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the stupidity of university bashing

May 27th, 2009 by slewfoot

Music: Stevie Wonder: Songs in the Key of Life (1976)

Stupidity is commonly defined as “lacking intelligence or common sense.” Bryan sent me a link to yet another editorial calling for the end of the university as we know it, demonstrating both a lack of intelligence and common sense, in equal measure. Let me address each in turn.

Elizabeth Young, on behalf of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative advocacy group, argues that “university research harms student learning.” This is a claim of fact, and an implied causal claim. In support of her claim, she argues:

  1. “Research” provides society with “very little, if any benefit.”
  2. Only “13%” of research occurs at universities; the rest is privately funded. (Corollary: this means that government “doesn’t need to fund research at all”).
  3. Texas spent $9 billion dollars on research investment, with only 8.3 million return. (Corollary: research is a bad investment).
  4. The average university professor spends 21% of her time with students; the rest is spent on research and administrative duties.

In sum: research provides little benefit to society, most of it is privately funded, there is little rate of return, and it distracts professors from teaching. “Let’s change the incentives at our public universities. Don’t increase funding for research; enact policies that will shift professors’ focus back to their original mission – educating university customers.”

Hopefully with this description the problems of this argument are made obvious, but just in case, let’s go for the lack of common sense first: what is “research” here? Presumably we’re talking medical, biological, computer, and this sort of thing—since that’s what the MSM usually mean by research (not, for example, what I do; again, the report she relies on specifies journal articles for limited audiences, but Liz is using a much broader brush). Poor Elizabeth could use a good university education in argument and policy-making, because she would understand that it’s important to define one’s terms.

Now, to say that there is very little, if any benefit from university research programs is patently silly. How many cures for disease would I need to mention before “very little” becomes “very huge?” I can imagine Lizzy responding: but that research was privately funded! I would respond: where did the researchers learn to do their research? Where are their labs located? Hmm?

Furthermore, one wonders where this “conservative” got her statistics. I don’t have time to research them, but there is a contradiction with her initial parenthetical assertion that university research is “largely taxpayer funded” and the fact that external funding makes the research at universities go, not taxpayer dollars.

We can easily dismiss Lizzy’s argument if we go straight for its underlying reasoning: the university is a business that is designed to serve its customers. As a business, the university should be focused primarily on teaching. If we argue, however, that the university is not a business and that students are not customers, then her argument makes no sense. The “rate of return” isn’t an index of success. Rather, innovation, expanding our knowledge, curing disease, solving social problems, teaching critical thinking—these are the goods internal to the practice of a university. Money is an external good, it is what allows the internal goods to thrive. Money should not, however, drive the university mission.

If you look at the warrant, here, we find Lizzy in quite the pickle. The good she emphasizes, teaching, is internal to the practice of university life. But without research, what would we teach? Universities need both good teaching and good research to support their missions. And isn’t part of the university’s mission to teach future, private sector researchers how to research?

Now, how about the “lack of intelligence?” Lizzy opposes house bill 51, on the grounds that it contributes to “more research.” The bill passed by a landslide. Why was there little opposition, even from Republichristians? Perhaps because the bill had nothing to do with what Lizzy said it did. I actually read the bill this morning, which really was a baby-step in support of a bigger deal, senate bill 1560. That bill should have been the one Lizzy read.

What happened is this. Lizzy read Rick O’Donnell’s opinion piece and bought it whole, without actually researching (doh!) the bills in question. O’Donnell, of course, is a senior fellow at her advocacy group, so she’s citing her own group’s research as evidence. Regardless, had she read SB 1560, what she would have found is that the our congress-people are trying to create a “National Research University Fund” to promote state universities that are on the up-and-up. The idea here is to encourage emerging schools like UT-El Paso, UT- San Antonio, UT- Dallas, UT- Arlington, the University of Houston, Texas Tech, and the University of North Texas to pursue a more prominent research status nationwide. Basically, the fund is an incentive for each of these schools to raise their own endowments (sort of like matching funds) and produce more Ph.D. students. It’s sort of like the Corporation of Public Broadcasting: each school must meet a threshold before they are entitled to research funds. Much of these monies will be for infrastructure, too. Finally, although the fund will receive monies from the state, it will also be for private and charitable donations.

The irony of all this is that part of the forces behind the push to have more top-tier researcher institutions is financial: R1 institutions bring in industry, develop communities, and so forth. The same financial logic that informs Lizzy’s editorial is behind the bill she critiques.

