Santa Monica College Challenging New Wave Feminism in Rhetoric Essay


This essay is the major project of this semester and should reflect the culmination of our efforts in rhetorical criticism. It should include the following sections:
a) Description of the text: What object have you selected and why? What is worth studying? What is your significance argument? Explain and justify the selection of your text. This should mimic the descriptive analysis paper that we completed earlier this semester. 
b) Contextual analysis: Examine and explain the “historical” context related to your object of inquiry and describe it as fully as necessary. This should mimic the contextual analysis essay we completed and provide readers with the background necessary to follow and comprehend your argument. 
c) Explanation of method: this section should explain what method you are using, how you plan to use that method, and how that method has been used before (to some extent). This will require you to research your method(s). 
d) The analysis of your text: this is the most important section of your essay. You should analyze your artifact and make an argument about it. You should use the method(s) you have chosen to perform the criticism. Be sure to provide evidence from the artifact to make your case. This section mimics (to some degree) the work of the Metaphor, Narrative, Visual, Gender, and Race papers.Quarterly Journal of Speech
ISSN: 0033-5630 (Print) 1479-5779 (Online) Journal homepage:
Conductor of public feelings: An affectiveemotional rhetorical analysis of Obama’s national
eulogy in Tucson
Jamie Landau & Bethany Keeley-Jonker
To cite this article: Jamie Landau & Bethany Keeley-Jonker (2018) Conductor of public feelings:
An affective-emotional rhetorical analysis of Obama’s national eulogy in Tucson, Quarterly Journal
of Speech, 104:2, 166-188, DOI: 10.1080/00335630.2018.1447138
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Published online: 14 Mar 2018.
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VOL. 104, NO. 2, 166–188
Conductor of public feelings: An affective-emotional rhetorical
analysis of Obama’s national eulogy in Tucson
Jamie Landaua and Bethany Keeley-Jonkerb
Department of Communication and Philosophy, Keene State College, Keene, NH, USA; bDepartment of
Communication Arts, Trinity Christian College, Palos Heights, IL, USA
We argue that one important role of the contemporary president is
to be a conductor of public feelings. To demonstrate, we analyze U.S.
President Barack Obama’s national eulogy speech delivered on
January 12, 2011 in Tucson, Arizona. We show how Obama acts as
a musical or energy conductor, redirecting a soundscape of
boisterous enthusiasm to be in concert with discordant feelings of
national pain and anger and moving them toward social love that
is non-partisan and at times civic-centered. This essay has
implications for public policy, racial registers of feeling, and
writing the bodies of rhetorical scholars into criticism.
Received 27 March 2017
Accepted 20 February 2018
Affect; political emotion;
energy; sound; methods
On January 12, 2011, the authors of this essay, Jamie Landau and Bethany Keeley-Jonker,
turned on their televisions in two different states to watch then-U.S. President Barack
Obama deliver a national eulogy in Tucson, Arizona. Jamie sat in front of a television
in the living room of an apartment in New England. Jamie was deeply moved by the
speech, tuning in for the entire 35 minutes.
Like other national eulogies,1 this presidential speech came on the heels of a traumatic
event that killed American civilians, which lead to national grief and the need for a public
response. On the morning of January 8, 2011, U.S. congresswoman Gabrielle “Gabby” Giffords, a Democrat, was outside a Tucson grocery store participating in what she called
“Congress on Your Corner” when the event was disrupted by violence. A man later identified as Jared Loughner fired his gun at people who gathered with Giffords, targeting the
congresswoman, who was shot at close range in the head but survived, wounding 13
others, and killing six, including a child named Christina Green and U.S. federal judge
John Roll.
While living in the southern state of Georgia, Bethany first read about the events via
Twitter and turned on the television for more information. Bethany was stunned, saddened, and scared that a congresswoman was shot even though Bethany did not know Giffords. As Americans across the country later learned, Giffords sustained brain and facial
injuries from the assassination attempt that required major surgery and months of therapy
before she could speak again, forcing Giffords to step down from her congressional position a year later.
CONTACT Jamie Landau
229 Main Street, Keene, NH 03431 USA
© 2018 National Communication Association
Department of Communication and Philosophy, Keene State College,
This shooting heightened an already charged atmosphere. As Jeremy Engels notes,
intensive expressions of fear and resentment led to the Tucson sheriff blaming the
events on “violent rhetoric.”2 Racist vocal “Birther” groups that formed during Obama’s
first run for president alleged that Obama was not a natural born U.S. citizen and constitutionally unqualified for office.3 Legislative battles during Obama’s first two years as president were also passionate and polarizing. The Affordable Care Act signed in March 2010
received significant opposition even after it passed. In one jarring moment, Republican
congressman Joe Wilson shouted, “you lie!” during the president’s speech to Congress
about the policy.4 Furthermore, during the fall 2010 electoral season, the political action
committee of Sarah Palin circulated an image that depicted several Democratic congressional districts marked with gun-sights, indicating they were “targeted” for a Republican
win at midterm elections. Giffords was one of a number of politicians and media commentators who complained about this image, arguing that it implied an approval of violence
and stoked national feelings of anger.5 This public vitriol, combined with the Tucson catastrophe that followed a handful of other deadly shootings in the nation around that time
period, would pose a rhetorical problem for any president. But Obama faced additional
challenges: In addition to the complexity of his identity as the first black president,
Obama’s 2008 campaign for presidency advocated for “HOPE” and “CHANGE,”
arguing he wanted to “change the tone in Washington”6 in an intentional departure
from partisan tensions under George W. Bush.
Rhetorical scholars should study Obama’s Tucson speech from many perspectives. By
engaging existent work on the rhetoric of Obama, valuable connections might be made
between the president’s national eulogy in Tucson and the history of African-American
oratory, Christianity and civil religion, civility and democracy, among other topics.7 In
fact, Brian Amsden published a rhetorical study of temporality in Obama’s Tucson
speech,8 David Frank examined how Obama drew on the Book of Job and the Psalms
to interpret evil at Tucson,9 and Jeffrey Kurtz discussed textual dynamics of “civic
honesty.”10 With this essay, we add to the ongoing conversation about Obama by applying
contemporary affect theory to Obama’s Tucson speech and extending what rhetorical
critics usually do methodologically.
Specifically, we argue that one important role of the contemporary president is to be a
conductor of public feelings. The term “conductor” evokes the image of a musical conductor, such as an orchestra conductor or leader of a pep band. Similarly, we conceptualize
presidents as leaders who employ verbal symbols, sound, and their bodies to guide the
behaviors of large groups of people. This metaphor is deepened by connotations of
energy. A president as electric conductor is a conduit through which the energy of
other people’s bodies flows, gets (re)directed, and may transform. The word “conductor”
even comes from the Latin conducere, which means, “bring together.”11 Thus, a president
conducting public feelings attempts to bring people together, but it is not always
In this essay, we demonstrate how at the beginning of the eulogy in Tucson, Obama
approaches the following affect-emotion: national pain and partisan anger from recent
events, and in his immediate setting a discordant soundscape of boisterous enthusiasm.
Yet over the course of the speech, Obama redirects that affect-emotion to be in concert
along another trajectory of social love that is non-partisan and at times civic-centered.
Although our case study is Obama in the contemporary era, we recognize Republican
presidents often conduct public feelings and that rhetorical theorists and critics have taken
seriously emotion for centuries.
We first chart the turn toward affect within and outside of the discipline of rhetoric and
discuss further our conductor metaphor. We then describe our approach that examines
emotion words delivered by public speakers, the affective tone, volume, and tempo of
sound emitted by public speakers, audiences, and the physical environment (otherwise
known as the soundscape), and we use the critic’s body as an instrument of analysis.
This different method is why we started to bend the traditional genre of academic
writing with the tone of our introduction that identified ourselves by first name and
which we emphasize elsewhere in the essay, such as with epigraphs and analytic evidence
that acknowledge feeling-bodies in narrative. Following that section we analyze the
Tucson speech. We close by discussing implications for public policy, racial registers of
feeling, and writing rhetorical criticism. That is, it is difficult for presidents to direct
public feelings toward deliberative ends, especially for black men whose affect-emotion
is suppressed by our white masculine society. Similarly, we emphasize that embodying
critics is crucial for rhetorical analyses of affect even though it is hard to implement in
Affective-emotional rhetorical analysis
Maybe President Obama was saving the magic for a time when we really needed it. We’ve
been complaining for two years about the lack of music and passion in his big speeches.12
When Obama shared that Giffords opened her eyes at the hospital, I remember being taken
aback that Obama’s rhythm was breaking up a bit and his voice cutting off abruptly mid sentences, and thinking that he was unsure if he should say what he was about to say.13
In 2008, Jenny Rice’s book review of critical affect studies in Quarterly Journal of
Speech14 marked an “affective turn” in rhetorical studies, although rhetorical scholarship
about the related concepts of emotion and pathos dates to the classical era with the writings of Plato, Cicero, and Aristotle. Debra Hawhee, for example, documents how rhetorical scholarship exhibits a concern with the “sensorium,” what she defines as “the corporeal
limn that guides sensory perception … a locus of feeling, and yet that locus is not confined
to presumed bodily boundaries.”15 In this section, we discuss theories of “affect” and
“emotion” and show how these concepts are related but different. We highlight two
aspects of their tangled relationship that are pertinent to our case study and our metaphor
of conductor of public feelings. We then review recent scholarship published in the discipline of rhetoric to develop our approach for analyzing Obama’s speech.
Theories of pathos, emotion, and affect from the classical times to the present reveal an
amalgam of ideas. We align with one contemporary stream that distinguishes emotion and
affect but which still recognizes the overlaps between these complex concepts. These distinctions will matter for registers in our method and movements in our analysis that
amplify affect. Specifically, we conceptualize affect as a bodily sensation or surge of
energy that functions socio-politically beyond the realm of semiotics, however that
realm is defined (linguistically, logically, ideologically, or all of these in combination as
a Symbolic). Political sociologist Deborah Gould describes affect as that bodily, sensory,
inarticulate experience.16 Gould was a member of Feel Tank Chicago, a cell of the
Public Feelings group that included Lauren Berlant, Ann Cvetkovich, and rhetorician
Joshua Gunn, among others. Gould is influenced by the work of philosopher Brian
Massumi who draws on Gilles Deleuze. For Gould and us, then, affect is biological and
physiological but it is also intertwined with the social and political. What’s more, affect
is unbound and free-floating but bursting with potential – openness that Massumi calls
the “autonomy of affect.”17 Affect has neither a fixed object nor a predetermined direction.
