a plug for black stone

Music: 18 Summers: Phoenix From the Flames (2002)

Dale Smith’s wonderful, dark new book, Black Stone, was released by Effing Press last week. It’s an unflinching and beautiful rumination of affect on the arrival of something new, and a goodbye to what must leave you in arrivals. An excerpt:

The violence is momentary. It’s the mind that shines by the smile, those lines lightly etched on the face. I could bring it down tight, relating a ritual commonplace. Look toward the beginning of a world. Another coming. This election year hypes a public spectacle cast by fabulous, dangerous, other-world creatures. But from another darkness, far out, the child floats in a fluid strangeness of space. From nothing into this so suddenly . . . .

You can pick up Dale’s book here for $12 (just send via paypal). Also, for you Austinites, there’s a fantastic reading scheduled this Saturday at 12th Street Books, 7:00 p.m., with Hoa and Farid and other groovy wordsmiths. Dale will be there too, and you can make him sign the book (or pick one up at the reading).

that daddy is dead!

Music: Basement Jaxx: Kish Kash (2003)

I just resubmitted the “Father Trouble” essay, after many troubled days of work. It’s at the point where I think it’s done, but I’m not sure, and I can endlessly tinker and so on and I worry that endlessly tinkering will unravel the whole thing into a messy heap of senseless claims and jargon. At this point, I think it’s just better to enlist the services of Oedipus (blinded, of course): I need a daddy to approve or spank, and at this point, either is welcome.

Regardless, it just feels good to check something off the list: done! School begins today, class begins on Thursday. Tomorrow is another stressful day of “getting-my-life-in-order” meetings, and all of this is mediated by the mold remediation efforts of Instar Services. My neighbor just called, again, but I ignored it: she wants me to snap my fingers and make it all go away. Gee, I wish I could. I hope when I am 87 that I have more patience and empathy than my neighbor.

DJ Smokehouse Brown and I are going to inaugurate our last day of freedom by drinking bourbon and watching Bob Larson exorcize demons on Dr. Phil this evening. That should be fun!

I need to get outside and exercise before it rains; meanwhile, here’s a slightly modified conclusion to “Father Trouble.”

Concluding Remarks: Cruising Bush

Americans love their masters not simply in spite of their frailties but because of them.
—Joan Copjec (1994, p. 149)

In this essay I have argued that War of the Worlds tacitly promulgates an ideology of paternal sovereignty through its negotiation of the father figure. Insofar as (1) War of the Worlds deliberately recalls the events of September 11, 2001; and (2) negotiates trauma by restaging the subjective integration of the paternal metaphor, the film directly intervenes and participates in contemporary social and political realities. Socially the film restages the Oedipal process whereby a child becomes a subject by accepting the father as a representative of the authority of the symbolic world. To show how this is the case, I rehearsed Lacan’s refiguring the Oedipal rivalry in terms of the primal horde and the dead father-not the story of sexual differentiation that is usually associated with Freud’s theories. The spectator’s affective response to the film is in part explained by the way in which the film restages the subject’s introduction to the social world by integrating the paternal metaphor.

On the basis of this psychosocial labor, however, the film also mediates contemporary political discourse in two ways. First, like most of Spielberg’s widely watched films, War of the Worlds reflects current anxieties about the decline of the father figure in the United States and the consequent fantasy of the erosion of the nuclear family. Related to this cultural commentary, however, is a second, more disturbing ideological work: the film works to transfer the feelings of intimacy engendered for a representative of the symbolic father (e.g., infantile feelings of the spectator about a father figure) to the figure of the paternal sovereign-from the social sphere of familial life to the political domain of the State. As Lacan shows us, because the symbolic father is ultimately an operation or function and not a person, Ray’s doubling as father and sovereign is simply a matter of figural substitution at the level of fantasy. The affective economy set into motion by War of the Worlds, however, is the very same economy that underwrites all contemporary discourse. Consequently, I have suggested that the film, however unwittingly, is a pedagogy of dictatorship. War of the Worlds recreates the kinds of feelings of helplessness, longing, and love that are the preconditions of paternal sovereignty. I want to close by briefly suggesting the affective economy of the film is the same one that underwrote the years-long paternal regime of George W. Bush.

Of course, at this point I trust it is no surprise to readers that the analysis of War of the Worlds offered thus far is also a commentary on the Bush II administration.1 Although this essay advances an analysis of War of the Worlds, the critique is meant to detail how all cultural productions-not simply so-called news, presidential speeches, political talk shows, newspaper columns, and so on-participate in the affective economy of the political. Of course, as a story about fathers and an obvious restaging of the trauma of Nine-eleven, it is difficult to read War of the Worlds outside of the context of the United States government’s post-Nine-eleven policies, policies which, until recently, were widely supported by US citizens. Although psychoanalytic theory has its limitations, it is particularly useful for explaining the influence of affect in contemporary life; the social and political function of the symbolic father helps us to explain how War of the Worlds can be understood as a reflection of the very same affective preconditions that led to the support of a “real life” paternal sovereign for two terms of office.

As a number of scholars have commented, the conception of the sovereign as (1) the one who can assert the state of exception, and as (2) the one who decides what is and is not valuable life in the name of protection is easily illustrated by contemporary political and legal events.2 In War of the Worlds no political sovereign steps forward in the name of the symbolic father after the alien attacks. Shortly after Nine-eleven on September 14, 2001, however, George W. Bush toured “ground zero” and visited firefighters in a highly publicized attempt reconstitute his authority:

During his visit he stood atop the hulk of a New York City fire engine, which was partially buried in the rubble, and addressed a group of construction workers. One of the workers yelled, “We can’t hear you.” To that, Bush responded, “I hear you, the rest of the world hears you, and the people who knocked down these buildings will hear all of us soon!” (“43rd President,” 2004, para. 25)

After Nine-eleven the Bush II administration has repeatedly declared that the country is in a state of emergency (or in a “war on terror”) and has asserted that many of the controversial practices of the military and other government bodies (e.g., wire tapping, torture, and so on) are exceptions to the rule of law.3 In recent memory the most familiar assertion of paternal sovereignty in the Schmittian vein was George W. Bush’s “military order” on November 13, 2001 that authorized the indefinite detention of suspected “terrorists” at prison camps in Guantánamo Bay (Agamben, 2005, pp. 3-4).

Agamben argues that these more recent, post-Nine-eleven assertions of sovereignty are problematic—indeed, dire—for two reasons. First, they reflect a dark view of human nature as fundamentally dangerous or “evil,” which contributes the dehumanization and destruction of others as “terrorists.”4 War of the Worlds‘ many traumatic scenes-most especially the brutal carjacking and the murder of Ogilvy-reflect this view; as wave after wave of the “evil” alien Other decimates throngs of humans, the spectator is made to yearn more strongly for their decimation as well. Although the aggressive feelings inspired by the film concern either computer generated monsters or over-acting extras, these are the same feelings that have been cultivated in Bush’s post Nine-eleven speechcraft: feelings of survival and vengeance. Second, such assertions of sovereignty are symptomatic of a troubling political trend first noted by Walter Benjamin in the wake of the first total war and in the shadow of the second: “the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule,” meaning that the norm has collapsed into the exception, thereby tempting atrocity (Benjamin, 2003, p. 392). When a paternal sovereign asserts a continual and never-ending state of exception, argues Agamben, “when the state of emergency becomes the rule,” as War of the Worlds demonstrates so well, then “the political system transforms into an apparatus of death” (2006, para. 29). When the state of emergency becomes the rule, an individual has claimed the power of the dead father, someone has asserted that s/he not only represents the law, but has become the law. Such is the deadly lie of paternal sovereignty in the contemporary world.

