Affective Politics: Against the Democratic Accident

Joshua Wood

Increasingly, the United States in the 21st century is becoming known as a “post-truth society,” wherein traditional models of a deliberative public sphere are being set aside in favor of a type of political calculus that relies more on emotion than logic-based reasoning. This conception of a shift in reasoning has largely been deployed after the 2016 US Presidential election to explain how Donald Trump, who arguably speaks the language of populism, could have beaten his Democratic competitor. The landscape at times seems dystopian, littered with accusations of “fake news” and “alternative facts.” Rather than a public sphere committed to argumentation, the demos is characterized as one now committed to filter bubble and echo chambers, more reliant on what feels correct emotionally, in a classic case of confirmation bias (Munro and Stansbury). The situation is ripe for exploitation, and the rise of so many far-right movements and leaders in the past few years is evidence of that.

The turn toward affective rhetoric on both the left and the right warrants investigation. This paper is an attempt to puzzle out the workings of this shift in the public sphere, and to hypothesize how the deliberative public sphere might continue to function after this shift. Gregory Ulmer’s model of flash reason offers a glimpse into the way that discourse might be shaped; here, judgment happens–and must happen–at the speed of light. Ulmer describes flash reason as “a deliberative rhetoric for public policy formation, making democratically informed decisions in a moment . . . against the threat of a General Accident that happens everywhere simultaneously” (Avatar Emergency ix). In order to train this kind of flash reason, we must take steps to uncover the affective linkages that underpin the way human beings in Western Democracy interact with one another. This paper takes Ulmer’s model of the mystory, a different kind of historiography as a means of revealing the affective linkages, which make discourse possible.

I.    The Democratic Accident

In The Original Accident, Paul Virillio theorizes the accident as a shorthand for the downside of any invention, a side-effect of speed. Our landscape is one “where we endlessly bang into or run up against what crops up, ex abrupto, out of the blue, so to speak” (3). Though these accidents seem unpredictable, Virillio argues, as does Ulmer by extension, that they are utterly foreseeable, as the “invention of the ‘substance’ is equally invention of the ‘accident’” (5).

The same can be said for the Democratic Accident. Ulmer’s work is largely concerned with opposing a breakdown of public deliberation, wherein the Internet Accident must be planned for, as deliberation would have to be designed in such a way as to operate even after the Internet Accident. To theorize the Internet Accident would be to theorize what comes next, after even the breakdown of the institutions of Western democracy now under attack by Right-Wing populists. My goal, however, is to track the Accident which the Westspecifically, for the purposes of this argument, Americais now facing: the breakdown of the deliberative public sphere in the face of the rise of electracy, a shift for which the general voting public seems woefully under-prepared. 

The Democratic Accident is the breakdown of the institutions of democracy invented alongside democracy itself. It is the breakdown of the deliberation which makes democracy possible not because of an external problem, but because if deliberation excludes emotion then it carries the seeds for its downfall. Democracy carries within it the means to its destruction, a shadow which has been witnessed before: populism, the appeal to the masses which is driven in large part by emotion rather than by logical thinking. The fact that populist rhetoric was at lay in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, and the United States’ reputation as the world’s most prominent democracy, should be enough to draw attention to the means by which populism insinuates itself within democratic society. The idea of American democracy as the “Great Experiment” is helpful here. When Alexis de Tocqueville first labels America as an experimental government, he describes the nation as an “attempt to construct society upon a new basis; and it was there, for the first time, that theories hitherto unknown, or deemed impracticable, were to exhibit a spectacle for which the world had not been prepared by the history of the past.” Similarly, when Madison drafts Federalist 10, he outlines the safeguards in the American republic against an unchecked passion in the majority, which in a direct democracy would be free to run roughshod over the minority: “A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert result from the form of government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual.”

