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back to war

September 30th, 2006 by slewfoot

Music: Piano Magic: Writers Without Homes (1998)

After a depressing bout of bill paying, I’m back into essay writing. Today my War of the Worlds essay is back in front, and my thoughts about how to arrange it have changed. Originally, I was going to have a long, theory-heavy section on Agamben on sovereignty, then show how the film pretty much lays it out. Now, the argument has shifted from a description to explanation: the feelings the film evokes explain how people get caught up in fascism. Or something like that that.

To this end I’ll try to do a theory then film then theory approach, instead of the more chopped up approach. And Freud on group psychology will replace Agamben as my main man. Sorry Giorgio: you don’t have an explanatory mechanism for me; you just show me the horror of the what, not the why or how. Freud’s explanation of Hitler gets to the libidinal gravity of it all, so that’s where I’m going to take us. Here’s my re-written beginning. I worry it’s too Mickey Mouse, as my mom would say, but it’s just a draft:

In this essay I argue that the “vast political implications” of Spielberg’s War of the Worlds concerns the concept of sovereignty and its relation to what is termed the “state of nature” in political philosophy. More specifically, I argue that the civil pedagogy of War of the Worlds is, in fact, that father knows best, but only insofar as the father is understood as the absent patriarchical sovereign—the strong, seemingly omnipotent political figure that fails to appear within the filmic frame. If films can be read as the collective dreaming of a people, then War of the Worlds is a nightmare registering the fears and longings of a public besieged by “terrorists” less than six years ago. Interpreting this “dream” from the vantage of ideology critique requires, however, that we regard the surface of the film as a puzzle that obscures its latent, ideological content. On the surface, it is clear that Spielberg intends an obvious lesson in paternal responsibility: War of the Worlds is about a father’s attempts to shepherd his children to safety, rising to the challenge of fatherhood and realizing the importance of family, even if a given family is a “broken” one. Yet, because of the subtextual references to 9/11, I argue that War of the Worlds functions as a rhetorical inducement to yield to the figure of a strong leader or “sovereign” by deliberately creating feelings of helplessness and desperation. In this respect, I suggest that the father character played by Tom Cruise is synecdoche for an absent sovereign with the power to assert exceptions in times of crisis. Because of the overwhelming sense of dread created by the films pacing and special effects, War of the Worlds unwittingly teaches us how people become susceptible to dictatorship.

The Filmic Rhetoric of Exceptional States

If it’s not love, then it’s the bomb, the bomb, the bomb, the bomb, the bomb, the bomb that will bring us together.

—The Smiths, “Ask”

Disaster movies are . . . not so much about clinging onto dear life as making your way, out of the rubble, toward life with renewed perspective.

—Stephen Keane

Although War of the Worlds—along with The Blob, Invaders from Mars, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers—is party to the “alien invasion” genre of American filmmaking, the basic plot of Spielberg’s yarn is not so much about aliens as it is the behavior of people when they are reduced to what political philosophers term the “state of nature.” In the Western intellectual tradition, the state of nature refers to the mode of human existence in the absence of government, police, or the state. U.S. moviegoers are probably most familiar with this scenario in so-called disaster films: after some natural calamity, crash, or invasion, or in light of some impending catastrophe, a given community is forced to confront the absence of the State and to “get along” for survival. In the filmic versions of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, for example, a plane full of young schoolboys crashes on a tropical island and the children are forced to develop a system of government that, eventually, breaks down into two rival groups (one “savage” and the other, presumably, “civilized”). Analogously, survivors in the turned-upside down luxury liner in The Poseidon Adventure must band together under the leadership of a priest in order to escape their deaths. Whether the emphasis is on being stranded, lost, or trapped, disaster films usually concern what people do to protect themselves and each other when reduced to a basic human minimum: without the symbolic privileges of class, race, gender, and other socially significant markers, what do people do?
Traditionally, social and political philosophers have answered that in the state of nature, humans pick or follow a leader, which is why the concepts of sovereignty and the state of nature tend to be inextricably wed. Indeed, the concept of sovereignty descends from assumptions concerning how human beings would “naturally” behave in the absence of governance or the “state of nature.” If human nature was described as essentially other-oriented, empathetic, and “good,” then a thinker tended to argue in favor of republicanism and limited sovereignty. If, however, human nature was described as essentially self-serving and narcissistic, then a thinker tended to argue in favor of strong or absolute sovereignty.

Perhaps among the most famous arguments made in favor an absolute sovereign were penned by Thomas Hobbes in 1660, who wrote in The Leviathan that in the state of nature humans would behave as if at war:

In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

Hobbes argued that there are five fundamental “forces” of nature exemplified by
humans most blatantly in war: egoism, competitiveness, distrust, and glory and power
seeking. Only an absolute sovereign willed collectively by the people, he argued, could maintain justice and keep the peace. U.S. moviegoers are probably more familiar with Hobbes views on government than one would initially expect, insofar as Hollywood survival and disaster films frequently echo a Hobbesian pessimism. For example, in the Poseiden Adventure and Lord of the Flies, despite the fact that there is someone capable of nobility, most survivors are egoistic and distrustful and must be forced to obey a leader or suffer the perils of war.

