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Thursday, August 23, 2012

All I Need to Know About Birtherism I Learned from the “Feejee Mermaid”: Audience Reception and Interrogating Truth Claims in Communications Revolutions

NB: My week to post to the blog was the same week that I 1) had my comprehensive exams and 2) got married, and in the confusion, I forgot to post. For this reason, I am postdating and putting this up now in hopes of getting feedback before the conference.

United States History has in many ways been singularly defined by a long series of communications revolutions. From the First Amendment and the Postal Road System to the telegraph to the birth of the Railway Mail Service to the rise of the mass media to the Internet, the United States has been a nation that has been constantly being reshaped by revolutionary shifts in communications. The way that people communicate has been shifting rapidly and radically for most of our nation's history. This paper looks at the way that these communications revolutions have encouraged audiences to constantly retrain themselves to discern between counterfeit and authentic, to critically interrogate new information and attempt to detect deception-- and how this sort of interrogation has become a recurring form of entertainment and ludic pleasure.

PT Barnum is perhaps best known for his apocryphal dictum that “there’s a sucker born every minute,” but investigating Barnum’s audience suggests that they were far savvier and less trusting than is popularly assumed. James Cook, in his The Arts of Deception, demonstrates quite well that Barnum based much of his career on a winking playfulness with his audience, one based on constantly dancing on the line between the authentic and deception. This playfulness with truth claims, far from going unnoticed by his audience, was one of the primary things that appealed to Barnum’s audience. Witnessing exhibitions of the “Feejee Mermaid,” George Washington’s 161-year-old nursemaid Joice Heth, or the nondescript “What Is It?”, audiences went to witness uncertain “objects,” to interrogate the truth claims of exhibitors and the surrounding media, and to attempt to determine for themselves if they were being deceived or not. The playful negotiation of truth and fiction was a large part of the audience’s enjoyment, in a time of intense technological and media shifts, from the age of Jackson to the twentieth century.

Likewise, while many popular and academic accounts of Internet users assume that they are a deeply uncritical audience, I argue that much the same process of playful interrogation of authentic versus counterfeit still goes on on-line, and that it is indeed a very popular type of discourse on the web. Looking at examples including the 4chan “Perfection Girl” meme, “Slender Man,” and Youtube trick-photography videos, I argue that Internet users are playing with one another, making a game of critical analysis. Of course, in an age of deep epistemological uncertainty, “truth” is a far more problematic category today than it was in the nineteenth century. For this reason, I extend my analysis to the Korean <Tablo Online> movement, as well as the 9-11 Truther and Birther movements in the United States. While these online movements deal with far more serious issues-- and while the conclusions they come to are deeply problematic-- the mode of discourse within them and the methods by which they interrogate evidence is fundamentally very similar to the game-like mechanics with which Internet users play at questions of veracity. I argue that this is fundamental to the popularity and longevity of these conspiracy-theory based movements, and can provide insight into the way authenticity and deception are understood in the twenty-first century.

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