I don’t think there is any way we can resist the increasing corporatization of the academy, and much of this is done in the name of business (“external funding,” especially). I think forcing professors to teach more and research less, however, would destroy the university entirely. Some of us actually teach better when we teach less; we bring our research back to the classroom. One activity informs the other. Balance is key.

formal longing and the singular plot

May 24th, 2009 by slewfoot

Music: Spiritualized: The Complete Works, Volume One (1993)

It is wedding season, which means I’ve been thinking about Louis Althusser. I DJ weddings. I officiate nuptials. I attend that private publicity of pact-making. Last night, fortunately, I was a guest at a wedding between two lovely people whom I adore; it was the first wedding I’ve been to in two years in which I wasn’t working. I had a great time.

In the thick of fun, however, the critical mind never shuts-off. As a number of scholars will tell you, it’s difficult for many of us to avoid thinking critically about highly affective, symbolic moments. And so, as my friends and I tried to push back the tears the beautiful bride’s quivering voice inspired, I found myself also thinking: nothing says interpellation like “I do,” and strangely in a funerary tone. Caused to ponder a future, we face death and, over that unpleasant certainty, we make promises to others on our steady march. All speech pacts are made in relation to death.

So mote it be.

Overhearing such promises one can develop a lump in the throat and be tempted to sob; I thought about my tearing eyes and how my happiness for my friends was also in some sense un-self-reflectively mournful. This emotional tone is not simply the cultural bromide of two folks who now don’t have to “die alone” (or, well, at least one of them won’t have to); it has something to do with the completion of form, the packaging of desire into convention. It is curiously a return to the tonic. From a very early age the singular story of life provides little deviance from this plot-line: the couple unto death.

The language of life plots—and I mean to evoke both meanings here—is taken from Lauren Berlant’s work on public feelings and intimacies. In a special issue of Critical Inquiry on “intimacy,” Berlant argues that intimacy on the way to convention is really a kind of “wild thing” spanked into behaving through ideology:

Contradictory desires mark the intimacy of daily life: people want to be both overwhelmed and omnipotent, caring and aggressive, known and incognito. These polar energies get played out in the intimate zones of everyday life and can be recognized in psychoanalysis, yet mainly they are seen not as intimacy but as a danger to it. Likewise, desires for intimacy that bypass the couple or the life narrative it generates have no alternative plots, let alone few laws and stable spaces of culture in which to clarify and to cultivate them. What happens to the energy of attachment when it has no designated place? To the glances, gestures, encounters, collaborations, or fantasies that have no canon?

I think they get a Sunday. And a blog. They get the day after Christmas, or the day right after you’ve finished writing your dissertation. They get to occupy “the critique.”

The couple unto death is a life plot all of us have, as a song of life, a certain melody that has made itself a raging earwig. I say to my shrink all that huffing and acid I did as a teen purged the plot from my innermost, but she often reminds me this is not true (especially when I have realized I have fallen in love, even if its with more than one person). It’s not simply that there are alternatives, some better, some worse; rather, the couple unto death is part of who we are, as subjects. We cannot help ourselves; we must enjoy the plot because its the only one we got; there is nothing else. There is nothing behind the plot that it obscures. That is, there is no-thing. And no-thing—Das Ding?—is awe-ful. The pact is an admission of this no-thing, but the way we, as a culture, have attempted to create an affective net so that we can go live, in person.

And everyone is thinking it, perhaps not consciously so, but where there are tears, there are love and death. The couple unto death is neither good nor bad; I’m not critiquing the plot or the conventional way it gets elaborated (marriage). I’m just saying the formal declaration of the couple is a mournful scriptedness.

For example: the couple heralds the demise of the group (couples always threaten solidarity); Larry Rickels teaches us that you cannot understand the failure of social movements without recourse to a coupling. I would also insist that with any couple, there is always an invisible third person, too—but I won’t go into the third today—the Other One, the body over which the pact is made, the altar.

The trouble with the couple unto death is that I’ve seen the story unravel because there was no affect driving the narrative. The narrative was sort of driving itself. That wasn’t the case with last night’s couple; you could feel it thick in the room. And like a virus, their true love started to infect the singularities.

Last night, for the second time, I spoke with a beautiful woman from Stockholm, a woman with the kind of idealism and personal politics that makes me want to cook her dinner (not possible, however, since she lives in Sweden). At times she had glassy eyes, when I had the courage to look into them. It is easy to fall into a kind of love at a wedding.