Fortunately, War of the Worlds may also serve as a warning. Whatever one’s personal, political beliefs, it is clear that the international community thinks that George W. Bush has abused his sovereign power in the so-called war on terror. In a 2006 poll conducted last November by the British newspaper The Guardian, the United States is “now seen as a threat to world peace by its closest neighbors and allies” (Glover, 2006, para. 1).5 The poll report concludes that “British voters see George Bush as a greater danger to world peace than either North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, or the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad” (Glover, 2006, para. 2). These opinions are not new, since the descriptions of Bush as a “dictator” and “demagogue” surfaced long before public attitudes about the war in Iraq began to sour significantly in 2005; criticisms of his cowboy, go-it-alone style of foreign policy were widely known before the 2004 election. In light of these blunt criticisms of the president, the question many have asked is “why?” Why was a leader roundly criticized as dictatorial, hardheaded, and intellectually limited re-elected to office? Although Bush’s popularity has finally dwindled as a consequence of the failures in Iraq, why did people so fervently support the leadership and policies of George W. Bush?

Many pollsters and scholars have responded to the “why?” question by arguing that a large part of the answer is Bush’s “war on terror.”6 Echoing the opinion of a number of commentators and scholars, Peter Hart, a well-known public opinion research analyst, argues that the threat of terrorism decisively won Bush the election in 2004. What few have discussed, however, is the affective economy set into motion by the “war on terror” and the central role of Bush as a father figure who inspires feelings of love: as Freud said of group leaders in general, Bush’s continued success among a certain public has to do with his ability to refashion the superego such that previously impermissible acts-such as torture, wars of aggression, phone-tapping, and so on-become permissible as a consequence of a new, exceptional state of affairs. In Bush’s case, however, the model cannot be said to resemble the more recent, historical past. Whereas strong, dictatorial leaders of the World War II era represent a flawless sovereign, a political creature of absolute autonomy impervious to critique, even those few who continue to support Bush today are cognizant of his many shortcomings. The persistence of Bush is only explained by the way in which he inspires love in spite of his impotence, by the way in which feelings for a strong father have been transferred onto a dictator, and in this sense the arc of the Bush presidency closely models that of War of the Worlds‘ plot: Like Ray, the Bush presidency began with the theme of “deadbeat”; Bush’s meteoric rise to popularity was a direct consequence of Nine-eleven and the feelings of desperation and impending catastrophe catalyzed by the death of thousands. War of the Worlds not only replicates the feelings of Nine-eleven, but also uncannily tracks the narrative trajectory of George W. Bush’s rise to popularity as a paternal sovereign. Such a homology implicates what Lacanian critic Joan Copjec has termed the “unvermögender Other”-the impotent father or daddy without means-as more central to the patriarchal sovereign of contemporary American political fantasy than Freud’s ideal, unassailable dictator. The reason the spectator falls in love with Tom Cruise’s character in War of the Worlds is because Ray protects his children and comes to adopt the position of the symbolic father, the supreme protector and legislator, despite innumerable shortcomings and failures.7 Similarly, our sitting president was party to the same fantasy, moving from “bad” father toward the achievement of good parenting (“when it’s time to protect his people, George is a great dad!”). If one wants to understand why George W. Bush garnered support as a paternal sovereign, she needs to see War of the Worlds and reflect on what she feels about Ray.


1 So, too, is [reference delete for the purposes of blind review]. This essay is intended as a counterpart.

2 Moreover, Alan Wolfe argues that ” Schmitt’s way of thinking about politics pervades the contemporary zeitgeist in which Republican conservatism has flourished, often in ways so prescient as to be eerie” (Wolfe, 2004, para. 7).

3 The many legal transgressions of the United States government are detailed in the most recent report issued by the United Nations. See United Nations Economic and Social Council, Commission on Human Rights, Situation of Detainees at Guantanamo Bay, 62 sess., 15 February 2006. Doc. E.CN.4.2006.120.

4 For Hobbes, human “evil” reduced to what we might term survival instincts-the animality of human being. For Schmitt, the fundamental “evilness” of human being is neither our animality nor our capacity to do harm to others, but rather, a fundamental tendency to scapegoat the other, or to define “us” in distinction to “them,” that which Jacques Derrida terms “logocentrism.” In politics, this is the irreducible logic of “friend” and “enemy” central to Schmitt’s concept of the political (1996, esp. pp. 25-37). For a sustained critique of this logic at work outside of the political, see Richard Kearney’s work (2003).

5 Julian Glover, “British Believe Bush is More Dangerous Than Kim Jong-il, The Guardian (3 November 2006); available http://www.guardian.co.uk/usa/story/0,,1938434,00.html accessed 4 November 2006, par. 1.

6 For a good overview of the answers given, see James E. Campbell’s study (2005, pp. 219-241).

7 Arguably, another reason is because, after numerous controversial statements and appearances promoting the film, in the public eye, Tom Cruise is a hopelessly misguided Scientologist.

the burden of envoy

Music: Just1c3: (2007)

I have just finished draft of a difficult section from my “Father Trouble” essay on Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (my and Dana’s essay is on hold for a while as both of us “clean our desks” so to speak). I’ve been fortunate to have received a moderate “revise and resubmit” on the essay (and even more fortunate to have had one reviewer who dug it), but . . . the revision is proving very hard, given the charge of the editor. I want to share the charge because, I think, it points up a dynamic in my home field of rhetorical studies that is frustrating, but one that is also extremely important to make scholars-in-training aware of. I call it the “Burden of Envoy.”

The Burden of Envoy (of BEVY if you like) refers to the difficulty folks face when they desire to incorporate any part of the theoretical humanities into rhetorical studies. I am not one of the folks who bewail we are twenty-years behind, say, English (although I do decry the uncanny fear of the unconscious). That sort of charge is unfair, and especially given the constraints of the burden of envoy I am about to detail. Nevertheless, the mental labor that one is required to dedicate to explicating theoretical commonplaces in the humanities seems disproportionate compared to other disciplines.

Of what sort of labor do I speak, you ask? It is the labor of adapting to a reading audience that will expect to expend minimum critical labor themselves. The burden of envoy bespeaks a labor required by a scholarly ideology that is dismissive of difficult theory as “theory for theory’s sake.”

When I confront Lacan, I am immediately smacked in the face with my own ignorance; that leads me to seek out secondary sources and so on that will help me decode the Lacan. The recalcitrance of difficult prose goads me toward making it melt . . . (or at least fantasies of understanding). Apparently this not the effect of difficult theory on audiences of my work in my field. As an editor has said of my “Father Trouble” essay:

. . . I sense that the vast majority of [this journal’s] readers will be frustrated with the Lacan/Agamben discussion [in our essay]. Clearly you are committed to it, but why? I am not being facetious; I want you to in plain language explain your commitment to the reader so that one understands how these thinkers can be productive for [the field]. As you do so, clarify the relations among the “Fathers” and Paternal Sovereignty. Write as if you are talking to folks who do not share your investment in Lacan and who do not have the background in his thought. Consider this an opportunity to really make a major contribution to [our field].

In short, the burden of envoy is the posture one must assume to use difficult theory that is more accepted in the wider scholarly community. When using Lacan, for example, I cannot assume some rough familiarity with the Symbolic, Imaginary, and the Real—nor can I even assume a basic understanding of the category of the unconscious! Rather, I must always justify my recourse to Lacan or Freud (or Agamben, and so on) as an envoy in the name of utility—in the language of novelty and revolutionary change. I cannot simply perform a close reading of a film using Lacan and Agamben; that makes no grand gesture. Rather, every time I write using an unaccepted “theorist,” I must gesture toward a disciplinary revolution and a radical shift in thinking. Apparently you only get to do the critical work of modesty if you claim canonized theorists . . . like Kenneth Burke.

So far my early career has been built on doing the Electric Envoy Boogaloo. But I’m starting to tire of it—to get worn out, you know? It makes one want to jump ship and start publishing stuff in more interdisciplinary journals (which, of course, is not good for one’s tenure case). Ergo, I yield major props (and crops?) to those of you in my field who continue to publish inside of it. My heroes (and role models) in this respect are folks like Barb Biesecker, Carole Blair, Dana Cloud, Ron Greene, folks who push and push and push and thereby take on the burden of envoy. I remember a seminar that Ron taught at the U of MN many years ago (gee-was it FIVE years ago?) and we had this great discussion about how one had to “translate” theory into the field. He was so right about this.

