Ryan Weber, University of Alabama in Huntsville
(Published: December 30, 2014)
The world could have ended on May 21, 2011. And the devastation did not sound very funny.
According to Harold Camping, founder of the fundamentalist Christian Family Radio Network, May 21 fulfilled biblical rapture prophecies. Elect Christians would ascend to heaven while divine punishment devastated those left behind. Though end-times prophecies occur frequently (Camping himself prophesied two previous raptures), this prophesy garnered significant media attention, largely due to Family Radio's publicity efforts. The organization placed warning billboards around the country with messages such as "Judgment Day. May 21. The Bible Guarantees It."
Figure 1: A Family Radio billboard guarantees the apocalypse.
Family Radio sent "Project Caravan" teams on road trips to spread the good news of the impending apocalypse. These publicity efforts paid off. The doomsday prediction received heavy media coverage in the days leading to May 21. Most coverage showed either mild skepticism or outright mockery of the prediction—for instance, a Time magazine article headlined "Judgment Day? No Way!" ended by declaring "We'll see you right here on these pages on May 22." Still, thousands of people embraced Camping's message, abandoning families, jobs, and fortunes in hopes of a one-way Rapture ticket. Tragically, a 14-year-old Russian girl committed suicide on the eve of May 21 to avoid Armageddon. Minutes before the scheduled Rapture, a man drowned trying to cross a lake, believing that God was waiting on the other side ("California Drowning…").
Conversely, some found the prophecy amusing and planned "end of the world" parties. Many of these events provided little more than a good time at the End Times.1 But some of the events were more blatantly satirical, as skeptic and atheist groups organized ironic "Rapture Ready" parties, conferences, and fundraisers. Though several of these ironic skeptic events prove ripe for analysis, this article focuses on the event "Rapture Relief," a satirical fundraiser for Apocalypse survivors hosted by the group Seattle Atheists. The event proves fruitful for analysis because it offers several textual artifacts and a coherent satirical strategy while also posing a risk of being misconstrued.
Ironic apocalyptic rhetoric raises a serious rhetorical conundrum. Meant to satirize hysterical prognostications about the world's end, these events could end up fueling sensationalism, prompting hysteria, and convincing unwitting victims of the prophesy's legitimacy. If misinterpreted, Rapture Relief could cause audience members to stake their claim with the Harold Camping camp. This article explores this danger through the concept of rhetorical dwelling. Because ironic texts deliberately establish multiple dwellings, they raise provocative questions about the consequences and responsibilities of rhetoric. Unintentionally, some ironies offer dwellings that can provide rhetorical aid and comfort to the enemy. I use these ironies to elucidate a framework to evaluate potentially risky rhetorical moves.
Rapture Relief is not the only recent dilemma that reveals the dangers of apocalyptic irony. The world also could have ended on September 10, 2008, when researchers first activated the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). The LHC fired hysteria about the creation of black holes that could swallow the planet. Doomsday scenarios captivated media outlets, including the British newspapers The Sun and The Guardian. Even National Geographic ran an article with the headline "Worst Case: Collider Spawns Planet-Devouring Black Hole." Doomsday predictions were especially prevalent in India, where a 16-year-old girl committed suicide to avoid the apocalypse ("Girl Suicide Over…"). However, British physicist Stephen Hawking found this dark matter amusing, telling Time magazine, "I thought I'd host an end of the world party, but the media might take it seriously" (Stephy).
I find the quote fascinating2 for its implications about irony's potential to reinforce beliefs it tries to lampoon. Hawking considers satirizing ungrounded hysteria, but worries that the irony will ultimately backfire and intensify this hysteria among people who miss the joke. Hawking may plan a lighthearted and ironic gathering, with his genius friends sitting around listening to REM's "It's the End of the World as We Know It" and playing "pin the black hole on the supercollider," but the party may produce severe consequences for those outside the in-group. Given a literal presentation by certain media outlets, the party might create more hysteria and even prompt more suicides. These implications make the joke seem decidedly less funny.
