All posts by apratt

What is Expository Writing?

Expository writing is the process of unraveling an image through words. Whether that image is of a teapot, a campus, or the ramifications of communism on the global economy, expository writing begins with a simple premise and ends with a more complicated perspective of the subject at hand. It peers behind the clock face and details the inner-workings of the world around us.

When I first signed up for this class, to be completely honest, I was not super excited to be taking it. That is not to say that I was dreading the course by any means, but as a rhetoric and composition major, my primary focus so far had been on persuasive writing. The idea of writing pieces that were not focused on an argument seemed...trivial? I'm can't say exactly what I felt at the time--nor was it anything particularly drastic--I simply didn't think this class would be wildly enlightening. My initial perceptions could not have been more wrong.

Even just from the twitter essay project we started the semester with, I was already growing a deeper understanding for what expository writing entailed. The process of experimenting with our personal definitions of what objects are helped to open my eyes to an entire art of writing I had had little real practice or exposure to. The process of working with our artifacts to create an entire object analysis using Prounian analysis took the seeds of that understanding and gave me a true appreciation for what expository writing is.

In a sense, there are similarities between persuasive writing and expository writing. I suppose it could be argued that expository writing is a practice in persuasion of one's opinions. But expository writing does not hinge upon whether the audience is convinced by what is being said. In fact, expository writing is unique in that it seems to be much more personal in its execution. These are observations based out of personal experience rather than arguments based out of research. If a piece of expository writing does not resonate with a reader, that does not mean the piece cannot still succeed in its goals. It is invested in the process of discovery, of coming to understanding rather than applying its products in a broader lens. Expository writing lives in itself rather than the reader, and that is not something I even truly understood until the end of this semester. In a sense, this post itself is a microcosm of the practice itself: a slow unraveling in the pursuit of some unknown truths.

The Value of Change

I was struck by the first question posed for this prompt. "What is the value of a human life?" Upon first consideration, my response was naturally, Oh, well it's priceless. Life, human life, is a mysterious blessing wrapped in a curse (or vice versa) that each of us will spend our entire life unraveling. No matter what angle you take, you cannot put a value on human life--it is beyond value.

Well, that's fine and dandy in the glossy idealist world that seems to reside in my head, it does not hold much stock outside of it. Let's consider the definition of value described in this prompt: " Value, with a capital "v," is a composite of the intrinsic value inherent in an object, the value that has been assigned to the object by others, and the value that we ourselves assign to it." What I seemed to be describing to myself only encompasses the first of these three (with a strong hint of my own personal views). I was only considering life as viewed as life. Without factoring in the other two perspectives, this is a very narrow and flawed definition. The reality of the matter is that it not only depends who is being asked the question, but also in regards to what life. There are plenty of people in the world who believe that every single life is sacred and to be cherished and treated with the utmost respect--something similar to the perspective I had first envisioned. There are also plenty of people who may claim to have this perspective . . . until that person has committed a crime. There are also, unfortunately, many people who believe there are lives that are inherently less valuable than others, and do not have the ability to change this.

It would seem that, based on these explanation, that a human life is very much like an object. The value of said life is a collection of opinions based on themselves, others, and one's inherent value. The only difference being that a human may have the ability to actively change the value of their own life. For those who believe certain people have a lower, fixed, immutable value, these people do not see those lives as anything more than objects--and still, the considered lives still have the ability to change the views of those offering judgement. In this way, beings with life and consciousness have a value that an object can never have, and that lies in the ability to affect change. The value of an education is very much a part of this. An education provides the tools for enacting change. Depending on the education, be it a major in English, job training, or knowing how to plant a garden, these all endow the ability to affect change on different areas of life and the world around us.

Ideally, this is the road we will take to achieving "thriving planetary ecology." While I cannot say whether this phrase is anything more than an unattainable, Sisyphean goal, the tools for change are what will allow us to get there. The value of a world where all life thrives, resources are renewed, and natural homeostasis is achieved is, well, it is the value of everything. It is the lump sum of all we know--life, objects, and the world itself. It sounds a bit lofty, but hopefully, this is the value we not only wish to see in the world, but in ourselves as well.

