It’s been interesting this week to watch Academic Twitter chew over Nicholas Kristoff’s assertion in the NYT last week that, gosh darn it, academics are just too tied up in their ivory towers and their wanky, inaccessible writing to make any damn difference in the world these days. If only (he wrote) scholars would spend more time on Twitter and other social media platforms producing texts that real people can understand and less time chasing our own academic tails, the world might–just might–be a better place.
While it’s true that there are a host of telling presumptions about academia’s relationship with the “real world” that are at work in Kristoff’s column [you can read some excellent work on that front here and here], I’m most interested in Kristoff’s implicit assumption that for academic work to “matter” to the general public, it has to affect social or political policy.
This strikes me because a lot of scholars in my own unruly discipline–that of rhetoric and writing studies–feel the same way.
For many rhetoric and writing scholars, the notion that “rhetoric is action—past, present, and future” is fundamental to their understanding of the purpose of their work (Kirsch and Royster 653). Implicit in classical discussions of rhetoric is its potential, when wielded by a skilled orator, to facilitate change. As Susan Jarratt observes, the sophists–a motley collection of Pre-Socratic teachers and speakers who practiced rhetoric before the discipline itself existed–embraced this potential; they “concentrated on the power of language in shaping human group behavior explicitly,” and regarded rhetoric “as an instrument of social action in the polis” (10). Little wonder, then, that Aristotle was wary of rhetoric’s potential to do of “great harm,” of what he saw as the ills that could “be done by unjustly using such power of words” (36).
Although this fear of the “unjust” use of rhetoric persists in contemporary popular culture where, as David Coogan and John Ackerman argue, “doing rhetoric is akin to menacing our fellow citizens with lies and misdirection,” for many rhetoricians, the ability of their work to affect what Lloyd Bitzer calls a “positive modification” within the social realm continues to be central to their understanding of rhetoric’s purpose [emphasis original] (Coogan and Ackerman 2; Bitzer 6).
But the precise terms of such modification–what “counts” as social change, both in terms of content and scale–is a matter of debate.
In the last few days, there’s been some really interesting meta kerfluffle over Rebecca Schuman’s “The End of the College Essay,” which you may recall I flipped some tables over about earlier this week. By now, we’ve reached the stage in the Schuman-fueled fallout where we’re talking more about the conversation that we’re having about the essay than about the content of said essay itself.
And one of the key themes that’s arise from this meta!talk is this: who in academia, exactly, has the right to talk about the teaching of writing?
This discursive tide reached a new peak today with the publication of a post titled “An Open Letter in Defense of Rebecca Schuman” on the ProfHacker blog, one that’s hosted on TheChronicle of Higher Education‘s website. For readers who dwell outside of academia, CHE is one of the most reputable and widely-read sites within the university world; posting the letter within the in body of that site = how many hits?
Now, depending upon your perspective, this letter–to which any interested party can affix their name via change.org–does one of two things:
These are the stories we like to tell about ourselves:
First and foremost, that our lives form a story, that they can be contained within the boundaries of what we recognize as a coherent narrative.
One problem with this assumption–one that is, I think, so deeply ingrained in us so as to be almost invisible–is that it sets up a very real trap: what do we do, then, what are we supposed to think, when our lives as we know them in any given moment fail to meet the requirements of a story? Of the story we think we’re writing, day by day? Of the story we’re certain we should be creating, we are, we must?
Recently, two of my friends have run headlong into this problem and found themselves struggling to find a way around it. These two friends, it’s worth noting, are at very different points in their lives, and hold very different places in mine: the first is an ex, with many years of co-authorship under his belt when it comes to our lives together; and the second a friend, a co-writer, whom I’ve never met in person but with whom I create texts.
Two people. One plot point in common. Same problem.
Both of these friends find themselves at a point where the stories they feel they should be writing day-to-day are not manifesting themselves in lived experience; both feel some guilt, I think, for not matching their lives to the rough drafts they’ve held in their minds for a long, long time.
