By Kristi McDuffie
Cecelia’s production is in the form of Gregory L. Ulmer’s mystory, where authors connect the various discourses of their lives in an electronic medium. Cecelia captures the spirit of the mystory in that she shows us her personal history, current passions, and their connections, utilizing the affective capabilities of image and sound. She showcases the four tenets of Ulmer’s mystory—family, career, entertainment, and community—and makes connections between them per the genre. The first video, Emblem, brings the work to five separate but connected videos.
But this scholarly explication does not yet fully capture the impact of Cecelia’s work, so let me take a step back and discuss the work independent of its genre. I first visited the title page of Cecelia’s mystory, which hints at a major theme with a photo of a horse. The second page and the first video, Emblem, is the longest and most significant video. Set to the tune of “I’ll Fly Away,” we meet Cecelia Jones. She is standing to the right side of the frame and speaking to the camera in front of a broad, open landscape of a horse farm in North Carolina. I am immediately struck by how personal the video is. The wide-open landscape is somehow intensely intimate and foregrounded in the video because of Cecelia’s off-center position in the video. She tells me about growing up around horses and how she grew to love them and shows us how she created her own brand designed from her grandfather’s brand.
Cecelia then tells me that her mother passed away two years ago. Although it strikes me as sudden, it, along with the horses, remains a theme throughout her story. In fact, her mother is connected to horses explicitly through a memory Cecelia shares about one last ride with her mother. Text across a series of images of her mother tells us that her mother liked Cecelia to sing, so she begins to sing in the video until a soundtrack of that song replaces Cecelia’s voice as images of Cecelia’s life, including pageants and volunteer work, finish out the video.
This first video, even without considering the remaining videos, captures why Ulmer believed that using image and other electronic devices could capture something of ourselves that might be missed in print. I got to know Cecelia personally by watching her speak and seeing flashes of her life. Listening to her sing, along with the well-chosen soundtracks, adds an affective component to the video that could never be attained in print. Joddy Murray explains that image and sound create cognitive connections with audiences that are more difficult to attain with discursive text due to the affective benefits of those modes. Image is important for effectively conveying emotion as it is a “building block of imagination and thought” (169). Furthermore, this affective component is important for successfully connecting with audiences. As Sharon Crowley tells us, emotion cannot (and should not) be separated from rhetoric due to its ties to our beliefs, and Cecelia achieves a level of affective connection with her audience because she engages our visual and aural senses.
The second video is Community. I do wish that there were transitions between videos to better establish a narrative, but the topics are clearly related even without transitions. This video uses images with explanations via text set to an audio soundtrack. This short video is about her town, Ahoskie, and how community members stay connected through the local paper. Although this video is perhaps not necessary for Cecelia’s overall story and the themes found in that story, she does touch on the personal by showing newspaper articles about herself.
The third video, Family, returns to the conversation Cecelia started in Emblem. Accompanied by soft music, she narrates her family history, such as describing the home where she grew up and what it was like to play with her older brother. This part of the essay was the most affectively successful for me because while I was seeing photos of Cecelia and her family, I was thinking about my own family, picturing photos of my brothers and me growing up, dressed up for Easter or dressed silly for Halloween, and thinking about what the photos don’t even capture (like how much we fought as kids). I wondered if Cecelia and her brother fought and what might have been left out of her pictures. The video becomes more about her mother as it progresses, and the pictures present as a memorial of her through Cecelia’s eyes. Conveying this story through these modes is particularly effective for this emotional content.
The fourth segment, Career, lets us experience the monotony (but thankfully not the smell) of shoveling manure. We are doing the shoveling with Cecelia since the camera angle is first person point of view. We don’t see Cecelia. We don’t actually learn much about her career, other than to understand that one of her current job duties is cleaning out stalls. (We know from the other videos how much this job choice connects to her love of horses.) The text across the video is humorous when she explains that the pitchfork is good for moving (or removing) horse shit.
She turns the pitchfork into a metaphor and comments on how useful it would be to have a pitchfork to get rid of the shit in life. This is the only place in the work where Cecelia becomes philosophical, and while it connects well with her theme of horses, and while the humor lightens the heavy tone found in other videos, I miss the personal connection I found with the other segments.
The final video is about Entertainment. The screen opens with a poster of the 1944 movie National Velvet (yes, about a horse). Clicking on the poster takes me to the video. The beginning of the video is about the movie, with film stills and clips. Although Ulmer advises that popular culture be a part of the discourses addressed in the mystory, it is vital here that the movie Cecelia chooses is intimately connected to her passions and experiences discussed in the other videos. She explains how she connected with the movie because of her love for horses. Suddenly the music turns from the old movie music to contemporary music that strikes me as an odd choice. The video progresses through pictures and video of Cecelia at rodeos. After some video of horses (which also captures the fence that contains the horses in a momentary reminder that the open landscape from the Emblem video is not completely at their disposal), Cecelia returns to discussing National Velvet. The text across the screen connects Velvet to herself through their mothers, thus returning to another theme in the essay. Thus while this segment is about entertainment and puts Cecelia’s topics into conversation with a (albeit not contemporary) movie, it effectively functions as a conclusion to the overall piece in the way that it brings the themes and discourses together.
Despite the inclusion of various discourses, such as community and entertainment, this work still strikes me as a primarily personal essay that explores the stories of Cecelia’s life. But while I am not overly familiar with Ulmer’s intentions for the mystory, it strikes me as unimportant that Cecelia fully brings in other discourses (and in fact, some of these aspects that seem to speak to the assignment seem extraneous). What’s important to me, and what is so effective about Cecelia’s piece, is how well she takes advantage of the multimodal components available to her to convey her story to her audience in an affective, and thus rhetorically effective, manner. If my experience is testament to the way others experience this text, then Cecelia goes beyond a typical video or scholarly text that gives information and advises future actions. She wrote a piece that begs viewers to consider these aspects of their own lives. What would I choose as my emblem? What would I say about my family to a public audience? How would I connect my career choice and my entertainment choices to those things? Cecelia has been brave in sharing her life with us and sharing it in this intensely personal form. I am inspired to consider my own story and think other viewers will be as well.
Murray, Joddy. Non-Discursive Rhetoric: Image and Affect in Multimodal Composition. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2009. Print.
Crowley, Sharon. Toward a Civil Discourse: Rhetoric and Fundamentalism. Pittsburgh, PA: Pittsburgh UP, 2006. Print.