A few thoughts on the rhetoric of pageantry

So, I really, really hate beauty pageants, and I had every intention last week of utterly ignoring Miss America and pretending that the nation doesn’t still come together once a year to fawn over bikini bodies that we roll out like sports cars.

But then Nina Davuluri, a New Yorker of Indian descent, won. Whatever, fine. I was still busy not paying attention at this point. But wait! Then some ugly corner of the Twitterverse started spitting out some seriously racist stuff making heavy use of phrases like “Arab,” “terrorist,” “real American,” “remember 9/11,” and so forth. Hmmm.

So, I was annoyed because (a) people were being racist, and (b) I suddenly felt obligated as a good rhetorician to pay some attention to Miss America.

So here are my thoughts. I’ll begin with the question, what is a pageant — rhetorically speaking? A beauty pageant like Miss America looks a lot like what Aristotle terms epideictic rhetoric. Ceremonial oratory, the rhetoric of praise and blame — that which firms up a sense of community, common conviction, and shared values among rhetor and audience. Beauty pageants are engineered to reassert (praise) dominant conceptions of female beauty (obviously), but also to reassert our loosely defined but powerfully emoted dedication to ideas like education, charity, personal initiative, and competitive spirit; in other words, the topoi of the beauty pageant are the topoi of American ideology defined in the broadest strokes possible. Hence, we want an intelligent Miss America, but one who doesn’t threaten our commonplace assumptions of what a “Miss America” should look like, sound like, and do. For a lot of people, apparently, that means, among other things, a white Miss America.

My hypothesis is that a lot of viewers tuned in for a reaffirmation of the “America” they know and love (a very different “America” from the one I know and love) and found their expectations cruelly shattered by a woman who didn’t look the part. Within a certain narrative, the one where America’s traditional values are under attack and the nation wages a (holy) war against Islam, Nina Davuluri looked enough that part of the “bad guy,” the ambiguously dark Middle-Easterner, that her ascendance to a title synonymous with quintessential American values was a slap in the face.

A host of enthymemes erupted across the Twittersphere, illustrating this narrative logic:

How the fuck does a foreigner win miss America? She is a Arab! #idiots

I swear I’m not racist but this is America.

9/11 was 4 days ago and she gets miss America?

Miss America is a terrorist. Whatever. It’s fine.

And so on. The warrant collectively underscoring this set of claims sums to something like “dark-skinned people of Asian descent are ‘Arabs’ and therefore terrorists, complicit in the 9/11 attacks, and enemies of America.” Comment #2’s author is “not racist” (she swears!) but she must believe at least part of the warrant above.

For a lot of these tweeters, Miss Kansas, Theresa Vail, was the cruelly jilted protagonist of the story. Check it out:

In other words (and whether she likes it or not — I don’t blame Miss Kansas an iota for her more vitriolic fans), she’s the “real” hero of a certain narrative founded on a certain vision of America. If nothing else Miss America has dramatized the instability of what our country “really” means.

Article in New Issue of Excursions

Another quick celebratory/boastful post (boast-post?): Over at Excursions — a nifty interdisciplinary web journal out of the University of Sussex — Stephanie Weaver and I have an article in the new issue on “science/fiction.” Our piece is called “‘You Know the Business and I Know the Chemistry’: The Scientific Ethos of Breaking Bad,” and it addresses how AMC’s hit show employs scientific imagery for rhetorical ends, but evades the “genre fiction” baggage of the tag “science fiction.” The new issue looks interesting all around.

A Story about Academic Publishing

The first post I ever published on this blog was a happy announcement. I boasted that a rhetorical-Bakhtinian analysis I’d written of the cult TV comedy Mystery Science Theater 3000 would soon be published on a new online journal run in part by TV studies guru David Lavery. Bad news: that never happened. Good news: something else did. So here’s a story about academic publishing.

Let me backtrack to the first year of my master’s program at Miami of Ohio. My friend and then-colleague Kasey Butcher, knowing what kind of nerd I am, one day handed me a CFP flyer for scholarly essays on MST3K, a show where a man and two robots mock bad movies in real-time. Dr. Shelley Rees, an English professor at of the University of Arts and Sciences of Oklahoma, had sent out the CFP hoping to compile a scholarly book project on the show: in essence, a book of nerds writing nerdily about the nerdiest show ever. It sounded awesome.

