To Campus

Woke up today and worked more on my long-term writing project about debating. I woke up with the question: If we are seeing a radical change in the way that people evaluate information, trust experts, consider what a fact is, and all that, why is our solution to just double-down on teaching the fallacies, tests of evidence, and scientifically derived notions of truth? It's like if something breaks, you try to figure out why it broke, not do the thing you were doing beforehand even more intensely. 

I actually just really don't think things have changed, we are just noticing that facts don't get us a lot and don't do a lot for us versus presentation, representation, and interpretation. Like salt though, facts make these different dishes have good flavor if used in the right amounts. 

Today I'm about to head to campus to pick up another ILL book that came in when I was in Maryland. In case you didn't see the vlogs from last week here they are!

I shot these in 4k on an action cam which i really liked versus using my handycam which seems a bit big, especially with the microphone and all of that. I think that the size is not that different from a DSLR or other style camera, and just as bulky, but the action cam is the only thing I have that shoots 4k. I think they turned out ok even though they are a bit choppy. I might move down to half that resolution and shoot at 60fps on a more narrow field of view, then the videos will look pretty amazing. Most people are just watching them in 1080p anyway, at least for a couple of more years. 


Broadcasting Rhetoric

Still thinking about the time I spent in the media archive at the University of Maryland. They have a lot of documentation - transcripts and recordings and the like - but most exciting is their collection of the technology of broadcasting. They have a remarkably well-preserved inventory of early televisions and old console-style radios.  


I like this microphone a lot even though it’s busted. The principles are the same now - keeping it suspended and shock-absorbent helps make a better sound. I always wondered why they put the call letters on the mics even though there was no picture being transmitted. The archivist explained that they take a lot of photos of radio shows in those times and it was good for that. Also these mics were expensive and would just be moved from the studio to the event that was covered live, and the press would get photos there of it, hopefully. It’s all about good publicity.


I think shortwave radio is really cool, and I know I’m pretty alone in that idea, but all the home console radios of the 1930s had shortwave tuners so you could hear the news from Europe anytime you wanted. They also included the police band and sometimes aircraft frequencies as well (much later on than 1930s). The other great thing to read about was the lack of regulation in broadcast signal strength, so there were a lot of stories of station owners pumping out 500,000 watt AM stations and being heard across the country or even on the other side of the world. Hillarious I think, what a great way to get rid of the other stations. 

This unit had the back panel off so we could look at the antenna, which was pretty substantial. No wonder they could pick up everything clearly via shortwave or whatever. FM signals are about 20 years away for this unit, but the design of it really makes you wonder - this is a unit that is meant to be on full display in a family room, to fit in with the furniture, and be something you are not ashamed to see. Radio design today says little more than, “I’m a very advanced stereo system.” I wonder what this design said to people in the 1930s and 1940s? Does it say “furniture” or does it say “technologically advanced?” What’s the message in the design here?


You see these issues being addressed a lot clearer in the early televisions, which tried a lot to look like console radios like the one above. This unit is a great example of trying to bridge the TV/radio divide in a way that we can safely assume is speaking to the audience of the late 40s early 50s. 

This one also is trying to look like furniture but the presence of the screen and the attention that the screen compels is really an interruption here. Later models would come with cabinet doors to close off the screen when not in use. Even in the photo, your eyes want to go to the screen as the center of this unit’s design. Is that trained? Where does this compulsion come from? There is something about TV that compels attention even if you are not actively watching a show. You find yourself “looking up” at it without even thinking about it to see what’s going on. Also at this time 24 hour programming was unheard of, perhaps even something that would be undesired, so there was no point in having the TV available all the time. Having it in a cabinet makes the furniture appearance really easy - it’s just another hutch or cabinet in the living room.


With this one, the attempt to resemble a radio is gone, and the screen has taken over the focus of the unit. But the doors indicate that this is still meant not to disrupt the organization of the living room at all, and can be removed from the scene by shutting the doors. This fascinates me as the contemporary living room is arranged around the television. This design indicates that the television interrupted the living room design, and needed to be incorporated into the room in a way that made sense. Just sitting out there as a big screen wasn’t going to cut it.


This is the best photo and the one I wanted to close on. This is a custom made RCA black and white TV that was built for a bar owner who wanted a big screen everyone could see when they came into the bar to watch sports and other events. So this is evidence that there has always been this desire to have big, loud TVs in the bar. This unit, from the dawn of TV, shows that TV has always been obnoxious. I bet 1950s bar patrons also complained about how you can’t just have a drink without some TV blaring in the background. 

What a great collection, and I’m so glad to have seen it. Who preserved all this stuff? Who kept it in such good condition over the decades? It makes me think about how easily we throw things away and how cheaply they are made. I wonder what, if anything of our broadcast technology, will survive for future archives? 


Another Time, D.C.!


Another trip done. And the summer is almost done too. I learned quite a bit on this trip but now what’s ahead is the race to September. 

