IRREVERENT COMPOSITION AS RESISTANCE
Much of the skepticism about users’ ability to set a serious agenda for the debate revolved around issues of rhetorical delivery, particularly since the key difference between this debate and other town hall debates was the central role of user-generated video content. At the beginning of the Democratic debate, CNN journalist and event moderator Anderson Cooper briefly reviewed some questions that were not selected, citing such justifications as “distracting” costumes and the use of children to ask adult questions. Although many of the most irreverent or “irrelevant” questions were cut (such as the aforementioned “cyborg” question), viewers and candidates were still treated to some songs, costumes, and seemingly flippant remarks on the part of question-askers. In fact, the unconventional strategies employed by some of the users is part of what caused many of the Republicans so much discomfort with taking part in the debate at all.
A surprise celebrity from the Democratic debate, for example, was Billiam the Snowman – a snowman who, with a dubbed-over voice and animated carrot lips, posed a question about global warming:
The rhetorical strategy of using a snowman as a mouthpiece for a serious question about global warming generated a great deal of attention for both the issue and the composers; however, this unconventional and irreverent approach to posing a serious question about environmental policies to presidential candidates was also scorned by many in positions of power and was pointed to as justification for distrusting public opinion and participation. Both former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, for example, expressed skepticism about participating in a Republican YouTube debate, remarking that such irreverent displays as the snowman question upset the dignity and serious nature of a televised presidential debate (Distaso, 2007).
Indeed, many skeptics were quick to dismiss the irreverence of some user questions and commentary, despite – or perhaps because of – the fact that such strategies often function as compelling modes of critique in public arenas. John Killoran (2001) argues that the “irreverent work” common to many online websites can be read as “a strategy both to create a speaking space in the crowded World Wide Web and to contest the monopoly of institutional voices in ‘serious’ public discourse” (p. 127). Consistent with Killoran’s observations, many of the questions submitted for consideration in the CNN-YouTube debates used irreverence in the form of seemingly absurd, mocking questions in order to critique the debate question genre and/or offer a statement on ongoing national and international policy. The following question submitted for the Republican debate, for example, addresses issues related to war and foreign policy in a way that not only mocks the genre of the town-hall question format, but that also offers a critique on current administrative policy1:
Another question, submitted by a user who has a large following on YouTube (more than 14,000 subscribers at the time of this writing), and which was used as justification for installing gatekeeping mechanisms during the selection process, worked to mock the event in a different way:
In this video, the questioner incorporates several key elements that make him look and sound like a “legitimate” political commentator, yet his ridiculous question serves as a deviation from the expectations set up by those other rhetorical choices (his attire, the choice of music, the graphics, etc.): In doing so, this self-proclaimed “trouble maker” mocks the process of the town hall debate itself – the rhetorical question is not meant to garner an actual response from the candidates, but to create a reaction in the minds of other users to the CNN-YouTube Debate format. The question may not have been appropriate for the “official” debate discourse, but it absolutely is consistent with the vernacular discourse of YouTube and Web 2.0 as a whole, thereby illuminating yet again the contested nature of this digital public sphere.
Not surprisingly, these and similar questions did not pass the cut to be aired on the televised debate, and it's likely that the composers of these questions knew quite well that the likelihood of having their compositions selected would be slim. While it is difficult to determine conclusively what motivated these users' turn toward irreverence, the effect is that these videos open up a new discursive space for users to participate within the parameters established by the event while also critiquing and challenging those parameters, as well as the candidates themselves. In other words, irreverence allows users to critique the political process and the politicians. As Killoran (2001) argues, parody (and, I would add, other irreverent strategies that mock people or events) is often used in virtual environments to challenge established media power, giving online rhetors “the means to occupy positions made available by the new medium and simultaneously … contest their lack of authentic franchise in that medium” (p. 131). In other words, users who submitted questions that were unlikely to be chosen because of their irreverent rhetorical strategies were offering a critique of the selection process and the institutionalization of the virtual space. By dismissing irreverent arguments from users, CNN and the candidates were essentially dismissing one of the most powerful modes of political critique in the online environments these officials wished to exploit. By attempting to silence the politics of irreverence, political and corporate institutions were furthering their efforts to maintain the status quo at the same time that they claimed to be doing the opposite – and irreverent videos that emerged in response to this dismissal (such as the ones discussed above) work to illuminate and resist this paradox.
I use the CNN-YouTube debates as an example of an event that typifies the ways in which the Internet has lingering potential as a public sphere, at the same time that its potential is threatened by capitalism and political institutions. For researchers, the event provides a somewhat tidy, more contained rhetorical space from which to evaluate the tensions between institutionalized discourse and the vernacular rhetorics of irreverence. However, it is important to note that these rhetorical strategies are not limited to formal events such as the CNN-YouTube debates, and resistive discourse on the Web is anything but tidy. What is clear, however, is that much of YouTube, other social networking sites, and the Web 2.0 ethos as a whole revolve around rituals of appropriation, parody, satire, and other irreverent modes of composing. Users often post their own versions of favorite videos as responses to the original, thereby engaging themselves (and other viewers) in a ritual of familiarity that promotes critical spectatorship and participation: “Such familiarity leads to anticipation, reflection and reaction on the part of the audience, wherein the principle of the audience as spectators of the discourse transcends to a principle of the audience as potential participants in the discourse” (McKenzie, 2000, p. 196). “Mash-up” compositions that integrate recognizable footage from existing videos into “original” new media texts typically rely on the audience’s understanding of the initial footage in order to make a new statement. This kind of bricolage “incorporates practices and notions like borrowing, hybridity, mixture, and plagiarism. Most scholars in media and cultural studies invoke bricolage when describing the remixing, reconstructing, and reusing of separate artifacts, actions, ideas, signs, symbols, and styles in order to create new insights or meanings” (Deuze, 2006, p. 70).
An example of this can be seen with the now infamous “Vote Different” (also known as “Hillary 1984”) video, which uses footage from the 1984 Apple advertisement that introduced Macintosh to the world (the Apple advertisement, of course, being itself a revision of a famous scene of the Orwell classic, “1984”).
While the initial “Vote Different” video modified an existing visual formula to make a political statement, the variations that were created in response served to shift the rhetoric from being about the political campaign to being about the construction of the video itself – the video's creator even offered commentary on how to go about constructing a “viral video” that would achieve the same kind of widespread appeal as the “Vote Different” mash-up. In this way, irreverent strategies such as parody in the “Vote Different” advertisement, as well as other mocking strategies employed by videos submitted to the CNN-YouTube Debates, give way not only to discussion about the implied arguments supplied by those texts, but also to discussion of the rhetorical strategies used to convey the irreverence of those arguments. Thus, as I will discuss in the next section, composition students have much to gain from composing and critiquing irreverent texts.
Note: The "personal philosophy of killing" video (originally submitted as entry #4839 to the Republican CNN-YouTube Debates) can no longer be located on the YouTube site. Previously, all submitted questions were archived here, but YouTube has not responded to my error report. Since I had downloaded the video clip previously, I am able to embed it as a plugin, but am unable to provide a working link and up-to-date citation information for the originally published video.