Days of Rage (part deux)

A few days ago I posted some off the cuff, rather glib remarks about President Bush’s response to having a shoe thrown at him, at the very end of which I note Bush’s acknowledgment of protest as distinctly different than, say, Nixon’s.  Well, today I’m revisiting a really stellar article by Jodi Dean, Queen of I Cite, a blog that covers political theory the likes of Agamben, Foucault, Zizek, and so on, which brings up the topic in a more serious light; so I’d like to follow up on my post with a quote from her article, “Communicative Capitalism: Circulation and the Foreclosure of Politics,” from Digital Media and Democracy:

Even when the White House acknowledged the massive worldwide demonstrations of February 15, 2003, Bush simply reiterated the fact that a message was out there, circulating–the protestors had the right to express their opinions.  He didn’t actually respond to their message.  He didn’t treat the words and actions of the protestors as sending a message to him to which he was in some sense obligated to respond.  Rather, he acknowledged that there existed views different from his own.  There were his views and there were other views; all had the right to exist, to be expressed–but that in now way meant, or so Bush made it seem, that these views were involved with each other.  So, despite the terabytes of commentary and information, there wasn’t exactly a debate over the war.

Dean goes on to make a persuasive case for the separation of a politics that is the simple circulation of content (websites, TV pundits, blogs, RSS feeds, listservs, and so on) and the politics of the institution (activities of lawmakers and bureaucrats).  Today, she argues, these two politics operate almost entirely independent of each other.  Sure, we’d like to think the circulation of content impacts the actual decision making . . . but it doesn’t.  However, it does keep us busy.

I’ll end with one of her juicier claims:

The proliferation, distribution, acceleration, and intensification of communicative access and opportunity, far from enhancing democratic governance or resistance, results in precisely the opposite, the postpolitical formation of communicative capitalism.

There’s a distinct chance I’ll be posting on this over at Candid Candidacy if any of you are enticed by these ideas.

The Art of Rejection

The Wall Street Journal just published an article about colleges and their rejection letters: “Rejection: Some Colleges Do It Better Than Others.” It’s a gives an interesting report on recent discussions on where college-bound students have shared details about the letters they received.

by Brymo, flickr

by Brymo, flickr

I was struck by one example. Admissions at Boston University tried (it would appear) to soften the blow by stating they “give special attention to applicants whose families have a tradition of study at Boston University.” But as one student responded, for someone who was attempting to follow his family tradition by attending the school such a comment wasn’t comforting at all. Quite the opposite in fact.

It’s always interesting when a message can be understood so differently from how the author(s) intended (yes, I know, I should stay away from the “intentionality” quagmire), and I do wonder if the letter writers were aware of how that line could be understood. But this example also reminded me of an opposite situation, one in which excessive celebration had others hang their heads down in shame. Okay, I’m exaggerating, but I do remember hearing a thank-you speech that had enough superlatives for those who had helped in the project to make others who hadn’t worked on the project fidget uncomfortably in their seats. Ouch.

But if you have a minute, you should check out a thread on where users are spoofing rejection letters. They made me smile 🙂

going public

This morning I’ve been reading some of Mike Rose’s work, especially his arguments for teaching academics to write for public audiences (something he’s notoriously good at).  Mike Rose is a Professor in the UCLA Graduate School of Information Studies and he’s well-known for his research on workplace literacy, remediation, and reconsidering our understandings of intelligence in relation to work.

In An Open Language: Selected Writing on Literacy, Learning, and Opportunity Rose points out that though rhetoric and composition as a field is “deeply connected to matters of broad public interest–literacy, teaching, undergraduate education” and we’ve been seeking connection with the public through service learning, courses in civic rhetoric, and work with workplace and community literacy projects, the field “offers little or no graduate-level training for public writing or speaking.”

Rose has been creating opportunities for graduates students in his program to learn more about and get more practice writing for public audiences (See his article with Karen McClafferty, “A Call for the Teaching of Writing in Graduate Education”).

