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January 30th, 2009 by slewfoot

Music: Future Sound of London: Lifeforms (1994)

In general, if you publish scholarship, someone will likely critique your work. Getting used to getting critiqued takes some time (the review process helps a great deal, I must confess). I remember the first time someone came after me in print I was still a graduate student at the University of Minnesota. When the editor told me she was going to publish an attack of my work (and something of an ad hominem, since the punning of my name was involved) I got really upset, teared-up, and felt like I was going to puke. Ed Schiappa, who shall remain the best Director of Graduate Studies Ever, sat me down and had a heart-to-heart talk in which, with much patience, he explained that getting attacked in print was a good thing. It means, he said, someone is taking your work seriously.

Not long after that talk I was sitting on a porch with Barry Brummett sipping bourbon (now my chair, but then “only” a friend and mentor), who said I should get excited about getting attacked. “Respond back!” he said. “Rick Cherwitz and I gave each other tenure by arguing with each other in print!”

So, you know, I’ve come around to this way of thinking, and now understand the value of agonism: not only do ideas get hashed out, but just what is at stake in a disagreement gets framed. Moreover, if you have your response to being attack peer-reviewed, it really can help jump-start a publishing program. Now, I’m not saying you should pick a fight (although sometimes that is totally warranted), I’m just saying disagreeing in print is ok. In fact, I’ve become friends with the three folks who have critiqued my work (even co-authors with Chris).

All of this is to preface that my current project is a response to someone who critiques my book, Modern Occult Rhetoric. Instead of seeing this as an good chance to have a conversation, to promote my work, and so forth, however, I’m just annoyed. I’m annoyed I feel compelled to respond, not because I think this person furthers our thinking about magic and rhetoric, but rather because he plays dirty. Basically, this fella lumps my work with Daddy Burke, Bill Covino, Brian Vickers, says we are all of a mind, and then says we have it all wrong. Now, aside from the fact that my take (Derridian) is very different from Burke’s (anti-magic), Covino’s (pro-magic) and Vickers’ (historical), he says we all impose this rigid binary on magic in order to be dismissive of it. Dude: that’s so not what my argument is, and it’s so not what Bill’s is either. Hell if anyone truly knows what Burkes’ view is. And if Vickers’ historical work is sloppy, then I’m having a baby. Tomorrow.

What angers me about the critique is that my critic sets-up a straw person. I’ve been reading the stuff he critiques of my colleagues, and he de-contextualizes like crazy. It was this kind of dirty arguing that led me to leave policy debate: cards are stripped of context, and so you don’t really know what the argument is, you just have to work at the level of claims.

David Blakesley’s hopped on board with me to help defend Burke. Vickers’ begged off, but I’ll try to get him to hop on board if I can once the thing is drafted. Covino said he may join in at a later stage of writing. And I met an awesome graduate student at Purdue who knows Agrippa well and is thinking about joining in the response. Here’s something of a teaser below. Do tell me if it’s too, um, too nasty in its own right:

When I was thirteen years of age we all went on a party of pleasure to the bath near Thonon; the inclemency of the weather obliged us to remain a day confined to the Inn. In this house I chanced to find a volume of the works of Cornelius Agrippa. I opened it with apathy; the theory he attempts to demonstrate and the wonderful facts which he relates soon changed this feeling into enthusiasm.

—Victor Frankenstein[1]

Musing on the origins of his interest in science, the protagonist of Mary Shelley’s famed novel Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus identified the occult philosophy of the fifteenth century magician Henry Cornelius Agrippa as his earliest inspiration. When the young Frankenstein shared his enthusiasm for magic with his father, however, the elder responded “My dear Victor, do not waste your time upon this; it is sad trash.”[2] Eventually, confesses junior, his interest in the modern sciences would eclipse his passion for occultism, thereby better enabling him to penetrate the “secrets of nature” and become something of a secular god. Of course, we know how that story ends.

After reading Chris Miles’ recent essay, “Occult Retraction: Cornelius Agrippa and the Paradox of Magical Language,” we couldn’t help but recall Frankenstein senior’s advice to his son.[3] More importantly, however, Shelley’s spiel also helps us to summarize by analogy Miles’ critique of recent work in rhetorical studies on magic and the occult: according to Miles, Kenneth Burke, William Covino, Michel Foucault, Joshua Gunn, and Brian Vickers represent contemporary Frankensteins, forsaking the true understanding of magical rhetoric in favor of secularist monstrosities. In a spirit homologous to the hegemony of science and atrophy of faith in Frankenstein, Miles argues these scholars have misapplied a contemporary understanding of language to pre-modern magical texts. The consequence of this anachronism, he concludes, is a gross misreading of the rhetoric of the Western magical tradition. In this rejoinder we argue that had Miles taken the time to read the work he dismisses as closely as he purports to read Agrippa, perhaps he would find himself in a conversation and not an opportunity.