In short, the couple unto death is an inescapable plot because there is nothing else.

red states win

May 21st, 2009 by slewfoot

Music: Dead Can Dance: The Serpent’s Egg (1988)

As the world knows, Kris what-ever-his-name-is was voted the winner of American Idol in what has become, perhaps, the biggest spectacle of cultural politics of the century. Last night the stakes were, as many have said, comfortably cast in terms of red and blue, where blue means queer and red means, well . . . safe.

I am disappointed; I was thinking that Adam was going to win because his talent as a performer was simply in a different league than every other contestant. I confess, too, that Adam is delicious (though Kris is cute, but Adam is just nasty hot), and I wanted the openly queer guy to win (I say queer and not “gay” because Lambert playfully walks the edge of bicuriosity; for example, like here). Lambert is taking cues from the Michael Stipe/Morrissey/Ziggy Stardust playbook; making sexuality “interesting” and “mysterious” does seem to work for rock stars.

I’m also somewhat annoyed with my disappointment: I wanted the queer guy to win, and this is probably also the reason why millions of teen girls voted for the other Other One. I wish, in other words, that Adam’s sexuality was not a voting issue—that the best singer would simply get the votes. I wish, in other words, no one really gave a shit about who Adam chooses to sleep with. But people do give a damn. Apparently I do too.

So, I’m disappointed in my disappointment.

Unquestionably, however, Lambert’s album will be on an end-cap at Target come October. Kris what’s-his-name’s will be there too. But I suspect his record will have the same, stellar success that the “soul patrol” Taylor Hicks did. Meh.

courtesy of victor vitanza

May 17th, 2009 by slewfoot

on advisorly countertransference

May 14th, 2009 by slewfoot

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

This week and next week are reserved for reading and commenting on graduate papers (I don’t really “grade” them, just comment, as everyone seems to have done their best). I have to take breaks, though, to give my brain a rest, so I thought I would blog about an article in The Chronicle of Education from last week. I don’t get the rag, but I suspect someone put it in my mailbox because of a feature story on sonic torture. That essay is fascinating and will get it’s own entry; the more pressing nag, however, is about the back page op-ed, “The Professor as BFF,” by Thomas J. Straka, a professor of forestry and natural resources at Clemson. The opening paragraph helps to convey the tone of the piece:

I tend to be pretty picky in taking on graduate advisees. A bad fit often involves frustration, for both the student and me, while a good choice can end up being a valuable contribution to the profession and a lifelong friendship. But starting out, I never consider a graduate student as a potential BFF (best friend forever).

Straka goes on to complain about the increasing dependency of graduate students, who apparently phone him repeatedly to ask stupid questions and to let him know they applied to the program. After many paragraphs of anecdotes about graduates who cannot, apparently, find information in the course guide themselves and so on, Straka laments he “may have to had a section on cellphone abuse to my introductory talk on graduate school expectations.” The author concludes that his students are learning this behavior somewhere, and that “I’m just wondering where.”

This is a good question, but I think one that definitely betrays a generational affiliation. Where do students learn this kind of “connection” with a professor is permissible? Part of the answer, I suspect, is that they learn it from interacting with younger instructors and professors. Straka forgets that in a research university, the basic courses are taught by students who are practically the same age as their own students—or perhaps only a few to five years older. Power distance is simply much shorter, and often these younger instructors use the similarity of age and experience to “reach” and teach their students. As instructors grow older, they have to develop different strategies for meeting students where they’re at. Now in my mid-thirties, I’ve discovered my personal anecdotes don’t resonate like they used to, and my references to television shows of the 80s and 90s just draw blank stares; to adapt, I’m breaking down and buying cable for the first time in my life. Nevertheless, I think Straka forgets that his graduate students have closer, affective bonds with their students—and their experiences with younger instructors are probably part of the answer to the “where?” question.

Another part of the answer is Straka’s profound misunderstanding of the advisor/advisee relationship. It’s transferential, to be sure. He mischaracterizes the desires of potential grads as looking for a “BFF,” which, in his case, would be much more appropriate to say this desire is more akin to looking for a parent (it’s an age thing, man). Given the somewhat dismissive tone of Straka, we’ve got the powerful countertransference of hostility here: basically, the student calling him “about 20 times” over the course of two weeks is looking for recognition, he’s looking for love, not the answers to his dumb questions. Straka’s response is to refuse giving the student the recognition he wants.

There is a way to recognize students, to answer their need for love, without cruelty. In my own experience, I don’t think I’m quite old enough to step into the parental role; I’m still more like a “buddy” to my advisees. Straka just doesn’t give graduate students credit: they’re a lot smarter than this. Our grads here seem pretty adept at knowing what is and is not appropriate; I don’t get cell phone calls incessantly, nor needy emails. This leads me to suspect Straka’s program is structured differently, or that his personality invites the transference more than most.

