The Dark Arts:  A Post-Truth Progymnasmata

Joshua Wood

Joshua Wood earned his Ph.D. in Rhetorics, Communication, and Information Design at Clemson University.  His work examines the intersections between race, affect, and games.  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.  Other research interests include game-based pedagogies, how role-playing games can be adapted to the classroom, along with the rhetorics of propaganda and other post-truth rhetorics.


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A Post-Truth Progymnasmata: A Manual by Joshua Wood

I.  P.T. Barnum: Hero of the Post-Truth Era

Early in his career, the consummate American showman P. T. Barnum purchased the rights to a slave woman displayed under the name Joice Heth. The woman, her owner claimed, was a nurse to George Washington upon his birth, and as proof the owner offered Barnum the bill of sale for one Joice Heth to the Washington family. The year was 1835. Barnum took Heth on a tour, posted advertisements that took advantage of the growing cult of Washington, and generally claimed that this woman was actually 161 years old. In truth, the woman Barnum and others identified as Heth (which was not her real name) was only 80 years old. The public, whether they believed it to be true or not, bought into the fraud. Attendance would soar when Barnum brought Heth to town. If it slacked off, Barnum was able to manipulate the press in order to drive up attendance once again.  In one such occasion, Barnum wrote a pseudonymous letter to a local newspaper, charging that “Heth was a fake, that she was a ‘curiously constructed automaton, made up of whalebone, India-rubber, and numberless springs,’ and that the exhibitor was ‘a ventriloquist.’ Crowds thronged again to see if this could possibly be true. It all led to a breakthrough discovery for Barnum—that the public actually enjoyed being deceived, as long as they were, at the same time, being amused” (Kunhardt et al 22). Barnum had made his first, but far from his last, outing as a showman.

Barnum was, in some way, a product of his time. The nineteenth century in America was so riddled with such hoaxes, frauds, and humbugs that “someone at the time called it ‘the age of imposture’” (Young 6). Barnum’s move, both in the press and outside of it, took the false nature of his own “humbugs” into account. It wasn’t that he wanted to draw attention away from some falsity, but rather to make the viewer complicit, to make “the audience part of the hoax, saying effectively, you’re smart, or better yet, you think you’re so smart: come see and decide for yourself” (10). The humbug, as Barnum would describe his exhibitions (a word with the general connotation of a deceptive act), included this interactive component, drawing attendees in by challenging them to spot the very deceptiveness, the very falsity of the act itself. In this way, the audience becomes complicit in the deception merely by being a part of it. The exhibit itself was, seemingly, neutral in this interplay—the hoax was perpetrated by someone, for someone, and while the structure of the hoax was called into question, its true purpose, to draw in a profit, was concealed in the interplay between hoaxer and public. This kind of complicity can best be compared to a rhetorical move, the syllogism, and more specifically the enthymeme, wherein one premise of the argument is omitted and filled in, knowingly or unknowingly, by the audience. Nor is this kind of complicity dead within the modern public sphere—one thinks of Donald Trump’s rallies, wherein attendees chant in response to Trump’s question, “Who’s gonna pay for [the wall]?” with a chorus of “Mexico.”

If we are to truly tackle the premises of post-truth rhetoric, then we must do so with this fact in mind: that it is impossible to separate the audience from the orator from the audience. They are all part of the same network, caught in a feedback loop with one another. All of this in concert with the concealed element—the structure of the post-truth object itself. The aim of post-truth communication, even in its earlier forms as propaganda, is typically an obfuscation or distrust of the truth. Further, what we have to understand is that these networks do not work in isolation—they arise from a certain world, just as Barnum and his audiences did. Barnum entered the world of show business in a nation that had entered a state of obsession with elaborate hoaxes. “The relatively young nation saw a number of heavy-duty hoaxes and part-time pranks, many of them committed by some of our most beloved writers...who questioned truth rather than questing after it” (Young 11). Barnum would not have been able to garner the reputation that he did were it not for people’s love of his humbugs. The two fed each other.