By distinction, we conceptualize emotion as symbolized affect, since it has an indexed
referent that is consciously named or structured narratively. Gould similarly differentiates
emotion as “what of affect – what of the potential of bodily intensities – gets actualized or
concretized in the flow of living.”18 Likewise, for Massumi, emotion is “sociolinguistic
fixing” and “the most intense (most contracted) expression of that capture” of the autonomy of affect.19 However, every emotive capture of affect is not a discrete coherent state.
There is affective residue that is inarticulately experienced as long as people are alive and
moving in society.
There is no settled account of the relationship between affect and emotion in the literature at large or in the stream of scholarship we focus on. Nevertheless, an important aspect
of the entangled relationship that our case study will illuminate is how state leaders
attempt to “fix” affect to move people to action. This means that one way in which presidents operate is affectively, foreclosing political possibilities and/or prying them open
to mobilize for social change. As Gould writes, “Affect states, unfixed in their directionality, can be molded and manipulated and then harnessed to the desired objectives of a
leader, the state, capital, or a movement.”20 Psychologist and consultant to presidential
campaigns Drew Westen makes a similar argument based in neuroscience. He claims presidential candidates can and must appeal to the “passionate” subconscious part of our
brains in order to win votes and persuade public opinion: “Although the marketplace
of ideas is a great place to shop for policies, the marketplace that matters most in American
politics is the marketplace of emotions.”21 In fact, many psychologists, behavioral economists, and political scientists are shifting away from rational actor paradigms to study how
“the world of politics is inevitably and rightly a world full of emotions.”22 In short, we
argue that presidents and political candidates rhetorically harness affect and emotion.
Movement is another aspect of the relationship between affect and emotion that is fundamental to conduction and relevant to the Tucson speech specifically. The importance of
movement is illustrated by the inclusion of the words “moving” and “movement” in the
book titles by Gould and Massumi. There is a lot to be said about the idea of movement
in affect theory, but crucial for our study is the continuity and non-linearity of the movement of and between affect and emotion. Put simply, affect and emotion are embodied,
and bodies move. Even when attempts are made to stabilize through measurement
(when symbolically “fixing” affect as emotion, for instance), that expression is still full
of movement. Massumi explains this continuum of motion with a geological example:
“Ground is not a static support any more than air is an empty container … Any geologist
will tell you that the ground is anything but stable. It is a dynamic unity of continual
folding, uplift, and subsidence.”23 Relatedly, affective surges do not simply move along
a linear path in a singularly positive or negative current since they mix and are simultaneously at play. In form and content, Obama’s Tucson speech will exemplify this
dynamic movement of affect alongside emotion as they are conducted.
When we describe the president as a conductor of public feelings, we emphasize understandings and functions of affect and emotion that include the concept of energy. Massumi
repeatedly references “energy,” “force,” and related notions like “transduction” that he
observes in moving bodies, such as soccer players on a field in the heat of a game.24
Other examples – “wires,” “transmission,” etc. – permeate essays in The Affect Theory
Reader.25 We developed the idea of a presidential “conductor” because we felt its affect
when listening to Obama’s Tucson speech. When revising this essay we were excited to
discover that other rhetorical scholars think of – and feel – this energy like we do.
Hawhee’s book on the history of nonhuman animals in rhetoric’s theoretical and instructional texts emphasizes rhetorical energies.26 She cites George Kennedy as coining “rhetorical energy”27 and notes how he stresses energeia in his translation of Aristotle.
Catherine Chaput also relies on Kennedy when theorizing the rhetorical circulation of
affective energy that pulses through society and precedes consciousness.28 Both
Kennedy and Hawhee single out emotionally charged words and sounds that are not
quite speech, per se, as examples of rhetorical energy emitted by and transmitted
between humans and nonhuman animals (e.g., crows engage in “assembly calls” that
bring them together and reaffirm group identity).29 This resonates with our definitional
distinctions. Equally, we will analyze not-quite-speech by focusing on Obama’s “uncontrolled speech” and a “soundscape” that, like Chaput claims about affective energies,
operate on a different level than rationality.30
Thus, we argue energy moves through and can be rhetorically redirected by the president’s body, sounds, and words. However, our conception of the president as a conductor
of public feelings does not identify the president as the single source or sole regulator of
that power. Conductivity, both in the sense of a literal electric conductor and the president,
is affected by other factors, such as the “electrical field” that is impacted by other bodies
and atmospherics. Likewise, a musical conductor of a pep band or group sing-along
attempts to direct often-rambunctious ensembles and is sometimes ineffective in spurring
people to action together. The idea that rhetorical energy can and cannot be controlled by
a president demonstrates that conducting public feelings can be interrupted. As political
theorists Simon Thompson and Paul Hoggett recognize about the unruliness of the affective dimension of public life, “Political actors, such as populist politicians who seek to
manipulate such feelings, are just as likely to be destroyed by the forces they try to
control.”31 While no concept is perfect, this double-sided metaphor provokes scholarly
consideration of new politics and publics.
Given the complexity of affect and emotion and their relation, it is impossible to disentangle them with certainty in analysis. Still, similar to Gould, we try not to collapse
the distinctions of affect or emotion when we can demarcate them. We use the overarching
terms of public feeling(s) or affect-emotion to encompass the entire phenomenon and
movement of affects and emotions. By doing so, we answer Gunn’s “call for the study
of public feelings,”32 a rhetorical echo from the Public Feelings group in which he participated. Even though public feeling is an umbrella term, it evokes a lineage dating to “the
personal is political” feminist mantra and reclamation of emotion. When we refer to
public feeling, we put the public and feeling back together again. Cvetkovich subtitled
her book about depression, A Public Feeling, and similarly favors the feelings term
“because it is intentionally imprecise, retaining the ambiguity between feelings as embodied sensations and feelings as psychic or cognitive experiences.”33 She adds, “Public
Feelings takes seriously questions like ‘How do I feel’ and “How does capitalism feel?”34
Finally, we hyphenate affect-emotion to signal how these concepts are different yet
related and in motion.35 We place affect first but do not intend to describe their relationship with a linear temporality where affect comes first and then emotion arrives to fix the
movement. It is not that certain emotions are cued by certain affect. Although we do not
want to rehearse a stark division, we agree with Gould that definitional distinction between
these terms and, especially, acknowledgement of the specific qualities of affect, enriches
our study because too often scholarship on pathos and emotion rationalizes public
So how do rhetorical scholars analyze affect-emotion? There are many productive
approaches. In addition to sharing Kennedy’s energetic sensibility about rhetoric, our rhetorical criticism draws directly from Gunn’s work and it follows facets of Jamie’s “feeling
rhetorical criticism” fleshed out in an edited collection on innovations in rhetorical
methods.37 Specifically, our approach attends to public speech from three registers: (1)
the meaning of emotion words emitted from a public speaker along with emotion
words captured in media commentary and from rhetorical critics who describe the
speech of the same public speaker, (2) the affective tone, volume, and tempo of sound
emitted from the same public speaker along with immediate audience members in the
soundscape, and (3) the affective sounds that come from the bodies of rhetorical critics
while they watch the same public speaker.
First, we analyze the symbolic and ideological meaning of a public speaker’s emotion
words. Emotion words are parts of speech that, through their symbolism and cultural
context, carry emotional meaning.38 For our case study, we analyze the emotion words
in the government-issued transcript of Obama’s Tucson speech and in a PBS News
Hour digital video recording of it. In addition, we analyze the emotion words used by
media and political commentators (and immediate audience members who are interviewed by them) to describe the voice of the same public speaker. Our methodological
focus here is grounded in the rhetorical tradition and mimics Gunn who analyzes “how
others affix adjectives – and by extension, nouns – to the sounds of someone’s voice.”39
To access this commentary, we searched the LexisNexis online research engine for transcripts of print, radio, and broadcast news coverage of Obama’s Tucson speech for one
year following the speech. We also recorded the emotion words of rhetorical critics by
sending each other messages via internet chat and e-mail the day after Obama’s speech
broadcasted live on television, journaling about our interactions with the speech as we
repeatedly re-watched the digital PBS News Hour recording of the speech over the next
couple of years, and note-taking during phone conversations.
Secondly, we analyze the tone, volume, and tempo of sound heard during the speech.
To examine this affective dimension of speech, Gunn analyzes the tone of “uncontrolled
speech,” or what is unscripted or involuntary. He calls these “slips of the tongue, verbal
missteps,”40 such as a grunt and “Oh!” Affect is not entirely tied to nor should it be conflated with voice, since the transmission of affect is multi-sensory and multi-mediated
(e.g., facial expressions, bodily gestures, visual technology). We follow Gunn to analyze
Obama’s uncontrolled speech recorded by PBS New Hour, what Samuel McCormick
and Mary Stuckey term “presidential disfluencies.”41 This register aligns with Greg Goodale’s plea for more public address scholars to “read sound,” such as the intonations,
accents, and pauses in voices of presidents and their volume and tempo specifically.42
As a matter of fact, Obama’s speechwriters deliberately use rhythm, beats, and sonically
craft presidential speeches: “We spend a lot of time thinking about [the speech] in a
musical way. There will be sections with movements. There will be callbacks, because
you’re writing for the ear,” said Cody Keenan who wrote Obama’s Tucson address.43
Like Goodale, we borrow conventions of conversation analysis to indicate paralinguistic
elements of speech in transcripts. Conversation analytic work is a complex form of analysis and has a long methodological tradition in rhetoric, but our focus on a single speech
constrains our engagement to just using its markings. Our transcriptions of the president’s
speech indicate pitch change (↑↓), elongation of sounds (uh:), and emphases in speech
where relevant.