My undergraduates, however, are starting to click into the in loco parentis mode, and I’m ok with that. I would never, of course, make my cell phone available to undergraduates. I get enough emails as it is! But my reaction is not the reaction of Straka. He seems to dehumanize students a bit—turn them into need machines.

Finally, Matt Morris just told me a new book is out titled The Narcissism Epidemic that helps to explain the emergence of entitlement culture in the United States. Now here, I think, is unnamed target of Straka’s essay—he just gets it wrong. We’ve discussed the “petulant demand” before and how students seem, increasingly, entitled to a good grade just for showing up in class, or for simply being a good person. This new attitude is also transferential, but on the hate side of the affective coin: you become the bad parent who has been neglectful and failed to see the tremendous value of the student, her inner treasure—it’s the ideal ego run amuck. Whereas the student asking for recognition is operating on the ego-ideal (that is, the ideal of myself from outside, and ideal that recognizes some part of me lacks and some part of me is from without—is Other), the petulant student is the narcissist who demands. Straka needs to see the difference between the two and not conflate them. This results an a kind of adversarial attitude that can only end in bad teaching.

Students by and large are good people who want to be good. At least in my experience at UT this is the case. A needy or petulant student does stir in me those feelings of hostility that Straka airs in print. I suspect the same is true for many of you teachers out there. We’re only human. I think, however, the key to good teaching and advising is to teach and mentor those who seek recognition (and knowledge), including the needy student. The petulant student, because they do not care about your role as a teacher, isn’t likely to learn much. You just have to try and not let them get to you, ’cause the rest of the students are there for the right reasons.

aphanisis: the crisis of tenure

May 12th, 2009 by slewfoot

Music: Dead Can Dance: Aion (1990)

I received a message this morning alerting me to an Inside Higher Ed piece titled “The Disappearing Tenure Track Job.” Apparently, a new study commissioned and released by the American Federation of Teachers found that the percentage of tenure track professorships in all sectors of higher education is below 40%, despite a dramatic increase in “contingent” positions (e.g., adjunctships) from 1997 to 2007. Such evidence disproves one of the founding assumptions of the sniveling shits of republichristiandom, of course, but what is more alarming is that in 4-year colleges and universities, the number is closer to a quarter of the working force! This is, admittedly, astonishing.

I suppose what is worse is that I don’t see any change for the better in sight, only an increasing reliance on unjust labor and abuse and the continual devaluation of permanent faculty positions. For most of the Rosechron readership, we are fortunate to be in fields anchored by service courses. Because the skills we teach are vital (and because our service courses basically pick up the slack from high school educations overrun by testing and assessment), we still have tenure track jobs available. Comm and Comp have a long way to go before we become “English” and will need to resort to discouraging graduate students. But I worry that day, too, will come because our programs are not exempt from the trends identified by the AFT.

A crisis is typically understood as a moment or state of intense trouble or risk or calamity. Our economic condition today is definitely a “crisis.” Are we, however, in a “tenure crisis” now? Is higher education in a state of general crisis? I’m not sure. I am suspicious of the apocalyptic in general, since the form always works through the exclusion of others. Also, narcissistically, it looks like my hide will get promoted, that my generation will not suffer from the downsizing of the permanent professoriate. But I worry.

If crisis is usually resolved by the exclusion or disciplining of an other, then the AFT report signals a crisis: the purging of adjuncts (or simply ignoring their interests) is one obvious move. Unfortunately, I’ve seen tenure-related issues do precisely at: when I was at LSU, the place was practically functioning on the backs of underpaid adjuncts. As part of a new regime change, two or three adjunct positions were converted to “tenure lines,” which led, of course, to many unhappy people. Now, the old LSU system was truly abusive, in my opinion, so this move was a good one. But I recognize that’s easy for me to say since I’m on a track.

I don’t know what to think about the “tenure crisis.” I solicit your thoughts.

recovery and the dream

May 11th, 2009 by slewfoot

Music: The Cure: Pornography (1982)

This weekend I threw my annual Walpurgisnacht/May Day party, which marks its 11th anniversary! I started throwing the party in Minnesota as a graduate student, and Saturday night we realized that not one, not two, but three of the inaugural partiers were in attendance: Me, Brent, and Christopher (we missed you Dave!). As partiers, we have matured quite a bit. There was no spin the bottle or “I Never” drinking games. Instead, there was moderate partying. At least among the 30-somethings. The twenty-somethings were a completely different story, but I hear their shenanigans went on outside such that the DJ was spared. Here is a photo gallery of the night’s festivities!