This post is a metatextual exorcism: me trying to get the stupid out, as my directing teacher used to say, in re: my research project about the rhetorical tactics of the Overlord. It’s also an excuse for lots of pictures of Misha, so. If that turns you off, you know, I’d suggest you check for a pulse.
Ok, so. Here’s why it’s been hard for me to wax academic about Misha Collins:
It was easier for me to [gleefully] objectify the dude than it was to take him seriously.
Like, bro: I could write some smoking hot RPS about you without breaking a sweat, but put on a Random Acts video and I went all Crayola.
Fangirling over his body? Fine. Fangirling over what he actually did with that body in real life?
Encomium on the Overlord: The Sophistic Fandom of Misha Collins PDF download
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.
In my field, we spend a lot of time arguing over our own utility.
My field, we call ourselves by a lot of names: writing studies, rhetoric, composition studies, technical communication, etc.
The grad program I’m in straddles a few of these denotations and calls itself: “Rhetoric and Writing.”
Yeah. See what they did there?
For me, rhetoric is the study of what people do with language, with words, whether in speech or writing. If words are the weapon, rhetoric’s the study of how we wield it. As such, a rhetorical examination can include an analysis of performance (how we say it), of the construction (how we put it together), and/or of the effects of those choices (what does the text do for/to/with its readers?).
My program, then, takes a very particular spin on these question through its focus on “rhetoric and society”; that is, many of the faculty are interested in what rhetoric can and does do outside of the university. In the real world, as it were.
So there’s this big fanwanky battle in rhetoric and composition over how, when, and even if we as academics should intercede in societal problems, be it at the community, state, or national level.
My friend and collaborator fanspired kicked a lovely and complicated question at me yesterday, and as a) the answer to her question is sort of fundamental to this blog; and b) my response spun out into a 20-page dissertation, I decided to post my response here.
I’m puzzled about the relationship between these two [feminism and slash], given that we’re reading a genre of porn that specifically excludes us…Why do feminists read/write male/male slash?
I can answer that question only in terms of my own thinking and experiences. There’s been much written on this subject, and I suspect that there are probably as many answers to your question as there are feminists in slash fandom. Know, then, that my response pivots around my own beliefs, and makes no attempt to speak for feminists in slash as a whole.
The simplest answer, for me, is that such practices are a means through which, by which, to resist the way that female sexual desire and expression is coded, understood, and controlled within the dominant discourse.
In Textual Poachers, Henry Jenkins, scholar of fan practices in general and one of the first to write about slash practice specifically, puts it this way:
“Slash confronts the most repressive forms of sexual identity and provides utopian alternatives to current configurations of gender; slash does not, however, provide a politically stable or even consistently coherent response to these concerns.” (189-190).
As a feminist, I see slash practices as active, resistant, and women-centered.
Active in that writing and reading slash fiction allows women [and some men] to re-author their own sexuality outside of the constraints of heternormativity. Hell, I’d argue that having to select any kind of label for one’s sexual identity, be it hetero or gay or bi or whatever, is more constraining than constructive. Indeed, the Kinsey scale suggests to me that there are very few of us who fit neatly and with no ragged edges into any of these categories.
I think sexual identity for many people isn’t “stable” or consistant over the course of our entire lives, although the dominant discourse is loathe to acknowledge or explore this idea–in part, I think, because these identities are too freaking complicated and individual to be easily narrativized. It’s much easier to say: you’re gay or you’re straight. Maybe bi. But that’s it! More than three and it gets confusing, damn it.
So, for me, reading and writing slash gives me a chance to run around in many different kinds of sexual expressions, performances of desire, and sex acts outside of the binaries that dominate Western discourse around sexuality: gay and straight/male and female. In doing so, I can actively write, rewrite, and write again my own sexual identity, rather than serving as a passive receptor of male [eh] sexual desire, as the dominant discourse tells me I do every damn day. Indeed, the dd still tells us, I’d argue, that, as women, we “should” be good and wait for the men to come to us; that we should be content, as John Berger might say, to be the object of the gaze, rather than its master.
Well, I call bullshit.