Healthy Things

One issue that has plagued humans for much of our history is dental health. As our teeth are important part of consuming our meals, it has been important for us to maintain our teeth for as long as possible. However, it has not been until the last couple centuries that effective solutions have been discovered to curve tooth decay and gum disease. Our desire for a cleaner mouth not only stems from our need to eat, but aesthetic reasons as well. Around 3000 years ago, the ancient Chinese were using twigs from fragrant trees to freshen their breath. You may also notice that most portraits and pictures dating over a hundred years ago did not feature people smiling with their teeth. Rotten teeth, though widespread, have never been particularly attractive, and humans have spent much of history trying to solve this problem.

This got me thinking about objects being representations of milestones in human history. While objects hold many personal or societal functions, objects such as the toothbrush can represent breakthroughs and achievements in human development. While toothbrushes may seem ordinary to us now, this sort of innovation has been developed after millennia of inconvenience, pain, and disease. Take, as another example, the Aleve you may keep in your medicine cabinet (or maybe somewhere even more frequented). While we may pop a couple of these pain-relievers following a hangover or a sore back, NSAIDs hold a power people have wrought over for lifetimes. Fevers were often fatal before modern medicine, but now almost every house stocks a simple suppressant for these killers, and at a price almost anyone can afford.

What I think I am getting at is the idea of objects having hidden, or maybe forgotten values. Time seems to quell the appreciation we have for certain objects, but they retain that value regardless. Perhaps this is simply the inevitability of all technologies and medicines, but these values only remain hidden until we are without the objects. This is when their true worth becomes all too apparent.

Objects Off the Chain

In his essay for The Atlantic, John Cline illustrates the flexibility of some objects, and the powers that they can hold. His example of the machete as not only a tool, but a weapon and a political symbol demonstrates how objects can occupy different spheres, whether we like to them to or not. While objects are often man-made, and their subjective meanings are placed on them by us humans, those meanings we place on them grant power that we cannot remove. Once an idea enters the zeitgeist, we lose some of the control we once had over said object.

One of my favorite YouTube channels, PBS Idea Channel, made a video called “How Powerful Are Algorithms?” In this video, the host, Mike Rugnetta, discusses algorithms and their rise to importance in our everyday life. Not only does he highlight the power they hold in completing myriad tasks, from Google searches, to more globally influential research based computations, he also brings up how little control we can exercise over these through Eli Periser's “filter bubble.” This states that as search algorithms refine your experience down to a personalization, you are excluded from information you may otherwise have been exposed to. For instance, I have noticed over the years that my Facebook News Feed predominantly shows me articles that relate to my political beliefs, for instance feminism or racial equality. While I am aware that I am friends with many people from high school that may be posting, say, articles from FoxNews.com, their appearances on my feed are few and far between—thus limiting my world-view in a small, but significant way.

While the world of algorithms is one mostly existing in the digital ether, these lines of code are as much objects as Fahrenheit 451 or The Bible. Both of these texts may have once served a single purpose in their creation, but now, even their names have gathered associations and messages that cannot be contained. Cline asks his reader if they believe an iPhone could be considered a weapon in the way that a machete can be considered one. Using his own article, I would answer yes, arguing two points.

First, it depends on who is observing the object. To my eyes, a machete holds only a blurry image of political symbolism, while for a member of the Boricua Popular Army, it may be the strongest symbol of power imaginable. Likewise, to someone who uses an iPhone daily for altogether mild and civil purposes, it may be difficult to appear as a weapon. However, to a luddite (say, for instance, my co-worker at the salon I work at), the iPhone may represent the demise of not only a generation, but all future generations for the rest of civilization. Secondly, I would argue that, while at the moment, an iPhone may not be a weapon of physical violence, it has certainly become one of cultural and societal violence. How these develops down the line could shift this even further into our perception in a Albert Nobel-lian way.