Meanwhile, I had an odd day yesterday, topped off with an odd night. I was a little hung over (although I did try to not overdo it), but managed to get some work done and some papers graded, and did a little Facecrack DJ-ing (inspired by Vitanza’s Jass sessions). Almost finished reading a very good prospectus. I then wrote a long letter to a friend—an old “hobby” of mine, but one that felt good, like reflecting in a journal with a readership of two. The day was odd because of a subtle nagging, something more than my cloudy and slow brain trying to think.

I made a Bloody Joshie at nightfall, which helped me to feel better. Then I went to bed early and had a very long, unpleasant dream. I don’t know if you would call it a “nightmare,” as it was not horrifying: it was just unpleasant and, as I type this reflecting, it still nags at me because I’m just not sure what it is “really about.” I do believe there is some truth to the psychoanalytic perspective that I cannot access the “dream thoughts” by myself, so I’ll share.

The dream was about identity theft. As the day progresses the “plot” gets murky as whatever unconscious anxiety was surfacing sinks back into unknowingness. I should have written down what I remembered from the dream this morning. Nevertheless, the dream involves someone taking over/control of my server and URL identities. Facebook profile too. My blog now features pornography, and all my other pages have been replaced with quasi-commercial content involving body parts and tiny text that is hard to read. I am horrified, feel totally helpless about all of this; some of the material posted is private things about me.

I decide to try and frighten the thief. In the dreamworld I have a number of friends who code for a living, and who will know how to help me. Until I can get in touch with them, I send a threatening email to the imposter webmaster saying that I will send him a virus unless he returns my website to me. No response.

On a different day, I am walking in a gravel parking lot and away from my vehicle either toward some festival I am attending or to work (I cannot remember) and this snot-nosed teenager taps me on the shoulder. He sort of looks like Eddie from The Munsters, but older—about maybe 16. In a snide voice he makes a comment to me that is at first nonsensical, but that I quickly realize is an indirect reference to my pirated web pages. He indicates, indirectly, that he can easily destroy my life. I wake up.

Ok, so, I have been having some bad dreams for the past few weeks. One of them my therapist help me to figure out as a reference to the tenure process. In part, this dream is probably part of a composite of anxiety including worries about tenure. The horror of the dream is basically not having “control,” and I am at a point in the promotion process that is, well, out of my control.

But obviously there is more to it.


May 5th, 2009 by slewfoot

Not everything I write for Bachelor Chow over at CD Kitchen is published. Apparently my column for this week was too racey. I was trying to come up with something relevant for Mother’s Day. Oh well. I reckon I can post it here! It’s not that offensive, is it?

Mom’s Nutritious and Disposable Organ!

As we wind toward the glorious day of Mama-luv, I thought you bachelors might enjoy learning a bit about placentophagia. No, it’s not a Nu-Metal band. No, it’s not a kinky dance move or a cousin of the swine flu virus. Rather, it’s placenta eating! That’s right: all kinds of animals eat the placenta after their offspring are done using it. Some animals eat it for nutrients, some to hide the scent from predators. And some animals eat it because it is thought to ward off illnesses, ease postpartum depression, and even jump-start the life force juice. Dem animals are us!

What is the placenta, you ask? Well, it’s the only human organ that develops specifically for being thrown away after it has done its job. It’s the blob-like thing attached to the umbilical cord at birth. Basically, the placenta starts growing about twelve weeks after a woman gets pregnant. Its job is to assist the growing baby with obtaining nutrients and hormones, and, well, to help dispose of waste (cause you know, if it grows, it’s giving up something: for plants, that’s oxygen, and for people, well, it’s number one and two).

Like music, the placenta is a gift that keeps on giving. Even though it’s pretty much finished after the baby is born, because the discarded organ is so nutrient-rich, it can be used to “feed” a lot of things, from plants to people! In some cultures the proud parents bury the placenta in the ground, and then a year later (after the powerful, much-too-strong nutrients have become less concentrated) plant a tree or plant of some sort in the same spot so that this organ can continue to sustain life. In Chinese culture the placenta is dried out, ground up, and put into capsules to take for medicinal purposes. And in some enlightened cultures, the placenta is mixed with whipped cream and put in a wading pool for wrestling lubricant.

Naw, I’m just joshing with that one—had you goin’ for a second, though, didn’t I?