So, I was charged to translate more of Lacan into communication studies, and re-wrote an entire section of the essay to explain my “commitment” to Lacan. I know I should have introduced a thumbnail of the symbolic, the imaginary, and the real-but I just couldn’t do it. I do that in every essay that riffs on Lacan, I just cannot bear to repeat that riff again. Instead, I tried to explain the symbolic, imaginary, and real father with out recourse to the “the b-knot.” I’m not sure I succeeded; at this point, I’m pretty beat and just want to watch 60 Minutes, read the newspaper, and vege-out.

Here’s the section, so eat your daddy-o out:

What is a Father?

We would be mistaken if we thought that the Freudian Oedipus myth puts an end to theology on the matter [of desire]. For the myth does not confine itself to working the puppet of sexual rivalry. It would be better to read in it what Freud requires us to contemplate using his coordinates; for they boil down to the question with which he himself began: “What is a Father?”

–Jacques Lacan (2004, p. 298)

The rivalry between Robbie and Ray over the care of ten-year-old Rachel implicates the familial conflict is Oedipal, but, insofar as Ray is divorced, not necessarily in terms that Freud would find familiar. Perhaps the most famous of Freud’s teachings, the Oedipal myth helped to explain the sexual dynamics of the Victorian family from the son’s point of view: the son was jealous of his father and resentful of the fact that the father prohibits him from loving his mother in a romantic way.i For Freud, father/son rivalry was an overdetermined conflict that resolved itself when the son learned to identify with and to emulate the father, seeking a substitute for his mother via courtship or dating. In this respect, Robbie and Ray’s struggle over Rachel in a state of emergency is something of an Oedipal echo. But is this struggle sexual, or does it represent something more fundamental? What can this filmic struggle over the care of a child tell us about the film’s paternal politics?

In his refiguring of the Oedipal myth, Jacques Lacan tempered the psychosexual aspect by underscoring the function of the father figure as “the original representative of the Law’s authority.”ii This figuring of the father directly links the failure of the State in War of the Worlds to Ray’s attempts to control and protect his children: at the level of signification, the homologous plots are actually different iterations of the same cultural operation of paternal authority. What spectators are watching on the screen-and the reason why some spectators respond with strong emotion-is a restaging of the emergence of subjectivity as such, which I will later argue is the affective precondition for sovereignty. With the help of Lacan, in this section I will focus on the Ray as a representative of the paternal function, preparing the way for a focus on sovereignty as the ultimate representative in the next.

What’s For Breakfast? or, Dead Daddios

In posing the rhetorical question, “what is a father?” Lacan’s immediate answer is-as is typical-cryptic: “‘It is the dead Father,’ Freud replies, but no one hears him” (2004, p. 298). What Lacan means to index here are three things. First, Lacan is suggesting that the dominant form of psychoanalysis in Europe and the United States at that time were ignoring Freud’s later works, such as Totem and Taboo and Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, which refigured his earlier explication of Oedipus complex.iii Second, Lacan is suggesting that the most important understanding of the father is one in which the father is “dead,” which is a reference to the story of the primal horde in Freud’s Totem and Taboo. Third, by asking the question and designating one kind of father as most important, Lacan implies that there are many other kinds of fathers; the father figure is a composite of many things that need to be disarticulated from one another to be better understood: the symbolic father, the imaginary father, and the real father.

Early in his work Lacan was concerned with the “contemporary social decline of the paternal imago (clearly visible in the images of absent fathers and humiliated fathers” and endeavored to understand the figure as a psychical structure to help explain this decline (Evans, 1997, p. 61). According to Dylan Evans, Lacan argued that real, biological fathers had to manage two frequently conflicting expectations.iv One the one hand, the father entails a protective function and is called upon from time to time to transgress social rules and laws to keep others from harm. On the other hand, however, the father figure entails a prohibitive and legislative function and is responsible for teaching social rules and making laws (see Evans, 1997, p. 61). Anyone that is designated a “father,” then, is typically asked to navigate these (sometimes) competing functions.

Later in his work Lacan would combine the protective and legislative function of the father in terms of what he called “the symbolic father.” Unlike the imaginary father, which refers to the idealization or image of a father that we harbor early in life, the symbolic father has more to do with signification as such and less to do with a real person. For Lacan, what is most important about the cultural figure of the father is neither the cultural myths about good or bad fathers, nor his sexual identity (male or female), but rather that, to the child, there is no higher authority than the father; he is the one who responds “because I say so!” in answer to the “why?” question. He is the one who appears to have the power to punish transgressions, as well as suspend the rules and norms in times of emergency or need. Consequently, this is why the father is the original representative of the Law as such; it was he who first uttered the word “no!” or, as Moses is said to have reported, “thou shalt not!”

This symbolic father is equivalent to the dead father precisely because he (or more appropriately, “it”) is not a living being, but rather an operation or function of Western society. When Lacan

interprets the Freudian account of the Oedipal conflict by claiming that it is essentially a symbolic matter, an act of substitution, a metaphorical operation . . . it is precisely in order to stress this relation to death, to distinguish between the father as an actual person . . . and the symbolic operation . . . by which the symbolic order of difference and mediation is established. (Shepherdson, 2000, p. 135)

The father as an actual person-that individual who is said to be the biological father of a child-is the “real father,” and should be sharply distinguished from the symbolic father, which, as a function or operation, is “dead.” To better understand what Lacan means by the symbolic and imaginary fathers, it is useful to recount the story of the primal horde in Freud’s understudied monograph, Totem and Taboo.
In Totem and Taboo Freud advances a story, extrapolated from Darwin, that he claims is homologous to the Oedipus myth and analogous to the development of each individual’s psyche. Basically, the story goes like this: in the beginning there was a pack or horde of brothers ruled by a chief who kept all the women to himself. Resentful of the leader’s unbridled sexual enjoyment, the brothers overthrow the primal father and murder him. “As soon as they kill him,” reports Laurence Rickels, “they do what comes naturally: they devour him . . . and as they kill and devour the detested father, they double over with indigestion and ambivalence overload, and thus they find they must also mourn him, that they are already mourning him” (1999, p. 41). At first the ambivalence leads to chaos-the war of all against all that Hobbes envisioned. Eventually, however, the brothers are (1) dominated by guilt and resurfaced love for the murdered father; (2) refashion the father as a “friendly ghost” or ideal father; and then (3) they vow to follow his laws themselves and agree there will be no more inbreeding (Rickels, 1991, p. 41).

Unless one separates the imaginary father as an image or ideal and the symbolic father as a function, it is easy to get the two confused. In fact, it is this confusion that Lacan suggests is typical of psychosis. Understanding the story of primal horde as a useful myth, the imaginary father is first represented by tyrannical father who imposes the incest taboo, and later as the friendly ghost, the ideal father. In this respect the imaginary father is “an imago, the composite of all the imaginary constructs that the subject builds up in fantasy around the figure of the father” (Evans, 1996, p. 92). Now, for each of us in “real life,” the imaginary father is an image of either the ideal papa or the horrible daddy (or sometimes both), an abstraction that Lacan suggests is the infantile prototype of gods and demons. Psychotics, or those individuals who are incapable of making distinctions between the world of images and the meaningful reality that most people share, typically confuse the symbolic father with the imaginary father. This is why the horde kills the primal father in a psychotic rage, and they are only able to recover from the resulting chaos, bellum omnium contra omnes, by accepting the law on their own. The primal father thus functions over the course of the story as the harbinger of the first taboo, the law of exogamy for the sake of sanity, the first resounding “no” that brings stability in death (Freud 1989b, pp. 500-503).

