A review of Techne: Queer Meditations on Writing the Self by Jacqueline Rhodes and Jonathan Alexander, 2015. Computers and Composition Digital Press
Alexandra Hidalgo, Michigan State University
(Published November 22, 2016)
“[w]e face the simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying possibilities of proliferating subjectivities within proliferating discourses and contexts. The question becomes how to write such selves rather than why.”
Jacqueline Rhodes and Jonathan Alexander
Rhodes and Alexander’s Techne is an extraordinary piece of scholarship for various reasons that I enumerate here. Techne pushes the boundaries of Queer scholarship in our field by helping us experience Queerness as we engage with the text. The piece is rhizomatic in its build. The path through it is not traditional, and even if one chooses to go through the most traditional route—by pressing the forward arrows—it is still difficult to know where in the book one is located. There is a sense of mystery and disorientation that comes with this piece that mirrors the experience of being a Queer person finding their way through the world. The gorgeous video work also has a tinge of the enigmatic, asking to be seen a few times in order to understand its various meanings. As with the Queer experience, nothing is spelled out for us, but there is great richness and reward in making sense of how to inhabit the world that is this book.
The book opens new directions for memoir in our field. We have a long history of nuanced memoir work dealing with Otherness, such as Victor Villanueva’s Bootstraps and Keith Gilyard’s Voices of the Self. Techne adds something new to that trajectory by portraying two people’s experiences in the same work and gently inviting us to draw connections, to find differences and parallels. The piece also brings something new into book-length investigations of the self by blending video, family photographs, music composed by Alexander, and poetry by both authors in order to give us a more complex way of experiencing their personal journeys. By blending their theoretical and autobiographical writing with these different archival and artistic pieces, Rhodes and Alexander give us nuanced and embodied portraits of their lives.
Techne provides a deep exploration of what pathos can do in order to heighten the impact of a work. Rhodes’s discussion of being a sexual assault survivor and Alexander’s account of the way he and his gay uncle were politely ostracized by their family provides a lived-in understanding of the profound pain that life can bring. Their accounts, however, also dig into the insight and wisdom that can be gained from these difficult experiences. They show how having a rhetorical understanding of what it is to be human—and Queer—can turn these experiences into the very fabric of our ability to be empathetic and to create transcendent art and work.
The book manages to have a deep emotional impact without sacrificing any of its scholarly rigor. The theoretical framing invokes rhetoricians currently working in our field such as Brian Hawk and Jody Shipka, as well as French thinkers like Bruno Latour, Gilles Deleuze, and Félix Guattari. It blends together different modes of thought in order to create a layered theoretical framework for readers’ understanding of the arguments they are making through personal introspection and multimedia explorations of the self.
Rhodes and Alexander take big, daring risks with their book’s use of the digital. They resisted the push for a straightforward digital presentation. Instead they developed the piece as a journey into the unknown. One can either follow the right arrows, which means we’re going in order but we’re not sure how far we’ve gone, or one can click on links from the home page, which means we experience the work out of order. They explicitly discuss their choice of designing the work this way in order to invite different engagements with the piece. Much like Erin Anderson’s “The Olive Project” (Kairos, 2011), Techne asks us to question how we navigate online spaces by inhabiting the slightly unsettling, always fascinating universe they’ve created.
Techne’s video work is some of the best produced in our field. The use of black and white and grain is aesthetically powerful, as are the images they choose to represent: the closeup of an opening eye, a hand feeling a handful of earth, Alexander’s image superimposed over his uncle’s photo. Their work evokes the surrealists—Salvador Dalí, Luis Buñuel, Man Ray—but it has a warmth that their work lacks. They combine the fascination with creating strange images that keeps the surrealist movement in the public’s imagination with an exploration of feelings of love and alienation delivered through music and narration. The result is sophisticated and impactful and helps us understand some of the pathos and ideas they are trying to convey in ways that alphabetic writing could not.
The book’s visual design is excellent and fits the topic they are exploring. The four fonts they have chosen to use work well together, yet also push against each other, visually representing the Queer experience of Otherness. The images throughout the piece—such as a naked back with hands scratching it, various portraits of the authors, and typewritten poetry—create a visual space that has hints of punk art and the zine movement, which enhances the arguments they are making by placing their piece in that lineage.
The emotional impact of this book cannot be overstated. Many of us working in digital scholarship—myself included—argue that video, sound, and digital spaces invite embodied engagements that create an unparalleled vehicle for emotion. I would say that this book is one of the strongest proofs our field has produced that this is the case, and I believe it will inspire many scholars to use digital environments in order to explore the intersections between rhetoric and affect.
It is rare for our field—or any field for that matter—to produce work of this caliber with such pathos, intelligence, daring, and visual flare. We need more Technes in the world.