Reduced to its most basic structure, Miles’ argument is as follows: (1) The shared linguistic assumptions of Burke, Covino, Gunn, and Vickers (with Foucault) fail to account for Agrippa’s contradictory and paradoxical rhetorical strategies; (2) Agrippa was the most influential and widely read Renaissance magus; therefore, (3) Burke, Covino, Gunn, and Vickers’ work on magic and rhetoric is fundamentally flawed. We address each claim in turn.

According to Miles, the dominant understanding of occult rhetoric relies on a flawed distinction between “fluid” and “fixed” views of language. Because Burke, Covino, Gunn, and Vickers address occultism as representing a “fixed” discourse, magical language has become a “stereotyped caricature.”[4] A close reading of Agrippa’s work, however, reveals a “slyly occulted theory of language” that can account for “a great deal of paradoxical and ambiguous play” in Agrippa’s prose: human language cannot impart ultimate (spiritual) truths.[5] Miles argues that Agrippa’s occult rhetoric “is instructional in the sense that it marks language itself as untrustworthy and unreliable” by its own example.[6] Because Agrippa’s discourse cannot be characterized as harboring a correspondent theory of magical language, Miles concludes contemporary scholarship on occult rhetoric is “simple” and “misleading” and based on “illusory assumptions.”

We have no quibble with Miles’ reading of Agrippa’s work, nor with the suggestion that Agrippa’s rhetoric is instructive and intentionally paradoxical. Indeed, in a book-length treatment of magic and rhetoric that was unfortunately overlooked, Covino anticipates a number of Miles’ observations about Agrippa’s contradictory prose.7 “Repeatedly,” writes Covino, Agrippa “insists that because human language is susceptible to multiple interpretations, it becomes matter for strategic contentions instead of truth . . . .”[8] For Covino, Agrippa’s “contradictions inform the magician’s truth, a truth located in the motion of the imagination . . . .” Convino and Miles’ reading is further supported by Gunn’s argument that the Western magical tradition is fundamentally Platonic in character because it stresses the inability of human language to communicate spiritual truth.[9] Insofar as Agrippa was a Neo-Platonist, it makes sense that his rhetoric of paradox and contradiction formally resembles the function of Platonic dialectic, as both are designed to catapult the spiritual aspirant into “perfect transparency by supra-linguistic communication with God” by using language against itself.[10]

Where Miles missteps, however, is by uncharitably decontextualizing the work he critiques. His straw-person construction of the distinction between “fixed” and “fluid” views of language is particularly underhanded. Throughout his attack Miles assumes that the fixed view of language is a theory of correspondence (or in Vicker’s terms, “identity”), which is only one of many forms that it might take.[11] Perhaps a better way to frame differing views on the relationship between language, truth, and the world is by recourse to a television show that trucked in the occult, The X-Files. The motto of this cult favorite, “the truth is out there,” is a succinct summation of the fixed view: something external to the human mind-some presence-guarantees meaning and truth (e.g., the “transcendental signified,” God, creation, and so forth). To say that a magician adheres to a fixed view of language is simply shorthand for saying that he or she believes there is a kind of “anchor” external to language that stabilizes meaning, that is productive of spiritual insight or truth, and so on. Such a belief could lead one to assume magical words vibrate at the same frequency of the material object they denote. Such a belief could also set one in pursuit of correspondent vocabulary or “pure language” that better communicates the “truth” than extant vocabularies, the kind of “alphabet of nature” pursued by Giovanni Pico, the Kabbalalists, and the Theosophists just to name a few.[12] Conviction in a spiritual anchor, however, might also lead one to believe that it is inaccessible to human language, as was the case with Plato and Agrippa. Unfortunately-and despite book length treatments that cover a range approaches by Covino and Gunn-Miles reduces the fixed view of language to a correspondent or “identity” theory for the convenience of generalization and summary dismissal.

