Memory Practice: A Response to “Leanna/Story”
by Tekla Schell
I was pleased to see the submissions of mystories for this issue of TheJUMP, because they so explicitly do the kind of rhetorical work I’m interested in. Beginning in Internet Invention and continuing inTeletheory, Greg Ulmer, the creator of “mystories,” argues for a pedagogy that disrupts the hierarchy of the essay, a form intrinsically reliant on extensive and mostly uncritical absorption of institutional power structures. By creating a mystory, he argues, students can focus on invention rather than margins, and can create a representation of the critical rhetorical analysis of their lived experience. In the selection of these representations, students can analyze the experiences that have shaped their worldviews; in the production of their mystory, they can consider how those worldviews can best be communicated to their audience, and how the presentation of their self-arguments might impact their viewers. The result is a powerful combination of the examination of their own ethics and an exercise in the best kind of rhetoric.
Because they’re not essays, however, they can be difficult to know how to read. Early responses to Ulmer’s mystory reflected this confusion, with one review saying “is the practical practice of mystory…a pedagogical activity that only tenured professors can feel safe enough to indulge in? What is the name one gives to a course that involves doing a mystory?…what is the department that sanctions it” (Brunette and Willis, 40)? Obviously, we’ve found a space for the mystory in rhetoric. So how do we read them, these not-essays, not-quite-art pieces?
We read them reflexively.
Leanna’s mystory functions not only as a story of her own experiences, but forces us to confront our own institutional learning and practices, to reconsider how we experience the internet. Following the first link on the page, “Stumphouse,” we’re taken to a map of some hills. Trained users of the Internet, we click the image of the map to discover the images and links that hide behind it. The images and texts there tell us about the Cateechee Trail, important to Cherokee history, and show us the relationship of the author to the site: an image of a little girl and an older woman standing in the summer sun in their swimsuits is yellowed with age (perhaps artificially), echoing the warmth of yellow that borders the whole page and providing readers with the sense that this is important, this place is part of the family, of Leanna’s life.
More than that, however, it is an exercise in our own memory and practices. Each of the images under the Stumphouse map takes us to another level of the website. Clicking the “Saving Stumphouse” image takes us to text about the site with the image next to it. Clicking the text doesn’t take us anywhere else in the piece– an apt move in an inventive space designed to pull apart the primacy of text. Clicking the image again, however, takes us back to the upper level with all of the links for that level of the site. A similar move is made under “Camp,” “Alaska,” and “Writing,” and although text features more prominently in each of these areas, even traditional creative writing isn’t the main focus, sharing space equally with the video and images that accompany them.
There’s something unique about the website, though, and it is frustrating at first read. Once you enter the Stumphouse area of the site, you can’t get back to the initial level or front page of the site—i.e., the “cover,” splash page, or perhaps the table of contents for the mystory. You’re stuck there, looping through the memories of someone else again and again as you try to find your way back to the beginning of their story.
But this is how memory works. The moments and places that are most important to us remained framed in our minds, unchanging. We can’t go back to those places and change them, and, once we have learned someone else’s story, we can’t go back to the beginning of knowing them, and un-learn it.
Only one link in the entire site will take you back to the beginning of the story, the link “Cave” under Alaska/It. You find it by accident, and are surprised by the sudden linearity of the text. “Alaska” is the bottom link of the front page, “Cave” the bottom link on the right. If you follow traditional top-left-to-right reading practices, this is the only place a return to the front page makes sense. By placing it here, however, the author forces us to consider how we read the Web. If the Internet is training us, how can we consider and reconfigure the experiences that we have with websites? Can we pull apart that hierarchy of levels and clicks in the same way that we can pull apart the primacy of the essay?
Reading someone else’s story, it is impossible to know whether you’re reading it correctly, whether the design of the piece is accidental or intentional. But Leanna’s mystory is clear, powerful and intense on each of its levels.