In life the primal father was powerful and was the law, however, in death he became even more powerful, for living is no longer a pre-condition for demands. For Lacan, this ghostly father that rules from beyond the grave is really no person at all, but the function of signification as such. What the myth of the primal horde and the dead father teaches us is that even if imaginary and real fathers represent the law, they cannot be or fully embody the law: the primal father was killed at the moment his corpse became the metaphor for the law of exogamy. In more common parlance, Lacan’s understanding of the symbolic father as a legislative function articulates the “rule of law,” that no one is above or beyond the law, including those who claim to represent it.

Like the stories of Oedipus and the primal horde, War of the Worlds demonstrates the interplay between the imaginary and symbolic father, announcing at the onset that it is another tale of the dead father by underscoring paternal failure at almost every turn (insofar as it is a film, and therefore a cultural fantasy, the “real father” is out of play here). In the widest narrative context, the failure of the State represents the patricide that leads to a state of emergency and a regression toward the state of nature (psychosis); the film thus collapses (or confuses) the imaginary and symbolic in the figure of Ray, who becomes the paternal imago for the spectator. The film thus represents the way in which the fallen father (State) is regurgitated by-or the way in which the paternal metaphor is integrated into-the broken but nevertheless functional family.

The film opens by establishing Ray as the typical “bad father” of filmic fantasy who has failed to emerge from his own adolescence: he is a half-hour late to receive his children in the beginning of the film; he drives a “hot rod” and is re-building a car engine on the kitchen table; he has no food in the house for his children to eat; when the destructive lightning begins to strike, he makes his daughter join him outside to watch it. In addition to his inability to protect and provide, Ray’s status as a representative of the Law’s authority is also repeatedly questioned: while throwing a baseball with Robbie in the backyard, he orders his son to finish his homework: “Your mom says you got a report due Monday. You’re gonna work on it when we’re done here.” Robbie says that it’s almost finished, to which Ray responds insultingly, “bullshit!” “Just do the report,” continues Ray, “we don’t send you to school so you can flunk out.” Robbie then evokes the ideal father of the film, his step-father Tim: “You don’t pay for it, Tim does.” In this scene Ray is shown to be a powerless enforcer because of a lack of both economic stability and maturity; after Ray angrily throws the baseball into a basement window, his impotence is further underscored when the ten-year-old Rachel counsels him on his parenting: “That’s not how you’re going to get to him. If you want him to listen to you have to . . . .” Ray interrupts, “What are you, your mother? or mine?” The figure of the mother is invoked here in terms of her prohibitive function: Ray sarcastically acknowledges his lack of authority by referring to the true parental power.v In other words, in the opening diagetic space of the film, the mother represents the symbolic father. The plot is thus announced as a process of substitution: how will Ray escape his status as the bad father to replace the mother as the representative of the law?

In the plot of the film, the substitution of the mother is achieved by literally removing her from the screen: she and her new husband are off to Boston, leaving the children with the bad father. The gradual ascent of Ray from his status as bad father to his ability to protect and command as a good father, however, is relatively swift and complete by first hour of the film. Not coincidentally, this transformation is signaled in a scene in which the previously ambivalent state of nature takes a horridly Hobbesian turn: after the conflict with Robbie over Rachel in the rural setting, they drive for some miles until they gradually discover hundreds of people marching toward the Hudson river. Suddenly, the family is ambushed at dusk by what seems like hundreds of feverish men who desperately want their vehicle (viz., a primal horde of sorts). Angry and determined to escape, Ray floors the gas and speeds through the crowd; a rock is thrown into the windshield and though the hole of broken glass Ray sees that he is about to plow into a woman holding a baby (the symbolism here is jejune, of course). He quickly turns the van away from the mother and child, only to crash into a telephone pole outside of a small neighborhood diner. In a scene that recalls the Los Angeles riots of 1992, a mob covers the vehicle and rocks it from side to side; a number of men break the van’s windows as women stand on the periphery calling for an end to the violence. One visibly panicked man tears through the broken windshield glass with his bare and bloody hands, signifying barbaric and primitive impulses (disturbingly, this man is African American).vi Ray is torn from the vehicle and beaten, and Robbie soon follows, leaving Rachel trapped as strangers pour into it. Abruptly, Ray pulls a gun from is pant waist and shoots into the air. The crowd is immediately silenced. “Get off the car! Move!” he screams, as the subdued mob accede to his authority as a father with the potential to kill. His authority is quickly challenged when another armed man approaches Ray unawares and takes the van at gunpoint. Nevertheless, in this violent scene Ray establishes himself as the father who, however flawed, has the power to protect by means of transgression-because of his proximity to death. From this Hobbesian moment onward, Ray’s children never doubt his status as their father-not simply as their real father, but in terms of his ability to represent the law in an otherwise lawless environment. Ray finally comes to occupy the position of the symbolic father, protecting his children from psychosis.

Shortly after the family escapes this mob scene, however, Ray’s function as the representative of the authority of the Law is challenged again by Robbie, and then, re-established with his daughter. This second challenge from Robbie is not about rivalry for the mother (Freud’s first dead father story), but rather concerns Robbie’s own desire to represent the Law by becoming a soldier with the power to kill (Freud’s second dead father story). Running away from another site of alien attack (a ferry dock on the Hudson river), the family suddenly find themselves in the midst of yet another battle in a country field. Dazzled by the bright lights and sound of explosions, irrationally-psychotically-Robbie runs away from Ray and Rachel with the obvious intent of joining the military. The camera cuts to the top of a hill, where soldiers admit, with some frustration, that their weapons are have “no effect” on the alien ships. Leaving Rachel near a small tree, Ray runs toward the top of the hill and catches up with Robbie. They wrestle and Ray eventually wins by sitting on top of his son, signifying his resolute authority in this conflict. Like the military’s weapons, Ray’s words have no effect on Robbie: “I want you to listen to me,” screams Ray. Robbie responds “I want to see this, I need to see this,” as Ray repeats over him, “no, you don’t! You don’t!” The spectator is then shown an apparently well-meaning couple trying to take Rachel, now yards away, and usher her to safety. As Rachel screams for Ray, he is forced to make a choice: either let his son go to his certain death, or rescue Rachel from the well-meaning couple. He must decide which life is expendable, and which is worth preserving; he must represent the Law at the very same time he cannot completely occupy that function.

The son and father stand and face each other solemnly as Ray decides to violate his charge as a protector and let his son go. Manic and overcome with a sense of mission, Robbie runs resolutely over the hill toward the battle scene (a psychosis indeed), while Ray retrieves his daughter from the couple, repeating, “I’m her father, I’m her father.” That Ray’s next words are “I’m her father” is significant because he is no longer Robbie’s father, thus hinting that, while he may be her “real father” in the space of the film, no one can be the symbolic father-unless, of course, he or she is dead.

The Signifying Substitution, or, Film for/as Culture

This understanding of the symbolic father “as dead,” or rather as the paternal metaphor and the legislative function, has important implications for the Oedipus complex, implications that come before the sexual differentiation that is often said to be Freud’s central concern (see Shepherdson, 2000, pp. 115-151). Symbolically, the prohibitive function represented by a real father intervenes in the mother/infant dyad so that the child is introduced to the social world outside of that primary bond; in this respect, the father represents the “introduction of a third term,” a fundamental cut into social reality that puts an end to what is a kind of harmonic, individual state of nature in which the child cannot distinguish itself from its mother (Lacan, 2004, pp. 65-67; Lacan, 1993, pp. 92-97). Understood symbolically, the father’s prohibition of the infant’s romantic love for the mother actually represents the demand that the child become a social subject and civic being (Lacan, 2004, pp. 297-300; also see Evans, 1997, pp. 61-64; and Fink, 1995, pp. 55-58). In this way, the figure of the father embodies the charge to protect via prohibition, and thus the original conflicting expectations for the father-to protect and to deny-become two iterations of the same legislative operation. By denying the child complete identification with the mother, the father figure “triangulates” the relationship, giving the child another point of reference and thereby introducing her to the social world, the world outside of the myopic mother-infant dyad.vii Without the intervention of the “no!” and the new point of reference for the child, Lacan argues, “the constitution of the subject is in jeopardy” (Shepherdson, 2000, p. 127). Lacan suggests that the resulting subject can become psychotic, unable to distinguish between illusion and the symbolic world the rest of us share (Lacan, 1993, pp. 190-195). Metaphorically the story of the primal horde details this story: the brothers encounter the primal father as a limit or prohibition, they identify with the father by killing and eating him, and later in guilt internalize “the law.” They realize-only in retrospect-that the father’s law was protecting them all the time. Regardless of which dead father story one prefers (Oedipus or the primal horde), self-conscious subjectivity is a succumbing to the symbolic world of meaning for our own sanity, the world of limitation and the world of “no!”viii