Even if we grant that our understanding of magical rhetoric was reducible to the pursuit of a pure language, does this mean our work is fundamentally flawed? Miles reasons:

Agrippa is the most influential of all Renaissance magicians, and yet his understanding of magic and its relationship to language (and rhetorical practice) cannot be characterized [as fixed] . . . . And if Agrippa’s understanding cannot be characterized in such a way, why should the understanding of those who follow him or build on him?[13]

Presumably, “those who follow him or build on him” concern every magician in the Western occult tradition subsequent to Agrippa! In light of numerous counterexamples before and after the Renaissance magus made his mark (e.g., alchemists, Kabbalists, some famous modern Wiccans), however, Miles advances a classic exception fallacy[14]: a class is said to share the same qualities of an individual member. Insofar as Agrippa believes in God, we’re not convinced his rhetoric is particularly exceptional. And in light of Covino’s work on Agrippa over a decade ago—not to mention I. Lehrich’s close reading of Three Books—we’re not sure Miles’ reading is exceptionally novel, either.[15]

[1] Mary Shelley, Chapter Two, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus (1818), para. 6. The Literature Network. Available accessed 21 December 2008.
[2] Shelley, Frankenstein, para. 6.

[3] Chris Miles, “Occult Retraction: Cornelius Agrippa and the Paradox of Magical Language.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 38 (2008): 433-456.

[4] Miles, “Occult Retraction,” 435.

[5] Miles, “Occult Retraction,” 439; 438.

[6] Miles, “Occult Retraction,” 438.

[7] William A. Covino, Magic, Rhetoric, and Literacy: An Eccentric History of the Composing Imagination (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994), 46-60.

[8] Covino 55.

[9] Joshua Gunn, Modern Occult Rhetoric: Mass Media and the Drama of Secrecy in the Twentieth Century (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2005), 56.
[10] I. Lehrich, The Language of Demons and Angels: Cornelius Agrippa’s Occult Philosophy (Boston: E.J. Brill, 2003), 208.

11 It is instructive to underscore how Vickers opens the essay that Miles argues outlines the “assumptions” Burke, Covino, and Gunn apparently also share: “It is my contention that the occult and the experimental scientific traditions can be differentiated in several ways: in terms of goals, methods, and assumptions. I do not maintain that they were exclusive opposites or that a Renaissance scientist’s allegiance can be settled on an either/or, or yes/no, basis. Rather, in many instances, especially the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a spectrum of beliefs and attitudes can be distinguished, a continuum from, say, absolutely magical to absolutely mechanistic poles, along which thinkers place themselves at various points . . . .” Such remarks are hardly an index of a “binary opposition” which Miles argues is common to all the authors he critiques. Brian Vickers, “Analogy Versus Identity: The Rejection of Occult Symbolism, 1580-1680.” Occult and Scientific Mentalities in the Renaissance, ed. Brian Vickers (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 95. Owing to the fact that each author critiques different eras of the occult tradition toward very different ends, it also seems to us rather irresponsible to assert Vickers’ “assumptions” are shared by all. Miles, “Occult Retraction,” 449.

[12] Covino, Magic, 51; Gunn, Modern, 70-76.

[13] Miles, “Occult Retraction,” 453-454.

[14] Miles treatment is particularly unfair to Gunn, who argues in Modern Occult Rhetoric that the rhetorical dynamics of occultism change dramatically in the 19th and 20th centuries as a consequence of mass media technologies. Although understanding Agrippa’s “slyly occulted theory of language” from the fifteenth century does little to explain the particular rhetorical challenges faced by the modern magus, this doesn’t prevent Miles from complaining his favorite magical fellow has been fatally ignored. Apparently failing to address the rhetorical theory of one, influential Renaissance magus is to misapprehend magic in modernity entirely! See Chris Miles, Rev. of Modern Occult Rhetoric: Mass Media and the Drama of Secrecy in the Twentieth Century by Joshua Gunn. The Pomegranate 9 (2007): 193-194.

[15] Miles misapplied conclusion first appears in Lehrich’s study in the context of a discussion of Derrida’s philosophy: ” . . . it is not intrinsically odd that the sixteenth century philosophical movement which was almost entirely destroyed by modern philosophy and science—I refer of course to magic-still haunts the margins of philosophical memory. . . . it is worth considering the periodic surfacing of magical thought in philosophy after Descartes . . ., which might provoke us to wonder whether magic has always played the role of modernism’s ghostly other.” Lehrich, Lanugage, 222.


