Too Cool for Internet Explorer

cunnilingus

December 30th, 2007 by slewfoot

Music: iLiKETRAiNs: Elegies to Lessons Learnt (2007)

This post is both about politics and alien visitors from outer-space, which might lead Rosechronphiles to believe I’m on Dennis Kucinich’s beat, but I’m actually interested in discussing “populism.” Populism is an abstract noun that seems to signify both nothing and everything that appeals to “the people” (whoever they are). This morning as I went about my Sunday ritual of reading the newspaper, listening to political talk shows, and sipping coffee I must have read or heard the word populism a dozen times, and usually in reference to John Edwards or Mike Huckabee’s appeal to “middle America” voters. The more I listened to George Will bemoan the populist appeal of Huckabee, the more interested I became in the rhetorical labor of the term this election year: what does “populism” really signify? What’s the enthymeme most likely to be forged in the minds of audiences when that term is used?

Some years ago I wrote a book/report with a team assembled by Edward Schiappa on the Minnesota gubernatorial campaign of Jesse Ventura. My chapter was on populism, and I focused to some extent on the way in which The Wizard of Oz was associated with 19th century populism in the popular imaginary (something to do with the gold standard—I forget now). My arguments there, I (barely) recall, were that populism was always the word used to describe the appeal of that other guy (the one behind the curtain that you shouldn’t pay any attention to). As far as I could tell, the word has always been associated with affect, not rational appeal or the force of logic, and functioned somewhat like a “devil” term in the sense that it is not afforded a positive connotation; it’s akin to pandering, flattery, and so forth. This morning on This Week with George Stephanopoulos the term was used consistently to denote Huckabee’s appeal to “average Americans” who understand the stakes of the presidency in their gut, but not necessarily the complexities, say, of foreign policy. David Brooks’ “populism” referred to people making $30,000-60,000 in salary (which would include most of the folks reading this blog, except for grads, who are below the poverty line). This was distinguished from Romney’s appeal to folks who make six-figures. Apparently populism = low income. George Will synecdochically characterized populism as a dynamic, ideological contradiction that opposes “Washington” by paradoxically making “Washington” more powerful. Clearly populism is different for Brooks and Will, but no attempt was made to define or explain what populism actually is. Rhetorically the word does some very interesting kind of work, like the word “terrorist” or “obscenity,” an ad-hoc kind of work to be sure. But I think I have a better take, one that makes some sense in terms of the body and the brain, jouissance and the signifier: consistency. Unyielding, persistent, unwavering, and rhythmic consistency.

Early in the “roundtable” segment, Stephanopoulous cut to a video clip of Huckabee as an illustration of a populist response to negative attack ads from Romney. In the clip Huckabee says,

you’re not gonna find moments on YouTube of me saying something different about the sanctity of human life today that I said ten years ago, ten minutes ago, or fifty years ago. You’re not gonna find something on YouTube where I said something completely different about gun ownership and the second amendment, than I did last week, last year, ten years ago.

That YouTube is recognized as political surveillance mechanism is fascinating by itself. Yet the argument here is, by virtue of the YouTube publicity machine, Huckabee will not be caught in an inconsistency. The underlying warrant here is, of course, that “consistency is good.” A paraphrase of what Huckabee is saying is simply this: “I am consistent in my views, therefore you can trust me. Romney is inconsistent in his views, therefore you cannot trust him.” Alternately, “I’m a man of my word, because I am consistent,” or more to the point, “I am so certain in my views that I never change my mind.”

Hence, aliens. In 1956 Leon Festinger published his landmark study, When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of A Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World, which laid the foundation for “Cognative Dissonance Theory.” Basically, a cult led by a housewife believed a Great Flood would come, and only by hopping on a UFO just prior to the end of the would humanity be saved. The date for the Great Flood came and went, and no celestial ark from the planet Clarion arrived. One would think, then, that the believers would experience “dissonance” and doubt the housewife’s claims, but nope! Instead, they received a message (from automatic writing) that because of their courageous attempts to publicize the coming cataclysm, God spared them. The group was more cohesive than ever. On the basis of this counterintuitive conclusion, Festinger proposed his theory: folks experience tension when beliefs or behaviors are in conflict and will seek to reduce this tension. Because the cult members had given up so much to belong to the group (quit college, sold their possessions, and so forth), it was easier to accept the new prophecy than disbelieve. In other words, consistency of belief and behavior is more likely than changing one’s mind. Consistency is pleasurable, less dissonant. Consistency is thus not only good from a standpoint of rational thinking, but also affectively. For the men out there, cognitive dissonance is like blue balls: the tension needs release.

