The best example of Gonzo rhetoric on the Web may be this very blog, but that’s its intention. Many of the political, sports, and travel blog posts on this site are exemplary uses of Gonzo rhetoric, but this series is sanctioned academically. This blog post investigates the use of Gonzo rhetoric online and how it changes the political and social landscape.
In the November 2012 issue of the Atlantic, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg echoed a concern I think most of us share. “I don’t know what the difference between a blog and newspaper is…and sometimes they have different standards, even under the same logo and the same name” (Bennet 72). Bloomberg’s confusion is understandable. Many news stories no longer differ much from their opinion articles, so it’s difficult to discern fact from opinion, but my previous post makes it pretty clear that discerning fact from opinion is difficult on television as well; the Web just offers far more information.
Lev Manovich’s The Language of New Media makes it clear that “in the information age, narration and description have changed roles. If traditional cultures provided people with well-defined narratives (myths, religion) and little ‘stand-alone’ information, today we have too much information and too few narratives that can tie it all together” (217). The overload of information on the Web forces the reader to work harder in obtaining meaning. There are no simple answers anymore (or answers period), and there is way more rhetoric to dig through. “The spectator is no longer chained, immobilized, anesthetized by the apparatus that serves her ready-made images; now she has to work, to speak, in order to see” (109). Richard A. Lanham’s “The Implications of Electronic Information for the Sociology of Knowledge” supports Manovich’s view of the Web empowering the reader. “Hypertext leaves the organization up to the user. Beginnings, middles, and ends are what he or she makes them out to be. The final ‘reading’ order represents a do-it-yourself collage, a set of user-selected variations, around a central theme” (156). The Web empowers the reader, but the reader must have the necessary skills to properly read the web to make use of that power.
Jeff Rices’s The Rhetoric of Cool states, “The formation of associative, nonlinear thoughts is itself a composing process reflective of digital media…the ability to navigate and generate multiple lines of thinking at once is a rhetorical necessity because single, declarative sentences don’t cover enough material” (122). This overload isn’t restricted to online media, however, as television news broadcasts now incorporate “bottom lines” that cycle the day’s top stories, forcing the reader to not only “read” the declarative statements of the reporter, but also the biggest headlines of the day. The vast distractions of the Web have effectively altered television, our reading habits, and reading ability. N. Katherine Hayles states in her essay “How We Read: Close, Hyper, Machine,” that “people read less print, and they read print less well” (62). So how do we make meaning out of the vastness of the Web? Hayles reminds us that “meaning is sensitively dependent on context,” and it’s important we don’t forget it (74).
This Washington Post analysis of the 2012 Presidential Election, written by Charles Hurt, is an ideal example of Gonzo rhetoric online. The title, “Obama victory means four more years with no hope of change,” is exemplary Gonzo rhetoric, and displays the freedom the newspaper realizes on the Web that it doesn’t in print. Hunter S. Thompson was a master of headline writing, including zingers like “The Wisdom of Nashville and the Violence of Jack Nicholson – A Football Story” and “Fear and Loathing at the Watergate: Mr. Nixon has Cashed his Check.” Effective, powerful headline writing is an essential staple of Gonzo rhetoric, and the Washington Post does it quite well online…and in print.
Mother Jones, a non-profit and admittedly Liberal magazine, used the Web to break the biggest story of the 2012 Presidential Election, and it took a bit of Gonzo journalism, and Gonzo rhetoric to do so. A bartender, moonlighting as an amateur video journalist at a GOP private fundraiser, used a smartphone to record a secret video revealing Mitt Romney saying 47% of Americans are “dependent upon the government,” “pay no income tax,” and that he’ll “never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” The videographer made a Gonzo, rhetorical choice to remain anonymous rather than receive credit for his work so Mother Jones could publish the video without legal repercussions. It was outlaw journalism at its best, and the Gonzo rhetoric Mother Jones‘ contributor David Corn wrote to accompany the video is absolutely scathing, including this subtitle: “When he doesn’t know a camera’s rolling, the GOP candidate shows his disdain for half of America.” The Web offers an outlet for media not available within the pages of a magazine and more rhetorical freedom to editors, and they have taken advantage.
This Red State blog is an ideal example of Gonzo rhetoric in weblogs. Red State “is the most widely read right of center blog on Capitol Hill, is the most often cited right of center blog in the media, and is widely considered one of the most influential voices of the grassroots on the right,” according to its “About” page. It is estimated they receive 368,300 unique visits per month. So, what makes it so popular? Well, the rhetoric, of course. This particular blog, published just after the 2012 Presidential Election, features a very Gonzo headline referring to drug use: “Not What If – What Next (Part I: Morphine).” The author doesn’t stop there, calling Obama’s reelection “the pharmacological brilliance of the Obama Economy. I’m not seeing any cures out there, but he’s sure got a new pill for whatever puts a gimp in your walk and makes it clear you can only get that little, magical pill from him,” and saying people “vote to get their pain-killers.” Though Thompson generally wrote from the Left (even though politically, he liked to “settle somewhere in the middle”), Right-wing bloggers have taken up his rhetoric and used it for their own ends, but it’s not much different on the Left.
