Vibrant Voices of Public Address–Volume 1, No. 5

May 2012

A Conversation with E. Johanna Hartelius

In this issue, Public Address Division member E. Johanna Hartelius discusses her ongoing study of a set of approximately 170 New York Times articles published between September 2001 and August 2011, each containing at least five occurrences of the term “Arab” or “Muslim” or “Middle East” and at least five occurrences of the word “immigrant.” She pays particular attention to articles discussing immigration in the United States. Articles pertaining to non-U.S. content (e.g., the Muhammad cartoon controversy in Denmark, the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, and the Norwegian massacre in July 2011) are used for comparative reference but are considered beyond the scope of the inquiry.

What do you find especially compelling about this artifact?

Years ago I became interested in two philosophers’ use of the notion of “face.” To put it simply, for Paul de Man, face is the mask of subjectivity that is put onto someone—or, more accurately, onto nothingness—before that someone has a subjectivity. In classical rhetoric, the relevant trope here is prosopopeia, a personifying word or phrase through which an absent or fictional character is presented as though speaking and/or acting. Conversely, for Emmanuel Levinas, face is what shatters the mask that has been put onto someone by others. The understanding that the community has of the person is insufficient, and something else breaks through. My analysis of this conceptual oscillation—face as both the construction and destruction of subjectivity—led me to try to explicate what happens rhetorically when the two face-processes occur in “real life.”

Part of the inquiry’s appeal for me was to seek answers to an abstract and theory-driven question in a text as traditional as a newspaper, using that text as a snapshot of public discourse. I started with a theoretical concept, “face,” and a question about public rhetorical habits. Because I wanted to understand such habits as part of public address, I selected a set of New York Times texts. For the purposes of my project, and as a function of the considerable cultural power of the New York Times, this artifact afforded an instructive perspective. I chose the artifact on the assumption that the New York Times, a publication and medium with a long tradition, represents widely circulating cultural constructs with serious political and social implications. Available in digital form, it is a searchable repository whereof a rhetorical critic can ask: What rhetorical practices surrounding Topic X circulate among the American public?

One of the more complex contexts wherein subjectivity and community are negotiated currently is U.S. immigration. My previous research on the subject directed me toward immigration debates as illustrative of the rhetorical processes of face. Specifically, I wanted to examine those processes as they pertain to immigrants who, especially after 9/11, appear in public discourse as a threatening menace. Much of the extant scholarship on media representations of immigrants focuses on the Latino/a population and thus raises different issues than those at stake in my project. My questions were: What does it look like when, in public discourse, Muslim-Arab-Middle Eastern immigrants are “faced,” that is, when a rhetorical figure is imposed on them in such a way that it brings them into public subjectivity? And then what happens when that face or figure cracks? What comes through the cracks? How are the cracks mended rhetorically?

What do you believe are the most important contexts for understanding the rhetorical functions of this artifact?

The potentially relevant contexts are many. Situating the New York Times in context, a critic could, for example, discuss the changing conditions for newspapers and other traditional media. To contextualize media coverage of Arabs and Middle Easterners, one would need to discuss race and U.S. public culture. And so on. Because my research focus is immigration, this was the context in which I located the artifact, framing it as a specific subset of New York Times texts about immigration, specifically Muslim-Arab-Middle Eastern immigration. As the “nation of immigrants” mythology reflects, however, even this is a large, unwieldy context; much of American history is potentially about the culture and politics of immigration. Further, it is worth noting when contextualizing Muslim-Arab-Middle Eastern immigration that the constructed category is complex: Clearly, not all Muslims in the United States are immigrants; a majority of Arab Americans are Christian; only a small minority of the world’s Muslims are Arabs; and so on. Nevertheless, the fraught concept of Muslim-Arab-Middle Easterner exists in public perception, propagated and circulated through mainstream media.

For the Muslim-Arab-Middle Eastern immigrant community, post-9/11 U.S. society is precarious. For instance, in November 2002 the Department of Homeland Security introduced a “special registration program,” registering thousands of male noncitizens from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Syria, and other countries of suspicion. Under this so-called absconder initiative, the largest registration effort in decades, authorities detained and deported suspects, most of whom were cleared of any connections to terrorism. Despite reports of civil liberties violations, the program was deemed a success by the U.S. Justice Department until its termination in May 2003. This initiative illustrates the centrality of sociopolitical context for analysis of this artifact.

How would you characterize your critical approach to this artifact? Why have you chosen this approach?

