Scholarship: NCA 2020, “Digitizing Fictocriticism”

Inventing and Intervening in the bath with ContraPoints

This paper was presented at the 2020 National Communication Association during the Top Papers Panel for the Critical and Cultural Studies division.


Hi all, thank you for coming today and for listening to my paper. I’m Matthew Salzano, a Ph.D. Student at the University of Maryland, coming to you live from my bedroom-office-conference room in Hyattsville, MD.

ContraPoints, despite what she says, cares.

ContraPoints, real name Natalie Wynn, is a trans YouTube philosopher-poet. She describes herself as a “leftist propagandist” who has responded to the aesthetics of class divides, frightening groups of troubled men online, theories of pronoun usage, and much more. In my paper, I use ContraPoints as a representative anecdote to suggest a model of ‘digital fictocriticism’ for critical intellectual engagement.

To tell you a bit about this paper, this presentation will proceed in three parts. First, I sketch an urgent scene for critics considering multidisciplinary calls to action to go post-critical. Second, I suggest how fictocriticism, a method originating in anthropology, is one response to this exigence. Finally, alongside ContraPoints as a representative anecdote, I trace a preliminary theory of digital fictocriticism. In turn, this paper serves as a starting point for rhetorical studies to consider how it can grapple with fictocriticism as a method and object for rhetorical critics.

1. Going post-critical

I take as my starting point the post-critical turn, describing a broad movement of scholars who have argued that postmodernity compels one to move past an idea of a critic of unmasking to a compositionist, one who, in Latour’s words, “believe[s] that there are enough ruins and that everything has to be reassembled piece by piece.”

The dissatisfaction with the results of criticism resonates throughout the humanities. In rhetorical studies, Lynda Walsh and Casey Boyle bemoan that “the critical reflex has produced little change in wicked discourses” like climate change. And Christina Foust, in What Democracy Looks Like, shows how the neoliberal university limits criticism about social movements to a scholarly project, constraining the ability for this work to enliven a commons that energizes public action.

Criticism has been successful in identifying problems, in finding things problematic everywhere—its theoretical project is sound, creative, and sometimes even well-written. But post-criticism asks: what does criticism do? How does it help us live in this world, with all its problems?

So, Walsh and Boyle ask: “How do we move beyond intervention to invention in these wicked discourses that entangle us in our common lives?” We are charged to take up precise tools for building—but we face that all we have in our toolbox are rusty weapons of mass destruction.

2. Fictocriticism

Fictocriticism is uniquely positioned to be imported into communication methods to forward generative resistance. Fictocriticism grew out of the work of Michael Taussig in anthropology. His goal was to push beyond an ethnographic epistemology of identifying some singular, authentic, non-Western(ized) other and instead show a multiplicity of perspectives and possibilities by doing experimental ethnography that blended “fact and fiction, ethnographic observation, archival history, literary theory and memoir.”

Stephen Muecke, an anthropologist who works in environmental humanities, writes that: “The ficto- side of fictocriticism follows the twists and turns of animated language as it finds new pathways. The -criticism part comes in the risky leap of taking the story to a different ‘world.’” Fictocritical work thus breaks out of stale academic criticism but does not leave behind its commitment to engaging with rich theoretical sources and rigorous inquiry. It breaks out of fiction’s completely imagined world but does not leave behind its inventiveness and its embrace of making a reader feel.

[Things I wanted to include here but couldn’t for time: two favorite examples of work that I consider fictocritical.]

3. Digitizing Fictocriticism with ContraPoints

Polarized, algorithmized digital culture prompts the need for inventive critical practices. In my paper, I argue that there are three ways Contrapoints models a digital fictocriticism: she (1) deforms the unique types of YouTube fiction and criticism, (2) affectively invents and intervenes, and (3) exaggerates critical proximity. Each convention explains the specific context of Youtube and the crossroads of cancel culture and alt-right bigotry where Contrapoints finds herself. I’m happy to talk more about that in q-and-a, or we can chat over email or Twitter DM. But for this brief presentation, I will focus on Jordan Peterson and critical proximity today, for the sake of time … and shock value.