But there is also something structural in the way that people were, and still are, wont to turn willingly toward these “humbugs.” The chief factor seems to be that they confirm some kind of bias within the audience. Perhaps it is a symbol of our age par excellence that we can find the most succinct description of this from comedian Stephen Colbert, who during his time on The Colbert Report coined the word “truthiness” to describe something that feels true even if it is not necessarily true, and acting as if that were the truth. It is this feeling of “truthiness” to which the flim-flams and hoaxes of the nineteenth century appealed. Barnum’s display of Heth, as a means by which audience members could physically touch what was purported to be a connection to their history, was steeped in the culture’s racial hierarchy. Heth was, after all, a slave, and her worth was measured only in her usefulness as an object, both for Barnum’s profits and as “an advertisement for the white self” (32). The earlier Moon Hoax of the era, when a New York newspaper claimed to have found evidence of a society on the moon, featured both a feral, subjugated race, and a paler race of overlords who naturally subjugated the lower classes. In that way, the hoaxes of the age were tied to the same questions of racial hierarchy plaguing the United States before the Civil War.

In all of this, the work of the post-truth object, a term which I will apply even to these “fake news” articles or hoaxes, obscures its true function. In the case of Barnum or of the Moon Hoax, to engage with the invitation of the hoaxer to attempt to see through the hoax is already buying into the premise of the object. Here, the objects are designed to invite inquiry to garner a profit. Barnum, as evidenced by his letters to editors decrying his own falsities, did not care why someone bought a ticket to his Museum, only that they did. If they arrived, and discovered the hoax unconvincing, then it didn’t matter; the exhibit had already done its job. To engage with the Moon Hoax was to purchase the newspaper in which it was printed, driving up their sales. True or false, the goal was achieved as soon as one bought the paper.

There is a parallel to the modern era. Here, too, the world is dealing with a sudden shift in apparatus. In the early nineteenth century, the penny press revolutionized the way the world engaged with the news. So too has the internet changed the way that the world interacts with the news and with facts themselves in the early twenty-first century. The promised democratization of publishing accompanying the penny press and the internet have both arrived, but in the former case carried with it a brand of fake news similar to what the American public sphere is now seeing, and in the latter case has sped the world toward the democratic accident—that collapse of democracy into populism and authoritarianism that is made possible through the structures of democracy.

In the case of the penny press (cheap, mass-produced tabloid newspapers), the collapse of one grand narrative was healed by the creation of a new one: shortly after the advent of the penny press, the American Civil War would break out, reigniting patriotic narratives. The collapse of the grand narrative did not matter because the underlying narratives remained the same; the metanarrative of the march toward freedom, in the end of civil war, continued, while, seemingly at odds, the metanarrative of white supremacy remained firmly rooted in the American public sphere. The society that emerged postwar would look remarkably similar to the prewar society, with only a few cosmetic shifts—white supremacy would survive, embedded in the very fabric of American society, despite attempts to “reconstruct” the South after the war. The penny press represented a shift in the kinds of information now available to the public, a dramatic change to the way that people engaged with the world. New technologies democratized the dissemination of knowledge. This kind of democratization, similar to the shift from literate to electrate apparatus now adding to the return of this kind of post-truth communication, would help fuel the obsession with hoaxes. Similarly, the rise of the internet has only helped to advance communities of conspiracy theorists, giving those theories validation by placing them on equal footing with the most rigorously researched journalistic endeavor.

Like Gregory Ulmer describes in Avatar Emergency, what is needed at this moment is an avatar, one that we can use as guide for not just surviving in a post-truth public sphere but thriving. If rhetoric is to thrive, this is what it needs. And if there is an avatar for this age, if there is a historical forerunner to the age of “Post-Truth,” then it is P.T. Barnum. Despite his obvious problems—his career as a showman began with the purchase of a slave—there is something he can teach us about rhetoric and communication in a world less concerned with facts than entertainment, and that includes the nuance that allows a man who profited from the exhibition of a slave to champion the abolition of slavery later in life.


II.  The (Re)Assertion of Narratives

We can draw a line between the penny press and our current historical moment. The chief among these was the prevalence of fake news. I should make clear that here I use the term fake news to represent actually false reporting, made to purposely misdirect readers or viewers. I do not mean fake news as defined by President Donald Trump and his supporters, which can best be summed up as a weaponized use of the term that encompasses any negative reporting or information that doesn’t fit with one’s worldview. Real fake news presents a much clearer threat the public sphere, and its roots have made the slip of democracy into populism much more likely.