The danger of irony as a trope—loosely and perhaps crudely defined by Cicero as saying "the exact reverse of what you mean" (II.C.LXVII)—lies in the possibility that someone, somewhere will sincerely embrace the ironic statement. Sometimes this confusion produces only amusement and further fodder for the ironist. But when serious interpretations of lighthearted texts threaten mass hysteria or even suicide, the irony can become irresponsible. In these risky instances, an ironic text may backfire and open up rhetorical dwelling spaces where those opposed to the ironist can congregate. In this dwelling, they may deploy the text for new ends, perhaps to disastrous effect. The ironic speaker does not ultimately want to mislead these people—linguist Luigi Anolli argues that "an ironic speaker is not a deceitful one. Unlike the lie, where words and utterances are deceptive, irony is found underneath a disguise of pretence" (Anolli, Ciceri, and Infantino 72). And yet, the polyphonic nature of irony creates the possibility that someone will take the utterance seriously or simply not know where to stand. Therein lies the danger.
Irony's dangers are widely discussed. Communication scholars Lisa Gring-Pemble and Martha Solomon Watson argue that, "because of its polyvalent nature, the use of ironic satire as a rhetorical strategy to debunk a position is unpredictable" (133). And Wayne Booth reports that irony "risks disaster more aggressively than any other device" (41). Usually, the discussion theorizes two audiences for irony—those who get it and those who do not. But the binary misses the complexities of ironic interpretation. To add dimension to irony theory, cognitive scientists Raymond Gibbs and Cristin Izett split the traditional two audiences—"wolves" who notice the irony and "sheep" who do not—into four audiences:
- Wolf-Confederates, who catch the irony and agree with the ironist's position
- Wolf-Victims, who catch the irony but do not agree with the ironist's position
- Sheep-Confederates, who miss the irony but agree with the ironist's position
- Sheep-Victims, who miss the irony and do not agree with the ironist's position
This taxonomy is still narrow, but it recognizes additional audiences that complicate irony's reception. Usually, analysis of irony's dangers focuses on the sheep-confederates—the audience members sympathetic to the ironist's position who miss the irony and grow outraged. For instance, Stanley Fish focuses on sheep-confederates in his analysis of the controversy surrounding Randy Newman's song "Short People;" many audience members directed misplaced anger at Newman, who did not sincerely mean his chorus of "Short people ain't got no reason to live."
Far less theorized are the sheep-victims, who earnestly dwell in the rhetorical space that the other groups have rejected. The presence of sheep victims reveals that ironic texts can reinforce the worldviews they intend to undercut. Neil Vidmar and Milton Rokeach dub this the "Archie Bunker effect" based on their study finding that All in the Family's satirical portrayals of racism and bigotry were greeted warmly by some racists and bigots. During the lifetime of the show, CBS received letters both criticizing and lauding Archie Bunker's attitudes. Similarly, Leda Cooks and Mark Orbe found that ethnocentric viewers struggled to identify racial satire in In Living Color sketches featuring exaggerated stereotypes. More recently, Heather LaMarre et. al. found that while both conservatives and liberals found The Colbert Report funny, conservatives interpreted Stephen Colbert's satirical right-wing pundit as a genuine conservative who agreed with their principles. These findings led the authors to conclude, "Because both groups perceive the messages and the source as supporting their own political views, it seems plausible that both liberals and conservatives could use Stephen Colbert and The Colbert Report as a showcase for why their political viewpoints are correct" (228). The Colbert Report can serve as a dwelling for those it satirizes. Irony doesn't always go awry in this way—a 2010 study of reception to satirical texts found that irony rarely backfired even when audience members missed the joke (Johnson, Rio, and Kemmitt)—but academic and anecdotal evidence shows that this possibility for misinterpretation is real.
