Too Cool for Internet Explorer


September 28th, 2009 by slewfoot

Music: Drone Zone from Soma FM

I’ve always admired the work of Michael Bérubé, and appreciated his willingness to take on Horowitz and respond to the accusations that the university classroom is a brainwashing zone. He’s done a lot of good work representing the humanities to the world outside of the academy (and internally to education administrators). At least I admired his work and efforts until last week.

Recently, Bérubé deliberately chomped down on the proverbial hand that feeds by publishing an essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education titled, “What’s the Matter with Cultural Studies?” Similar to Mark Taylor’s strange anti-academic editorial in the New York Times last April, Bérubé’s piece was (presumably) designed “to get people talking” by making statements that are critical or contrary to the discipline or field his livelihood has been built on. I bridle at the move not so much because our home fields deserve a measure of piety, nor because I think the discussion is tired (even though it is). Rather, I’m bothered by Bérubé’s rhetoric and his rhetorical choices, and what they may indicate about motive, conscious or unconscious: what does a consistent failure to define key terms, the lack of evidence to support grand claims, and a relative lack of historical consciousness collectively say in answer to the question, “why this essay today?” In other words, the essay seems like a cheap shot. So why make it?

Now, to be honest I dithered all day on whether to post a response to the shout-out on Crooked Timber because I didn’t want to give the essay even more attention. I don’t think the essay is worthy of any more engagement; it’s a tar pit, and no one should stick a foot in. As I noted over on The Blogora, Bérubé’s essay is “bullshit”—which apparently delights him—but I did not mean “bullshit” in terms of nonsense. Rather, I mean the term in its long-standing—that is, centuries long—rhetorical sense: disingenuousness. The best response—-I know, I know—-is not to spend time showing where he makes the mistakes of informal logic, or as Jim Aune points out, where he mixes his metaphors (“The period of theoretical ferment that began in the late 1960s and gained traction in the 1970s seemed to have reached the boiling point.”). But since I’m implicated in this whole “food fight” by name—and since visits to this blog increased by a third today—[sigh] I should elaborate in response to the tacit call to be “more helpful.”

So, back to my question of motive: why this essay, and why this essay now? To begin to answer the question, we have to (unfortunately) rehearse the substance of his essay to put it on the backburner, where it should be. His argument is not very clear. He first advances his major claim after locating the birth of cultural studies in Britain and lauding, in particular, the first Birmingham School book:

In that time [over the last thirty years or so], has cultural studies transformed the disciplines of the human sciences? Has cultural studies changed the means of transmission of knowledge? Has cultural studies made the American university a more egalitarian or progressive institution? Those seem to me to be useful questions to ask, and one useful way of answering them is to say, sadly, no. Cultural studies hasn’t had much of an impact at all.

So, the major claim is that cultural studies has not had much of an impact on the institution of the academy, nor on any one discipline. He then proceeds to list a series of “institutional” and “intellectual” reasons in support of his major claim. Among them are: (a) overblown “trimuphalism” about the impact of cultural studies; (b) most universities do not have a cultural studies department; (c) cultural studies has not made a significant impact on fields external to the humanities; (d) rightly or wrongly, it has been received as “coextensive with the study of popular culture”; (e) tragically, cultural studies has been defended as having no method and no object; (f) it has made no political impact; and (f) it only has one, big, neoliberalism hammer and assumes people are dupes.

There is, of course, a major problem with the informal reasoning here: equivocation with the term “cultural studies.” It would seem Bérubé leans heavily on the more standard narrative of how cultural studies came to the states (via the Birmingham School), but then “cultural studies” seems to become a floating signifier for this or that group (the 1990 meeting at Illinois, then mass media critical scholars, then the critics of neoliberalsim a la Hardt and Negri, etc.). Bérubé routinely mentions “the field” and “cultural studies” as if it were unified or coherent, but it’s not, and what cultural studies means at one place is anthropology or philosophy at another. If cultural studies is more of an anti-discipline and floating signifier given meaning only in context, it really is really difficult to make sweeping claims like “cultural studies is dead.”

Today Bérubé qualified and explained how he defines “cultural studies” over on Crooked Timber (finally!). This is helpful, but the “damage” has already been done in the polemic. And he still defends cultural studies as an “it.” If one must spend paragraph after paragraph defending one’s choice to refer to cultural studies in the singular, as an “it,” perhaps it ain’t a singular “it.” While I do think “rhetorical studies” is much more coherent and can be referred to as an “it,” a unified concept of sorts, my own advisor taught me well by making me read his essay, “On Not Defining Rhetoric” . . . . but I digress.

Even if we can operate “as if” cultural studies were coherent (say, as a place continental philosophers went to do work, squeezed out of philosophy departments by the analytical folks), and I would grant there is something singular in the term (after all, were talking about “it”) we must then take-up the issue of novelty: the failures of cultural studies constitute a very dead horse. Even Bérubé says, “I am getting very cranky in my late 40s, and I have now heard versions of this gambit for over twenty years . . . .” Exactly. And so he decides to throw the dice?

