As readers of this blog know, I’ve been working on setting up the North Dakota University System Arts and Humanities Summit here on campus for next fall. The theme will be outrage and I hope it leads to a productive and thought provoking mini-riot.
To inspire critical conversation about the I wrote this short blog post for public consumption and to inspire folks to think about outrage in different ways. It’s intentionally provocative (although not really outrageous). Check it out below:
People are mad. We have to look no further than television or the social media to find our daily dose of outrage. Outrage saturates casual conversations, seeps from the pores of the community, and galvanizes events into evidence for totalizing ideological conspiracies. At its more productive, outrage can stoke mass movements like we witnessed in the Arab Spring or in Ferguson, Missouri. Propelled by passion mediated through digital communication technology, outrage courses through the veins of our hyper-connected modern world.
North Dakota is not immune to paroxysms of outrage, of course. Budget cuts across the state and in higher education and social services have prompted outraged cries. Environmental concerns associated with fracking, political posturing by politicians, an simple incompetence and corruption throughout the state has led to frustration, anger, and ultimately outrage. The intersection of local and national politics has proved particularly fraught as it has brought national attention to local affairs. Even campus events, like the canceling of a program or a 911 call can attract national anger, and the local community can struggle to negotiate tension between loyalty, local knowledge, and national attitudes.
The global media is at least partly to blame for cross pollination of local and national outrage. The ability of a group like ISIS to attract recruits from around the world demonstrates that outrage against something as ubiquitous as Western capitalism and democracy manifests itself at local levels with global impacts. At the same time, social media has allowed local outrage against a tyrannical regime or an act of social injustice to transform into mass action.
The NDUS Arts and Humanities Summit at the University of North Dakota will bring together scholars from across the university system both to express and critique outrage. Expressions of outrage are more than mere emotional catharsis which allows for the dispersion of pent up energy, but have a performative value as well. For scholars like Manual Castells, outrage motivated actions in the social media that eventually catalyzed into mass protests. It may be a more productive to see outrage itself as a medium or performative style which accelerates and intensifies the impact of various messages. Anguished, staccato, character of contemporary outrage, like a modern vox clamatis in deserto, parallels the punctuated bursts of text messages, Tweets, and Facebook posts as well as the sound-bite sensationalism of traditional media. The emotional density of outrage delivers an impact that transcends the need for an argument, for lengthy exposition, and elaborate structure. By inviting scholars to be outraged, we want to explore the potential for outrage as a form of scholarly communication. Can scholars harness the power of outrage effectively to motivate mass movements?
At the same time the Arts and Humanities Summit invites presentations and papers that consider and critique our growing dependence on outrage to motivate social change. After all, not all outrage is created equal and understanding how outrage functions in our connected world ensures that we can critically engage its impact and significance. While we should never confuse recognizing the way in which outrage functions for being about to control it, we should recognize the potential and limits of these media in a world increasingly committed to an accelerated pace of social engagement.
Outrage has already played a key role in the course of the 21st century. It has punctuated debates over race, privileged, and self-determination on an international scale and found a happy ally in the staccato signals of the digital media and our own attenuated attention. While the STEM field are on often seen as the front line for the global pandemics, war, and economic growth, the Arts and Humanities represent a bulwark against the unfettered ravages of outrage in our networked society. Our ability to communicate, to motivate, to compel, to perform, and to empathize reside both at the core of the arts and humanities and outrage. We hope that this event is the first step in a an important initiative that understands the destructive and productive potential of outrage and need to fortify the arts and humanities in North Dakota to manage its awesome power.