If Huckabee’s standard appeal of certainty and consistency is any measure, then it would seem populism is a peculiar form of consistency theory—a way to manage cognitive dissonance by slow, unrelenting, consistent, rhythmic persistence. Representational correctness, thoughtfulness, or rational deliberation are harmless when faced with the ecstasy of consistency. This is a problem for any politics that reserves the right to change one’s mind. No one gets off without consistency . . . constant, unrelenting rhythm for ten minutes, ten years. Steadfast in conviction, slow but steady, repetitive, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, vote, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, vote, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, vote, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, vote, vote, vote, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, Republican.

late night reading

December 28th, 2007 by slewfoot

Music: Susanna and the Magical Orchestra: Melody Mountain (2006)

Given over to the dramatic and peering from a wishing window on the opposite wall my everyday, red-and-black cynicism (the panes face north, “a place of darkness”), a drink or two to help me see out to the land of what-ifs—and one drink shy of losing my balance—I thought I was Leonard Cohen for five minutes and fourty-six seconds. To write a song like “Hallelujah,” walking between sublimity and sentimentality but not giving over to either, must feel like an accomplishment, like there is a God, especially and if only in the details (simple chords, a disjunction, a harmonic). And there are details—just a few to follow the edge of ecstasy in a kitchen somewhere, cut hair on the floor, a Platonic psalm.

I wish I was a musician. I think I understand that world’s windows better than all the other walls. Editing, proofing, is a scourge on creation. Writing within the limit fucking sucks. But it pays the bills. Why did you go, Mark Hollis? Wither the joy of quietude, here in the maxed out flash flash flash of dicks and pussies? I think I’m done for the day.

I wish I was a poet.

No, no I don’t.

arrived

December 26th, 2007 by slewfoot

Music: Tegan & Sara: The Con (2007)

I’m happy to report, after the expected delays, I’m returned to Austin. I’m so very happy I cleaned the house before I left: it’s nice to come back to clean. The kitties seem fine but a little attention starved, and Jesús is sitting behind me in the chair dozing. It’s a nice homecoming to needy animals.

Tomorrow it’s back to the grindstone: three more graduate papers to finish up grading, article proofs to vet and return. Then it’s a mad rush to put up the Christmas tree before New Year’s Day, write some more cooking columns, and get a head start on promised co-authored essays and a book review. Down-time is good, but like most of you know, down-time with family is not really a vacation for many of us. I’m looking forward to a New Year’s in College Station.

My compulsory “best of” 2007 music post is coming. I’m listening to one of the candidates.

Meanwhile, a new column is out. I promise this column will be welcome on New Year’s Day for many of you. Bloodie Joshies are the bomb (although I must admit the Bloody Mary’s at Opal Divine’s here in Austin, the ones with the sun-dried tomato-infused vodka, are better). For those of you yet to return to Aus-Vegas, I wish you safe travels. May you arrive to our New Xanadu safely. And when you get here, let’s have a Skate Party.

the other side of kitsch

December 25th, 2007 by slewfoot

Ok folks: I deleted this post. Please unclog your RSS feeds of any presumed “cries for help,” thank you very much. I bid you, instead, to ruminate on this:

Millie Jackson’s most excellent paean to poop, Back to da Shit, a most excellent groove after all the presents are unwrapped and the family has gone home. And, you know, she has a song for all you greens-eatin’ suthern folks: “Muffle That Fart.”

christmas with jamie lynn

December 24th, 2007 by slewfoot

Music: Geniuser: Mud Black (2005)