To further analyze the tone, volume, and tempo of sounds heard in the PBS News Hour
recording, we examine sounds emitted by the immediate audience in the soundscape of
the physical environment. An ever-expanding research area known as “sound studies”
examines “soundscapes,” encouraging scholars to listen to surroundings and not
presume the semiotic but rather the affective.44 R. Murray Schafer theorized “soundscape”
as the acoustic environment of a society. He alleged a musical performance or radio
program could be a soundscape, too, thereby demonstrating the natural and humanmade composition of soundscapes.45 Since noises often go away or are not consciously
heard, we abide by Schafer’s suggestion for analysts to use their “earwitness” to identify
significant sounds, such as the key tonality of a geographic landscape and unique
sounds from people in a particular community.46 Conversation notation does not quite
account for communal sounds, so we use music terminology (e.g., crescendo, fortissimo)
to mark these units of analysis.
Lastly, our approach analyzes the uncontrolled speech or sounds of rhetorical
critics that come from our bodies while we watch Obama’s speech at Tucson recorded
by PBS. Jamie points out how the political performance of rhetorical criticism in the
1980s laid the groundwork for embodying the critic, yet, she argues, these same scholars still hesitated to express feelings or were disciplined when they did.47 Evoking the
next generation of rhetoricians along with interdisciplinary feminist and race scholars, she proposes and practices feeling rhetorical criticism that taps into visceral sensations that a scholar experiences during the research process but which are
impromptu and intelligible.48 Phaedra Pezzullo’s participant observation is another
model.49 Also, Charles Morris and Celeste Condit advocate for rhetorical critics to
engage in “critical self-portraiture” and attend to their pathos in academic writing,
By studying emotion words delivered by public speakers, we are concerned with textual
symbolism. By studying the affective tone, volume, and tempo of sound coming from
bodies of public speakers, audiences, and the physical environment, we add to rhetorical
scholarship that attends to materiality and the situation. Finally, by studying the feelings of
critics, we embody the politics of rhetorical criticism.
Affect-emotion of soundscape: (Jarring) boisterous enthusiasm
It took a while for viewers – I was Tweeting with a lot of viewers – to get used to the applause.
And not just the applause but the whistles and shouts out. Certainly I, as a viewer, found it
hard at first to get in the rhythm of things.51
But I must admit, when it was on live television, the cheering really bothered me. Why were
those Arizona audience members so spirited when I was so upset, about people who were
their neighbors, not mine? Don’t they know how to act appropriately somber?52
A central purpose of epideictic speeches like national eulogies delivered by presidents
has always been affective-emotional. Aligning with Aristotle’s definition of epideictic as
“praise and blame,” Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Karlyn Kohrs Campbell highlight the
emotional demands of a eulogy when they identify its genre as, at least partially, consoling
mourners.53 It is evident how much of this presidential rhetoric is affective, even though
Campbell and Jamieson stress its symbolic work. For instance, they recognize that national
eulogies alleviate pain but suggest this occurs through making new symbolic meaning. “A
national eulogy argues that those who died symbolize the best of the nation,”54 they write,
and tellingly subtitle a section, “Transforming Deaths into Symbols of National Resilience.”55 By applying contemporary affect theory, we stress how epideictic rhetoric functions beyond the symbolic and show how the president can be a conductor of public
feelings. Recall that catastrophic shootings along with partisan vitriol made up a heated
rhetorical situation in the U.S. in January 2011. Yet we argue that with the Tucson
speech, Obama conducts mass boisterous enthusiasm along with the discordant affectemotion of national pain and anger to be in concert and moves them toward non-partisan
public feelings of social (sometimes civic) love.
Specifically, the sounds and emotion words emitted from the immediate audience at
Tucson and the emotional language in media commentary about the speech produced a
soundscape of boisterous enthusiasm at the beginning of Obama’s speech at Tucson.
This soundscape was also initially jarring for many listeners across the country. Examples
of the boisterous enthusiastic soundscape include the roaring applause and cheers, shouts,
whistles, and hollers such as “WOO-HOO!” as well as the screaming of “OBAMA!” from
immediate audience members. These sounds enveloped the audience and Obama as he
stood at the podium and started to speak. The tone and volume of this unscripted audience
communication create an unfixed fanatic atmosphere at the outset. Contributing to the
acoustic is the physical geographic location of the speech – the McKale Center arena at
the University of Arizona in Tucson is used for NCAA college basketball games and
popular music concerts that regularly draw 14,000 fans. A rowdy crowd made up of thousands of bodies, including many college students who usually root for athletes or jam with
bands and “rock stars”56 in that space and place, congregated to “cheer together” at the
national eulogy. Franklin Graham of The Washington Times uses the emotional adjective
of “boisterous” and the noun of “pep rally” to capture the affective tone of the Tucson
crowd as that which “might have preceded an Arizona Wildcats championship
game.”57 Other news reporters covering the event and people interviewed by them
affixed adjectives such as “rousing,”58 “energized,”59 and “peppiness,”60 all of which
bring vague bodily intensity into the realm of equivalent emotional meanings.
The elevated volume and enthusiastic tone of the soundscape was not pleasing but
rather jarring for many viewers, at least at first. The boisterous enthusiasm is jarring
here not only because it is inconsistent with the somber mood of most eulogies, but
also because it is inharmonious with the pain and partisan antagonism permeating the
nation’s atmosphere at the time. David Gergen, a speechwriter for Bush, tells CNN how
such “peppiness” was unexpected:
A lot of us did come tonight thinking this would be more of a solemn memorial service … but
instead, it turned it much more of a pep rally. It almost kind of – it seemed like a campaign
rally. But I thought John was helpful by saying, you know, people – people in Tucson needed
to cheer.61
On NPR, a former speechwriter for Bill Clinton explains that the audience rambunctiousness is initially jarring but eventually community-building:
It came off as challenging and even a bit jarring to have the audience applauding. But it didn’t
seem inappropriate. It was a very American, rambunctious setting. And it wasn’t a partisan
rally. It was – I got the sense a community feeling very besieged wanting to let off some
At least two rhetorical critics were part of the wider American public interacting with this
speech through news recordings. They felt jolted as well. Bethany felt “uncomfortable” and
“bothered” when first watching the speech live on television and decided to watch the rest
of the broadcast online later that day. Jamie initially had an “inappropriate” feeling:
It would be strange to be present and have crowds cheering so loud for you, some even
screaming “WE LOVE YOU!” when you’re about to give a eulogy. It’s endearing to have
fans, but also fans (especially young ones like college students) can act inappropriately
and in other ways out of your control.63
In addition to offering affective texture to the “speech text” in Tucson, Bethany and Jamie’s
comments touch upon the unique rhetorical situation that Obama faces in this
It is unlikely for a president delivering a national eulogy to succeed at conducting boisterous enthusiasm if he or she does not take affect seriously, especially if speaking extemporaneously. Many listeners via media might tune out due to discord, and Bethany’s case
shows some did. Nonetheless, as we will illustrate, Obama effectively transfers the surging
flow of sound and energy with the Tucson speech. One “electrical charge” for this conduction began with the dissonance between boisterous enthusiasm in the immediate setting
and public feelings of pain and partisan anger in the national landscape.
Conducting boisterous enthusiasm
Every time I watch it, it brings me to tears, but it’s not so much the speech. Instead, it’s the
way that the aid stands up so stoically while the audience roars with applause. It’s the enthusiasm around the men and woman who took down the shooter … .The same audience that
annoyed me to stop watching the first time.64
He was in this unusual setting with a boisterous crowd and he found a way to make it work.65
Obama approaches a soundscape that includes thousands of bodies emitting affection
that typifies a sporting event, musical concert, or political rally. Instead of disregarding the
energy of the crowd, attempting to eliminate those public feelings, and/or allowing
immediate audience members to maintain a fanatic pitch without moving it in a direction
useful for the state, Obama redirects affect-emotion through three main movements. We
primarily analyze how Obama’s vocal delivery (or affect) in different movements of the
speech conducts boisterous enthusiasm. Specifically, Obama moves audience applause
and other forms of cheering to be in concert with public feelings of pain and love
(especially for the “heroes”). The symbolic meaning of the words spoken (or emotion) by
Obama help specify to whom these feelings are directed because otherwise they might have
remained free-floating or fixed on Obama himself. Conducting pain, in particular, can be
difficult for any public speaker to capture and control; Elaine Scarry says that pain has the
ability to destroy language, whether for the person who is physically in pain or someone
who observes pain in another person.66
One means by which Obama conducts boisterous enthusiasm is to affectively encourage (and discourage) applause through the tone, volume, and tempo of his voice,
which functions along with the emotional meaning of the words he speaks. As John Heritage and David Greatbatch document, a politician’s vocal delivery in addition to argumentative aspects of a speech encourage or discourage audience applause.67 For example, in
paragraph 5 of the speech, the immediate audience applauds loudly after two lines, in
part because the enthusiastic tone of Obama’s voice at that point transfers positive
energy. In contrast, the audience is silent during the conclusion of Obama’s somberly
delivered quotation from the Book of Psalms in the previous paragraph. In addition,
Obama’s pacing and the meaning of his words directs applause at two points in paragraph
5 after he states “peaceful assembly↑ and free speech↓” and “government of by and for the
people.” In both these moments, Obama’s voice slows when he mentions terms that represent American values, bringing forth a crescendo of approval. Indeed, this crescendo
occurs in part because of collective affirmation of the ideologically loaded meaning of
the terms spoken (e.g., American pride). But it also occurs, particularly at its elevated
sonic level, given Obama’s affective conducting that is communicated through his embodied delivery. There are a handful of similar instances in the speech, which will appear as
“[Applause]” in the excerpts quoted in the remaining analysis.
In the first movement of the body of the speech, Obama focuses on each victim of the
shooting. This movement and the following one about the “heroes” feature a significant
amount of audience noise like the introductory part of the speech. Importantly,
however, Obama redirects boisterous enthusiasm in unison with the nation’s painful feelings about those who died. While the symbolic work of the text contributes substantially to
this outcome, Obama deploys vocalics to encourage affect-emotion in this direction, too.
