Fictionalizing in Fictitious Spaces: Virtual Non-places Invite Non-audiences

Fictionalizing in Fictitious Spaces: Virtual Non-places Invite Non-audiences

Walter Ong’s “The Audience is Always a Fiction” chronicles the “relationship, of the so-called ‘audience’ to writing as such, to the situation that inscribed communication establishes and to the roles that readers as readers are consequently called on to play” by referencing works by Hemingway, Sidney, Chaucer, Lyly, Nashe, and many other notable writers to illustrate how each negotiates a relationship with his intended audience through varying degrees of authorial distance (55). Ong uses these examples to support his claim that a writer must “make his readers up, fictionalize them” (59). Each of these instances substantiates his expanded claim that audiences must also fictionalize themselves, assume their (collective but individual) roles in the “game of literacy…to conform themselves to the projections of the writers they read” (60). This dual exchange of fictionalized identities is necessary because the writer and reader do not benefit from the traditional “two-way” communication of oral narrative, in which “a real audience controls the narrator’s behavior immediately” (66). As both work at communication from isolated positions, each must be cast into and accept an assigned role in order for writing and reading acts to bear fruitful (70).

Lisa Ede and Andrea Lundsford call Ong’s theory of audience invention “audience invoked” and question Ong’s comprehensive application of writer-reader relationships as fictionalized constructs, claiming it oversimplifies “the potential range and diversity of both oral and written communication situations” (83). While I certainly agree that a writer must imagine an audience and it seems reasonable that to do so effectively a writer must also compose with that “fictional” audience in mind—incidentally, this is a common technique embedded in Creative Writing curriculum—I, too, question the generalizability and transferability of Ong’s theory, its practicality as a teaching methodology.

An advocate of Ong’s insights into writing as a technology and a tool that separates writer, reader, and product, I do have my reservations about the application of “fictionalizing” an audience as it applies to online instructional practice, particularly as it relates to freshman composition students. For one, Ong’s examples are all experienced writers whose works are published. Analyzing published works reputed as literature already implies an author with a mature understanding of audiences. I’m not sure the fictionalizing process as Ong describes it is transferable to the composition classroom broadly and especially not the online composition classroom specifically. Many students in freshman composition courses do not yet possess the degree of nuanced understanding required to effectively enact Ong’s fictionalization process.

Another of my reservations considers Ong’s theory as it relates to modalities of instruction. The online environment is a problematizing space that, perhaps, too readily fictionalizes its participants in ways that confuse and complicate the writer-reader relationship. For example, the internet constitutes what Marc Auge calls a non-place, which he describes, among other things, as a space “in which individuals are supposed to interact only with texts, whose proponents are not individuals but ‘moral entities’ or institutions” (78). From this ideological perspective, I posit that students working in such spaces develop a sense of non-audience. Such an audience would not need much consideration. The author of these “texts” that form the communication directives of non-places need only provide the script of use that regulates, prohibits, informs, and labels (77-78). The result of such unidirectional communication is not a useful fictionalization of audience but a treatment of audience as passive, static, and uniform.

Incorporating this additional theoretical lens as a complicating agent, I ask the following questions:

Q1: What happens to the rules of “the game of literacy” in a space designed for transient communication practices?

Q2: If the audience is a fiction, how does the writer know how to conceptualize it? Is this exercise supposed to be intuitive? Will one, two, ten peer reviewers correctly represent the collective reader?

Q3: Does the internet assist or counteract the efforts of a writer to fictionalize its audience?

These questions aside, Ong’s theory does provide a rationale for offering additional and more overt instruction of writer-audience awareness in the composition classroom. An instructor operationalizing Ong’s theory might focus on teaching students the purpose behind and desired outcome of addressing fictional audiences. In online writing courses, the instructor of audience as fiction may emphasize appropriate approaches to fictionalization as it relates to situation and context.

Ong continues to challenge my theories about writing in technologized spaces and my understanding of the relationships between writers and readers.

Reference (Not in CT)

Auge, Marc. Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity. Trans. John Howe. New York: Verso, 1995. Print.


3 thoughts on “Fictionalizing in Fictitious Spaces: Virtual Non-places Invite Non-audiences

  1. I’m really interested in this notion of non-place, particularly as it might have some implications for people feeling so disconnected from audience that they can say anything. I suspect the non-placeness plays a role in facilitating bullying, mob mentalities, online threats, and untempered rhetoric (I’d hypothesize that even logical fallacies would get more space in a nonplace because the stakes for overcharged, underconsidered rhetoric might seem lowered).