The prevalence of fake news in the period before the Civil War tells us that this is not a new phenomenon. What we must understand is that the hoaxes of the early nineteenth century—Barnum’s hoaxes in particular—shared an underlying structure: they all reified the same metanarrative of white supremacy. There was something comforting in this for the audience, even entertaining. The metanarrative was a known quantity (even if its full extent was unconscious), something that, as the Union came into its own, could be relied upon as a guiding star for those (whites) who had nothing else by which to plot their course through life. Joice Heth was a slave physically linked and subservient to a Founding Father. Barnum’s later exhibition of the “Feejee Mermaid” (Image 1 and Image 2) would tap into the American public’s love for the Oriental, itself a troublingly racialized distinction.


Images 1 and 2:  An advertisement for (left) and photograph of (right) Barnum’s exhibition of the “Feejee Mermaid.”


We find a parallel in the Trump era. Donald Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” gives us ample material to work with. It too ties in with metanarratives in the American public sphere. First, there are the echoes of Ronald Reagan's campaign, which first used the phrase; by harkening back to Reagan, Trump links himself to the legacy of the president/ precedent cited by many as a model of the modern Republican. Secondly, because the slogan coincided with multiple attacks on President Barack Obama, the undertone is that the previous president (or even every president since Reagan) had managed to take America in a negative direction. And because Obama’s reputation was linked with his status as America’s first Black president, the “Make America Great Again” line was bound up in racial undertones. The metanarrative of white supremacy becomes visible again, as it is only a white president—a white male president, to draw a distinction between Trump and his opponent—who could properly “make America great again.”

The point here is that, in terms of the available means of persuasion, we have not left behind the metanarratives that have shaped the public sphere for centuries. We are, in other words, not “postmodern” as defined by Jean-François Lyotard. The public sphere still relies on metanarratives to make sense of the world. They have only been reified by the fracturing of that public sphere into its smaller constituent networks. 

I use here the term postmodern to mean the same thing that Lyotard did: an “incredulity toward metanarratives” (xxiv). We have not achieved a society that “falls less within the province of a Newtonian anthropology . . . than a pragmatics of language particles...local determinism” (xxiv). In fact, the idea that we have been driving toward such a thing, itself a metanarrative, was shattered when the United States elected Donald Trump. One could make the argument that, rather than merely the defeat of Hillary Clinton, Election Night 2016 was the shattering of a metanarrative that society was moving away from the metanarrative of white supremacy as a means of organization. Metanarratives won that evening.

What’s more, the months since that night have seen pundits hang Trump’s win on Democrats’ forsaking working class whites in favor of a more diverse or elite coalition. But here again the metanarrative of white supremacy is allowed to remain intact beneath the larger narrative of the American public sphere. “This transfiguration is not novel. It is a return to form. The tightly intertwined stories of the white working class and black Americans go back to the prehistory of the United States—and the use of one as a cudgel to silence the claims of the other goes back nearly as far” (Coates). We can learn something about the force of propaganda from American history: the early black and white laborers were separated by race, and this division was reinforced through the myth of whiteness. The creation of the concept of “white slavery” further widened this division, as it created a boogeyman to differentiate even the poorest whites from black slaves. “Invokers of ‘white slavery’ held that there was nothing unique in the enslavement of blacks when measured against the enslavement of all workers. What evil there was in enslavement resulted from its status as a subsidiary of the broader exploitation better seen among the country’s noble laboring whites...its operating premises—white labor as noble archetype, and black labor as something else—lived on. This was a matter of rhetoric, not fact.” And it is a form of rhetoric that we are still dealing with today; one popular meme that has been making the rounds on social media invokes this myth by insisting that the Irish were treated even worse than black slaves (Image 3), prompting the New York Times to run a story debunking the myth.

Image 3: A meme on white slavery found frequently on social media.

The facts of this case ultimately don’t matter. By the time the media (already a distrusted institution) has debunked the claim, it has already been legitimized and is treated as fact by the people with whose worldview it fits. Those whose worldview this does not support go on to reject the claim made in the image. These conflicting networks fit inside the larger network that forms the American public sphere. And while Habermas would see the ideal public sphere as being based in rational discussion, reality is far different. Our present moment reenacts Barnum’s own historical milieu: people actually want to be deceived so long as the deception backs up their worldview. This is a world in which social media has made the hoaxing much more powerful not because new media has changed the way that rhetoric works, but because it has made it more interactive. People are ready to be deceived if they themselves can become part of the con by fitting themselves into the narrative. One need only think of “Pizzagate,” of the man who read all of the evidence online that Hillary Clinton and her campaign manager were running a child sex ring in the (non-existent) basement of a Washington pizza restaurant and decided to take up arms and do something about it. He saw himself as a hero in this narrative the same way others passing along this conspiracy theory could see themselves as truth-tellers; the lie is easier to believe when it fits an idealized narrative. This is the truth that Barnum can tell us: people engage more willingly with narratives, especially with narratives that fit into their worldview, than they do with cold facts.