So I sent in a proposal. I was new to postgrad academic writing. Like a lot of grad school neophytes I had a poorly defined list of enthusiastic interests. I knew I liked Mikhail Bakhtin’s discourse theory (and I still do!), so I wrote in vague terms about how I’d read MST3K’s interesting form through the lens of Bakhtinian heteroglossia. I don’t think I knew too well what I was talking about, but I guess it sounded like I did because Dr. Rees accepted the proposal. Cool! Then I waited.

And I waited. Months passed. Dr. Rees finally sent out an email explaining that she still had no publisher, but she did have an invitation for us contributors to present our research at the national Pop Culture Association / American Culture Association conference in San Antonio. A number of my friends from Miami were headed to that same conference, so I happily accepted. So, over a year after I’d written the original proposal, I realized I’d have to actually write something. I looked back at my old proposal, and I made some changes.

By this time, I was deep into my MA thesis research on the rhetoric of film, so all that had stirred up ideas and theoretical frames to work with. I began by changing the title. Originally it was “Competing Voices: Bakhtin, Rhetoric and Audience Sympathy in Mystery Science Theatre 3000.” That’s right — somehow I’d used the British spelling of “theatre,” and neglected the Oxford comma between “rhetoric” and “and.” For shame. I’d also unwisely seemed to imply that a dead Russian literary critic was actually in a show about sarcastic robots watching bad movies. Hmm. I changed the title to “The Audio-Visual Palimpsest: Rhetoric, Poetics, and Heteroglossia in Mystery Science Theater 3000” — much better, if equally verbose — and put together ideas for a conference talk. At PCA/ACA I spoke about the humorous effects of the show’s lopsided rhetorical struggle between the different voices. It was a well-attended session in a massive, intimidating ballroom, and there was good conversation. Dr. Rees chaired. She was a pleasure to meet — smart, generous, and funny. Later at the conference, she spoke about gender performance in Lord of the Rings. It was swell.

After that, I actually wrote the damn thing. My essay just poured onto the page, really. I wrote a draft of it — 6,250 words — in a day. I’ve only had to tweak it since.

Still no publisher, though. More time passed. Things happened. I moved to Louisville to start my PhD. Finally Dr. Rees contacted us with the information that Series/Season/Show, Lavery’s new online journal, has agreed to publish all our work as its inaugural issue. Yahoo! So, optimistically, we waited some more.

And waited. Then, just recently, came the news that one of S/S/S‘s editors (not Lavery) had fallen ill, and the journal’s progress had, for now, ground to a halt. Boo. But! Dr. Rees had been in touch with Scarecrow Press, who had — thank bejesus! — agreed to publish us all in a hardcover-only collection. Contracts are signed and the book, as I understand it, should roll off the press in April of 2013. Hooray!

It’s absurd how enthusiastically I look forward to holding my one gratis copy — thumbing through it, showing to my friends, and so on. Hooray, a book! And I’ll be in it!

Morals of this story? A few:

  • Academic publishing, as I put it earlier on Facebook, trundles along at the pace of an inebriated sloth. I submitted the first proposal in March of 2010. Three years later, it should — cross your fingers tight! — be published. And I’ve heard of worse. I’ve heard five- and six-year stories. The lesson, I guess, is to get things in the system in such a way that they have a good chance to be published down the road.
  • The essay I would have written in 2010 is a lot different than the one I did write a year later. That’s a good thing. Expect to evolve as a scholar and evolve willingly — that’s my point.
  • The web vs. print question — both have their advantages. Had the S/S/S deal worked out, my essay would have been a lot easier to access, and more people would have read it. (Is that actually a good thing?) But, damnit, there’s still something really cool about the prospect of seeing your name in print. Or maybe I’m a completely anachronistic twenty-something. I don’t know. I do suspect that the word “print” at the end of an MLA citation still carries some weight on a CV, though.
  • Finally, this needs to be said: People like Shelly Rees are rockstars. I’m amazed by how she stuck with this project, earned us a spot at PCA/ACA, dealt with one stumbling block after another, read and reread our work, and finally, FINALLY, found a place to publish. Admittedly, I saw very little of this process, but I saw enough to realize what a nasty, time-consuming slog it is. Props. I hope the book sells a bazillion copies, mainly so Shelley can make a few dollars in royalties — because she deserves more than she’ll get.