January 29th, 2009 by slewfoot

Music: Coil: The Ape of Naples (2005)

texas: stalking by electronic communications – SB1139

January 25th, 2009 by slewfoot

Signed by the governor June 15, 2001. Effective September 1, 2001.

AN ACT relating to the prosecution of and punishment for the offenses of harassment and stalking. BE IT ENACTED BY THE LEGISLATURE OF THE STATE OF TEXAS:

SECTION 1. Section 42.07, Penal Code, is amended to read as follows:

Sec. 42.07. HARASSMENT.

1. A person commits an offense if, with intent to harass, annoy, alarm, abuse, torment, or embarrass another, he:

  1. initiates communication by telephone, in writing, or by electronic communication and in the course of the communication makes a comment, request, suggestion, or proposal that is obscene;
  2. threatens, by telephone, in writing, or by electronic communication, in a manner reasonably likely to alarm the person receiving the threat, to inflict bodily injury on the person or to commit a felony against the person, a member of his family or household, or his property;
  3. conveys, in a manner reasonably likely to alarm the person receiving the report, a false report, which is known by the conveyor to be false, that another person has suffered death or serious bodily injury;
  4. causes the telephone of another to ring repeatedly or makes repeated telephone communications anonymously or in a manner reasonably likely to harass, annoy, alarm, abuse, torment, embarrass, or offend another;
  5. makes a telephone call and intentionally fails to hang up or disengage the connection;
  6. knowingly permits a telephone under the person’s control to be used by another to commit an offense under this section; or
  7. sends repeated electronic communications in a manner reasonably likely to harass, annoy, alarm, abuse, torment, embarrass, or offend another.

2. In this section:

  1. “Electronic communication” means a transfer of signs, signals, writing, images, sounds, data, or intelligence of any nature transmitted in whole or in part by a wire, radio, electromagnetic, photoelectronic, or photo-optical system. The term includes:

    1. a communication initiated by electronic mail, instant message, network call, or facsimile machine; and

    2. a communication made to a pager.

  2. “Family” and “household” have the meaning assigned by Chapter 71, Family Code.
  3. “Obscene” means containing a patently offensive description of or a solicitation to commit an ultimate sex act, including sexual intercourse, masturbation, cunnilingus, fellatio, or anilingus, or a description of an excretory function.
  4. An offense under this section is a Class B misdemeanor, except that the offense is a Class A misdemeanor if the actor has previously been convicted under this section.

SECTION 2. Subsection (b), Section 42.072, Penal Code, is amended to read as follows:

*An offense under this section is a felony of the third degree, except that the offense is a felony of the second degree if the actor has previously been convicted under this section.


  1. The change in law made by this Act applies only to an offense committed on or after the effective date of this Act. For purposes of this section, an offense is committed before the effective date of this Act if any element of the offense occurs before the effective date.
  2. An offense committed before the effective date of this Act is covered by the law in effect when the offense was committed, and the former law is continued in effect for that purpose.

SECTION 4. This Act takes effect September 1, 2001.

on oprah and postracial preposterousness

January 25th, 2009 by slewfoot

Music: Closedown: Nearfield (1994)

I realize it is almost inexcusable for a professor of speech to pass over the inaugural address last week, but I’ll take refuge in the “almost” and pass over it. Instead, I have a few things to say about the other “Big O,” and more specifically, about her unprecedented influence on national politics. One of them is that some scholars estimate Winfrey’s endorsement garnered Obama an additional million votes. It seems what some economists were calling the “Oprah Effect” has traveled from book endorsements to political candidacy. Another of them is that Newsweek named Oprah one of it’s fifty “global elite” under the blurb, “There’s a bigger ‘O’ in the world now. But don’t worry, she’s got his ear too.” The third thing I want to say is that Oprah is the exemplar of the “postracial,” and if you want to understand who stands in the way of the naysaying, be sure to tune into her new cable network channel, “OWN,” debuting sometime in 2009. (There’s an Ayn Rand joke to be made here, but I shall pass over that too.)

I’m led to think about Oprah for a number of reasons, but perhaps the most outrageous was a television program last week that assessed Obama’s cabinet choices. At the end of the segment Winfrey was featured as a sort of shadow advisor to our new president, a segment that made me shudder. Over a decade ago my colleague and friend detailed the reasons why the public figure (that is, the imaginary “character”) of Oprah should be critiqued: she functions as the racial “token” that helps to buoy the fantasy that the American Dream is available to everyone irrelevant of systemic, structural limitation and disadvanges (download the article here). The image of Oprah alongside the president (first in Chicago after the election was won, then at the inauguration) is seared in the popular imaginary, which is quite the double-whammy of tokenism. What was once said about Oprah on her way to the “global elite” was quickly said of Obama; they ride the same wave of popular desperation. Yet unlike Oprah’s influence, which is in the zone of self-help and make-believe, Obama is stuck in a biopolitical morass, and his speech and deeds are literally issues of life and death.