While salon culture saw legitimation of governance (and the legitimization of knowledge along with it) arising in conversational public spaces such as the coffee shop or the salon itself, the new public sphere finds its arguments legitimated on the internet. And while this has democratized the public sphere, that democratization also brings with it the tendency of networks to fracture into smaller, more sustainable parts, as Lyotard suggests. Writing of social relations, Lyotard discusses language games, and the “‘atomization’ of the social into flexible networks of language games” (17). Related to this, the grand narrative “has lost its credibility, regardless of what mode of unification it uses,” beginning with the end of World War II, and the start of what Lyotard views as the Postmodern era (37). In this era, Lyotard tells us, science is unable to legitimize facts in other language games. On this, I agree: we have indeed entered an era in which science is incapable of legitimizing knowledge in networks outside of its own language game. That would also explain why the language game occupied by conspiracy theorists (a la Pizzagate) is impervious to facts (the basement where this is supposed to have happened does not exist); facts play no role in legitimizing knowledge in this game. Legitimization of knowledge herein is entirely narrative-based. “Narration is no longer an involuntary lapse in the legitimation process...Narrative knowledge makes a resurgence in the West as a way of solving the problem of legitimating the new authorities” (30). This reliance on narrative, though, is not a bug; Lyotard views it as a feature of the Postmodern Condition.

What we must take away from this, then, is that first, Lyotard is correct in claiming that the metanarrative is no longer influential— grand narratives no longer shape views on the world. But no one has told people this, by and large. This has resulted in the atomized networks that Lyotard describes as making up the social clinging to some different view of the real, unaware that their own metanarrative is an image, just as every other metanarrative. Each network therefore carries on, confident in the belief that it alone has the real view of history. Social media has exacerbated the problem, as users can choose to filter out those other language games which throw into question the legitimation of language within one’s own sphere. And thus, where there might have been interplay between these networks, there are now only walls.

As critical theory has focused on logic as the means by which consensus is reached, it has by and large ignored another means that underwrites logic: emotion. It is emotion, the feeling that something is true, that now guides much of the function of the public sphere. When users on facebook first see the image of the Irish slaves, superimposed with the claim that they were worse off than black slaves, they either accept or reject this first. Even this might be too much of a stretch. It is far more likely that the claim is somewhat provisionally accepted, based on Daniel T. Gilbert’s model of how mental systems deal with such claims. He argues that the mind must accept a claim before it can analyze it and decide to believe or disbelieve. “[F]or models of persuasion to make sense,” he writes, “they must implicitly assume that acceptance occurs prior to or more easily than rejection...and that as a result, this initial acceptance remains” (111). This holds a dark undertone for the use and function of propaganda. It also brings us back around to Barnum’s business model: people must accept before they reject, engage before they disengage. People must buy tickets to the exhibition before they can say for sure it is a fake. In the same way, people must accept propaganda first, hold its arguments in their hands, before they can analyze it. If legitimation is entirely emotional or narrative-based, then the next step to the logical analysis doesn’t happen, unless the viewer is trained to force an analysis through the emotion.

This, then, leads us to one of the purposes of the post-truth progymnasmata. It is not enough to teach people to avoid propaganda or other forms of “post-factual” communication. These communiques are already out there, doing their work in the public sphere. Instead, we have to dive deep into an understanding of how these forms of rhetoric work, practice them, and be prepared to dismantle them and render them ineffective. If propaganda cannot be stopped, then we must instead learn how to deal with it. Rhetoric is, after all, the “art of the deal,” dealing with what is available to us. If we follow Aristotle’s definition of rhetoric as the art of discovering the available means of persuasion then the use of propaganda within the public sphere has expanded the scope of what can be considered an available means. And if we can identify those means in their natural environment, they can be taught. If they can be taught, they can be overcome. What’s more, if we conceive of rhetoric beyond the transactional, beyond merely persuasion or trying to gain something over on an opponent, and begin to conceive of rhetoric as something that is always present, then we can see that even propaganda, whether effective or not, is a form of rhetoric, and should be considered as such.