Among the benefits of public writing, Rose says, are that “it can lead to a questioning and clarifying of assumptions,” it forces precision and “a honing of argument,” and forces you to think about what evidence is most persuasive.

I was struck by his comments, of course, because Harlot was started based on the recognition of a disconnect between academic considerations of rhetoric and persuasion and public deliberation of these matters.  Rose’s summary of the benefits of public writing also moved me.  Personally, I have struggled to write blog posts because of the kind of reflection writing for a public audience forces on me.  I agree with Rose that such reflection will only make my writing better, and I aspire to become a better blogger–and a better public writer.  Much like Rose noted above, though my dissertation research is directly concerned with public issues, I have not felt more removed from the public than I have writing my dissertation.

Check out Rose’s blog at  The philosphy of his blog, in his words, is “a deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.”

Then & Now

The class I taught today reflected upon the statistics you’ll find below, compiled from a Mother Jones survey compiled in 2008.  The conversation was fascinating, as they felt confident to speak from their personal experience.  They readily use terms like “food movement” and “green movement,” but revealed some anxiety about the position they’re in: they feel a movement of sorts taking place, they say, but also feel individuated, isolated, and insignificant in the production of real change.  Skeptical of the tired narrative that change begins with individual, no matter how true they know it to be, they seemed equally incredulous–but in a different way–about the possibilities of collective action.  My use of the term “collective mobilization,” I suspect, came off as foreign, a bit old school (in the bad sense).  There were, of course, tinctures of intimidation in such a term, too.

Anyway, I invite you to share these numbers with others and strike up a conversation about potential avenues for change . . .




King Kugel and April Fool’s

This is a bit late, but I’m just now catching up on some blog lurking.

Rotten With Perfection displays what was the “beginning of April Fool’s:”

In 1983, Boston Univ history prof Joseph Boskin could be read and seen via a number of news outlets–the Today Show, newspapers across the country–pontificating on the little-known history of April fool’s day. The video here relays the story he told. The AP had contacted Boskin and called upon him to give them some info about the “holiday.” Boskin admitted he was no expert, but said yes (jokingly). The story of King Kugel was spun nationwide as the origin of April fool’s–that is, until Boskin used it in his classes as an example of the need to be a discerning audience. He made the whole thing up.

Of course, I say it also shows the persuasiveness of being a so-called expert on a subject. What they’re telling you might be complete bunk, but if they’re the authority on the matter, then it’s still tempting to listen to them.

Lucky boys

Poor guys…

Today’s NYT contains an article, “Disney Expert Uses Science to Draw Boy Viewers,” that made me feel sorry for them. Keep your heads down, boys — they’re using “science” to find your boy-princess sweet spot!

I like the word choice of “science.” Or, in this case,  focus group research, maybe even ethnography-lite — and I mean lite: What teen is going to open up to an adult with a video camera while shopping with mom?! (Perhaps they should be researching how to research.) And they call the head researcher–whose background is in casinos–the “kid whisperer.” Giving kids a whole lot of credit, aren’t they?

To be fair, maybe they’re trying. Disney is actually marketing this marketing research:

Fearful of coming off as too manipulative, youth-centric media companies rarely discuss this kind of field research. Disney is so proud of its new “headquarters for boys,” however, that it has made an exception, offering a rare window onto the emotional hooks that are carefully embedded in children’s entertainment. The effort is as outsize as the potential payoff: boys 6 to 14 account for $50 billion in spending worldwide, according to market researchers.

Fascinating. This actually makes me want to watch Disney tv to see just how this transparency plays out. Do they mention that $50 billion? Do they have polls about color schemes? Do they ask for interactive responses to the bold move of having a protagonist struggle with (gasp) not being the star basketball player?

The coolest part, I think, is one insight:

In Ms. Peña’s research boys across markets and cultures described the television aimed at them as “purposeless fun” but expressed a strong desire for a new channel that was “fun with a purpose,” Mr. Ross said. Hollywood has been thinking of them too narrowly — offering all action or all animation — instead of a more nuanced combination, he added.

