37 episodes

re:verb is a podcast about politics, culture, and language in action, featuring interviews and segments from scholars, writers, critics, and activists in the humanities, social sciences, and outside the academy.

re:verb Calvin Pollak and Alex Helberg

    • News

re:verb is a podcast about politics, culture, and language in action, featuring interviews and segments from scholars, writers, critics, and activists in the humanities, social sciences, and outside the academy.

    E37: Risk Assessment and the Rhetoric of Epidemics (w/ Dr. Ryan Mitchell)

    E37: Risk Assessment and the Rhetoric of Epidemics (w/ Dr. Ryan Mitchell)

    On today's show, Calvin and Ben speak to our friend, colleague, and former re:verb producer Dr. Ryan Mitchell. Recently, Ryan defended his dissertation, a rhetorical history of the early years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and he will join Lafayette College as an Assistant Professor in the fall. Ryan’s dissertation traces the rhetorical strategies employed by urban gay men in the early 1980s to push back against totalizing, dehumanizing discourses of HIV/AIDS prevention. According to Ryan's analysis of texts like Callen and Berkowitz’s 1983 manual How to Have Sex in an Epidemic: One Approach, the success of these texts’ rhetorical strategies depended heavily on their viscerality -- their illumination of subjects' lived, bodily experiences of porousness and permeability -- to both illustrate and justify various intersubjectively-oriented safe sex protocols. Ultimately, Ryan argues, texts like Callen and Berkowitz’s served to protect urban gay men from the worst ravages of the disease while also, crucially, affirming their communal identities and agency. 

    After talking through the major rhetorical concepts Ryan employs in his work, we shift into a discussion of how this all might relate to current discourses surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. As Ryan wisely reminds us, no two disease crises are identical, and there are many mismatches between the early years of HIV/AIDS and where we are currently. Even still, as we discuss, the rhetorics that Ryan has studied emphasize the visceral embodied experiences of those most victimized by public health crises while also promoting social practices, norms, and policies to foster intersubjective ethics of care -- all of which may be worthy of consideration as we navigate the social and political upheaval of our present moment.

    Works Referenced in this Episode
    Cazdyn, E. (2012). The already dead: the new time of politics, culture, and illness. Duke University Press.
    Hauser, G. (2012). Prisoners of conscience : moral vernaculars of political agency. University of South Carolina Press.
    Hawhee, D. (2011). Looking into Aristotle's eyes: Toward a theory of rhetorical vision. Advances in the History of Rhetoric, 14(2), 139-165.
    Johnson, J. (2016). “A man’s mouth is his castle”: The midcentury fluoridation controversy and the visceral public. The Quarterly Journal of Speech, 102(1), 1–20.
    Kennerly, M. (2010). Getting Carried Away: How Rhetorical Transport Gets Judgment Going. Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 40(3), 269–291.
    Larson, S. R. (2018). “Everything inside me was silenced”:(Re) defining rape through visceral counterpublicity. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 104(2), 123-144.
    Mitchell, R. (2019). Decoupling sex and intimacy: the role of dissociation in early AIDS prevention campaigns. Argumentation and Advocacy, 55(3), 211-229.
    Rice, J. (2017). The Rhetorical Aesthetics of More: On Archival Magnitude. Philosophy & Rhetoric, 50(1), 26-49.
    Rowland, A. L. (2020). Zoetropes and the Politics of Humanhood. Ohio State University Press.

    • 53 min
    E36: re:joinder - Give me liberty AND give me death!

    E36: re:joinder - Give me liberty AND give me death!

    In this timely re:joinder episode, Sophie, Calvin, and Alex gather over Zoom to engage with some truly vile COVID-19 takes -- so you don't have to! 

    Calvin shares "The Media Are Embarrassing Themselves Over Trump's Use of 'Chinese Virus'", written by a guy named John at the conservative Federalist magazine, which apologizes for President Trump's strategic framing of the virus as inherently Chinese. In denying and obfuscating Trump's racist language, John makes some mind-bogglingly context-stripped and hypocritical claims, such as accusing "the media" (reminder: The Federalist is a media outlet) of doing performative outrage. Yet, as we point out, The Federalist is only able to publish many of these arguments because the corporate media has generally done a terrible job of frame-checking (Cloud, 2018) the administration and its rhetorical allies. Nevertheless, reporters are asking valid questions about Trump's language in this case, we argue.

    Then, Alex brings in "Freedom Means Letting People Make Risk Calculations About Coronavirus" by Chuck Devore, a piece ALSO published in The Federalist, which makes a circuitous, scattershot argument for science denialism out of fealty to "the free market." Devore decries social distancing, emphasizes the effects of "the Wuhan flu" on the restaurant industry, and endorses some of Trump's favorite questionable treatment options (e.g. hydrochloroquine) and the far-right Internet's favorite anti-Chinese conspiracy theories. Concluding on a ceremonial note, he invokes the classic Patrick Henry quote "give me liberty or give me death!" as he predicts that our "competition"-oriented healthcare system will ultimately save us from this crisis, while simultaneously implying that re-opening Applebee’s should be our national priority. 