In the century after Hobbes, however, Jean-Jacques Rousseau would base his social contract theory on the opposite view of human essence: human beings in the state of nature are noble savages, “born free” and inherently good but perverted by society. Such perversion results from the scarcity of resources that are a consequence of increasing populations, and to escape a progressively degenerate and deadly state of nature people must contract with one another to subsist under the rule of morality or law. For Rousseau, passage “from the state of nature to the civil state” occurs when a people recognizes itself as the “body politic” or capital-S “Sovereign,” which he likened to a rather large family. This comparison was obvious to Rousseau, who said the family was “the first model of political societies: the ruler corresponds to the father, and the people to the children . . . .” For Rousseau, the Sovereign is the people, and government fulfills the father function.

Although Rousseau’s more paternalistic and optimistic understanding of human nature is not as popular in Hollywood film, examples are not difficult to find. In Disney’s Swiss Family Robinson, for example, a shipwrecked family lives largely harmoniously (despite a coconut cannon ball barrage from a group of naughty pirates) on a desolate island because of the stability of the nuclear family structure. In Deep Impact, an asteroid hurls toward earth threatening the survival of the planet, but the wise, African American president played by Morgan Freeman brings the polis together by announcing a plan to blow up the asteroid before it hits earth. Instead of reducing people to a state of competitive distrust, the film’s characters band-together in maudlin displays of harmony in the face of imminent doom. Similarly, attacked by malevolent aliens from outer space, the world community bands together to fight the menace under the sovereign leadership of the United States air force in Independence Day.

Like most disaster films, Spielberg’s War of the Worlds re-stages the question of sovereignty by establishing its scene of action as the “state of nature,” but unlike its more simplistic siblings, the film is much more difficult to align on the side of an essential good or bad human nature. The film opens . . . .


September 28th, 2006 by slewfoot

Music: The Killers: Sam’s Town (2006)

  • Yesterday I completed the online application process for the NEH Summer Stipend program.
  • Yesterday I finished my application packet for the Summer Research Assignment Faculty Development Program, which is much longer and more of a paper-work hurricane than the NEH applications
  • Yesterday Rebecca Carruthers Den Hoed emailed to explain that the title of her conference paper was an homage to the work of my coauthor and me, and that she regrets not citing our article in the online abstract. She shared her conference paper with us, which cites our work repeatedly. She sounded quite contrite.
  • Yesterday I finally had a chance to clean downstairs; it’s clean for once. Of five neighbors I know, four of them hire cleaners. I do it the old fashioned way: with a glass of wine and blasting music (last night it was Brandtson—awesome, little known pop band).
  • Having finally finished what seemed like 40 hours of dedicated work in application for grants, last night I finally—-FINALLY—-got back to reviewing my notes for the War of the Worlds paper, which has been on hold for months. Last night I managed to get in an hour of the film and take notes: ” Cruise is running away from tripod. Woman in front of him while running is zapped;–he’s instantly covered in ash. (28 mins). Back home: what’s all this stuff all over you? What’s all this stuff? His kids ask. He washes his face off. ‘We’re leaving this house in 60s seconds.'”

I look forward to getting back to “writing” mode. I like that mode. I do not like “writing grant” mode. The former actually yields results. Because of the stuff I like to study, the latter usually does not.

One more question: can any of y’all rhetoric-y types suggest external grant opportunities for funding conferences? I know I have a research office to help me with those questions, but those folks don’t know rhetoric like y’all do, and some of you may have good leads . . . .

cheap date

September 25th, 2006 by slewfoot

Music: James: Laid (1992)

Around these here academic-ish parts, most folks are holding their breath until the first paycheck around October 1. Which means everyone is pretty much broke. Since circumstance and other calamities require me to freeze credit cards in a huge chunk of ice, budgeting tightly is now the order of the day. Saturday night was no exception. Problem was, I had a date and I had to treat my honored guest well. What do to?

You cook an inexpensive meal on your car, that’s what you do! Since I was in high school I have cultivated a rare talent: cooking food in tinfoil on your car engine. I was a Boy Scout for many years, so I was already familiar with expert tin-foil cuisine (“Hobo Dinner,” anyone?). Then I discovered the amazing cookbook Manifold Destiny and got creative. I used to cook wieners for tailgating at concerts at Lakewood Arena in Atlanta (now it’s Verizon stadium or something), and chicken parmesan for dates. I can recall doing the car cuisine date three times; twice it went very well, but I remember one lady from my teen years who was simply grossed out (obviously, it wasn’t meant to be).

(Here’s a picture of my current VW Golf stove) The problem with car cooking is that, as vehicles have become smaller and more efficient, so too have engines become cooler; some car engines—especially small compacts—are little more than rolling bun warmers. Old American brand trucks work best, but I always had Volkswagens. They did the trick until I got a Toyota Supra at 18, which ran too cool. Then, I had to “pre-cook” my food until about 10 minutes away from being done, and then transfer to the car. Typically, recipes for car-cooking are calculated by the mile and distance to drive. A turkey, for example, would take all day.

So how did the date go? Well: I prepared some eggplant parmesan, broccoli, and garlic bread and, when all but the bread (which I finished) were about 10 minutes away from being “done” in a normal oven, I placed them on my car engine. I picked up my hot date (shown left) around 5:30, and we commenced driving. Alas, it started to rain . . . HARD! I handed Brooke the directions to the “restaurant” and said she’d need to help me navigate. “I hope this place is not outside,” she said. “Umm,” I said, hoping the rain would stop. I said something about how Murphy of Murphy’s Law and me were pretty tight.