Don’t get me wrong peoples; I’m thrilled W is gone and that Obama is our president. I’m just saying this fantasy-train is going to crash; just give it time.

On all the talk shows this past week, the question was raised was if Obama has successfully “transcended race,” and frequently so that commentators—usually black—could quickly quip “no!” (Hats off to Michael Dyson for making that no vocal this past week.) The power of this race-less ascent to wealth, however, is plain just by observing how both answers—yes and no—come out of the same mouth. For example, in Gwen Ifill’s new book, Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama, many of Ifill’s interviewees apparently stress that Obama’s success must not be read as race-blind or postracial. Even so, the postracial fantasy flies high with Ifill: just today on a re-airing of Washington Week Ifill aired a super-sentimental segment in which she interviews a weeping woman at the inauguration who proclaims “the sky’s the limit” for black people, as if the moment of swearing-in dismantled decades old racist scaffolding. As Eleanor Clift said this morning on The McLaughlin Group, Obama’s election is not going to get the black guy a cab downtown anytime soon.

Yet the intensity of the weeping woman on Ifill’s show is perhaps at some level a recognition that a representational politics is always bound to fail, that not much is going to change for her. Here we confront the affective underbelly of the postracial fantasy, as it’s bound-up in soul-deep longings to transcend the logics of projective identification upon which our mighty union is built (there’s always a goat; right now it’s “the terrorists,” of course, and to some extent “the illegal immigrants”). On the level of representation, the postracial fantasy is that racism is an individual, psychological problem, not a cultural or social structure. Oprah’s approach to social ills has been an absolutely relentless advocacy of individual responsibility (the height of which, I think, is the endorsement of The Secret, which promises to help you conjure away life’s problems—even world wars!—by changing your fantasy life and thinking optimistically). Combined with the American Dream (and now the financial dream of effortlessly produced value, which has caused our crash), Oprah’s postracist tokenism is a powerful ideological inducement, not simply because of the fantasy, but because of the way it is packed in love and hope and segments designed to make us cry.

The mawkish media displays this week are precisely the kind of thing that elevated Winfrey to prominence (the euphemism here is “inspiration” and “inspirational”). Oprah’s so wedded to the postracial fantasy that she has a track record of embracing the “inspiration” without checking her facts: the latest flap is that the holocaust-era “love story” she’s been pumping on her show, a book by Herman Rosenblat titled The Flower of the Fence, is a complete hoax. Of course, we all remember the lies James Frey told in A Million Little Pieces. Variety reports that another book endorsed by Misha Defonseca was also revealed as a hoax (Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years), but Harpo people pulled the episode before it could air. All these books, of course, tell the story of “survivors,” people whose mental outlook helped them endure horrible things.

Even if the horrible things didn’t happen.

What does it say about a person that she’s so committed to individual responsibility she has repeatedly endorsed fabrications as the true path? It says that she has been insulated from the daily realities of most people of color for a very long time. Fortunately, I don’t think we can say the same about Obama, but the longer he’s in the White House, the distance will grow. This troubles me because he also relentlessly intones “personal responsibility” and has been repeatedly saying that government cannot solve our problems. Therein’s the ironic consistency of his current, “somber” message. And never forget, Oprah has his ear.

political capital

January 21st, 2009 by slewfoot

Music: American Idol

Exhibit A: Obama Logo. This design helped to forge the double-entendre of “the Big O,” which originally referred to my beloved Roy Orbison but now apparently only refers to that Sexual Being the President. In addition to being a ring, perfect circle, symbol of wholeness and completeness as well as any sundry erogenous zones, the stripes resemble the stripes of a flag, the furrows of freshly tilled land (something’s about to sprout), and so forth. A fecund logo, to be sure.

Exhibit B: New Pepsi Logo.

mawkish media merchandise mlk, obama

January 19th, 2009 by slewfoot

Music: Coil: Love’s Secret Domain (1991)

I’ve been nursing a sick foster kitty and laboring under some deadlines and took a brief trip to Waco to see my peeps Roger and Amanda, so I have not been bloggish, and I’m having withdrawal symptoms. I have to jet to a meeting, then workout, then up to the lodge for our “stated” (e.g., our business meeting), so this will be brief.