We suggest Obama enacts the vocal strategies typical of an announcer over a public
address system, with rising volume and slowing pace when he says Judge Roll is “a graduate of this university and a graduate of this law school” (para. 7), which is followed by loud
audience applause. The appeal about the local university invites applause through symbolic identification, but Obama’s voice also affectively calls for increased enthusiasm
through the slowing pace and increased volume, emphasizing the whole sentence but
especially the words marked. These qualities of the voice and body reveal an inarticulate
affect in excess of symbolic capture. Similarly, when Obama describes Phyllis Schneck’s
volunteer quilting for church, his voice carries dramatic pitch inflection in addition to
an elongated tempo, resulting in a comedic speaking style when he says she sewed
aprons “with the logos of the Jets and↑ the Giants” (para. 10). This moves the boisterous
affect toward a unifying affirmation about an elderly victim of the shooting, as everyone is
“in” on the National Football League reference. These two examples illustrate how
Obama’s vocal delivery (or affect), in each description of someone who died, attempts
to transfer boisterous enthusiasm away from negative national sentiments.
The next movement of the speech centers on living, physically present individuals in
McKale Center who acted “heroically” during the shooting. Again, Obama conducts boisterous enthusiasm here yet, crucially, he starts to move and mold that enthusiasm toward
“social love.” The nature and experience of love varies across time and cultures. Here, love
is not associated with Obama himself, interpersonal intimacy, or eros, nor is this part of
the speech agape, which is a familial or Christian unconditional love.68 It is not a philia
love that results in friendship either, in part because it exceeds the dyad. Neither is this
love abstracted only to love of country, democracy, political party, or another ideology.
Instead, at least in this first case, there occurs visceral positive affections for and belonging
to the social group writ large. This is a social love that is bounded to a group identity of
sorts but still permeable and non-partisan. Obama tells three stories that are followed by
loud and sustained applause: (1) Daniel Hernandez, the volunteer in Giffords’ office who
helped Giffords after she was shot, (2) two men who tackled the shooter when he stopped
to reload, and (3) Patricia Maisch, who wrestled the gun away (para. 20–23). At the end of
almost every one of Obama’s sentences in this movement, audience members roar with
applause and cheer at length, rising to their feet and turning their bodies to face the
person(s) under discussion. This affective acoustic of thousands of bodies clapping and
turning together wraps them (and people listening via television) in sound, forming something like a social circle of love where fellow American citizens are the objects of affection.
Handclaps can function as both membership within a social group and a “sonorous envelope” like that of a womb.69 The immediate audience’s boisterous enthusiasm was not only
symbolically directed toward people who help fellow American citizens, but also physically
and sonically, as they turned their faces and clapping hands.
Redirecting boisterous enthusiasm toward “loving” others (instead of fixing a “love of
the leader” on Obama) also occurs in this movement of the speech. Obama speaks, again,
like a professional sports announcer over a public address system broadcasting an exciting
play. This delivery resembles a loud coach of an athletic team during a lively game, too.
The consistent fortissimo volume of Obama’s voice as he shouts atop the crescendo of
the crowd noise is exemplary. Further evidence for this tonal change is recorded by
Jamie: around the time when Obama identifies Hernandez as a “hero,” Jamie “felt like”
Obama was a “coach of a sports team who truly appreciates and praises players for
what that person did for the team.” Most likely Jamie heard the audience cheers and
Obama’s excited elevated voice, as well as the sounds coming from Obama’s body (such
as his hand gestures) that affectively direct the roaring applause toward feeling some
kind of appreciation for others. Obama can also be heard clapping near the microphone
attached to the podium, so the upbeat repetitive beat of his hands hitting each other
pounds through the speaker system in the stadium and on television, lasting for 30
seconds. What occurs now is a bodily sensation of affective excess that is related to, but
more than the symbolic capture of “love” since Bethany records eyes misting and the
chest tightening. According to social psychologists, these physical experiences are connected to the heart and the affiliation function of emotions, and one social function of
crying is a call for support.70 When re-showing the television recording to undergraduates,
Bethany notes similar visceral interactions during this movement in the speech when students sniffle. The embodied interactions that representatives of the federal body in feeling
like Jamie and Bethany have on first and repeated interactions with the speech suggest
that, in this movement of the Tucson speech, Obama’s conduction began to transform
the initial (jarring) boisterous enthusiastic soundscape into a positive loving-like social
atmosphere, both in the arena and nation. “Indeed, of all the emotions, love has been theorized as crucial to the social bond,” notes Sara Ahmed when she examines how “the pull
of love towards another, who becomes an object of love, can be transferred towards a collective.”71 Like Ahmed’s theoretical description, Obama’s rhetoric moves boisterous
enthusiasm in the atmosphere away from himself and toward new objects of love: other
From national anger and pain to social (civic) love
I also loved the line about how we should talk in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds,
and his further suggestion that we “sharpen our instincts for empathy.” Hearing Obama say
these things made me believe and feel deep respect (love?) for him as a “good” human being,
something that I do not usually feel for and think about people in power like politicians.72
When he spoke of Christina Green, the murdered 9-year-old girl, he spoke as the father of a
9-year-old himself, his voice straining a bit.73
At the same time that Obama redirects boisterous enthusiasm to be in concert with
public feelings of pain and love, he buries and devalues national emotions of anger and
transfers surges of pain into social (civic) love. Part of this dynamic may relate to
norms of gender and race that code black men as angry, which we discuss further in
the conclusion. In this third movement and final analysis section, a mix of negative and
positive public feelings are conducted by the lack of anger-related wording in Obama’s
speech, by Obama’s use of heart metaphors, and by the related “love” language in his
speech and media commentary. We also analyze presidential disfluency in addition to
sounds emitted from the immediate audience and our bodies (affect) while listening to
the Tucson speech.
Recall how partisan anger infused congress and the country’s atmosphere prior to the
national eulogy in Tucson. In fact, Bethany uses the emotion word “anger” twice to express
some feelings leading up to the speech:
I was angry that somebody so admirable could be gunned down. Soon people began pointing
out that Gabby had been targeted metaphorically and electorally by especially spirited rhetors
on the right, such as Sarah Palin. I got even more angry.
Bethany’s expressions mirror national sentiment. Although emotional language of anger and
fear was common nationally prior to this speech, and angry rhetoric can have a collectivizing
function,74 Obama does not say the word “anger” once at Tucson. Obama’s nearly 35minute speech rarely includes overtly negative emotional words of any kind. And when
he does use negative words, they appear in contrasting figures such as antithesis in three
back-to-back paragraphs halfway through the speech. Thus, Obama buries negative
emotions by rarely talking about them and situating the linguistic symbols for them in
the middle of his speech, thereby attempting to guide public feelings away from that negative
direction. He says, “Scripture tells us that there is evil in the world” (para. 26) yet “none of us
can know exactly what triggered this vicious attack” (para. 27). Obama continues,
We should be willing to challenge old assumptions in order to lessen the prospects of such
violence in the future [Applause]. But what we cannot do is use this tragedy as one more
occasion to turn on each other [Applause]. That we cannot do↓ [Applause]. … Rather than
pointing fingers or assigning blame, let’s use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations
… to sharpen our instincts for empathy … . (para. 27–28)
The anger-related words that stand out here include “evil,” “attack,” “violence,” “tragedy,”
“vicious,” “triggered,” “blame,” and “turn on each other.” Through antithesis, Obama
devalues these emotional words and circumvents their meaning by promoting contrasting
emotional nouns that are culturally associated with loving (e.g., “humility” and
“empathy”). Along with making meaning, this antithetical structure intensifies positive
affect-emotion. A reverberation of this is Bethany smiling after Obama says “empathy,”
an affective departure from earlier expressions of anger. Similar circumvention and devaluation of angry emotions happens in separate discussions about Giffords (para. 35) and
Christina (para. 43). Furthermore, anger wording in media commentary about the speech
is absent, and immediate audiences are not heard yelling words like this either. Obama
contrasted the national anger in the atmosphere that led up to the Tucson speech with
loving-like feelings, and moved the audience toward that public feeling.
Simultaneously, Obama’s use of heart metaphors conducts and concretizes public feelings of pain, revealing not only the play of positive and negative affect-emotion at once but
also how pain can remain object-less if left to its own accord. Within the first two minutes
of the speech, Obama states, “There is nothing I can say that will fill the sudden hole torn
in your hearts↓ … ” (para. 3). Around the 10.5 minute mark, he says, “Our hearts are
broken by their sudden passing. Our hearts are broken -– and yet↑, our hearts also
have reason for fullness↓,” (para. 16). More than a broken heart metaphor to symbolize
an injured America, these statements are Obama’s sociolinguistic attempt at capturing
the unbound sensations in the nation that people felt but could not describe. Media
reports and audiences reiterated this same emotional language, whether through general
descriptions of the speech as “heartened,” “heart-felt,” “spoke to the nation’s heart,”
and “had a good heart,” to articulations of adjectives and verbs linked to an injured
heart. Linda Feldmann of the Christian Science Monitor deploys the word “heartbreaking,”75 while Henry Lowenstein in the New York Times says Obama’s speech “tugged at
our heartstrings.”76 Jamie’s “heart hurt,” mouth quivered, and body heaved within the
first six minutes of the speech. Bethany felt “heaviness in my chest.” Our visceral interactions, combined with the language articulated by other people, suggest that the heart
metaphor is not merely a linguistic rhetorical strategy – it has affective residue which functions socially beyond semiotics. Peripheral physiological processes, such as heart rate and
gastric activity, are associated with and can be aroused by emotion metaphors, though
those words are of course imprecise (e.g., “our hearts go aflutter when we are in love”).77
Obama does not only acknowledge feelings of pain and injury. His continued usage of
heart metaphors relieves pain as well. This movement toward affective-emotional release
starts in paragraph 16 quoted earlier when Obama says our hearts have reason to be full. In
another poignant paragraph, Obama explains,
But at a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized -– at a time when we are
far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who happen to
think differently than we do -– it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make
sure that we’re talking with each other in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds
[Applause]. (para. 25)
With these metaphors, Obama juxtaposes social emotions through antithetical language
again (e.g., “heals … not wounds”) to express both, but sets them apart and emphasizes
healing, thereby relieving pain. As one television news anchor declares, “The President
gave voice to the nation’s pain. He gave comfort to the shattered families.”78 CNN
anchor Anderson Cooper and Michelle Norris of National Public Radio call Obama in
Tucson a “healer-in-chief.”79
Besides harnessing heart metaphor rhetoric, Obama’s speech directly, and frequently,
calls for loving other people in a social, even civic, sense. That is, Obama’s language
“fixes” a love here that is again not limited to the interpersonal, romantic, or traditionally
private kind of love people feel for members of their own family and friends (although that
kind of love is lauded). Rather, this love is social and civic in a non-partisan sense; it is wide
in scope because it extends to a group of strangers and is directed not just toward individuals in society but also toward the polis itself. Obama uses the word “love” seven times
throughout the duration of the speech, ranging from comments such as “[Gabe] died
doing what he loved” (para. 13) to the closing religious salutation of “May He love and
watch over the survivors” (para. 47). Furthermore, Obama states, “Ga::bby opened her
eyes, so I can tell you she kno::ws we are here. She kno::ws we love her” (para. 19),
asserts Christina is “so deserving of our love” (para. 36), and praises “each other’s love
of country” (para. 39). This love is felt for all Americans and it comes from all of them.