That’s all for now. I’ve been busy, but more soon, I hope! Here’s some good footage from MST3K: Space Mutiny:

A rhetorician’s thoughts on Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

I used to write movie reviews for a community college newspaper. I still think the popular movie review is an interesting genre, and I still enjoy reading people like J. Hoberman and Ebert, but, honestly, an overdose of thinking about rhetoric has sort of ruined the thumbs-up-or-thumbs-down, three-out-four-stars way of assessing movies for me. That is, while I still really like some movies and loathe others, I find myself thinking not in terms of how innately good or bad they are, but how effective or ineffective, in what ways, why, and for whom.

I saw Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy last weekend with some friends, also rhet-comp PhDs. I’ll say plainly that I loved it. I thought it was beautifully acted, shot, scored, etc., etc., and that it was completely refreshing to see a spy movie without a single explosion, car chase, or cringe-worthy one-liner. The casting of Gary Oldman as George Smily, John Le Carré’s sober and wizened British intel man and demure star of many smart, understated novels, was an especially well-conceived stroke. I can’t help but compare Oldman to Alec Guinness, who played the role in the BBC miniseries (also great) of Tinker Tailer. And Oldman compares favorably.

A friend of mine who went along found the movie as beautiful and well-crafted as I did, but also baffling. Little wonder: It’s a dense 350-page novel (which comprises little action and a lot of walking around, meeting in discreet locations, and talking) packed into two hours and change. While understated, the movie moves fast, very fast. (Even the miniseries, at nearly 300 minutes, hardly drags.) Given running time the filmmakers were apparently shooting for, they did a good job of packing the whole story in there without oversimplifying, but I, had I not already watched the miniseries and read one of Le Carré’s other George Smiley novels (Smiley’s People – another tense, plotty, and totally enjoyable thing without many gunfights or motorcycle chases), would also have been baffled. I had a hard time following some scenes anyway.

So, now I’m thinking about audience. Few American audiences, it seems, will stand for really long movies – say, three-hours-plus – which is what TTSS probably should have been. It would have been nice to see some of the details teased out through longer scenes, especially since the few longish scenes director Tomas Alfredson and company did include were so completely and mesmerizingly beautiful. It’s a movie that should have been slowed down, but one facing a market that disparages lengthiness, bloatedness, inflatedness – it’s nearly impossible to think of a synonym without harsh connotations. The exceptions, oddly enough, are usually the King Kongs and Lords of the Rings, movies that drag on but pack in the spectacle to stave off boredom. Movies that really need to be long to address their content – those are harder to justify as three-hour entities.

A pity for TTSS. But again, I stand by it – thumbs up, four stars, and all that – because I find its narrative (hastened as it is), characters, and style so refreshing and smart. Another point I want to raise here is that of intertexuality. Byron Hawk, in an interesting essay on “hyperrhetoric” (a term I only sort of get, though I gather it has to do with rhetoric about rhetoric and texts about texts) and The Fifth Element talks about his own ironic reading of that movie based on references to other sci-fi films he saw embedded in the narrative (see Blakesly, ed., The Terministic Screen, a pretty cool collection on rhetoric and film, with a solid contribution from rhet-comp people). Similarly, for me at least, it seems that TTSS makes sense most coherently as a dialogic riposte to the James Bond and Jack Ryan movies that make the Cold War exciting, glorious, and sexy. There’s nothing cold about that Cold War, but in TTSS, the war’s coldness really comes through – and it sucks. TTSS drains the glory from its espionage and reveals a much more sobering picture of how deeply, cruelly shitty the Cold War was, with its practitioners’ lives – both professional and personal – gutted by betrayal, mistrust, and boredom. George Smiley, one of my favorite characters in all of fiction, is Bond’s opposite: both are smart, but Smiley is a meek, glasses-wearing cuckold who never drives fast, only rarely carries a gun, and sees much of his sad self in his counterparts beyond the Berlin Wall. Form suits content, too: the delicate camerawork and quiet score are the antithesis of the Bond franchise’s quick cuts and sultry theme songs set to writhing silhouettes.

All these factors amount the idea of an “emergent ethos” in film that I write about in my MA thesis: a powerful movie develops a character – not simply the director’s, nor the star’s – that you can almost put a face to. Though, in this case, it’s hard not to conjure the face of Oldman’s Smily as a stand-in for all that the movie comes to be, to represent, and to oppose. Those sad, blues eyes, magnified by those think lenses, and all the quiet but vicious doublecrossing and death they wish they hadn’t seen – the anti-Bond.