Slash, for me, is also a form of resistance. The dominant discourse instructs us that what we should want, as women, is nice, safe, straight, vanilla sex with a man –unless we want to sleep with other women in front of/for the pleasure of men. That’s ok, too, but only if we recognize that what we really want at the end of the day is to be on the receiving end of a dick. Because, yeah.
Now, some would say (to me, at the last conference I went to) that writing/reading M/M slash is NOT a practice of resistance because it’s essentially women lusting after men. That is, the dominant discourse tells us we should desire beautiful men, and thus engaging in slash wherein we deify the male body is, in effect, doing exactly what the patriarchy wants.
This scholar then reminded the audience and I that the producers of SPN have learned to aim their program at women, in so far as having the boys in various states of undress and using the pretty as a selling point (all true). Therefore, she posited, by agreeing that yes, these men are hot (and trading on that in our fic), we’re giving into the dominant discourse, rather than scorning its advances.
Again, I call bullshit.
To embrace the pretty, to happily consume this, this, and this, and then to use that pretty to our own devices–to write/read Sam and Dean or Dean and Cas or Sam and Dean and Cas into hot sex–is, I think, pretty fucking feminist in nature.
Slavoj Zizek–who is an idiot on a lot of things, in my opinion–wisely suggested that the purest form of resistance against the dominant ideology is to embrace the ideology with open arms. So, ok PTB, you want to keep our eyeballs on SPN by dropping images like this into our laps? Awesome. We’re gonna take those–thank you–and do with them what we will: some of which you’ll be ok with, because it’ll make you money, and some of which you’ll have no fucking control over, no matter how meta you try to get on us, baby.
As feminst scholar Constance Penley puts it in NASA/TREK, her brilliant examination of Kirk/Spock slash:
“slash fans do more than ‘make do’; theymake“ (106).
Penley also notes Joanna Russ’ notion that slash writing is, essentially,
pornography by women, for women, with love (qtd. 103).
This is the last key piece of the puzzle, for me. Slash fiction is a space that dominated by women. Period. At some level, we’re women writing for, and to, other women. Sometimes, we’re an audience of one. Other times, the stories that we shape and kick out into the world are consumed by women whom we will never meet–but who will use our stories in their own way, make and remake them, hate them or love them, say “that’s not my Sam and Dean!” or “oh, god, that’s what my boys look like, too.”
This isn’t to say that a discursive space that’s dominated by women is inherently feminist in nature. It’s not. But, for me, spaces like the Sam/Dean Slash Archive or Archive of Our Own or any of the thousands of relevant LiveJournal pages allow for conversation and exchange between women that the dominant discourse discourages if not outright denies. We can talk, in these spaces, about sex and desire and character and narrative and incest and wingfic and curtains and emotion and trauma in ways that we can’t do in our everyday lives. If anything, SPN has become a feminized space because the characters are vehicles that make such conversations possible, even desirable, and provide the means through which, by which, we as women (primarily) can have them.
It’s not just about female appropriation of the male form–the most frequent academic criticism I’ve read and heard against slash. Hell, we might have a little penis envy, but so what? Reading and writing slash fic lets us try on the cock for awhile, put it to its best (most enthusiastic?) possible usage, and then reap the benefits of that textual world as only women can.
So you’re right, fanspired: on the surface, slash fic can look misogynistic. It’s women playing with men, navigating, negotiating, exploring, fuck, enjoying their sexuality via the male body. But I’d argue that the lack of gender constraints, the opportunity to resist the dominant discourse’s expectations of female sexuality, and the highly feminized communities that slash offers make reading and writing slash conducive to feminist participation, study, and interpretation.
As my boy Henry Jenkins points out:
“not all of slash is feminist; yet one cannot totally ignore the progressive potential of thisexchange.” (221)
As a feminist, it’s that “progressive potential,” the opportunity to repeat with difference, as Judith Butler might say, that keeps me coming back–yes–to slash.
