Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Barack to the Drawing Board

Many at the MLA discussed how the editor of College English, John Schilb, was bemoaning the lack of interest in presidential rhetoric in the academy and the absence of scholarship specifically on the rhetoric of Barack Obama. Given today's panel on "The Impact of Obama’s Rhetorical Strategies," I was sorry not to see Schilb in the audience commenting during the question and answer session. The panel was organized by Linda Adler-Kassner, who known for her work on "The Activist WPA." Her write-up of our session is here.

After Adler-Kassner's introduction, graduate student Sean Casey talked about the importance of thinking about civic education in the broadest possible terms and described a particular case study involving an assignment on the inauguration of Barack Obama. (You can see my take on the inauguration here.) He explained how the assignment allowed students to see how certain aspects of Obama's rhetoric were coercive as well as persuasive and to integrate the student newspaper into classroom activities about digital ephemera for a larger vision of what Barbara Warnick has called "the electronic public sphere." Casey discussed how one student responded with an analysis of the cutting and pasting of Aretha Franklin's hat as a trope of mobility and ornamentation in online social networks. Casey drew on several theoretical sources to argue that the definition of participation devoid of engagement with deliberation or policy formation and the staging of dialogism without interactivity should be troubling to teachers of civic education and rhetoric and composition. Among them was Danielle DeVoss's and Dickie Selfe's Technological Ecologies and Sustainability, which also discussed non-human actants like machines and spaces, in keeping with the current trend toward thinking with an "object-oriented ontology." Casey also drew on Burke to understand the ways that the inauguration assignment wanted to avoid the pitfalls experienced also by service learning assignments that generated only superficial civic engagement.

Graduate student Jeff Swift was next in looking at how Obama "blew past Howard Dean" in a "push toward social media" that also embraced Twitter, which was the focus of his Prezi talk. Although he acknowledged that Twitter makes a "terrible first impression," as TIME's Steve Johnson says, he argued that it provides what Clive Thompson has called "social proprioception" in orienting the social self with a "sixth sense." He also used many of the traditional lessons of the rhetoric and composition classroom, such as the value of ethos, and a line from Andrea Lunsford about the value of audience as well as instantaneous communication in such new online channels. In addition to discussing the value of what Malinowski (and Paul Kockelman) has called "phatic communion," Swift also talked about what Fred Wilson has called "the power of the passed link."

I gave the next presentation, which I describe in the italicized section below. Slides are here, and the Obama YouTube montage I showed by way of introduction is here.

Throughout the world, government agencies have adopted YouTube as a mode for broadcasting state-sanctioned video messages. Now many heads of state are looking to the United States and to the Obama administration to imitate the specific rhetorical techniques of the current American president. In retasking a YouTube platform generally associated with a fragmented politics of personal liberty and rhizomatic modes of resistance, Obama both borrows from the conventions of vernacular video and also adapts those conventions to established methods of standard official persuasion. In particular, Obama is situated in the domestic spaces of the White House in ways that might be familiar to YouTube viewers who are accustomed to a webcam cinema oriented around private homes.

Obama’s direct address to the YouTube viewer references the rhetorics of many other U.S. presidents. A chronological montage of clips from the White House official YouTube channel shows several allusions to his historical predecessors. Like Franklin Roosevelt Obama uses the pedagogical pose of the “fireside chat,” like Kennedy he attempts to conduct public diplomacy efforts and speak to citizens abroad in their own languages, and like Reagan he consoles the nation in times of tragedy.

However, his YouTube performances as the nation’s patriarch also draw attention to what could be called “mediated transparency.” Unlike his Republican opponent who was mocked for his use of green screen technologies that digitally effaced the physical background of a shot in favor of a virtual backdrop, the images of Obama chosen as the icons of many of his YouTube Weekly Addresses display lights, camera viewers, and computer monitors prominently.

