By Joshua Prenosil
Keely Peden’s Congo Colton War PSA is effective because it provides a number of visual and aural juxtapositions that lead the viewer to a pathetic (pathos-based) understanding of the third-world consequences of technological development. What I found especially impactful in this piece was the juxtaposition of faces, which served roughly as bookends for the video of the Congolese conflict (1:21-1:57). Human faces have been on my mind lately because of both my scholarly and pedagogical interests, so I thought I might provide some reflections on faciality, identification, and technology in order to explain my visceral reactions to the video. To begin, I will discuss a pedagogical concept that I use in my professional writing classes.
Identification and Faciality
In my technical writing course, I frequently borrow from popular science in order to explain rhetorical principles to my engineering and science students. The pedagogical goal here is to borrow scientific ethos on behalf of rhetoric in order to render it recognizable to my audience. A lot of popularized cognitive science translates easily to rhetoric, and my students seem to find cog sci research on mirror neurons especially useful. Diane Davis, a preeminent rhetorical theorist, explains mirror neurons in a 2008 RSQ article and her new (and excellent) book, Inessential Solidarity:
Mirror neurons… reside in the premotor area of the brain, which is the area that primes the next movements in a motor sequence. What’s so interesting about them is that they act as both sensory and motor neurons, firing in association not only with the execution but also with the observation of an action. This means that the same mirror neurons fire in my brain whether I actually grab a pencil myself or I see you grab one, indicating no capacity to distinguish between my grasping hand and what is typically (and hastily) described as a visual representation of it:your grasping hand. The same basic thing purportedly happens with non-goal directed ‘biological movements’: neurons in my motor areas start to ‘resonate’ when you move. (“Identification” 131)
Davis goes on to explain that mirror neurons do not ‘learn’ how to “resonate” with others’ movements. One’s mirror neurons respond to others’ movements almost immediately after birth (Davis “Inessential” 24). Hence, “a mimetic rapport precedes understanding” – or learning (“Identification” 131). Humans are built to identify with other creatures:
I lectured on mirror neurons shortly before watching Keely’s video, so I was keyed into my own visceral response to her composition during the viewing. I’m not ashamed to admit this: I shared in the excitement of people opening their iPods at the beginning of the video. I actually felt my mood improve (and I felt myself smile) as people received their gifts. As the cognitive theory goes, a part of my brain failed to draw a boundary between their mouths, cheeks, and eyes – their faciality – and mine.
My identification with the faces of happy iPod recipients made the subsequent section of the video especially jarring. The transitional text, the series of questions that Keely asks during 0:53-1:21 and the accompanying sound of a heartbeat contributed to my sense of the coming emotional disjuncture. To me, the air raid siren that played during the scenes of the downed plane sounded like the tornado sirens I used to hear back in tornado country (I’m from Nebraska), which added an eerily anticipatory element to watching the crowds and police foment.
In the following portion of the video, the faces of Congolese civil war victims served as a commanding pathetic addition to the textual information Keely provided on the social impact of colton. The faces of the child soldiers (particularly the face at 3:13) were powerful antitheses to the smiling, laughing faces of the iPod recipients. The combination of text and images highlighted the fact that the villagers who are terrorized by rebels selling colton have a very different experience of the “substance” than those who interface with it vicariously through the earbuds of an iPod. This (perhaps tacit) message in the video also resonated with my scholarly interests, which tend to cluster around rhetorics of technology and social justice.
Rhetoric, Technology, and Social Justice
A lot of scholarship on the rhetoric of technology in the last 30 years has emphasized the social definition of technology. Scholars have posited that technologies take on properties that are peculiar to the networks they inhabit: a microphone has a very different agency on the President’s lapel during an interview than when it’s in front of a folk singer or hidden beneath the clothing of a “nark.” Colton is undoubtedly a technology; from the moment it’s dug from the ground, it leverages people and things in relationships of skill and mutual affect. Colton, throughout its technological life-cycle, is never “neutral;” it is implicated as a co-determinant in the consequences of its use.
If, as the rhetoricians of technology argue, technology can have an agency and an ethic, it is bound by the same social discipline that we all are. That is, colton, as an acting member of society, should be made to be more just if its agency promotes injustice. What does this mean? Perhaps one solution is to embed colton in more consistently just networks. We all know what these networks look like: peaceful, with safe working conditions and equitable pay for laborers. It doesn’t take much to imagine the solution: the hard part is the brick-by-brick work of diplomacy and negotiation for just ends. How should we judge if a technology is just or unjust? Perhaps the faces of those who co-articulate its actions – and our visceral responses to those faces – are the best measure.
Davis, Diane. “Identification: Burke and Freud on Who You Are.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 38.2 (Spring 2008): 123-147.
–. Inessential Solidarity: Rhetoric and Foreigner Relations. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh Press, 2010.