From the day I started reading Grossberg’s famous collection of essays as an undergraduate, to the anxiety rife discussions at Northwestern at a six week institute on the question of “method in/and cultural studies,” it has been obvious to me that “cultural studies” would always have its identity in question, and this is precisely because it is constituted as a non-unified “field.” There are active efforts, in fact, to do so. Cultural studies seems better poised as a disposition with an institutional history rather than some sort of intellectual trajectory. There is something foundational, and it’s a history, an origin narrative, and a set of values, but “the field” only coheres in relation to a certain group of people making certain arguments (perhaps this is why Bérubé keeps coming back to Hall).

So, I’m still saying it’s silly to speak as if cultural studies makes sense as some unity; it makes pronouncements about its relatively fertility or impotence seem like wheel-spinning to me. So, again: Why are people engaging Bérubé on this essay? It’s more horse beating. Tired horse beating.

So, if (1) Bérubé constitutes a unity when none exists; and (2) is making old and tired claims, we are left with the only important question: Why this essay, and why this essay now? This is a rhetorical question (in the earnest sense). Alternately put: what is the larger context for this essay? What reason explains why Bérubé chose this moment to say something negative about an anti-disciplinary discipline?

It’s instructive to see how Bérubé characterizes his own rhetoric:

I’m saying [cultural studies hasn’t had much of an impact at all] baldly and polemically for a reason. I know there are worthy programs in cultural studies at some North American universities, like Kansas State and George Mason, where there were once no programs at all. I know that there is more interdisciplinary work than there was 25 years ago; there is even an entire Cultural Studies Association, dating all the way back to 2003. But I want to accentuate the negative in order to point out that over the past 25 years, there has been a great deal of cultural-studies triumphalism that now seems unwarranted and embarrassing.

Such grandiose pronouncements beg for examples (whose triumphalism? his own? to what literature does he refer?). But more significantly, Bérubé never provides his reason for saying that “cultural studies hasn’t had much of an impact at all.” He is critiquing cultural studies “for a reason,” he says, but that reason is never discussed. Is he worried about students on the job market? Is he angered by assumptions that cultural studies have/has “made it,” (and if so, why is he angered)? He never really says. And so we have to go digging for this reason. It’s one thing to argue that cultural studies is dead or dying or failed or whatever, which I’ve already said is something of a dead horse. Our concern should be, again, why is he arguing this, and why is he arguing it now? What is the purpose of this rhetoric for our times?

Presumably, the most laudable rationale is to goad cultural studies (whatever that is) to complicate its theories and better promote itself inside and outside the academy. In later remarks, Bérubé suggests the problem with “cultural studies” is fundamentally one of PR:

. . . cultural studies has a serious image problem, and it can get pretty depressing explaining to colleagues (and students!) in other disciplines that actually, Michael Warner and Chantal Mouffe are more important to the field than Jon and Kate [note to people who don’t follow the adventures of Jon and Kate: never mind, it’s not important]. That image problem is, in some precincts, even worse outside the university. Read some of the nonacademic responses Tom Frank’s One Market Under God—they’re even more depressing.

Hopefully, one notices the irony of such a pronouncement: cultural studies needs to do a better PR campaign, and Bérubé has certainly got that project off to a good start! (Indeed, Bérubé’s critique of cultural studies comes precisely at the time graduate students are scrambling on the job market, and at a time when the theoretical humanities are struggling to justify their continued existence).

More importantly, however, I think the ending of the essay is its own best evidence. Here’s how hegemony “actually works,” in a telling line at the end of the essay: ” Michael Bérubé is a professor of English at Pennsylvania State University at University Park. His next book, ‘The Left at War,’ will be published by New York University Press in November.” If we cannot help ourselves on the InterTubes, at the very least we can avoid buying and reading the book Bérub-a-duba-Gate 2009 is designed to promote.

the joys of publishing, continued

September 26th, 2009 by slewfoot

Music: The Boo Radley’s: Everything’s Alright Forever (1992)

The proofing process at a certain journal grinds on. I first detail my frustrations with the post-acceptance proof here. After submitting five, single-spaced pages of corrections to the proof, the editor responded thusly. Yesterday I received another note from the editor; apparently a three-fold team of folks associated with the journal decided a line-by-line response to our requested suggestions was in order.

Ok, all you budding scholars out there: this is not normal. It’s unusual to have proofs come to you for approval in such bad shape. It’s also unusual to see an editor so defensive about stuff. I mean, I had editors literally rewrite my sentences—but heck, the sentences were usually better as a result. Perhaps I am misreading the situation; apparently I’ve been doing that online lately.

Anyhoo, so it’s not so much the editor that’s giving us a hard time as it is someone at the “national office” of the organization who publishes the journal—a non academic, I suspect, and one who cites style manuals with the evangelical zeal of a bible-thumper. As I was responding to their “response” to our corrections, I caught myself laughing aloud and saying, “seriously?” Thinking about this I’m laughing as I type this.