We were headed to a little known “public park” on the top of a water reservoir, strangely located in a residential area. The “park” gives a breathtaking view of the 360 bridge in West Austin. The only un-pretty thing about the park is the barbed wire fence that surrounds it, although when the coyotes started howling I was glad they were there. Anyhoo, as we were getting close to the park I said I had a menu she could look at in the glove box. It was a menu of “Café de Juice—on Wheelz!” that featured “Manifold Destiny Eggplant Parmesan,” etc. She laughed. Just as we pulled up the rain stopped (yay!)

After I harvested the food, we slogged through the soppy green and finally plopped on a spot. I prepared us plates and we commenced to eat our food and drink some wine; it was a little windy and chilly, but gradually the weather turned very comfortable. No bugs. The sun set slowly. Just as we were finishing up our meal, three teens chatting very loudly on their cell phone abruptly interrupted our romantic solitude with “Oh . . my . . . god” style young people shouting. They were so busy talking on the cell phone I have no idea how they were enjoying the view.

Thankfully, the cell-phone spoilers left (and not ironically, just as things started to get good). The sun started setting, and I suspect because of the recent storm, the colors were quite stark. Photographs cannot really capture the site, which was slowly and increasingly intense. We were joined at first by a very quiet neighborhood woman. Later, a man on a bike showed up and wanted to chat with us about the coyotes howling at sunset. We smiled but acted disinterested, so he left us alone to watch the sun settle.

As the sun got lower, the clouds slowly swirled into reds, pinks, and blues in an amazing display. “My god,” I said, “this is fucking disgusting.” What I meant was, it was pretty amazing and I am too cynical to say it; but it was literally a breath-taking sunset. I mean, wow. American sublime and all that jazz. I turned around and looked behind us, and the little park had started to fill with joggers, people with their dogs, middle-aged sunset addicts and the like

Right before dark there was wisps of color. I worried Robin Williams would show up with some tired monologue about spirituality (like in the worst film ever, What Dreams May Come). Thankfully, nothing maudlin. One gazer caught us as we were leaving. “Quite a light show tonight,” she said. “Gee, it was ridiculously pretty,” I said (or something like that). “Are the sunsets always this pretty?” The woman replied “no,” that it was the recent storm that helped with the color. We said good evening, then made our way to Lala’s, a bar where it’s “Christmas All Year Round” and had a round and talked about the sun and the history of the bar.

Some people really need fancy clothes, fancy food, and candlelit dinners in a highly visible/trendy spot to “feel the romance.” We call them shallow yuppies. For a complete gallery of the deep gruftie hippies on a shoestring budget date, you can click here.

grant grubbing

September 20th, 2006 by slewfoot

Music: Tim Buckley: Dream Letter: Live in London 1968

Teaching like crazy and publishing your ass off is not enough for the University of Texas. After a “Dean’s Retreat” the chair sat me down and instructed me that I need to be applying for grants. Of course, the key to the kingdom or “coin of the realm,” as my colleagues put it, is academic publication, but securing funding is quickly becoming the more important task of the professoriate. Insofar as most of my work does not require grant money, this leaves me somewhat in a pickle.

Now, if I had my way, I’d teach one class a semester (and consequently, teach very well) and write and research the rest of the time. Dean-ish types, however, would like me to secure thousands of dollars to fund my next road rage stressor study. This is not good for humanities scholars. I recall when I interviewed at the University of Georgia some years ago that a number of the professors were researching (that is, basically doing content analyses) internal tobacco company memos. They had won a grant from the government—hundreds of thousands of dollars I think—to do this. Talking with some of the PIs, it seemed a bit like the tail wagging the dog.

Regardless, I do as I am told. So I’ve applied for an NEH Summer stipend. I will apply for grant money to co-host a conference with Texas A&M colleagues for graduate students. And I am applying for a Summer Research Assignment grant (almost ten grand) for next summer. I thought I’d share my application with you all in hopes the more grant-y of you have some helpful suggestions. It’s modeled on a successful proposal crafted by my friend Angela.

I’m tired. Today I woke up to a telephone ring at 7:00 a.m. I remember thinking, as I came to consciousness, that sometimes I do not love my job at all. I didn’t want to get out of bed because I had to edit this &*$#@ thing.



PROJECT TITLE: “Collective Memory and the Recorded Voices of Nine-Eleven”


A Summer Research Assignment is requested to support the research and writing of a chapter-length essay analyzing the voice recordings of victims of the attacks on the World Trade Center Towers on September 11, 2001. This essay will form a chapter in a planned book-length project in rhetorical studies that examines the way in which the recorded human voice performs a number of important cultural functions, from mourning and remembering to repressing and forgetting. Because many scholars, journalists, and public figures have described ours as the “age of the image” or spectacle (e.g., Guy Debord; Neil Postman), it is commonly believed that human speech has declined in centrality and influence over the past century. The proposed book project, tentatively titled “Haunting Voices: Mass Media, Speech, and Transcendence in Postmodernity” (hereafter “Haunting Voices”), will argue otherwise, suggesting that as U.S. public culture becomes increasingly saturated by the image, the more central the human voice is becoming as a token of human authenticity. Strangely, the disembodied, recorded voice has become one of the primary ways in which human speech haunts our daily lives.