Of course, as I’ve written about numerous occasions this year, people eat the darndest things (e.g., the Easter Bunny, Jesus, etc.), and placenta is one of those things. Just do an Internet search with the key words “placenta” and “recipes” and you’ll easily find tips for making placenta lasagna, cocktails, stews and roasts. Unfortunately, finding yourself a placenta is something of a challenge (especially if you’re a bachelor, which means you not likely to have one around for Mother’s day). It’s not like you can buy placenta at the local farmers market. So, let’s talk about a different organ that you can find at the grocery store: liver!

Liver is a pretty big organ, and people have been eating the livers of animals for centuries. It makes bile, which aids in digesting, as well as processes toxins and so forth. Unfortunately, if a critter ain’t got a liver, it’s a goner. Most liver is consumed as spreads—liver pâtés and foie gras—or chopped and fried (KFC used to sell this, but I don’t think they do anymore) or in sausages. In general, I don’t much care for liver (or any organs on my plate, for that matter), but I have been persuaded by my friend Barry that it can be quite tasty . . . as long as you add booze to it! (er, I mean in preparation, not via drinking booze for your own liver). So, here’s Barry’s recipe for a yummy liver spread; you can serve it on mothers’ day and joke that it is a placenta mousse (but tell them eventually it’s, you know, actually chicken liver).


Serves 8 (as appetizer)

2 tubs of chicken livers

1 stick of butter

3-4 green onions + stems, chopped

1 pint of heavy cream

salt and pepper to taste

1-4 teaspoons of tarragon, to taste

½ cup of cognac or brandy

Melt the butter, then cook the livers and onion on moderate heat, turning often to avoid burning the livers for about seven to ten minutes. Let the livers firm up, then let them cool to room temperature in the pan. While the livers are cooling, whip a small container of whipping cream until it is stiff. Now, pour the cooled livers into a food processor, add 1 tablespoon salt, pepper, tarragon. Add one half cup cognac or brandy. Blend until totally smooth. Then add in the whipping cream and blend again until totally smooth.

Barry says that this will be very soupy, but that you should not despair! Pour the mousse into nice containers (like a custard up or ramekin you can serve from them) that you can cover tightly and put in fridge for at least 4 hours. “It will set up nicely,” writes Barry. “This can be done ahead of time and it keeps and the flavors meld as it sits, within reason. The salt and brandy preserve it. Serve with crackers or crunch French bread.”

feed the horse

May 3rd, 2009 by slewfoot

Dance party is coming . . .

yawp! another work in progress

May 1st, 2009 by slewfoot

Music: Love and Rockets: Express (1986)

My month-long guest stint at the Blogora is over, which means I’ll be updating here more frequently. Hooray for Rosechron!

So, I’ve been back to writing. This semester with all the traveling and grading, I’ve simply not had time to tinker on my own writing projects. Here in that strange quiet that marks the end of days semesters, I’ve managed to carve out about four half-days to write. Gods, my annual review is going to look rather sparse this year, but if ever there was a year to seem unproductive, this one is it: with the economy the way it is and salary raises frozen, there is no reward to be had for productivity.

Anyway, I’ve been meaning to sit-down and transform the speech I gave at the Public Address conference last fall into a manuscript. Aside from finding the time, the difficulty is that all my “evidence” is sound. What I call for at the end of the speech—the study of vocalics and the affective side of speech—is really hard to do as print on the page (as any good poet will tell you). This difficulty must be folded into the argument somehow, so that’s been the basic struggle. I think my solution is going to simply be this: thick description of voice qualities and footnoted URLs to audio-clips. I have to be careful to argue that those techniques already developed for delivering the human voice over to the written word—linguistics, phonetic or microanalysis, musical notation—are all insufficient and do precisely what I’m saying we should not do. Poetics, I think—the recourse to the literary re-presentation, broadly construed—is probably the closest to where I’m at.

Well, regardless: here’s the introduction as a tease.

On Speech and Public Release

Let us note an incontestable fact. The science of the Art of Oratory has not yet been taught.

