Bag of Dicks Rhetoric
The first line of the Run the Jewels/DJ Shadow collaboration “Nobody Speak” is:
Picture this/ I’m a bag of dicks
For some time, I’ve wondered what these lyrics mean. The lyrics open the song. By doing so, I would think, they are meant to capture the scene the song establishes or present the basis of the song so that an audience can follow the overall meaning presented. But, I ask, what does that mean to be a bag of dicks? One can be a dick, of course. One can call someone else a dick. Fast Times at Ridgemont High’s Jeff Spicoli canonically captured that feeling of anger and addressing the object of one’s scorn with the dick title when, upset for being kicked out of class, he looked Mr. Hand straight in the eye and matter of factly stated: “You dick.”
There are numerous songs about dicks: ZZ Top’s “Tube Snake Boogie,” the Saturday Night Live Christmas skit “Dick in a Box,” Lyle Lovett’s “Choke My Chicken,” and Frank Zappa’s “Bwana Dik,” among others. Still, most of these references sexualize the dick. “Nobody Speak” is different. “Nobody Speak” does not sexualize. And El-P and Killer Mike are saying: We’re dicks. With the Run the Jewels opening lyrics, I ask: Why would someone want to be a bag of dicks? Bag of shit. Bag of bones. A bag of dicks? The next line obviously answers my question, “put me to your lips,” but even if that is the logical conclusion to calling one’s self a bag of dicks, does one have to be a whole bag to be put next to someone else’s lips?
To be a bag of dicks, outside of its literal meaning of a sack of some sort holding various dicks inside, is to be a real jerk or an asshole. No doubt, Run the Jewels are making such a claim about themselves. Other lyrics in the song include “kick your dog,” “I rob Charlie Brown,” and “I will shoot a baby duck if it quacks.” Bragging about being an asshole is both no small matter and a cultural trope. Norman Mailer, overall, bragged about being an asshole. Kenny Shopsin made a living by projecting his persona as such (no groups of five!). Social media allows us to be assholes with little effort. If I go on Facebook and post that, as department chair, I won’t put tissues in my office (“If you have to cry, do it on your own time”) or that I like to eat horse or “I’m the only professor in the Humanities who isn’t interested in saving Humanity,” someone will say: he’s a bag of dicks. I’m engaging with social media to circulate a specific trope. Elsewhere, we might call this shtick.
When I post on Facebook a link to a Washington Post story on Arizona state senator Frank Antenori who objects to state and federal funding for higher education, a lot of people think I’m a bag of dicks. I’m a bag of dicks because I don’t express dismay at Antenori, though I strongly disagree with his position. Instead, without critiquing Antenori or the movement he is associated with, I point to the failure of higher education to counter narratives such as the one Antenori believes in and circulates: the self made man, the individual, the question of a degree’s “value” as opposed to learning for its own sake, the anti-Americanism of university classrooms, etc. While such narratives have been deconstructed and torn apart in our classrooms or in our publications, they still maintain power among much of the American population. Antenori, no doubt, would not find our ability to show the fallacies in the self made man narrative persuasive. He was a Green Beret. He went to college at 32. He finished a graduate degree online. He became successful. He won an election. Whatever other forces may or may not have contributed to his success are irrelevant to him. We can call him white, privileged, or white privileged, but he won’t change his position. In fact, he likely will deny — based on this trajectory — any sense of privilege because that claim denies any work he may have done to achieve what he has. Because of the trajectory he chose, it is hardly surprising that he rejects the public university model many of us believe in. It is hardly surprising that he rejects courses that study culture, literature, language, the many majors offered nationwide, or the federal/state subsidy of higher education. He followed a different route. He turned out fine. Why can’t everyone else do what he did?