[Warning: this post is PG-13] For a week the tubes have been scrambling like the hair-hoses on the head of that water sprinkler we used to play with as kids with the juicy news that St. Britney’s lil’ saintlet is with child, and has been for about three months. The 16 year old star of Nickelodeon’s Zoey 101 has a media-shy 19 year old Baton Rouge construction worker for a baby-daddy, and after the OK magazine tell-all last Wednesday, said dude has decided to ask for Jamie Lynn’s hand in marriage, you know, to make it right. They met in church, after all, so doing the right thing is sort-of overdetermined (and I say “sort-of” because one cannot help but think a little publicity opportunism is in play for the “grown-up” music career post-baby). As my rendition of this delicious turkey cools on the stove for carving and the parents watch something on Animal Planet, I thought I’d spend a little of my Christmas Eve blogging about a great topic: teen sex.

The miraculous timing of the announcement couldn’t be better, of course, as the Christmas holiday is something of a catch-all for what was once Yule, Sol Invictus, and—my personal favorite—the Saturnalia of the Romans. These various traditions allowed for the relaxation of social codes and laws, the intermingling of classes, various kinds of worship for a good crop next spring, and party-hard style transgressions (a few sun-gods here, a fertility candle there, etc). Catullus reports Saturnalia was a splendid time of year, with slaves getting prepared meals from the masters and naked people capering about and . . . you guessed it, getting lots of nookie. Poles and holes were the reason for the season, and by the 16th century, decorated poles with hanging balls . . . and candles and, you know, garlands and stuff on it, transformed a paean to the pee-pee into bush for Jesus, don’t you know, lighting the world in symbolic green fur for fertility! Jaime Lynn’s announcement is in keeping with the true reason for the season—Christ, even if we go down the road with the die-hards (the ones who recreate The Nativity on their lawn with inflatable, light-inside Magi and camels) we have to admit it’s still a party for Mary’s poonlicious productivity, immaculate or not. Hawt!

What’s amusing to watch on television, however, are all the network news stories that address (presumably) “concerned parents”: how do you talk to your tween or teen about Jaime Lynn’s pregnancy? Interviewed parents express shock that their tweens reported the story to them before they could get a chance to spin or censor. The premise of all these mediated concerns? That children are not sexual creatures. Never mind that the first minute your young one discovers their genitals he or she wants to fondle fondle fondle, or that first graders are getting orgasms by climbing ropes in gym. That doesn’t happen. Children, and especially Nickelodeon stars, are without desire, sexless creatures who consume Little Debbie snack cakes and play video games (where they steal cars and open fire on innocent crowds with automatic weapons).

And this is what Christmas is all about: the kitsch that covers over the “unpleasant truth” that young people are people too, with the same desires and impulses most of us have, and the same televised mixed signals. The romancing of childhood is nice, but why so desexualized? Where’s the “Santa Baby” song these days? “I Saw Mama Kissin’ Santa Claus?” Tomorrow morning as you procure your shiny boxes from under that fuzzy phallus, take a moment to caress an “ornament,” and then remember what it was like to have hot teen sex. Give it up for those sun gods, give your dog a steak, and maybe touch yourself a little—or better, touch someone else. Alas, although I cannot properly celebrate it myself, remember the reason for the season with this catchy refrain: Christmas is fer fuckin’!

insecurity at the office

December 23rd, 2007 by slewfoot

Music: Grand National: B-Sides, Remixes & Rarities (2007)

This morning my mother and I talked about her job, her third new position in as many years. She is in her sixties, from a generation and community in Georgia that did not stress a college education, and so about a decade or so ago corporate America’s new bureaucratic style, coupled with collapse after collapse hastened by corporate greed, started givin’ her the squeeze. She has the kind of experience people really want for their payroll and benefits departments, but the lack of a college degree creates issues. The details of the past few years in her work life are not important, since I suspect we can easily fill in the dots. Suffice it to say that companies hire her to do the job of three people, which she does, but only by staying in until 9:00 p.m. When it seems the overtime has become a permanent feature and the company fails to hire the help they promised, she moves on. She’s simply getting worked to death.