I agreed to help run and teach at a debate camp for the first time in a few years here in New York. Not sure what that’s going to be like. I figure if I can teach the students to read and research carefully on the internet as well as how to generate arguments from what they already know, that would be a win. In composition, I think the idea “generate arguments from your own knowledge and experience” is the sense of this weird concept of “voice,” which I have never really understood. 

I also have a lot of writing to do. A big research project is coming due in October, and right before that I plan to teach and speak in Morocco again. All of this needs to be planned and set up before courses get underway.  

Speaking of courses, I have done nothing in planning for my public speaking course which I am using two new books for. That needs some attention I think.  

So my days should be full for the rest of the month, then we start another semester of teaching. I wonder when I am actually busiest? Is it when the regular semester is running, or is it in the summer? I prefer the summertime myself even though I miss the practice of teaching. What I really like about the summer is that there’s no debate work. I think I’m really over doing debate work in the traditional sense. But I’m just getting started on an expansion of debate work in a direction that I think is very valuable. More on that in another post.  

But it does remind me I’d like to write a grant application before September 1st. So why am I posting here? Time to get on it all.  

The Archive

I had the best time this week going to the University of Maryland special collections. I spent about three days there and that was a good amount of time. However I feel like I could just look at old stuff in the archives forever and not get bored. Seems like there’s a lot of it there. 



This is just a small part of the media archive which one of the archivists took me around to see. Most of this is history of broadcasting stuff - old TV broadcasts, films, transcripts and the like. I thought that the library might have a collection of transcripts or some recordings of the National Student Federation weekly broadcasts they did during the 1930s - often on the subject of the role of the university student in politics or the depression. My assumption is once the war came these broadcasts probably stopped. The NSF was very interested in being anti-military, anti-war, pacifist, and helping students build communes in order to make university affordable. I can’t think of a more relevant political platform for 2018 for students.

Archival material doesn’t have much value on its own no matter how it was acquired. It gets value through a process of rhetorical invention which is more hermeneutic than anything else. The researcher goes to the archive for sources for her arguments. She looks at the material with a sense of “what it is” in her head. The result is the genesis of persuasive rhetoric that explains the past to the present. This does not mean the archive has been used up. On the contrary, it should be preserved for a re-visit by another scholar over some time.

These materials are valuable because of their inventional capacity. The idea is they help us create a world based on what came before. This can happen by mimetic property: “They faced these same issues and did X,” or it can come through an identification: “They thought like we do, we think like they did, they recognized things about politics or the world that we feel are very modern, etc.” It can also come through recognition of a scene or a slate of possibilities as familiar to us today, as I did just above in my thinking about the NSF.


What helps us avoid a charge of revisionism here? I think this question is only relevant if you are doing a particular kind or type of history, a modality of history that even historians would consider to be oversimplistic and a bit rediculous. That modality is one where we recover the past to know what happened. We determine the facts and then we know about that time. No historian, I hope, does this sort of work. If they do, they are not really that interested in the critical application of history for today - it’s more of a sort of preservation of really nice dishes that are never used. That sort of preservation has value I suppose, but it’s a lot more dangerous to believe one has accessed or acquired the past rather than one has objects and texts from the past that need interpretation for us here and now. It is that operation that gives the archive value.

I had a great time talking to the archivist about some of the political issues involved in archiving. One is a shift in mindset by archives to be a lot more about product not process. A horrifying statement to anyone who works in composition or rhetoric to be sure. What he means is that there’s a trend for archivists to consider themselves creators of knowledge instead of just the custodians of a set of materials who investigate, sort, and make labels for that set. This seems like a good change as they can articulate what the archive itself means. In fact, there are people who do work on the history of the archive - meta to be sure, but meta interesting.

Finally there’s the archivist question of value. There’s limited space and limited labor to classify everything, but then there’s also limited understanding of what might be important in the future. How many rediculous coffee cups or jackets should be preserved in a collection? What if you toss the one set of forks that really matters for future research? This sort of thing seems very pressing and interesting and there’s no good answer. A question of situational reasoning to be sure, and worth some study.

It was a great visit, and I got a lot out of it. I made some vlogs about it, but the hotel internet and my hotspot were way too underpowered to upload what I made. I’ve been using Lumia Fusion on the iPad and I love it. It’s the perfect video editor for me - very basic and to the point. However my little iPad barely has the memory to hold the rendered files, so it would be good to be able to upload them right away. Once I’m home this afternoon it should be no problem. It was pretty annoying not to be able to post those videos every day. They’ll be up here soon.

A Very Special Collection


Started my work in the special collections at the University of Maryland this week and I have to say, it’s incredible what I’ve already discovered in these documents. It was well worth the trip. There are a lot of documents missing that would make things a bit clearer, but I’m already sitting at 1000% more information about this stuff than I was last week.