I won’t clobber y’all with the entire response I sent back today. But I want to share some particularly funny tidbits (I’m especially amused by our reference to bad bible verses). Our replies are in boldface, and our original requests/pose is in italics. The editors’ prose is plain:

Howdy Folks,

Below we respond to your response to requested changes. Since this is a new process for us, we don’t know quite how to respond to the response. To make this easier to read, our comments in are GREEN. Following your lead, we respond item by item below:

p. 397, line 5: This author’s name is backwards, and the co-author’s name is missing. This line should read: “Joshua Gunn and __________”

–no problem, this will be corrected


p. 397, lines 9-18: Someone has re-written our abstract, and it no longer makes sense. We request our original abstract be put back in:

In this essay we argue that the rhetoric of Foss, Waters, and Armada’s recent work on “agentic orientation,” as well as the rhetoric of the popular bestselling DVD and book The Secret, are typical of “magical voluntarism.” Magical voluntarism is an idealist understanding of human agency in which a subject can fulfill her needs and desires by simple wish-fulfillment and the manipulation of symbols, irrelevant of structural constraint or material limitation. Embracing magical voluntarism, we argue, leads to narcissistic complacency, regressive infantilism, and elitist arrogance. A more materialist and dialectical understanding of agency is better.

–We strictly adhere to APA, 5th edition. Word limit for abstract is 120—please edit down to that word limit [above has 133 words]

Ok, we deleted a sentence so there are 95 words. Is it possible to copy and paste the italicized abstract above? If not, let us know and we’ll send the revised abstract another way.

[. . . snip . . . ]

p. 400, line 21: the numeral “2” should be changed to the word “two.” In humanities writing, numbers less than 20 are usually spelled-out. We prefer “two” to “2.” If the press insists on a numeral, then we would prefer the would prefer “last couple of centuries” than “2.” Having the numeral “2” appear in the text makes us look foolish to our colleagues in the humanities.

–we will change 2 with “last couple of centuries”—however the APA rule is: APA 5th ed., pg. 124, rule 3.42-e: “Use figures to express numbers that represent time.” We will abide by this rule, as we do throughout all articles published in this journal.

Ok, but as with any documentation style, there are always exceptions and allowances. For example, according to APA 5th ed., pg. 125, rule 3.43a: “Use words to express . . . numbers below 10 that do not represent precise measurements and that are grouped for comparison with numbers below ten.” Our phrase, “two centuries,” refers to spans of time, however, it is not a reference to a precise measurement, as with “2 weeks ago” or “March 30, 1994.” It is, in other words, an inexact reference, which is why “couple” will work just as well. In general, all style guides allow for some flexibility when strict adherence would lead to a confusion of meaning. We believe for some readers, “2 centuries” appears strange. (Thankfully, no one adheres to the 20th chapter of Leviticus as strictly).

[. . . snip . . . ]

p. 409, line 3: “2” should be “two.”

–: APA 5th ed., pg. 124, rule 3.42-e: “Use figures to express numbers that represent time.”

See comment for p. 400 above. If we cannot use “two,” we would prefer the line to read, “. . . characterized in the last couple of centuries.”
[. . . snip . . . ]

These are the corrections you requested.

Many thanks for correcting all these issues. We hope our response meets without objection.


Tweedle Dum and Doktor D.


I confess I am not a detail-oriented person. But I must also say that I’ve never quite encountered such fascistic tendencies in the post-acceptance process, either. I suspect this is a consequence of publishing a humanities-style essay in a mostly quantitative, social-scientific journal.

it’s synth-pop friday!

September 25th, 2009 by slewfoot

on my recent lack of blogging

September 24th, 2009 by slewfoot

Music: Saint Etienne: So Tough (1993)

Sunday: Read the paper, watch political shows. Clip coupons. Feed neighbors pets. Read background material for new “celebrity culture class,” talk to mother. Finish blind reviewing essay for journal.

Monday: Read and research material for new “celebrity culture” class; begin composing lecture and making Keynote slides. Feed neighbor’s pets. Exercise. Shrink. Lodge. Finish reading for graduate seminar. Email email email.

Tuesday: Finish lecture and slides for “celebrity culture” class. Feed neighbor’s pets. Go to school, teach class. Come home quickly to walk the dog, finish graduate lecture. Graduate seminar. Post-seminar at Hole in the Wall. Return home, feed animals. Sure, I’ll look over your essay. Collapse.

Wednesday: Read and research material for new “celebrity culture” class; begin composing lecture and making Keynote slides. Feed neighbor’s pets. Exercise. What? Three more essays to review for journals? No. NO. “Can’t get to it until late November,” I say. Surely that honest answer will cause editor to move to someone else. Prepare guest lecture for introduction to cultural studies class. Deliver guest lecture. Grocery store for food. Begin prepping lecture.

Thursday: “Thanks for agreeing to review those essays; late November is fine.” Blog about not having time to blog. Finish lecture and slides for “celebrity culture” class. Feed neighbor’s pets. Deliver lecture. Meet with students for office hour. Meet with graduate student/friend. Review RSA abstracts. Meet with another student. Begin composing recommendation letter for student. Meet with graduate student/friend for dinner. Read The Lost Symbol.

Friday: Sleep in. 8:00 a.m., feed neighbor’s pets. Comment on grad reading responses. Read friend’s essay draft. Exercise. More RSA abstracts to review. It’s synth-pop friday! Phone calls to sick and elderly brother Masons. Lunch. Make shopping list, go shopping. Back to school for professional seminar. Post-seminar happy hour. Home for dinner. Prepare dish for potluck on Saturday night. Finish The Lost Symbol.

