Encomium on the Overlord: The Sophistic Fandom of Misha Collins
So here it is: the freaking Misha paper I won’t shut up about. I presented this in March 2013 at the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association’s national conference. And for all of my bitching, this thing was great fun-–eventually, finally–-to write and even more to deliver.
If you’ve ever been curious as to what the hell I do with Supernatural as a student of rhetoric: here’s exhibit A.
From his first appearance in the television show Supernatural, Misha Collins—and by extension Castiel, the fiercely loyal angel he portrays—has been a favorite among many fans. In the midst of the show’s uniquely intimate and occasionally contentious relationship with its fans, Collins has crafted a distinct fandom of his own: first via the performative Twitter antics of a persona called “the Overlord”—a grandiose troublemaker with his eye on world domination—and then through the creation of two distinct yet intertwined organizations: a non-profit called Random Acts, founded in 2010, and the Greatest International Scavenger Hunt the World Has Ever Seen [or GISHWHES], founded in 2011.
In this essay, I explore some of Collins’ engagements with his fans [his minions] through the lens of sophistic rhetoric—a form of discursive engagement both older and more playful than that of Plato or Socrates. Reading Collins’ rhetorical performances through a sophistic lens illuminates the productive potential of crafting fan engagement as a series of provocations, ones that invite Collins’ fans to, as rhetorician John Poulakos puts it, “abandon the shelter of their prudential heaven and opt for that which exists ‘by favor of human imagination and effort’” (45).
Ultimately, the sophistic fandom of Misha Collins offers his minions two ways of performing the possible, of translating the Overlord’s antithetical approach to stardom into a distinctly different way of being in the world, one that transforms kindness into an act of gleeful deviance.
To begin: a brief word about the sophists.
The sophists are the redheaded stepchildren of ancient rhetoric: alternatively the whipping boys and the would-be saviors of the discipline, my discipline, of rhetoric and writing. They were hipsters, right—teaching and practicing rhetoric before Plato, before Aristotle; hell, before the notion of “rhetoric” even existed. They were dazzling and self-centered “diplomats, teachers, and performers” who blew into Athens in the fifth century not as an organized group; no gang of rhetorical gunfighters here (Jarrett 2). Rather, the sophists were what rhetorical historiographer Susan Jarratt calls “aliens, stranger-guests to Athens,” a rather loose collection of rhetors whom history has united by virtue of common traits and tactics (2).
What distinguishes the approach of this rag-tag bunch from that of Plato and friends is that the sophists fundamentally rejected the notion of a singular, ideal Truth, of a set of “eternal values” to which all men should ascribe (Jarratt 2). Indeed, many of these teachers had traveled extensively in the ancient world before coming to ground in Athens; as such, they’d learned from their own experience [via Jarratt] that “notions of ‘truth’ had to be adjusted to fit the ways of a particular audience in a certain time and with a certain set of beliefs and laws” (xv).
More to the point, the sophists were interested in disrupting their audience’s sense of certainty in the knowledge they already possessed, in the beliefs and values that formed the norms of that particular society or community. Perhaps the most famous of these rhetorical table-tossers was Gorgias of Leontini, who was, by all accounts, a raging dick.
What else to say about a rhetor who, as Debra Hawhee notes, upstaged one of the early Olympic games with a grand speech and an even grander purple robe; a man who, according to Jarratt, “purportedly made enough money through his teaching to have a solid gold statue of himself made at his death” (Hawhee 27, Jarratt 2). For all his personal bellicosity, however, it’s Gorgias’ ability to crack open what John Poulakos calls “the possible” that marks both his place in rhetorical history and his utility here (42).
In his “Encomium on Helen,” for example, Gorgias uses the traditional genre of the encomium—a speech of fervent praise—to smash his audience’s long-set perception of Helen of Troy as the single figure responsible for inciting the Trojan War (“Encomium”). To do this, he presents four alternative explanations of Helen’s role in the onset of the war: she was fated to act as she did; she was “seized by force”; she was “won over by persuasion”; or she was “captivated by love” (Gorgias 131).
These four antitheses offer very different ways of understanding the traditional story of a woman whose cheating heart, whose fickle affections, brought down a city and led to the deaths of thousands of men. By the end of the work, Gorgias argues, he has “expunged by my discourse this woman’s ill fame and…have tried to destroy the unjust blame and the ignorant opinion” of his audience (133).