When one attends to the presence of recorded speech in daily life, it becomes ubiquitous. From voice mail messages to the replaying of a conversation in one’s head, traces of past speech saturate our lived experiences, from the mundane to the monumental. Regarding the latter, any cursory review of news media segments on the events of Nine-eleven reveals that the recorded voices of emergency personnel are frequently used to “anchor” an image as “real.” As Steven Conner has argued, because humans tend to forget speech in favor of imagery, each re-encounter with a victim’s pained voice in a Nine-eleven media event becomes a haunting experience of a human “presence” that shocks hearers into reckoning with mortality. Similarly, the canned-laughter or “laff track” on television situation comedies haunts viewers as a token of audience presence when, in fact, the laughing voices are just recordings. Canned laugher can be said to mourn the disappearance of the studio audience during the taping of television shows, and its continued use as a generic component of the “sitcom” can be described as an attempt to make the show not only seem funnier, but somehow more humanly authentic.

Another example of the use of the recorded voice as a token of authenticity is a recently exhibited collection at the Library of Congress titled “Voices from the Days of Slavery.” The collection features 23 voice recordings of former slaves and victims of discrimination speaking about their experiences. Leonard Kniffel reports that the recordings, many of which were made by journalists for the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, are “amazing” and “stunning”: the director of the collection, for example, “points out that a written transcript cannot convey the anguish in a man’s voice as he explains to his 10-year-old grandson what it was like to fight for his country in World War II only to be denied, upon his return, admission to an American movie theater because he was black.”1 Whether or not it is true, the belief that the recorded human voice is more “real” than pictures is widespread in U.S. culture, and its use is most conspicuous in moments of cultural remembrance and memorialization. My project will document and explain this belief. “Haunting Voices” will also attempt to explain why the recorded human voice has functioned as a mark of authenticity.


Although my book project is predominantly concerned with an analysis of the use and function of the recorded voice in contemporary U.S. public culture, it also attempts to resist a trend toward the study of visual culture in my home field of Rhetorical Studies, which is a sub-field of Communication Studies. Because Communication Studies is a relatively new discipline in the academy, and because “Haunting Voices” addresses and draws from Communication Studies literature, a brief description of the field is helpful.

Scholars in Communication Studies generally trace the field’s history to the formation of the National Association of Academic Teachers of Public Speaking in 1914, the debut of its journal, The Quarterly Journal of Speech in 1915, and the gradual emergence of departments of “Speech” or “Speech Communication” in the subsequent decade. Before the field changed its name from “Speech Communication” to “Communication Studies” in the 1980s, with the exception of singing and voice training, scholars in my field taught and researched the human voice in many contexts: phonology, physiology, sound physics, vocalics and elocution, the psychology of meaning and thought, argumentation and debate, oral interpretation and expression, public speaking, and so on, were included. By the 1950s, Speech Communication had incorporated both social scientific and qualitative approaches to the study of human speech phenomena, and had expanded the object of study from speech to virtually any form of human communication. Abiding this trend toward expansion was a gradual decline in the study of human speech as such.

Owing to our peculiar institutional history, today Communication Studies departments are typically a motley or “interdisciplinary” group of humanities scholars and social scientists. Here at the University of Texas, for example, the Communication Studies department is home to the following content areas: Interpersonal Communication (quantitatively based social science); Organizational Communication (both quantitative and qualitative approaches; e.g. ethnography and survey based research); Rhetorical Studies (close textual reading, theory-building); Linguistics (e.g. microanalysis); and Political Communication (content analysis). My area is rhetorical studies, which has historically focused on persuasive speeches or the ideological influence of cultural artifacts (e.g., film, music, memorials, and so on).

Over the past decade and a half, rhetorical scholars have devoted increasing attention to “visual rhetoric” and studies of the image. Noting the ubiquity and centrality of the image–especially the screened image–to contemporary public discussion and debate, leading scholars such as Barbara Biesecker, Dana Cloud, Kevin DeLuca, Anne Demo, Robert Hariman, John Lucaites, and Daniel Schowalter have published a number of studies that center on image and imagery as the most important locus of influence in our time. This trend in scholarship is part of a larger, disciplinary shift away from the analysis of human speech and speech activities. Although many of my colleagues would argue that “speech” no longer seems to represent the varied objects studied in our departments, some scholars have argued for a renewed interest in the object of speech. For example, Frank E.X. Dance has urged scholars not to abandon almost a century of scholarship on what remains a central form of human expression. My project participates in this ongoing discussion about what communication scholars in general, and rhetorical scholars in particular, should select as our objects of study. Although I agree that the project of “visual rhetoric” is valuable and helpful, “Haunting Voices” will advance an argument in favor of the centrality and persistence of the object of speech in our media-saturated environment.


“Haunting Voices” continues an approach I adopted in my first book, Modern Occult Rhetoric: Mass Media and the Drama of Secrecy in the Twentieth Century (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2005). In Modern Occult Rhetoric I compare the tortuous and difficult jargon of mystics and magi, such as H.P. Blavatsky and Aleister Crowley, to the contemporary argot of a number of communities and organizations. For example, I compare the function and motive of difficult prose in so-called postmodern theory in academic circles to the hermetic argot of alchemists. My approach to modern occult phenomena was to show how common occult rhetoric is to our everyday lives–how we are all, in one way or another, witches and warlocks using language to perform professional and social forms of magic. Although my current book length project differs substantially, I nevertheless approach my object of study the same way: “Haunting Voices” attempts to demonstrate how ubiquitous the recorded human voice is in our daily lives and the ways in which our use and reliance on these voices is often forgotten or overlooked. All of my research to date has focused on demonstrating how the ostensibly strange or unusual is actually quite common and often central to our daily lives.