In an electrate age, this problem is amplified, and without suitable means to mitigate the speed at which electrate changes happen in the demos, the Democratic Accident becomes unavoidable. Populism, writes Jan-Werner Müller, is a “moralistic imagination of politics, a way of perceiving the political world that sets a morally pure and fully unified...people against elites who are deemed corrupt or in some other way morally inferior” (20). Moreover, populists paint opponents as illegitimate. Under populist rhetoric, there is only one true “people,” and those outside of that group are unimportant and can be ignored, as they are not part of the morally pure majority. “This is the core claim of populism: only some of the people are really the people” (21).

Such an argument is fundamentally anti-pluralist. Western Liberal Democracy depends upon the existence of pluralism—pluralism is bound up in the nature of democracy, a willingness to let conflicting viewpoints exist and talk to one another. The totalizing nature of metanarratives of history works against this premise, however. American history, for example, is one such metanarrative and is taught as a single, unifying narrative. [1]  Though more recent trends have taken some of the spotlight away from Americans of European descent, the majority of American history remains the story of White colonists settling in America and expanding outward, establishing “civilization” as they went. A pluralist understanding of history would treat all participants as equal—the story of history is not shaped by a handful of powerful men, but by all of those in a society. This is more in line with the model of historiography put forward in Ulmer’s mystory, a rhizomatic version of historiography, which is not based on binaries and negations, but rather embraces the notion of multiplicities and takes into account the interconnectedness that is key to understanding the individual’s place in society.

If American history is predominantly the story of white men then “citizen” becomes an exclusionary term. The Democratic Accident is bound up in this insofar as non-citizens and non-white citizens shape and stress the demos. There is ample work to support this idea: Matthew Gibney tracks American attitudes toward refugees and asylum-seekers and their impact on liberal democratic policy in the West; Leah Bassel notes the ways in which immigrants and refugees are interpellated into a new public sphere in the West, wherein one’s status as immigrant limits “the ability to contest dominant norms and practices, an important feature of citizenship and democratic participation” and therefore bars one from contesting the nature of the public sphere (314); Mae Ngai traces American immigration policy, stating that liberal immigration policies “constructed alienage as a lack, as citizenship’s opposite” (229). Immigration laws in Western Democracy have thus laid the groundwork for contemporary surges in populism by creating a binary narrative—“us” and “them.” Immigration laws offer fuel for populist movements because they seek to draw a difference between citizen and non-citizen. Further, the pace with which minority groups have begun participating in the public sphere—the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, for example—have presented challenges to this exclusionary narrative. With citizen traditionally defined as white, the citizenship of nonwhite people tap into unaddressed problems in the construction of the public sphere. Such problems are being brought to light by the increasing prevalence of mobile technology (the increase in video evidence of police brutality). Protest movements and the active practice of citizenship speed up the rate at which democratic society must deal with groups it has previously oppressed and excluded from the public sphere. This speed, and the reaction to it, increases the likelihood of the Democratic Accident—a crash of democratic institutions occurring through populist means and resulting in a consolidation of power in an authoritarian regime, the opposite of Western liberal democracy.

This is the moment in which we now find ourselves: the Democratic Accident is no longer a fantasy, or something, which can be laughed off. The decrease in the total number of democracies in the past few years and the descent of what once were democracies into far-right regimes should give us pause as populism knocks at the doors of power in the United States. It would seem that the descent of democracy into popular passion that the American Founders presaged has arrived.

In the United States, the American Experiment is challenged by the Democratic Accident, despite the safeguards built into the constitution. In part, this is because populism insinuates itself in a political class that wants to retain power and which is too willing to yield to populism, thereby short-circuiting some of the safeguards. But if the Constitution fails to imagine and guard against the insidious nature of populism, viewing American democracy as an experiment should give us hope, because if America can be seen as an experiment, then some of the variables may be changed—the experiment may yet be salvaged. Ulmer offers a place to start, with his conceptions of electracy and flash reason, and this is where we must begin in order to retrace the public sphere after the emergence of affective politics.

II. Propaganda Rhetorics

Image 1. Nazi propoganda poster reading “The NDSAP secures the people’s community. People who need advice and assistance can turn to their local groups.” 1935. Wikimedia Commons.