  2. What a great set of questions in response to Ong’s piece. I think the general flaw of imagining an audience will always be a degree of narcissism on the part of the producer. I am thinking of how Bazerman characterizes the activities of physicists in Physicists Reading Physics:

    A physicist follows a line of argument like this: I am a physicist, therefore physicists are me. This statement is very reductive, but, reduction is helpful in some cases. Now, this argument first presumes a person does indeed identify as a physicist. And, perhaps, this presumption helps to inform us as educators as to a problem regarding the impermanence of the writing classroom. We have been saying, on several occasions, that students do not “see” (identify) themselves as writers. Well, if a person does not identify as being a writer (in some capacity) the fictionalization of an audience might never occur in part because the role of writer is a transient one.

    As an example, I have only the anecdotal observation that students who have been involved in mentorship relationships (writing in the sciences) or internships (writing in tech professions) tend to “imagine” themselves as producers (writers, communicators) much more easily than those students who have not experienced that involvement. The first step in imagining an audience is to imagine oneself as a participant (discourse community anyone?).

    The first step in most games is make the character, right? Perhaps it is not a “rule” in the game which is troubling, but the absence of character creation that is the culprit.


  3. Long reply, sorry, but this idea of space/place you bring in is really interesting, Rob, and I thought I’d do some chasing. I’ll try to begin to approach question three.

    The new lens you bring into conversation with the writer-reader relationship is indeed interesting. From what I can gather, Auge’s critique of modernity is based on its design of space–the creation of the non-places that you describe. I think another writer, Paul Virilio, can help extend this critique to information technologies. For Virilio, the modern design of space begins with military engineering, which he details in Speed and Politics (1977); he explores how space is constructed (and later contracted) in an effort to control. Bratton, editor of my edition of Speed and Politics, makes the leap that “Today information is architecture by other means, framing and contouring the relative motility of social intercourse…[the city] is supplanted by other network media” (16-7). Here on Virilio’s foundations we have a somewhat disturbing understanding of the internet. Originally a feat of military engineering, the internet is the ultimate means to not only foster but manage circulation and movement.

    Based on this formulation supported by Virilio, I think that we can understand the internet as a kind of non-place, where not necessarily the management of bodies (like in Auge) is concerned but the management of perception: what I bring to my screen, what passes through my computer, and what I send to others. If we can see a parallel between the non-placeness of Auge’s modernity and the non-placeness of the internet, this continuation of Auge’s description becomes quite pertinent: non-places guide the masses through the use of texts that “are addressed simultaneously and indiscriminately to each and any of us: they fabricate the ‘average man’, defined as the user of the road, retail or banking system [or internet?]” (Auge 100). Non-places seem to fictionalize a sort of audience, namely one that is manageable, and that therefore becomes manageable (if we are to take Ong to an extreme). At this point the issue becomes political and quite interesting, but—hold on—what is the effect on students working in/through the internet?

    If we understand the internet in its depressing Auge/Virilio sense, the internet is indeed problematic. The problem arrives because it is the student who is managed by the non-place they’re writing through. Any text that the student writes to be posted will be pulled under forces the student probably cannot foresee; the text will be accelerated. This I think counteracts the efforts of a writer to fictionalize an audience because the internet will have already constructed something of an audience. Following this, the acceleration of perception might throw a wrench in the audience’s ability to fictionalize itself for a text in the internet. Already constructed as what Virilio would call a “dromomaniac” (dromos: Greek-ish for “race”), the internet reader shifts from text to text to text on the internet, truly, like an actually insane person might have whirled through books 50 years ago; can the reader truly “adjust when the rules change” (Ong 60) if the rules change with each text? Does the internet just break everyone who gets on for the ride? Virilio notes that “Reading implies time for reflection, a slowing down that destroys the mass’s dynamic efficiency” (31). This reflection isn’t the endgame of the internet’s logistics; that darned efficiency is, and it actively gets in the way of that reflection.

    These are the communicative problems that people generally and students especially face with the internet. What are the solutions?

    (However anti-internet this response sounds, please don’t bring up The Digital Divide. Justin knows my distaste for that book.)


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