What I want to write about, though, is the mood and style of the corporate office. She started working at the age of 18, she says, when companies were run differently, on a kind of “family model.” “Everyone knew everyone, we had company picnics, the president of the company would stop by and say hello.” Now the “bosses” don’t even bother to show up. She described how the most senior boss in her department “never says hello.” “He only comes around when there’s a problem,” she said. “He has no tact, he just barks.” My mom then told a story where her most immediate supervisor—a woman who gave her employees very fancy holiday gifts as a sign of caring—came from the senior boss’ office in tears on Friday. My mom reported a situation had come up, that her immediate boss handled it and it resolved itself, and then went to tell senior boss what had happened. He told her what she should have done, and apparently in a not-so-nice way. “We just warm bodies to management,” she said. “I’m insecure. I know that, and I always will be. But the workplace is just not the way it used to be.”

Of course, we know from the labor history of the United States that it was much worse, and could be. But I think there’s some truth to my mother’s experience: the (corporate) workplace used to be one in which loyalty was a cultivated virtue. This created a sense of security that is lacking in today’s corporate culture. I explained to my mom that I think it was that “family model” feel that made the academic life appealing to me in my twenties. My time at the University of Minnesota very much felt that way, there was a sense of security as a grad student (and I think if I went to a less “humane” department I probably would not be an academic today). My mentors were akin to “bosses,” I said. If there was chewing out, it was in the form of comments on term papers in red ink. Unlike my mother’s senior boss, though, when criticism was necessary it was always book-ended by compliments for what one did right. “But,” I said, “there are also sink-or-swim models in the academic workplace, and a number of programs were once associated with that mentality.” Everyone knows the horror stories about such-and-so Dr. Bigname whose office was a alternately a funeral parlor or vomitorium, a high-pressure zone in which sadism flowed freely, presumably to make the student stronger. We see the same mentality in the blind-reviews of some associate editors, too: tearing the author a new orifice to improve his or her scholarship (kinda reminds me of the bumper sticker humor, “the beatings will continue until morale improves”).

I then said to my mother that I see the academy changing too, shifting from the possibility of a “family model” to the factory/warm body model. One of my senior colleagues described my current department this way at dinner a couple of years ago: “Josh, you know why we hired you?” he asked rhetorically. “Well, one would hope because you wanted me,” I answered. “You’re a good factory worker. You produce lots of widgets,” he responded. I don’t know how widespread this sentiment is among my senior faculty, but I sort of wanted to punch this colleague in the face because I dislike thinking of myself this way, and I really dislike thinking of my department as a widget factory. Later at the same dinner the visiting professor whom we were entertaining asked what I planned to do after I get tenure. “To slow dooooooooowwwwwwwwwwwwnnnnn,” I answered. My floor-supervisor colleague then said, “and you’ll have time to think more deeply.” Apparently my widgets are shallow, and the trade off for productivity is in terms of quality (my answer to this colleague, you see, is “ShitText”).

Of course, there is another extreme, as some people really dislike the family model: I’ve heard a number of stories about how departments were too familial—the chair insisting on proofing everyone’s syllabus and having faculty dinners every other weekend, this sort of thing. I wouldn’t like too much loyalty; that becomes servitude. There’s gotta be a balance to strike between loyalty and community and private life.

Nevertheless, post-tenure review is apparently sweeping the academy and adjunct positions are exploding according to this or that survey. This is bound to transform the academy into what my mother deals with every business day: a workplace that is cold, dronish, and Kafka-esque. It seems to me that part of the battle we in the academy are waging against neo-liberalism is not just for benefits, wages, and tenure security, but also for a sort of family model department that is on the decline. In a decade will I dread going to the office because no one peeks into my door and says “hello?” I noticed this past year I have been doing that less, not wanting to interrupt my junior colleagues that seem to be working away toward what little security we can achieve (tenure). Maybe I should interrupt them more just to say hello? Hmm. A New Year’s resolution, perhaps?

understanding theo-populism

December 22nd, 2007 by slewfoot

Music: Catherine Wheel: Wishville (2000)

Despite looking like she would drop-to-sleep at any moment, my mother insisted on preparing me dinner last night. She is a payroll administrator—the only one at the company where she currently works—and they’re cramming in twelve hour days so that they don’t have to work the whole day on Christmas Eve (Mondays are usually the day payroll gets processed). While she was mustering what little energy she had left to be the embodiment of Southern Maternal, we were listening to the network news on a new television my father had installed in the kitchen. “Polls show Mike Huckabee is in the lead,” reported Charles Gibson.