How do you counter that narrative? It’s incredibly powerful for many. What’s good for me is good for everyone else is a common narrative — it is found within religion, business, American culture, resistance politics, and elsewhere. Countering that narrative requires innovative thought, but also careful rhetorical delivery. Alongside the narrative of the individual, as well, is the narrative of the university out of touch with reality and the everyday person. The Post reporter notes:
Antenori is just as happy his sons aren’t hanging out with the “weirdos” he reads about on Campus Reform, a conservative website with a network of college reporters whose stated mission is to expose “liberal bias and abuse on America’s campuses.”
A state senator who makes choices regarding the funding of higher education views higher education as being made up of “weirdos” who project “liberal bias” and are anti-American. These are strong rhetorical tropes. He is not the only one, of course, who thinks as such. Whether these points are true or not is irrelevant. Rhetoric creates reality, as most of us in this rhetoric business know. That reality can have financial effects, as those of us in higher education know. Antenori — probably not far removed from Kentucky’s governor — believes in that reality.
Place a bag of dicks next to someone’s lips and you create a reality. Higher education has long believed in its own reality. If it repeats keywords such as “life long learning” and “critical thinking,” it will demonstrate value in the Humanities for a general and legislative public. After all, every generic business report we can dig up cites the need for employees to think critically. Politically, however, even when a governor or state legislator has a degree in English, Japanese, or some other Humanities subject, that person can react strongly against the “value” of a Humanities education. The other tropes of value overcome experience. I, for example, favor the Humanities tradition I teach in; but I have three degrees in English and would never approve of my children majoring in English. The pleasure of the text, as Barthes taught us, is contradiction.
Contradiction is powerful as well. Arguing without content feels like a contradiction, but it is one of the most powerful gestures I can imagine (advertising, branding, political speech, resistance). I was recently called a “bag of dicks” for noting that the rhetoric of the land grant university and the mission it is devoted to is not persuasive to people like Antenori. With the land grant mission narrative, we encounter a contradiction. The mission makes sense. But it’s not persuasive. Take, for example, the University of Kentucky’s mission:
The University of Kentucky is a public, land grant university dedicated to improving people’s lives through excellence in education, research and creative work, service and health care. As Kentucky’s flagship institution, the University plays a critical leadership role by promoting diversity, inclusion, economic development and human well-being.
And compare it to the University of Arizona’s mission
Maintain the fundamental principle of accessibility to all students qualified to study at a research university
Maintain university accessibility to match Arizona’s socioeconomic diversity
Improve freshmen persistence to 90%
Enhance university graduation rate to 80% and more than 32,000graduates
Enhance quality while reducing the cost of a degree
Enroll 100,000 online and distance education degree seeking students
Enhance measured student development and individual student learning to national leadership levels
Enhance linkages to the university at all levels for all learners
There is nothing to disagree with, for me, in either statement. Both are bland, to an extent, and stiff in language, but that is to be expected. Both provide generic outlines of goals meant to better the general population and to serve students. Neither, though, addresses the complaints state and federal legislators or a general voting public (and sometimes not voting public) pose. Nor should a mission statement of a land grant university address being called a space for weirdos. Unfortunately, that is the problem.
When facing a dominant, well circulated narrative such as the one Antenori clings to, claiming to enhance graduation rates and promote well being do little to diminish that narrative for the public it is designed to appeal. If Antenori has read Arizona’s mission statement, it has had no impact on his beliefs. I have read our own mission statement, and it has no impact on what I do or believe, even though I, unlike Antenori, agree with its promise. Such is the rhetorical dilemma higher education finds itself in — a dilemma more pronounced by the Trump administration’s early politics as well as a continued and long standing anti-intellectual stance promoted by many of those who fund higher education. That part we know. That part of the dilemma we have known about for many, many years. What we still cannot do, it seems, is counter that part of a public rhetoric about higher education with a more attractive version of our own. We don’t understand what makes education stick (to paraphrase Heath and Heath), and those terms that do stick such as “value” or even “employment,” we have been slow to use or even use properly. We are rhetorical failures. Picture that.