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Computers and Composition 30 (2013) 146–155

Reclaiming Experience: the Aesthetic and Multimodal Composition
Aimée Knight ∗
Saint Joseph’s University, Communication Studies Department, 5600 City Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19131, United States

Abstract Recent scholarship points to the rhetorical role of the aesthetic in multimodal composition and new media contexts. In this article, I examine the aesthetic as a rhetorical concept in writing studies and imagine the ways in which this concept can be useful to teachers of multimodal composition. My treatment of the concept begins with a return to the ancient Greek aisthetikos (relating to perception by the senses) in order to discuss the aesthetic as a meaningful mode of experience. I then review European conceptions of the aesthetic and finally draw from John Dewey and Bruno Latour to help shape this concept into a pragmatic and useful approach that can complement multimodal teaching and learning. The empirical approach I construct adds to an understanding of aesthetic experience with media in order to render more transparent the ways in which an audience creates knowledge—or takes and makes meaning—via the senses. Significantly, this approach to meaning making supports learning in digital environments where students are increasingly asked to both produce and consume media convergent texts that combine multiple modalities including sound, image, and user interaction. © 2013 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Keywords: Aesthetic; Experience; Multimodal; Digital composing; New media; Meaning making; Senses; Perception; Bruno Latour; John Dewey; Immanuel Kant

“So extensive and subtly pervasive are the ideas that set Art upon a remote pedestal, that many a person would be repelled rather than pleased if told that he enjoyed his causal recreations, in part at least, because of their esthetic quality.” –John Dewey, Art As Experience 1. Introduction As John Dewey suggested almost 80 years ago, popular conceptions of the aesthetic have lost touch with day-to-day experience and need to be reimagined. The work of reimagining has much to offer the field of composition and new media studies. Like Dewey, when I imagine a useful aesthetic, I am not referring to the formal branch of philosophy dealing with theories of beauty and fine art. I speak, instead, of a much more pragmatic aesthetic – an aesthetic with a foundation in empiricism and lived experience. I am interested in the aesthetic as a sensory-based, every day, rhetorical, meaning making practice, based on the Greek notion of aisthetikos—“relating to perception by the senses.” In this article, I do not dive headfirst into a hard and fast definition of the aesthetic. My approach is more cautious. Instead, I begin with a brief discussion of the changing nature of multimodal writing studies and how the concept of the aesthetic has been addressed in response to these changes. Here, I still do not offer a definition, but I do examine,

