Recent Conference Abstracts
“Execute Justice, Not People”: Rhetorical Delivery and the Digital Matter of Human Rights Activism
From human trafficking to police brutality, in our contemporary global landscape it seems atrocities of one kind or another are a constant. This interactive presentation explores the role of the material and other actants in delivering human rights activism. What would it mean to theorize human rights rhetoric in terms of objects? I analyze the digital outreach of Amnesty International, an organization known for its work agitating for global causes, to propose a new materialist approach to reading digital human rights rhetoric. I take up Jane Bennett’s theory of distributive agency to theorize the vibrant interactivity of digital activist networks produced and sustained in a Web site like Amnesty International’s. Interactivity, when linked with specific notions of action and actancy, potentially re-focuses our understanding of activism and the attendant possibilities for intervention in humanitarian crises. A rhetoric of new media should certainly “prepare us as writers to make our own choices” (Brooke 15) but, just as importantly, it should attend to how the work makes choices. In considering delivery beyond the speaker I sketch a re-orientation that asks us to consider the implications of our growing understanding of actancy for meaningful activism—particularly in light of object-oriented approaches to rhetoric that acknowledge the interactive nature of digital texts (see Gries, Porter, Warnick, etc.). How are human rights issues “delivered” across digital networks? What roles might humans and non-humans play in network flows of information and activism?
In Good Faith: Rethinking Rhetoric & Just War Theory’s ‘Right Intention’ in the Bush-Era Torture Memos (RSA 2018)
In the sixteen years since 9/11, much has been written about the memoranda, collectively referred to as the “Torture Memos,” that authorized enhanced interrogation techniques like waterboarding, solitary confinement, slapping, and extensive sleep deprivation. And yet, while President Barack Obama had been clear about his opposition to torture, President Donald Trump’s rabid support of inhumane interrogation techniques causes no small measure of concern. Trump has played on anti-Muslim, anti-immigration, and terrorist fears to re-instigate discussions of where “enhanced interrogation” techniques fit into current and future U.S. policy. For example, in his first television interview as President, on January 25, 2017, Trump maintained his confidence in techniques like waterboarding, explaining to the interviewer that the U.S. must “fight fire with fire.” Not long after, rumors circulated about an Executive Order that would reinstate CIA “black sites” and thus pave the way for a return to more coercive interrogation techniques. Despite other officials’ disavowal of Bush-era torture and detainment practices, as well as the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s damning 2014 report on interrogational torture, there has been no prosecution of the government officials responsible; neither has there been an attempt to controvert the initial “Gloves Come Off” memorandum that first authorized the torture program (and continues to authorize the U.S.’s controversial drone program).
With the Torture Memos’ continued relevance in policy discussions post-9/11, I propose a renewed attention to the relationship between rhetoric, just war theory (JWT), and the memos’ characterization of JWT’s ‘right intention’. In bringing JWT and rhetorical theory to bear on interrogational torture, this presentation aims to reorient our gaze toward the highly charged ethics of motive and “good faith” intention. As Trump’s recent pro-torture remarks and the ongoing drone program suggest, issues of not only transparency but also the relationship between bodies and state-sponsored violence are far from resolved. JWT’s emphasis on the ethics of violence makes it particularly useful for considering how rhetoric and violence intersect and even overlap. Within the scope of rhetorician Kenneth Burke’s theory of motives, this conjunction of ‘right intention’ and contentious government documents highlights the complex nature of persuasion in times that are, by definition, characterized by a new kind of war. And the memos themselves offer ample opportunity to think further about how torture operates in rhetorical forms across our contemporary legal and political landscape.
The Ghosts of Abu Ghraib: On Violence and Rhetorical Lifeworlds (RSA 2016)
In light of growing attention to rhetoric’s materiality and our participation in “rhetorical lifeworlds,” this presentation theorizes the suasive materiality of the now-infamous Abu Ghraib Detention Center to imagine a Burkean way of placement, a shift in scope, that is attentive to rhetoric’s material and symbolic violence. Critics like Thomas Rickert maintain that our notion of rhetoric “must be grounded in the material relations from which it springs, not simply as the situation giving it its shape and exigence, but as part of what we mean by rhetoric.” Put another way, rhetoric changes us before recognizable symbols are produced and thus exceeds knowability. But where might the violence of rhetorical action--in this case, interrogational torture--fit? How are we to reconcile what Elaine Scarry calls acts that “unmake” the world with current conceptions of rhetoric’s generative materiality? If we are indeed “jointed” in a rhetorical latticework, as Rickert proposes, we are called to locate, if not understand, the destruction of the world wrought by torture. At stake in such efforts is the hope we have for rhetoric as a kind of making, as a democratic and emancipatory enterprise that creates the stuff of life.