—Abbè Delaumosne[i]

Public address is characteristically transmogrifying—in many senses. As Angela G. Ray has noted in her survey of cherished, award winning monographs, as a field public address seems to have abandoned claiming a specific object of study. In recent decades, Ray argues, scholars have been “performing public address scholarship as a perspective or approach rather than an object domain.” [ii] Once upon a time we used to say that the object of public address was oratory. [iii] Then, some said it was “the text,”[iv] and later others argued the object was queer from the get-go. [v] Of course, if the previous volumes of this journal are any measure, there does seem to be a certain settled agreement about the values underwriting public address scholarship: the importance of history and moments of contingency; the significance of oratory, past and present; the necessity of the archive for understanding discursive formations in this century and those past; and the prominence of the presidential. Yet aside from the company we keep and the values we share, if one begins to push, prod, and poke the concept of “public address,” the territory begins to expand beyond any consensual map: what is and what constitutes a public today? What event, practice, or object is sufficient to constitute an address?

These and related questions unquestionably bespeak a befuddling implosion of what we once knew handily as “public” and “private,” and arguably, the object domain of public address cannot be stabilized because the mutually constitute notions of public and private are losing-or have lost-their purchase. Of course, for decades scholars have challenged the notion of the public–especially as it is reflected in Habermas’s conceptual understanding of the “public sphere”–as a productive fantasy or ideological construct that enables and disables various forms of civic labor and identity.[vi] In its stead many scholars seem to prefer to speak of publics, counterpublics, public modalities, and various iterations of publicity that, it is argued, more accurately reflect the complexities of contemporary modes of social being. [vii] On the other hand, “a simple boundary” denoted by the public/private distinction “can reverberate and make the world intelligible,” argues Lauren Berlant. There is no question that we continue to behave as if there are domains of publicity and privacy in our mundane and mediated lives. [viii] So perhaps, then, it is better to say that the implosion of the public/private distinction, this slash under siege, is the name for a condition of constant crisis-a continual, yet-to-be-finished implosion as the slash is ceaselessly asserted anew and at different locations depending on the context. If so, how might we account for the spatial reassertion of this conceptual boundary, both academically and in “actually existing democracy,” to use Nancy Fraser’s phrase? How do we make sense of the uncanny persistence of privacy, of our private lives-our private parts-as simple boundary that does a significant kind of rhetorical labor? And, what is the character of that rhetorical labor?

To begin to develop an answer, lets start with an example that helps us to discern better an ideational locus of the slash, and this by means of an obvious affective threshold crossing:

Ooh. Ohhh. Ooohah. Oooooohaah. Ohhh God ahh. Ooooh. Ooooh God. Ohh. Huh. Ahhhh. Uhhh. Oooh God. Oh yeah right there. Uh. Oh. Uhhh. Uhh. Oooohhhaah. Uuuhh. Oooh. Oooh. Oooh God. Ooooh. Yes! Yes! Yes Yes Yes Yes! Ahhhh. Oohhh. Oooh! Yes! Yes! Yes! Ohhhh! Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes! Yes! Oooohhh. Oooh. Ooh. Oh God. Ooh. Uh.

Here is a conspicuous violation of a cultural taboo that simultaneously imparts the critical problem of re-presentation: as words read on the page these “oohs” and “ahhs” violate the syntagmatic mandates that yield scholarly meaning. Yet read aloud—say, as one would poetry or the final pages of Ulysses—the paradigmatic axis emerges as a human body in feeling, and set within the wider context of the cinematic imaginary, a very specific body at that.[ix] If the reader knows her romantic comedies, she was probably able to envision the body of that enunciated these series of phonemes, likely at the occurrence of the first Joycean “Yes!” The voice which originally gave voice to these exclamations belonged to Meg Ryan, and the film was the wildly popular 1989 hit, When Harry Met Sally. Her ejaculations first appeared in a climatic scene in which Harry, played by Billy Crystal, is astonished by Sally’s claim that women fake sexual pleasure. To demonstrate, Sally sallies forth, replete with ecstatic facial gestures and fisted table poundings with each rapturous “Yes!”

Of course, there’s nothing terribly astonishing about Sally’s orgasmic yawps; we’ve all made similar sounds, or at least faked them. Or rather, there’s nothing terribly astonishing about Sally’s orgasmic yawps except for the fact that she is releasing them in public. In the filmic diagesis, Sally’s dispatch was made at a crowded, local diner. What is both fun and horrible about this orgasm is that it is public: Like Sheena Easton, Sally seemingly invites strangers into her sugar walls, violating a presumed barrier between public and private.

Spectators enjoy this scene, of course, because it is make-believe; Sally’s screams comprise a fake depiction of Meg Ryan faking an orgasm in public, and these layers of fakery provide a more comfortable, ideational distance from Sally’s private publicity. Yet even despite the our comfortable distance as spectators (or ever further away, as readers of a transcription of a fake of a fake), Ryan’s orgasm is nevertheless a public release of a certain character, one that indexes the depth of intimacy culturally associated with pleasure or pain. In general, such intimacy is often resigned to the register of the sexual, a register that is signified by the cry, the grunt, the scream, and the yawp.