Obama concludes his point when he claims, “what matters is not wealth, or status, or
power, or fame -– but rather, how well we have loved [Applause]” (para. 32).
The emotion word “love” also appears in phrases shouted by the immediate audience,
in media commentary, and in our journals, revealing how by the end of the speech, “social
civic love” and its indescribable affect was directed at and felt by many people who heard
the speech, whether in person in the arena or across the country. When Obama stands at
the podium starting to speak, the audience in the arena emotes “love” for him as an individual and a politician by shouting “WE LOVE YOU, OBAMA!” and “MICHELLE, WE
LOVE YOUR HUSBAND!” Crucially, this positive energy and “love” is redirected from
Obama to other American citizens as well as toward the nation. The following are
telling descriptions by a presidential historian and a communications director for Giffords
who are interviewed on television by Anderson Cooper: “So, by the end of it, you could
almost feel people hugging in the excitement, in the warmth and the love in the arena”
and “that outpouring, that expression of love and support … in McKale Center, we had
about 13,000 people outside, another 13,000 people – 26,000 people coming to express
their support and love for the victims of this tragedy.”80 A Facebook comment from
“Cheryl,” who is cited on a television broadcast,81 also illustrates public feelings of
social civic love when recognizing its unifying character: “I could literally feel the love
and unity of us as a country when everyone began to stand and cheer.” Jamie and
Bethany’s interactions with the speech exhibit this affect-emotion. Jamie explains,
“[Obama] felt the same way I feel about showing my love for other people” while
Bethany got tears when writing, “That warm audience reaction mists my eyes even as I
type this reflection.” Bethany’s feeling of warmth (a slight increase in body temperature)
and tears filling her eyes is affect arising from a body acting socially with others. Jamie’s
usage of the emotion word “love” attempts to “make sense of” what is maybe the same
surging social sensation of a stabilizing state. These public feelings demonstrate a social
love that is distinct from interpersonal or traditional familial love, as Jamie and
Bethany represent Americans whose relationship to this tragedy is as part of a national
There is also evidence that this movement toward civic love is affectively conducted by
Obama’s vocal delivery and the high volume and tempo of applause emitted from the
immediate audience when he talks about Christina at the end. First, it is revealing that
Obama takes a deep breath unlike any other breath that he has taken so far. Plus, he stumbles over the word “imagine” and stutters the word “here” when he says, “imagine –
imagine” “for a moment,” and “he:r:e” “was a young girl who was just becoming aware
of democracy” (para. 43). Obama also blinks his eyes more often and looks down at the
podium more than in any other movement of the speech. This is raw affect that almost
bursts from Obama’s body; he is on the precipice of an affective flood, he is about to
cry. As Paul Begala, a television political contributor remarks,
I thought [Obama] was going to cry when he kept looking down – did you notice, when he
was talking about Christina at the end, he couldn’t even look up at us I think for fear of losing
control of his emotions.82
New York Daily News writer Lukas Alpert also reported Obama “appeared wracked with
emotion” at moments like this.83 Composing himself, Obama continued,
I want to live up to her expectations [Applause]. I want our democracy to be as good as Christina imagined it. I want America to be as good as she imagined it [Applause]. All of us -– we
should do everything we can do to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations [Applause]. (para. 44)
When Obama spoke these words, audience applause and cheering swelled to a crescendo and continued at a fast pace for some time. When Obama paused after nearly
every sentence and empathically shouted the last line, he was feeling alongside. After
this affective outpouring, Obama captures the emotion of “love for America” by
quoting a published wish for children like Christina who were born on September
11, 2011 and profiled in a book titled Faces of Hope: “I hope you know all the
words to the National Anthem and sing it with your hand over your heart
[Applause]” (para. 45). When the speech ended, Jamie felt “exhausted but also full
of love (including genuine appreciation for public service) and wanted to share it.”
Within the hour, Jamie e-mailed “thank you” notes to two U.S. federal government
workers, further attesting to the resultant national feelings of civic love for each
other and country.
Obama’s conducting of public feelings contrasts with presidents who ignore surging
social sensations as a potential site of state power or who eradicate energy all together.
As our feeling rhetorical criticism of the Tucson speech showed above, Obama redirected
a discordant boisterous enthusiastic soundscape and a national landscape overflowing
with anger and pain to be in concert with each other and moved them toward social
(civic) love. This movement toward public feelings of social civic love demonstrates that
an objective of Obama’s administration might have been to socially promote an affective-emotional U.S. citizenry who feel love for each other and the state. This finding
about a president conducting love of country might seem obvious; for better or worse,
many political leaders around the world have promoted patriotism (arguably a political
virtue) or nationalism (arguably a political vice).84 However, our goal was not to define
love in particular, but to rhetorically study the movement of affect-emotion in presidential
public address. We echo Ahmed’s assertion that
My concern is not to define “what is love” or to map the relation between these different
kinds of love … Rather, I want to examine how love moves us “towards” something in the
very delineation of the object of love, and how the direction of “towardness” is sustained.85
Public policy, racial registers of feeling, and writing
He did two things, which is to give voice to what people around the country have been feeling
… And second, I think he took the country to a place that it didn’t even know that it needed
to go, talking about words that heal, not words that wound.86
Those touched and inspired feelings make me hungry for something to do, participate in, or
Campbell and Jamieson write that when presidents respond well to catastrophic events,
“They show their leadership; they speak to our hearts; they heal our pain … .”88 We single
out this quotation because we suggest this claim is more important than some rhetoricians
realize. That is, we argue that one crucial role of a contemporary president is to be a conductor of public feelings. In this essay, we demonstrated how Obama’s speech at Tucson
redirected affect-emotion from national pain and partisan anger as well as boisterous
enthusiasm toward public feelings of love for Americans, this country, and at times
civic servants specifically. This finding about Obama contributes to existing scholarly discussions about Obama’s rhetoric and how presidents perform various roles, such as the
“bully pulpit.” “Perhaps,” as Janet Staiger writes in the intro to an edited collection on Political Emotions, “we truly encounter the political only when we feel.”89
Referencing public opinion polls that showed Obama’s approval rating increased after
the Tucson speech, one NPR reporter declared, “President Obama has received widespread and bipartisan praise for his speech at the Tucson observance for the victims of
last weekend’s mass shootings. That can only help how Americans perceive him.”90 A
former White House speechwriter claimed this speech opened up the possibility for
Obama to work with Republicans to pass legislation: “If his public standing goes up, his
political standing goes up, and he becomes more formidable for Republicans to deal
with.”91 Nevertheless, a president’s transfer of energy might not change public policy
even if it has the potential rhetorical force to do so. Although both political parties and
Americans across the country felt positively toward others and the nation following the
Tucson speech, Obama was not able to harness these public feelings toward domestic
deliberative ends. From mid-January 2011 to late 2012, Congress remained gridlocked
with only four acts passed, three of which concerned international trade. Some of
Obama’s speeches delivered in the months and years since Tucson advocated for gun
control reform, but no such legislation passed.92 Sadly, a legislative deadlock occurred
when Obama proposed a bill to expand background checks for gun buyers following
the mass shooting at a Connecticut elementary school on December 14, 2012.93
Conducting the visceral movement of sensations among mass populations of people,
some of which is fixed by emotional language, is not an easy task for any president.
There might be an American puritanical expectation that he or she cannot “lose
control” or “go all the way.” Part of this dynamic may also be due to norms of gender,
sexual expression, and race. The sexual significance of speech and the permissible publicity
of feelings for men (e.g., men are expected to limit their emotionality) in contrast to
women are central to Gunn’s comparison of Obama to Hillary Clinton. As Gunn analyzes,
“By not going all the way, by getting emotional but not overly emotional … [Obama] is in
more control of his emotions, in keeping with the self-possessed, masculine default.”94
Given Obama’s identity as a black man, the tension between demonstrating too much
affect and not articulating emotion enough is likely stronger, as he must navigate stereotypical coding that suggests black males are exceptionally “angry,” “violent,” and “sexually
aggressive.”95 On the other hand, Obama’s identity as a black man gives him access to
powerful registers from the history of African-American oratory. Rhetorical scholars
have done significant work in this area, demonstrating the ways black rhetors across
time use voice to evoke the senses. In analyzing aesthetics of the New Negro Movement,
Eric King Watts notes, “tropes of race provided an intense sensory experience that could at
once hold one’s attention and launch one’s imagination.”96 Arguably, Obama conducted
public feelings in his “A More Perfect Union” address delivered in 2007 since Robert
Terrill shows how Obama leverages “double-consciousness” to articulate anger and hopefulness surrounding race and his candidacy.97 Gunn and Mark McPhail also detect black
vernacular of double-voicedness and post-racial registers in the reception to Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s remarks leading up to Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” speech.98 While a
feeling rhetorical criticism more attuned to race needs to be done for Obama’s national
eulogy at Tucson, we recognize that our findings are culturally rooted in the traditions
of African-American oratory as well as in audience reactions to them. The non-partisan
praise of the Tucson speech may be due, in part, to Obama’s ability to switch between
white and black vernacular tones, ultimately embodying the “good loving black” rather
than the “angry black man.” Indeed, Obama’s suppression of anger throughout his presidency became the subject of a joke, evident by an “anger translator” who accompanied
Obama during his speech at the 2015 White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Relatedly,
some political commentators and scholars suggest the election and popular appeal of
the country’s next president, Donald Trump, can be attributed to “white rage.”99 At the
very least, Trump could be considered a prototype of a conductor of public feelings of
This essay values feelings and sounds emitted by rhetorical critics and other audiences,
all the while retaining a focus on text. It seems impossible that a critic could tune out or
disregard the clapping in the McKale Center, but it happens; Jamieson reports the audience applause and “stump-speech like intensity” with which Obama delivered the
speech at Tucson undercut epideictic discourse.101 We suggest that rhetorical critics
should be more attentive to “sound studies” as well as adopt their approaches for examining affect. Keenan even describes the process of writing Obama’s speeches as if Obama’s
voice is in his head: “As you’re writing, you want to hear [Obama] in your head. Does it
sound like him? … And then when you read it back to yourself, it should sound like
It is also important for rhetorical analyses to pay attention to the bodies of critics. Jamie
and Bethany would not have written this essay if their bodies had not been so moved by
the Tucson speech, and if these same feelings had not been circulating in public. One
outcome is a different writing format. Hawhee recognizes that a challenge for studying
rhetoric’s sensorium is “how to write about sensation without positing an individual as
opposed to a collective, or of thinking in terms of communal sensation, without presuming
sameness.”103 By modifying method and academic writing, we took seriously the participatory dimension of the sensorium and, as a result, you the reader may have felt the speech
more than when reading traditional rhetorical criticism. The claims of and reader interactions with this essay would have been different if written by disembodied critics.