The project is tracing down who, and why, German university debaters came on a debate tour of the United States in 1930. I found a transcript in those old books that I love that are collections of debate speeches from across the country. If you have read this blog you know about the Edith Phelps Debater’s Annuals. So far I have found two transcripts of German debates against American debaters on the question of military readiness.

There’s a passing mention by Phelps as to who was behind hosting these debates, so I went down that path and found it to be a rabbit hole. There are three, possibly more, organizations that rose out of World War 1 that have the express purpose to generate international understanding and goodwill among young people, often high school and university aged students, and they all have similar names. They all also have offices in New York City. So most of today was sorting out who was in charge of what and what they thought they were doing.  

The weirdest thing so far is the obsession these organizations have with hygiene and self-help. I’m not sure what the latter term means, I think it means getting the money or support together yourself to go to university. The first term is pretty clear. Although to the credit of one organization that was having a large, international conference on student self-help, one of the organizers wrote to a government official (not really sure who he was as his response letter doesn’t appear in the archive) asking him to make sure the students pass through Ellis Island 2nd class passengers not the steerage rate, as they are university students who are only traveling that way as that’s what the money could provide. Such a shame if their welcome was to go through that “process.” Not sure what it entailed, but I could imagine a pretty invasive and embarrassing examination of the body. Times haven’t changed that much. 

Tomorrow I’ll go in more detail though the boxes. Today was cut short - only a couple of hours of research - because Uber drivers here in Maryland (or the DC area) are incompetent. I have had the worst trips I’ve had in a while today. I even think one driver racially profiled me: When I got into the car he was playing some great hip-hop stuff, then it suddenly changed to old country. Do I look like an old country fan? I am a middle aged guy. I’m not sure I like this racial profiling thing.  

I hope to connect more dots tomorrow. Today I got a lot of great information but sadly it only opens the case further. More research to be done. Now there are a number of debate tours I have to track down. So far there’s an Oxford tour, an English Universities tour (would love to get the difference there!), Scottish (although in the secretary’s hand in the margin there is a note “Nothing mentions Scotland in the files, did he misspeak?” In talking about a typed dictation from the President of the organization), a Dutch tour, and a Turkish one. Tracking these down is going to be pretty time consuming but might be a really great piece of debate and higher education history. And here we are, thinking that international experiences are still kind of unusual for undergraduates.

Debate Topic(al) invention and iteration

Looking at the college policy debate resolution makes one thing very clear: The national community of debate practitioners in American policy debate have no interest in bringing in audiences for their debates. This is a debate practice that is solely and totally focused on itself.

Resolved: The United States Federal Government should substantially increase statutory and/or judicial restrictions on the executive power of the President of the United States in one or more of the following areas:
• authority to conduct first-use nuclear strikes;
• congressionally delegated trade power;
• exit from congressional-executive agreements and Article II treaties;
• judicial deference to all or nearly all federal administrative agency interpretations of statutes and/or regulations;
• the bulk incidental collection of all or nearly all foreign intelligence information on United States persons without a warrant.

The elements of relevant national debate appear here to the layperson in the same way that academic debates always have – “I can understand debates about the nature of angels, but what do the heads of pins have to do with anything?” But it’s definitely not for normal people. The complexity and logic-gate structure of the topic means that the community wants to debate many different topics at once. Or it means they would like the illusion of many topics at once so they can continue to work on and argue the same arguments they have been using for the past few years. Neither is a good practice for the standard definition of the role of debate education.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Can it be defended? I think so, in the same way that most university courses, particularly at the higher levels in various majors, are also not for the general public. The university is teaching specialties which require matriculation through a particular path of classes in the right order to make sure that you “get it.” It’s defensible if the model you want to emulate is the model of the contemporary university with the pathway and the credits and the benchmarks and all that. This topic looks the part of some sort of genetically modified comprehensive exam question for Ph.D. The monastic, completive life is a good one, where a small community of like-minded practitioners gather together to help one another’s practice. Nothing wrong with it.


Although I sound argumentative and negative, I think that the collegiate policy debate community in the United States can do whatever their voting members wish to do (they will no matter what I write here, don’t worry). After all, they are the only ones attending, listening to, writing, and participating in the debates that will be held on this topic. In fact, there are multiple controversies in the past with policy debate that ensure that few debates, if any will be transmitted or recorded to audiences that are other than the people with a direct stake in the debate. Not the people the topic is about, the people who are debating and judging the debate happening in a college classroom early in the morning or late at night on a weekend.

I’ve always found debate to be attractive even though it is rife with fresh problems every day. One of the ways that I have always been able to return to debate after various absences and times away is because of this idea that debate takes up a position in “loyal opposition” to the standard schooling practices. That is, it keeps those practices from becoming the sole function of the institution. There’s some counter-discourse and practice going on under the auspices of the machine, even if it’s a small group.

