writer’s blocking

Music: Public Image Ltd.: compact disc (1985)

Well, it’s been one of those weeks in which writing is excruciating. To be an academic is to have writer’s block. What’s always frustrating for me is this: I am never wanting for something to say—it’s just some days I have no desire to say it. For me, writer’s block is often a response to the nagging question in the back of my head: who cares? isn’t this obvious? why bother?

I’m to have a paper drafted about the rhetoric of Jeremiah Wright; I’ve already made the argument I’m presenting in this space, so I have it all outlined. I just cannot seem to pull it together today (or yesterday). I keep seeing things around the house that need to be picked up or cleaned.

So, I made a deal with myself: write the introduction and you can clean house, Josh. So, I wrote it. Now I’m going to, you know, go clean the house.

Dissin’ the Black Vernacular, or, the Plight of Reverend Wright in Sound Clip Culture

Joshua Gunn

University of Texas at Austin

Almost a week before the release of John Heilemann and Mark Halperian’s juicy political tell-all Game Change, senator Harry Reid’s observations inside it were already making headlines.[1] Two days before the book landed Reid admitted to describing presidential hopeful Barak Obama’s assets as twofold: his light skin and his lack of a “Negro dialect.”[2] A number of prominent Republican leaders were quick to call for Reid’s resignation, presumably because of a deep-seated and heretofore hidden racism. Yet Reid’s presumed racism is perhaps better described as a soul-deep cultural bias in a political world of whiteness (methinks, in other words, Liz Cheney doth protest too much).[3] As linguist Geoff Nunberg argues, QUOTE: “you couldn’t fault the actual content of [Reid’s] remark: that an African American presidential candidate has a better chance of being elected if he doesn’t look or sound ‘too black.’ That may be a deplorable reality, but it’s not a controversial thing to say.”[4]

It is definitely, nevertheless, a deplorable reality because “sounding black” produces victims in the mainstream political media. It is a deplorable reality because it doesn’t have to be a reality in the first place. It is a deplorable reality because of the missed opportunities, especially in the most recent election cycle, to discuss the norms and history of the black vernacular rhetorical tradition on national television. My remarks today are about how Obama’s campaign rhetoric regarding his former controversial pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, should not only be read as a political divorce from a controversial person-however necessary-but more disturbingly as a rejection of a uniquely African American rhetorical tradition. In other words, I will argue that Obama didn’t just throw Rev. Wright “under the bus,” as they say, but also knowingly and deceptively denied an understanding of black vernacular practice.

To this end I will first briefly rehearse the history of the controversy over Rev. Wright, culminating in Obama’s stern separation on April 29th, 2008. Second, after describing Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s theory of black vernacular rhetoric, or “signifyin[g],” I reexamine Wright’s fateful address at the National Press Club to underscore Wright’s skillful navigation of an emerging, racist scene embodied by the moderator. Finally, I conclude by suggesting that a more nuanced understanding of Wright’s rhetoric helps to restore a sense of complex personhood that is, increasingly, untenable in the contemporary regime of publicity.


[1] John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime (New York: Harper, 2010).

[2] Philip Elliot, “Reid Apologizes for ‘no Negro dialect’ Comment” (9 Jan. 2010); available http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20100109/ap_on_el_se/us_obama_reid accessed 30 Jan. 2010.

[3] George Stephanopoulos, “Georges Bottom Line” (10 Jan. 2010), abcnews.com; available http://blogs.abcnews.com/george/2010/01/will-not-a-scintilla-of-racism-in-reid-race-remarks.html accessed 31 Jan. 2010.

[4] Geoff Nunberg, “A Sensitive Subject: Harry Reid’s Language on Race.” Fresh Air (National Public Radio; 21 Jan. 2010); available http://www.npr.org accessed 30 Jan. 2010.

an unexpected visitor

Nary a critter, other than a dog or cat, comes to the patio. This morning this fellah popped by to say hello. He stayed for a good ten minutes, even with Jesús barking. I think he came to tell me a message. He said: “dood, your garden is dead.”

on object-oriented stuff, with Hegel and Adorno

Music: Juta Takahashi: Seabound (2009)

Yesterday in graduate seminar we spent the better portion of class engaging Hegel’s theory of experience and his critique of all things Kantian and transcendental. It has been some years since I’ve reengaged Hegel earnestly, and I was surprised as I was reviewing my notes on the Phenomenology of Mind and the Science of Logic how much better I understand the Hegelian project (with no help from Zizek, frankly). The older I get, the more I realize learning is a retrojective endeavor: “a-ha!” moments often happen years after the moment I have read or pondered something. So it is with Hegel’s critique of Kant.

