Review: Non-discursive Rhetoric: Image and Affect in Multimodal Composition

Non-discursive Rhetoric: Image and Affect in Multimodal Composition. Joddy Murray. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2009. Pp. vii + 232.

In Non-discursive Rhetoric: Image and Affect in Multimodal Composition, Joddy Murray seeks to explain how developments in technology and new media have produced entirely new languages that are uniquely different from what he asserts is the more privileged spoken and alphabetic language. Locating his analysis at the intersection of affect, rhetoric, and composition studies, Murray argues that this new language – this “non-discursive rhetoric” – necessitates its own symbolization with an emphasis on emotion and imagination as tools of meaning-making. How, Murray asks, will this construction of a new language affect the composition classroom? What impact will non-discursive texts have on the composing process and on students of composition? In seeking answers to these questions, Murray offers rhetoric and composition scholars – or perhaps anyone undertaking the task of teaching composition – a cogent argument for embracing the multimodality inherent in the very way humans think.

In his introduction, Murray takes great pains to ground the concept of non-discursive rhetoric. He first argues that rhetoric as an academic field has been dominated by its reverence for print-based rhetorics; given this insistent privileging of discursive rhetoric, other kinds have been neglected (1-3). Murray offers an alternative with his theory of non-discursive rhetoric. Citing his desire to broaden the term language to include image, Murray advocates for “symbol systems of music, film, sculpture, dance, et cetera,” which are unbound by the limits of print (1). Indeed, Murray suggests these non-discursive rhetorics, such as image, are an integral part of “all symbol systems no matter what its medium or mode” (3). Largely building on Susan Langer’s 1942 Philosophy in a New Key, Murray contends that non-discursive rhetoric can encompass and ultimately express those things that resist the structure of discursive rhetoric – those “unutterable, affective, ephemeral” things, which discursive rhetoric considers outside the boundaries of language (5). Murray also begins to position his theory of image within the field of neuroscience, underscoring the link between cognition and non-discursive rhetoric (6-7). His introduction thus provides readers an accessible entry to the concepts central to the remainder of the work.

In Chapter 1, “Non-discursive Symbolization,” Murray begins by disrupting the notion that language exists solely to act as a vehicle for communication and textual production. Although he relies largely on Langer, Ernst Cassirer, and Ann Berthoff to form the foundation of his language theory, Murray also draws support for his theory of non-discursive rhetoric from prominent theorists such as Lev Vygotsky and Valentin Vološinov. The combined effort allows Murray to argue that, rather than fixing language as a discursive effort, rhetoric scholars must embrace both discursive and non-discursive rhetorics. In doing this, academics can mobilize the symbolization inherent in non-discursive rhetorics to incorporate “all of our powers to create and manipulate meaning and emotions through a wide variety of symbols beyond the discursive word” (12-3). Symbolization, according to Murray, is a cultural phenomenon, a sort of “sixth sense” (13, 14). Symbolization therefore offers the key to a more cohesive composing process, allowing for a composition classroom that makes space for and valorizes imagination and emotion rather than narrowly encouraging linear arguments (14-6). The writer released from a “‘chain of reason,’” Murray posits, “has an entirely different realm to explore: images, emotions, and the non-discursive” (51). Proceeding from this claim, Murray turns to considering how symbolization functions in a multimodal world.

In “Non-discursive Symbolization, Image, and New Media,” Murray reckons with image and its central role in multimodal textual production. The image, Murray proposes the most significant element in non-discursive texts because it allows writers to see that meaning is assembled and ultimately accessed through the senses (57). As Murray argues, “Our world is experienced in multimodal ways,” and consequently, the texts we write must reflect and develop from these generative, “messy” images (57). Murray continues by exploring and advocating for connecting image to emotion, and even further, emotion to language. Linking these pieces, he claims, allows rhetoric scholars to foster spaces in which image can function within discursive texts as well (60-74). In order to do this, Murray argues, rhetoric and composition scholars must interrupt a pattern of thinking that casts image as auxiliary material to discursive texts.

From there, in Chapter 3, Murray charts a discussion of how image and emotion are intimately connected in human cognition. Murray argues here that emotion and the ocular – and by extension composition – are processes of cognitive development (83). Further, he writes, “Neuroscience teaches us that the affective is crucial because images carry not only perceptual information, but also emotional information;” the two cannot be divided if meaning is the desired aim (84). Murray contends that non-discursive texts specifically are vessels through which meaning is carried because of their intimate connections to emotions and the affective (83). Murray then moves to theories from the fields of neuroscience and affect studies, which substantiate his claim that “image shapes the brain,” and as such, should serve as a model for composing processes that acknowledge the style of human cognition (111). Murray concludes the chapter by arguing that image centers the brain, thus enabling humans to endow the visual with emotion and connect it to their own consciousness (134-6).

Murray then argues in “Non-discursive Textual Production and Multimedia” that students must first have access to digital environments during the composition process and that composition instructors must actively encourage their students to engage with non-discursive texts. Multimedia, he asserts, should be incorporated into the composition classroom through basic in-class activities as well as out-of-class assignments. In keeping with this proposition, Murray offers a theory of non-discursive writing comprised of four principles that function “through and within” texts: the will-to-imagine, the will-to-intuit, the will-to-juxtapose, and the will-to-integrate (140). This premise, Murray explains, does not provide a model for explanation or a step-by-step process for making meaning of non-discursive texts. Murray argues instead that his is a proposition which allows the composer to make “what is within a world of becoming” (141). Image, emotions, and consciousness play a crucial role in the composing process, and they can exist independently of discursive rhetoric (151-2), because texts, like our world, are multimodal.

In his final chapter, the notion of a multimodal world leads Murray to a comprehensive conversation about teaching composition students not only to accept but also to value non-discursive texts in composition classrooms. This emphasis is particularly important as technology develops and students are forced to engage further with “image-worlds.” Murray argues that students must have a working knowledge of how to read, comprehend, and engage with non-discursive texts (171). One way to accomplish this goal is to push composition students to use a number of textual modes that can and do go unspoken, including words, pictures, colors, drawings, and sounds (164). Murray contends that the composition teacher can also foster this type of learning environment by incorporating multimedia, including wikis and websites, in the classroom. Murray ultimately advocates for a composition classroom in which students are not only encouraged but also actively asked to resist the limits of claim-based arguments that pervade discursive writing in composition classrooms.

With Non-discursive Rhetoric, Murray exhibits a strong passion for non-discursive rhetoric and the theory – both in and outside of the field – that informs his notion of image and symbolization. He also displays a keen knowledge of non-discursive rhetoric and concepts of multimodality, new media, textual production, and theories of composition. By explicitly connecting image to both affect and neuroscience, as well rhetorical theory, Murray convincingly argues for incorporating non-discursive texts in composition classrooms, a tactic applicable for both composition instructors and instructors in other subject areas as well. The book additionally offers an innovatively affective perspective in a field saturated by composition theory, providing those in the rhetoric and composition community a new way to begin thinking about how non-discursive texts do and will continue to impact pedagogy theory.

Kimberly A. Turner