Image 1. Nazi propoganda poster reading “The NDSAP secures the people’s community. People who need advice and assistance can turn to their local groups.” 1935. Wikimedia Commons.

Previous brushes in the world with right-wing authoritarianism have yielded a working understanding of the way that populism operates, how it mutates into authoritarianism and fascism in the midst of a Democratic Accident. Namely, we have been given one basic unit of fascistic communication: propaganda. Propaganda functions in the language of populism; it posits one national identity and villainizes identity groups. Fascism rests on this illusory public, the “real people,” to do its work. It claims that “a part of the people is the people . . . only the populist [leader] authentically identifies and represents this real or true people” (Mueller 22). The authoritarian leader depends on this feedback, and upon the acceptance of this premise by supporters, to maintain a grip on power. Propaganda is one way that this link is cemented. It appeals not to logic but to emotion; in so doing, it threatens to short circuit the public sphere in a way that hastens the Democratic Accident.

To cite Kenneth Burke, the work of propaganda rhetoric works in two registers: identification and division. Identification, for the populist, aims to align individual citizens with an exclusionary public sphere that discounts anyone who does not support the populist, and then treats that as the entirety of “the people.” The part becomes synonymous with the whole, the so-called silent majority, which may not be the majority at all. Such work is on display in early Nazi propaganda (Image 1).

This poster illustrates the first of two purposes of populist propaganda: it serves to create a public by addressing only the members of the community deemed appropriate to participate in the public sphere. Nazi propaganda featured images of the idealized German people—the blonde-haired family featured here. Similarly, the prevalence of a “happy” family in this image ties into Nazi narratives on the importance of family. It echoes the idea of childrearing as a woman’s chief responsibility and the means by which the German “Master Race” that would be furthered in later Nazi messaging.

Having first established its ideal public through visual appeals, the poster conveys a populist message to codify what sets the idealized German people apart: the notion of volksgemeinschaft, or the “people’s community.” The creation of this notion of a community, with its roots in the first World War, was a mechanism by which the Nazi Party was able to take power. Under Nazi rule, the notion of volksgemeinschaft became a racialized metaphor for the Master Race, a metaphor which purposefully excluded those deemed to be of lesser genetic stock than the Nazis viewed themselves; non-Germans and unwanteds were excluded under the aegis of this volksgemeinschaft. Cynthia Haynes notes that Nazi rhetoric functions on a basis of substitution: “Substitution is a form of violence, even if it is a metaphor that substitutes one word for another. There is a displacement, something that is sacrificed. Something, or most often someone, becomes a scapegoat” (14). This substitution, of a specific race and ethnicity for the whole, is at work in the Nazi takeover of Germany as well; the part is substituted for the whole, and power is allowed to consolidate in the Party. And there is clearly a scapegoat at work in the substitution present in Nazi propaganda, though not readily apparent in this first poster.

Image 2. Poster for “The Eternal Jew” (1940). Wikimedia Commons.

Image 2. Poster for “The Eternal Jew” (1940). Wikimedia Commons.

Burke has already done the work of a Burkean analysis of Hitler’s rhetoric (“The Rhetoric of Hitler’s ‘Battle’”), but it should be noted that this kind of rhetoric is not just present in Hitler’s speeches; rather, it is pervasive in all of Nazi rhetoric. In Rhetoric of Motives, Burke will treat more fully on the concept of identification, claiming that it is the opposite of division, and “is affirmed with earnestness precisely because there is division” (Rhetoric of Motives 22). But these twin concepts are also on display in Burke’s reading of Hitler’s rhetoric, where he ties the desire to unify into some deeper human condition: Burke notes that the “yearning for unity is so great that people are always willing to meet you halfway if you will give it to them by fiat, by flat statement, regardless of the facts...People so dislike the idea of internal division that, where there is a real internal division, their dislike can easily be turned against the man or group who would so much as name it, let alone proposing to act upon it” (Philosophy 205-6). We shall see this same attitude resurface in the beginning of the 21st Century in America and the United Kingdom, for the most part in anti-immigrant and anti-refugee sentiments. For now, we can see that identification is complementary to division; the two operate together. There is no room for dissent in a populist regime because to dissent would be to literally be cast out of the public sphere.