In this work, Gorgias’ use of antithesis—a key rhetorical marker of sophistic rhetoric— serves to disrupt what Jarratt calls the listeners’ “previous complacent givens” about Helen and works instead “to awaken in them [his listeners] an awareness of the multiplicity of possible truths,” even in the context of what, for Gorgias’ audience, would have been a truth so commonplace as to be almost invisible (Jarratt 23, 22). Here, Gorgias is not simply being a dick; rather, as Poulakos asserts, he’s using antithesis “to lift them [the audience] from the vicissitudes of custom and habit and take them into a place where new discoveries…can be made” (43-44). That is, there’s a constructive effect to Gorgias’ sophistic trolling: to illustrate that “the province of rhetoric” is not simply a restatement of “actualities” but is instead “the possible, that which has not yet occurred to the audience” (44).
Jarrett identifies this rhetorical move from the possible to the actual as “parataxis,” a kind of “comic’ reconstruction” in which the possibilities cracked open via antithesis are re-produced by the rhetor, by the audience, to create something new (21). For Jarratt, however, Gorgias does not capitalize on the productive potential of parataxis in his “Encomium.” Rather, she argues, he disrupts without offering his audience a potential means of translating the possibilities he’s illuminated into their everyday lives (24).
This failure is troublesome for it overlooks what Jarratt regards as rhetoric’s “strong obligation to action in the social…world”; that is, without a “directive for action,” the productive possibilities exposed by antithesis disappear into the discursive wind with nothing to show for the rhetor’s actions, leaving the transformative potential of sophistic rhetoric on the table (24). Thus, at his fullest, a sophistic rhetor, as Poulakos asserts, “discloses his vision of a new world to his listeners and invites them to join him there by honoring his disclosure and by adopting his suggestion” (45).
What I want to suggest, then, is that the rhetorical tactics and philosophy of the ancient sophists have found a productive contemporary parallel in Misha Collins’ modes of engagement with his fans, via both his performative presence on Twitter and through the organizations of Random Acts and GISHWHES. Like the sophists, Collins entered the city-state of Supernatural fandom already in progress. After three seasons on the air, the series had an established, committed, and passionate fanbase, one with whom the show’s producers and actors frequently interacted.
Supernatural follows the adventures of Sam and Dean Winchester, two deeply devoted brothers who’ve dedicated their lives to protecting humans from all the supernatural shit eager to devour us soul body and bones. Although the show’s mythos had leaned heavily on the existence of demons since its first season, Castiel’s badass entry at the beginning of season four—gripping Dean tight and raising him from the pit of Hell—was the narrative’s first introduction of an angel (“Lazarus Rising”).
Thus, Collins [and Castiel] quickly became the focus of a particular kind of fan ardor, one distinct from the brother-touching angst of Sam and Dean. Indeed, unlike the taciturn angel he portrays, Collins is not shy about engaging directly with those who adore him: as Zubernis and Larson note, he “jumped on the Twitter bandwagon before most celebrities [in early 2009], recognizing the power to be wielded” via what he calls his “Twits” (157).
From the get-go, however, the tone and content of Collins’ tweets proved distinctive: a chaotic mix of grandiosity:
and textual performance art:
In a 2010 interview with Comic Book Resources, Collins described his approach in this way:
I had heard a few…people saying celebrities get on [Twitter] and they talk about…what they’re ordering at Starbucks or something. So a little bit of me wanted to satirize that idea…[R]ather than my Twits being about mundane activities like that…I just tell what’s really going on in my life [,] which is usually torturing a head of state or something like that. (CBR)
Faced for the first time in his acting career with “getting any kind of recognition from anyone on the street,” Collins fashions his Twitter performances so as to resist what he sees as the [boring] normative constraints of conventional forms of celebrity/fan interactions:
I definitely kind of consciously don’t wanna step into…the prescribed role of how you’re supposed to act…as a, you know, ‘celebrity’ with ‘fans.’ It seems like…why does everybody kind of do the same thing? It seems weird…I would like to at least try to subvert that in some way. (CBR)
The cumulative [rhetorical] effect of these 140-character shots of tactical satire, then, coupled with Collins’ mischievous interactions with fans at Supernatural conventions, is the performative persona of the Overlord: a bellicose figurehead cum internet troll who is as likely to complain about sexual harassment at the hands of the Queen of England—
as he is to boast about his wife’s latest book.
