Abstract for “Digital Rhetoric/Digital Media in the Post-Truth Age” Symposium

So here’s a new thing I thought I’d try: Instead of simply sending off abstracts to conferences and waiting in equal parts silence and anticipation, I might as well share my idea on here first, and see what sort of feedback I get.

CFP for “Digital Rhetoric/Digital Media in the Post-Truth Age”

In an era of visceral partisanship and deepened tribalism within America’s governing institutions—a national dissension concomitant with the emergence of digital media—critics tend to focus on the myriad topics that our citizenry seems increasingly to come to no agreement over; nonetheless, such disagreement often functions to conceal unacknowledged ideological and technological consensus. Presaging the current debate by a decade, Jacques Rancière has coined the term “post-politics,” since taken up by the likes of Slavoj Žižek and Chantal Mouffe, to describe a civil condition wherein properly political debates, about distribution of power and definitions of the common, have been replaced by a broad acceptance of technocratic neoliberalism as the proper ruling order, à la Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis. In my proposed presentation—entitled “Post-Truth Politics is the Truth of Post-Politics”—I will contend that the epistemological instability of a post-truth situation is a symptom of the social stagnation within a post-political condition, and that both are fundamentally structured by modernity’s dominant rhetorical order of digital communication. Over the course of my talk, I will build off of the critical vocabulary provided by Rancière to outline what I see as the ideological and rhetorical conjuncture that underlies America’s contemporary institutional breakdown, demonstrating how the public’s inability to agree on basic facts or values is predicated upon our institutions having ideologically agreed to a neoliberal, technocratic complex. In brief, my argument will proceed in three basic turns: First, I will show how the emergence of post-truth politics coincides with the replacement by digital technologies of print media, which had originally laid the rhetorical groundwork for the American ideographic community. Second, I will indicate the constitutive relationship between a post-truth rhetorical landscape and post-political configuration, illustrating how the dissensus of the former social condition relies upon the underlying, if unconscious, consensus of the latter. In a final turn of the screw, I will return to the digital roots of the contemporary ideological configuration in order to demonstrate how, just as print media formerly provided the ground of the national imaginary—what Benedict Anderson called modern “print nationalism”—today the post-truth/post-politics complex is similarly structured by a logic of (online) posting and leads to what I describe as “post nationalism.”

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The Lawnmower Man, 1992 – ★★ [Movie Log]

For a story about a mentally handicapped man growing exponentially intelligent, the movie itself becomes increasingly stupid as it fumbles along incompetently. At bottom, the film treats virtual reality—which is really just code here for “newfangled CGI”—and, by metonymic connection, advanced intelligence itself, as a danger to humanity (and all this built upon the backs of animal testing, mind you: Others all the way down once more). Under threat are core values presumed by traditional Enlightenment values like empathy—the kindest character in the film, the titular Jobe, turned into the cruelest—and notions of autonomy—Jobe made dependent on technology, unable to care for himself. It would be easy to deconstruct this ambivalence toward digitality, technology presented as both a means of escape from the torturous confines of the brute body—Jobe, forced into manual labor, flogged by cruel authority, finally uploads his consciousness into the computer itself to become his own master—while simultaneously a mode of our own enslavement—made the center of his virtual universe, Jobe seems awfully like the genie returned to his cramped lamp, another magic object of enlightenment and bondage all at once.

More interesting, however, than these standard sci-fi tropes and computer anxieties—surprising in only how terribly they have been translated to the screen—is the utterly bonkers religious subtext of the film. In a pivotal scene, Brosnan (the mad scientist) says to Fahey (his Frankenstein-esque creation) that Christ-like delusions are a sure sign of madness—no doubt an insanity that runs throughout this strange pseudo-creature feature—to which Fahey responds aspirantly: “Cyberchrist” (and, of course, the film’s original and better title was “Cybergod”). Except, having been brought up by an abusive and manipulative Catholic priest, when the slow Jobe transcends his earthly form to approach digital divinity, he seems more an antichrist than a cyberchrist, more in like with the dispassionate ruthlessness of the Old Testament than the simple kindness of the New. Nonetheless, what is so fascinating (if poorly portrayed) about the metaphor is the suggestion that in the absence of God, missing from the Church and unmentioned by science, technology and virtuality will fill the vacuum, offering up a new iGod, a Moloch of the machine. In a sense, the movie asks: If the biblical Job had had a computer or if he had been on Twitter, would he have suffered so silently, would he have become so pious, or would he have posted incessantly, joined some incel forum, and fooled himself with digital delusions of grandeur?