The cry, the grunt, the scream, and the yawp: these vocal utterances are aligned with the sexual because they are not meant for public company, certainly not for public scrutiny. Of course, I would underscore the term “sexual” in its broadest sense, not reducible to the genital, but rather consisting of a wide range of bodily stimulations and excretions that result in pleasure, pain-or both-from the visual enchantments of cinema to the uncomfortable bliss of endorphins on mile ten of that marathon some readers ran yesterday. The cry, the grunt, the scream, and the yawp index the sexual, here understood as the body in feeling. These also bespeak an absence of self-knowledge, a loss of control, even a tacit mindlessness associated with extreme emotional states.

The cry, the grunt, the scream, and the yawp represent what we could simply term “uncontrolled speech,” and in this essay I shall argue that uncontrolled speech plays a much larger role in public life than many have supposed.[x] The trick is to understand involuntary or uncontrolled speech as that which measured speech always threatens to reveal-that every time we witness masterful eloquence, there lurks the possibility of a hiccup or belch waiting to rupture the ruse of public propriety. For just as the measured talk of two friends flirting in a diner portends the promise or threat of a coming scream, so does a president horrify and infuriate with an impending “duh” or the possibility of an unthinking, barbaric yawp. In this sense, I will argue that the unspoken-uncontrolled is the regulatory organ of eloquence.

In plainer language, my thesis is that uncontrolled speech, represented by the cry, the grunt, the scream, and the yawp, is the normative constraint of public address, and that this constraint is sexual in character. As I corollary, I will suggest that the object of speech, and by extension oratory, should remain central to public address. Indeed, I will argue for re-privileging the object of speech in public address as the center. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the study of oratory included a robust understanding of speech that put argument and affect on equal footing. An attention to uncontrolled public speech not only helps us to recover that affective or pathetic dimension of rhetoric that has been repressed, but also helps us to make better sense of the ever-evolving extinction of the slash between public/private, the implosion of prurience and propriety, and the collapse of entertainment and politics. To this end my argument unfolds in three parts. With reference to psychoanalytic theory and the work of Lauren Berlant, I first turn to a discussion of public intimacy and the sexual significance of speech as such. Then, in the second part of my talk I bring an understanding of uncontrolled speech to bear on the polarizing oratory of Hillary Clinton and Barak Obama. Finally, I conclude by discussing how a renewed attention to the object of speech helps to locate the contribution of psychoanalysis and elocution to public address in the canon of delivery.


[i] Abbé Delaumonse, The Delsarte System, trans. Frances A. Shaw (New York: Edgar S. Werner, 1893), 3.

[ii] Angela G. Ray, “The Marie Hochmuth Nichols Award and the Living Tradition of Public Address.” National Communication Association Public Address Division webpage. Available accessed 25 April 2009.

[iii] Herbert A. Wichelns, “The Literary Criticism of Oratory.” Studies in Rhetoric and Public Speaking in Honor of James Albert Winans, ed. A. M. Drummond (New York: The Century Company, 1925), 181-216.

[iv] See Michael C. Leff and Fred J. Kauffeld, eds., Texts in Context: Critical Dialogues on Significant Episodes in American Political Rhetoric (Davis, CA: Hermagoras Press, 1989).

[v] See Charles E. Morris III, ed., Queering Public Address: Sexualities in American Historical Discourse (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2007).

[vi] Jurgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into the Category of Bourgeois Society, trans. Thomas Burger (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991).

[vii] See Nancy Fraser, “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy,” Social Text 25/26 (1990): 56-80; Robert Asen and Daniel C. Brouwer, Counterpublics and the State (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001); Michael Warner, Publics and Counterpublics (New York: Zone Books, 2005).

[viii] Lauren Berlant, “Intimacy: A Special Issue.” Intimacy, edited by Lauren Berlant (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 3.

ix See James Joyce, Ulysses, Gabler Edition (New York: Vintage Books, 1986), 642-644.

[x] Some readers familiar with linguistics may object to the term “uncontrolled speech” as oxymoronic. Cries and so forth, some might argue, are better understood as vocalizations, not speech. Such a view, however, is focused on the voice in isolation. Speech implicates both someone who vocalizes as well as someone who hears that vocalization. Insofar as a vocalization is understood as meaningful by another (e.g., Sally is experiencing sexual pleasure), I argue it is speech, controlled or involuntary.