One of my projects of late has taken me into the world of romance novel covers. I went into the work thinking I’d talk about the covers of het romances—and then I stumbled across Anne Tenino’s Frat Boy and Toppy. And that discovery led to the presentation below.
You can see a slide show of the images that I reference here and learn more about the book from the publisher here–which you should because this novel? Is awesome.
Covering Up to Strip Down:
Remixing Anne Tenino’s Frat Boy and Toppy
I began this project with a general interest in the covers of romance novels (slide 1), in these too-familiar renderings [rendings] (slide 2) of female garments by well-muscled, occasionally well-meaning masculine overlords.
And then I came across this (slide 3): Anne Tenino’s terribly titled but oh so very excellent novel Frat Boy and Toppy—a male/male erotic romance.
Now on the one hand, this cover is stereotypical, a close cousin of the now-familiar images plastered on heterosexual romance novels—featuring two naked male torsos for the price of one. But on the other, the cover is just bizarre. Its assemblage-like quality comes off as an artist’s fever dream: over-thought, over-designed, and, worst of all [to my mind] a poor representation of the content [and the pleasures] the text presents. My goal, then, has been to redesign Toppy’s cover so that it might more effectively reflect both the book’s content and the current cultural conversation surrounding women and the consumption of popular [erotic] romance, a discussion sparked by the runaway success of this novel, (slide 4)Fifty Shades of Grey.
Perhaps the busy nature of Toppy’s cover (slide 5) is due, in part, to the many different kinds of stories that the novel manages to tell within the generic constraints of an erotic romance; that is, a romance in which sexual encounters are used as the building blocks of a mutually satisfying and emotionally supportive love match and one which concludes with the characters living “happily ever after.” Toppy manages to do this while performing several other kinds of stories within the same text. First, the novel is a coming-out story in which Brad [the titular frat boy] recognizes that he’s gay, that he’s attracted to other men: specifically, to Sebastian, the TA for Brad’s “Classical Greece” history course.
Early in the book, Brad comes out to his family, who are relaxed and groovy about the whole thing, as, it seems, is Brad himself. Indeed, he is pretty angst free about the whole thing: he accepts who he is—and who he is wants Sebastian. That said, Brad is reluctant to come out to his frat, many of whom aren’t homophobic, per say, but are pretty happily ensconced in their belief that Brad’s straight [given that he’s been dating—but not sleeping with—women] and show little interest in discussing the potential fluidities of male sexual desire.
But this is also a romance, a story about two people falling in love and using hot sex as a means by which to discover that their attraction goes beyond the physical. After getting Sebastian’s attention by turning in a paper he purchased online as his own [like you do], Brad confesses his desire. The two men immediately sleep together [in that Yankee Candle- infested living room on the front cover] and it’s all happily uphill from there. Continue reading “Love! Frat Boys! and Visualizing [Female] Desire”→
As a writer, as a rhetorician, I’m always more interested in what writing does than in engaging in a long, fruitless search for a single, concretized meaning.
But the recent unraveling of Mike Daisey’s one-man show, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” via its appearance on the radio show This American Life [TAL] has challenged that notion for me.
In its most recent episode, “Retraction,” TAL takes a very public mulligan for its “Mr. Daisey Goes to the Apple Factory” episode which aired earlier this year. Daisey is a long-form monologuist, self-constructed in the image of [the amazing, the haunted, the shattering] Spaulding Gray, and the TAL episode featured an extended excerpt from “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” in which he recounts his 2010 trip to visit some Apple factories in China.
The problem, from TAL’s perspective, is this: Daisey made a lot of shit up. He added, embellished, and flat-out fabricated sequences, details, and people that he presents in his show–and on TAL—as “real.” True, and all that.
The truth, as it always is, is muddier. Much of the material that Daisey stitched into his show is “real” in the sense that it did happen–but to other people. Essentially, he took elements of other people’s experiences and reporting and integrated them into his own trip to China, to some of the Apple factories there, so seamlessly–with such careful rhetorical stitches–that those pieces became part of his whole.
This was conscious, deliberate plagiarism, in my opinion.