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in detail, what scholars claim the aesthetic is and what it can be. I then feel it is important to interrogate this concept from a historical perspective. I look at how the aesthetic is interpreted in European circles from the ancient Greeks, to Immanuel Kant, to Pierre Bordieu, to Bruno Latour to better understand some of the histories of the aesthetic as a concept and what can be implied in its meaning. Only after this tour can I begin to imagine a rhetorical conception of the aesthetic that can fit productively within the field of digital composing and new media studies. Finally, I offer some ways to reimagine the aesthetic and demonstrate its applicability to multimodal composition studies. I argue that a rhetorical notion of the aesthetic rooted in sensory perception is a generative approach for multimodal composition. Significantly, this approach to meaning making supports learning in digital environments where students are increasingly asked to produce and consume media convergent texts while conveying messages to audiences that combine multiple modalities including sound, image, and user interaction. 2. Aesthetics in multimodal composition studies Reading and writing practices are changing dramatically and point to a shift where being literate has less to do with the written letter and more to do with being knowledgeable in textual, visual, interactive, and web-based contexts. Recent composition and new media scholarship heralds this change and discuss the ways in which students increasingly engage with multimodal platforms. By multimodal, I mean platforms that move between different modes of interaction, from visual, to voice, to touch. Not only do composers regularly employ multiple modes of representation they also mix and choreograph audio, video, images, text, etc. (DeVoss & Webb, 2008),. This means that the media students produce and consume on a daily basis are increasingly combining and converging. Living in an era where technology drastically shapes the ways we communicate, teachers and scholars of composition need a better understanding of audience experience with media in order to render more transparent the ways in which an audience creates knowledge—or takes and makes meaning. As a response to this need, New London Group’s Multiliteracies: Literacy Learning and the Design of Social Futures (2000) has become a touchstone for composition studies, supporting inquiry into meaning making with multiple modalities. The now familiar modes of communication that can work together to create meaning consist of the linguistic, audio, spatial, gestural, visual, and multimodal. Other now foundational works such as Gunther Kress and Theo Van Leeuwen’s Multimodal Discourse: The Modes and Media of Contemporary Communication (2001) extended the original work of the New London Group to argue that today “meaning is made in many different ways, always in the different modes and media which are co-present in a communicational ensemble” (p. 110). Kress and Van Leeuwen stress that in every mode there is communicative work being done, with all the available representational forms—and such work is always meaningful. These theories of multimodality are widely embraced by composition teachers and scholars, as we readily acknowledge that media convergence produces deep “changes in the forms and functions of cultural and bodily engagement with the world, and on the forms and shapes of knowledge” (Kress, 2003, p. 1). Importantly, Kress noted that as we see communication increasingly relying on multiple modes of interaction, new spaces and new strategies will be needed. Recent studies demonstrate the need for a more complete way to understand sensory perception and its relationship to meaning making. Rhetorician Carol Lipson (2003) contended that the changes that are taking place in our increasingly complex, data-rich, data demanding lives “demand a mode of creating meaning that can convey the depth and detail and complexity of our world” and proposes that visual language offers that opportunity (p. 113). Diana George (2002) also discussed the significance of the visual in the writing classroom. George claimed that due to the history of composition studies, we have limited the possibilities for the visual in the teaching of writing, due to the field of composition’s traditional ties to the written word. George readily acknowledged, however, that many of our students do not have the same binding ties: For students who have grown up in a technology saturated and image-rich culture, questions of communication and composition absolutely will include the visual, not as attendant to the verbal but as complex communication intricately related to the world around them. (p. 32) However, understanding these new practices presents a serious challenge. Charles Kostelnick and Michael Hassett (2003) explained that although we live in an “information age” inundated with visual language (e.g. charts, texts, graphs, illustrations, icons, and screens) the structure of that language evades scholars. The problem, can be summarized as follows, “We inhabit a world that relies increasingly on visual language to function, yet the structure of that language