III.  The Image

Two strands of thought converge in the functioning of post-truth/post-factual rhetoric. The first is Guy Debord’s work on the spectacle, the idea that society has moved from having to appearing, that lived experience has retreated in the advent of the image. Debord predicts a world wherein the image, rather than lived experienced, is the anchor of reality, which is detached from experience. This makes it so that the “unity of that life can no longer be recovered. Fragmented views of reality regroup themselves into a new unity as a separate pseudo-world” (7). We can also expand the image from a literal concept to a more abstract one. The image is anything that is to be believed, detached from reality. The image is anything that we are invited to experience for itself, to view for itself, rather than firsthand experience of the world itself.

But this privileging of viewing over experiencing sets the new world at odds with classical notions of ethos. If ethos, or one’s character, impacts the way that one’s message is received, what do we make of the way that Barnum made his claims? What allows the claims of a con man to gain traction? Even as far back as Isocrates, rhetoric’s notion of ethos included something intrinsic to the speaker. Here, we find the willingness of an audience who has not fully “lived” an experience to believe the claims of a con man who professes experiences of those very gaps in the audience’s knowledge. If someone views rhetoric as the art of the deal, transactionalism purely focused on what one can gain from a situation, then even the dark side of rhetoric becomes an available means of persuasion. Nothing is off limits so long as the ends justify the means. This is far from the “just deal” that Isocrates discusses in “Against the Sophists” and veers into the same territory as P.T. Barnum’s apocryphal maxim, that there’s a sucker born every minute and “I just want his dime.”  (Barnum never said it; he arguably had more respect for his audience than this phase would suggest.) This means that the work of propaganda enters the realm of rhetoric, and the creation of a false reality or an image of the world becomes justifiable if the deal pays off for the rhetor. The con man succeeds because of this false world; the claim of a con man doesn’t gain traction because of his performed character (though this helps) but because of the world he creates around his mark. This extended world creates not a new ethos for the con man, but a new grounding for the performative ethos of the con man. The grounding for this new ethos covers a multitude of sins from the performer’s past; indeed, even those less savory aspects can be used to the con man’s favor. We can look no further than the history of President Donald Trump, whose checkered past and history with women feed into the narrative of his being a different type of presidential candidate, and the world that forms around that narrative.

There is perhaps no better explanation for the world of conspiracy theories that has supplanted the public sphere than Debord’s analogy of the spectacle. There are several examples of the power of these separate worlds. First, we can consider the role of “birtherism” in undermining the presidency of Barack Obama, and subsequently fueling the rise of Donald Trump to the presidency. This conspiracy theory, propelled to popularity by Donald Trump, insisted that Barack Obama was not an American citizen, but was instead a Kenyan, like his father. It should go without saying that this is untrue, but the theory and its widespread repetition, even if media outlets only covered it to debunk the myth (indeed, the fact that news outlets thought this important enough to debunk was only turned into further proof of the theory’s legitimacy). Though not a traditional image, this spectacle would invite people to engage with it rather than the real world, to deny what they saw themselves. It also put Barack Obama and Donald Trump’s words on the same level: Obama’s claim that he was a legitimate citizen was no more true than Trump’s claim that the president was a Kenyan. Both could be seen as equally valid because the bottom, the real, had fallen away. The only thing left was the transactional: whose word you believed was based on which story had the most value for your worldview. Birtherism would separate the American public along party and racial lines. The theory only gained traction, indeed only arose, because Obama was America’s first black president. The result is an ungrounding of rhetoric in the worst way; if argumentation can only occur when two people engage in the same terms—stasis literally says that we must be standing on the same ground—then effective communication cannot happen.

Separation, endemic to Debord’s spectacle, such as what is on display in the disconnection between audiences (those who believe and those who do not) in birtherism is the hallmark of propaganda. If objects of propaganda, themselves post-truth communiques, can separate people and have them fighting over images rather than recognizing reality, it is successful. The existence of the spectacle is a result of reality; the real world is “invaded by contemplation of the spectacle, and ends up absorbing it and aligning itself with it” (8). Nowhere has the post-factual taken root more strongly than when someone is presented with facts and remains steadfastly committed to not only believing the image but defending the worldview that those images allow. In the birtherism example, Barack Obama was eventually forced to release his birth certificate, a move which was met on the Right with the common refrain that it might not be real, that it looked too new. The image and its worldview had already taken hold.