The Nazi’s propagandistic treatment of the Jewish subject is already the stuff of history, and little would be gained from delving into an extended analysis here. Suffice to say that the poster for “The Eternal Jew” offers a glimpse into the presentation of “the Jew” by Nazi propagandists: the stereotypical features, a figure housed mostly in shadows. The Jewish subject in Nazi propaganda is the tonal opposite of the Nazi, who is clothed in light and brightness. Comparing these two examples shows a stark division, the intent of Nazi propaganda. “The Jew” became the common enemy against which the German people could identify itself; Jews became the scapegoat in order for the Nazi’s conception of Germans as genetically superior to exist.

In the early 21st century, it is becoming increasingly common to compare current day right-wing regimes to Hitler and the Nazis, but such moves should give us pause. This is especially true of the Trump Administration in America. This comparison takes the Nazis as ultimate evil. It rests on the assumption that, apart from a few hiccups, America as a whole is somehow different or better than the Nazis. It disguises the fact that propaganda works on real people. “The principle of division is,” Haynes writes, “a frail instrument with which to perpetuate our delusion that we are better (more good than evil)—by being democratic, Christian, free, and righteous—than those ghosts with whom we will inevitably (and eternally) inhabit the only site that survives us all: the address itself. Ground Zero. Fortunately, as rhetoricians, we have a historical window into this address in the figure of the pharmakon” (30-31). This address, Haynes argues, works on a process of substitution she terms “pharmakonomy, an economy wherein the chain of substitutions performs neither as cure nor poison, but as a rhetorical address for the both/ and nature of the pharmakon” (32). The process at work in a pharmakonomy, to study a history of addresses, of substitutions, makes the work of substitution visible. Such an approach is needed in the public sphere in the United States. And so the American Experiment’s flexible nature will allow us to work out a solution where the problem is found: in emotion.

Image 3. “They’re Watching Us Plenty” US Office of Emergency Management. 1942. Wikimedia Commons.

Image 3. “They’re Watching Us Plenty” US Office of Emergency Management. 1942. Wikimedia Commons.

Here, it is crucial to not overlook the work of substitution in the American public sphere.  The most egregious of these is white supremacy, an unaddressed problem in the American body politic. White supremacy substitutes the myth of white founders for the truth of work done on the back of African slaves. White supremacy overlooks the work of activists of color, or non-male activists, in the progress of American democracy. If there is to be an affective politics in America, it must look these unrecognized truths in the eye without flinching. Populism has done so for years, to much different effect: Andrew Jackson rose to prominence on the backs of the Native Americans he would slay, violently and literally substituting white American settlers for Natives in land from which the latter were erased. Donald Trump now threatens the same, substituting White Christian Supremacy for the hallmark (if flawed) pluralism Americans claim to value; rising to power on the backs of Muslim immigrants (among others), he seeks to erase from the American public sphere.

We cannot overlook the unique role of propaganda in the United States in preserving white supremacy against threats foreign and domestic. Drawing a parallel with the racially-based language of Nazi propaganda, US messaging during the war villainized enemy nations by playing into racial stereotypes of Italians, Germans, and especially the Japanese (Image 3).

The Birth of a Nation, for all purposes a Ku Klux Klan propaganda film, was ultimately the first motion picture screened in the White House. The film featured white actors in blackface and portrayed African-Americans as unintelligent, psychopathic, and sexually aggressive—a theme that would continue in the American public’s treatment of black citizens as savages. The Klan was painted in a positive light in the film (Image 4). The Ku Klux Klan becomes, over the course of the film, a righteous defense on the part of white America, a protection of “their Aryan Birthright” (Image 5).