Saturday: Sleep in. 8:30 a.m., email catch-up. Neighbors are back, no pet duty. Tidy up office. Read friend’s essay, make comments. Review more RSA abstracts. Exercise (maybe). Review materials for graduate seminar. Begin reading background for new “celebrity culture” class. Tidy up downstairs. Prepare food, head for potluck. Late night return.

Sunday: Rinse. Repeat.

fifth CRTNET post preview

September 20th, 2009 by slewfoot

I recently submitted a post to CRTNET, which I hope will appear tomorrow. For folks who do not know, CRTNET is an email list service published by the National Communication Association. It is used for announcements, calls, job postings, and discussions. According to the CRTNET archive, I have published a total of 17 times since 1996, about once a year, on average. A majority of those posts were announcements. Four of them were discussion items: one about the boy scouts, one about the history of cultural studies, one in response to a scholar who attacked a journal in our field, and one about the recent hotel boycott. I am about to post, then, my fifth discussion piece.

As an aside: in general, I think it is not wise to post on CRTNET because it has thousands upon thousands of subscribers. If something is said, it should be well thought out and not hasty. In general, those who post frequently on CRTNET are regarded unfavorably. To post on the service frequently on this or that minor issue or quibble is a waste of time for a very large audience. So, in general, I don’t think posting on CRTNET is wise unless the issue is of major importance to most subscribers.

I think recent policy changes by the NCA are abusive and single out graduate students. I don’t think this singling-out is conscious, but I do think our grads are getting screwed. It’s one of my professional hobby-horses. The Rhetoric Society of America has recently really gone out of their way to make their conferences affordable to students, bending over backwards to help. NCA has done the opposite. It makes me angry.

So, here’s a sneak-peek at the post:

I am writing to express my strong disappointment with NCA’s recent decision to force early registration for the annual conference. I am also writing to criticize the disingenuous rationale offered by NCA staff for this policy change, as well as the underlying attitude toward NCA members that the registration policy seems to represent.

For the past two years or so, our national, professional organization has been forcing scholars, teachers, and students who appear on the tentative program into “early bird” registration in September. Let me offer three practical reasons for why this policy is misguided, and then comment on the larger ideology that funds the policy.

First, early registration is +too early+. For many program participants, requiring payment by mid-September is a financial hardship. For many if not most educators, the official school year begins on or shortly before September 1st. What this means is that the first paycheck for the year tends to arrive on or around October 1st. A September 17th deadline for registration comes before many of us have been paid. This is especially difficult for graduate students, many of whom struggle to make ends meet (notably, summer teaching opportunities are not guaranteed for anyone at many places, especially for graduate students). Although I understand our national office needs to plan, the timing of early registration is simply +too+ early for the most financially challenged in our organization.

Second, early registration assumes members will use a credit card. Many members do not own or use credit cards. In this dour economy, in fact, not using one’s credit—if she has any left—is advisable. Early registration is, at least indirectly, a request for members to use credit in an economic environment that actively discourages it.

Third, early registration requires the national office to be technologically primed. For the past two years the fax machine at NCA headquarters has been malfunctioning on or around the registration deadline. If the national office is going to force members to pay early to participate in the program, they need to at least have the infrastructure set up to handle early registration. Because early registration is at the beginning of the school year, the office (and its equipment) should be prepared for a wave of last minute registrants.

What troubles me more than the imposition of early registration is the disingenuous rationale given by national office staff: the printing of the program. Two days before the deadline, I emailed the national office to request an extension on registration, as a series of unexpected emergencies this summer evacuated my savings. Of course, I was told no extension was possible. Then, a NCA membership manager offered the following explanation:

“The September 17 deadline is for participants to be included in the program. This is the latest date we can have and still produce a program for the convention. There is no extension of the deadline possible for participants to be listed in the program because of the production time needed.”

Such a rationale is disingenuous at best.

Instead of engaging a lie, lets discuss the real reason for this recent change in registration policy. As former NCA President Martha Watson wrote in the October 2005 SPECTRA, the annual convention “has a plague of what might kindly be called cd’s: convention deadbeats.” In her editorial on the criminality of the convention deadbeat, Watson noted “the leadership of NCA continues to investigate the problem of the cd’s and to explore solutions. One idea is to simply drop persons from the conference who do not register or pay a membership by a certain date.” Of course, this “solution” has come to pass. The reason for forcing program participants to register early +is not+ the production of the program, then, which appears to be the national office’s party line. The reason is for getting money out of the dreaded deadbeat.

Not coincidentally, who is most likely to skip registering for NCA? The student, of course. The student is precisely the person who needs professional development the most. The student is precisely the person who attends the no-host, not to schmooze, but simply to eat! In short, the early registration deadline punishes precisely the kind of person who could use the most charity. In this respect, early registration replicates a class system in which the least powerful and disadvantaged are getting “disciplined” by those in power.

In the context of the national office’s actions in the last few years—I stress the well-known distinction between the office and leadership—it is difficult to describe this “deadbeat solution” as representing anything more than a growing, bottom-line-driven antipathy toward NCA’s members, especially students. Of course, the national office’s silence and inaction regarding homophobia and the boycott of last year’s convention—until the eleventh hour—demonstrated a certain attitude toward its membership. This attitude is reflected, increasingly, in management and policy decisions that have a certain us/them character. Forcing early bird registration on program participants is part of that attitude.