Jacques Rancière from

Jacques Rancière from

The most important thing debate clubs and teams can do is engage with publics. This should happen under the sign of universal teaching as defined by Jacques Ranciere. The sign of universal teaching is when the only things you need to garner understanding are (at the minimum) two human brains, a text, and a conversation. I also add pens and paper to the mix or perhaps a computer (but no social media while you are laboring under the sign of universality, ok?). Rancière argues in The Ignorant Schoolmaster that the “old master” idea of teaching is structured in a way to keep old relationships alive at the expense of new ones. Teaching becomes a practice of “getting it right” in the eyes of the master who knows. What the master knows is that which secures the system. Teaching under universal equality means you have to say “My brain is as good as your brain.” A tough thing for many to say, and tougher to actually believe, but the faith in this statement – that two people can look at something, some text, and then figure out what it means together isn’t that far fetched. Of course you may already be saying, “That’s what happened to me when I got into debate! I knew nothing and teamed up with some other new kid and we read a bunch of stuff and figured it out!” Exactly. That part of debate practice is really one of the best parts. But was that topic written to encourage a breadth of research and investigation? Or is it deep cover to run the arguments from years ago, arguments that might be interesting and fun, but are more hand-me-downs to newer participants? Re-iteration of the re-iteration of another seems odd in an art that is based on invention for the situation and the audience. 

Topics like this one are frustrating because they are perfectly irrelevant in their relevance. They remind me of that science-fiction trope where one character is out of phase with the rest of the characters on the show: They’ve slipped into a pocket dimension, they are out of sync with time, etc. They shout and shout but nobody can hear them; characters walk right through them. “There has to be a way to communicate with them,” the character vocalizes for the benefit of the viewer. And then we are off to some weird technological stuff or alien stuff that allows a rudimentary form of contact to happen. Debate reminds me of this but instead of working to contact the aliens, they are just sort of dismissed. “Let them walk right through you, we have important stuff to do.” If there is a public debate, it’s conducted under the sign of old mastery where the debaters instruct the audience mostly about the quality of their questions, and how “real debate” doesn’t examine or look at the things that a normal audience of curious people would seek out given the same topic.

The public audience matters because it too is the sign of equality. That is, the gold standard for intercollegiate debate should be to get very deep in the research, construct really amazing arguments, and then deliver those in a meaningful way for publics who will form opinions on them. It’s actually a much better model of academia than academia has right now. Actually, it’s a model of public intellectual, or a rhetorical influencer. The trick though is to get around the idea of what real debate is, and think instead of debates as texts that must be lit up by the universal teaching, the sign of equality.

The audience member has a brain just like you do – although it’s popular now to laugh at the public (as it always has been) and say they don’t really understand what’s going on. This is also the rhetoric supported by so-called journalists who work for the mega news networks. The entire audience of millions of people watching CNN are led to believe they are special group who are the only ones who really get it. Same with academic departments. Same with the university. Perhaps debate can be one place where we practice the model of universal teaching? That is, we, together, can figure out what this text means. Let’s give it a go. I have faith in your human mind. Have faith in mine.

The topic also seems to hint at a desire that might or might not be there among those who supported it to have numerous rotating topics throughout the year. I think that this move is inevitable, as debate in all forms is succumbing to the pressure to be more about itself and less about one topic for a whole year. Most practitioners have abandoned the idea that debate is about the topic in any substantive form. It’s about how you can riff familiar chains of argumentation off of the topic in an interesting and surprising way. If you have a regular rotation of competitions to attend, this helps greatly as there is never a huge surprise in evidence, information, support, research at any competition. You have heard these arguments for years if you are a judge. The only question to be resolved is who did better with it this time? This can be a riff off of the topic, but often it is a riff off of something someone said in the debate.

I’m sure that the American intercollegiate debate community will have a great year. I really think they should do what they want. But there are some considerations the topic brings to mind that speak to another form of debating, another aim of debating that might get lost in the continuous return to the demand to preserve a collection of utterances instead of generating new ones. Debate was always fun when the notebooks are clean. New ideas, new plans, new stuff to go get and read, all of that. Most of the fun I’ve had in debate is filling that empty page with interesting text that I’ve heard or read about a topic that I really knew very little, if anything, about. The universal teaching, the sign of equality: Both are things that make debate not only in a position critical of most education, they allow debate competition to serve as practice for minds engaging other minds under a sign of equality, a prerequisite to any form of democracy or republic.

I hate everything I am writing right now

I give up. I don’t like anything I’m writing and I just really like reading. I can’t seem to get a paper into any shape that I’m happy about. And it’s mid July now. What happened to the productive summer?

I’ve been avoiding blogging because I thought of it as a waste of time and energy that I could put toward other, more meaningful writing. But what a weird sentence. Writing isn’t writing unless it’s meaningful, right? Right?? So to this end, it's back to blogging as it might kick start a better writing quality in my other stuff. I hope it does. At the very least, blogging makes you feel like you've done something, so there's a faux sense of accomplishment that I'll get from these posts. But I really hope that writing is writing, and that some productive recognizable but unquantifiable good comes of this in the other stuff I'm working on. 