The key was reading Adorno’s “Subject and Object” this week, which is really a quite a bear. Whenever I read something this difficult, I have to sit down and outline the essay, sometimes even diagram sentences. It took a whole work day to read and outline Adorno’s essay, but there was a good pay off: I now better understand what Adorno is taking from Hegel, and what he is critiquing. He gets down with Hegel’s critique of Kantian dualism, but of course opposes Hegel’s absolute idealism with a firm materialism. What Hegel did—and why Marx et al. got down with him—was historicize philosophy in a way that brought culture to bear on philosophical endeavor. There are multiple modes of experience that philosophy simply bracketed and with Hegel argued should be brought into the domain of thinking. If philosophy is “thinking about thinking,” then it only makes sense to historicize thinking in a way that doesn’t exempt the subject who thinks.

Adorno, though, takes this one step further in his version of negative dialectics. I don’t have the time (or desire) to explain how I understand this except to say that the critique of identitarian logic is in play, and that Adorno’s central claim in “Subject and Object” is that the “subject-who-knows” is an object constituted by the socious. No big revelation there, as this has been the principle difficulty of rhetorical theory since the 1970s, I think—coming to terms with the illusion of the transcendental subject. But I think for 1969 such a claim was a major-big-deal, and it still is in a way.

What I’m wondering is how the “object-oriented ontology” Ken introduced here last week squares with Adorno’s arguments in favor of the primacy of the object to negative dialectics. There’s a growing number of posts over at Larval Subjects under the heading of “object-oriented philosophy,” but I’m skeptical: is this the wheel, reinvented?

It seems to me that the genius of Adorno’s negative dialectics is that the primacy of the object is ultimately an ethical primacy. If it is the case that the epistemic subject negates the “non-identity” of objects in our present identitarian regime to function in the paradigm world or whatever, Adorno suggests (I think) that the task of thinking is to make room for the non-identity of objects (and by extension, difference, and so on). Adorno argues that the subject-object relation has itself become reified and dominates thinking in a way that causes suffering. His negative dialectics is object-oriented, in the end, to temper the arrogance of the paradigm subject that obliterates difference in the name of Same.

Admittedly, I’ve not read all the posts on Larval Subjects on OOO or OOP, but I guess I’m just much more moved by the ethical urgency of Adorno’s prose (as opposed, say, to the cool aloofness of the egalitarianism of objects or whatever). Anyway, just thinking aloud. Next week we take up “thing theory,” so I hope to have the relationship between Adorno’s thinking about the object and OOO figured out in a way that is more satisfying than my skeptical disposition today.

it’s synth-pop friday!

der garten von januar trauer

Music: The Antlers: Hospice (2009)

After two deep freezes this deathly scene was inevitable. The “veritable jungle,” as my German neighbor says, was bound to die. And die it did. I couldn’t bear to photograph the aftermath a few weeks ago. It depressed me coming home every day. I spied the pansies at Home Depot, but I couldn’t betray my beloveds. Today I snipped and lugged. I pruned and chucked. I did, however, snap some shots of it after I managed to prune and clear the detritus today. I took the photos shortly after I learned that yet another uncle is in intensive care tonight.

I know so many of us—so many reading this—have family suffering from cancer. At this point in my life, it seems like cancer is to be expected; if we don’t have it, someone we know will. It touches all of our lives eventually. It seems so ubiquitous. From the passing of Sonny in my teens (my Scoutmaster), to my grandfather who passed the year of my birth, to . . . well, if I start this list I won’t stop writing. The disease effing sucks. If we need to choose a target for our hate, it should be diseases like cancer.

As I was clearing things out this afternoon, I mused one could see all these empty pots as forlorn. Or one could see this as earth’s estrus, so many pots awaiting their bulbs. I hope to be able, one day, to see the empty as waiting, not simply a void. Regardless, the garden pales in comparison to last August.