I recognize that NCA has grown and is growing quickly, and this growth creates all sorts of challenges. A number of respected colleagues work hard behind the scenes and within NCA leadership for positive change as we grow. I’m very pleased we are searching for a new executive director; this is a positive step. Art Bochner served marvelously as the recent president and I’m thankful for his service and the changes he helped to shepherd. Betsy Bach is continuing that competent leadership style.

What I’m writing about is more of a structural attitude or ideology that repositions NCA as a business in service to the bottom line, as opposed to a professional organization that should serve its members—not penalize and punish them! I am not concerned here with individual people, but rather the structure or culture of the national office and the corporatized direction it seems to be heading. Deliberately not doing anything about the problem with the conference hotel last year–at least until it was too late–is a symptom of this larger problem. Failing to make exceptions and to help the most disadvantaged members is a symptom of this larger problem. Forced early registration is a symptom of this larger problem. And lying about the reasons behind early registration is also a symptom of this larger problem.

The national office needs to extend registration deadlines to students so that they can remain on the program, and it should do so +this year+ (Perhaps only those who are not registered as “students” should be dropped from the program?). For next year’s conference, consideration should also be made for those individuals who would like to remain on the program but are better able to register in October. And beyond this, NCA leadership needs to work on correcting this “us/them” attitude discernable in NCA policies and rhetoric, including its conspicuous silences on matters of controversy.

The International Communication Association and the Rhetoric Society of America are increasingly attractive homes to NCA members, and this is not simply because they are smaller. Perhaps NCA can learn something from how ICA and RSA treat their members?

drafty proposal

September 13th, 2009 by slewfoot

Music: Soma FM: “Drone Zone”

Panel Proposal for the Bi-Annual Meeting of The Rhetoric Society of America
Minneapolis, MN, 2010

The Sounds of Rhetoric




An original screenplay

Production Draft

September 13th, 2009

BLANK SCREEN: The voice of a person delivering a research paper fades into the audible range. Another voice fades up-again, someone giving an academic paper. The word “rhetoric” is heard. Voice after voice is layered onto each other until there is a din of voices delivering concurrent papers. The sound fades slightly into background noise, and then . . .


WIDE-SHOT, AERIAL: Man appears on street corner just below eye-level; strangely, he is wearing a white dress with a black corset. ZOOM. The dress appears to be German in origin owing to shoulder straps and the obvious, Germanic cut; a beaming smile appears on the man’s face. ZOOM: It is now clear that the man is wearing a blonde, bob wig. ZOOM: Camera continues to focus closer and closer, and the viewer notices a ring of freshly cut daisies encircle the man. The zoom ends in a still CLOSE-UP in which the viewer can see the nametag appearing on man’s chest. CLOSE-UP OF NAME TAG: It reads, “Jack Selzer.”

ZOOM OUT: Camera pulls-out to swelling, orchestral music.

SELTZER: MIDDLE SHOT of JACK, he twirls in place with his arms held out, and then dramatically approaches the stationary camera. In close range, JACK begins to sing, moving his arms out away from his chest in expressive glee:

“The Twin Cities are alive with the sound of rhetoric!

With words that have been said for thousands of years!

The Cities fill my heart with the sound of rhetoric!

My heart wants to declaim every paper it hears!”


This comical and unlikely scene serves to underscore that conferences are heard, not seen. Ironically, since the abandonment of elocution in the early twentieth century, the study of how vocalics, tone, pitch, and other elements of oral delivery has been on a steady decline. Yet, the influence of the human voice-either written or spoken-remains central to everyday suasive encounters, such as at an academic conference. The devaluation of the oral also seems to have also led to the neglect of the sonorous or aural qualities of suasive discourse, broadly construed. This panel seeks to promote more scholarly attention to the rhetorical dimensions of sound. The scholars presenting will focus on music, sound production, and political discourse, mapping the many dimensions of sound’s rhetorical purchase in our contemporary culture(s).

Co-Chairs: [SNIP]

Paper One: [SNIP]

Paper Two: [SNIP]

Paper Three: [SNIP]

Paper Four: “Killing Them Loudly: Rhetorics of Sonic Torture”

Authors: Mirko Hall and Joshua Gunn

Presenter: Mirko Hall

Since 2006, NYU musicologist Suzanne Cusick has published a series of articles about the development of torture techniques using recorded music. As a consequence of her scholarship, the Society for Ethnomusicology publicly condemned the U.S. military for using sonic torture techniques on Iraqi detainees at various prison facilities on ethical grounds (e.g., as “cruel” and “inhumane”). In this paper, we examine the arguments for and against sonic torture in order to tease-out the implicit and explicit theories of influence assumed by proponents and detractors. We conclude by showing how an understanding of these competing theories demands a more systematic and probing investigation of the rhetorical dimensions of sound.

three reasons why joe wilson is a racist

September 13th, 2009 by slewfoot

Music: Talk Talk: Laughing Stock (1991)

The trusty Oxford English Dictionary tells us in the 1989 revision that a “lie” is “an act or instance of lying; a false statement made with the intent to deceive; a criminal falsehood.” As everyone at this point knows, South Carolina representative Joe Wilson interrupted the president’s address to a joint congress by shouting, “you lie!” not once, but twice. He asserted, in other words, that Obama was making a false statement (in this case, concerning whether or not the health care initiatives he proposed would provide service to illegal immigrants), a false statement that was made with the intention to deceive. Presumably, the president was trying to deceive the television audience, since most of the congresspersons in the room would have (well, should have) a working knowledge of the president’s proposals.