This article uses two apocalyptic ironies—one deployed, one not—to explore this thorny problem. How can we determine when perilous irony is justified? When irony is risky, when the consequences of misinterpretation are severe, "I'm just kidding" is not an adequate defense for irony gone wrong. But volatile, perilous ironic acts can be justifiable when they inspire enough audience members to dwell together in a productive rhetorical space. While Hawking's party probably falls below this standard, I argue that Rapture Relief did offer a strong, defensible dwelling to compensate for its dangers. To make this argument, I draw on theories of ethos as rhetorical dwelling to expand and complicate Booth's reconstruction schematic of ironic interpretation. With an expanded notion of dwelling, I argue that Booth's schematic can help determine when risky ironic moves are justified. I do not pretend to solve the irrepressible challenges of irony. Rather, I hope to overview an overlooked ironic challenge and offer scholars and ironists a theoretical framework to approach it.
Ethos and Dwelling in Wayne Booth's A Rhetoric of Irony
Ethos and irony are inseparable. Quintilian even saw them as ideal partners.3 The above-mentioned apocalyptic ironies reveal several dimensions of their relationship. The challenge of sheep-victims raises concerns not only about the credibility and character of the speaker, but also the most ancient definition of ethos as habit and dwelling space.
This definition conceives ethos as the rhetorical and symbolic spaces that form and sustain communities. Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, and Roderick McKenzie define ethos first and foremost as "an accustomed place" ("????"), and the definition harkens back to the oldest connotations of the term.
To examine the ethos of a speaker and audience is to examine the places to which communities return, the symbolic dwellings that constitute home. Ethos concerns the locations of discourse, as Nedra Reynolds argues by noting that "gathering or meeting is literally at the root of ethos" (333). According to Lynda Walsh, ethos is an "ethical 'abode'" and a "rhetorical place" (4) that speakers inhabit (among others, Walsh examines the ethos of prominent atheist writer Sam Harris, who advocates reason and science in much the same manner as the Seattle Atheist group discussed below). Thomas Rickert defines such dwelling as the essence of rhetoric: "Rhetoric accomplishes its work by inducing us to shift, at least potentially, how we dwell or see ourselves dwelling in the world" (xiii). An ethos is a rhetorical home that serves as foundations for thinking, acting, and being, as Michael J. Hyde argues:
[Rhetoric's] practice grants such living room to our lives that we might feel more at home with others and our surroundings. The ethos of rhetoric would have one appreciate how the premises and other materials of argument are not only tools of logic but also mark out the boundaries and domains of thought that, depending on how their specific discourses are designed and arranged, may be particularly inviting and moving for some audience. The ethos of rhetoric makes use of our inventive and symbolic capacity to construct dwelling places that are stimulating and aesthetically, psychologically, socially, and perhaps theologically instructive (xii).
Irony likewise participates in the rhetorical construction (and destruction) of dwelling places. As David Kaufer notes, "Sharing ironies is a way for close-knit groups to reinforce the common presumptions which bind group identity" (100). Irony also involves the rhetorical dwellings of the speaker; Knight argues that the location of the satirist is crucial to the way irony makes meaning (54-55). And yet, irony can prompt people to dwell against the rhetor or leave audiences homeless through its ambiguity. The discourse surrounding the end of the world hysteria demands a discussion about the multiple dwellings created by ironic discourse. Because irony relies on ambiguity and the creation of multiple dwellings, it is particularly likely to get reinscribed and repurposed by audiences as it moves to new contexts. For instance, Kevin Casper finds that the humor of Lenny Bruce "is always already interrupted by its future instantiations and can never be fully contained in a given context, not even the context of the intentions of the human consciousness" (343).
The most influential discussion of dwelling and irony occurs in Booth's landmark A Rhetoric of Irony. The book uses the concept of rhetorical dwelling to build a schematic of ironic reconstruction. Booth introduces his schematic by referencing the topoi, the loci, the commonplaces, which are the "platforms on which speaker and listener could securely stand while conducting an argument" (34). Like Reynolds and Hyde's locations of ethos, Booth's symbolic platforms represent a "whole world of meanings" (36), a "large structure of beliefs" (38), "a whole way of life" (38). These dwellings provide space where people can deliberate and find common ground.4 Booth writes,
This notion of a complex dwelling place can be useful, stretched far beyond its original application, in clarifying what we do as we read irony... the reader is asked simply to move from one platform, on which the speaker pretends to stand, to another one, on which he really stands—one that is somehow "opposite," across the street, as it were (35).