When Jamie and Bethany presented this research at conferences, people responded by
saying they were moved and at a loss for words. More evidence is how our embodied
whiteness sublimated the racial dynamics of Obama’s speech until journal reviewers
called our attention to it. These experiences support the argument to pay greater attention
to the embodiment of writing and reading rhetorical criticism. Patricia Clough notes in her
edited collection about affect that the essays render changes in embodiment by reflecting
the subjectivity of the writer.104 Nevertheless, Elspeth Proybn decries that too many affect
studies still lack feeling:
A general gesture to Affect won’t do the trick. If we want to invigorate our concepts, we need
to follow through on what different affects do, at different levels. The point needs to be
stressed: different affects make us feel, write, think and act in different ways … This
matters at the level of theory. It matters in terms of what we want writing to do.105
Speech communication professors have long argued that delivery matters as much as –
even shapes – content. This is true for our writing as well as the public speaking that
we teach and write about. In sum, affect theory and analyses attending to affectemotion create potential for new rhetorical studies, publics, and politics.
A chorus moved this essay along for six years. We were honored to be on the top paper panel of the
Public Address Division at NCA in 2013. We are also grateful for the enthusiasm and feedback from
anonymous reviewers at several journals, the current editor of Quarterly Journal of Speech, as well as
Celeste Condit, Emily Winderman, Joshua Trey Barnett, Craig Mattson, Joshua Gunn, Rebecca
Kuehl, Marita Gronnvoll, and Obama’s speechwriter Cody Keenan.
1. Karlyn Kohrs Campbell and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Presidents Creating the Presidency:
Deeds Done in Words (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 73–103.
2. Jeremy Engels, The Politics of Resentment: A Genealogy (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania
State University Press, 2015), 4.
3. Ben Smith and Byron Tau, “Birtherism: Where it All Began,” Politico, April 22, 2011, http://
4. Wilson cited in “Joe Wilson says Outburst to Obama Speech ‘Spontaneous,’” CNN, September 10, 2009,
5. Frank Rich, “No One Listened to Gabrielle Giffords,” New York Times, January 15, 2011, 10,
6. Peter Canellos, “Analysis: Expectations High for Changed Tone,” Boston Globe, November 5,
7. For example, see David A. Frank and Mark Lawrence McPhail, “Barack Obama’s Address to
the 2004 Democratic National Convention: Trauma, Compromise, Consilience, and the
(Im)possibility of Racial Reconciliation,” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 8, no. 4 (2005): 571–93;
Robert E. Terrill, “Unity and Duality in Barack Obama’s ‘A More Perfect Union’,” Quarterly
Journal of Speech 95, no. 4 (2009): 363–86; John M. Murphy, “Barack Obama, the Exodus
Tradition, and the Joshua Generation,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 97, no. 4 (2011): 387–
410; Joshua Gunn and Mark Lawrence McPhail, “Coming Home to Roost: Jeremiah
Wright, Barack Obama, and the (Re)Signing of (Post)Racial Rhetoric,” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 45, no. 1 (2015): 1–24; Robert E. Terrill, Double-Consciousness and the Rhetoric of
Barack Obama: The Price and Promise of Citizenship (Columbia, SC: University of South
Carolina Press, 2015).
8. Brian Amsden, “Dimensions of Temporality in President Obama’s Tucson Memorial
Address,” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 17, no. 3 (2014): 455–76.
9. David A Frank, “Facing Moloch: Barack Obama’s National Eulogies and Gun Violence,”
Rhetoric & Public Affairs 17, no. 4 (2014): 653–78.
10. Jeffrey B. Kurtz, “’To Have Your Experience Denied … it Hurts’: Barack Obama, James
Baldwin, and the Politics of Black Anger,” Howard Journal of Communications 28, no. 1
(2017): 93–106.
11. “Conductor,” Oxford Dictionary,
12. Gail Collins, “Obama Brings it Home,” New York Times, January 13, 2011, A29.
13. Jamie’s journal.
14. Jenny E. Rice, “The New ‘New:’ Making a Case for Critical Affect Studies,” Quarterly Journal
of Speech 94, no. 2 (2008): 200–12.
15. Debra Hawhee, “Rhetoric’s Sensorium,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 101, no. 1 (2015), 5.
16. Deborah B. Gould, Moving Politics: Emotion and ACT UP’s Fight Against AIDS (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 2009), 20.
17. Brian Massumi, Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation (Durham, NC: Duke
University Press), 35.
18. Gould, Moving Politics, 20.
19. Massumi, Parables for the Virtual, 28, 35.
20. Gould, Moving Politics, 27–28.
21. Drew Westen, The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation
(New York: Public Affairs, 2007), 35–36.
22. Simon Clarke, Paul Hoggett, and Simon Thompson, “The Study of Emotion: An Introduction,” in Emotion, Politics and Society, eds. Simon Clarke et al. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 5. See also work by Jonathan Haidt, Daniel Kahneman, and edited collections like
W. Russell Neuman, George E. Marcus, Michael Mackuen, and Ann N. Crigler, eds. The
Affect Effect: Dynamics of Emotion in Political Thinking and Behavior (Chicago: University
of Chicago Press, 2007).
23. Massumi, 10.
24. Massumi, 5, 74–75, 104, 118–19, 160.
25. Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth, eds., The Affect Theory Reader (Durham, NC: Duke
University Press, 2010).
26. Debra Hawhee, Rhetoric in Tooth and Claw: Animals, Language, Sensation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).
27. George A. Kennedy, “A Hoot in the Dark: The Evolution of General Rhetoric,” Philosophy &
Rhetoric 25, no. 1 (1992): 1–21.
28. Catherine Chaput, “Rhetorical Circulation in Late Capitalism: Neoliberalism and the Overdetermination of Affective Energy,” Philosophy & Rhetoric 43, no. 1 (2010): 1–25.
29. Kennedy, A Hoot in the Dark, 5; Hawhee, Rhetoric of Tooth and Claw, 42.
30. Chaput, “Rhetorical Circulation in Late Capitalism,” 15. See also Joshua Gunn, “On Speech
and Public Release,” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 13, no. 2 (2010): 175–216; R. Murray Schafer,
The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World (Rochester, VT:
Destiny, 1977/1994).
31. Simon Thompson and Paul Hoggett, “Introduction,” in Politics and the Emotions: The Affective Turn in Contemporary Political Studies, eds. Simon Thompson and Paul Hoggett
(New York: Continuum, 2012), 3.
32. Gunn, 203.
33. Ann Cvetkovich, Depression: A Public Feeling (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012), 4.
34. Cvetkovich, 4–5.
35. See also Jamie Landau, “Feeling Rhetorical Critics: Another Affective-Emotional Field
Method for Rhetorical Studies,” in Text + Field: Innovations in Rhetorical Method, Sara
L. McKinnon, Robert Asen, Karma R. Chavez, and Robert Glenn Howard, eds. (University
Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2016), 76–77.
36. Gould, Moving Politics, 19.
37. Landau, “Feeling Rhetorical Critics,” 72–83.
38. Emotion words share some characteristics with Richard Weaver’s “charismatic terms.”
Weaver says charismatic terms, such as the “God term” of “freedom,” have a mysterious
power or degree of force that is inexplicable until common consensus makes meaning of
them, The Ethics of Rhetoric (Chicago: Regnery, 1953), 212, 227. Although Weaver singles
out “Devil terms” that are repulsive, he does not emphasize the emotionality of “charismatic
terms” as much as we do with “emotion words.” The “mysterious” nature of charisma is also
not fleshed out like we do by drawing on affect studies. Finally, “emotion words” can be vernacular, which means they do not always have the hierarchical potency of Weaver’s ultimate
terms. This comparison between Weaver and our work, including the relation to “ideographs,” warrants further research that is beyond this essay’s scope.
39. Gunn, “On Speech and Public Release,” 188.
40. Gunn, 189.
41. Samuel McCormick and Mary Stuckey, “Presidential Disfluency: Literacy, Legibility, and the
Vocal Political Aesthetics in the Rhetorical Presidency,” Review of Communication 13, no. 1
(2013): 4.
42. Greg Goodale, “The Presidential Sound: From Orotund to Instructional Speech, 1892–1912,”
Quarterly Journal of Speech 96, no. 2 (2010): 164–84; Greg Goodale, Sonic Persuasion:
Reading Sound in the Recorded Age (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2011).
43. Cody Keenan (former presidential speechwriter for Obama) in discussion with Jamie, June
15, 2017. See also Ari Shapiro, “Speechwriters Deliberately Use Rhythm to Help Make
Their Point,” NPR, June 19, 2014,
44. Jonathan Sterne, ed., The Sound Studies Reader (New York: Routledge, 2012); Joshua Gunn,
Greg Goodale, Mirko M. Hall, and Rosa A. Eberly, “Auscultating Again: Rhetoric and Sound
Studies,” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 43, no. 5 (2013): 475–89.