What is both amusing and disturbing about the fall-out this week regarding Wilson’s angry outburst is that no one is calling him out for being a racist. Let me be clear:

Joe Wilson’s statement was racist.

If it appears that I am collapsing what Wilson said and did with who Wilson is, I confess that I am. I would make an authority appeal for doing so—“trust me, I know, I’m from the south and know how to read such rhetorical righteousness”—but I know the more conservative of Rosechron’s readers won’t go for that. So, let me make the case for why Wilson’s statement, indeed, his whole performance, is racist, and then suggest what is troubling about the fall-out and the MSM’s failure to take-up the much larger story here, that Wilson’s “symptom” is part of a much larger, hateful political movement emboldened by Wilson’s defiant posturing.

Again, consulting our standard of English meaning, we find that racisim is:

The belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races. Hence: prejudice and antagonism towards people of other races, esp. those felt to be a threat to one’s cultural or racial integrity or economic well-being; the expression of such prejudice in words or actions. Also occas. in extended use, with reference to people of other nationalities.

I think the last qualification, probably added with the 1989 revision (I’m not sure), is particularly important. What it means is that race is a mark, an identifier, not necessarily the “color of one’s skin,” as is often assumed. Strictly speaking, “race” is a cultural category used to label someone as “other,” or “not like me.” What we call “race” is not based in science, genetic or otherwise, and it is commonly assumed race is therefore a negotiated category (this is not to say there are not genetic variations or “frequencies,” marks for phenotypic difference, and so on—it’s to say, rather, that what we dub “race” didn’t come from science, it came from culture). In other words, that I can “racialize” a white Canadian who looks almost identical to me—think about the word “kanuck,” which used to be offensive—means that race is what we call a “floating signifier”: a word that doesn’t have a stable signified or referent. Race is a “concept” that applies to a broad spectrum of references depending on context (so does gender, for that matter). Instead of thinking about race as a thing, we should think about it as a function: what does race do? It marks difference. And as the OED definition points out, the difference is marked because of a fear of a threat of some kind.

What, then, do we have with “race?” We have a floating signifier used to mark difference out of fear. Fear from what? The OED responds “cultural” or “racial integrity” or “economic well-being.” Yes, you argumentation theory mavens, we’re still operating at the analytic level here—but note how the OED sneaks in a little synthetic statement through affect.

Now, let’s move back to Joe Wilson’s statement, “you lie!” What was Obama saying when Wilson charged him with intentional dishonesty? “There are also those who claim that our reform efforts will insure illegal immigrants. This too is false! The reforms, the reforms I’m proposing would not apply to those here illegally.” Obama’s statement is that illegal immigrants will not benefit from health care reform. Wilson asserts this is an intentionally deceptive statement. In his apology, Wilson elaborated:

It [my outburst] was spontaneous. It was when he stated, as he did, about not covering illegal aliens, when I knew we had those two amendments, and I say that respectfully . . . . We need to be discussing issues specifically to help the American people. And that would not include illegal aliens. These are people — I’m for immigration — legal immigration. I’ve been an immigration attorney. But people who have come to our country and violated laws, we should not be providing full health care services . . . . “

“These are people,” Wilson begins, but stops himself short. What does Wilson stop short of saying? “These are people who ______ X,” right? He was about to define what kind of person an “illegal alien” is, but stopped himself. He was about to describe the other. He was about to say, “these people who take our opportunity and rob us of our stuff!”

To think more critically about Wilson’s statement, we need to note first that he is wrong. Neither amendment Wilson indicates provides for the coverage of illegal aliens. At best, he could be charging that the wording of the amendments is ambiguous enough to allow for the possibility of coverage for an illegal alien here and there—but really, that’s stretching it. It’s one thing to say the wording of the legislation is ambiguous and may allow for illegal aliens. It’s quite another, however, to suggest Obama is deliberately lying so that illegal aliens can get covered. The latter is what Wilson was suggesting with “you lie!” His outburst, however spontaneous, could be described as a “lie” itself—doing precisely what he is accusing the president of doing.

Of course, many commentators have noted that the repeated appeals of the “conservative right” to stop “illegal immigration” are racist. “Illegal Immigrant” is just another racist signifier for “the other who threatens to take away my cultural, racial, and economic integrity.” In the popular imaginary, the scenario appealed to is the climax of The Night of the Living Dead, where white people (oh yeah, and one black man) are trapped in a shack with racialized others trying to pour in and eat them/their stuff. Well, I digress: again, “stop those illegal immigrants!” is an obvious appeal to fear based on racialized difference, or if you prefer, difference as such.

