Non-constitutive Rhetoric: Or the Banality of Control

I prepared this paper for the forthcoming National Communication Association conference for a panel on affect. As with a much academic writing, I followed fairly strict disciplinary constraints; in this case, I am bridging rhetorical theory and advances in affect studies from other fields. The argument is not terribly original, though I make a few important distinctions that weed out inadequate interpretations of affect and establish the political stakes of affect theory (from a Marxist perspective). I will cut out roughly 3/4 of the material (to about 1200 words) to reduce it to a 10 minute talk.

My purpose today is to update the rhetorical studies theory of subjectivity. I argue that ‘affect theory’ should replace the older psychoanalytic model of interpellation. To concretize my argument, I analyze banal rhetoric; namely, the cybernetic subjectivity produced by “stock listings, currencies, corporate accounting, national budgets, computer languages, mathematics, scientific functions, [and] equations” (Lazzarato, Signs and Machines, 80).

Before I dive in, let provide you with a short preview of my argument. I begin by considering an essential axiom of critical rhetoric theory: “rhetoric produces subjectivity.” The prevailing theory is that subjectivity is an ideological effect of an implied audience (Charland, “Québécois”; Delgado, “Chicano Movement”). The most popular explanatory mechanism is interpellation, which draws on Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic theory of symbolic mediation (Althusser, “ISA,” 162). I argue that this model is no longer appropriate, for as Eugene Holland argues, “what Althusser actually describes is not the ideological constitution of the Subject, but only of the citizen” (“Schizoanalytic Critique”). The consequence of my argument is that rhetoricians explaining subjectivity through interpellation limited their focus to the State and relations of obedience/disobedience.

Second, I explain how banal rhetoric reveals modes of subjectivity beyond the citizen-subject. My claim is that rhetorical power now “speaks, communicates, and acts ‘assisted’ by all kinds of mechanical, thermodynamic, cybernetic, and computer machines” (Lazzarato, Signs and Machines, 29). I analyze “the language of infrastructures” to show how rhetoric solicits subjectivity without constituting a people or even addressing a subject (Pasolini, Heretical Empiricism, 63; Lazzarato, Signs and Machines, 61). As such, I do not celebrate affects as a challenge to abusive power; rather, I follow in the footsteps of Frédéric Lordon, who argues in Willing Slaves of Capital that joyous affects are the very means of our contemporary exploitation.

Lastly, I suggest two consequences from studying banal rhetoric: one, artifact selection need not be tied to rhetoric that hails “the people,” invokes an identity, or provides a symbolic program of action (McGee, “The People”; Charland, “Peuple Québécois”; Delgado, “Chicano Movement”); and two, the political search for rhetorical resistance need not emerge from distinct counter-publics or out-law discourses (Warner, Publics and Counter-Publics; Sloop and Ono, “Out-Law Discourse”).

Briefly restating my roadmap: I begin by discussing interpellation, continue with a discussion of affect, and end with the consequence an affect theory of subjectivity for future scholarship. Continue reading “Non-constitutive Rhetoric: Or the Banality of Control”

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Feminist Mappings of the City

What is a feminist “image of the city”?

The city is often experienced negatively by women. Easily measured causes for negativity include criminal violence, physical and sexual assault, and street harassment. Less easy to measure are the effects of these and other negative experiences, which are often registered rather subjectively.

This paper proposes a new mapping of gendered experiences of the city based on Kevin Lynch’s environmental images. My proposal is informed by feminist art projects that measure and represent women’s negative experiences in the city. My goal is to develop a new environmental image that reflects these experiences. Continue reading “Feminist Mappings of the City”

Justifications for the Iraq War as Incoherent Discourses

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This is the beginning to an academic article I’ll be submitting later this weekend.

Queer theorist David Halperin argues that disputing the lies of homophobia is pointless. His argument is not that homophobic discourses are irrefutable, but on the contrary, that they are endlessly disputable because they are based on series’ of mutually contradictory double binds. Halperin uses the legal debate over homosexuality as an “immutable characteristic” to illustrate such a double bind whereby if homosexuality is inborn, it justifies medical and legal discrimination on the basis of biological difference, or alternately, if homosexuality is a choice, then medical practitioners and politicians can restrict and punish homosexual behavior as a matter of volition.[1] Theoretically describing this discursive problematic, Halperin draws on the work of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s “Epistemology of the Closet” to argue that since “homophobic discourses contain no fixed propositional content,” they “operate strategically by means of logical contradictions” whose infinite substitutability empowers those discourses while simultaneously incapacitating queers through incoherence.[2] For Halperin, following Sedgwick, the consequence is that homophobic lies are easily falsifiable when taken one at a time, but refuting them one by one “does nothing the strategic function of discourses that operate precisely by deploying a series of mutually contradictory premises in such a way that anyone of them can be substituted for any other as different circumstances may require, without changing the final outcome of the argument.”[3]

The Bush Administration’s case for the Iraq War, with its many divergent justifications, expresses a discursive incoherence similar to homophobia. President Bush’s ex post facto justification for the war was quite vague, “that the Iraqi people are much better off without Saddam,” yet as policy analysts Daalder and Lindsey argue, the wide berth of this justification relies on the “basic but highly salient fact that there would not have been a war without his argument that Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction posed an unacceptable threat that was both immediate and serious.”[4] Restoring clarity to the Bush Administration’s initial claims about WMDs seems hardly probable, however, given the incoherence of the discourse through which the justifications for war were presented. As public policy professor James P Pfiffner points out, administration officials made WMDs a moving target, with Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz claiming that the verifiable presence of WMDs was not the paramount issue for policymakers while Secretary of Defense Collin Powell was asserting its centrality.[5] Pfiffner concludes that even while President Bush made “few untrue statements” and accepted some widely shared claims, his statements were also systematically misleading, gave false impressions, and defied the better judgment of others.[6] Continue reading “Justifications for the Iraq War as Incoherent Discourses”