A big project I'm working on and thinking about is public speaking. The course. I teach it a lot and I'm usually pretty unahppy with how it goes. Since we live in the era of text, a tertiary literacy (riffing off of Walter Ong’s Secondary Orality idea) we should be very comfortable with the idea of what is meaningful and what is not. But instead of that we are racing to the shallow end of the pool – the facts. We think writing is good if it is factual, full stop. There’s nothing much more to it than that.

I really want to do my part to upend this but the rhetorical pressures are real. So what is it you teach? Oh, it’s like marketing but for all things and ideas in the world. There isn’t a soul alive at the university who wants to think outside of a career path for a course of study anymore. Or if there are, they are few and quiet. There have to be ways to make room for practices of daily existence and not just career planning. 


So to this end I have been working on Roman education and Roman pedaogy, something that is similar and familiar to being a young person in the United States would be being a young person at the end of the Republic and the dawn of the Empire. Ceasar was totally uninterested in the legality and the process of what he was doing, he just wanted to be in power. I think that’s probably where the comparison ends with Trump. Anyway, the transition for the Romans would have been pretty smooth. It would have been as if no transition had occurred at all (perhaps some future historian is reading this and laughing as in their field they identified this elusion with President Johnson. No not that one, the Lincoln one). This differentientation of Empire and Republic is easy to do if you are watching Star Wars or if you are looking at history. If you are living in it, much tougher to discern. The Romans are showing us this through their pastimes, notably declamation and the concerns therein.

Secondly the Roman pedagogy is good for my purposes because it is from a society that is not capitalist. Are they imperial, are they conquerers? For sure, but I don’t think they are capitalists. I think to have capitalism, you must recognize money as a material value in itself and not as an exchange medium. Perhaps the difference is that the exchange medium has a value that can be rendered. Anyway, people who have read Marx closer and better than me can comment on this. I think it’s good to show models of powerful societies to students that are not capitalist in order to get the wheels turning that they have all the choice in the world as to what sort of system or economy we are going to have and it starts with what they express and what they say.

So I’m thinking of a declamation style event at the end of the term that is similar to a TED Talk but it would be declamation TED, maybe something like Debate, Oratory, and Argument, DOA – an unfortunate acronym that is definitely an extension of my concerns about teaching this. For most people, the art of speech is dead on arrival – at the same time, they are up in arms about “communication skills” – whatever those are. People claim that these are the reason you get hired and fired and what builds a career and such. But if you asked them to name communication skills people would say all sorts of things that are really odd together: “Being able to write a proper email,” “Being able to look away from their phone for a minute,” “knowing how to engage in conversation,” “knowing how to give a presentation,” “understanding proper business etiquette,” Etc.

I hate to say it but there’s only one field historically that can handle all that and it’s rhetoric. Rhetoric is often thought of as oratory and persuasion, brilliant argument, etc. but more consistent through rhetorical history is the idea of appropriateness, or decorum. It’s mostly about attitudes and motives as Burke would say, and how we learn to respond situationally to what texts are presented to us.

It seems like looking back at the Roman educational system – the declamation and they way it was taught – was a method for dealing with a textual/oral culture that was somewhat overbearing and impossible to keep straight in your head. A lot of the panic about identity that comes out as racism now might be because of a loss of these abilities – complexity and confusion are good breeding grounds for finding scapegoats if you are not trained. This might be why the Roman declamation cases deal with torture, immigration, and people who are political or social minorities (women, slaves, children, children of slaves and citizens, foreign soldiers, poor people, etc). Still cooking on this but it’s coming together at least in my head.

So maybe all writing is writing. Maybe meaningfulness is what I am working on and writing is simply how you do it? Still not sure, but hoping that this post and the ones after it make me feel a bit better about the quality of what I’m making here at the midpoint of summer, whatever that is supposed to be for academic types.

E3 presents the literature of catastrophic apocalypse

E3 is a conference where all the new games for the next year are announced and displayed. Everything looks pretty great from my perspective as a gamer. From my perspective as a rhetorician, something else was presented: a budding literature of human extinction.

The new games at E3 all seem to address one begged question which is: How will we address the coming inevitable collapse of society, the extinction-level event, or apocalypse? I believe the games displayed this year are attempts to address a coming catastrophic collapse of global order. At a visceral level, we recognize that we do not have a rhetoric, a discourse, or a literature to help us make sense of what that collapse will be like for the survivors. In short, we can’t imagine what gaming, literature, entertainment, or life will be like after the  global market system fails for the last time. We are not sure what life will be like after democratic systems both state and interstate collapse. We need a new literature, and E3 presented it to us in what I’m calling “afterlit” – an open ended literary form that is participatory and is about “trying on” attitudes and motives that we might use or need in a post-governable world that has suffered a catastrophic, extinction-level event.