Talking Points Memo is the most popular Left-wing news/blog website, with 750,000 unique views per month, and it’s popular for the same reason Red State is. TPM is a perfect example of Michael Bloomberg’s difficulty in distinguishing newspapers from blogs, because despite the fact that TPM doesn’t publish a newspaper, they do publish “objective” news articles online, along with Liberal blogs, but discerning one from the other can be difficult at times given the similar layouts and rhetorical choices. This TPM article is a great example of rhetoric-riddled news. The writer, Sahil Kapur, clearly takes the side of Nancy Pelosi in the fight with Speaker John Boehner regarding middle class tax rates, but TPM is hardly Gonzo. Even its blogs are rather reserved, and perhaps their positioning just Left of middle is a reason why they attract so many more readers than Red State. To find the purest Gonzo rhetoric in Weblogs we have to move even further Left.
Gonzo Times features blogs written by Socialists, Communists, and Anarchists, and is relatively popular given the current US political landscape. They receive anywhere between 20,000 and 65,000 views per month, and the Gonzo rhetoric flows like Wild Turkey used to at Thompson’s Owl Farm. This blog, for example, criticizes rich, white folks for having the audacity to call themselves Anarchists for moving to New Hampshire to take advantage of friendly tax legislation in a state with few minorities. “Being a rich privileged white male who escapes the confines of income taxes to realize his full rate of surplus value does not qualify one as an Anarchist.” Gonzo Times has taken Thompson’s work and moved it farther Left, and have been relatively effective in doing so.
My associate, Charles Gonzo, in the United Kingdom also writes a very Gonzo weblog called The Gonzo Lecture that receives roughly 10,000 views per month. This blog post, published just before the 2012 Presidential Election, gives an example of Gonzo rhetoric in action across the pond. The use of profanity and name-calling is prevalent, as the English seem to have a better grasp of cursing than us Americans. “Mitt Romney is a typical, dense, unaware Republican, whose mantra revolves around the self-interest and greed we’ve always associated with stupid Republicanism.” Though Gonzo rhetoric is all-American, it’s being adopted worldwide through the World Wide Web, and it may be taking even a smidgen of power back from corporate media. What has and will continue to increase the prevalence of Gonzo rhetoric on the Web, however, is social media.
Facebook is responsible for some of the most in-your-face political rhetoric on the Web. I should know. As the Montana Campus Coordinator for Gary Johnson’s Presidential campaign, Facebook was an ideal medium to influence the electorate, but it’s also a medium that acts, just as Gonzo rhetoric does. Some of the political photos posted to Facebook display Gonzo rhetoric by either incorporating humorous, controversial text, or by altering the image itself. Though many of the posts on Facebook may be offensive, the ability to leave comments allows for people to discuss their views on issues and allows for a shift in the political landscape. For instance, the photo above started a firestorm on Facebook, with over 1,000 Likes, 1,200 shares, and 1,000 comments.
Twitter is similarly Gonzo in its 140-character limit on tweets. This limitation forces twitches (people who tweet) to create the Gonzo-esque headlines Thompson was known for. Effective tweets must be creative, humorous, or even shocking if they are to attract an audience in the vast Twitterverse, unless, of course, you’re the President. This picture of President Obama hugging Michelle after winning the election is the most retweeted tweet ever. Twitter also gives users the ability to post photos, videos, links, and places, just as Facebook does, but the interface makes for a much more competitive space than Facebook. The tweet below was part of a TwitterBomb started by the Gary Johnson Unofficial Twitter Army. People were asked to publish photos of themselves holding an “I am Libertarian” sign all continue doing so all day.
— Anthony Varriano (@GoGonzoJournal) August 8, 2012
In closing, with just the few examples presented in this blog post, the prevalence of Gonzo rhetoric on the Web is apparent, but what does it mean for the social and political landscape? Are we, the people, taking back power from commercial news organizations? If we are, the power we’ve obtained is minimal, and Lev Manovich tells us why. “As ‘professional’ technology becomes accessible to amateurs, new media professionals create new standards, formats. and design expectations to maintain their status” (120). The “professionals” are adopting new standards, all right, and those standards seem to be getting more Gonzo everyday. The good news is this new media is a media of action. “To evoke a term often used in film theory, new media move us from identification to action” (183). The media itself is Gonzo, and now we are using it Gonzo-ly.
Collin Gifford Brooke offers some hope in Lingua Fracta as well. “If electronic writing requires a more active, involved reader, one that produces the text as she reads, then it stands to reason (in this model) that the author’s responsibility for and control over the text are proportionally less” (73). New media not only empowers the reader to use Gonzo rhetoric in powerful ways, but allows the reader to create their own meaning – to read past the Gonzo rhetoric – and my next blog post in this series, “Gonzo Rhetoric in New Media,” will offer advice for doing just that.