Note: Listen, I watch more than my fair share of movies. They are as often incredible examples of ideology and political economy as they are works of world-expanding art. At best, they are thought-provoking, and at worst, they are mediocre entertainment (especially when they fall into that uncanny valley of “so awful it’s fun”). Since I generally write up a few quick thoughts for each movie I watch, and in the interest of making public more of my thinking and writing processes, I figured that I might as well post the occasional review to this blog as well as to my Letterboxd/Rotten Tomatoes accounts.

Vía Letterboxd – Jake Cowan

High Noon, 1952 – ★★★★★ [Movie Log]

At the time of its release, HIGH NOON was reviled both by chauvinist nationalists who thought it (rightly) to be allegory against McCarthyism and the blacklisting of Hollywood leftists, a story of a lone lawman sticking to his guns despite the rejection of his peers, as well as by actual Soviet communists who saw the film as a celebration of the individual over community. The film was decried by critics, filmmakers, and John Wayne himself as antithetical to the American ideals of classical westerns, yet nonetheless won numerous awards and set the template for the cynical post-Westerns that would follow. In the decades that followed, it was a favorite of politicians as ostensibly diverse as Eisenhower, Reagan, and Clinton, the movie most often screened in the White House, an outline of stoic morality, of staunch heroism in the face of overwhelming odds, of personal sacrifice and social obligation, but devoid enough of any explicit principle that the film could be appropriated by diverse ideologies across the political spectrum—even today, Cooper might just as easily stand in for Robert Mueller as he could Donald Trump, depending on how insane of an ideologue you might be.

In a deeply uncanny way, then, HIGH NOON is both of its time and utterly timeless. It is a clear allegory for the political paranoia and cowardice of its era, a reflection of and on the dominant genre(s) of classical Hollywood—shot like a noir, set as a Western—straddling the star system of silent films (Cooper) and the new icons to come (Kelly). Yet there is nonetheless something that remains modern about the film, its diverse heroines far better suited to today than to the 1950s, its moral standpoint as true for Athens (which the movie makes explicit) as it is for America, set at the start of the Civil War, at the intersection of America’s temporal disjuncture, speaking to a divide between neighbor and self at the crux of our national soul. This is all without even mentioning the ingenious temporal mechanic of the film, a tense and daring constraint that few films have tried to repeat, and none with as much skill.

Crafted in the starkest black and white, its score pulsating and cool, its climax practically a callback to Cooper’s silent origins, the movie is engaging and challenging in equal measure. And at heart, HIGH NOON is less a western than it is a formalist morality play, less about standing up to oppression than standing up for what one believes in, because standing up is what it means to be (a bipedal) human. Even Kelly’s Quaker pacifist, who takes her own turn behind the barrel of a gun, makes this point clear, not because she abandons her convictions, but because she keeps her vow, her promise to stand by the other, which is precisely what Cooper does and the cowardly townfolk fail to do. This is hardly a Western about machismo—Bridges’ character is resolutely rejected on that front, and the women characters are stronger than almost any man—nor about the moral purity of the American soul, Cooper family tossing his badge to the ground at the film’s conclusion, the rejected rejecting those he protected, wondering if it was worth it in the end; nor does this slip so easily in to simple cynicism, painting the hero instead in the most Kantian of colors of non-pathological and self-sacrificing duty.

Note: Listen, I watch more than my fair share of movies. They are as often incredible examples of ideology and political economy as they are works of world-expanding art. At best, they are thought-provoking, and at worst, they are mediocre entertainment (especially when they fall into that uncanny valley of “so awful it’s fun”). Since I generally write up a few quick thoughts for each movie I watch, and in the interest of making public more of my thinking and writing processes, I figured that I might as well post the occasional review to this blog as well as to my Letterboxd/Rotten Tomatoes accounts.