To pimp an upcoming episode of Supernatural—
as he is to make a joke about mpreg.
On the one hand, Collins’ use of Twitter to “carefully construct a ‘meta narrative and meta-image of self ‘” is very much in keeping with the strategies that media scholars Marwick and boyd identify as “self-conscious commodification” (6). On the other, however, the overblown pomposity of the Overlord and the straight-up weirdness of his Tweets—many of which mix Collins’ “mundane activities” [like grocery shopping with his daughter] and the theatre of the absurd [like covering said daughter in produce]—
–has helped his fans to coalesce around a distinct identity of their own within the broader Supernatural fandom. As Zubernis and Larson observe, the Overlord used Twitter—in just his fifth tweet, in fact—to publicly [and graciously] accept his fans’ chosen moniker—“Misha’s minions”—a discursive move that canonized the minions’ perception of themselves as a distinctly devoted entity in Supernatural fandom and of their fan practices as different from those of other fans of the show (154).
In this way, Collins’ Twitter-fied rhetoric embodies the sophistic move of antithesis and gestures towards parataxis. First, the satiric mode of engagement he negotiates through the Overlord offers an antithetical way of performing the celebrity/fan relationship, one that emphasizes weirdness and resists the “mundane,” allowing Collins to subvert “the prescribed way” that convention suggests he is supposed to be interacting with his fans. He’s not supposed to take public pleasure in their numbers–
or compare himself to Christ, damn it–
he’s supposed to be humble and thankful for their support—maybe a little odd, perhaps, but not to the point where, as one interviewer put it, “I really don’t know when you’re messing around and when you’re being totally honest” (CBR). Like Gorgias in the “Encomium on Helen,” Collins uses antithesis on Twitter to free his minions from “the vicissitudes of custom and habit” and to “take them [and himself] into a place where new discoveries” about celebrity/fan engagement can be made (Poulakos 43-44).
However, while the Overlord began his antithetical reign—his “death to normalcy” campaign—via the tweet, it’s through the twin/twined organizations of Random Acts and the Greatest International Scavenger Hunt the World Has Ever Seen [or GISHWHES] that Collins’ rhetoric reaches its fullest sophistic potential by performing, by embodying, parataxis. Both organizations were spawned, in essence, in the Twitter stream. Random Acts, for example, was born after the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti, as Collins explains in the organization’s founding video, posted in August 2010 [note: though he makes reference to the earthquake being “last year,” it was, in fact, in Jan. of the same year in which the video was recorded]:
Hi, my name is Misha and I have a Twitter account. I would consider some of the people who follow me there creative geniuses. They make incredible films. They create compelling artwork and they even make voodoo dolls. I love voodoo dolls as much as the next guy. Last year, when the earthquake hit Haiti, I posted a page for people to make donations and you Twitter people in about 24 hours donated almost 30,000 dollars. If we could combine all this amazing creativity and this generosity into one place, we would be an unstoppable force. So, I got together with some really smart, cool peopleand we created our own non-profit: Random Acts. (Random Acts)
While the devastation in Haiti served as the exigence for the organization’s founding, its overall mission was conceived as something more. As Collins notes later in the same video: “While Haiti may be a good starting point—it’s not the whole world, and if you’re gonna take over the whole world, you gotta think big. So we’ve taken Random Acts global. We’re doing one little random act of kindness after another, all over the world” (Random Acts). His shifting use of the word “we” in this sentence serves as a direct invitation to his fans: in order for the organization to take itself global, minions have to insert themselves into the “we” of Random Acts, must accept Misha’s invitation to, as he says at the end of the video, “pool our resources and our creative talents and…conquer the world one random act of kindness at a time” (Random Acts).
The risk here, as Poulakos notes, is that “the audience may decline [the rhetor’s] invitation. But this is a risk he must face if he dares to stand up and offer an alternative to the mundanity, the mediocrity, or misery of those he wishes to address” (45). However, the form of social action in which the Overlord is inviting his minions to participate is, in effect, collective individualism; a fan need not commit to a lengthy credo, to a series of arduous and pre-scribed tasks in order to be considered part of Random Acts. Rather, the meaning of an “act of kindness” is open to interpretation by each minion; each is offered the same opportunity to embrace “the alternative to…mundanity” that Collins’ invitation represents, but on their own terms.