“Huckabee and Romney are terrifying to me,” I said, not thinking before I opened my mouth, as I’m wont to do.

“We’ll, you know who I hate? Hillary. Don’t get me started.”

“I’m pulling for Obama,” I said, “although I saw this good documentary on Ralph Nad—“

“I’m voting this year,” interrupted my mother, “and it’s just so that Hillary doesn’t win. I just can’t stand her.” I was astonished by this statement, because my parents have never voted in an election since I’ve been conscious of what voting is. To my knowledge, only my cousin Kelly and I vote in the whole, extended family.

[Break: Mother on the phone with my aunt just now: “Oh, he’s got his nose up that dang computer. He’s addicted.”]

“Who are you gonna vote for, then?” I said. “Please, don’t go for these guys running on a religious ticket. Don’t vote on faith. This ain’t time for a hail Mary.”

“I don’t know, but not Hillary! Our country was founded on religion, how soon you forget.”

My impulse at the moment was to suggest that my mother read-up on the various candidates’ positions, to pick up a few of their campaign books (I didn’t want to go into the whole discussion about deism, the early fights between Madison and Jefferson on deity, and so on). Although these campaign books are often coached (if not ghost written), I don’t think folks give them as much attention as they deserve. They often evince styles of thinking, tones of thought. Remember G-Dubya’s A Charge to Keep? In retrospect it is akin to Mein Kampf in a way, although that was 1999 and the racist projections didn’t come until October, 2001. Even so, the Hebraic tone of thought is there.

But then I reasoned reading books (or even the newspaper) was not what this election is about for my parents, and millions of people like them. The only depth on the issues that they will get is from CNN, Fox, and the network news (so what ends up there is all that gets downloaded). This means that the next election is about affective response: my mother returns home from work after having been abused all day, then tiredly makes dinner, a network new broadcast glosses on faith in the Huckabee campaign (the word “faith” is first under his name on the side of his touring bus), and my mother responds favorably, both at the level of significance but also at a deeper, emotional level—at the level of an affective disposition. She responds at the level that reminds her (me) of the pastor comforting us in that pinewood-paneled church on highway 124, just after I played a Magus in the nativity pageant. In the past I’ve asked my mother why she disliked Hillary so, and she could not say: “I just don’t like her.” “Just” bespeaks the limit of the signifier, the edge of something else.


I suspect many if not most people will vote their affective convictions in this election, short-circuiting in that final moment any knowledge that has been incorporated (think here Hume on action and judgment in politics). If Nine-eleven taught us anything about electoral politics, it should be that “good reasons” are important yet impotent when it comes to the force of feeling—the force of fantasy properly conceived. Certainly the rhetoric of neoliberalism, the economization of everything social and cultural, appeals to a certain affective disposition, but it is one that is largely seated in an elite class. The political machine serves their interests (although I would also suggest a political uncanny is also at work; they think it serves their interests, but Adorno would teach us something else). Regardless, that ideology has only been sustained by means of a rhetorical bridge to the dominant discourse of affective response in the United States today: religion, the discourse of finding God.

golden corral, or, resignation

December 21st, 2007 by slewfoot

Music: Joni Mitchell: Shine (2007)

“Hey pop, do you want to get some lunch?”

“Sure! Let’s go. What do you want?”

“Well, if I’m going to be bad on Christmas day I should stick to my diet. Somewhere I can get a salad.”

“The Golden Corral has salads, the best salad bar around.”

[Must move to identity or this will get confusing]

JJ: “[hates Golden Corral for its deep-fried cuisine and Disney World tourist-sized clientele, replete with carts that go whirrrrrrrrrr down the extra-wide aisles, that buffet style paean to grease and overcooked everything in large quantities that sit sit sit and then gets hard and slimy while kids everywhere run into you with little bowels of cobbler topped with liquidy soft-serve ice cream] Ok, sure.”

