploring further in future projects.

4 It should be noted that Deleuze and Guattari use the term aeon and not the term kairos. However, we agree with Arroyo’s amendment and are left wondering why Deleuze and Guattari did not use the term themselves.

5 To clarify: choric invention’s pedagogical obtuseness lies in its opposition to uniform course preparation. It actually resonates with the notion of “post” (after) pedagogy articulated by Paul Lynch—the idea that pedagogy is a reflexive reconsideration of student needs and goals that takes place after, and not before, a class.

6 See Ulmer’s discussion of até (blindness) in terms of Barthes’s abject, Internet Invention 42-43.

7 Note that the digitized version of the images here alter the arrangement and composition of the original print publication. What was originally black-on-white pages have been rendered white-on-black and, in some cases, elements that were combined on one page have been separated into different images.

8 Of course, as with any multimedia project, there are questions of assessment, a thorough discussion of which falls outside the scope of this essay. Ball’s discussion of criteria used in her classes and as editor-in-chief of kairos moves us in the right direction. Ball advocates that for projects of this nature, rubrics should be developed “fresh, with students, for each kind of project you assign.” Such rubrics can sketch out horizons for the projects even if they cannot quantify all the criteria. While these kinds of collaboratively developed rubrics will differ for each project and with each group of students, rubrics from past version of projects can be used as heuristics to help each new class work through developing their own projects and assessment criteria.

9 We might, playfully, suggest that we are offering an object-oriented alternative to the kind of topical, generative heuristic developed by Porter and modified by Adsantantham, Garrett, and Matzke. Not to suggest that their methods are not productive—but they start with a rhetor’s intended objective (to communicate idea X to audience Y using Z tools). Our project, on the other hand, roots itself in the “imitation” (but really, in the deconstruction and reimagination) of a particular object, in this case, Kalman’s multimodal work. The audience for such a project is often “myselves.” Thinking of delivery becomes, perhaps, even counter productive—especially if one is spending considerable effort in an attempt to “empty” one’s brain.

10 In Santos’s undergraduate class, the Kalman project serves as an introduction to rethinking the possibilities of PowerPoint, while in the graduate class it serves as more of a capstone project incorporating a number of theories and technologies explored throughout the semester, including Ulmer’s mystory or MEmorial genre and web video. In short, the Kalman project can be used at either the beginning or ending of a semester’s long course on new media.

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