The concept of the symbolic father helps us to rethink the Oedipal dimensions of War of the Worlds in a way that goes beyond Ray struggling to assume the position of the symbolic father. War of the Worlds can be read as a negotiation of the anxieties of subjectivity itself at multiple levels of the narrative. For example, the scene in which Ray and Robbie wrestle over whether the son will be allowed to flee to his ultimate doom can be read as the struggle of the psychotic subject to integrate the paternal metaphor, to succumb to the symbolic and overcome imaginary delusions (in this case, of grandeur). At no point in the scene is the spectator asked to empathize with Robbie’s desire; we long, rather, for Robbie to accede to his father’s command in the name of paternity alone. In other words, the father-imago of Ray is fashioned to help audiences negotiate social anxiety about the paternal function and to accept the Law, even if its representative–or rather, especially because its representative–is a flawed human being, a former dead-beat.

Finally, understanding that the father is not simply a real person but someone who represents the Law as such implicates War of the Worlds in a larger cultural crisis of lawlessness that the bad, absent, or incompetent father betokens. Of course, Spielberg has acknowledged that problematic and haunted fathers are central to his most widely watched films; they reflect his once strained relationship with his own father after his parents divorced.ix Spielberg’s filmic fathers also register, however, a presumably alarming cultural trend decried by scholars who study the family:

More and more single women are deliberately having children . . . and more and more lesbian couples are raising children, seemingly eschewing or downplaying the importance of the father. Combined with the de facto increase in the divorce rater and the consequent increase in the number of children being raised solely by their mothers, and with the growing antiauthoritarian attitude toward children among men . . . the paternal function seems to be in danger of extinction in certain social milieus. (Fink, 1997, p. 110).

Most recently fatherhood has been implicated in the so-called crisis of masculinity and the presumed decline of positive male role models for boys, which has been said to cause everything from truancy to gang violence (see Edwards, 2006; Silverstein & Auerbach, 2001). Robbie’s refusal of his father’s authority and his blind march toward his own death reflects this cultural fantasy: without a positive father figure, young men go nuts. However unfounded we find these cultural fantasies to be, what is instructive about them, and what a psychoanalytic approach helps us to see better, is that they are actually not about this or that specific and real father, but about the law-giving and law-sustaining function of the symbolic order or representation itself, “the paternal function.” Lacan’s theory of the father thus helps to explain how War of the Worlds works at a psycho-affective level toward a cultural politics external to the film, the politics of signification as such.


i See Sigmund Freud, New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, trans. James Strachey (New York: W.W. Norton, 1961), 107-194; and Sigmund Freud, “The Dissolution of the Oedipus Complex,” trans. James Strachey, The Freud Reader, ed. Peter Gay (New York: W.W. Norton, 1989), 661-665.

ii Lacan, Écrits, 299.

iii The context of this statement is a discussion of the Oedipus complex, which Freud suggests is also reflected in the story of the primal horde in Totem and Taboo. Below I detail more about this relation, however, here Lacan is charging other schools of psychoanalysis for ignoring how Freud re-figures the Oedipal in later work to suggest that there is an important role for the “father” prior to sexual differentiation (see Shepherdson, 2000, pp. 115-151).

iv More technically, the “real father” is the individual who is said to the be father, not necessarily the biological father, which implies that even the real father is a symbolic subject.

v In other words, the “mother” evoked here is representative of the symbolic father. I underscore, again, that the symbolic father is a function, not a person. Here, the mother of Ray’s children occupies the father function because Ray is a “bad father.”

vi Given the way in which this scene recalls the L.A. riots about the brutal police beating of Rodney King, it is a commentary on the underlying racism of the film, which is overwhelming in its “whiteness.” Space prevents a discussion of this aspect of the film, however, whiteness is a consistent theme in Spielberg’s work.

vii Again, this theoretical point is more technical than space allows. The function of the “paternal metaphor” here is to provide a new object choice for the child, and thereby an escape for the narcissism of primary identification (see Shepherdson, 2000, pp. 121-140).

viii For Lacan, then, the symbolic father is really nothing more than a metaphor for the institution of what he calls the symbolic order, the world of language and representation. This order is often contrasted with the “imaginary” and the “real,” however, space prevents a thorough account of Lacan’s three registers. Furthermore, I should note that at times Lacan refers to the symbolic father as the “Name-of-the-Father” in order to emphasize that it is a function, and not a person. Extending an example first made by Fink (1997, p. 80), the present discussion of Lacan’s theory of the father is a good example of the theory: throughout this section I have invoked the name of Lacan as a signifier of authority, not the flesh-and-blood human being of Lacan (who is, in fact, a real dead daddy); his name turns on some and turns off others, but it is the appeal to the name itself that rhetorically communicates authority.

ix The Oedipal themes central to his films are numerous: “Indiana Jones, for example, was estranged from his Holy Grail-chasing father in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Cruise’s futuristic investigator in Minority Report is haunted by his failure to protect a dead son. The robot boy in A.I. Artificial Intelligence was searching for a connection with his creator “father.” And a fussy grown-up Peter Pan in Hook neglected his children until they were snatched away to Never Land, where he rediscovers his better nature” (Breznican, 2005, p. 1A; also see Stephens, 1997).

update on stuffs

Music: Jerry Garcia Band: Don’t Let Go (1976)

Owing to the surprising smashing discussion on Sunday’s diversion on “magical voluntarism,” and the wee bit of progress I made on the essay yesterday, I had hoped to post part II of that paper on the blog today. Alas, fans and shit have collided yet again, and so this day shall be consumed by waiting on various others to repair and fix and dry. Since I’m sitting here waiting on the third visit from the plumber, I thought I’d update the three of you who have been following the home repair saga (as well as other hanging threads).

Cosmo Update

Cosmo the Super Rescue Kitty returned to his new adoptive parents’ home on Saturday after a stint in the kitty hospital. Since that time, he has been eating his prescribed diet of chicken and green peas without vomiting, and making good doodie, so it appears he is very much on the mend. He has “Inflammatory Bowel Disease,” a chronic problem but one that can be managed with diet. Hooray (thanks for those of you who offered a prayer or sacrificed a goat)! His new family takes really good care of them, and this incident helped to create on of those bonds—you know, the sick animal gets better bond. I’m relieved and also thrilled he’s found such a loving home.

Image Rights with Apple Inc.