Exaggerates critical proximity

Instead of a more-traditional ‘critical distance,’ fictocritism embraces ‘critical proximity.’ Like Brockriede, Latour and Muecke attend to criticism ‘as lovers’—understanding not at a distance, but intimately and with care. Digital fictocritics get intimate with their object to work with it. To understand and persuade, you must feel the affective energy of the person, of the exchange. You must get close to it to understand it, to relate yourself with it and to it.

Now, the ‘lover’ metaphor of proximity has its problematic moments, but it is especially fitting for ContraPoints’s video “Jordan Peterson.” Peterson achieved his fame when the Canadian press highlighted his flagrant violation of students by not using their appropriate pronouns in Fall 2016. He is known as a basher of postmodernism, social justice warriors, and the intellectual left in general. He does this in videos and books that claim to be ‘self-help books,’ mostly for young white, internet-obsessed men who feel alienated and lonely. Peterson is also famous for suggesting human hierarchies are inevitable because lobsters also have hierarchies. This will be important later.

Contrapoints assesses his self-help work as “a Trojan horse for a reactionary political agenda.” But instead of writing him off with that sentence, she says she wants to understand him and then challenge him.

By putting him in bed and in the bath with her, instead of simply cutting to clips of him in formal interviews, she visually refutes his transphobia and Peterson’s desire to be seen as some ‘rational-professor-man’. Her video may resemble a straightforward criticism in many ways, but the outrageous act of putting Peterson in the bath helps keep at bay a leftist criticism of ContraPoints—that she may be assisting in the spread of Peterson’s message by taking him seriously—and the right-wing criticism, that she’s simply overreacting to him. Instead, by putting him in the bath, she does not argue in a way that turns off the listener, it asks them to be amused, disgusted, and even turned on: so that the point sneaks amidst the minutes of laughter, cringes, or shifting in your seat.

The critical proximity is not just persuasively beneficial. It is clear from the video that this performance of critical proximity is borne of an orientation that encourages ContraPoints’s method. She looks into the broad expanses of the digital text that makes up Jordan Peterson’s corpus. Instead of doing a traditionally impersonal, close reading, she engages in something more like participant observation. She goes to the forums and the youtube comments sections and digs around for information on what Peterson’s audience is desiring. The result is work that is not only more persuasive to that community but understands them differently, as fellow creatures who are trying to make sense of the world.

She ends with her classic ironic dispassion.

It is an invitation to build together from the critique she has provided with the fictions she has offered: she has deconstructed Peterson’s ideas but, through humor and bath oil, has built a new ground for these men to see the diversity of thought outside of Peterson’s straw-person arguments. These, she shows in her performance, may offer better solutions for living than the sad reality Peterson provides. It allows donning wigs and costumes and doing mood lighting, rather than succumbing to the hierarchy of the lobster.


My last full draft of this paper was written about a year ago today — in that timeline, Contrapoints had been ‘canceled’ for suggesting she felt alienated by forced ‘go around the circle and tell me your name and pronouns’ activities. My concern then was that she may not return — that we would have lost such an inventive voice. But she is back, with several longer videos about her own cancelling, shame, and ‘cringey-ness.’ Her commitment to the bit is laudable.

I share this story to emphasize the need for us to commit to new methods of criticism. Digital and analog fictocriticism is not the only way forward, but it is one way. It is a way to consider how to intervene and invent. It is most certainly not free of risk, but risk-taking might be what we need in these precarious times. And now, I shall return to the bath—will you?

Thank you.

Thanks to Catherine Knight-Steele & our FA2019 COMM712 seminar, Damien Pfister, and Michelle Murray Yang & our COMM738V seminar for helping me develop this paper. Thanks to my old roommate, Samuel Warren, for introducing me to Contrapoints at the perfect time when I was in desperate need for a seminar paper topic!

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