The inauguration tomorrow has been on my mind, and not only because of its historical significance. It’s been on my mind because television, facebook, and phone calls (props to Shaun, I’m calling back soon) have been not letting us think about anything else. It’s been on my mind because yesterday I saw an advertisement for a $7,500 piece of glass with Obama’s face etched into it (in the New York Times magazine). It’s been on my mind because I saw an Obama plate for sale in the coupon section of the Sunday paper. It’s been on my mind because every network television station has been packaging their prophetic news coverage and pimping it in commemorative DVDs (the 60 Minutes DVD is particularly self-congratulatory). It’s been on my mind because Anne Curry almost shed a tear after a maudlin segment last night on NBC in which John Legend certified Obama’s presidency was historically very important. It’s been on my mind because montages of Martin Luther King juxtaposed with Obama have been aired to the sound of one of my most favorite soul songs, “A Change is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke. It’s been on my mind because my mother worried on the phone last night that there might be an assassination attempt. It’s been on my mind because NBC re-aired their Saturday Night Live presidential spoofs last night. It’s been on my mind because Obama gets sworn in while I am teaching class, and I’m worried we will not be able to stream it because the technology always fails in the auditorium.

The inauguration has been on my mind because of the oversentimentalization of Obama’s presidency, and the extreme willfulness of the mainstream media to turn a historical event into a Spielberg movie (I’m sure America’s Favorite Director is already writing a script for the soon-to-be-released echo). The inauguration has been on my mind because the official aesthetic of the Obama campaign and presidency was created by Shepard Fairey, the artist most famous for his big-brother “Obey” art which is plastered all over the United States in urban areas. Fairey’s website touts his mission as creating “propaganda engineering.”

The inauguration has been on my mind because the mass media has become a mawkish merchandiser, but a merchandiser for what? Demagoguery, of course. Is it only me that smells the fascism in all of this pomp and circumstance and tear-jerking? Is it just me who thinks MLK is rolling over in his grave at the way in which the dream has been deferred? Is it just me who notices a dangerous combination of circumstance: sentimental propaganda with a fascist aesthetic + idealism unleashed + dour economic times + two failed “wars” + a truly dazzling public speaker as the leader of the free world, but a dazzling public speaker who is willing to abandon “his people” for higher office (I’m thinking here of Rev. Wright). We are witnessing demagoguery on a stick, the yearning for a New Daddy who will restore order.

While all the conditions are right for an even bigger power-grab by the presidency, there is a tiny glimmer of hope in me that Obama will not do such a thing. Still, this inauguration—or more specifically, the way in which the mainstream media is covering it—makes me nervous.

the petulant professor?

January 10th, 2009 by slewfoot

Music: Stars of the Lid: The Tired Sounds of Stars of the Lid (2001)

Referencing recent discussions here of the entitled student, Dave sent me a link to a recent editorial in The Chronicle of Higher Education titled, “How to be Happy in Academe,” an oxymoronic title for many. In the essay Gregory Pence argues that the current, emerging professoriate have their expectations for employment set too high. He concludes to be “happy” as an academic,

You need a tenure-track job, and then you need to work hard at the three things we are expected to do: teach students who want to learn, publish about things you care about, and be a good academic citizen through service to your institution and field. That’s the deal.

To reach that conclusion, Pence draws on his own experience as an overloaded adjunct who eventually got lucky with a position in Birmingham, Alabama as a bioethicist.

In general, I think Pence’s caution to the new professoriate should be well-taken. No matter what your field, students should not expect to land a research one job right out of the gate; you have to publish and teach your way there. I have also heard matriculating students say that they will not take a job in such-and-so a place or (my personal favorite) “at Anything State” because their personal worth is more weighty than such places can carry. I either laugh or get mad, depending who says such a thing, and then try to correct perceptions: we are fortunate to have jobs at all, and as Pence says, this dire economy will only help to underscore that fortune.

I don’t go so far as to say you shouldn’t expect a job, however. Pence’s field is philosophy, a notoriously difficult field to get a job in. I was lucky when my undergraduate advisor in philosophy repeatedly told me not to pursue graduate study because there are no jobs in it. Or rather, my advisor did the ethical thing by discouraging me from becoming a philosopher. And this gets at my beef with Pence’s closing remarks, “that’s the deal.” A “deal” refers to a contract, and a contract refers to an agreement made between two parties. Who are these parties, and what are the conditions of the deal? Answering this question helps to uncover what Pence overlooks.