[Later]

CHP: “[cheerful hostess person] Welcome to Golden Corral!”

P: “We’ll only need one tray, son. [Looks up to soft drink filling station, man of dark complexion smiles ready to fill]. Wankayakka Yakka por favor.”

MoDC: “I’m sorry [young man is perplexed].”

P: “[laughter, looking to me for approval] Ah, ‘I’m white,’ he says [laughter].”

JJ: “[ignoring racial joke] I’ll have a caffeine free diet Pepsi, thanks.”

[Later, at table]

P: “We’re getting taken over by minorities. We’re getting overrun by Koreans and Hispanics. What’s the minority problem in Austin?”

JJ: “We don’t have a problem. Austin’s largest minority population is Hispanic, if that’s what you mean.”

P: “The crime here is getting out of control . . . . “

[You can write the rest.]

writing my bachelorness

December 19th, 2007 by slewfoot

Music: Big Electric Cat: Eyelash (1998)

Well, the blog seems to have taken a dark turn the last few posts, so it’s time for something upbeat. Mr. Sunshine I am not, but, Dr. Black Nails does have a hunger for humor and misses Shaun’s belly laughs. So I thought I’d reveal that I do have a lighter side of writing; but first, the set-up.

One of the happiest coincidences of living in Austin is that many life-long friends also live close by: Shaun, my buddy from LSU, relocated to Denton; Christopher, my buddy from grad school, is just up the road in College Station; and Brent and Valerie, also grad school buds, recently moved to Leander, about thirty minutes away. Anyhoo, Valerie and Brent work full time running a cooking and recipe website, cdkitchen.com. I remember in grad school Valerie did “Chili Dog Kitchen” as a hobby (and I remember when Chili dog was still alive, their loud and hyperactive Dalmation; his companion, Pepper, is still kickin’ but getting oldish). Over the course of almost a decade, however, the website exploded to like the fifth largest cooking website in the world (you can credit me for that, because I’m sure it was my insistence that Valerie upload some grits recipes that sent them over the edge of success).

Anyway, Brent and Valerie took me out for dinner recently and asked if I’d be willing to write a weekly column. They had this idea for a bachelor-specific column. They’ve had my cooking (I ain’t a bad cook). And I do write for a living. So I says what the hell, I’ll try it out for six months. I do worry I’d run out of cooking related things to say, but we’ll see. In any event, my first column debuted today. Here it is. I’m trying to stay upbeat, but I worry my sense of humor does not comport with a “general public” sense of humor. I mean, I do find fart jokes very funny. Few people do(do).

missteps toward publicizing a field

December 16th, 2007 by slewfoot

Music: Adiba Parveen: Raqs-e-Bismil (2000)

Last week I was carbon copied to an email discussion among a number of leaders in my main professional organization, the National Communication Association. For context, this organization publishes the highest ranking journals in my field, such as the Quarterly Journal of Speech and Communication Monographs, and runs an increasingly huge conference every year the weekend before Thanksgiving (like, 8,000 people huge). The conference has become the MLA of communication and rhetorical studies, a massive black hole of the fall semester, sucking into it all energies on either side and generating massive anxiety for rat-in-the-mouth job seekers. The email conversation to which I was privy concerned whether or not to invite the recovered Marxist and neo-conservative commentator David Horowitz to speak at the next convention in San Diego as part of a new forum series. The honorarium that has been floated to lure him is $3000. No decision has been made at all, folks are just talking about possibilities on email. I hadn’t planned to blog my views on this potential invitation until the decision was made, but my colleagues Dana Cloud and Rosa Eberly are urging public discussion and have already blogged on the topic, so, as one says when bungee jumping off a bridge, “what the hell.”