The Body Image: Selfies, SkinneePix, and Our Malleable Digital Bodies (CCCC 2015)
In his work on selfies and social media, Nathan Jurgenson problematizes the reification of the authentic (non-digital) self, suggesting that shifts in identity performance in social media scapes have just as much claim on the real as any other self-expression. Like Donna Haraway’s “cyborg,” the figure captured in a digital image is subject to replication, participating in shifting and sometimes strategic subjectivities. Building on feminist approaches to subjectivity and recent research on the selfie genre, this presentation theorizes selfies in the production and reproduction of malleable digital bodies through particular attention to SkinneePix.
Dubbed a “fun” way to make “pictures thinner,” the SkinneePix app digitally thins a subject’s face in “two quick clicks” to balance out the 15 lbs. the camera supposedly adds. In doing so, it relies on the idea of bodies and body images as flexible, changeable, trimmable, even in-flux. While Instagram, for example, offers highly recognizable atmospheric changes in color saturation, hue, and lighting, SkinneePix relies rhetorically on claims to invisibility and shared secret-keeping. Users are to feel both empowered and guilty for manipulating images of themselves. I argue that making “pictures thinner” becomes interchangeable with making selves thinner, and the alterability of the photograph is layered onto notions of a fluid digital body. Pitched as “our little secret” and a way to “feel good” about yourself, the SkinneePix trend relies on both the instantaneity of digital photographs and selfies’ social media component to make a potent claim on the in/visible body image.
Rhetoric, Kairos, and the Making of the World (RSA 2014)
In this presentation, I bring Elaine Scarry’s unmaking/making framework into conversation with Kenneth Burke’s “identification” and Plato’s explanation of “making” (poeisis) to propose a rhetorically-invested theory of kairotic making. In The Body in Pain, her meditation on the unmaking and making of the world, Scarry shows that an individual’s world can be unmade through acts of torture and war. Extreme pain, she argues, is not only world-destroying, but also language-destroying. For Scarry, the world’s construction or reconstruction, on the other hand, happens through the creation of objects. Focusing on “the interior structure of the act of making” (176), Scarry describes making as a form of self-extension, an externalization that actively creates the world and implicates human beings in one another’s sentience. But if pain is language-destroying, we rhetoricians might rightfully question the role of language in making. To what extent can we use language to actively create the world? Or, how might rhetoric, by its very nature, be said to make?
Kairos, I suggest, plays a significant role here. If we conceptualize it as a creative temporality— making, rather than simply seizing, the right time—we can also recognize kairos as of the world. I have argued elsewhere that unmaking has a temporal dimension that contributes to torture’s destruction of the self. But what temporalities are produced by making? Or, what is the rhetorical time of making? By reconsidering Scarry’s version of making in light of Burke’s observation that identification is part of persuasion, as well as rhetoric’s historical relation to poeisis, this paper ultimately argues for rhetoric’s creative participation in a kairotic bringing-forth or making-known.
Activism, Actancy, and Delivery in Digital Human Rights Rhetoric (RSA 2014)
From Sally J. McMillan’s and Barbara Warnick’s typologies of Web-based interactivity, to Jane Bennett’s treatment of Latour’s “actant,” to Rebecca Dingo’s feminist work on rhetoric’s transnational network flows, research in digital rhetoric and new materialisms increasingly complicates human-centered notions of delivery. In this paper, I analyze the Web site of Amnesty International, an organization well-known for its work agitating for global human rights, to propose a post-human approach to reading digital human rights rhetoric. Attending to the recent trend of embedding social media feeds in Web sites, I argue that such embeds operate as kairotic sources of interactivity that potentially generate post-human forms of engagement. In the case of Amnesty International’s site, I suggest that such kairotic interactivity, when linked with specific notions of action and actancy, effectively re-centers activism and the attendant possibilities for intervention in humanitarian crises.
Citizen Cynics: Encountering Abu Ghraib Again (CCCC 2012)
The 2004 release of photographs depicting detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib spawned moral indignation, forcing much of the U.S. public to (at least briefly) consider the U.S.’s complicity in human rights violations. But as the administration under George W. Bush became more invested in the promotion of these images as anomalies, their sharp rhetorical force began to splinter, deflect, even mute. Certain figures became fixed—like that of the hooded man on a box with electrical wires dangling from his fingers—while others simply faded from public view (if they were even there to begin with). Critics became cynics. Cynics became pessimists. With a few exceptions, we no longer see the Abu Ghraib images, except through veils of disenchantment, even despair. In response, this project attempts to harness those images’ fraught role by proposing “cynicism” as a potentially productive critical stance toward visual texts, particularly images we find ethically troubling. Contemporary perspectives on “cynicism,” much like those of the public toward “rhetoric,” reflect an arguably pejorative cast. Cynicism is seen as the harbinger of pessimism, of inaction, of unhelpful sarcasm—the remains of the middle-class subject once hope crumbles, but reality remains. Building from the critical history of cynicism in the work of such theorists as Sloterdijk, Adelson, and Yoos, however, I recast cynicism’s utility as a rhetorical position toward the visual. Rather than simply shutting down conversation, perhaps “cynicism” has the capacity to help us engage powerfully with images in the public sphere in ways unaccounted for by other critics’ conceptions of textual analysis.