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remains surprisingly opaque” (p. 1). This implies that although we rely on communication with and through the visual in our everyday lives, we do not fully comprehend how it rhetorically “works.” While scholars (including Kress & Van Leeuwen, 2001; Jewitt, Carey, & Kress, 2003; Kress, 2005; Wysocki, 2005; Cushman, 2006) believe that new theories of meaning are taking shape, there is still much to understand regarding the possibilities of the senses and meaning making with and through new media. It is clear that our understanding of meaning making is being reworked, in step with our changing times. Part of what is at stake here, as we move toward more visual and interactive means of communication is in understanding how audiences create meaning via their mediated experiences. This includes media that is newly created, which employ multiple sources of information and representation, but also old forms of media that an audience can’t help but see newly, from their evolving positions and perceptions. Further inquiry into meaning making and multimodal writing comprises an important direction for composition and new media studies, demonstrated by these various calls for new strategies and positions. There is an increasingly pressing need for a better understanding of how users and audiences make meaning through their experience with new media. To address this need, certain scholars turn to the potential of the aesthetic in multimodal composition and new media practices. Cheryl Ball (2004) argued that new media combines layers of multimodal meaning making strategies and that an understanding of the texts’ aesthetic qualities is one possible way to appreciate and further our understanding of how audiences take and make meaning. Ball claimed that “it is the combination of understanding the use of aesthetic elements within intellectual meaning making strategies that will best help readers interpret scholarly new media texts” (p. 411). Ball makes critical observations here and points the way for further inquiry. For example, this statement invites both teachers and scholars to imagine using “aesthetic elements within intellectual meaning making strategies” (p. 412). Although Ball does not clearly define what an aesthetic element is here, she does note that the aesthetic is indeed necessary to “understand how video, audio, and other elements can work with or enact an argument” (p. 413) and suggests that the aesthetic is increasingly relevant for new composition practices. How people make meaning aesthetically (via the senses) is clearly an important consideration in the construction of more integrative multimodal theories and pedagogies. For a case in point, consider Ball and Moeller’s webtext in Computers and Composition Online in the print to screen special issue on media convergence. In this work, Ball and Moeller (2008) implored the field to rethink aesthetics and rhetoric in a Web 2.0 world. Again, although the authors do not offer a clear working definition of the aesthetic per se; readers are invited to imagine what it is or what it might be. The authors claimed they are building “the new media bridge between rhetoric and aesthetics, between the scholarly and the creative, between low art culture and high art culture, and between academic texts and popular texts” (Ball & Moeller, 2008, n.p.). With this bridge, the authors are not talking about an outmoded, disinterested aesthetic of the past, but something new. Something useful. Something that could aid in both the critique and the creation of digital compositions. Ball and Moeller are not offering hard and fast answers in regards to the aesthetic as a mode of experience, but opening the conversation on this timely subject. Anne Wysocki’s work (2001 & 2005) also points to the importance of aesthetic elements in multimodal designs. In these texts, Wysocki analyzed the interactive and aesthetic features of several multimedia CD-ROMs, showing how each creates meaning through its designed multimodal interface. In these articles, Wysocki argued that the field needs to rethink or expand the conceptual categories that we are currently using to better understand (and teach) the multimodal aspects of texts. Wysocki questioned why we still hold onto so many common assumptions regarding the teaching and understanding of visual elements. She argued that when dealing with the visual, form is not always separate from content, word is not always separate from image, and information is not always separate from design. When we choose to separate these elements, we seriously limit our returns. Both Ball and Wysocki extend the theories of multimodal discourse by supporting inquiry into the rhetorical and aesthetical aspects of media convergence. Although both claim that the aesthetic does important communicative work, it is not entirely clear whether an aesthetic dimension is complementary to or distinct from the various modes under analysis, i.e., the visual modes of meaning (images, page layouts, screen formats), the aural modes of meaning (music, sound), and the gestural modes of meaning (body language, sensuality), etc. In other words, is there a separate aesthetic mode of meaning making? Or does the aesthetic dimension lie within each of the various modes of communication (the visual, aural, etc.)? Asking difficult questions of the aesthetic and its possibilities is a timely and important endeavor. In The Language of New Media (2002), Lev Manovich asked, “Is it necessary for the concept of the aesthetic to assume representation?

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Does art necessarily involve a finite object?” (p. 164). Manovich argued that new communication practices have the potential to change drastically the “paradigm of the aesthetic object” (164). He observed that the aesthetic object as “self-contained, limited in space and/or time, is fundamental to all modern thinking about aesthetics” (p. 163). The aesthetic in traditional English studies is usually located in a finite object (such as a literary text, which assumes a reader reading). Today, making such an assumption or appropriation of “text” is rather unproductive. There are more generative possibilities open for aesthetic consideration, and according to new media scholars, we should be considering them. Clearly, recent scholarship indicates the need for an increased understanding of the variety of contexts in which multimodal communication functions. This area of scholarship is growing—and will continue to grow—from one which dealt primarily with formal aspects, including the technical look and functioning of media, to a phenomenon with much more pervasive consequence. A useful aesthetic theory can aid in the more formal aspects of composition, but, just as importantly, it can also expand issues concerning rhetorical aspects of representation and communication. As demonstrated above, discussions concerning the aesthetic are part of new media and multimodal composition scholarship. The aesthetic is alluded to in a variety of contexts relevant to new writing practices, including multimodality, multimedia literacy, rhetoric, interface design, such as GUIs (Graphical User Interfaces) and rhetorical interfaces, Computer Generated Imaging (CGI) technologies, infosthetics (the visual representation of information), design of communication, the teaching of composition, new media art, online gaming, electronic music, cinema and digital cinema. A conversation is gaining momentum and the literature documents that the aesthetic as a useful, rhetorical concept can deepen our understanding (and our teaching) of multimodal composition.