Some of y’all may recall Mirko has an acceptance for our iPod essay (yay!) pending minor revisions. We made all the revisions over two weeks ago. The last task was to get permissions for the images we want to reprint. I thought I had the rights before we submitted the essay for the second round, but apparently I talked to the wrong person at Apple Inc. The image of the iPod vibrator was approved by its maker, as was the Jesus on the cross with an iPod image (a shout-out to Tim Hall on this: thanks!). The final image is one of those silhouette iPod print ads circa 2004. So I call the iPod press rep for a week, she doesn’t answer. The second week she does answer, but will not give me a straight answer: she keeps saying “all that is available to the press are images of the product.” Does that mean I cannot use this specific image? No answer. Finally after this woman does not call or email me back for a couple of days more (nor did her superior, the vice-superior, or the legal department at Apple), I call the 1-800 number and explain to the operator my problem. She puts me in contact with Sue Carroll, who handles rights and permissions for the whole company, not just the iPod. Sue is awesome, she speaks directly with me, apologizes for the trouble with the other people, and gets on it. Three days pass and she emails me to say Apple approves, but she’s waiting to hear from the ad agency, Media Arts Lab, to see if there are any rights issues on their end. Two more days pass: yes, I need talent clearances from the photographer and model (basically, I need their blessing), and I have a PDF contract agreement. Call the model’s agency, no one returns my call. Call the photographer’s studio. No one returns my call. The next day I call model agency again, get a guy who says I need to speak with the model’s rep, who has moved to New York. I call her in New York, she wants a copy of the agreement. I email that to the rep, and here we are four days later: haven’t heard from the rep. Haven’t heard from the photographer. Meanwhile, I send the agreement to the editor, who sends it on to Taylor & Francis. T&F has a problem with the agreement, since it precludes their selling our essay to someone for a textbook or something, and has a few questions for Apple. Apple responds that they have no problem with the downloadable versions of the essay in www.informaworld.com, nor do they have any fees for us. They just want T&F to check with them if they decide to sell the essay to another publisher for a book or something (a practice that apparently T&F does, but I didn’t know this). So now the editor and I are waiting to hear back from T&F . . . who will probably say “no thanks,” which means over two weeks of work on permissions was all for nothing, and that I’ll have to re-write a section of the essay that refers to this specific image.

The moral to this story: if you want to reprint an image from Apple Inc. and [ooh, plumber just called, they are on the way] . . oh, as I was typing, if you want to reprint an image from Apple Inc. for a Taylor & Francis journal, save yourself a lot of work and get with Nancy Reagan: JUST . . . SAY . . . NO THANKS!

Niagra Falls in my Walls

Last I left you, gentle reader, the moldy wall in my house and in my neighbor’s house were taped up with plastic and painter’s tape to “contain” the mold. Last Thursday a “mold hygenicist” came out to survey the situation and develop some “protocols for abatement.” He said he would call the contractor and verbally tell him what’s up so that work could begin, but that the report would take a week. The contractor said he’d call me Thursday afternoon or Friday and tell me what the schedule would be. He did not call.

On Monday I called the contractor, left him a polite but direct message (e.g., “if you’re too busy to do the job, I have two other companies that were recommended”). He called back within an hour, said that before he could begin we needed another expert—an asbestos person—to come out and test for that, and if things were fine, we’d rendezvous on Wednesday night for a key drop-off, and work would begin this morning. Of course, the contractor never called back yesterday, after I left two messages for him. Last night he called, apologized, said he was in a 9-hour training meeting and so on. I said twice not following through was a red flag for me, and then proceeded to give him a piece of my, you know, mind and stuff. After he assured me he would follow through, we agreed folks would begin today at 9:30 a.m.

On of the remediation folks was here at 9:30 a.m., a real nice guy named John. We talked about what more I should move around and so forth, where the retainer wall would go, and so forth. Then we went to Kay’s, where we discovered the carpet was soaking wet.

“Holy Fuck!” I exclaim. “Oh, sorry Ms. Kay—my mouth sometimes opens before the censors can turn on.” There is a leak somewhere, for certain. He looks around Kay’s walls with a moisture meter, but we find nothing. We go to my place. High moisture. We look where the original problem was: what ho! It’s gushing like crazy. There is a lot of sitting water in the wall itself. The HOA plumber who supposedly fixed the problem did not fix the problem!

Now technically, my warranty should cover the plumber, but you’ll recall my plumber refused and so the HOA plumber came out. The HOA was to bill me for their plumber. We decide that the HOA plumber should probably repair this for free, since he didn’t do right the first time, instead of call my warranty plumber. And so, here I wait: they called to say he was on the way, but that was fifteen minutes ago.

Regardless, what this means is that construction and remediation is probably delayed another two weeks. Now we have to suck the water out, dehumidify and get Kay’s carpet cleaned and dried again. That will take 1.5 weeks, gauging on how much wetter things are now at this stage. Then they will build the retainer wall. Then abatement. Then a week to dry out. Then rebuilding.

And My State of Mind?

Last week, near the end of the week, I remember telling Brooke I felt “defeated.” A session with the shrink on Tuesday helped. I am not feeling defeated today. I’m just sort of . . . numb. There really is no sense in getting upset, there’s nothing I can do about this stuff but wait and try to keep busy. I’m supposed to meet up with Dale for our bi-weekly grouse and brainstorm session over Jameson whiskey and Lone Star. If I can just keep that appointment today, I will consider this Thursday a triumph. With luck and a little dedication, I can resume the discussion about rhetoric and agency.

paroxysm of roses

Music: The Blue Nile: Peace at Last (1996)


Music: Marilyn Manson: Eat Me, Drink Me (2007)

Gorgias of Leontini: “I have by means of speech removed disgrace from a woman; . . . I wished to write a speech which would be a praise of Helen and a diversion to myself.”

Dr. Juice of Austin:

Phronesis Trouble in Run Lola Run and The Secret,


Agentic Orientation as Magical Thinking

Joshua Gunn and Dana L. Cloud

University of Texas at Austin

Magick is the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will.

—Aleister Crowley (1991, p. 27)

By its regression to magic under late capitalism, thought is assimilated to late capitalist forms.

—Theodor Adorno (1994, p. 129).

Almost a decade ago anthropologists Jean and John L. Comaroff advanced the provocative thesis that globalization in late capitalism has led to “a dramatic intensification . . . of appeals to enchantment,” often most discernable in industrializing countries such as South Africa (1999, p. 282). From “get rich quick” pyramid-schemes to email promises from millionaire widows in Nigeria, “capitalism has an effervescent new spirit—a magical, neo-Protestant zeitgeist—welling up close to its core” (p. 281). Of course, over a half-century ago Theodor Adorno inveighed against astrology and soothsaying as indices of economic magic, underscoring the ability of capitalism to promote the “doctrine of the existence of spirit” so central to bourgeois consciousness. “In the concept of mind-in-itself,” argued Adorno, “consciousness has ontologically justified and perpetuated privilege by making it independent of the social principle by which it is constituted. Such ideology explodes in occultism: it is Idealism come full circle” (1994, p. 133). What the Comaroffs point to is not the arrival of a new forms of magical thinking, then, but the intensification and proliferation of post-enlightenment gullibility via globalization—ironically in what is presumably the age of cynical reason (e.g., Sloterdijk, 1987).

In the United States magical thinking has indeed intensified, and perhaps no more obviously than with Rhonda Byrne’s repackaging of the wisdom of Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking (1952). Both a best-selling DVD and a book, Byrne’s The Secret purports to reveal a centuries old teaching, dubbed “the law of attraction,” that “can give you whatever you want” (2006, p. xi). The law of attraction is simply this: “Everything that’s coming into your life you are attracting into your life. And it’s attracted to you by virtue of the images you’re holding in your mind. It’s what you’re thinking” (p. 4). In the hour-and-a-half DVD and the 200 page book, various experts and “teachers of The Secret” explain that the key to wealth and prosperity is making sure that the mind’s thought frequencies are appropriately and positively tuned. For example, in the DVD a scene is shown of a number of businessmen in a darkened room smoking cigars; in a voice-over the “philosopher” Bob Proctor explains:

Why do you think that 1 percent of the population earns around 96 percent of all the money that’s being earned? Do you think that’s an accident? It’s designed that way. They understand something. They understand The Secret . . . . (p. 6)

They understand, Proctor continues, that the secret to their success is visualization, that imaging one is wealthy leads one, magically, to wealth. Undoubtedly, The Secret is the most blatant and profitable exemplar of enchantment and magical thinking in our time.