I believe video games are a literature in all the ways that literature matters. They show us potential attitudes and motives of various characters allowing us to react to those situations. They also set up something we could call the “haunting familiar” where the scene is such that no reader or participant in the narrative would recognize the game world, however that world is haunted by the ghosts of what was – more than ruins of a burned out world, like we get in the Fallout games, we get ruins of a burned out human sensibility – there are the structures and the ethics and economics that they used to reify, that they still somehow compel. The player is something like a ghost, haunting the world with attitudes and motives that are long dead, and the game world “haunts back” – absent the normal reified supports for particular systems of being and doing and thinking, the player is under a lot more pressure to justify their actions in this world. This is similar to Philip K. Dick's theory of what makes good science-fiction. It's not "cowboys in space," it's the guy going to work every day, but one thing is vastly different, and that drives the story.

We identify ourselves via our place in a very complex and very fragile interconnection of treaties, markets, currencies, and governmental arrangement such as party identity. When those go away – as we are more often imagining they will in a quick and painful jolt – what is left? Humanity, defining itself through Fiat money and work roles will have no discourse of identity left. How will people “size one another up?” How will we discover/recover/uncover our modes of interaction? How will life be arranged and lived? There are few literary resources available by people for people who are not trying to be consubstantial to a reified, institutional ideology that, post collapse, will only be fragments of a building and whispered memories.

This literature of human extinction presented to us at E3 communicated a universal pressing need to develop texts that help us navigate the impending implosion of the world, whether that is via weapons or financial markets subsuming governmental structures. The stage is set up by these games but this literature cannot be presented as a finished product. The games are open for the joint creation of these narratives. Think of these games as flight simulators for the apocalypse. What will you do? How will you know what could be done? How will survivors make sense of the silent ruins and each other?

Todd Howard from Bethesda put it best in discussing parts of the game Fallout 76: “We put a bunch of nuclear missile sites on the map, scattered the codes, and let you do what you want with them.” This after driving home the point that in the game, “everyone you meet is a real person.” As an online game, we can engage in social authorship, co-authorship of a literature meant to convey motives and attitudes and responses to situations that we are imagining while they are moving toward happening. All things are possible, except the normal tropes of meeting another person. Now we meet over nuclear silos and fight about destruction, becasue of destruction. 

Watch Todd Howard's entire Fall Out presentation from the Bethesda E3 2018 press conference.

Many games point us toward a world of a few individuals fighting back mobs of mindless creatures, while others suggest that the best use of our burned-out buildings and rusted signs of ideology are as cover for shootouts that are a cross between Hollywood-style gang warfare and the wild west. Groups of friends are meant to assist one another in these incredible military-style assaults. A clip of gameplay from The Division 2 showed how intertextual this new literature is. A group of friends playing online are moving through the ruins of Washington D.C., all of them carrying an array of weapons, saying “what do you guys want to do?” and “we need to level you” – “yea sorry I’ve been busy at work” – the conversation is the same at DuPont circle both before and after apocalypse. A teammate goes down from enemy fire: “Ooh, sorry guys!” “I’m coming to revive you” – connecting the dialogue of the anarchic world of the near future something like the dialogue at an ultimate frisbee event. The crossovers are eerie if not also evidence of a need for a discourse that can address a burned out world. The Division 2 gameplay is an attempt to see if we can wear what we are wearing now to the new party. It raises more questions than it tries to answer.

Watch the full reveal of The Division 2 with gameplay at the Microsoft Xbox E3 2018 press conference.

The Last of Us 2 is the most interesting, maybe even promsing, of what afterlit can be – placing our current uncertainties on a continuum with future uncertainties. This is explored well in the trailer that parallels female homosexual desire with an escape from a group of violent thugs. The Last of Us 2 gameplay/trailer blends the fear and awkwardness of teenage romance with the fear and awkwardness of a teen girl taking on a group of militant thugs in the post-apocalyptic wilderness. After watching them brutally murder someone in the name of “justice” she is detected and chased through the typical, double-haunted environment of the afterlit game world. The violence is personal and immediate in a way that is uncomfortable. People are hurt; they suffer – nobody goes down in the quick video game style we expect. At the end, she comes face to face with her opponent who is unable to fight back and delivers a lengthy killing blow. We are sent back to the teenage dance and are told that fear is a matter of perspective. It’s a really well done trailer not just for the game, but for the space we now imagine we occupy, a space just before collapse where we sense its imminence yet are going to be just as surprised as this young person who will have to transfer her concern from how to deal with romance to how to strategize against a five person group out to murder her.

Finally there are several games that move well past the normal venue of afterlit to what comes next. These games feature kingdoms run by humanoid animals, animal-human hybrids, or suggest a return to a Byzantine age of courtly intrigue where the most advanced weapons are swords. These are very related to the large category of historical-themed games where we work out how to be and act in previous catastrophic moments – such as the Mongol invasion of Japan, World War 1 and 2, and other tectonic conflicts – as training for our coming collapse. These don’t seem as connected to the more immediate games dealing with the recognizable collapse, but address the question as to what ideology and order look like after the last vestiges of our symbolic order have dissolved. We work through our coming dissolution by going back to past dissolutions to work out what works and doesn't in that time and place. We try to learn from opening up history, playing through it, and seeing what our attitudes should and could have been, if that tense makes sense.