While I agree that graduate students on the market should not expect a top-of-the-line job, they should expect a job because a graduate program admitted them on that tacit promise. Placement success should always be the barometer of a program, and if that program is not placing, admissions should decrease. I recognize I am woefully ignorant of college administration—and frankly, I hope I stay that way for my life—but there is a quid pro quo here that everyone knows: in exchange for being underpaid and overworked, a graduate program trains a student to take a job. The assumption of a job resulting from “the deal” is built into the apprentice model and the academic degree system.

The problem Pence overlooks is that the tacit dimension of this contracting has remained in place while the terms of the deal have changed. My philosophy advisor pointed this out and, thus, I didn’t go that route—I didn’t want a raw deal. I think many graduate programs are offering raw and rigged deals, contracting with students to teach the bulk of their courses with the knowledge many of them will not get jobs. Of course, this represents the coporitization of the academy and the logic of the wage, but stretched toward barter: “yes, dear graduate student, you will be underpaid for your labor while you are here, but you will be paid tenfold upon completion of your degree with a job!” If there are no jobs, then the deal is unquestionably dirty.

In Communication Studies, we are fortunate to have jobs as the field continues to expand. There was, apparently, a contraction in the 1990s, but I’m sensing lots of growth in recent years, and this is in part because we continue to teach skill-based courses to meet the everyday needs of the average (working class) student. In other words, unlike philosophy or literary studies or similar fields marked with the connotation of “elite,” the previously inferior field of “Speech” is now thriving because of its attention to students (and the shift of the university to a consumer model). If, however, professorships start to decline, it seems my colleagues and I are ethically compelled to stop admitting as many graduate students.

So, Pence is right and wrong. He is right that sometimes expectations for that first job are way too high; we all “pay our dues,” so to speak, and that’s working hard wherever you begin. He is wrong, however, to assume what is true of his field is true of others. How ironic is it that the discipline most explicitly concerned with ethics doesn’t do right by its graduate students?

the business sense of speech

January 8th, 2009 by slewfoot

Music: Seely: Winter Birds (2000)

I’ve been reading the early issues of the Quarterly Journal of Public Speaking for a short project I’m working on with Jenny Rice. This week I’ve also been discussing the corporitization of the university with colleagues and friends, and in particular, how my own college is making strong moves toward the business model. A prescient quote brought these streams together:

Certainly no teacher of public speaking will ever suffer from a surplus of knowledge. But unfortunately emphasis upon means often obscures a proper appreciation of ends. Too often when research work is conducted for its own sake, or to increase scholastic standing, the resulting separation from the interests of the world at large allows theory to become dogma, knowledge to become pedantry, and technique is elevated to the position of supremacy.

The source? Everett Lee Hunt, “The Scientific Spirit in Public Speaking,” published on July 15th, 1915. The essay is a pretty “spicy” (to use a term from Winans’ response) indictment of the “Midwestern” approach to Speech Communication that stresses the necessity of scientizing the field for academic respectability. We know who won this debate, and it weren’t “us.” Of course, since the word “grant” entered the scene in the 1980s, Hunt has spinning in his grave like a top.

That alliance of science and finance, Jenny and I are arguing, killed off creativity and an interest in feeling, emotions . . . love in the field formerly known as speech communication. Here’s a teaser:

About Face

Joshua Gunn and Jenny Edbauer Rice

Creative stuttering is what makes language grow from the middle, like grass; it is what makes language a rhizome instead of a tree, what puts language in a state of perpetual disequilibrium . . . .

—Gilles Deleuze, “He Stuttered”

Deleuze explains the genesis of great writing as the ability of a writer to “make the language system stutter,” to stretch human expression to the limit, to “make language itself cry, to make it . . . mumble, or whisper.” Just how one does this escapes precise description, but one is assured she feels it when she reads it (or as we would have it, when she hears it). Stuttering signifies the limits of language, but with feeling (so to speak). Although Deleuze’s use of the metaphor of stuttering figures as “an affect of language instead of an affection of speech”—that is, as a poetics—there is a sense in which stuttering can signify creativity in any system, particularly if we widen our understanding of language to the symbolic as such, and “speech” to the meeting place of the symbolic and affect. For example, take discipline: in what sense does grappling with the object of affect represent a form of scholarly stuttering, an attempt to capture and understand states of being that are not sewed-up in advance, states that anticipate yet nevertheless elude the language of feelings, states that are beyond discipline?