Hope is waiting.

Hope waits.

magical voluntarism: pinched!

Music: The House of Love: self-titled (1990)

I’m relieved to report my and Dana’s essay on magical voluntarism was published today (here it is in pdf). Some of y’all will recall that Dana and I take Sonja Foss and her co-authors to task for advancing an untenable conception of agency. This same conception of agency has been circulating under the aegis of “power feminism” in essays by the Foss sisters in communication journals. I want to make it very clear that I respect and admire the Sonja and Karen; I have worked with them both and am especially appreciative of Sonja’s mentoring. They’re fantastic as people and colleagues. But, this does not mean I cannot disagree with some of their arguments, and I think it is important to critique any recovery of the transcendental subject when thinking about rhetoric.

I’m blogging about the event of publication, however, because this was another one of those essays that seemed doomed. Some readers may recall we started drafting the thing in May of 2007. We continued drafting through the spring of 2008 (see this and this post), and finally completed a draft on May 16th, 2008. Sometimes an essay can take a very long time to write!

We submitted the essay for review at Communication Theory on May 22, 2008. It was rejected on August 27th. Although two prominent scholars in the field recommended publication with little revision (these reviewers outed themselves to me at NCA—they are prominent folks!), one reviewer was insistent that the piece be rejected. Dana and I were baffled, frankly, but I respect the right of editors to reject essays regardless of what the reviewers say; editors deserve and require this power. (Here’s a copy of the rejection).

Now, what was troublesome to me was that the editor rejected our essay on the basis of one reviewer’s comments, and I am told that reviewer had a serious conflict of interest. As an aside, I confess I do not understand the decision of editors to send essays critical of a scholar’s arguments to that very scholar (or in our case, someone very close to that scholar); on many occasions this has happened to me on both ends. On two occasions editors sent me work that was critical of my own scholarship. On both occasions the writing was good and I decided to accept the work on principle, because I knew I could not be objective. It has more often happened to me, however. Another example: some years ago I sent a piece critical of Ed Schiappa’s essay on “big rhetoric” to Philosophy & Rhetoric. The editor sent it out to one reviewer, who rejected the essay. Guess who the reviewer was?

Nevertheless, Dana and I were confused by the editor’s rejection. We could tell he was not firm in his decision, and so we decided to write a response letter urging him to reconsider the rejection. Because the essay was so tailored for the Communication Theory audience—because it was so specialized—we figured a quick revision of the essay’s tone and a carefully argued letter was worth a shot. Eight pages. Single spaced. Here it is.

The editor, thankfully, changed his mind as a consequence of the letter. The reviewer who rejected the piece also requested to see the “appeal letter,” as I call it. He accepted the manuscript.

That was the first (and probably last) time I have ever appealed an editor’s decision. I don’t share this with the budding scholars out there to suggest it’s yet another tool. This was a very unusual circumstance, and I do not recommend folks appeal an editor’s rejection. I share this information only to illustrate how much unseen labor can go into the publication process. And we’re not done with this story yet! Just wait, there’s more!

So after acceptance the essay goes into some sort of publishing purgatory. We don’t hear a peep from CT for months. We then learn at the turn of 2009 that the editor we worked with was replaced by a new one, and obviously with an editor with no investment in the essay or the topic. Months fly by. Finally, a year after the essay was accepted we get the proofs, and as I detailed last August, it was an errata bonanza. Never had I seen so many gaffs in a publication proof.

After submitting five, single-spaced pages of corrections, the new editor responded with what seemed to us a hostile tone. She seemed to blame the mistakes on our misuse of APA style, among other things, and suggested that if we wanted to make the corrections she would be pushing back the publication date (as if to punish us or something, LOL). A month later we received a note of corrections back from the publisher, to which we responded.

A couple of weeks ago Dana and I were offered a final look-over the proof from the hired proofer, which was very much appreciated. Only seven errors (four of them were ours). The hired proofer at Wiley was incredibly professional and nice, which goes a long way when one is frustrated. Hats off to you, Michelle! You rock!

So, yeah: the doomed damned essay was published today, almost four years from conception. I normally don’t announce my publications on my blog, but after the process of getting this one squeezed out there, I just gotta. here it is in pdf. Download it. Use it as kitty litter. Whatever!

a big supreme effing deal!