In this context, “kindness” is recast as an act of gleeful deviance, an antithetical way of being in the world; but Collins’ rhetorical construction of that antithesis moves it beyond the satirical subversion of the Twitter stream, beyond the possible, and into the actual. Fans who accept the Overlord’s invitation have the opportunity to embody parataxis, to participate in what Jarrett calls the “loose coordination” of a new narrative within the context of their own lives. In this way, in this particular rhetorical act, Collins moves “from critique to reconstruction” and sophistically sketches one way of transforming possibility to reality via performance (Jarrett 27).
The Wonder Twin elements of creativity and generosity that Collins cites as one inspiration for Random Acts find a different [yet no less inventive] expression in GISHWHES. As the manifesto for the 2012 hunt explains: “GISHWHES is a global community of individuals…that ‘gather’ online once a year, form international teams, and then go out into the real world and create ‘art’ the likes of which the world has never seen” (“GISHWHES”). Like Random Acts, the seeds of what would become GISHWHES took root on Twitter, springing from a project called the Rhino Hunt that Collins ran in January 2011. In November 2011, GISHWHES, the next stage in scavenger hunt evolution, was launched, asking teams to complete specific tasks of performative weirdness over the course of one week.
The second GISHWHES was held in October 2012, and the list of tasks included, for example:
- Capture the image of “[a] storm trooper in full costume including leggings (not just the mask!) cleaning a pool. We must see someone lounging in a swimsuit holding a cocktail nearby [78 points]”;
- “Create a two-foot tall dinosaur out of sanitary napkins [50 points]” (elmie).
As in the case of Random Acts, the performative rhetoric of GISHWHES acts as an invitation, offering Collins’ fans a distinctly productive and creative means through which to take social action. As the 2012 manifesto asserts: “Gishwhes believes that ‘normalcy’ is overrated and true ‘living’ can be found hidden under the rocks of community artistic creation and acts of artistic sublime public performance” (“GISHWHES”). Here, the possibilities suggested by the Overlord’s theatre of the absurd on Twitter are transformed into parataxis, a means through which minions might re-perform Collins’ “vision of a new world,” one in which performance art becomes part of the fan’s everyday life—if only for one week a year.
Though I’ve drawn a distinction here, these two organizations, it must be noted, are inextricably linked: first through the authorial function of the Overlord himself and then through the parataxical potential that they present. Indeed, the 2012 hunt made this connection explicit, asking teams to collect performative pledges for Random Acts; rather than pledging funds, that is, donors promised to give over their time by doing one random act of kindness within their community. The sophistic fandom of the Overlord, then, offers minions two different ways of transforming the possible to the actual, two ways that the organizations themselves see as co-equal.
As the 2012 GISHWHES website notes, “we’re proud to announce this year’s teams…inspired over 100,000 people to pledge to do a Random Act of Kindness…We’re also equally proud that they managed to submit several hundred images of individuals fully dressed in ski gear (including skis and poles) practicing yoga in crowded yoga classes” (“GISHWHES”). Thus, it’s in the rhetoric of these two organizations that the sophistic potential of Collins’ rhetorical performances find their fullest expression by performing parataxis as a means through which minions can embody the Overlord’s credo: “death to normalcy.”
In his “Encomium,” Gorgias argues that “[s]peech is a great power which achieves the most divine works by means of the smallest and least visible form” (132). John Poulakos makes a similar observation: “In and through the speech of the rhetor,” he asserts, “the seed of the possible is planted in the ground of actuality. However, its roots do not begin to form until the audience fails to see ‘why not,’ until they cannot find any reason to frustrate or repudiate it” (Poulakos 45). As my work on this project continues, then, I will go to the roots of the Overlord’s rhetoric and explore if and how they’ve taken hold both within [the lives of] individual minions and in the micro-fan communities that projects like GISHWHES encourage them to form.
Here, my approach to this project as a rhetorician rather than a minion puts me at a disadvantage; it will take me some time to learn what questions I must ask, much less where I should direct my gaze. If anything, I entered this project as a fangirl of Gorgias, if such a thing exists. Moving forward, I’ll need to negotiate [come to terms with?] the affection I’ve developed for the Overlord over the course of my investigation. This is, I think, a pleasant problem to have.