The book will contain theory-building chapters and analytical chapters that inform each other. The analytical chapters, in which I apply the concepts developed in the theory-building chapters, are case studies that document different forms of recorded speech. The method of analysis used is variously termed “rhetorical criticism” or “discourse analysis,” which consists of a close reading of a text, object, or series of either. Although I have no allegiance to any particular school, theoretically I draw liberally from the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan, and Melanie Klein to guide my research. Almost half of the book exists in draft form, and portions of four of the chapters have been published in scholarly outlets. I outline, seriatim, each chapter and briefly describe its contents.

1. Introduction: “Voice and the Idiom of Haunting”: The introduction of the book will double as a survey of thought on the human voice, including a detailed review of the work of Walter Ong and Jacques Derrida. Here I will directly address Derrida’s now famous critique of “logocentrism,” which refers to the privileging of speech in the West and the general human tendency toward “presentism” (e.g., the assumption that speech presences thought). Portions of this theoretical survey have already appeared in print.[2]

2. Theory-building: “The Voice Abject”: This chapter will synthesize Jacques Lacan’s views on human speech, Julia Kristeva’s work on the abject, and a number of studies that show how humans are “hard-wired” to respond to particular pitches and frequencies (e.g., a baby’s cries). Here I will advance the central concept of the book, “the voice abject,” which refers to an ineffable quality of human speech. The voice abject refers to the cause of the ambivalent response we have to recorded voices–delight, horror, or both depending on the context-and particularly in terms of the infantile experience of the primary caregiver’s voice (the “acoustic mirror”). Portions of this chapter have been published.[3]

3. Case Study: “Mourning Speech”: This chapter examines the recorded voices of emergency personnel trying to rescue individuals in the World Trade Center towers. The analysis draws heavily on Freud’s concept of the uncanny. A version of this chapter has already appeared in print.[4]

4. Case Study: “Talking to the Dead”: This chapter examines the ventriloqual performance of psychics and mediums who claim to “channel” voices of the dead. The primary exemplar is Crossing Over with John Edward, a syndicated television program in which a psychic claims to speak to the deceased relatives of audience members. A version of this chapter has already appeared in print.[5]

5. Case Study: “The Laughing Box”: In this chapter I analyze the history and use of canned laughter in television comedy shows. I will argue that the use of simulated laughter is actually a mournful practice that gestures toward an audience that is dying: the studio audience.

6. Case Study: “Speaking of Slavery”: Here I will examine two objects in relation to critical scholarship on the psychoanalysis of race. First, I will analyze the recordings of the slavery narratives of the “Voices from the Days of Slavery” collection at the Library of Congress. Second, I will examine the way in which the Library of Congress constructed and promoted the collection.

7. Theory-building: “Answering Machines”: This chapter examines the cultural practice of saving answering machine messages and voice mail recordings of loved ones, particularly those that have passed away. I have already collected a number of stories from friends, colleagues, and strangers that–to my surprise–mark the answering machine as a very common, though frequently overlooked, site of remembrance. In this chapter I will also engage the literature on hospitality in philosophy (e.g., I will suggest that human subjectivity is machinic and answers what Heidegger termed the “call of the Other” in responsible, humane acts).

8. Conclusion: “Collective Memory and the Recorded Voices of Nine-Eleven”: This chapter focuses on the legal battle between The New York Times and the New York city government over telephone recordings of the victims of Nine-eleven. I want to begin and end the case studies on Nine-eleven voices.


For the SRA period I will write the concluding case-study on the much publicized attempts of The New York Times, ostensibly on behalf of a number of the families of Nine-eleven victims, to pressure New York City authorities to release the taped 911 calls of individuals trapped in the World Trade Center. After a five year legal battle with the newspaper, city government officials eventually released a number of tapes in March and August of 2006. In addition to providing a historical narrative of the struggle between the New York City government and the newspaper over the tapes, I will transcribe and analyze the harrowing, grief-filled emergency phone calls of two deceased individuals, Melissa C. Doi and Shimmy D. Biegeleisenk. I will also transcribe and examine the way in which The New York Times editorialized these audio clips, which are currently available to the public via an Internet webpage maintained by the newspaper. An analysis of the rhetoric surrounding the release of the tapes, what is actually said in conversation between the victims and the emergency personnel, and the way The New York Times’ journalists edited and framed the calls, will help to answer a number of questions: (1) Why do the families of the victims believe these disturbing phone calls are important? How do the families and their advocates describe these recorded human voices? (2) Do the advocates of the release of the tapes describe the human voice in ways that go beyond or transcend what was actually said (e.g., meaning)? (3) What is it about the calls that is “chilling” or stunning? How do vocalics, tone, timbre, and word combine to communicate a sense of traumatic “realness?”; (4) How does the newspaper frame the phone calls, and what motives and interests do the producers and journalists working on this project seem to have? Is the act of publicizing these disturbing phone calls an attempt to mourn loss, to make money, or both?