3. Western European views of the aesthetic I believe some composition scholars might avoid or be resistant to the concept of the aesthetic because of its role either in literary and culture studies or its role in European philosophy and history; in short, due to its dominant (and dominating) narrative. This narrative needs to be addressed and understood. It is important for teachers and scholars of multimodal composition to understand the story of the aesthetic, because it is a story that involves the struggle to establish the source and status of knowledge itself. I see this as a long, painful struggle filled with prized beliefs and cherished values about what gets “to count.” This story has privileged certain ways of knowing over others, the influence of which has extended to how we teach multimodal composition today. Understanding this story helps teachers and scholars to reimagine what the aesthetic is currently in the context of multimodal composition—and what it still can be. It is generally accepted that the ancient Greeks supplied the original notion of the aesthetic, from the verb aisthanomai (I perceive) and the noun aisthetike (sense perception) “I perceive with my senses.” The Greek aesthetic originally encompassed perception-based understanding through the senses, which is directly where I suggest the field of composition studies should return. With one important stipulation. The Greek conception of the aesthetic was conflated with value judgments—much has been written about which of the senses were most important and why. The Greeks were not concerned with the knowledge gained from sensory perception outright; they were interested in codifying that knowledge into a hierarchy of the senses. As rhetoricians know, Aristotle, building on the work of his teacher Plato, postulated that sight was the most important sense and provided the most information about the world. As his Metaphysics began: All men by nature desire to know. An indication of this is the delight we take in our senses; for even apart from their usefulness they are loved for themselves; and above all others the sense of sight... The reason is that this, most of all the senses, makes us know and brings to light many differences between things. (as cited in Barnes, 1984, p. 1552) In addition to the sense of sight, the sense of hearing was also privileged, due to its capacity to draw attention away from the body of the perceiving subject. As a result, sight and hearing were considered sites of prized objective information because they revealed knowledge external to the body—knowledge that could be observable and verifiable by others. The lower senses, smell, taste and touch were deemed lower because they could only be experienced subjectively, within an individual’s body. Soon, the Greeks had an ordered hierarchy of what counts as knowledge, a hierarchy that favored a priori knowledge, based on logic, over posteriori knowledge, based on experience.

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150 Table 1 Hierarchy of the senses. Higher Order Senses Sight, Hearing A priori knowledge Theoretical Logical Universal Mind

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Lower Order Senses Taste, Smell, Touch Posteriori knowledge Empirical Experiential Particular Body

Notably, sight and hearing are an important part of this knowledge base because these “external” senses are associated with reasoning and theoretical deduction. Knowledge offered by the lower senses was, as Carolyn Korsemeyer (1999) posited, lesser knowledge because it was “particular, specific, pertaining to the here and now” (p. 25). The bodily senses provided inferior knowledge of the world precisely because they were empirical—the knowledge they yielded was based on subjective observation and experience. Sight and hearing, in contrast, offered a priori knowledge—about the external world prized for its universal, shared character. Table 1 demonstrates a historical Western European conception of higher and lower order senses. Centuries later, this “sense hierarchy” was addressed by the German philosopher Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten (by way of the Latin aestheticus). In his early work, Reflections on Poetry (1735/1954), Baumgarten developed a theory of aesthetic experience. He wrote: The Greek philosophers and the Church fathers have already carefully distinguished between things perceived and things known... Therefore, things known are to be known by the superior faculty as the object of logic; things perceived of the science of perception, or aesthetic. (p. 17) Building on this distinction between things known and things perceived, Baumgarten goes on to advance his theory of sensory perception in Æsthetica (1750), a work on the theory of beauty in art. In this work Baumgarten linked the aesthetic perception of “good art” with “good taste”—(the ability to judge well) and devises a set of rules by which to base judgments. However, in The Critique of Pure Reason (1781/1929) Immanuel Kant renounced Baumgarten’s science of perception, claiming that the establishment of rules for judging the beautiful was “futile,” because those rules were merely empirical, based on posteriori knowledge of the world: He hoped to bring our critical judging of the beautiful under rational principles, and to raise the rules for such judging to the level of a lawful science. Yet that endeavor is futile. For, as far as their principal sources are concerned, those supposed rules or criteria are merely empirical. Hence, they can never serve as determinate a priori laws to which our judgment of taste must conform. It is, rather, our judgment of taste that constitutes the proper test for the correctness of those rules or criteria. (p. 21) Kant continued to privilege knowledge gained from reason over “merely empirical” knowledge in his later work, Critique of Judgment (1790/1987), that concerned judgments of taste, i.e., judgments of the beautiful—above all the beautiful in nature. In this work he established the a priori conditions of the aesthetic—conditions that, not surprisingly, transcended the limits of empirical inquiry. This was the birth of aestheticism for aestheticisms’ sake of which many of us are wary: intellectual, non-utilitarian, and markedly disembodied. Kant’s way of treating the aesthetic had a long and influential history in Western European thought. He reinforced the idea that the aesthetic was based in pure theory—and that its’ “truths” could be arrived at through reason alone. Moreover, these truths appealed to the sensus communis, a universal “common sense” that could be arrived at externally through the “free play of our cognitive powers.” (Kant, 1790/1987, p. 238). Kant held that only through such common sense could judgments be made. Because Kant located the aesthetic in the abstract and universal (while shunning the particular or applied), he set a precedent for the aesthetic to be explained in other terms, with other criteria—most notably with historical, cultural, ideological, or political associations. Notably, aesthetic/sensory perception and the meaning derived from that were no longer an acceptable way of knowing the world; the lower (empirically-based) senses could only offer deceptive, illusory appearances and mere impressions of how things really are.