Propaganda rhetoric was also on display in the 2016 presidential election. Donald Trump’s first general election ad featured a comparison between “Hillary Clinton’s America” and his own. This “Two Americas” ad featured a split between darkly-hued, filtered scenes of refugees, immigrants, and criminals, and brightly lit American families, military personnel, and law enforcement equipment. The latter was “Donald Trump’s America.” In the opening half of the ad, the images of refugees (Image 6) played into the stereotypical concept of refugees as a teeming mass of humanity. The contrast between this image and the well-ordered image of American families in the ad’s second half (Image 7) put the substitution function of propaganda in full view. [2]

Similarly, the ad deploys anti-immigrant rhetoric by first painting immigrants as a leech on society: a voice intones that in Hillary Clinton’s America, “Illegal immigrants convicted of crimes get to stay, collecting social security benefits, skipping the line.” The images accompanying these words are of stereotypical brown criminals in various locales (Image 8). On the other end of the spectrum, in “Donald Trump’s America,” images of border patrol vehicles and agents are paired with a man in handcuffs being led away by a border patrol agent, while the same narrator intones that “terrorists are kept out” (Image 9). The sum total of these images is in line with the way Donald Trump described himself—as the “law and order candidate.” Here, however, the messaging is solidly in line with white supremacist versions of populism, wherein the only properly American people are either white or are strictly kept in line by the law.

To attempt to build a politics apart from this entrenched white supremacy would be foolhardy. Similarly, it would be ineffectual to attempt to separate the politics of the 21st century from the emotion present in propaganda. To attempt to build a political literacy, to train people to participate in the public sphere in the age of electracy, is to steer into the emotional elements of politics. Populist propaganda can only be effectual if people are not trained to think critically about the role of emotion in argumentation. Flash reason allows us to do this.

Affective politics, steeped in the logic of flash reason, knows this, and takes it into account with its calculations. White supremacy is the constant in the configuration of the American Public sphere, and it must be treated within any consideration of political calculus. It cannot be overlooked; rather, overcoming it must be a part of the work of affective politics.

III. Affect and Politics

To invoke the affective nature of propaganda and politics as a whole is to invoke Affect Theory à la Brian Massumi, who writes that Affect “is not a discipline of study of which the politics of affect would be a subdiscipline. It is a dimension of life . . . which directly carries a political valence . . . Thinking through affect is not just reflecting on it. It is thought taking the plunge, consenting to ride the waves of affect on a crest of words...Affect is only understood as enacted” (vii). Affective politics cannot be thought of without this always-enacted nature. 21st Century conceptions of politics, in the broadest meaning of that term (how should man live together?) must pose the question not merely in the form of logical, long-form argumentation, but in the terms of flash reason, in the kind of deliberation that comes from training affective responses. The genre that best achieves this is not a descriptionnot a literate text, which dispassionately describes the state of politics. The mystory is the experiential vehicle for training flash reason in an age of increasingly frequent democratic accidents.

The project of affective politics is to conceive the public sphere “post-truth,” to find the affective linkages which will drive liberal democracy forward in the 21st century. Affective politics uses the mystory to train participants in flash reason, to think rhizomatically instead of hierarchically. We can use the structure of propaganda as an Analogy (with all the connotation that this term entails in Ulmer’s oeuvre) for the new form of political communication we are identifying. The structure of propaganda invokes an emotional connection to a larger whole—a totalizing narrative in favor of a group of people or against a scapegoat. The populist language of traditional right-wing propaganda—taking the part of the people for their wholeis our Contrast in the Ulmerian sense. The Theory of Affective Politics creates a new way of interacting with the political realm, its Target. Affective politics recognizes the way that politics has always functioned; it takes the affective, substitutive work of propaganda as both a model and a limit.

I propose a type of guided mystory, wherein students or composers are given a genre, a lens through which to examine their lives and experiences. The aleatory nature of the mystory would still be present, but it would be focused almost exclusively on the impact of one facet of being in the word on all registers examined by the mystory. Any theory of Affective Politics in the United States must examine the role of white supremacy in this guided mystory. White supremacy underwrites substitutions in the American public sphere in order to further its own existence. [3]  In so doing, we can play the distaste for traditional racism against the modern colorblind racism, and begin to dismantle some of the power of white privilege and white supremacy.