Once the case study is drafted, I will pursue a version of it as a stand-alone publication in a scholarly journal. I will then redraft the essay into a book chapter once a number of related chapters have been drafted. Finally, I intend to use this case study as a writing sample as I pursue a book contract with an academic press. A Summer Research Assignment will provide me two, solid months of time without teaching duties to write an essay and generate a book proposal.


“Haunting Voices” is an interdisciplinary book project, of which the essay on the recorded voices of Nine-eleven will form a substantive part, which contributes to scholarly discussions on collective memory, mourning, and memorialization. The book will appeal to scholars in the fields of rhetorical, cultural, and performance studies, as well as scholars interested in collective memory, cultural mourning, and media ecology. From a disciplinary vantage, the project intervenes in an ongoing debate regarding the proper objects of study in the field of rhetorical studies, which I argue should include actual speech. From a wider vantage, the book attempts to join the voices of my colleagues who argue in favor of the study of sound and the sonorous. We have ample studies of visual culture and the image, but relatively few book-length studies on sound and human speech as important cultural objects. Finally, although three of the case studies are not about cultural trauma or Nine-eleven, I think the project nevertheless contributes to a larger, scholarly reckoning with the events of September 11, 2001. “Haunting Voices” is not only a scholarly study, then, but also a project of mourning that I hope will contribute to our larger, collective attempt to reckon with the traumatic events in our country’s history.


[1] Leonard Kniffel, “The Haunting Sound of a Voice.” American Libraries (December 2005): 39.

[2] Joshua Gunn, “Mourning Humanism, or, the Idiom of Haunting.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 92 (2006): 77-102.

3 Joshua Gunn, “Gimme Some Tongue: On Speech and the Voice Abject.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 93 (2007): forthcoming.

4 Joshua Gunn, “Mourning Speech: Haunting and the Spectral Voices of Nine-Eleven.” Text and Performance Quarterly 24 (2004): 91-114.

5 Joshua Gunn, “Refitting Fantasy: Psychoanalysis, Subjectivity, and Talking to the Dead.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 90 (2004): 1-23.



Biesecker, Barbara. “Remembering World War II: The Rhetoric and Politics of National Commemoration at the Turn of the 21st Century.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 80 (2002): 393-409.

Brogan, Kathleen. Cultural Haunting: Ghosts and Ethnicity in Recent American Literature (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998).

Caputo, John D. The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida: Religion Without Religion (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997).

Caruth, Cathy, ed. Trauma: Explorations in Memory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995).

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plagiarism again?

September 19th, 2006 by slewfoot

Music: Rilo Kiley: More Adventurous (2004)

They say that intellectual theft is the sincerest form of flattery, but I call it stealing. As I reported earlier this year, huge chunks of my book were lifted, verbatim, on a conspiracy theorist’s website. On a Vanity Google last night I ran across another larcenous nugget o’ liftage, this time from a graduate student in Canada.

This January Shaun and I published “Zombie Trouble,” an essay that likens the failure of rhetoricians to tackle the problem of determinism to a fear of zombies. Central to the essay is an elaboration of the category of the unconscious as a dynamic locus of ideology. Here’s our abstract:

In order to help frame a current theoretical impasse, in this essay we forward the figure of the zombie in Western cinema as an allegory for the reception of the concept of ideology by communication scholars. After noting parallels between (a) an early academic caricature of ideology and the laboring zombie; and (b) the subject of ideological interpellation and the ravenous, consuming zombie of more recent cinema, we suggest that rhetorical scholars have yet to move beyond an obsession with the laboring zombie. To escape the connotation of determinism that haunts ideology critique, we urge an acceptance of the category of the unconscious and a focus on ideology as a force of subjectification.

Key Words: ideology, interpellation, living dead, psychoanalysis, subjectification, the unconscious, zombie

Apparently, Rebecca Carruthers Den Hoed has had similar thoughts. At this year’s annual meeting of the Canadian Society for the Study of Rhetoric, this individual presented a paper titled “Zombie Trouble: The New Unconscious and Rhetorical Agency.” Hrm. Here’s the abstract:

Rhetoric has celebrated the agency of the autonomous, intentional, conscious rhetor for centuries, aligning conscious, intentional, and (by extension) rational suasion with the production of powerful rhetorical effects since the time of Aristotle. However, under the influence of poststructuralism, rhetoric has begun to re-examine some of its assumptions about the rhetorical agent and agency: e.g., challenging the assumption that rhetorical agency is something individual agents always already “own,” and investigating agencies that lie beyond the control or awareness of individual agents. However, the current debate over rhetorical agency still tends to neglect investigations of unconscious suasive processes, processes that might very well explain some of the ways rhetorical agency lies beyond the control or awareness of an individual rhetor. To address this lack, I intend to bring to bear some of the most recent theories of the unconscious on the core assumptions of the current debate over rhetorical agency; however, unlike the few scholars currently undertaking similar projects, I intend to extend my consideration beyond Freud’s or Lacan’s respective views of the dynamic unconscious – views that, while deeply embedded in poststructuralist theory, are painfully out of date and limited in scope. Rather, I will focus my attention on theories of the “new unconscious”: theories gathering considerable force in psychological
circles, and theories that should not be neglected in the current debate simply because rhetorical scholars are less familiar with them. While these theories of the “new unconscious” do not negate key aspects of Freud’s or Lacan’s view of the dynamic unconscious, they extend far beyond these views, and cut deeper into some of our core assumptions (and anxieties) about rhetorical agency.