Affective Critique: Mediation as a Response to Cynical Ideology (Paper Proposal)

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The role of critique in contemporary cinema has been displaced. Consider the story of Chicago gang member Danny Toro, who would watch Scarface almost every day for 10 years despite the film’s heavy-handed critique of its gangster protagonist Tony Montana. Perhaps as equally perplexing, the film American Psycho is popular among many yuppies even though its point is to critique the masculinity and violence of a financial culture much similar to their own. Or even more striking: fraternities across the country hold “Fight Club” events inspired by David Fincher’s adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s book although the film is an in-your-face condemnation of preppy social climbing.

Diagnosing this problem, Slovenian philosopher and critic Slajov Zizek writes that we no longer live in an age where “they know not what they do,” but rather: “they know very well what they are doing, but still, they are doing it.” To make his argument, Zizek echoes the theory of German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, who argues that we have entered the age of “cynical ideology” whereby the demystifying correction of ideological camera obscuras no longer motivates social action – or in the words of French sociologist of science Bruno Latour, the critique has “run out of steam.”

The alternatives suggested by all three are disappointing, however: Zizek proposes empty political doctrines (“signifiers without a signified”), Sloterdijk recommends a return to the irony and sarcasm of the Greeks (“kynicism”), and Latour calls for a “stubborn realist attitude” (“empiricism”).

In contrast to these three alternatives, I propose contemporary theories of affect as replacement for the diagnostic and effective functions of ideology critique. Continue reading “Affective Critique: Mediation as a Response to Cynical Ideology (Paper Proposal)”

Part 3 – Conflict

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The point is not just to understand Empire but to destroy it. At least for a time, the walls of the State were under siege by critique, which mustered an army of reason targeting sovereignty’s mythical foundations. But rationality became a tool of governance as the State found ways to capture reason for its own purposes. The Spectacle packages every product through cynicism, and critique has become just another means to spread detachment and fatalist alienation. Yet even if Empire’s pervasive use of cynical reason does not completely damn the future of critique, it does serve as a cautionary tale for those engaged in the politics of truth and warns of the declining efficiency of forces backed by critique alone. It is then the destructive power of critique that should be recovered, its critical function, as it realizes a particular type of force – the force of conflict. Continue reading “Part 3 – Conflict”

Chapter 4 – Affect

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“Everybody Talks About the Weather, but Nobody Does Anything About It”

Interiority, Dark Appetites and the Desire to Confess
The noises of a public place set the scene as the shot fades from black. Wobbly, droning music overtakes the din of the crowd, capturing the suffocating alienation of the Metropolis where mutual presence is characterized more by mutual separation than social connection.

A floor cuts the frame in half, the low shot focusing on people’s feet as they hurry from one side of the frame to another. Some disappear, their presence reduced to nothing before we know anything about them. Others appear, but not as complex characters in a drama but as anonymous subjects, either to be ignored or simply forgotten. In big red text, the words “NADIE ES INOCENTE” are emblazoned on the screen.

A pair of skinny legs appears, and the film quickly cuts to a backlit character walking up stairs with the same placid determination it takes to safely walk big city streets.

In the next shot, we finally catch a glimpse the character as he moves in and out of the shadows. A young punk in a red cut-off shirt and wild hair boards a train and finds a seat. While the train picks up speed, the disorienting music stops and is replaced by the mechanical clanks of locomotion. The punk stares out the window. His thoughts are broadcast through voice-over.

In a meandering tone, the punk gives a wry farewell to Neza City, a slum outside Mexico City. His excitement builds as he says goodbye to pickpockets, the police, and a no-good government. But even in escape, he returns his thoughts to his gang of Shit Punks (Mierdas Punks). Later, he mentions what he thinks makes them unique. Los Mierdas, unlike other gangs, hold no territory and therefore go anywhere they want to go – ”We have no turf, we go from one place to another. Gangs with turfs chase us or we chase them. It’s all the same.”

This journey provides a loose arc for the otherwise haphazard everyday life of his gang. At times, the dull emptiness of description almost finds meaning. The young punk may have a name: Kara? Yet as he travels, he changes his name to Juanillo, which casts a darker shade of doubt. The train itself offers tempting certainty, as its fixed path seems more determined than the rest of the scene. But dizzying jump-cuts and a disorienting trip through the train after the punk huffs something intoxicating undermine his veracity.

Truth would be wasted in this instance, anyway; Los Mierdas are the children of “No Future.” No one is there to mourn their death, only curse their existence. Perhaps the only bit of truth is found in a phrase said in a moment of indifferent reflection on the train. “Yo no quiero ser nadie. Yo no quiero ser nada.”

A decade earlier, Foucault declared that he was driven by the same motivation: “to get free of oneself” (Foucault, The Uses of Pleasure, 94-5). Yet he did not imagine such an escape to occur when someone leaves it all behind by skipping town. For Foucault, one does not shed oneself by shaking whatever authorities may be after you, joining a different gang, adopting a new name, or taking up a completely different lifestyle. Unlike the ancients who are nothing but their visible public acts, we moderns are tied to something much deeper than mere practices: a private self stricken with the poisoned gift of a deep interior. The product of Publicity and the Spectacle, the deep interiority of the self opens like a crack for Empire to plunge into. Escape is only partial as long as it is haunted by a specific desire – confession. Continue reading “Chapter 4 – Affect”