The mystory in this case will not only serve to illustrate one’s identity but also to illuminate one’s relation to white supremacy. The goal of such a mystory and the goal of affective politics as a whole is to build an attunement of the type that Thomas Rickert argues is “neither inside nor outside . . . It results from the co-responsive and inclusive interaction that brings out both emersion (being with) and specificity (the way of our being there)” (9). Attunement changes the way that we can relate to each other in the public sphere by making us aware of the interconnections and our “co-responsiveness” that shape our interactions. Affective Politics takes this kind of attunement as the basis of a bulwark against the emotional appeals of propaganda. Affective Politics creates an inoculation against populist rhetoric by following the affective linkages that create one’s relationship with white supremacy and therefore set limits for a socially-defined “self.” A more educated notion of one’s position within the public sphere is not a panacea against racism and anti-refugee/anti-immigrant sentiments, but it can help to mitigate the damages caused by a democratic accident. This creates a release valve for emotions before they can reach catastrophic levels (and thereby trigger the democractic accident).

Some explorations of this type are already taking place at the University where I teach and study. In Issue 2 of Textshop Experiments, O’Brien, Stephens, Quigley, and Gaines explore the historic linkages between the campus and its roots as a cotton plantation originally owned by John C. Calhoun. Similarly, A.D. Carson’s “See the Stripes” campaign has attempted to start conversations about the relationship between race and the university. Movements and pieces such as these illustrate how the community history register of popcycle impact an individual, and give a view to how the average student, aware or not, is impacted by the communal history at a place such as Clemson University.

It is my proposal that this kind of work can be taken further. To counter the work of populist propaganda on the far right, what is needed is a counterpart that functions in the same emotional register as propaganda. The result would use the process of composing a mystory, but the output would be a more concrete piece of visual rhetoric, rather than the emblem that is the product of Ulmer’s mystory. If this process is implemented in a composition class, then the format would be tighter than the collage-like nature of the original mystory (Ulmer describes it as a website). The format is not the important part in this process—the finished product could be a website, a video game, a video, or anything else that speaks to the strengths and desires of the composer. The goal then is not to create something that will make the public more receptive to another’s affect—that would be a helpful side effect, but is not the main goal—but to inoculate the composer against the language of right wing populism with its reliance on ideological purity and its insistence on an identity imposed from the top down.

IV. A Guided Mystory

I offer here a brief sketch of what just such a guided mystory would look like by composing one of my own. Here, the goal of the mystory is to trace the way that white supremacy transverses all aspects of the popcycle and influences the self that sits at the center of the mystory. My guided mystory would examine the way that I grew up as a multiracial child in the South and how white supremacy coded interactions in my family life and in interactions with the community. By tracing these linkages, I hope to gain a better understanding of the emotional reactions that I have within the political sphere. The format this particular mystory will take will be revealed in the composition. What I trace below is merely the process of collecting the raw material from which the finished product can be composed.


Growing up biracial provided an interesting family dynamic, and I can begin to create an archive of experiences from that dynamic in order to fuel my own mystory. Two examples stand out as instructive. The first is the discovery of a family photo after my maternal grandmother died. In it, my cousins and I are standing around a table. When we found the photo, my uncle made a comment about me being the only white boy in the picture. This relates directly to the classificatory nature of white supremacy: whiteness requires other races identify themselves in relation to whiteness. [4]  I learned early on that I had to relate to whiteness in some way, especially in regards to my own race, ambiguous as it seemed at times. Against this, however, was the way that my father traced his own whiteness to each nationality, which made up his background, and taught me to do the same. He routinely made reference to Heinz 57 Varieties (Image 10) as an analogy for his (and by extension my own) racial makeup. In a way, this inoculated me against the workings of white supremacy. By insisting that whiteness was not essential, my father was helping me build a resistance to populist white supremacy in the public sphere.