The idea that one can become wealthy by thinking about money, of course, is patently absurd, and yet The Secret has sold millions of copies and, at the time of this writing, has remained on the New York Times Bestseller List for over twenty weeks. Adorno would explain the appeal of The Secret ‘s as a “regression of thought,” meaning that belief in the “magnetic mind” is a classically infantile way of thinking. Usually most conspicuous in children, “magic thinking,” explains Martin Burgy, “is characterized just by the nonexistence of a clear dividing line between the ego and the object,” the belief that one’s mental will alone can manifest profound material changes (2001, p. 70). Freud would suggest that such beliefs are bone of infantile fantasies of omnipotence, and thus an adult who entertains the possibility that her brainwaves can alter the social and economic conditions of her immediate environment is—however unconsciously—”regressing” to a childhood world of make-believe. The Secret is thus not only a perfect representative of the contemporary enchantment of capitalism, but an index of popular infantalization in the United States.

A presumption behind such negative judgments of magical thinking, of course, is that as academics—as Freud was fond of writing—we “have been taught better” (1998, p. 132). Yet insofar as the academy is not absented from the social totality, a materialist viewpoint urges us to abandon such a conceit; as human beings academics are just as susceptible to magical thinking and narcissistic fantasies of omnipotence as everyone else. Perhaps because at some level communication scholars tend to entertain a sense of the magical in the idea of communication (see Peters, 1999), we have been particularly prone to a philosophical belief in what we term “magical voluntarism,” the idea that human agency is best understood as the ability to control a given phenomenon through the proper manipulation of symbols (e.g., language; see Cloud, 2005). Magical voluntarism is a type of magical thinking typified by The Secret : “Your life right now is a reflection of your thoughts. That includes all great things, and all the things you consider not so great. Since you attract to you what you think about most, it is easy to see what your dominant thoughts have been on every subject of your life, because that is what you experienced” (Byrne, 2006, p. 9). Unfortunately, as a recent essay in this journal by Sonja K. Foss, William J. Waters, and Bernard J. Armada (2007) demonstrates, we are witnessing both a regression of thought and a dramatic intensification of magical thinking in communication studies under the aegis of “theories of agency.”

In this essay we advance a conception of agency as a question in order to combat magical thinking in communication theory. Although we approach the idea of agency from different theoretical standpoints (one of us from the perspective of psychoanalysis, the other, orthodox Marxism), we are mutually opposed to the (bourgeois) idealism of magical voluntarism in recent work in communication and rhetorical studies on agency. Our primary vehicle of argument is a critique of Foss, Waters, and Armada’s essay, “Toward a Theory of Agentic Orientation: Rhetoric and Agency in Run Lola Run,” which represents a magical voluntaristic brand of practical reason (phronesis) common among a number rhetorical scholars (pop in some peeps here). We are particularly alarmed by the suggestion that even in “situations” such as “imprisonment or genocide . . . agents have choices about how to perceive their conditions and their agency . . . [which] opens up opportunities for innovating . . . in ways unavailable to those who construct themselves as victims” (Foss, Waters, and Armada, p. 33). The idea that one can choose an “agentic orientation” despite material limitation not only ignores two decades of research within communication studies on agency and its limitations (and is thus “regressive”), but tacitly promotes an occultic individualism and infantilism at the expense of collective action and dialectical thought.

To this end we first briefly survey the field’s literature on agency and contextualize Foss, Waters, and Armada’s essay in respect to recent discussions of agency among rhetorical scholars. Magical voluntarism, we suggest, is better understood as a facile response to the challenge posed to communication scholars by the posthumanist turn in the theoretical humanities. Then, after briefly summarizing Foss, Waters, and Armada’s argument, we advance an alternative reading of their primary exemplar, Run Lola Run, as a homologous antecedent to Byrne’s bestselling The Secret . We conclude by urging a renewed attention to an older, more durable, thoroughly disenchanted approach to the question of agency: dialectics.


Music: Enya: Shepherd Moons (1991)

more joy

Music: Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds: Let Love In (1994)

TELEVISION: “. . . Falwell’s legacy. GE has recalled a large number of dishwashers made between 1997 and 2001. These dishwashers have a connector that can short-circuit and overheat during normal use, posing a fire hazard to consumers. Consumers can log on at www.geappliances.com for more information.”

COMPUTER SCREEN: “Your dishwasher is included in the recall. Based on the information you submitted, you have two options (please choose one): 1. Replace your dishwasher using a GE rebate offer. GE is offering a rebate on the purchase of a new dishwasher, $150 for GE® dishwashers, and $300 for GE Profile™ or GE Monogram® dishwashers . . . . “

NEIGHBOR: “Well, can you tell me how long this will take? I’m old and impatient. Will it be done before I leave town on the 21st?”

ME: “She means June 21st.”

MOLD HYGENICIST & CONSULTANT: “Probably. You have to understand m’am that I am a consultant and I write up the protocol. The state of Texas says that I cannot be your contractor because of a possible conflict of interest. Your contractor is Mark from Instar Services, and he’ll be doing the work. When he’s finished, I will come back and test the air quality. Now, in my experience, this can take two to four weeks.”

ME: “So, what are you recommending for my side?”

MOLD HYGENICIST & CONSULTANT: “Unfortunately your cabinets are moldy. I’m going to recommend they go up four and half to five feet. They’ll need to remove your first set of cabinets here [points out a square area] and pull out your dishwasher.”

ME: “The dishwasher has been recalled anyway.”

MOLD HYGENICIST & CONSULTANT: “Well, then, I guess you can do it all at once. Now, since your counter is all one piece, they’ll have to remove it too, your sink—basically this whole wall.”

ME: “What about the tile back? Will that have to be broken up?”

MOLD HYGENICIST & CONSULTANT: “Yes, that will come out to about here [points out area. Now, there are tile specialists that can take the they take out and remove the adhesive and so on and put it back in. That’s if they no longer make the tile, though. They may make it still.”

ME: “Yeah, but that’s a complicated pattern.”

MOLD HYGENICIST & CONSULTANT: “You’ll have to talk to Mark about that. Basically, your whole kitchen and dining area will be off limits for weeks.

ME: “Oh, shit. What will I do about food and so on?”

MOLD HYGENICIST & CONSULTANT: “Your insurance company should give you a per diem for eating out. You may want to get yourself a little fridge and keep it upstairs. Sorry about the complications, it’s the state of Texas’ fault. It’ll all be over in a month or two.”

DENTAL HYGENICIST: “You take very good care of your teeth.”

ME: “Wank wooo.”

28 weeks later

Music: Kings of Convenience: Riot On An Empty Street (2004)

My sincere thanks to everyone who has sent notes of empathy regarding the plumbing/mold situation. Truth be told, I did buy a condo because I considered this a transition place to a stand-alone bungalow, some future time when I was financially, emotional, and career-ily ready for a family. The idea was “minimal upkeep,” more time to write a book or two. It appears I’ll be spending the entire month of may, perhaps part of June, getting things back to square one. It is good that I took on summer teaching to pay for this; it’s not good for scholarship with what will be, I reckon, lots of noise. Anyhoo: today I sit here in front of the screens waiting for the phone to ring; with luck the mold scientist will come today and get the process one step closer to the sledgehammers.

Meanwhile, I’ve been trying to ignore my impatient neighbor by escaping the house here and there. This weekend Brooke and I saw 28 Weeks Later, the sequel to the exquisitely/brilliantly made 28 Days Later, a hallmark in zombie film. The latter achieved what Romeo did in 1969: it changed the direction of thinking about one of the most important monsters of our time from the slow moving undead to the ravenous and quick-moving. I was highly skeptical of a sequel because the first film was so well done (it was a drama/action film that happened to have zombies); reviews touted the remake as more action-oriented and disgusting.

Although the version was not as good as the first, it was surprisingly very well done and a respectable extension of the mythos. The drama elements are intact (again, the zombie elements are still the ruse), and the story revolves more around military decision-making than it does the Logan’s Run element (although there is still, like in the first, “the run”). Barring one or two poor actors, the acting is well-done. Care was taken to use many of the same filming techniques, and the same artist was drafted to do the soundtrack. Juan Carlos Fresnadillo directed the film and there are discernable differences with his direction from Boyle’s: the attack scenes are much grosser; there are obvious shout-outs to horror film standards (the scene with night vision is brilliant!); and there are virtually no references to Romero’s trilogy.