Daisey, to his limited credit, did come back to TAL to try and explain his behavior to a [very calmly] peeved Ira Glass. He tried not speaking, he tried denial, he tried self-delusion: there wasn’t a kid-whose-been-caught trick that he didn’t reach for. To me, Daisey came out looking like a skeez, one who hid behind the mechanics of the theater. In theater, he seemed to say again and again, the truth doesn’t matter, details don’t matter. It’s what the work does that makes it worthwhile.
Glass asked him why he didn’t come clean during the fact-checking process that TAL ran before the episode originally aired. Daisey’s response:
I think I was terrified that if I untied these things, that the work, that I know is really good, and tells a story, that does these really great things for making people care, that it would come apart in a way where, where it would ruin everything. [emphasis added]
So. I wonder. The rhetorician in me, wonders.
Is the problem here really one of genre, as Daisey repeatedly suggested? That in the theater, it’s ok–even expected?–that what’s on stage is heightened, exaggerated, narratively fluffed, even. That the truth must be embellished in order to be theatrical?
For what he regretted, Daisey said, was not the way in which he made his show, the detailed quiliting that shaded memory, truth, and someone else’s stories into a seamless whole. No. It was that he had allowed Glass and co. to bring his piece of theater onto public radio, into the world of journalism, of reporting.
Is it one of rhetoric? Does it matter more what the work does than if the content–which is ostensibly presented as memoir and political agit-prop [Brecht with a side of pathos]–is factual, or not? And by whose standards should the facts be judged? Is meaning truly subjugate to what the text does with, to, for, and through the audience?
Or is it one of integrity overthrown in the zeal of the moment, as this article suggests? Was Daisey so invested in doing with his text that he tossed the truth aside in order to make people feel for these mistreated workers? To care so much that they would do whatever it took to make it stop?
Shades of Brecht here, I think. Except Brecht, if memory serves, did not present his works as “truth,” as an accurate representation of any one person’s lived experience. Of what one person had seen or done.
So it makes me wonder, this strange little controversy, this eruption between truth, theater, and journalism. Can my ideals still hold in the face of it, this real-world example of the consequences of embracing what words do over what they mean?
To put a finer point on it: it’s not quite as simple, as straightforward as it feels in the classroom, in an academic text, within the boundaries of this blog, is it?
Words have consequences, both because of what they do and because of what they can mean.
A lesson I need to take on for myself as a writer, I think. It seems. A timely reminder.
I’m never more productive as a fic writer than when I have other crap that I should be doing: papers to write, student work to comment on, emails to respond to, reading to complete for the coming week. Ho hum.
Something about resistance, about pushing futilely back at what will have to get done, eventually, is really freakin’ inspirational. It’s no mystery as to why I started writing Supernatural fic over Thanksgiving break, or why my Cas/Dean series was born during a period when I was supposed to be prepping papers for two conferences, or why inspiration for my new series has popped up, helpfully, during spring break.
And yet, I can’t neatly separate these two worlds, ’cause they all live in the space in my head, I guess. For example, reading rhetorical theory in concert with writing “Take A Look At Me Now” meant that Cyril Welch’s notion of what “good” writing does—it reflects “what is” and writes towards “what could be”—ended up in Sammy’s mouth; in a very different context, mind you, but still. It wasn’t conscious, which is what I find weird or interesting, I guess. How much of me—or whatever’s rattling around in my brain at a given moment—ends up in my fic.
It’s kind of awesome, actually; writing towards a mirror, like that. Maybe it’s like Lacan says: the image of the other is the figure of desire, the manifestation of what is not us and what we cannot have, but what we spend our lives trying to reach, obtain, make part of ourselves. We want what others tell us we should want, too; our sense of what we should desire is shaped by those around us: our parents, our culture, our peers. So somewhere in my negotiations with the mirror, my attempts to make material something that isn’t me—something I desire, fine, ok [jesus, can you blame me? sheesh.]—some part of me springs into being, or comes into focus.
And wow, does that sound overly earnest and self-absorbed. But it is Lacan, after all. I think that’s like, required.