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Throughout the next two centuries of Western European intellectual thought, inquiries into the aesthetic continued to demonstrate concerns regarding the source and status of knowledge. Notably, theorist Louis Althusser’s work located the aesthetic firmly in the context of ideology—that is, in society’s dominant beliefs and values. In his influential essay “A Letter on Art in Reply to André Daspre” (2001) Althusser investigated the influence of ideology on artworks. Althusser claimed that art is embedded in institutions (which were seen to play a powerful role in creating and commodifying cultural discourses), thus advancing the values and ideas of the dominant ruling class. He wrote: What art makes us see, and therefore gives to us in the form of ‘seeing’, ‘perceiving’ and ‘feeling’ (which is not the form of knowing), is the ideology from which it is born, in which it bathes, from which it detaches itself as art, and to which it alludes. (p. 1480) Althusser continued: “Neither Balzac nor Solzhenitsyn gives us any knowledge of the world they describe, they only make us ‘see’, ‘perceive’ and ‘feel’ the reality of the ideology of the world” (p. 81). Althusser’s words almost echo back to the ancient Greeks—that perceiving is not really a form of knowing. He contended that the aesthetic reveals only ideology—not reality. Moving forward, historically, Pierre’s Bourdieu’s (1979/1984) work showed the influence of Althusser in his pronouncement that “Taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier” (p. 6). Bourdieu explored the connections between aesthetic taste and social-economic status in his highly regarded book Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste (1979/1984). Bourdieu made the argument that our sensibilities derive from and produce “cultural capital” which is obtained from the existence of economic and social inequities. For Bourdieu, aesthetics was about the ability to differentiate between “good” and “bad” art. It was a process through which society produced and legitimated inequities of economic and social status. He asserted that taste functions to make social distinctions and is an acquired “cultural competence” which can be used to legitimate and perpetuate social and economic inequalities. For example, Bourdieu claimed “a work of art has meaning and interest only for someone who possesses the cultural competence, that is, the code into which it is encoded” (p. 2). For Bourdieu, the aesthetic was inseparable from its “social function of legitimating social differences” (p. 7). As each of the above influential examples demonstrate, since the time of the ancient Greeks, aesthetic ways of knowing have been persistently subsumed by other ways of knowing and relating to the world, intellectually, philosophically, ideologically, historically, socially, and politically. This convention is, without question, still alive and well. Recently, John Joughin and Simon Malpas (2003) in their edited collection—part literary criticism, part philosophy — entitled The New Aestheticism vehemently petitioned for the need for the aesthetic to attend to its own historical position. The editors stated in the introduction, “It is impossible now to argue that aesthetics is anything other than thoroughly imbricated with politics and culture. And this, without doubt, is entirely a good thing” (p. 3). This argument demonstrates the widely-held belief that if one wishes to speak of the aesthetic in this day and age, one must attend to its historical (or cultural, or ideological) position—indeed it is “impossible” not to. Although the editors of The New Aestheticism stated that they were issuing in an era of “new aestheticism” with this very premise, there is nothing exceedingly new about their conception of the aesthetic. The editors simply echo the stance that an aesthetic mode of knowing does not exist in and of itself (but is always entrenched in other constructs of culture, history, etc.). Although the concept of the aesthetic (at least etymologically speaking) was to relate to the senses and sensory perception, to explain the aesthetic in other terms, with other criteria has been a major occupation of a variety of stakeholders over the last two and a half centuries (as the above examples from Aristotle, Baumgarten, Kant, Althusser, Bourdieu to Joughin and Malpas demonstrate). In this vein, institutional and ideology critique have been especially prominent—the critical examination of the ideas, feelings, beliefs, and values embedded in the artifacts or practices of a culture or group. Because of this, the aesthetic, as a concept in the 21st century, has come to be accepted as inextricably bound to ideology and to mean little in and of itself. According to arts educator Elliot Eisner (2002), the aesthetic has become “a casualty of American education” because “It is embedded in a historical context that has underestimated the role it plays in man’s effort to know” (p. 32). Eisner’s observation is a poignant one, because it acknowledges the story I have just been telling: that the role of the aesthetic has been disembodied—due to the “established” ways of knowing, which frame the aesthetic as a highly intellectualized pursuit based on the idea that knowledge itself is a historically, culturally, and ideologically imbricated process. Social theorist Bruno Latour (2005) also made note of the obfuscation of the aesthetic when he states that “every sculpture, painting, haute cuisine dish, techno rave, and novel has been explained to nothingness by the social factors ‘hidden behind’ them” (p. 236). Latour continued:

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Through some inversion of Plato’s allegory of the Cave, all the objects people have learned to cherish have been replaced by puppets projecting social shadows which are supposed to be the only “true reality” that is ‘behind’ the appreciation of the work of art. (p. 236) Latour sees the dilemma clearly, the aesthetic has been deduced to empty shadow play, bouncing back societal and cultural influences to such an extent that it’s become impossible to speak of having one’s own aesthetic experience. Indeed, the modus operandi has been to “explain away” the aesthetic by addressing the social and ideological factors hidden behind it. Yet, this unapologetically a priori “way of knowing” serves to create a narrow, limiting conception of what the aesthetic is and how it is experienced —privileging mind over body, theory over experience, and universals over particulars. This, I believe, is why those of us who teach and do research in the discipline of composition studies do not always see aesthetic conversations as very useful or as contributing to wider discussions in the field. This field, as I know it, takes a both/and approach. It values mind and body, theory and experience, and shared beliefs as well as subjective, individual voices. An aesthetic approach useful for composition studies has to be 1) a rich and accommodating approach that encompasses all of these values 2) doesn’t necessarily dictate what it must be (in the a priori fashion), and 3) doesn’t serve other motives by design. Learning to look without preconceptions entails not explaining the aesthetic with other criteria, not appropriating the aesthetic in the service of some other objective. A useful aesthetic for composition studies needs to be understood as a phenomenon of sensory-based experience rather than as a means to provide an explanation for something else (such as a solely a critique of culture or ideology). 4. Audience-based approaches to aesthetic experience An everyday rhetorical approach to the aesthetic is past due. As early as 1934, John Dewey addresses the state of the aesthetic. Dewey (1934) asserted that the major challenge for a genuinely useful aesthetic theory would be “to recover the continuity of esthetic experience with normal processes of living” (p. 10). Speaking in broad terms of philosophies of aesthetics he claimed “the system in question has superimposed some preconceived idea upon experience instead of encouraging or even allowing esthetic experience to tell its own tale” (p. 275). Aesthetic experience, according to Dewey, has lost touch with lived experience and should be made more concrete again. This endeavor would conceivably involve inquiry into the aesthetic as a direct mode of sensory experience—an act of perception (drawing from aisthetikos—‘relating to perception by the senses’). Such a conception of the aesthetic would have particular relevance for composition and new media scholarship. Current studies in new media argue for more embodied approaches to sensory perception for our digital age. Mark Hansen (2004) argued that digital media has fundamentally changed how we perceive. Hansen employed Henri Bergson’s 1896 theory of perception and his emphasis on the body (what he called “a center of indetermination within an acentered universe”) to argue that the “digital image” encompasses the entire process by which information is made perceivable through embodied experience (Hansen, 2004, p. 3). He places the body in a privileged position—as the agent that filters information in order to create images. By doing so, he argues for the indispensability of the human body in the digital era. His work demonstrated how new media artists “have focused on foregrounding the foundation of vision in modalities of bodily sense” and that these demonstrations mark a paradigm shift in “aesthetic culture... a shift from a dominant ocularcentrist aesthetic to a haptic aesthetic rooted in embodied affectivity” (p. 12). Hansen claimed that, not only does the user actively go into new media, but the user also actively creates the image—the image is a process which takes place within the users body. A further argument for a better understanding of how we make meaning through sensory perception is made by Jones and Arning (2006) Caroline A. Jones and Bill Arning (2006). In their edited collection, Jones and Arning claimed that “aesthetic practices locate how bodies are interacting with technologies at the present moment, and provide a site for questioning those locations” (p. 2). Essays within Sensorium (the term refers to the sum of an organism’s perception, the “seat of sensation” where it experiences and interprets the environments within which it lives) argue that “embodied experience through the senses (and their necessary and unnecessary mediations) is how we think” (p. 5). Importantly, Sensorium demonstrates how new media artists work to make the ‘sensorium’ visible. Practicing new media artists “are not interested in having us disappear within a given apparatus. They work to surface the effects of technology, making the viewer question mediation even within the pleasure of media” (p. 3). Jones and Arning’s conception of the aesthetic represents a critical shift in awareness of the possibilities for bodily experience.

