Previous Research Guide
In all forms of communication what is not said can play an even more powerful role than what is. If you leave something unsaid in a science article, your data may be seen as misleading; politicians who leave things out may be viewed as dishonest, sly, or insincere—journalists and commentators will accuse them of hiding something. Contrarily, in literature and art leaving things up to interpretation may be praised for aesthetic and intellectual merit; in these contexts we're trained to read between the lines.
The unsaid can be loosely categorized into two different groups: what was intentionally not stated and what was unconsciously left out. The first category appears rather straightforward: an individual made the decision not to include a particular piece of information or perspective. The second category, the unconsciously unsaid, presents us with situations in which aspects of the argument necessary for understanding the speaker's/writer's intended meaning are unconsciously left unstated. This commonly happens across types of discourse and between individuals of different cultural backgrounds. In American society the history of confessional writing and the notion of a public sphere strongly influence our own negative associations with the unsaid. In contrast, Confucian and Buddhist philosophies place a supreme value on the unsaid, a fact that continues to shape Chinese styles of writing, interpretation, and debate.
In this course we will analyze a wide range of sources in order to understand and compare different rhetorical uses of the unsaid. We will look at examples from literature, silent film, and current events, specifically examining them in light of their cultural contexts. Asking questions across a range of media and in a cross-cultural context, we will seek to recognize the pervasive presence of the unsaid in all forms of discourse and better understand its rhetorical role.
A young South African runner is sidelined until she can "prove" that she is female enough to run in a women's race. A magazine cover featuring a long-haired, shirtless male model has to be wrapped in an obscenity cover before some stores will display it. A well-known actress claims that her career has faltered because she, like the runner and the model, is just too ambiguous for comfort.
We live in an age of proliferating identities, and unprecedented freedom of self-definition. The drive to define ourselves with increasing levels of specificity, however, exposes a fundamental discomfort with those who defy our attempts at categorization, and whose identities cannot be easily defined. In this class, we will explore the ways in which the study of ambiguity—that which is anomalous, shifting, or difficult to define—can elucidate our biases and demonstrate the limits of our tolerance.
We will analyze a variety of sites of ambiguity (such as racial, sexual/gender, legal, and moral) with an eye for the following questions: How do we decide what is ambiguous, and how is ambiguity expressed? Why is it so unsettling? How do we behave when faced with ambiguity, and how are ambiguous situations settled or resolved? Who benefits from this resolution?
We will use rhetorical analysis to understand how ambiguity and the attempts to resolve it are framed in a variety of sources, including film, literature, journalism, and popular culture, and how these interpretations are shaped by and produce personal and cultural biases.
During the anti-tuition-fee demonstrations in the United Kingdom in December of 2010, computer science students participating in the protests developed a smartphone app to identify the locations of London police lines in real-time, giving it the tagline "Fleeing riot police on foot? There's an app for that!" Anonymous, a loosely organized Internet collective increasingly involved in political action, have recently used a distributed denial-of-service tool named Low Orbit Ion Cannon as part of protests against groups ranging from Mastercard to the Church of Scientology. And years before he was the controversial Wikileaks frontman, Julian Assange was a co-author of "rubberhose" —an encryption system designed to keep sensitive data secret, even from people willing to use torture to get passwords.
In all of these cases, the development and promotion of software tools became a significant part of political action. It's a truism that programmers and engineers are better at talking with machines than with people, but nevertheless techy people frequently find themselves involved —sometimes against their will—in political disputes that require complex communication in the broader world. In this class we examine works by and about people working at this intersection of programming and politics. Topics we consider include:
- The rhetorical moves involved in using software tools as part of civil disobedience.
- How software involved in intellectual property disputes is discussed, from the 1980s "don't copy that floppy" era to BitTorrent and beyond.
- The sometimes Utopian rhetoric of the open-source software community.
Activities in this class include analyzing how technology helped (or failed to help) the participants in specific political actions, looking at cases where technology came into conflict with a pre-existing social norm or law, and, most of all, analyzing the rhetoric used by and about programmers participating in political discourse.
Texts we'll work with include selections from Linus Torvalds' introduction to The Hacker Ethic, Neal Stephenson's In The Beginning was the Command Line, Ellen Ullman's Close to the Machine, and promotional flyers and videos from Anonymous.
To a contemporary audience, the conventions of the novel appear natural and even standard. Transgressions of these norms, especially in the autobiographical or memoir form, elicit societal outrage, such as we witnessed in the James Frey imbroglio, during which the writer of a memoir was accused of misleading his readers by including fictional elements in the story of his life. We react with ire to a tacit contract breeched between novelist and reader, yet the idea of such a compact assumes an a-historical notion of truth and verisimilitude. At closer look, novelistic fiction belongs to a constructed, historically-bound discourse, which often addresses a specific, social class seeking to see itself immortalized in prose.
Additionally, certain novelistic representations of the real have proven too obscene and risqué for readers. We note, in this respect, the novel (unwittingly) participating in a discourse of proscription, often aimed at safeguarding the virtue of societal "innocents," namely women and children.
This course examines this question of the real and its "heightening" and "mis-" representation in the novel. More precisely, we shall explore how issues are fostered in the novel but grow to influence our perception of truth and vice versa. By examining novels, court transcripts, philosophical documents and moral treatises, in conjunction with relevant scholarship, this course will endeavor to situate discourses of truth into their particular, cultural-historical moment and will hopefully allow students to identify sophisticated, rhetorical arguments that often lie deeply encoded in the novel form. After uncovering these discourses in the novel, we shall aim to trace them through their real world applications.