What’s Left Behind

As silly as it may seems to some of us, there are many people who hold symbolic, superstitious, religious, and many other ideas about the handling of the dead, and death in general. Though many of these traditions have died out or been pushed into folklore, their existence gives us an interesting look into the beliefs humans have held about death and bodies as objects.

In his article for The Atlantic, “Impressions From the Face of a Corpse,” Luke A. Fidler discusses the practice of making death masks—face molds of the diseased created postmortem. Fiddler places death masks somewhere between portraiture of the subject, and a contact relic. While understanding the desire for portraiture as a means for honoring the dead, the purpose of a contact relic is somewhat more sophisticated. In her text Sensational Religion: Sensory Cultures in Material Practice, Sally M. Promey describes the significance of contact relics in relation to religious figures: “In the case of a secondary, or contact, relic, whose virtue derives from physical contact with a holy figure, the chain of power transference could extend across space and time from saint to contact relic to reliquary to votary” (210). In essence, we attribute not just the physical, but the emotional and psychological imprint of a person onto these objects as well. The same can be said for the practice of making trinkets from a loved-one's hair, or even of body parts themselves.

In the video “Why Don't We Taxidermy Humans?” Vsauce gives us a full spread of the many practices humans have partaken in with regards to our remains. Michael gives us examples such as burial in space, having remains compacted into the form of a diamond, and the preservation of parts of the body. We can see a correlation between this last example, for which Michael uses the preserved middle finger of Galileo, and Fidler's example of Beethoven's ear. Though these parts of the body hold no inherent value, we assign value to them through what they represented.

However, what I found most interesting about Vsauce's video was not what happens to a body physically postmortem, but what happens to it legally. Michael explains that a corpse is not legally a piece of property—a dead body does not belong to anyone. For this reason, we are limited primarily to what a mortuary is willing to do with one's body. I feel this as an interesting twist on Belk's discussion of objects as extensions of ourselves. While it could be argued whether a body is an object or not, we seem to hold the belief that in death, it represents the life it once contained...or was, or however you'd like to argue that. The point is, even after death, we still belong to ourselves. How people wish to remember us, whether it be by trinkets, masks, or otherwise, is up to them to assign. Our body, however, we will take to our grave.

Works cited:

Belk, Russell W. "Possessions and the Extended Self." Journal of Consumer Research 15.2 (1988): 139. Web.

Fidler, Luke A. "Impressions From the Face of a Corpse." The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 30 May 2014. Web. 30 Jan. 2015.

Promey, Sally M. Sensational Religion: Sensory Cultures in Material Practice. New Haven: Yale UP, 2014. Web.

#1: Object Students and Droppables

In his article, Maguire makes an argument for how we ought to go about solving the growing issue of the writing skill of students in our educational system. Much like the sophists of ancient Greece used rhetoric to persuade audiences of its importance and value, Maguire cleverly employs his suggested technique in his own argument. He does this by first turning the very students he says should be taught to write using objects into objects themselves. As opposed to working with the abstract concept of “students,” Maguire turns them into objects that have or lack certain skills: “It's a crucial question for those who want to reform the teaching of writing, because once you ask what skills are missing, you can make a list and start a counter-attack.”

In regards to our readings for this week, Maguire strays from Czikszentmihalyi's breakdown of objects. Out of the three categories offered by Czikszentmihalyi, Maguire's “student objects” are most closely related to the continuity of self, as these students could be argued to be an extension of our greater society and what it is capable of creating. After all, Maguire does not believe that these students are inherently to blame for their lack of success in the field of writing, but rather the educational system itself. Likewise, Prown would see these “student objects” as an indication of our culture's current treatment of education. The “style” in this circumstance would be the very skill sets Maguire is assessing.

If asked to produce a set of items with which to begin discussing difficulties I have encountered in my writing process, I would have to describe my immediate surroundings. My “droppable” items would be my laptop, and the figurative weight of its keyboard, writing outlines and their sticky text, and the most frustrating, the swell of sound around me, ranging from silence of the hum of students in the library. These may not point directly towards the issues Maguire addresses in his article, but I can see how these concrete objects are stepping stones to delve into deeper meanings.