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Another call for a more embodied aesthetic comes from Anna Munster (2006). Munster demonstrated how the aesthetic can help foster a move toward a more embodied experience of new media and meaning making. This work involved the argument that “Aesthetics is capable of offering us both a critical commentary that folds back upon the broader flows of a more reductive information culture and a new kind of aesthetics that unfolds into new sensory spaces for lived experience” (p. 38). In her analysis of recent new media artworks, Munster suggested that the body provides the site where the “aesthetic processes of composition” inevitably take place (p. 145). These recent studies on the aesthetic demonstrate that new, broader examinations of the notion are needed—especially as we seek to understand the processes of meaning making and sensory experience within digital environments. Kress (2005) also stressed the need to better understand and promote processes of meaning making for today which in his view include “Transformative engagement in the world, transformation constantly of the self in that engagement, transformation of the resources for representation outwardly and inwardly” (p. 21). In Kress’s view, we are all agents designing meaning out of our engagement with the world—our lived experience—and it is going to be necessary to pursue lines of inquiry from which we can learn about the possibilities such engagement offers. Kress contended that we should equip ourselves with the “necessary aesthetic and ethical navigational aids” to prepare ourselves for this kind of inquiry” (p. 21). Although Kress doesn’t expand on what the necessary aesthetic and ethical aids look like, it is clear that they will break with convention to examine and establish new forms of knowledge and meaning making for our changing times. Clearly, an important direction for composition and new media studies is inquiry into the aesthetic as a mode of sensory experience—an act of sensory perception. The aesthetic should not be overlooked as merely a visual or surface level element in these inquiries. Nor should the aesthetic remain fixed within the narrow realm of beauty or the philosophy of art. Instead, an aesthetic approach useful to composition studies shifts the emphasis from objects (texts, artifacts) to audience perception and meaning making with and through those objects. The aesthetic here is, in essence, a how and not a what; it is not located in an object of perception, but in how the aesthetic is experienced. For instance, the aesthetic is not located in a text or a website, but in how (the multiple ways in which) that text or website is perceived by the audience. As Manovich (2002) suggested, locating the aesthetic in a finite object, in a fixed text, is just that—finite and limiting. Instead, a productive course of action is to ask: How are we to understand the aesthetic as an act of communication—as a mode of meaning-making? This mode of meaning-making would not be located in a static “subject,” or in “form” or “content” but rather in how audiences (readers, viewers, inter-actors) create meaning via the senses. This stance allows us to put an emphasis on audience experience (direct sensory experience, mediated experience, perception, meaning-making). A useful conception of the aesthetic has promise for deepening our understanding and our teaching of multimodal composing practices. Such a conception would push against fixed and limiting definitions in order to accommodate a more inclusive view of multimodal composition practices and speak to a range of potentially audience-based experiences including issues of beauty and pleasure, taste and appreciation, form and content, style and delivery, art and craft, process and product, emotions and affect. This more accommodating notion positions the aesthetic, not as something set apart as a special order, but as a mode of everyday human experience. Accordingly, the act of reclaiming aesthetic experience delivers three primary affordances in the context of composition and new media studies. 1) Bringing aesthetic experience into the conversation provides a wider, more accommodating conception of multimodal composition practices Inquiry into the changing nature of new writing practices comprises an important direction for composition and new media studies. Given that practices of multimodal composition are flourishing, an understanding of how students take and make meaning from multiple media is more important than ever before. Kress and other multimodal scholars believe that as we see writing become subordinated to the logic of the visual, new spaces and new strategies will be needed. Discussing the challenges of new media, Dànielle DeVoss and Cynthia Selfe (2002) advised that “new media and new realms have invited new rhetorical positionings for the creative souls working in these spaces, and as teachers of composition, we need to help students explore, develop, and communicate more effectively in them” (p. 46). Clearly, there is a pressing need for a better understanding of how an audience makes meaning through their experience with new media. A rhetorical focus on aesthetic experience and meaning making helps bridge the chasm between multimodal theory and practice. This approach helps designers and creators understand how an audience makes meaning through