I love the idea of kids telling Disney they want “fun with a purpose.” I wonder what Disney will decide that looks like? Or more importantly, how to make money off it…?

Days of Rage . . .

The G20 protests once again have resistance and rhetoric in the spotlight. Over 35,000 participated in the demonstrations, which displayed the usual fair of symbolic dissent: placards, banners, costumes, etc. Of course, the comparatively minor amount of violence (in juxtaposition with the thousands upon thousands who simply showed up with passionate messages and solidarity support) gained the majority of media attention.  (To be clear, I’m certainly not of the camp that thinks non-violent protest is the only way to accomplish objectives and that if only we could get rid of these “rabble-rousers” then leaders would react postively to the protest.  History and plain logic stand against such a position.)


While I may post on these events in the future, for instance, how the media constructs the protests (largely grouped as “anti-capitalists and climate activists”), the various tactics of the activists (there’s been a surge in ironic protest over the past decade — why?), or the audience at which the protests are directed (governmental leaders? Those who keep tabs through the media?  The activists themselves?), today I want to make quick reference to a tangentially related matter of rhetoric:

Remember the shoe-throwing incident?  Of course you do.  But do you recall what Bush said afterwards?  Refresh your memory:

A transcription for y’all:

But let me talk about the guy throwing the shoe. It is one way to gain attention. It’s like going to a political rally and having people yell at you. It’s like driving down the street and have people not gesturing with all five fingers. It’s a way for people to, you know, draw — I don’t know what the guy’s cause is. But one thing is for certain — he caused you to ask me a question about it. I didn’t feel the least bit threatened by it. These journalists here were very apologetic, they were — said, this doesn’t represent the Iraqi people. But that’s what happens in free societies, where people try to draw attention to themselves.

What exactly does Bush mean when he likens the shoe-throwing act of dissent to other forms of dissent, like raucous rallies where people yell at him while flicking him the bird?  I don’t want to put too much stress on his words, since when left to ad-lib Bush can say some pretty amazing things, but I do think this off-the-cuff comment offers us some insight into how the former president views protest.

From what I can gather, acts of dissent are framed here as signs of a healthy democracy.  Dissent, then, is not an invitation to a different outlook on the world, or a confrontation and critique of ruling powers, or an example of alternative modes of existence, but simply a sign that a democracy is functioning properly: that people are allowed to speak difference.  This is, in other words, a positive sign.

Using this as an indicator of health, neo-liberal democracy is quite healthy these days.  If we take a look at the amount of protests that accompanied Bush throughout his tenure, we’re doing just fine.

Bush’s comment stands in contrast to a Nixon comment that is representative of how the Chief typically responds to protests:

Now, I understand that there has been, and continues to be, opposition to the war in Vietnam on the campuses and also in the nation. As far as this kind of activity is concerned, we expect it, however under no circumstances will I be affected whatever by it.

Bush departs from this stance and makes the bold move to claim it as a victory for a free society. Hmm . . .

I’ll be keeping my eye on the heads of the G20 to see how they respond to the protest.  In the meantime, we should all recognize that a serious shift is underway and that activists of all walks are being presented with an opportunity for action.

Dear Diane

Excuse me, Ms. Diane Sawyer, but what exactly were you trying to do in your 20/20 special A Hidden America: Children of the Mountains? (Sidenote, Diane: Children? Seriously? You could choke on that pathos.) It’s not that I doubt your real affection for the predicament of poor Appalachians, but you’ve fallen into a very common trap. Oh, Diane. Haven’t you heard about the exploitation of Appalachians? It happened over forty years ago and now you’re trying to bring it back?

Don’t get me wrong, I loved Harlan County USA as much as the next person, but just take a look at the beginning of Stranger with a Camera. Do you really want to risk getting some up and coming reporter shot? Okay, I don’t say that seriously, but really, you’re walking a slippery slope.

