“Swift”-ian rhetoric in the new media age

The digiscape was predictably flooded this week with “binders full of women” memes after presidential hopeful Mitt Romney inserted both feet into mouth during a town hall debate. In the aftermath, a lot of people are raiding the usual sites that serve as clip art generators for Facebook and other social media (repurposing is the lifeblood of new media) to distribute those little billboards of intertextual richness and variation: the immutable image, the malleable captions (“Trap Her, Keep Her!” the epitome of the moment). Sometimes my Facebook stream reads like an endless demonstration of the Kuleshov effect, expressed in the grammar of LOLcats.

But my favorite digital response was not the stream of snark, but rather a series of “reviews” posted to an Avery binder page on Amazon.com. (Thank you, Michelle, for cluing me into the phenomenon.) I wanted to include a couple of screen grabs, just in case Avery or Amazon decide to pull the plug, but they look terrible here. As of this writing, some 900 posts and thousands of “helpful” clicks have been logged in response to Romney’s binder comment.

With the digital commons potentially going the way of the physical one, it’s encouraging to see people co-opting corporate space in inventive, expressive ways for political speech. Given the banality of the lowly binder, it has startlingly generated a profusion of rhetorical strategies and positions; indeed, the amassed collection of Amazon posts and comments on those posts constitute a case of imagery made real—binder-as-metaphor manifesting as a real-world database for the network of interconnected injustices still suffered by women. Some posts are voiced from “inside” the binder, speaking from a disempowered position. Others write from the “outside” to extol or critique the binder’s ability to “hold women.” It would be interesting to examine these rhetorical positions from a gender perspective, as well.

More generally, the “Swift”-ian quality of these posts—connoting not only the speed of their propagation, but also their satirical style and sophistication—suggests that Romney’s binder is a metonymic trigger for gender inequalities only recently rectified in history–and as a reminder for those that remain. One remarkable post conflates a variety of right-wing narratives to posit a totalizing, multi-generational image of “binder life.” Titled “I didn’t need an abortion, all I needed was this binder!” (October 17, 2012), “Mom in AK” writes:

I thought I needed control of my reproductive choices. It turns out all I needed was this awesome binder! When it came time to give birth to my child conceived from “illegitimate” rape (“one method of conception,” you know), I had no where to go. With no health insurance, no hospital would take me in. This binder provided me with a safe place to give birth. It’s spacious, plastic, and comfortable. I like to think of it as a my tiny manger, a haven for homeless mother. I’m so relieved that my rape baby was a girl. That way she can happily live in my binder with me until the day she has to go to prison. Since there’s no Joseph in the picture for me, I know my my child will be a criminal. I’ll miss her, but that’s ok because once they cut food stamps, we’ll have to eat the plastic coating on this binder. She’ll get better food in prison. I dream of the day my daughter is illegimately [sic] raped herself, and I’ll become a grandmother. Once my daughter is in prison, there will be plenty of room for me and my grandbaby in this binder. It’s great being a woman! I sure love my binder!

If television’s “town hall” format offers a contrived-but-useful venue for “pushing out” candidate messages (even horrible ones) in the broadcast medium, the “push back” certainly can be found online in the digital marketplace. What’s striking in this case is the location: this isn’t happening in the cul-de-sac of a blog (like this one!), but rather in the middle of Main St. We’ll see how long the Amazon.com corner stays open to this form of political speech, just as we’ll find out in November where the great American experiment is headed. If only de Tocqueville had a binder for the 21st century….

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