For Debord, the Spectacle is not merely images, but rather “a social relation between people that is mediated by images” (7), reminiscent of the world mediated by new media that we now occupy. But as Debord’s project is caught up in the Marxist tradition, concerned largely with the relations between people being replaced with relations between people and objects, we must go elsewhere to build a theory of how people relate to one another in the public sphere in the post-factual world.

This second strand of thought, complementing Debord, is in the work of Jean Baudrillard. Baudrillard too is concerned with the role of the image in society. Here, just as in Debord, the image has already replaced real lived experience as the thing with which we engage. The real is no longer accessible. “It is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication . . . It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real” (2). This process of replacing real with representation produces a hyperreality where the mind can no longer tell the difference between truth and fiction, the real and its representation. “[T]here is no longer any difference: the duplication suffices to render both [replica and its original] artificial” (9).

We should note here that this process does not render the artificial as truth, but rather brings the truth down to the level of the artificial. A crucial distinction we will continue to see at play in post-truth communication. The project of a post-truth progymnasmata—indeed a post-truth pedagogy in general—takes Baudrillard at his word when he says that “it is now impossible to isolate the process of the real, or to prove the real” (21).

This is the question now facing rhetoric: how to approach persuasion and communication when even the facts themselves are either suspect or disregarded entirely because of pre-standing emotions? The ground for public rhetoric seems to have shifted and now rests upon a shaky ground of emotion. Debord does not say that the spectacle is entirely inescapable. Rather, as a Marxist, Debord situates the possibility of escape in the promise of revolution—the unification of the working class against their masters. And in some ways, what we see is the result of capitalism—Barnum seeks profit by driving up desire for narratives via hoaxes, the white ruling class in America stokes racial divisions to remain in power (via a narrative no less). This paper does not situate itself in that debate—whether revolution remains possible or effective in the way that Marx or Debord envision is outside the scope of this project—but rather with how post-truth communication can be combatted, defused, or repurposed.

Let us assume for a moment that we are in a moment when facts are not the most persuasive form of rhetorical appeal. We must turn to another, more impactful means of communication, one that characterizes a society highly attuned to images. We must adapt to the new apparatus. It is not enough any longer to simply present a logic argument—such a thing will fall on deaf ears. Instead, we are tasked with adapting critical thought to an internet environment.

The aesthetic image is to electracy what the analytical word is to literacy. The commodity form, separating exchange value from use value, desire from product, expression from object, allowed the pedagogy of aesthetic judgement to operate autonomously. Advertisers realized they were selling not the steak but the sizzle. Electrate intelligence, not just commerce but civics and ethics (practical reason), functions in the dimension of the sizzle (Ulmer 37).

If we can posit a rhetoric after the electrate shift, then it begins to look like a rhetoric which encompasses even the emotional spectrum. It includes the same tenets on which post-truth communication is based. It operates as showmanship, foregrounding the aesthetic judgement, a foregrounding “important to flash reason, to establish in the larger context of the conflicts working in deliberative rhetoric the specific dimension of aesthetic pleasure-pain and the values associated with it” (24). Flash reason so conceived operates as a bridge between lived experience and the experience of the image.

We are in a moment when the controlling metaphor for communication is no longer the written word (alone) but the image. Ulmer explains that the world has transitioned into “a new ontology of experience . . . [E]xperience ontology is relative to the apparatus (social machine) that makes it possible or functional (digital imaging). The quality of experience made accessible to ontology in electracy is that of affective memory in the individual body. Affective memory is the deepest order of memory, existing only as somatic markers informing kinesthetic intelligence” (51-52). When we encounter the image, we do not engage with it logically, we engage with the aesthetic. Ulmer calls on the idea that “experience ontology is inherently supported in audiovisual media . . . Digital simulations . . . bring into awareness and articulation this dimension [enactive memory] that until now has remained ‘unconscious’” (53). I would add to this that, to the untrained eye, these replace any inherent judgement or sense that would otherwise fall in line with Kant’s aesthetic judgement (a crucial support for Ulmer’s theorization of flash reason). This would mean that the affective dimension of medium transfers the emotions of the crowd, the judgment of the crowd, onto the viewer.