It’s not that I don’t want people to know. Yeah, Appalachia can be a forgotten about area of America and its people seem automatically reduced to stereotypes, but really only because people make them out to be. Hey, my aunt is from West Virginia and she doesn’t hear the end of it even though the rest of that side of the family is from Eastern Kentucky themselves. To be fair though, I don’t hear the end of being born and raised in Ohio.

Grandfather: You know what a buckeye is, Kaitlin?

Me: What’s that?

Grandfather: A worthless nut.

So, I understand the instinct to try and produce a work with this particular pathos laden slant:

Don’t you think that’s a bit heavy handed, darlin’? And is this even true? Is taking the star quarter back of a football team really showing the average Appalachian child? I think it does reveal the difficulty of any poor person to get out of their poverty. And, in fact, these kids from Paintsville disagree with the representation of their area:

(Sidenote 2: Isn’t it interesting with all the networking abilities that we have today, people would set out to revise the history that someone else is creating for them?) So, as you can see, one of the areas that you covered, Paintsville, has its good side and its bad, which would seem to be the same as any other place, really. Like, Chicago or New York or LA. There are some really fine, prosperous areas in all these cities as there are areas of crime and poor education, but, for some reason, the crime and drug use in Paintsville is uniquely interesting simply because it’s Appalachian.

(Sidenote 3: Diane, while we’re speaking of truth, could you correct your captions, please. They keep writing out “hollow,” but, phonetically speaking, he’s saying “holler.” Yes, he is referring to a hollow, but if you want to capture Appalachia, then please capture it as it really is–as they really pronounce it. I love an Eastern Kentucky accent. Don’t water it down, don’t make it Northern.)

There is American Hollow, though; a documentary made by Rory Kennedy in 1999 which also depicted the lives of poor Appalachians. This one I think it pretty fair and filmed much more objectively–if objectivity really exists. Even Harlan County (and I mean I love Harlan County USA)  filmed to be very clearly pro-union:

American Hollow, though, takes that more fly on the wall documentary approach.

It’s not that complete objectivity is necessary for everything, but I think that when you try to pin down an entire population like that of poverty-stricken Appalachians, it’s probably best to take a step back before making commentary on it. I guess, Diane, my personal subjectivity is what’s going to take over this final assessment. American Hollow is the closest thing to what I’ve personally seen. That certainly is not the most iron-clad evidence, but that particular film seems fair. It shows the good with the bad, the tragic with the elation. It just feels honest. Let me reiterate, though, that I’m referring specifically to those living in poverty–it most certainly is not a reflection upon Appalachians in their entirety. Just to make that clear.

So, I guess I may just be swept up in its rhetoric, but I have to ask you, dear Diane. If your documentary feels simply like an exploitation, then who are you really helping? Even if your intentions are good, are you really making the difference that you set out to make?

An Inconvenient Tangent

I’m teaching a course on documentary this term, and today my students were watching/analyzing An Inconvenient Truth. I picked this doc because we’re talking about the use of personal narratives in/and public rhetoric, and I’m kind of fascinated with the “Al Gore Show” woven throughout the film.


For the most part, of course, we see Gore’s slideshow presentation and listen along with his (rapt) audiences. (As one student suggested, the director lays the prophet robe on Gore a bit heavily.) But every so often, that lecture is interspersed with Gore’s reflections and anecdotes about how he came to be offering that slideshow. And at those junctures, his voice changes, becomes low and intimate, the footage becomes soft-focus or creatively aged, and the pathos becomes a bit heavy-handed.

… as a student’s sudden snort made abundantly clear. It was the snort of a burgeoning rhetorical critic, and it confirmed my hunch about some of the risky, even reckless rhetorical choices Gore and the director made in that movie. And the personal quest angle isn’t the only one. I wonder whether the warm fuzzy fatherly feelings would work on audiences alienated by his Bush jokes? Or are we to assume that no one who voted for Bush (that’s a lot of people) belongs in this doc’s audience?

More as my students figure this all out…