Inviting public figures to speak at the National Communication Association Forum (NCA-F) is part of Herbert W. Simon’s directed mission to publicize the field of communication studies by amplifying the values of civic engagement and deliberation to and on the public screen (my field started as one for public speaking in 1914 and justified itself in terms of the production of speaker-citizens, and only grew into the research gig for internal, academic respectability). At last year’s NCA Simons helped to form and promote two NCA-F events: a discussion with Patrick Fitzgerald that was aired on NPR affiliates as a Justice Talking program; and another discussion among our most well-known scholars about “advocacy in the classroom.” Simons is also known as an advocate of the “globalization of rhetoric,” which is shorthand for a series of decades-long discussions about expanding the applicability of rhetorical analysis and criticism, promoting rhetoric in other fields, and so on. In a sense, Simons is a kind of bulldog for rhetorical and communication studies and is admirably trying to center the field for the popular media as a resource. Owing to our training, becoming a public intellectual in the United States is difficult because we simply are not trained to speak to the popular media. Simons’ project is a kind of pedagogy in public intellectualism, then, and I applaud him for the successes.

Inviting Horowitz to speak at NCA should be seen as a part of this pedagogy of publicity. Horowitz is extremely smart and very good with the popular media; learning how to converse with him in front of cameras is probably a good skill to develop. Unquestionably having him at NCA would create publicity, and this certainly beyond Scott McLemme’s write-up about rhetorical studies in The Chronicle of Higher Education. What, however, is the trade off to having someone like Horowitz descend on NCA? What might Horowitz teach us if he comes?

The discussion among leadership thus far has centered on the NCA audience: Cloud has suggested, for example, that there will likely be a noisy, vocal interruption of the forum because of Horowitz’s tactics (appeals to decorum as a ruse for silencing, and so on). Robert Hariman, responding out of “personal disgust regarding political stupidity,” said that the forum might provide the “rare opportunity to have five uninterrupted minutes to expose him for what he is.” There is a clear clash here about the function and effects of deliberation. I have to admit I side with Dana on this, but not for the same reasons. I side with Dana on this issue because, while Hariman is right, I don’t think for a minute that’s how an engagement with Horowitz would go down on the public screen.

I think the focus needs to be on a different audience, not the choir of NCA, but media publics. Everyone knows that deep-seated beliefs are anchored to values, and values do not change over the course of a couple of hours. Rather, values take a long time to change. Consequently, most complex issues—such as activism in the classroom, the liberalness or conservativeness of education, and so on—take many discussions over months to move minds. Deliberation over controversial issues does clarify them so that we than think on them better, but most rhetoricians will tell you that it usually doesn’t change minds. So, having Horowitz at NCA may potentially clarify stances, but it will only confirm what folks already believe going into that room. St. Augstine taught us this about preaching, and we might as well embrace its truth for rhetoric in general. In short, the true “content” of a forum on Horowitz’s crusade to stop Prof. Lefty is inconsequential. This is about publicity for publicity’s sake.

And hey, as far as organizations go, I have no problem with publicity. I think the issue is of kind: what kind of publicity will Horowitz’s presence at NCA invite? To answer this question, I think it is important to consider what the popular press typically says about the academy: remember when Derrida died what The New York Times published as an obituary? Remember the heyday after the so-called Sokal Affair? What about the things said of academics immediately after Nine-eleven? The answers to these questions point us to an assumption that is safe to make: journalists are typically skeptical of the government, and they are skeptical of academics. Their habit is to be suspicious. Second, the stories written about the academy feed a popular fantasy of professorial life (which TIAA-CREFT commercials only corroborate): we live lives of leisure, pontificating in leather-chairs surrounded by mahogany bookshelves. Horowitz has been popular in the media for a reason: what he says confirms the fantasy of the arrogant, well-off, “liberal” professor brainwashing young people into queer commies. He contorts and de-contextualizes what really goes on at the university to encourage and recirculate the fantasy toward his own political ends. The force of form would be behind his appearance, and we can easily predict how it will appear in the newspaper (not pro-NCA).

In an era when even 60 Minutes lampoons academics, joining forces in the call to erase tenure, do we really think the publicity that Horowitz will invite will be good PR for communication scholars? No matter how civil, good natured, and productively clarifying any discussion with Horowitz will be, the write-up in the paper, the television spot, and the radio broadcasts are not going to highlight any of it. While we may learn something from the experience, and while I agree we should pursue and promote public intellectualism, paying Horowitz to teach us something about media relations is a bad idea.