Music: Tracy Chapman: Crossroads (1998)

Since graduate school, I have always considered my interests to be in this nebulous thing termed “popular culture.” I never thought of myself as a scholar of politics until Nine-eleven, when I was forced to confront my naïveté regarding the political. Historically, the political and the popular have never been separate; entertainment and statecraft, while distinct in their respective ends, have always been intertwined. The conceptions of the political and entertainment have never been stable, of course, but I think in the age of cable news and talk radio, we can safely put the myth of the separation of politics and entertainment—just like its Jeffersonian counterpart—to bed.

In general, I like to think about the political in a fairly traditional way: politics concerns conflicts over space and boundaries (ideational, geographic) and power. I think at its core, politics concerns arguments about the use of force and the right of sovereignty. The scholarship I like to read and do, however, only indirectly engages these arguments; I study “cultural politics,” for lack of a better term, which is something like a second order rung of rhetoric that orbits questions of state violence. So, for example, in a forthcoming essay with Tom Frentz, we examine how the film Fight Club stages anxieties over the demise of the father figure in cultural phantasy; this “father trouble” only indirectly implicates traditional politics in that it may help to explain, for example, why certain men are elected president (and not women).

Yesterday’s decision by the Supreme Court, however, changed any tidy distinction between cultural politics and presidential politics, or “politics-politics” and popular politics. The reason? As Baudrillard argued decades ago, those who have the most power in the contemporary world are not those who control the means of production, but rather, those who control the means of publicity.

From my understanding (I did not read the decision, only the discussions about it), the ruling finds that: (a) the first amendment doesn’t just protect speech, but also speakers; (b) corporations are speakers; and (c) money is speech. Or something like this. Across the “political spectrum”—which we can anchor at one end with greedy capitalists, of course—folks agree that we have just radically transformed politics-politics. Before this decision the installation of politicians by corporations was difficult (but still possible); now it will be commonplace.

What I find astonishing is that no talking head has made the point that all large corporations are de-facto media companies, and among large corporations, media conglomerates reign supreme. I suspect it’s only a matter of time before Viacom and Rupe are battling it out over the next presidential candidate. The Supreme Court just eliminated any last remaining whiff of fairness in electoral politics (or perhaps, as Jodi Dean might argue, gave the lie to the illusion of democracy). It’s as if we’ve stepped into a Gibson or Dick novel . . . .

Of course, there is an elephant in the room that folks don’t want to talk about: cultural politics displaced politics-politics decades ago. This decision may not matter in the end, since our officials have been elected dishonestly since forever; politics-politics has been premised on a branding model since the 1950s. This decision simply moves us completely from the branding model infrastructure to the celebrity model infrastructure, or as media executives would have it, fully into reality television politics, a complete implosion of the cultural and political-political. 2010 is going to be a very interesting year. Will it be a Duracell or Energizer White House?

it’s synth-pop friday!

it’s synth-pop friday!

a cultural repertoire of symptoms

Music: Manhole Vortex: Agents of Goldstein (1999)

Shaunnessy pointed me to an essay in the New York Times by Ethan Watters titled, “The Americanization of Mental Illness.” Extracted from a book to be released next month, the essay suggests there is overwhelming and compelling evidence to support the idea that the expression (symptoms) of psychopathology are social constructions. This is not to say there is not a problem—biological or otherwise—with someone suffering from anorexia nervosa; it is to say, however, that anorexia nervosa is a culturally crafted symptom that is triggered. Suffering is real, unquestionably; how suffering is expressed and experienced seems culturally dependent.

I am anxious to get the book and read more. If I get a closer look at the empirical data he is suggesting exists, we may have a good answer for why hysteria symptoms disappeared and have been replace by other (body dismorphic disorder seems all the rage). Watters reports that the United States disease and drug machine is so powerful that our cultural repertoire of symptoms of mental illness are globalizing (as are, of course, our treatments).

There’s much more to think about and say here, but I have to say it points in the direction of Lacan’s understanding of the symptom and psychical structures. (And, to you Deleuzian’s out there, read the essay first; it also would seem to confirm some of Deleuze’s thinking about the psyche too).