Regardless, Wilson’s statement at the level of content, “health care reform will help illegal immigrants” is tantamount to saying, “health care reform will help the Jew” or the “ni—-r” or “the s—k” or “the g–k.” Such an observation does not discount the real problems that illegal immigrants create in this country—especially in Texas. I’m simply pointing out that there is nothing prima facie “bad” about the concept of “illegal immigrant” except, er, the “illegality” I suppose (those of you who steal cable are “illegal,” as are those of you who download MP3s . . . .). But what makes the term a “devil term” is not “illegal,” but rather that “illegal immigrant” is associated with the fear or threat of a racialized other. What reasons do people give for opposing immigrants? Racial integrity (mixed raced children), cultural integrity (no Spanish, English only!), and economic integrity (“they’ll take our jobs!”). Consequently, fear appeals about illegal immigration, even on the rhetorical surface, are by definition racist.

Let us bracket, for the moment, the racist undertones of getting righteous about illegal immigrants and turn, next, to the context of Wilson’s outburst. Many news stations and programs have been showing clips of British Parliament and other world governing bodies that display an obvious incivility: people throwing things, screaming, booing, profane signs held up by elected officials, and so forth. Presumably, such clips are used to show how “good” we have it in the United States, and that things could be much worse than Wilson’s outburst.

The problem with this MSM reasoning, of course, is that it completely ignores the context of our system, for which the word “lie” is banned. No matter how heated the discussion, the norms of decorum in both the House and the Senate are such that one is enjoined to never accuse others of deceit. In part, such norms are governed by the idealized “public sphere” which, we recall, Habermas said includes the assumption of equality and bracketing of social status, respect for all ideas, the moderation of emotions, and so forth. Wilson’s statement violated many norms of public discourse, not just the prohibition against calling someone a liar. He interrupted the President of the United states, implying he was not of a special status. Worse, such an outburst implies that the president is not worthy of equality or due consideration. In other words, Wilson’s outburst means that he did not think (a) the president was worthy of equal status or respect; and (b) that the president’s views were not worthy of being heard. What such a statement says, in other words, belies everything he said in his presumed apology: “you lie!” is not about the president’s views or policy recommendations, it’s about his person. It is not a statement of fact—we know Wilson was, in fact, wrong—it’s a statement of about the value of the president as a person. It is a classic ad hominem, a “to the person” attack.

So, we have two observations: (a) the illegal immigrant issue appeals to racism; and (b) an ad hominem attack on the president of the United States as a deliberate deceiver. Do (a) and (b) have anything in common? Oh, gee whiz, why yes, they do! They both concern the racialized other. Obama, in case you didn’t know, is black. So we must ask the question: would Wilson have felt compelled to call a white person a liar? Before you answer that question, let us move on to exhibit C.

The oldest living politician to serve in the Senate was Strom Thurmond, a former governor of South Carolina who came to national prominence on a vocally racist, segregationist platform. Not long after Thurmond’s death in 2003, Esse Mae Washington-Williams came forth to reveal she was the daughter of Thurmond, born to a black maid Thurmond employed in 1925. It was revealed Thurmond supported Washington-Williams financially throughout her life, and actually took a strong interest in her welfare (and apparently she was treated like a family member). This news, of course, makes Thurmond a complex man indeed—and certainly helps to demonstrate how race is “a floater.” Nevertheless, Joe Wilson declared to the media that the revelation was “a smear on the image that [Thurmond] has as a person of high integrity who has been so loyal to the people of South Carolina.” Although—as with the recent snafu—Wilson was forced to apologize, he still maintains that Washington-Williams should have remained quiet about whom her father was, presumably to keep up appearances (those from the South are well acquainted with this one).

Is the reason that Thurmond’s heroic reputation was damaged was because he had a child out of wedlock? Or is it because his child is part African American? Or is it because Thurmond abused his power and prayed upon a 16 year old woman/girl in his employ? Or is it because a visibly and vocally racist man revealed himself not only to be a sexual predator, but a hypocrite?

Regardless of how one answers this question, Wilson’s chosen stance—to condemn the racialized child of a well-known and vocal racist—really sort of seals the deal on what saying “you lie!” to the President of the United States on national television means: “You’re a ni—r! and I want my constituents and the white-right to hear me call you out!” Let’s not play dumb here, as it seems our journalists of national prominence continue to want to do. As I said, I’m from the south and I know how to read all these affective codes; so do most of us raised in the land of people like Wilson. And I want to say everyone watching the president last week knew exactly what was being said. Everyone with a a body that feels and reacts knew what was happening; it was a racist gesture, through and through.

So if you don’t buy my appeal to authority, maybe these three reasons are enough to convince you? If not, sorry. I did my best. I confess that “knowing” Wilson did a racist thing is, in fact, more felt than reasoned, a sort of knee-jerk kind of knowing, the same kind of knee-jerk, unspoken knowing that inspired many to make signs that say “you lie! you lie! you lie!” and parade about at City Halls and capitals everywhere, tea-partying their hatreds and wallowing about in fear and . . . lies.

Finally, if Wilson’s remarks are read “symptomatically,” as many have suggested that we should, what is it a symptom of? I worry it’s a symptom of a growing, racialized backlash of whiteness, a backlash riding the wave of hatred I blogged about recently, which seemed to characterize this summer’s televisual displays. Note that in discussing his refusal to offer another apology to Congress, Wilson stated his outburst was akin to what happened in the Town Hall meetings this summer. Is this an explanation, or a call to solidarity? I think it’s the latter. And I think and feel that’s something to be really fearful about.

it’s synth-pop friday!