Vía Letterboxd – Jake Cowan

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, 1984 – ★★★½ [Movie Log]

Listen here, Buckaroo: In one sense, it is a film profoundly (and to its own detriment) ahead of its time, a PoMo sci-fi satire and comic book comedy with the screwball wit of something like GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY or a Verhoeven film but without half the budget. The humor is as surreal as the imagery, broad slapstick mixed with early nerd in-jokes, an everything-goes absurdism fit for the directionless void of space. The aliens anticipate the body-horror body-snatchers of Carpenter’s THEY LIVE, the naturalistic and nonlinear spaceships evoke the bioships of FARSCAPE, the creative universe seemingly as expansive (if ultimately undeveloped) as the MCU. With the popped collars and wide lapels and massive shoulders, Buckaroo and his crew may look utterly of the 80s, but its an 80s of our future, the retro-80s as we imagine it in so man nostalgic properties made today.

Yet in another sense, the movie calls back to the golden era adventure stories of Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon, in the vein and hot off the heels of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. As his name suggests, Buckaroo is a classic swashbuckling hero ripped straight from funny page serials; and like those comic strips, the audience gets dropped into the universe in medias res, the existence of its labyrinthine mythology both clearly evident while remaining entirely unclear. Buckaroo answers the question: What would a Renaissance Man look like in the modern postindustrial era? Replace da Vinci’s realist painting with Buckaroo’s sincere, post-ironic crooning; make him a rocket engineer rather than the speculative inventor of the helicopter; toss in the spectacle of Hollywood celebrity, make him a secret agent, a doctor, a 14-year-old boys dream—what else is any Uomo Universale except that?

Imagining forward in time while looking to the past for its inspiration, the problem with the movie is in the final analysis how it fails to capture the present. Oh, certainly the body snatching motif—an echo of director Richter’s screenplay for the ’78 remake of that film—speaks to something of the public’s anti-Russian paranoia (the bad guys are “red” aliens, after all), but by and large the film seems uninterested in anything Earthly and human and here and now. That includes, fwiw, the film’s inability to remain coherent for longer than ten minutes at a time, tilt-and-whirling from one incredible vignette to the next, none of it tying very well together. The film wants to take you through a host of brilliant ideas and places without spending enough time to develop one, let alone to let its characters live and breathe and grow. At best, you have to sit back and enjoy the ride, accepting that wherever the movie takes you and wherever you go, there you are.

Just so long as it leaves me in the end with those incredible closing credits, which will leave the best of tastes in your mouth.

Note: Listen, I watch more than my fair share of movies. They are as often incredible examples of ideology and political economy as they are works of world-expanding art. At best, they are thought-provoking, and at worst, they are mediocre entertainment (especially when they fall into that uncanny valley of “so awful it’s fun”). Since I generally write up a few quick thoughts for each movie I watch, and in the interest of making public more of my thinking and writing processes, I figured that I might as well post the occasional review to this blog as well as to my Letterboxd/Rotten Tomatoes accounts.

Vía Letterboxd – Jake Cowan

Impromptu, 1991 – ★★★½ [Movie Log]

An impromptu, Chopin—aptly played by a young Hugh Grant, holding his own in the overpowering presence of the Judy Davis as the scandalous but fierce George Sand—should conceal its careful clockwork artistry so as to appear utterly spontaneous, unpredictable, and lively. It’s a shame, then, that IMPROMPTU feels so often so forced, so rarely alive with the genius the film is filled with, more like a meticulous and thoughtful exercise for nimble fingers than a performance stoked by a spark of genius. The elements and personages are here for something much more passionate and moving, truly great painters (Delacroix) and writers (Sand/Alfred du Musset) and composers (Chopin/Liszt) populating every scene, but the film too easily uses their talent to dress up its love story rather than dwelling on their art, their creativity, their aesthetic struggle in any significant way. The movie is rather explicit that only Chopin’s work matters here, even as the frail pianist himself is secondary to Sand, her own novels quickly cast aside and her renegade habiliments and habits neutered. So while this is a story that belongs to Sand—a life likely more interesting than any of the rest of her circle—it is Chopin who, by virtue of his immortal genius, becomes the star: A strange sort of cinematic fugue that unfortunately runs counter to the simplicity and clarity of Chopin’s actual musicality.