45. Schafer, The Soundscape, 7.
46. Schafer, 8–10.
47. Landau, “Feeling Rhetorical Critics,” 73.
48. Landau, 79–81.
49. Phaedra Pezzullo, Toxic Tourism: Rhetorics of Pollution, Travel, and Environmental Justice
(Tuscaloosa, AL: The University of Alabama Press, 2007).
50. Charles E. Morris III, “Self(Portrait) of Prof. R. C.: A Retrospective,” Western Journal of Communication 74, no. 1 (2010): 4–42; Celeste M. Condit, “Pathos in Criticism: Edwin Black’s
Communism-As-Cancer Metaphor,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 99, no. 1 (2013): 1–26.
51. Anderson Cooper, “President Obama Speaks at Arizona Memorial Service,” Anderson
Cooper 360 Degrees, CNN, January 12, 2011,
52. Bethany’s journal.
53. Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Karlyn Kohrs Campbell, “Rhetorical Hybrids: Fusions of
Generic Elements,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 68, no. 2 (1982): 147.
54. Campbell and Jamieson, Presidents Creating the Presidency, 80.
55. Campbell and Jamieson, 84.
56. Obama’s presidential campaign used celebrity politics, including his emergence as a “supercelebrity,” “rock star,” or “idol,” Douglas Kellner, “Barack Obama and Celebrity Spectacle,”
International Journal of Communication 3 (2009): 715–41.
57. Franklin Graham, “Prayer Service Turns to Rally,” Washington Times, January 19, 2011, B1.
58. Dan Harris remarks on Good Morning America with George Stephanopolous and Robin
Roberts, “Obama’s Emotional Speech,” NBC, January 13, 2011.
59. Greta Van Susteren, “President Obama Mourners, Palin, Limbaugh Defend Rhetoric,” Fox
On the Record, January 12, 2011.
60. Gillian Flaccus and Bob Christie, “Some Question Pep Rally Atmosphere at Obama Speech,”
Associated Press, January 14, 2011,
61. Gergen cited in Anderson Cooper 360 Degrees, “President Obama Speaks at Arizona Memorial Service,” CNN January 12, 2011,
62. Michael Waldman remarks to Mara Liasson, “Assessing Obama’s Tuscon Speech,” NPR,
January 13, 2011,; Cody Keenan (former presidential speechwriter for Obama) in discussion with
Jamie, June 15, 2017, said neither he nor Obama anticipated this boisterous enthusiasm either:
We were shocked when we got there. It’s a basketball arena and we were approaching
the crowd through the lower concourse. I was with the president, we could hear people
cheering, and we’re like, ‘Are we in the wrong place?’ There was even a beach ball
bouncing around in the crowd! My first thought was, we wrote this eulogy not for a
jubilant crowd, but for mourners.
63. Jamie’s journal.
64. Bethany’s journal.
65. Waldman, “Assessing Obama’s Tucson Speech.”
66. Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (Oxford, UK:
Oxford University Press, 1985), 279.
67. John Heritage and David Greatbatch, “Generating Applause: A Study of Rhetoric and
Response at Party Political Conferences,” American Journal of Sociology 92, no. 1 (1986):
68. Plato, Phaedrus (New York: Penguin Classics, 2005); Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics,
trans. H. Rackman (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1962); C. S. Lewis, The
Four Loves (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1960).
69. Greg Goodale, “The Sonorous Envelope and Political Deliberation,” Quarterly Journal of
Speech 99, no. 2 (2013): 219.
70. Agneta H. Fischer and Antony S. R. Manstead, “Social Functions of Emotion,” in Handbook
of Emotions, 3rd ed., eds. Michael Lewis, Jeannette M. Haviland-Jones, and Lisa Feldman
Barrett (New York: The Guilford Press, 2008), 458.
71. Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (New York: Routledge, 2004), 142, 124.
72. Jamie’s journal.
73. Michael Scherer, “Obama Seeks Unity Over Divisive Rhetoric,” Time, January 13, 2011,,8599,2042201,00.html?xid=rss-mostpopular.
74. Emily Winderman, “S(anger) Goes Postal in The Woman Rebel: Angry Rhetoric as Collectivizing Moral Emotion,” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 17, no. 3 (2014), 381–420.
75. Linda Feldman, “Obama Calls for Unity, Humility at Tucson Memorial,” Christian Science
Monitor, January 12, 2011,
76. Henry A. Lowenstein, “Letters to the Editor: Obama in Tucson: A Call for Healing,”
New York Times, January 13, 2011, A26,
77. Jeff T. Larsen, Gary G. Berntson, Kristen M. Poehlmann, Tiffany A. Ito, and John
T. Cacioppo, “The Psychophysiology of Emotion,” in Handbook of Emotions, 3rd ed., eds.
Michael Lewis, Jeannette M. Haviland-Jones, and Lisa Feldman Barrett (New York: The Guilford Press, 2008), 180–83.
78. Al Veshi, “Discussion of Obama’s Words at the Tucson Memorial Service; Words that Heal,”
CNN, January 13, 2011.
79. Anderson Cooper, “President Obama Speaks at Arizona Memorial Service;” Michele Norris,
All Things Considered, NPR, “Dionne, Continetti Discuss Obama’s Speech,” January 12, 2011,
80. David Brinkley and C.J. Karamargin remarks on Anderson Cooper 360 Degrees, “President
Obama Speaks at Arizona Memorial Service,” CNN, January 12, 2011, http://transcripts.
81. Facebook remark in “Discussion of Obama’s Words at the Tucson Memorial Service; Words
that Heal,” with Al Veshi, CNN, January 13, 2011.
82. Paul Begala cited in Anderson Cooper 360 Degrees, “President Obama Speaks at Arizona
Memorial Service,” CNN, January 12, 2011,
83. Lukas I. Alpert, “‘Obama Urges Togetherness in Speech for Arizona Shooting Victims,” Daily
News, January 13, 2011,
84. Maurizio Viroli, For Love of Country: An Essay on Patriotism and Nationalism (New York:
Oxford University Press, 1995).
85. Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, 124.
86. David Gregory remarks on Today Show, “Will the Events in Tucson Lead to a New Tone in
Washington?” NBC News, January 14, 2011.
87. Bethany’s journal.
88. Campbell and Jamieson, Presidents Creating the Presidency, 103.
89. Janet Staiger, “Introduction: Political Emotions and Public Feelings,” in Political Emotions:
New Agendas in Communication, eds. Janet Staiger, Ann Cvetkovich, and Ann Reynolds
(New York: Routledge, 2010), 4.
90. Frank James, “Obama Approval Ratings Nudge Upwards,” NPR, January 13, 2011, http://
91. Richard Green, cited in Richard Wolf, “Obama’s Call for Civility Seen as Striking Right
Tone,” USA Today, January 14, 2011,
92. David Jackson, “White House Cites Progress on Gun Control,” USA Today, June 18, 2013,
93. Jennifer Steinhauer, “Gun Control Effort Had No Real Chance, Despite Pleas,” New York
Times, April 17, 2013,
94. Gunn, “On Speech and Public Release,” 22.
95. Mark P. Orbe, “Constructions of Reality on MTV’s ‘The Real World’: An Analysis of the
Restrictive Coding of Black Masculinity,” Southern Communication Journal 64, no. 1
(1998): 32–47.
96. Eric King Watts, Hearing the Hurt: Rhetoric, Aesthetics, and Politics of the New Negro Movement (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2012), 190–91.
97. Terrill, “Unity and Duality in Barack Obama’s ‘A More Perfect Union.’”
98. Gunn and McPhail, “Coming Home to Roost,” 1–24.
99. Mychal Denzel Smith, “Trump’s Rise is White Rage Veiled as Political Strategy,” PBS NewsHour, August 18, 2016,
100. In fact, years before Trump’s election, Westen claimed, “the Republican party has a monopoly on anger,” The Political Brain, 317. A central argument of Westen’s book is Republicans more often than Democrats set the emotional agenda for the electorate and, thus,
successfully persuade voters. Ronald Reagan’s 1986 address after the space shuttle Challenger
tragedy, a speech drafted by presidential speechwriter Peggy Noonan and which rhetoricians
rank in the top 10 American speeches of the 20th Century, is arguably another example of
how a Republican president has conducted public feelings.
101. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, “How Well Has President Barack Obama Chosen from Among the
Available Means of Persuasion?” Polity 45, no. 1 (2013): 161–62.
102. Keenan discussion with Jamie.
103. Hawhee, “Rhetoric’s Sensorium,” 12.
104. Patricia Ticineto Clough, “Introduction,” in The Affective Turn: Theorizing the Social, ed.
Patricia Ticineto Clough (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), 4.
105. Elspeth Probyn, “Writing Shame,” in The Affect Theory Reader, eds. Melissa Gregg and
Gregory J. Seigworth (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 74.
Quarterly Journal of Speech
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Technoliberal rhetoric, civic attention, and
common sensation in Sergey Brin’s “Why Google
Damien Smith Pfister
To cite this article: Damien Smith Pfister (2019) Technoliberal rhetoric, civic attention, and
common sensation in Sergey Brin’s “Why Google Glass?”, Quarterly Journal of Speech, 105:2,
182-203, DOI: 10.1080/00335630.2019.1595103
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2019, VOL. 105, NO. 2, 182–203
Technoliberal rhetoric, civic attention, and common sensation
in Sergey Brin’s “Why Google Glass?”
Damien Smith Pfister
Department of Communication, University of Maryland, College Park, United States
Sergey Brin’s February 2013 TED Talk, “Why Google Glass?,” is an
example of technoliberal rhetoric that offers a constricted vision
of civic attention. Technoliberalism, the intensification of
neoliberalism through computational technology, funds Brin’s
emphasis on the primacy of action-oriented leisure, the power of
connection, and the possibility of sensation without mediation. I
interpret “Why Google Glass?” as indicative of how
technoliberalism privatizes, marketizes, and digitizes sensation,
frustrating the efforts of strangers to make common, democratic
worlds. The essay concludes by underlining the continued
importance of sensing-in-common, identifying specific vectors for
rhetoricians to pursue in preserving the foundations of democratic
community: advocating for shared public life instead of
corporatized, privatized experiences; employing glass metaphors
to understand how ubiquitous glassed devices shape sensation;
and designing interventions with and without the aid of digital
technologies to spark civic desire.