    Lastly, Sophie shares some awful tweets from Matthew John Dowd and Buck Sexton, both of whom argue that social distancing is doing more harm than the mass death which would surely follow abandoning social distancing. A few days later, Sexton tweets a friend's report of devastation in a New York hospital, demanding that his followers "pray" for the victims. Across all of these takes, we notice a consistent theme of moral vanity, nihilism, and sacrificial devotion to the capitalist economy. In response, we propose that after COVID-19, the economy might just need to change a little!

    Texts Analyzed in this Episode

    J. (Mar. 19, 2020). The Media Are Embarrassing Themselves Over Trump’s Use Of ‘Chinese Virus’. The Federalist.

    Devore, C. (Apr 6, 2020). Freedom Means Letting People Make Risk Calculations About Coronavirus. The Federalist. 




    • 1 hr 19 min
    E35: Epicrisis for an epic crisis (w/ James J. Brown, Jr.)

    E35: Epicrisis for an epic crisis (w/ James J. Brown, Jr.)

    With COVID-19 necessarily reducing our face-to-face interaction, we are increasingly reliant on digital tools -- from conferencing software like Zoom to social networks like Twitter -- to mediate our social, political, and cultural lives. Yet each digital tool brings along specific rhetorical affordances and constraints, a topic that few scholars have studied more closely in recent years than our guest this week, James J. Brown, Jr. (@jamesjbrownjr), Associate Professor of English and Director of the Digital Studies Center at Rutgers University.

    In remote conversation, Calvin and James discuss the continuing relevance of notions of digital hospitality and ethos from James's 2015 book Ethical Programs: Hospitality and the Rhetorics of Software, as well as new research James is conducting on the problem of harassment on communication platforms -- from early-20th-century phone network subscribers to today's Twitter trolls. As part of this work, James's new piece in Amodern, "Epicrisis for an Epic Crisis", analyzes rhetorical strategies used by women and people of color to comment on and catalogue instances of bad communicative behavior on platforms and networks. Along the way, we touch upon the value of records, fantasy baseball, and videogames at times like these, as well as why Tressie McMillan Cottom (@tressiemcphd) is the undisputed master of the quote-tweet.

    @tressiemcphd’s quote-tweet-thread in response to James’s article

    Brock Jr, A. (2020). Distributed Blackness: African American Cybercultures (Vol. 9). NYU Press.

    Brown, J. J. (2015). Ethical programs: Hospitality and the rhetorics of software. University of Michigan Press.

    Brown, J. J. (2020). Epicrisis for an epic crisis. Amodern, 9.

    Campbell, K. K. (2005). Agency: Promiscuous and protean. Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, 2(1), 1-19.

    Derrida, J., & Dufourmantelle, A. (2000). Of hospitality. Stanford University Press.

    Hyde, M. J. (Ed.). (2004). The ethos of rhetoric. University of South Carolina Press.

    Lanham, R. A. (1991). A handlist of rhetorical terms. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    Rollins, B. (2005). The ethics of epideictic rhetoric: Addressing the problem of presence through Derrida's funeral orations. Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 35(1), 5-23.

    Rosenfield, L. W. (1980). The practical celebration of epideictic. Rhetoric in transition: Studies in the nature and uses of rhetoric, 131-55.

    Walker, J. (2000). Rhetoric and poetics in antiquity. Oxford University Press.

    • 55 min
    E34: What does it mean to be mobile? Space, Place, and Mobility Part 2 (w/ Dr. Marian Aguiar)

    E34: What does it mean to be mobile? Space, Place, and Mobility Part 2 (w/ Dr. Marian Aguiar)

    The spread of COVID-19 has changed the way we see our own relationship to space and mobility. Within this state of emergency, disparities in access are made more stark: as certain sectors of workers are able to continue their jobs under quarantine and observing social distancing guidelines while other sectors are forced into dangerous forms of mobility, borders old and new are being inscribed and reinscribed through austerity measures. The present crisis has exposed not only the existence but the extremity of this precarity, and has the paradoxical effect of making it seem like a shockwave momentarily fissuring our otherwise just system. 

    To explore some of these increasingly-relevant issues, we focus today’s episode around two discussions of the concept of “mobility” and how it functions in culture. The first is a free-roaming conversation between Alex and (newly-minted on the mic) co-producer Ben Williams about their shared experiences and reflections living in self-isolated “stasis,” as well as how the language of crisis in the era of COVID-19 belies structural inequalities already experienced by certain groups in our society. The second is an interview with Dr. Marian Aguiar, a professor of literary and cultural studies at Carnegie Mellon University. Dr. Aguiar has focused on issues in globalization, postcolonial studies, and feminism, and her recent work on refugee mobilities explores transnationalism through the ways we represent and imagine movement. 

    During this latter conversation with Dr. Aguiar, we examine what it means to be displaced, and how various accounts of migration stabilize and destabilize representations of refugeehood through narratives, visual documentation, and art installations. Finally, we focus on the systemic currents that subject those who’ve been displaced to drifts as they cross national borders and seek asylum, as well as the affective currents that both help and hinder advocacy struggles over immigration policy and expanding the freedom of movement.