I don’t want to spoil the film for anyone because it’s just released, so I’ll offer an observation and a provocation. First: what’s so refreshing about film making from foreigners is that there is some attempt to represent with a commitment to authenticity, and often at the expense of patriotism. As a consequence of a recent phone interview as a pop culture expert last week, I’ve been thinking about the idea that Hollywood and its productions are today’s “safe patriotism.” I was asked to comment on the demise of the Aladdin Casio in Las Vegas, and its rebirth as Planet Hollywood. I said that in our political climate—and now that the summer blockbuster season is upon us—Hollywood is the safe patriotism these days; the sentiment is written into film dialogue.

So what the hell does this have to do with 28 Weeks Later? Well, the film tackles some familiar themes vis-à-vis the American military. Arguably one can say it is a critique of US forces, while others could argue it is a subtle support of US military action in Iraq (Brooke suggested the later). I don’t see the film as doing either; it seems to want to sit on the fence on the issue. What the film does do, however, is avoid the patriotic cliché: [tiny spoiler ahead] in one of my favorite scenes a daughter encounters her father, now returned as a ravenous zombie. As the father feasts on his son, the daughter calls his name. She blows her father to bits, and then (convincingly) begins to cry. Now, if this was an American film, the daughter would not have cried, but shown a strong and determined face and said something like, “this ones for mother!”

Second, the provocation: one thing that Brooke and I noticed is that no attempt is made to figure race relations. In the first film, race was advanced as one of the thorny issues the film was trying to negotiate. In 28 Weeks Later, the focus is overwhelmingly white. There was only once scene in which some racial commentary is made (the military orders snipers to only shoot zombies, not civilians; the first man that is shot is a black man). The rest of the film is devoid of racial commentary—which is odd, given the fact that the zombie film as such has always been most directly about the racialized other. So, what’s going on here?

Overall, it’s worth seeing. I might go see it again.

the joys of condo ownership

Music: American Idol

Today was the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, which followed just a bad day. Here’s a time log of re-membered discussions:

Tuesday, May 8

10:00 a.m.: “Josh, this is Kay. We have a problem. I think your coffee maker is leaking into the wall. My carpet is soaked up to the back window.”

10:45 a.m.: [home warranty operator] “Mr. Gunn, I’ve tried two plumbers and cannot get an answer, but you’re on the emergency list. If you do not hear from a plumber within two hours, please call us back.”

11:00 a.m.: “Kay, they said the plumber can be here today, and to call back in a couple of hours if I don’t hear from them”

12:30 p.m.: “Hey, this is [unintelligible] from ARS, we’ll be there in twenty to thirty minutes.”

1:15 p.m.: “It’s in between the walls, which means both condos are involved. That’s not covered by warranty; it’s an HOA problem. Call them.”

1:16 p.m.: “If you’re getting this message, we’re on the line. Please leave a message . . . .”

1:30 p.m.: “Is the plumber still there? [he is] Some way or another you need to get him to determine the source of the leak.”

“He says that he must go into the wall; a ‘search and destroy’ exploration could take hours, and a hammer. He won’t do it.”

“Ok then, I’ll get back to you.”

2:00 p.m.: “Hi, this is Josh. Any news yet? My plumber says this is your issue since two units are involved. You need to get someone out here, I think.”

“Hi Josh, Joanie is taking over this case. Let me transfer you.”

“Josh, this is Joanie. Of course you’ve been directed to the by-laws, right?”

“By-laws? No. All I know is my plumber will not go into the wall. He suspects a slab leak. That seems to be an HOA issue.”

“Well, doing this job for a while, I’m 90% sure it will be 50/50 your and Kay’s issue. But I’m not sure, I need to do more research. I’ll call you and Kay back.”

3:00 p.m.: “Hi Joanie, this is Josh. Any news?”

“No, we’re still researching it.”

“Well, I hope it’s covered by the structure insurance, as my warranty won’t cover it. But we need to find out the problem. Are you going to call Kay and reassure her?”

“Yes, I’ll call her today.”

Wednesday, May 9

9:30 a.m.: “Hi Josh, this is Kay. What’s going on?”

“Joanie said she’d call you. She didn’t, huh?”

“No. &*$! I’m starting to get mad about this; my carpet is still wet and it’s moldy. I think you need to write one of your letters.

“Ok, I’ll get on the phone and write a letter.”

10:00 a.m.: “If you’re getting this message, we’re on the line. Please leave a message . . . .”

11:28 a.m.: Email sent to management company and the entire HOA governing board:

I am writing to request your and the HOA’s assistance in the matter of a plumbing leak which is needing immediate attention at 2105/2107 Bronte in Old Town. Yesterday Kay Allen discovered that the carpet in her living room next to our shared wall was wet, and that there were large blotches of mold on right above it on the west corner wall. These blotches are directly behind where my refrigerator is located. These are clearly symptoms of a leak, so I called my plumber.

[huge snip]

Finally, whether or not we can determine the meaning of the relevant passages in the HOA bylaws, the fact remains that your company is hired to help residents in a timely manner, particularly when the help is needed on urgent repairs. Even if it is determined the repair is the responsibility of Mrs. Allen and myself, you and your employees should nevertheless come to our aid, and quickly. I have tried to maintain a sense of humor and patience these past couple of days and have discouraged my neighbor from making unpleasant phone calls (trust me: I’m the “good cop!”). Failing to return phone calls or doing what you promise as water continues to dribble in our shared wall is unacceptable. Now is our time of need; where are you?

12:30 p.m.: “Hi Josh, this is Gracie. I wanted to update you on the situation. After much persuasion, Kay has agreed to let our plumbers at HHCC come in, cut a hole in the wall, and investigate the situation . . . . “

3:30 p.m.: [in upstairs office, hear someone enter below]. “Hi Josh, the plumber needs to get to your fridge.”

“Sure, no problem.”

[Plumber sticks a finger into wall directly below valve box, pulls away sheetrock]. “Well, this is easy, here is your leak.” [clears away more wet sheetrock] “Huh. Can I turn your water off?”


[two minutes later] “The solder in this water line has deteriorated. It probably started as a dribble, and has now gotten worse. I can fix this.”

[fifteen minutes later] “That’s it?”

“Yes, you might want to let that air out a day or two.”

4:00 p.m.: “I want to get this cleaned up. Can I see your phone book?”

“Sure Kay.”

“Who do I call?”

“Well, there’s Stanley Steemer, the Steam Team . . . “

5:30 p.m.: [carpet steamer company arrives; you know they charge extra for “after hours”—my neighbor simply cannot wait until tomorrow]

6:00 p.m.: “I’m the guy next door who is probably paying for this. What’s the damage?”

“It’s pretty bad in there, mildew has already started. The dehumidifiers are about $75 a day, then someone comes out once a day. It’ll take about three days, I estimate $450-600 just to get it aired out.”


6:30 p.m.: “Sir, can I come in and test the moisture?”


“See this reading [measures outside wall], this is normal. Now look at this [presses meter to wall behind fridge, it’s off the chart]—it’s ridiculous. Our machines should be able to dry this out as long as you don’t cover up this hole. It’s important that you get your side taken care of too. If you don’t, mildew and mold can form, and that’s a big problem. They can condemn the whole building.”

[my interior monologue: this is in front of my 87 year old neighbor, a scare tactic, a bit dramatic — AND I AM FOOTING THE BILL]. “Are you shitting me? You’re suggesting this will be $1500 just to clean up the wet.”

“We won’t know until we know. We’ll have folks out here everyday taking readings.”

7:00 p.m.: [Stiff glass of bourbon] And we haven’t even considered new dry-wall and paint. And although my Home Warranty should have paid for the plumbing fix (their plumber was in error), they will not because the HOA used their plumber ($200). And although I have condo insurance through AAA, they will not cover my neighbor’s damage, only that in my unit. And here’s the kicker: my sweet neighbor does not have condo insurance.

My sense of moral duty is a problem.