The most bizarre and confusing game demo was for the new Hideo Kojima game - a mystical director and creator of games known for being able, in Burkean terms, to "see around the corner" - called Death Stranding. This gameplay and trailer were nearly unrecognizable to me as either game, TV show, or film. It could not be placed what was happening, other than someone was trying to get somewhere and had enemies to deal with. But the dialogue, the interactions, and motives of the characters remain somewhat intelligible. This game, as afterlit, serves as a placeholder for what will become tropistic in ten years as games continue to work toward providing imagined discursive test spaces for coming collapse. Death Stranding is as creepy as it is confusing, and seems interesting and desirable to play, yet the situation, and all intelligible rhetorics of what could be happening are fully detached from our current world. It's tough, maybe impossible to translate, but this might be the point. We need a Rosetta Stone for apocalypse.  Kojima rhetorically sets off our anxiety by offering us a world where it's post-apocalyptic and ordered, yet we cannot make sense of the order. They are not anarchic, nor are they connected to our comfortable ideological arrangements. It reads as new and foreign and familiar all at once. We want to translate it, but can't. 


E3 was great this year, particularly because of the undetected recognition that our desire for more shooter and zombie multiplayer games is our desire to identify and practice a discourse of pending apocalypse. The instability of democratic orders, the tremors in the global caplitalist system, and rising frustration and anger among populations have indicated to us, however collectively, that we need a new way of talking about our place in a world that is coming to an end. We need an afterlit, and the video game industry is offering the first glimpses of how it will be made.


Everyone is, deep at their core, what they express. Actions speak louder than words. These ideas are very old, and very real, in the way we size up the value of others. Institutions and people are evaluated, positioned, and judged based on expression. What we say, what we communicate, is seen as a direct line to identity. Imagine speech as the hole one looks through to see a diorama within what appeared to be just a simple box.

This idea is very old but who knows how old it is. Aristotle suggested in writing that the testimony of a tortured slave was admissible with the same credibility as a public oath in his Rhetoric. The suggestion being that a body under duress cannot edit and halt the truth of the soul that comes pouring out. There are some in the American CIA who still hold this view. Rene Descartes subverted speech with thought as the location of being, but did not provide a verification mechanism other than speech. To think is to be, but what if our speech indicates that we do not think, or we think incorrectly, or worse yet – that we are wrong about something? What then?

Daily we are all humbly reminded that when we speak, we are making mistakes. When we open our mouths, out come noises that sometimes resemble our ideas, sometimes they don’t. And often we find ourselves wishing we were at a loss for words. The only solution we have for this in our “thought above speech,” “ontology is determined by expression” world is to rearticulate or provide another articulation. Since we have subverted speech’s role in our lives, as the constitution of ourselves and others, we do not have adequate tools to repair situations when speech comes out with all its living force.

The Aaron Schlossberg controversy is a recent demonstration of the poverty of our ability to render accounting for the power of speech. Schlossberg’s rage at the number of Spanish speaking employees of a Manhattan deli was captured on video where he accuses them of living off of his tax dollars, that they are undocumented workers, and that he will call Immigration to have them removed from his country.

His expression was read by everyone as his identity. This is who he is. There can be no mistake; his speech is preserved forever on video.

As news spread and people began to respond – they hosted mariachi bands outside of his office, taco trucks, and someone has now even mailed white powder to his office – we can see that the Cartesian mode of identity is alive and well, thought not withstanding. Schlossberg doesn’t think, ergo he should not exist.

Schlossberg, after his lease was cancelled at his office building (since he does not exist) posted an apology on Twitter.

schlossberg apology.JPG


The apology – not to be confused with the rhetorical category of apologia – is simply that, not a defense of what he did. Or is it? The only discourse available to him in the world of unconvertable ideological souls is to deny, deny, deny. He does it three times: He denies being the person in the video in a very direct and literal sense: “is not the person I am.” Secondly he directly communicates his nature: “I am not racist.” Finally he does it a third time, praising the diversity immigrants bring as one of the reasons he moved to New York. Maybe it is apologia? He does take a careful, if hidden position behind civility: “While people should be able to express themselves freely, they should do so calmly and respectfully.” So maybe he believes he pays for those sandwich shop workers to be here? He believes that they should not speak Spanish at work? It’s unclear. All we know is that he has said that he is not racist. We must compare performances to determine the real soul. And under duress, the real soul is always revealed.

We lack the tools to speak about speech as going beyond ourselves. Since speech is merely a tool of expression of truth, we can follow the footprints to the truth of the soul and determine if the soul is good or corrupt. If we see someone emotionally out of control, we believe, for some reason that this is when the real person comes out.