I originally approached the text set with theoretically driven questions about face. Then, through a close textual reading of the articles, I identified a wide range of themes, tones, images, and tropes. This exploratory method befits the open-endedness of the above-mentioned research questions, which articulate curiosity: What happens when…? What does it look like rhetorically when…? By offering curiosity as a critical orientation, I mean a model of public address scholarship that deliberately turns to the text to discern a rhetorical practice.

My critical approach to this artifact differed on at least one specific point from existing analyses of the social and political implications of media representations of immigration. Whereas most critiques center on negative representations, explicating the impact of public discourses that in various ways indict immigrants, I focused specifically on what might be called nonaccusatory rhetorical constructions of immigrants. Instead of drawing attention to the directly incriminating or overtly hostile representations (e.g., that Muslim-Arab-Middle Eastern immigrants are prone to crime and violent misogyny or that they have contact with terrorists, both of which recurred frequently in the set of articles), I explicated three prevalent themes in the prosopopeia, or “face-assignment,” of Muslim-Arab-Middle Eastern immigrants: the face of an assimilated newcomer, the face of a patriot, and the face of a powerless victim. This methodological decision was motivated by my assumptions about the theoretical concept of face. My objective was not to condemn the assignment of subjectivity as a rhetorical and social practice. Prosopopeia isn’t necessarily sinister intentionally. But arguably, it always entails some kind of domination.

How would you incorporate this artifact into a class?

This project fits within a larger research program, as part of which I recently developed a course on rhetorics of immigration. However, the artifact could be useful in almost any course on contemporary issues or conflicts in U.S. society. The text set is large and diverse enough that each student could design an individual research project around whatever topic or question she or he discovers therein. Or an in-class small-group discussion activity would be suitable.

As students work through the New York Times articles, an important and challenging task is to maintain focus on form and practice. Many of the articles are narratives about individual lives, suffering and triumph, innocence and guilt. As students read through a very large set of texts, I would encourage them not to get lost in the information conveyed about a particular person or family but to extract patterns: What do we learn about individual lives that seems to reappear? Better yet, might we as critics learn something about the rhetoric of immigration by noting the fact that so many texts about immigrants are stories of individuals? From a hundred portrayals, does a whole character of “the immigrant” emerge? What is that figure like? Active or passive? Humble or arrogant? Dangerous? Virtuous? Specifically, what are the dimensions of this character that seem surprising compared with the student critic’s expectations?

To introduce students to public media’s constructions of immigrants and immigration, I recommend assigning Leo R. Chavez’s Covering Immigration: Popular Images and the Politics of the Nation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), Kent A. Ono and John M. Sloop’s Shifting Borders: Rhetoric, Immigration, and California’s Proposition 187 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002), Otto Santa Ana’s Brown Tide Rising: Metaphors of Latinos in Contemporary American Public Discourse (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002), and Anne Demo’s essay “Sovereignty Discourse and Contemporary Immigration Politics,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 91 (2005): 291–311.

Where can interested readers find additional information?

On immigration and public discourse, see E. Johanna Hartelius and Jennifer Asenas, “Citational Epideixis and a ‘Thinking of Community’: The Case of the Minuteman Project,” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 40 (2010): 360–84. For an interpretation of de Man and Levinas, including an instructive discussion of face, see Diane Davis, Inessential Solidarity: Rhetoric and Foreigner Relations (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010). On Muslim-Arab-Middle Eastern immigration in mainstream media, see Kimberly A. Powell, “Framing Islam: An Analysis of U.S. Media Coverage of Terrorism since 9/11,” Communication Studies 62 (2011): 90–112; and M. Mehdi Semati, “Terrorists, Moslems, Fundamentalists and Other Bad Objects in the Midst of ‘Us,’” Journal of International Communication 4 (1997): 30–49.

Contributor: E. Johanna Hartelius is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at Northern Illinois University. She studies rhetorical theory and criticism with an emphasis on the rhetoric of expertise, public memory, and digital rhetoric. She published The Rhetoric of Expertise at Lexington Books in 2011, and her scholarship appears in journals such as Argumentation and Advocacy, Critical Studies in Media Communication, Management Communication Quarterly, the Quarterly Journal of Speech, and Rhetoric Society Quarterly.

Editor: Angela G. Ray, Associate Professor of Communication Studies at Northwestern University, is chair of NCA’s Public Address Division for 2012.

Vibrant Voices, Vol. 1, No. 5