YouTube also gives the viewer lessons about how to be an ideal computer user, but the official message coming from the White House’s visual rhetoric seems to be that to be wired is to be unpresidential. The Obama official Flickr photo stream never shows him on his famous Commander-in-Chief Blackberry. Like the cigarettes he smokes, the ubiquitous computing devices that he uses must be indulged in only secretly. A phone with a traditional cord that tethers him to his desk is clearly deemed much more presidential. On the rare occasions when he is posed in front of someone else’s computer screen for the launch of a new government website, Obama appears uncomfortable in front of the monitor, usually at a woman’s desk. Thus, a president may create content for YouTube, but – of course – he would never actually watch it. Since the White House allows text comments on its official channel, but response videos are prohibited, the inconvenient possibility that citizens might be viewed as well as view is eliminated.

These limitations on Obama’s engagement with the political feedback loop has often been highlighted in his so-called “Town Hall” performances with YouTube, which began before he took office with the CNN-YouTube Democratic Party debates in July of 2007, where Obama famously answered a question from a YouTube viewer by promising to talk directly to “foreign leaders” of countries with which the United States had no diplomatic relations. Although Obama publicized the use of “Open for Questions” derived from the Internet in one of his YouTube messages, he often avoided answering the most popular questions and instead focused on responding to specifically selected questions from webcam viewers who presented a YouTube political spectacle that was deemed more appropriate.

Often the constraints placed by networks that censor content from YouTube are assumed to exist only in totalitarian regimes that might want to block the U.S. message of democratic neoliberalism. Yet there was some irony this September when Obama created a YouTube back-to-school message intended for children in public school classrooms to inspire them to work hard and show respect for the institutions of learning, because most schools in the United States block YouTube, and even teachers cannot access such video-sharing sites on school networks when needed for obvious pedagogical uses.

As privacy advocate Christopher Soghoian points out, what is most disturbing about the official sanctioning of YouTube by the White House is that it subjects citizens who visit the website of a public institution to YouTube’s surveillance, tracking, and data mining without their knowledge or explicit consent. Although the White House has experimented with other players that do not have the proprietary software or policies on copyright that advocates for public property might find repugnant, YouTube continues to be the chosen third-party video player. As the language of different privacy policies is finessed, the company itself is never named. Furthermore, the close personal and financial relationship between the interests of Obama and the CEO of YouTube’s parent company, Google’s Eric Schmidt, is also certainly a cause for concern, given that American presidents since Teddy Roosevelt have been expected to break up corporate monopolies not legitimate them.

The use of YouTube by official agencies that are pursuing e-government agendas for the United States demonstrates the distinctive way that state authority is represented in distributed digital video in modes that mimic one-to-one communication and yet reinforce the one-to-many structure by which liberal representative democracies have traditionally functioned in the mass media era. With the expanding use of commercial Web 2.0 technologies by government agencies, critics and activists are finally expressing concern that in the name of “participatory culture” the government may risk compelling its citizens to participate in particular copyright regimes that constrain speech, to submit to corporate user agreements that rewrite the social contract, and to divulge private information to commercial vendors without their consent.

The session closed with a joint talk by Writing Program Administrator Dominic Delli Carpini and his brother Annenberg School dean and well-known writer on political communication Michael Delli Carpini. On the general principle that writing programs have an obligation to teach both new media and civic engagement and that this is an interdisciplinary venture, the two Carpinis argued that a compelling series of writing assignments could be constructed around the Barack Obama Organizing for America website to encourage critical thinking about its monologism and tendancy to rely on the rhetoric of a mandate.

Like others on the panel, they felt that their optimism about the civic engagement promised by the new administration had become tempered by the realities of the fact that no technology is neutral. They also argued that it was important to encourage critical thinking about a democratic plebicite that may be constituted numerically rather than cognitively and to consider the issues raised by Simone Chambers about "Rhetoric and the Public Sphere" about how dialectical democracy may not be promoted by certain forms of mass culture. In other words, if deliberation does similar work to the work of the writing classroom with exposing weak arguments, unacceptable premises, etc., then would assignments asking students to do extended rhetorical analysis of such websites or to study of shifts in the geography of URLs get students outside existing double binds. They urged adoption of a pedagogy about building new pathways through such websites and exploring "expropriations and workarounds" as well.

Update: For more on the panel, check out this story about the session from Diverse: Issues in Higher Education.

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