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A. Knight / Computers and Composition 30 (2013) 146–155

sensory perception. Moreover, this approach helps teachers and scholars examine how new composition practices are changing the ways audiences take and make meaning. 2) This rhetorical approach to aesthetic experience supports multiple perspectives toward meaning making A sensory-based aesthetic allows us to account for a wide range of possibilities for making and taking meaning. Kress and van Leeuwen (2001), have predicted that “when readers begin to understand and value the multiple semiotic modes of new media texts, the shape of what counts as forms of knowledge in ‘disciplines’ or ‘subjects’ will also begin to change” (p. 43). This approach changes our views of “what counts” as “knowledge” by accounting for the multiple ways in which an audience takes and makes meaning. A transdimensional approach to knowledge making values multiple meanings attributed in a diversity of ways (whether or not the meaning was originally intended by the creator). Accounting for these multiple modes and perspectives is an important direction for composition and new media studies. Scholarship in the field can and should address how work in new media opens new, diverse spaces for ways of knowing, understanding, and interpretation. Part of this change entails the ways in which readers and writers design meaning from their engagement with the image and other materials available to them through the interface of the screen. Significantly, meaning is now designed by the experiencer/interpreter/reader as much as by the writer/creator. 3) This approach offers a flexible navigational aid for multimodal composition Inquiry into aesthetic experience can help students to work within and across the genres, objectives, and audiences that comprise various writing situations by developing students’ capacities in understanding the diverse potentialities for meaning making within the context of word-based, visual, and web-based texts. An understanding of how people communicate and attribute meaning via the senses provides students with scaffolding which can aid in addressing the writing situations they actually encounter in their composing lives—whether they are conducting textual analyses, composing visual arguments, or designing with multimedia. A rhetorical-aesthetic approach emphasizes active knowledge construction over the passive transmission of information, enabling students to master the complex concepts they encounter and to transfer that knowledge to a variety of digital and real-world contexts. Aesthetics, thus, is the study of how people make and experience meaning through their sensory perception. This definition moves us toward a practical navigational aid for our changing times: a human–centered approach to understanding how audiences take and make sensory-based meaning. This approach is grounded in “perception by the senses,” and is able to address the diverse potentialities for meaning making in the consumption and production of new media texts and experiences. Such an understanding helps to address the role of sensory-based experience and the role of meaning making in communicating messages to audiences, both of which can and should be part of the domain of the study of multimodal composition.
Aimée Knight is an assistant professor in the Communication Studies Department at Saint Joseph’s University. Current research includes aesthetic experience in digital environments, visual rhetorics, and civic media.

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