Received 11 December 2017
Accepted 8 January 2019
Koinē aisthesis; sensation;
technoliberalism; ubiquitous
computing; wearable
Civic attention, technoliberalism, and TED talks
Passing stranger! you do not know how longingly I look upon you,
You must be he I was seeking, or she I was seeking, (it comes to me, as of a dream,)
I have somewhere surely lived a life of joy with you,
All is recalled as we flit by each other, fluid, affectionate, chaste, matured.
You grew up with me, were a boy with me, or a girl with me,
I ate with you, and slept with you—your body has become not yours only nor left my
body mine only,
You give me the pleasure of your eyes, face, flesh, as we pass—you take of my beard,
breast, hands, in return,
I am not to speak to you—I am to think of you when I sit alone, or wake at night alone,
I am to wait—I do not doubt I am to meet you again,
I am to see to it that I do not lose you.1
CONTACT Damien Smith Pfister
Department of Communication, University of Maryland, 2130
Skinner Building, College Park, 20742–7635, United States.
© 2019 National Communication Association
In this famous passage from Leaves of Grass, Whitman voices an elusive dream of democratic togetherness animated by encounters with strangers. To live up to the best version of
our democratic selves, we must longingly seek out strangers to talk with, we must acknowledge our collective history together, we must open ourselves to new experiences and affections outside of familiar zones of experience. This model of civic attention, an imaginary of
how to attend to others in collective life, seemed to have struck Whitman as unusually rich
in the mid-nineteenth century. At the time, growing cities were bringing together diverse
peoples willing to become comrades in the common project of democracy, with parks and
fairs offering opportunities for strangers to commingle.2 With the first edition of Leaves of
Grass published on the cusp of the Civil War, a paean to stranger sociability might have
appealed to Whitman as a tonic capable of invigorating the prospects of the United States’
union and steering the country toward social justice. As it circulated after 1865, Leaves of
Grass could be seen as a salve to heal a riven nation. Of course, Whitman’s words are more
aspirational world-making than descriptive of mid-nineteenth century actualities. They
certainly elide the differences in social identity that distribute the very possibilities of
stranger relationality inequitably, most obviously with regards to one’s status as a free,
enslaved, or recently freed person. Is turning to Whitman just another case of democratic
nostalgia? Maybe. But the idea that forging common cause with strangers can inspire more
just and pluralist publics is a rhetorically persistent and occasionally potent vision.3
About a century later, the sociologist Erving Goffman coined the term “civil inattention” to characterize how stranger relationality had evolved in the early to mid-twentieth
century city life that he observed. The quintessential expression of civil inattention is what
has come to be known colloquially as the head nod of acknowledgement, usually between
those socialized as men, that signifies something like “I know you’re there, you know I’m
here – let’s not complicate this relationship with words.” The head nod acknowledges that
giving equal and sustained attention to every person in a city is impossible, but recognizing
others’ existence and their right to be in a common space is necessary for the neutral interactions that constitute so much of civic life. Civil inattention gives others the space to be
their own private selves while simultaneously recognizing their ongoing potential to participate in common, public life. As Goffman wrote, newspapers and magazines perform a
valuable function in maintaining civil inattention by “allowing us to carry around a screen
that can be raised at any time to give ourselves or others an excuse for not initiating
contact.”4 In retrospect, civil inattention might have been a serviceable model of civic
attention in a twentieth century where the social bonds that purported to unify a
nation were, again, under duress, with whitelashing citizens resisting legal efforts to facilitate cultural pluralism.
However, as critics of late capitalist public cultures like Wendy Brown observe, if citizens go too far down the road of civil inattention, then the possibilities for a rich common
culture, woven out of the threads of a diverse people, dead end into instrumentalized, atomized, and marketized relations.5 Neoliberalism, understood here as a governing rationality that privileges market logics, individualism, and private profit, pushes civil
inattention to extremes: attention to others is valued only insofar as it is useful or monetizable, relations with others are seen as zero-sum and competitive, friends and family
are to be preferred over strangers, and time is just another commodity that should be
efficiently spent. For Robert Asen, neoliberalism’s model of civic attention “obfuscates
the means for redressing inequality and mobilizing diversity by weakening relations
among people and devaluing coordinated action.”6 When dominant institutional rhetorics
lionize individual empowerment instead of public goods, civic attention is steered away
from a collective self-understanding that acknowledges mutual interdependence with
strangers and toward an understanding of the self as a market actor seeking to maximize
individual power.
But doesn’t the rhetoric of “connection” that accompanies so many digital technologies,
from mobile phones to social networking sites, signal a reinvigoration of mutual interdependence in the contemporary networked media ecology? While these new digital technologies are, indeed, often used to contest neoliberalism, their provenance is firmly
embedded in large technology firms looking to extract profit from users’ attention.
Thomas Malaby suggests that “technoliberalism” is thus a more apt nomenclature for
the governing rationality of societies intensively shaped by consumer capitalism and
digital technologies, as the term “marks both its similarities to neoliberal thought but
also its emphasis on contriving complex systems through the manipulation of technology.”7 If liberalism was supported by faith in the cultural technologies of argumentation
and the marketplace of ideas, and neoliberalism revived these assumptions with a corporate-tinged vengeance in late capitalism, technoliberalism marks a stage in which these
market logics are further intensified by computational power. Ubiquitous computing technologies, from mobile phones and exercise trackers to smart refrigerators and sensorladen cities, are enframed by technoliberalism and so naturalize the centrality of the
market, individual choice, and corporate hegemony.8 Just as the prior media ecologies
that accompanied earlier stages of liberalism inspired questions about the kinds of belonging and relationality necessary to make the extended imagined community coherent, we
must now ask after the kind of stranger relationality anticipated in the rhetoric of ubiquitous computing. After all, if democracy, as Laurence Kaufman writes, is “the construction
of a common world between strangers,” emergent from the multiple mediations that circulate experience and knowledge, then the character of a democracy is necessarily
grounded in the qualities of these mediations.9
In order to identify these qualitative dimensions of contemporary mediations, this essay
explores the design rhetoric of the first consumer-grade augmented reality technology,
Google Glass.10 Specifically, I examine Sergey Brin’s TED Talk, “Why Google Glass?,”
delivered on February 27, 2013 at the annual TED Conference. In a seven-minute talk
eventually seen by millions of people through TED’s website and YouTube, the cofounder of Google addressed a public of technology, entertainment, and design luminaries
to explain the rationale behind developing this new device.11 Brin’s justification for Google
Glass assumes a technoliberal model of civic attention that privileges the privatized and
the familiar at the expense of a democratic model of civic attention that centers the
common and the stranger. While I understand Google Glass as a synecdoche for the
glassy devices of cultures saturated by “the digital,” Brin’s speech specifically identifies
the guiding assumptions behind the development of augmented and, by extension,
virtual reality technologies.12 Indeed, his brief talk reveals how technoliberals imagine
the interface of digital technology and what Debra Hawhee calls rhetoric’s sensorium in
ways that should prompt rhetoricians to further explore the relationship between digitality, sensation, and cultures of democracy.13
In the balance of this section, I sketch an argument for studying the rhetoric of technology leaders alongside genres of digital oratory like TED Talks. Then, I turn to an
analysis of Brin’s speech, focusing on the primacy of action-oriented leisure featured in an
introductory promotional video, the belief in the power of digital technologies to connect
subjects, and the claim that Glass offers the possibility of sensation without mediation. An
analysis of Brin’s speech, in turn, opens up a larger consideration of the relationship
between technology, naturalism, and figuration. Finally, in the conclusion, I argue for
the continued necessity of sensing-in-common as a way to ground democratic cultures.
In making an argument about how Glass challenges the possibility of sensing-incommon, I do not assume that common experience is a default position for democratic
cultures, nor do I assume that sensation precedes any technical apparatus. Common sensation is a rhetorical achievement, mediated by the technics that co-constitute bodies. The
question, then, is not “How do we return to a nostalgic past of stranger sociability, Whitmanesque, Goffmanesque, or otherwise?” Instead, my goal is to map the model of civic
attention that prevails in technoliberal rhetoric, exploring how devices like Google
Glass impinge on the making of a democratic, common world so that we can better
design interventions to make that world come into being.
Although the rhetoric of science, technology, and medicine is a booming subfield in the
transdiscipline of rhetorical studies, there are precious few studies of speeches by the
leaders and cheerleaders of digital technology companies.14 The extensive tradition of
studying speeches made by scientists, like John Lyne and Henry Howe’s work on E.O.
Wilson and sociobiology or Leah Ceccarelli’s analysis of the frontier trope employed in
scientific discourse and discourse about science, is not paralleled by studies of the speeches
of tech visionaries, Silicon Valley acolytes, technology firm CEOs, venture capitalists, and
others involved in the creation and diffusion of contemporary digital culture.15 This is
ironic and unfortunate, as technologists like Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Sheryl Sandberg,
Elon Musk, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Eric Schmitt, and others can certainly claim a degree
of influence that rivals or surpasses their scientific counterparts in chemistry, physics, and
medicine; indeed, their cultural influence may even exceed that of elected political leaders.
Rhetorics of technology reflect, consolidate, and gradually transform the dominant cultural assumptions and governing rationalities in which technologies are incubated. As
Catherine Gouge and John Jones write, rhetoricians especially need to “critique the rhetorics – such as public and marketing discourse – that attend to wearing and wearables,
showing how this discourse establishes expectations for the use of wearable devices and
the frequently constraining nature of these expectations.”16 Early rhetorical justifications
for new technologies like Google Glass typically illuminate how technologists understand
specific cultural exigences and how they believe new technologies are thought to address
them. Moreover, critical scrutiny of technologies like Google Glass are especially important because “immersive media” are increasingly posited as the answer to nearly every
possible problem.17
If rhetorical scholars have neglected to examine the speeches of technologists, so have
they largely declined to theorize how digital technologies have transformed the very object
of public speech. As Michele Kennerly and I note in the introduction to Ancient Rhetorics
& Digital Networks, “digital media technologies appear at least partially responsible for an
oratory boom. Millions of people around the world tune in to livestreams of speeches,
watch archived versions of speeches on video sharing sites, embed and share speeches
through digital social networks, remix and mash-up sp…
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