Image 10. An example of Heinz’s 57 Varieties ad campaign. flickr user Jamie. CC-BY-2.0

Image 10. An example of Heinz’s 57 Varieties ad campaign. flickr user Jamie. CC-BY-2.0



Education for most Americans will look largely similar in the guided mystory. For most Americans, the process of being educated in America is a process of being insinuated in a narrative of white supremacy. This goes all the way back to the founding of the nation and the mythology surrounding the Founders. Examining the education register of the popcycle, students can begin to examine the way that their educational background prepared them to participate in the public sphere, and the extent of the participation their education encouraged.

In my case, my own engagement with the education discourse resembled closely the mainline American education narrative. However, I have to examine the role of specialty schools in preparing me for further education. I attended magnet schools as a child, and I have to now come to terms with the fact that others may not have had this opportunity because of geographical or economic constraints, or simply because of disadvantages built into the way the American educational interacts with race. The guided mystory is designed to illuminate these troublesome spots that white supremacy—frequently in a friendlier guise as “privilege”—requires people to overlook.


In a standard college setting, the career discourse will easily be the hardest for students to grasp. They simply lack the experience in that field to understand how to filter according to the rules established in the guided mystory. Ulmer’s way around the lack of experience is to first have students research an event or invention in their career field, then consider their own relationship to that (Internet Invention 21-22). This is a good starting place for the guided mystory as well, though a similar exercise would have students study the culture within their chosen career field. Gathering this raw data and then analyzing for the intrusion of white supremacy can provide a clearer picture of the way that white supremacy impinges in the situations we may take for granted.

In my guided mystory, I would take the culture of academia and examine it for these elements of white supremacy. Elements that I could examine in detail might include the hidden curriculum that one adheres to when furthering ones education through undergraduate and graduate degrees. This may manifest in simple experiences such as mispronouncing the name of a writer simply because you have not been exposed to her work before. I could similarly discuss the impact of economics, frequently wrapped together with issues of race, in controlling who has access both to opportunities for higher education but, once there, controlling what supplies one can access in order to support that education.


This final register is perhaps the easiest discourse to interrogate. Much has been made recently of the general whiteness of the entertainment discourse—things like the #OscarsSoWhite controversy and the whitewashing of several characters of color (the most recent Ghost in the Shell movie springs to mind) have made this whiteness more noticeable in the public eye. Students could fairly easily collect samples of their own entertainment habits and then analyze these to find the presence of white supremacy.


For my own mystory, there are plenty of options available. Some examples stand out in the form of the space opera I would regularly consume when I was young. Star Wars is a solid example of the Hero’s Journey sketched by Joseph Campbell. The structure that Campbell outlines is common among Western narratives, offering a gateway to white supremacy Reinstituting Western tradition ensures that the West in general and Europe in particular is treated as primary over any other part of the world, thereby making it easier for white supremacy to take hold. The Star Wars movies are also exemplary because they take camera angles and themes from Japanese movies and re-present them for American audiences.


Whereas the goal for the mystory process for Ulmer is the creation of an image of wide scope, the goal of the guided mystory is an inoculation against emotional-based argumentation that depends on white supremacy for its legitimacy. White supremacy enters the discourse subtly. The guided mystory intends for students to create their own inoculation by examining the ways in which white supremacy has impinged on their lives without their noticing. [5]  This goes beyond privilege; as it insinuates itself in all discourses, white supremacy fundamentally structures formations of identity, informs institutional racism, and harms even those who benefit from white privilege.

The result of this process is the creation of an artifact that serves as inoculation against the influence of white supremacy, or otherwise opens its creator’s eyes to the way that white supremacy cuts across discourses. As previously mentioned, this can come in a variety of forms. The constant, however, is that the form chosen by the mystory’s composer should function to make plain the operation of white supremacy within that composer’s life, and also make gestures toward the larger political sphere.

The artifact produced at the end of my personal guided mystory might come to resemble a video game. Ian Bogost offers a definition of procedural rhetoric, at work in video games, in which arguments “are made not through the construction of words or images, but through the authorship of rules of behavior, the construction of dynamic models” (29).  This choice of genre then is based on a desire to lay plain the work of white supremacy and of tracing the affective linkages that underwrite my own relation to each discourse of the popcycle. Others may choose different genres, though so long as the relation between popcycle, self, and white supremacy are on display then the artifact will do the work required in this guided mystory. This will form the basis of our new affective politics and attune composers, however slightly, to the affective work that makes propaganda powerful.