    Dr. Marian Aguiar’s work on space, place, and mobility

    Aguiar, M. (2011). Tracking Modernity India’s Railway and the Culture of Mobility. University of Minnesota Press.

    Aguiar, M. (2018). Arranging Marriage Conjugal Agency in the South Asian Diaspora. University of Minnesota Press.

    Aguiar, M., Mathieson, C., & Pearce, L. (2019). Mobilities, literature, culture. Palgrave Macmillan.

    Works and Concepts cited in this Episode

    Berlant, L. (2011). Cruel optimism. Duke University Press. 

    Bissell, D. (2007). Animating suspension: waiting for mobilities. Mobilities, 2(2), 277-298.

    Butler, J. (2015). Notes toward a performative theory of assembly. Harvard University Press.

    Coetzee, J. M. (1980). Waiting for the barbarians. Penguin Books.

    Cresswell, T. (2006). On the move: Mobility in the modern western world. Taylor & Francis.

    Cresswell, T. (2014). Place: an introduction. John Wiley & Sons.

    Debord, G. (2012). Theory of the derive [originally published 1958]. Situationist International Anthology, 50-54.

    Lancione, M. & Simone, A. (2020). Bio-austerity and solidarity in the Covid-19 space of emergency - episode one. Society and Space. Retrieved from: https://www.societyandspace.org/articles/bio-austerity-and-solidarity-in-the-covid-19-space-of-emergency

    Lautor, B. (2020). Is this a dress rehearsal? Critical Inquiry. Retrieved from: 


    Malkki, L. (1996). Speechless Emissaries: Refugees, Humanitarianism, and Dehistoricization. Cultural Anthropology, 11(3), 377–404.

    Nguyen, L., & McCallum, K. (2016). Drowning in our own home: a metaphor-led discourse analysis of Australian news media reporting on maritime asylum seekers. Communication Research and Practice, 2(2), 159-176.

    Santa Ana, O. (2002). Brown tide rising: Metaphors of Latinos in contemporary American

    • 54 min
    E33: How can art help us reveal hidden histories and imagine transformative futures? Space, Place, and Mobility Part 1 (w/ Alisha B. Wormsley)

    E33: How can art help us reveal hidden histories and imagine transformative futures? Space, Place, and Mobility Part 1 (w/ Alisha B. Wormsley)

    For the inaugural episode in our new series on Space, Place, and Mobility, re:verb co-producer Sophie Wodzak sits down with Alisha B. Wormsley, a Pittsburgh-based interdisciplinary artist and cultural producer. Wormsley’s work bridges public art, social engagement, science fiction, and political activism to reveal forgotten histories and imagine alternative futures. Through innovative public works like the There Are Black People in the Future billboard (which we discussed back in Episode 6), The People are the Light, and her current project, the Sibyls Shrine Residency Program, Wormsley uses her art to engage a diverse array of audiences in exploring the beauty and rich history of black communities in Pittsburgh.

    In this interview, Sophie talks with Alisha about her past and present work and the ways that it plays with concepts of space and place to help us critically interrogate our notions of belonging and community. They also discuss the self-transformative power of traditionally-marginalized knowledges such as black witchcraft, and how such practices are being revived in contemporary art and culture as modes of empowerment.

    Links to Alisha Wormsley’s Work:








    • 46 min
    E32: Organizing Against Bloomberg (w/ Benjamin Dixon)

    E32: Organizing Against Bloomberg (w/ Benjamin Dixon)

    Recently, millions of potential US voters heard newly-unearthed comments made in 2015 by Michael Bloomberg -- the billionaire, former New York City Mayor, and current Democratic presidential primary candidate. In his remarks, Bloomberg vociferously defended stop-and-frisk, an NYPD policy directive that disproportionately targeted poor people and minorities for warrantless searches. The controversy over Bloomberg’s remarks raise questions about how the former Republican has risen to near the top of the polls despite having a policy record and political ideology largely out of step with the current Democratic Party. 

    On today’s episode, we speak to Benjamin Dixon, the independent journalist, commentator, and activist who publicized the 2015 Bloomberg stop-and-frisk comments via his Twitter and YouTube accounts on February 10. Since then, Dixon has continued to use his platform to publicize and problematize Bloomberg’s record and rhetoric. We ask Ben about Bloomberg’s history and governing philosophy, the corporate media’s coverage of the Democratic primary, and the overwhelming role of economic power in electoral politics. We conclude by discussing the best practices for political advocacy that Ben has developed based on this and his other work.

    Reference Material:

    Dixon’s un-earthed audio of Bloomberg’s comments 

    Dixon’s original tweet publicizing the Bloomberg audio

    Dixon’s recent article on Bloomberg’s comments in The Guardian: “Bloomberg is avoiding all scrutiny. It’s time to take a long, hard look at his views”

    Aspen Times: “Michael Bloomberg blocks footage of Aspen Institute appearance”

    Bloomberg’s response to questions about his stop & frisk comments

    Interview with Benjamin Dixon in Jacobin: “Michael Bloomberg’s Campaign Is an Insult to Democracy”

    • 31 min

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