Note: Listen, I watch more than my fair share of movies. They are as often incredible examples of ideology and political economy as they are works of world-expanding art. At best, they are thought-provoking, and at worst, they are mediocre entertainment (especially when they fall into that uncanny valley of “so awful it’s fun”). Since I generally write up a few quick thoughts for each movie I watch, and in the interest of making public more of my thinking and writing processes, I figured that I might as well post the occasional review to this blog as well as to my Letterboxd/Rotten Tomatoes accounts.

Vía Letterboxd – Jake Cowan

Immortal Beloved, 1994 – ★★★ [Movie Log]

In the way that Beethoven himself bridged the classical and romantic periods, the film wants to be a mixture of CITIZEN KANE and AMADEUS, retelling a monumental life through melancholic flashbacks and the mystery of an empty signifier. The idea is a worthwhile one, if much too conventional for its utterly original and avant-garde subject matter—something the movie sorely misunderstands, giving little weight to the specificity of the composer’s genius, tone-deafly treating him merely like a lightening rod for romantic passion—but the execution here is as flat as a second-rate soprano, lacking in the verve or audacity of its models, substituting pathos for authentic artistry. Anton Schindler (played by Jeroen Krabbé), the film’s framing narrator, is too blank to serve as a Salieri, and Beethoven’s string of mistresses too sycophantic to provide the complexity of Kane’s memorializers—the result, ironically enough, is rather monotone and cold.

Note: Listen, I watch more than my fair share of movies. They are as often incredible examples of ideology and political economy as they are works of world-expanding art. At best, they are thought-provoking, and at worst, they are mediocre entertainment (especially when they fall into that uncanny valley of “so awful it’s fun”). Since I generally write up a few quick thoughts for each movie I watch, and in the interest of making public more of my thinking and writing processes, I figured that I might as well post the occasional review to this blog as well as to my Letterboxd/Rotten Tomatoes accounts.

Vía Letterboxd – Jake Cowan

A Teaching Philosophy Draft

This is an initial draft of my teaching philosophy statement, which will be part of my applications when I go on the job market in just a few weeks. The aim here is lay out, without jargon or jokes—my typical approach—the beliefs, values, and practices that underlie my pedagogy. Because today was my first time returning to the front of a class in a few years, I figured that it was as good a time as any to take a moment and reflect on what teaching means to me.

When I was an undergraduate there, St. Edward’s University had a slogan that the school used in its marketing materials at the time, promising that in their classrooms, students would “learn to think.” This motto, simple though it may be, ingrained itself in my mind at the time, and continues to impact how I understand the role of higher education today and shapes how I approach teaching rhetoric, writing, and theory at large. As opposed to believing education to be a practice of knowledge transfer, imagining students as empty heads that need filling with novel jargon and scrupulous facts—forgotten as quickly as they were learned, a hollow mind being a rather porous thing, after all—my pedagogy aims instead to teach students not what to think but what it means to think. What matters to me as a teacher and theoretician of rhetoric is to stoke an enthusiasm for critical thinking skills and a celebration of cerebration, encouraging students to look anew at their everyday symbolic practices and communicative environments, learning to better articulate, and in due course reevaluate, their unique assumptions, beliefs, and convictions.

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This process necessarily entails understanding students to be so much more than vacant vessels eagerly awaiting their teachers to impart new knowledge; rather, my pedagogy is grounded on the recognition that the names on my roster are people first and students second, coming to the classroom with their own personal histories, singular sets of experiences and expectations, individual dreams and desires. First generation students without familial support either emotionally or financially, legacy students who come unawares from places of profound privilege, foreign exchange students struggling to get the hang of American norms and standard English: Even in my short time teaching so far, I have encountered students from a wide variety of backgrounds, challenging me to constantly adapt my own pedagogical practices and aspirations to meet these students where they academically already are, and not where a predesigned lesson plan or codified syllabus assumed they were. When I discovered one semester that not a single student in my first-year writing and argumentation course could (or felt confident enough in their own schooling to) name the three branches of American government, I immediately tabled whatever lesson plan I had devised for the day to address the needs of the class in that moment, letting their questions and uncertainties dictate the direction of our discussion.