In this brief provocation we answer affirmatively and advance the example of the field formerly known as “Speech Communication.” We argue that the academic field of Speech Communication was founded in the early twentieth century on the meeting place of affect and the signifier, but that it stuttered in the face of science. Uncomfortable with the instability of its chosen object, and desirous of institutional approbation, the stuttering discipline muffled the voice of feeling, renaming itself “communication studies” and turning its back on the study of affect represented by the object of speech. Consequently, any discussion of an “affective turn” in communication studies is more properly described as (an) “about face.”

kitsch/lost causes

January 7th, 2009 by slewfoot

Music: Not Drowning, Waving: Circus (1993)

I am a sensitive person, which sometimes makes watching television a weepy experience. While ironing and cleaning tonight, I watched (listened to) two PBS documentaries, a Frontline piece on New Orleans after Katrina, and Sherry Jones’ Torturing Democracy, both of which are devastating critiques of the Bush II administration, both of which make me feel small and helpless, and both of which invite disbelief: did I just live through all this? did my government just do this? I know it’s naïve to read, and it does feel stupid to type out these questions, but these programs leave me at loss for words to describe how they make me feel, how they resurrect buried astonishments. I had a little workplace drama today that had my stomach all churny, but then when I see programs like this I realize how humane my day-to-day life really is. I recognize such a reaction means that the idealist in me is much more prominent than the cynic, though both are closely related.

For some months I have been thinking about humor and the mournful work it does, and how cynicism has become our dominant mode of humor (even in painfully violent sorts of ways, e.g., South Park or Sarah Silverman). I finally ordered Alenka Zupancic’s The Odd One In: On Comedy, because I think she will help provide a vocabulary for the sobriety of things like documentary. While I’m far from finishing the second book in progress (which is on mourning, a reason why it’s taking some time, I reckon), I think my third book will be on humor. Oh, no, it’s on music. But humor after that.

Humor aside (but it returns, inevitably like a Delcon Shield), the images from Abu Ghraib shown tonight reminded me of Kirsch’s recent hit job on Slavoj Zizek’s In Defense of Lost Causes and Violence, both of which I have not yet read (if you can keep up with Zizek, you get a gold star; with teaching and writing and administrivia I cannot). Zizek apparently discusses torture in each volume at some length. I gather from the reaction of Jim Aune and others, Zizek is at the peak of his most contrary, arguing for a reconsideration of communist violence vis-à-vis liberal democratic solutions. I’ll wait to pass judgment since I’ve not read these books yet (I thought I would gouge out my eyes reading the Parallax), except to note something about their rhetorical surfaces: that two books on violent, lost causes appear in the same year from our resident contrarian should give us pause. At what point does talk about violence and the radical embrace of futility become “cute,” become kitsch?

Exhibit A: I was reading the paper on Sunday, as I am wont to do, listening to This Week and Meet the Press. I was clipping coupons when I ran across an insert from “The Bradford Exchange,” a full-page ad for the “Echoes of Glory” coo-coo clock. It’s a Confederate States of America clock that has Robert E. Lee seated on top, and a canon that comes out and booms each hour. The copy reads thusly:

The Pride of the South: In the South’s hour of need, a gallant gentleman soldier named Robert E. Lee took command, and against all odds won timeless glory for himself fighting men of Dixie. The Pride of the South left a record of courage and audacity that endures to this day, and now a limited edition clock reminds you of that history every minute and hour.

Ok, so you’re thinking this is a joke—“Humor Shield, Activate!”—but it’s not. This is a legit product, just as legit as the Rushmore-esque carving of Lee on the side of Stone Mountain near my hometown in Georgia, the side that they do a “laser show” on and have Lee and gang march about to the tune of “Dixie.” While the on-line advertisement doesn’t do the print circular justice, point your browser here to see the real thing.

In what sense is this “Echoes of Glory” clock analogous to the aesthetic of Zizek’s recent work? I’m very aware that I’m not engaging his argument, as I’ve not read it. But there is a certain aesthetic cultivation at work that’s close to kitschy.

I don’t know. I thought I’d have something coherent by the time I finished this entry. Instead, I’m yawing and dream of sleep, as I fend off cat after cat in search of lap time.