There is something similar here to the functioning of the sublime in Kant’s aesthetics, read through Ulmer as “conditions that exceed the capacities of both the outer and inner eye, the glimpse in a moment that takes the measure of a situation. Within the conditions of decorum, (beauty), the faculties are in harmony” (29). The encounter with the sublime destroys this harmony. “The interest of the judgment of the sublime in conditions that expose the empirical impotence of a subject, however, is the paradoxical transformation of this displeasure into the bittersweet revelation of moral freedom” (29). It is in this moment of moral freedom that an ethical and political notion of connectivity can collapse. Ulmer relies on Lyotard’s reading of Kant to structure “an outline for deliberative rhetoric in electracy . . . [recommended by] the support for thought provided by affect as a sublime feeling, and the rhetorical powers revealed in this experience of negative presentation” (30). It is in his moment, the flash of the sublime and its negation of empirical categories, that the kind of rhetoric that falls into them of post-truth rhetoric can take hold. Post-truth rhetoric, by placing emotion at the heart of its theses, is a form of affective rhetoric, a conception of rhetoric that attempts to prompt emotion as its chief focus.

The crucial moment may be in the realization that the sublime does not only entail positive but also negative emotions, a reminder that “the aesthetic axis is not just attraction, but attraction-repulsion” (Ulmer 207). The encounter with the sublime poses a question to the subject, a question of how to respond to this moment where the efficacy of traditional models of knowing falls apart. Ulmer further identities this logical reasoning with prudence: “The tradition of prudence as practical reason and particular intellect from Plato through Kant relied upon common sense (in the richer sense covered by sensus communis) as the basis for judgment in the public sphere. Common sense grounded the innate capacity for judgment on the human ability to recognize beauty in the human and natural world . . . The tradition proposed a direct continuum between beauty (aesthetics) and ethical and political judgment (decorum)” (160). Flash reason as Ulmer theorizes it is an attempt to address the way that these systems break down in the face of affective forms of rhetoric, the appeals based on image and emotion that litter the modern public sphere.

Affective rhetoric is no longer a part of the rhetorical landscape that can be ignored. The advance of digital media has made its necessary, and Ulmer’s work is crucial to understanding how it operates in the public sphere. What is at stake is a choice of how one dwells in a world where one is constantly called to react to more and more instances of the sublime. One can choose to react by over-relying on facts, the old methods of legitimizing knowledge and proving arguments. One can choose to rely more on the meta narratives that once shaped the world. We can even go so far as embracing the functioning of this affective rhetoric, to embrace the emotional and narrative tenor of rhetoricking and just being in this new rhetorical landscape.


IV.    Building a Post-Truth Progymnasmata

The moment in The Matrix when Morpheus offers Neo a choice between a red pill and a blue pill, as a metaphor for waking up the reality of the world beneath the images that make up the Matrix, has been coopted by right-wing extremists and white nationalists in online spaces, but it is instructive.

What’s also important to note here is that white supremacists miss the point of the matrix movies entirely. They are not a story of victory over conflict through force, but rather a tale of overcoming those oppositions which characterize the spectacle. Neo, the messiah figure, is in fact a Hegelian synthesis of man and machine. Hegel’s synthesis is the end result of a dialectic of thesis and antithesis, in opposition to one another. The synthesis becomes a third term which reconciles the previously opposed terms.

That is where we must now go. It is time for us to take a trip into another language game.

The post-truth progymnasmata is an effort to conceive of a more affective politics [1], a post-truth public sphere which encompasses appeals to emotion. This project brings the rhetorical tools that are most often used in populist and more emotionally charged discourses into light, to shed light on how they are structured and to act as an inoculation against the use of such rhetoric. It brings the operation of a propagandistic language game into another game, that of education.

The “Post-Truth Progymnasmata” is therefore structured as if it were an instruction manual for students of rhetoric in a post-truth world. It is presented as an excerpt of a larger manual which may include the traditional fourteen exercises of the progymnasmata. It is also presented in such a fashion that the work of compiling an actual manual for post-truth rhetoric is never completed. It is reminiscent of Ulmer’s post-critical object, in that it is unfinished and can be added to and updated, but also in that it functions on the logic of collage—elements include the educational voice and examples from new media.