At all turns, my pedagogy is driven by an ethic of listening and a belief that students are often much brighter, genuinely more creative, and more receptive than they are given credit for by traditional top-down didactic methods centered on a teacher’s expertise. Rather than end up limiting the curiosity of my students by confining classroom conversation to a strict script or by assigning them rubrics where they only would need to mirror back a set of tasks for a passing grade, it is frequently my goal as the instructor of record to sit back and let the students lead, to follow their diverse interests and concerns. In this sort of classroom free association, I conceive my job not as attempting to curb their enthusiasm or keep their inquisitiveness in check, but to assume the responsibility of tying the threads of their digression back to wider rhetorical themes while fostering their speaking and writing freely and openly. Hence when giving writing homework, I will urge students to approach the prompt creatively, to try and surprise me in a way that will set their work apart from their peers, often by using digital tools we have explored in class. Embracing this all too rare freedom, some students in the past have used animated reaction GIFs to provide peer review feedback, while others have used Twitter for discussion threads instead of platforms like Canvas or Blackboard.

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In asking students to take ownership of their educational experience by reconsidering the course as an opportunity for creativity, for thinking differently, for finding ways to make the shared material matter to their personal interests, one further pedagogical goal that I am trying to achieve is to break students from the habit of unconsciously presuming that learning is reserved for a formal classroom environment. Like much of what I have already said above, this is a lesson I have learned in large part from research in psychoanalysis, which I believe has profound yet untapped insights into the processes by which minds (which is to say, psyches) are molded and changed, whether in the classroom or in the clinic. All too often, and rarely aware of it, students have been conditioned to assume that the work of critical deliberation and symbolic imagination occur only in the rarefied space and time of the class—which is tantamount to thinking thinking likewise only takes place when dealing with official academic business, while doing homework or while in class, but not at the bar over the weekend.

Against this attitude, my pedagogy works to help students realize that critical thought and rhetoric writ large are practices vital to both public and private life, that the time for deliberation happens not only when sequestered in a classroom, but that the wider world around them is ripe for rethinking, too. This posture is reflected in some of the assignments I give, which regularly prompt students to investigate their own ambient rhetorical situations, such as when my students must put together a scrupulous rhetorical analysis of their own social media presence based on the personalized advertisements in their digital feeds. The point here is that rhetoric, thinking, and learning can happen anywhere, at anytime, but above all, learning comes about when we least expect it or when we stop paying attention—just as, when trying to remember a word on the tip of the tongue, if we give up the effort of memory, the word often seems to magically appear—that is to say, when the defensive assumptions of the ego lay dormant and the symbolic imagination of the psyche is vulnerable.

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Essential to the pedagogical comportment outlined above is the practice of composition, in all its diverse forms across different technologies and genres, which I attempt to make into an everyday exercise for students otherwise accustomed to seeing writing as stiflingly scholastic and reserved for official classroom activities. Whether my students are composing traditional argumentative essays, multimodal digital texts, or more plastic works of creative artistry like sound or visual collages—all assignments I have given to my classes at one point or another, to illustrate this point or that—my teaching positions the process of writing as part and parcel with the act of thinking. What I am trying to suggest in my pedagogy is that when we take up a habit of writing as something simultaneously commonplace and strange, when writing becomes not rarefied and resisted but rather routine, writing can become revolutionary for students, opening up themselves and the world to novel ways of knowing. By thinking through composition, by understanding writing as a process of invention and imagination rather than a polished or procedural product, by encouraging students to treat the blank page as a space for critical experimentation, play, and blameless failure, I always hope to help students cultivate their own idiosyncratic structures of thought and new rhetorical worlds.