September 11th, 2009 by slewfoot

stirred, not shaken

September 9th, 2009 by slewfoot

Music: Marconi Union: Tokyo (2009)

I’m trying to prep a lecture tomorrow on Nancy Fraser’s critique of the public sphere and Angela Ray’s deployment of the concept of “public culture.” Basically, for my undergraduate class in celebrity I’m using Angela’s work on the lyceum as a corrective to public sphere theory (Angela brings feelings and diversity back to the “table,” so to speak, with her discussion of politics and public spectacle). All I can think about, however, is Obama’s speech tonight to the joint session.

(And the police helicopters that keeps circling over my condo complex; I’m out here on the patio smoking a stogie . . . searchlight keeps flashing around . . . crap . . . maybe I should go inside?)

Since the inauguration I have been increasingly cynical of Obama’s rhetoric, which seemed too cliché-ridden and too ubiquitous . . . . Yet as my buddy Mirko said on the phone tonight, “when the stakes are high, he always delivers.” My god, that was a good speech. And you’ll rarely hear me type that.

Technically the speech did all the things it needed to do. Obama finally put an end to the myths and rumors (I think). The judgment to have a speech like this was, in the end, the right call. But what was so good, what was so refreshing to hear, came at the end: the issue of heath care is a moral issue. And the calculation for how to say this was dead-on: he moved from policy to eulogy.

This is a classic move: George W. Bush did it repeatedly after Nine-eleven, as did numerous politicians after Gerson led the way. Nine-eleven became a golden calf of mournful calls to action. The appeal to atrocity became abusive. And this is the context in which Obama decided to eulogize Ted Kennedy.

It could have gone horribly wrong. It could have been cheap. But it wasn’t. You could see it in Obama’s face. You could hear it in the tone of his voice. When Obama started to talk about Kennedy’s moral conviction driving his policy struggles, one could sense the room was tense. But then Kennedy the calculating, technical politician faded to Kennedy the good Christian. And then, the goodness of Christianity—that thing about Christianity that has been a force for good in this country: charity, compassion, brotherly and sisterly love—quickly eclipsed the instrumental. Obama moved from Kennedy’s motive to national motive: health care reform is a moral duty. He even talked about character.

This is fair persuasion. It wasn’t manipulative; the message seemed sincere and genuine. You can disagree with policy all you want, but I think the president did a good job of saying his—and our—heart is in the right place.

I will confess I still have a hard, cynical outer casing. That “personal responsibility” speech to school kids, while well intended, did nothing but reinforce that casing. Obama is neo-liberal, no question. But when even my cynical self gets a lump in its throat, something is connecting to my soft, admittedly idealist, core. My response to this speech, and the reason I think it was so well done, is emotional. Obama got righteous, but in the right way, in a way that wasn’t cheap or cloying or . . . cynical. I could go on, but I think I’ll have to mull on the right way to capture why this speech hit the sweet spot. It has something to do with not hitting the sweet spot at all, for cutting through the tactics to the feeling behind policy.

I’m sure in the morning I will have re-thunk and re-trenched into my critical self. After all, that’s what I’m paid to do. But I will give it up when “it” is warranted. I think this speech made reform inevitable. It may not be the reform we want, but after that damn speech, something will happen. Good job, Mr. President. Good. Job.

(Oh, and the police helicopter has stopped. Someone was shooting a gun. Densely populated area. Fortunately, the area is across the creek from me.)

note from a nameless journal editor

September 9th, 2009 by slewfoot

Music: Marconi Union: Tokyo

Today I received a note from a journal editor regarding the most unbelievably bad publication proof I’ve ever received. I like how a delay in publication is dangled out there (is it a threat? surely not . . . ):


JOURNAL-2008-047 – [Essay Title]

Dear Dr. Gunn:

We are in receipt of your multiple messages and attachments regarding the copy editing phase of your manuscript. As you know, my intervention was crucial in moving this essay into publication in this journal. Once articles are accepted, we work assiduously to ensure they come out in the cleanest way possible. The process involves triangulation: here at [midwestern university], at [professional organization], and at [publishing house]. Thus your essay is proofed by about 6 people by the time you get yours copy edits.

There appear to have been two versions of your essay circulating within the system. As the manuscript was originally submitted to another editorial team, we are unable to access the complete trail. However we did find that the uploaded and therefore copy edited version differed from one you submitted. This might explain some of the differences.

Some of the elements of your note can be explained by APA. Especially in regard to the use of numbers, we are following APA guidelines [as we do for all articles]. Some of APA might not be exactly a “humanities” approach [that’s what MLA is for] but [journal title] abides by APA. As well, the length of abstract, according to APA, cannot exceed 120 words. [Scholar] at [professional organization] removed 13 words. You can revise your abstract but must stay within 120 words.

At this point we are going to have the the proofreader collate the changes from us, [Scholar at professional organization] and the authors. Should this require more negotiation, we will have to replace article for this issue and continue to take up editing matters for the next volume.


[Journal Title . . . not a person!]

Wow. Just wow.