Well, not exactly identical, but close enough to make me blog about it. I mean, these are not ideas unique to us, but the friggin’ title: at least give us credit for the Butler-riff! Jeez. Here’s her email address, should anyone want to drop her a note.

a lovely link courtesy of laura sells

September 17th, 2006 by slewfoot

Music: Scissor Sisters: Ta Dah (2006)

voices in the head

September 15th, 2006 by slewfoot

Music: The Smiths: The Queen is Dead (1986)

My shrink and I have often discussed our attempts to get published. In some ways, I think it is easier for academics to get their books published because academic presses are typcially not-for-profit. It’s tougher trying to publish a book aimed at a more general audience; when Tom Frentz was trying to get Janice Rushing’s book published shortly after she died, he was told to get an “agent” and so on.

In any event, the therapist phoned to tell me, after many years of shopping it around, her first book is out! It’s fascinating stuff–and very approachable. If you’re too hung up on towing the proper, psychoanalytic line you may take exception to her approach, but the case is still fascinating. Check it out: Beyond These Walls: The True Story of a Lost Child’s Journey to a Whole Life here.

the countertransference

September 14th, 2006 by slewfoot

Music: Stereolab: Space Age Bachelor Pad Music (1992)

For seminar today I have been reading Aldo Carotenuto’s edited collection of diary entries and letters, A Secret Symmetry: Sabina Spielrein Between Jung and Freud. The collection is a disturbing portrait of a very troubled yet brilliant woman taken from Russia and placed in the care of Jung. Jung had a terrible tendency to let the transference go “all the way,” and they soon had an affair. It is clear that “his” idea of the anima was actually Spielrein’s idea, which he stole. Nevertheless, Jung decided to cut off relations and Spielrein transferred her affections to Freud, with whom she had a long, lettered correspondence (the editors and translators conjecture the death drive was also Spielrein’s idea). During her treatment Spielrein did improve and gradually became a well-regarded psychoanalyst herself. The Jung/Freud/Speilrein relation is an excellent example of the “bizarre love triangle” of hysteria—and an object lesson in why hystericization should not always be the direction of therapy.

One of the greatest difficulties psychoanalysis has faced, it seems to me, resides in the biographical lives of its many proponents: all these white patriarchs screwed (with) their patients, and serially (and in Jung’s case, with the blessing of his wife). (As a caveat, one might say this is also the case with psychoanalysis in rhetorical studies: a number of its proponents have been accused of screwing [with] their students too.) Reading Janice Hocker Rushing’s Erotic Mentoring, it would seem the same was true of women in the university pre-Anita Hill across the board. Readers who are from the younger generations should read Janice’s book, because it explains a who freakin’ lot about the weirdo dynamics of the academy (especially the discipline formerly known as Speech Communication).  Like the clinic, the mentoring relationships of graduate education are scenes of the taboo and transgressive love because the transference is the ground upon which one is supposed to learn; the firewall for countertransference would be, presumably, something called “ethics” or, more naturally, something called “age.”

Why do people talk when a patient and doctor get close? Why does the APA disown you if you marry a patient? Or closer to home, why do tongues wag when a student and teacher begin dating? It’s because people suspect that these kinds of attraction are less about “true love” and more about transferential power. Now, there would be some purchase to these suspicions were it not the case that all types of love are transferential. There is no escape from our projections; one falls in love because of a ruse and a false or empty promise—“love’s deception” that you can be made “whole.” There is, as it were, only the escape hatch of enjoyment—and thank freakin’ goddess for enjoyment—but that’s when things can get irresponsible.

Speaking of irresponsible enjoyment: last night I did watch the interview with Debra Lafave, the hottie 20-something that got down and dirty with a sweaty, athletic, 14 year old “boy” (yeah, I was that age once and I daresay I would not describe myself as a “boy”—nor athletic for that matter–but whatever). I had hoped it would reveal some very interesting insights into the countertransference. I had hoped the woman would at least defend herself just a teensy bit: look, young athletic 14 year old boys who lift weights and get all sweaty in front of you can be hot; it’s not like this kid was a prepubescent. I mean, I’ve seen The Jerry Springer Show and I know some 14 year olds can look like they are all grown up—smoking fags, drinkin’ beer, and getting tatoos. So I had hoped the woman would realize that feelings of attraction were “normal,” not pathological (she copped to the cloudy mind of bipolar disorder), and it was what she did with them that was not right. Nope: she disowned her attraction, thereby dismissing the transference and countertransference as the dynamic of pedagogy in all its forms. Oh well. bell hooks aside, a guess we’re still not ready to confront the erotics of education in any serious way.

I guess the interview only confirmed what many probably suspected: if the twin geniuses of psychoanalysis couldn’t even handle their countertransferential energies—irreparably damaging lives in some cases—then what does one expect a not-so-bright 23 year old to do with it? “I crossed the line,” said Lafave to Matt Lauer in the interview. Smart woman, she was. I was bored.

irrational academic neurosis #1

September 13th, 2006 by slewfoot

Music: Love Like Blood: Enslaved + Condemned (2000)

The longer I do this professor thing, the more I find myself offering advice to newer professor things, sometimes solicited, sometimes not solicited. In recent conversations with a number of first-year professors, I am reminded of what shall be known as “Irrational Academic Neurosis #1” (IAN 1): that what you have to say is obvious. Most of what I say on this blog, for example, occurs to me to be “obvious.” But I say it anyway. Why? Because what I have to say is probably not obvious to everyone. Besides, even if what I say is obvious to everyone, some of those everyones experience pleasure when my and their obviousnesses converge.