We do not consider the fact that we are all subjects of the power of speech. We have no language for the role speech plays in interpretation and knowledge. All Schlossberg can say is that he is not racist. Yet his speech was clearly xenophobic and racist. If Schlossberg is right, who was speaking? Was it anger? Frustration? Something else? Was speech speaking Aaron Schlossberg? Did he become a conduit for a tectonic, ancient discourse about race, identity, status, nation-state violence, etc.? These are not excuses for him, but inroads for us to try to understand how our beliefs and how ideology is spoken through us by powers well beyond us that, with every utterance, constitute us.

Kenneth Burke discusses the difference between the comic and tragic frames as the difference between death and understanding. The comic frame allows us to separate soul from speech so we can identify with the subject speaking as mistaken. This assumption of universal humility is missing from our national discourse. Imagine if Schlossberg said, “I was simply mistaken” – This defense is impossible. Instead he says the video captured a stranger, someone who is not him. It’s tragic. He is the opposite of this doppleganger who hurt people. He is not the person who hurt, but he apologizes for it. It’s tragic frame all over, and he has to die. If not professionally or attitudinally, perhaps biologically, as the white powder sent to his office attests. The comic frame offers a chance for self-inventory of our own relationship to ideology, which is much more difficult than simply scapegoating the evildoer. Another more difficult comic framing is to take responsibility for a city and a world that allows for someone to speak this way, or to be spoken by such an ideology. The power of speech to rend people’s reality is always an utterance away.

The other path is the Buddhist sense of language – necessary yet fundamentally lacking. We have to speak, and speech fails. Sometimes though speech is necessary although terrible. Where does Schlossberg’s anger come from? We cannot accept, from the Buddhist perspective, that the sandwich makers made him angry. Anger comes from within, not from the outside. We blame the outside, but we are the ones who cook up anger. From this attitude we can generate a feeling of sympathy for such a sad and angry man. What sort of empty, horrible life does Schlossberg have that would allow him to speak, or for speech to use him, in this way? What lonliness and sadness makes him feel people making sandwiches are worthy of such derision? It is incomprehensible in its dark implications.

What Schlossberg did was horrible, no question. But the poverty we have in being able to talk about the role speech has in creating and constituting pain, suffering, horrors, hate, and a whole lot more we normally term “reality” is even more horrifying. If we see speech as only a way to glimpse the quality of a soul, we have no way to account for the operation of speech on our identities and beliefs in severe ways. Democracy cannot function if speech is merely a thumbprint of a being that cannot be altered, cannot be changed, cannot be reasoned with – all that’s left for us to do is elimination, symbolic or otherwise. We must believe that speech is not an indicator of one’s ontic state, but of one’s particular constitution in that moment – and address that person before us in a way that they can, and will, change. This is the root of persuasion, and Schlossberg’s horrible beliefs are not a part of his DNA. He was convinced of them somehow, and it is up to us to interrogate and figure out how belief can be altered. This expression hurt more than immigrants; the whole situation and response should give us pause in our assumption that we live in a democracy where people believe that others, and themselves, can or even need to be persuaded.   

I really like Goodreads and Should Post More Reviews

Upsetting Composition CommonplacesUpsetting Composition Commonplaces by Ian Barnard
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Interesting book that takes some sacred terms in composition theory (audience, objectivity, voice, etc) and critiques them from the lens of whether or not teaching is in line with composition theory and pedagogical approaches to writing. After admitting several times in the course of the text a well accepted idea that pedagogy lags behind theory about 20 to 30 years, the author critiques contemporary teaching for being too dependent on objectivity, authorial intent, liberal construction of audiences, and thin conceptions of proof.

Although the critique is well made, I think it would be great to see more of the book written like Chapter 6 which really had me going. It might be my own biases in terms of what I'm interested in, but this chapter on audience was great. I think that what set it apart was specific ideas for very radical assignments and classroom activities. I would have liked to see more of that throughout the book.

I like the idea of upsetting these God-terms, either tumping them over or literally making people who think they are good teachers upset. But the critique really doesn't go as far as it needs to and also avoids some necessary complexity. For example, the chapter on objectivity is very good and very right about its criticism of fact-reliance in pedagogy, which honestly impacts the entire education system. But there's little discussion of the importance of facts for issues such as holocaust denial, conspiracy theory (moon landing and 9/11 sort of stuff) as well as other strange ideas that often appear in American student writing. Making the critique of fact addiction more fuzzy with an analysis of the false-flag conspiracy regarding Sandy Hook, for example, might have really opened up the conversation between text and reader about what is possible in the teaching of writing today (as well as what is needed).

In the end the book was enjoyable to read, it just didn't rock me the way I hoped it would. The critique is obvious and agreeable, the Audience chapter is amazing, and the rest of it seems, well, right - but not radically upsetting.

View all my reviews