The Mammy Nuns

De white boy troubles!a strange creature called a Mammy Nun

Straining my way through Electric Rhetoric by Kathleen Welch, still. There is some great stuff in the book, but it is positively buried by lame academic schema writing. Attack! Attack! Attack!

But there is a bright side. I’ve now found confirmation that I indeed grew up in a cardboard hut. For some reason, it reminded my of Frank Zappa’s Thingfish and those strange mutations known as the “Mammy-Nuns.”

Looks like y’ done putty good heahh, HARRY-AS-A-BOY! I sees ya’ growin’ up like a weed, axmodently reproducin’ YOUSEFF ‘n evvythang.

Done found some low-rent housin’ in a one-dimensional cardbode nativity box on some Italian’s funt lawn . . . bunch o’ crab-grass underneath de off-spring fo quick and easy sanitatium . . .shit! Y’all provvly be savin’ up for yo first LAVA LAMP putty soon!

Welch has some nice twists in her writing though. I particularly liked her definition of a HUT: “Household Using Television”

For some reason, I was talking to my mother about language acquisition; she told me some stuff about myself that I had forgotten. I did spend a lot of time in front of the T.V. But, somewhere in the mid-seventies, my focus shifted to 12-inch cardboard sleeves stuffed with petroleum buy-products. I was seduced by sound-patterns. I started collecting piles of record albums.

I think that the additional mountains of cardboard to my nativity hut changed me deeply

But the deepest kernel of my language skills came from television, at least according to my mother. We were talking about Kaylan, a five-year old that my older brother is raising (a grandchild by marriage, long story). Mom was upset that they hadn’t put him in pre-school, and it reminded me of something I read in John Pfeiffer’s article “Girl Talk — Boy Talk.” Research has shown that boys pick up most of their language patterns from other boys on the playground. Girls, in contrast tend to pick up more from their teachers and older influences. This is perhaps one major reason why boys are five times more likely to have reading difficulties. The most counter-intuitive conclusion of these studies is that outsiders have a greater influence on the language of children than their parents do. Mom told me that she thought most of my language patterns were developed, not from my friends, but from television commercials.

Evidently, I loved commercials as an infant. I would repeat them endlessly, and generally be a pain in the ass (some things never change). One of the striking features about television is that it is primarily aurally focused, rather than visually focused, according to Welch. She makes a strong case. The sound in a HUT is the most defining feature, not the picture. A person can tell what is happening on TV without looking at it; a viewer’s visual attention can wander while the viewer still understands what is going on in the program. It is the sound, not the picture, that has precedence.

Welch notes that the visual aspect of television is generally less appreciated. Watching television with the sound turned off is an interesting creative activity practiced by few people, she says. Somehow, when I discovered Jimi Hendrix in my early teens, I didn’t stop watching television. I did, however, turn the sound off. In retrospect, that may have been one of the things that lead me, eventually, into photography. I photographed TV and movie screens early on, never obsessively, but when an image caught my eye. And the biggest difference, to me, between the current distribution of music on CDs and electronically, is the complete divorce it represents between the intrinsically visual experience tied to the consumption of a new piece of music. I would always prop-up the album cover in my line of sight, as I was listening to the record. That is a big advantage of cardboard. It will stand up nicely, and with the larger size it has much more presence in a room.

Though audio cues do exist, and serve a purpose in electronic discourse through computers, this aural aspect is usually background in most Internet interactions, compared to its foregrounded nature in the rhetoric of television. This is another one of those aspects that isn’t mentioned much. Web discourse puts the visual back in the front of our consciousness. Just another one of those skewed thoughts, as I reflect back on my cardboard hut.

Another thought-provoking contention by Welch is that instead of focusing on the Humanities, education should focus on the Literacies, which includes the textual, aural, and visual aspects of communication. She recommends that we teach TV. I’m not so sure about that. I think I managed to master that on my own, reaching a point in my early twenties when I didn’t even own one. Large parts of my life didn’t include any television at all. But it was a big part of my learning experience, as a child. I find it hard to figure out how someone might teach television literacy, but at the same time I see great utility in using examples from television as source material for rhetorical analysis. It fits nicely with the ideas I’ve been having about ways to connect the function of rhetoric with all aspects of human experience.

What I have most difficulty with in Welch’s book though, is the insistence on gendering everything. I suppose it’s just me getting lost in da white boy troubles. Appreciating difference is good, however should difference always be the focus? I suspect that it’s the agonistic Attack! Attack! Attack! of gender theory, overlaid on top of the scholarly attack which just gives me indigestion. It makes me think of Zappa’s Thingfish, because those strange mammy-nun creatures were created by a particularly powerful form of prison food, “the San Quentin mashed-potatoes,” which rendered those who ate them incontinent, and indestructible.