One last note: given the intimate and occasionally contentious nature of Supernatural with its fandom, it’s important to note that the Overlord’s discursive tactics operate within a very particular context; I’m not suggesting here that Collins’ sophistic engagement with his minions provides a prescriptive model for other actors, even those within the Supernatural cast itself, most of whom [with one notable exception] frequent Twitter. However, what is valuable, I think, in staging an encomium of the Overlord is recognizing his performance of rhetoric as an invitation, one that, as Poulakos argues, “goes hand in hand with hope…because the speaker always awaits his listeners’ contribution, which will bring the possible to completion and realization” (45).
While there is value in treating fandom as an ongoing discursive exchange—something Supernatural as an entity does quite frequently—the productive power of critique, as Jarratt argues, only goes so far. What Collins’ rhetoric suggests, then, is that the addition of a parataxical form of fan engagement—one that is deliberately, if absurdly, productive—opens up a new world of possibilities for Overlord and minion alike.
elmie. “GISHWHES 2012 List of Items.” Tales of an Injured Fog Rat. 30 October 2012. Web. 26 March 2013.
Comic Book Resources (CBR). “CBR @ CCI: Misha Collins.” Online video. blip.tv. Blip, July 2010. Web. 22 March 2013.
Collins, Misha (mishacollins). “Breaking News…Season 8 is official! Fun fact: If Jenson got Jared pregnant when they first met, they would have a 7 year-old.” 3 May 2012, 4:03 pm. Tweet.
—. “I don’t think it’s noticeable, but there is a certain subtle exuberance that comes with having over 500,000 followers. http://lockerz.com/s/222802566 .” 6 July 2012, 2:27 pm. Tweet.
—. “I said if u guys voted for my friend & she won the art contest that i’d post a photo of myself naked on a horse. Here: twitpic.com/7u4r5u.” 16 December 2011, 2:16 pm. Tweet.
—. “I want to follow someone highly intelligent, but dangerous, which brings me to a technical question: How does one follow one’s self?” 9 Dec. 2011, 5:07 pm. Tweet.
—. “Just had ‘tea’ at buckingham palace. When I got to the parlor there was—conveniently—only 1 chair & Her Majesty insisted I sit in her lap.” 27 Oct. 2011, 12:10 pm. Tweet.
—. “Kim jong il has died! This is terrible news because he had borrowed one of my favorite mix tapes, & now I know his son won’t give it back.” 19 December 2011, 1:07 pm. Tweet.
—. “Once we master the alphabet, we’ll tackle my wife’s new book, “The Jet Sex.” It’s now on your mandatory reading list. amazon.com/The-Jet-Sex-Stewardesses-American/dp/0812244818 …” 26 March 2013, 12:12 pm. Tweet.
—. “The problem with organic groceries is that sometime there are large, disconcerting life forms living in the produce.” 21 December 2012, 12:03 am. Tweet.
—. “The young Columbo returns on tonight’s airing of the reality show about the two androgynous brothers who try to scare demons with graffiti.” 14 November 2012. 7:37 pm. Tweet.
“GISHWHES The Greatest Scavenger Hunt the World Has Ever Seen!” GISHWISHES 2012. GISHWHES, n.d. Web. 12 December 2012.
Gorgias. “Encomium on Helen.” Ancilla to Pre-Socratic Philosphers. Trans. Kathleen Freeman. Harvard University Press: Boston, 1983. 131-133.
Jarratt, Susan. Rereading the Sophists: Classical Rhetoric Refigured. Southern Illinois UP: Carbondale, 1998. Print.
Marwick, Alice E. and danah boyd. “I Tweet Honestly, I Tweet Passionately: Twitter Users, Context Collapse, and the Imagined Audience.” New Media Society 7 July 2010. Web. Accessed 1 March 2013.
Poulakos, John. “Toward a Sophistic Definition of Rhetoric.” Philosophy and Rhetoric 16.1 (1983): 35-48. Print.
Random Acts. “Random Acts—a video message from Misha Collins.” Online video. YouTube. YouTube, 21 August 2010. Web. 22 March 2013.
Zubernis, Lynn and Katherine Larson. Fandom At The Crossroads: Celebration, Shame, and Fan/Producer Relationships. Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012. Print.