IV. Conclusion

Whereas propaganda hides its affective linkages behind an enthymemic relation to the viewer, the mystory makes plain these linkages and their work in the process of substitution. The mystory, and the affective politics we build from it, are not cowardly; rather, they invite participants to own their affects, to address them and correct them if need be, in the very first step of recognition.

To teach this kind of rhetoric is to unground traditional persuasion and logic from its place as sole arbiter of public opinion. This shift is not a change in how the public sphere operates but is instead a shift in how the public sphere is perceived. Affect is already at work in the public sphere; it is only a matter of paying attention to how that affect impinges on what is perceived as solely the domain of deliberation. The way to avoid the Democratic Accident is not to increase deliberation, to overly rely on powers of persuasion in the classical sense, but rather to increase awareness of the affective linkages that tie individuals into the popcycle and thereby into public policy; such linkages bind individuals together within the public sphere. The goal is not to increase compassion in order to make the world a better place, but rather to use a method that would allow composers to see their own radical individuality and, in so doing, to see the radical individuality of those surrounding them. Affective politics insists on a new kind of self-knowledge, aware of all the influences on identity, including white supremacy. The goal is to move from a hierarchical, top-down notion of identity toward a rhizomatic version of identity, one that both informs relations within the public sphere and allows for pluralism if for no other reason that for self-preservation. The Democratic Accident threatens all those involved in the public sphere, and the only way to open peoples’ eyes to this is to train them to see that identity does not rely on tribe, nation, or race, but on affective linkages that the mystory makes plain.


[1] It should be noted here that this kind of unifying, totalizing version of history is exactly the kind of narrative that populism can adapt to its own ends. Because the narrative of American history has focused on and valorized White Americans for so long, any attempt to provide equal treatment to non-white Americans reads as racial stress for those white Americans accustomed to seeing people who look like them as heroes in the American story. These people become even more susceptible to the right populist message—here, Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan is especially enlightening, as this abstract phrase can be read in many ways, the majority of which play into the perceived wound dealt to white Americans by the extensions of rights and representations to non-whites.

[2] When the ad discusses that American families are kept safe, there is an image of a black family looking up at an American flag. The inclusion of black Americans is an example of token diversity, but more than that, it is also an example of white supremacy in action. The appearance of a black family in a pose that is traditionally coded as “American” or “Patriotic” is not a message to black viewers, so much as it is to white voters that white supremacy will remain in force. The brown people in “Hillary Clinton’s America” are running wild as criminals; in Donald Trump’s America, they occupy traditional roles in a nuclear family.

[3] Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem is a seminal text in understanding the way that a people can deceive themselves, with Nazi Germany as an extreme case study. Though its lesson does not explicitly concern white supremacy, it is helpful in understanding how a popular self-deception can come to shield a people from reality. Though this is an extreme case, it gives us a parallel and a limit to work with and a way to understand that even what seems the most egregious crime against humanity can be masked by propaganda.

[4] One particularly illuminating text when it comes to legal definitions of race and the impact on the lives of individuals is Daniel Sharfstein’s The Invisible Line: A Secret History of Race in America. Penguin Books, 2012.

[5] The exercise here is reminiscent of Peggy Mcintosh’s “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” though it should be noted that, while Mcintosh’s project proceeds with the student’s construction of “self” as primary, the guided mystory described in this article assumes that discourses carry white supremacy as much as individual racists, allowing examinations of institutional racism to occur. The goal is to allows students to see the negative effects of white supremacy in constructing their fundamental conceptions of “self” rather than merely focusing on experiences of white privilege.

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Joshua Wood is a Ph.D. Candidate in Rhetorics, Communication, and Information Design at Clemson University. His work examines the intersections between race, affect, and games, as well as how the lessons of games might be better incorporated into the classroom. He is currently at work on a dissertation and an accompanying video game to illustrate how games might be used to communicate affective experiences of race.