The keen reader might notice that the rhetoric of post-truth is always oppositional. The rhetoric of the post-truth era is based on earlier transactional approaches to rhetoric, simply because so much of the modern era has been defined by the machinations of late-stage capitalism. It should be noted that I am not condoning the use of these rhetorical tricks. But it is only in understanding the ways that they’re constructed that we can begin to find ways to defend against them.

This is also complemented by the presence of the “post-truth professor,” modeled after P.T. Barnum, to act as guide through the world of post-truth rhetoric. This choice is not coincidental. In using P.T. Barnum as a model for the “Post-Truth Professor” of the manual, I am invoking him as an avatar for the teacher of post-truth rhetoric. I invoke Avatar as Gregory Ulmer envisions it, but also in a manner reminiscent of the secularization of its religious role, as “the personification in human form of abstract principles or intangible qualities” (75). By modeling the Post-Truth Professor after Barnum, I intentionally bring into the question all of the nuance that the public sphere in the twenty-first century necessitates. Barnum is a man of contradictions, being both an abolitionist and a slave owner. This is an age that is beginning to ask us to reckon with our national history of racism and slavery, to grapple with the wounds of that institution. Perhaps no one is better guide for this than Barnum, whose own views on slavery evolved throughout his life. And though Barnum was a peddler of hoaxes, it is the credulity with which he viewed suffering that we can and should adapt to our interactions of the public sphere; when Barnum toured the South, and saw firsthand the horrors of slavery, his defenses of the institution ended and his abolitionism began (Kunhardt et al. 151). Barnum’s uneasy forays into propaganda during the Civil War were themselves a hybrid of his own brand of showmanship and the showmanship of nationalism. [2]  So too must our post-truth rhetoric be a hybrid of traditional and “new” rhetorical techniques. Despite having made his fortune playing off of American racism, when he was elected to the Connecticut legislature and later ratified the 13th Amendment, Barnum would wax poetically about the value of a human soul in any body, no matter its race. [3]

Just as separation is endemic to Debord’s treatment of the spectacle, so too does post-truth rhetoric thrive on separation. When it is used for negative purposes, when rhetoric is engaged in populist means—and here I refer to specifically the kind of populism that asserts only one kind of people are actual people—then it requires separation to survive. This comes in many forms: separation from others, from diverse ideas, from our own history. P.T. Barnum as avatar allows us to begin to deal with the problematic nature of United States history. Barnum himself was a husk of contradictions. The showman never left him, has never left the American public sphere, and so we can turn it to our purposes all the same.

While we might debate the quality of Barnum’s legacy, he remains a solid avatar. Indeed, the use as avatar of a man whose early fortunes were made possible by slavery, and whose views toward the institution completely turned around later in life, whose own role in upholding white supremacy went without question during his abolitionist days, seems particularly fruitful. Who better to represent the American public sphere’s participants than a man whose history so perfectly mirrors our own history as a nation?


[1] See Joshua Wood, "Affective Politics: Against the Democratic Accident.” Textshop Experiments 3 (Summer 2017).

[2] Via Kunhardt: upon Lincoln’s death, Barnum did not engage in exhibitions on the assassination, but rather on his upbringing and his ordinariness. In particular, Barnum displayed “an exact replica of one of Lincoln’s own log cabins” (187). This paper does not begin to grapple with the impact that Barnum had on American mythology, though this is one intersection that seems particularly striking, glorifying as we still do Lincoln’s roots in the frontier.

[3] Not to say that Barnum’s turn toward abolitionism and black suffrage was free even of the racialized undertones of the age. The same speech contained references to the ignorance and barbarism of the African continent, and the need to train newly freed slaves toward manhood.

Works Cited

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “The First White President.” The Atlantic, Oct. 2017. Web.

Debord, Guy. Society of the Spectacle. Translated by Ken Knabb, Rebel Press, 2014. Print.

Gilbert, Daniel. “How Mental Systems Believe.” American Psychologist, vol. 46, no. 2, Feb. 1991, pp. 107–19. Print.

Kunhardt Jr, Philip B., et al. P. T. Barnum: America’s Greatest Showman. Knopf, 1995. Print.

Stack, Liam. “Debunking a Myth: The Irish Were Not Slaves, Too.” The New York Times, 17 Mar. 2017. Web.

Ulmer, Gregory L. Avatar Emergency. Parlor Press, 2012.

Young, Kevin. Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News. Graywolf Press, 2017. Print.