There is nothing wrong with the covergeance of obviousnesses; we call it consensus.

In the academy, there seems to be constant pressure for “brilliance” and “novelty.” This pressure is in part self-imposed. This pressure is in part commercially driven (“produce . . . or else!”). And I think this pressure is in part a structural determinant in the paradigm psyche of the academic: most of us were not the popular kids on the playground, and I daresay thrive on an underdog, “not good enough” mentality. We gotta grow out of this “not good enough” mentality folks–but keep that underdogness intact! We have to embrace our obviousness as potentially useful for someone!

This said: Matt Lauer is interviewing Debra Lafave on dateline tonight. I cannot wait to watch it so I can blog something obvious about teacher/student sex tomorrow!

anniversarial afterwardness

September 11th, 2006 by slewfoot

Music: George Harrison: All Things Must Pass (1970)

It goes without saying that the events of Nine-eleven have undoubtedly had a profound effect on my life and what I do for a living. I was watching the Today show in my small apartment in Minneapolis when the first plane struck the first tower. I remember I was proof reading a dissertation chapter that I had finished the previous day. I was not terribly alarmed, as I recall the newscasters were saying that it was possibly an accident, and I remember vividly the description of the plane was that it was a “small passenger plane.” The screened lives were anxious, but not alarmed.

When the second plane hit I recall the cameras caught everything, and the tone of commentators went quickly from “accident” to “attack.” One of my best friends, David Beard, phoned me and asked: “are you watching television?” “Yeah,” I responded, not really knowing what to think or feel. We sat on the phone together, stupid, for some minutes. At some point I remember saying, “and I suspect our article is going to run now.”

David and I had just revised and resubmitted an article on media coverage of the Columbine High School massacre. Drawing on the thought of Virilio and Baudrillard, we had argued that mass media outfits were deliberately prolonging a sense of trauma and emergency—elongating time—via teletechnologies of “real time.” We suggested that the aesthetic, distancing effect of “real time” coverage paradoxically made it easier to watch people die. As the events of September 11, 2006 continued to unfold (as footage of people flinging themselves from windows many stories up kept repeating on CBS) it was clear to both of us that the events of this day would metamorphose into Nine-eleven: the performative spectacle of collective subject formation of our generation, and probably many to come.

How can Nine-eleven become the traumatic ground of subjectification for future generations? I think in part it is because of the way trauma seems to work. First, there here is a real need—spiritual, perhaps—to commemorate and memorialize the dead, which gets tied up with confronting the trauma of that day. In seminar last week Brooke posed the question of Freud’s Nachträglichkeit as we were discussing the uncanny. Translated as “afterwardness” by Jean Laplanche, Nachträglichkeit is the notion that a given, traumatic event is re-created by a later event. What is experienced as traumatic is not the primary event, but the re-memory of that primary event. This second trauma is so much more horrible because it is the one invested with meaning. Laplanche explains:

trauma consists of two moments: the trauma, in order to be psychic trauma, doesn’t occur in just one moment. First there is the implantation of something coming from the outside. And this experience, or the memory of it, must be reinvested in a second moment, and then it becomes traumatic. It is not the first act that is traumatic, it is the internal reviviscene of this memory that becomes traumatic (in Richard Rushton, “The Psychoanalytic Structure of Trauma: Spellbound).

Trauma, in other words, is a fantasy thing; it cannot be equivalent to an experience of horror (which is ineffable), but rather, is a screen reckoning of that experience.

Knowing that there is a certain “ghost effect” or temporal disjuncture to trauma, as a rhetorician it is easy to see how the cultural trauma of our time becomes an opportunity for political reinvestment (war in Iraq, anyone? Guantanamo? Secret prisons?). In the span of time between experiential shock and retroactive/retrojective re-presentation, things get inserted—ideologically invested things. This is why anniversaries of Nine-eleven are so ambivalent. On the one hand, they are an opportunity to do the good work of mourning. On the other hand, they are an opportunity to exploit pain for political and commercial gain. The two are necessarily commingled.

Last night I wept as I watched a CBS special on firefighters. Two brothers were working on a “day in the life of a firefighter” documentary when the U.S. was attacked, and captured some pretty devastating footage of rescue missions. This was aired without commercial interruption. ABC similarly aired part one of their much maligned, “partisan,” dramatization mini-series of the attacks. There have also been two films in as many months released on Nine-eleven. We’re in the thick of our afterwardness experience; next to football season, re-traumatizing trauma is now the media commoditization of our time. One worries about who is making the money. One should worry about the political stakes of this deep psychodynamic labor.

Wars have been waged and thousands upon thousands have died; what could possibly be worse? What looms? Should we now all become scholars and critics of political rhetoric and ideological interpellation? It seems to me, as the maudlin machines continue their Nine-eleven widget-making, that cultural critique on matters of collective memory and mourning is the most responsible direction to take for scholarship in rhetorical studies.