Booth illustrates this shift in dwelling places with a diagram of two platforms—a low platform representing the literal but shaky meaning of the ironic statement, and a higher, loftier, more secure platform where the ironist dwells. According to Booth, this schematic "reminds us of inescapable complexities" (37) involved in interpreting irony. But despite this potential, Booth's schematic focuses too much on the stability rather than the inescapable complexities of ironic interpretation. Booth's schematic is too simple, too tidy. The power of Booth's schematic comes from an emphasis on rhetorical dwelling, but its weakness is ignoring the many, many dwellings that ironic audiences might occupy. It offers only two possible dwelling places for audiences of ironic texts—on the top level looking down or on the bottom level looking foolish. The schematic leaves audience members no choices or ambiguity once they decide that a text is ironic.
Booth's schematic of reconstruction connects the acts of recognizing irony and dwelling with the ironist. But interpretation of meaning and decisions on dwelling are separate (though sometimes simultaneous and instantaneous) procedures. In practice, audiences can recognize and interpret irony yet still reject the dwelling it offers. As Candace Lang points out, the unintended brilliance of Booth's reconstruction metaphor is that it involves the audience in constructing the ironic dwelling. Lang writes, "Booth's choice of the term reconstruction (rather than recovery or rediscovery) has an appropriateness which he would perhaps care not to emphasize: that of pointing out the extent to which authorial intent is a critical fabrication" (44). Lang means to underscore the distances between an ironist and an audience, but the term reconstruction also emphasizes the activity of audiences as they build dwellings from ironic texts. The rhetor may offer up an inviting space for dwelling, but audience members may inhabit completely different dwelling places.
For instance, imagine that an enlightened-feeling rhetor uses a racial slur ironically. Audience members who catch the irony may draw different conclusions about what the speaker hopes to ironize. In this instance, some of the wolf-confederates will dwell with or near the rhetor. For Booth, recognizing irony involves moving to a better part of town, so perhaps this group of wolf-confederates lives in the same gated community. They may feel that the ironic racist remark criticizes racism or makes a concerted attempt to render racist terminology socially undesirable. Other wolf-confederates, though, may reconstruct a new dwelling out of the ironic text, assigning it a different significance than the rhetor anticipated. These wolf-confederates may recognize the irony but find the text irresponsible, offensive, or ineffective, and therefore refuse to dwell with the ironist. In some circumstances, an ironic racial comment will not gather all the wolf-confederates in the same dwelling.
Other audience members, sheep-victims, may laugh because they find racial slurs funny. These audience members dwell in Booth's shaky dwelling, the one the ironist invites audience members to abandon. Their laughter might turn the rhetor's ironic racial commentary into a racist comment. Comedian Sarah Silverman uses the term "mouth full of blood laughs" for those audience members who laugh at a racially charged joke for the wrong reasons. Silverman often makes jokes lampooning racist attitudes and stereotypes, and was dismayed when a famous singer praised her by saying "You're my favorite comedian. You have the best n*gger jokes" (Spitznagel). Like the bigoted Archie Bunker fans, the singer dwelled with the literal meaning of the joke, turning it against itself.
Therefore, ironists must ultimately decide if the strength of the dwelling their irony hopes to construct outweighs the danger and probability of people occupying the shaky dwelling. To posit a crude (and incalculable) rhetorical calculation, if a comedian's joke satirizing racism gathers 1,000 people together in dwelling against racist viewpoints and only strengthens racist ideology in another 50 people, perhaps the joke is more justifiable than if the ratios are reversed. Or, if 99% of people catch the joke, but the remaining 1% dwell in extreme racism as a result, the negative potential may overcome the positive. This approach may seem both too cynical and too clinical to encompass the interpretative, situated, and uncodifiable operations of rhetoric. But there are no ironclad formulas here, only questions and difficult, imperfect, but necessary predictions. Rhetors constantly make similar, if less quantified, predictions about the effects of their texts. In essence, responsible rhetors must always determine the justifiability of their dwellings.
These questions require ironists to consider their responsibility for the dwellings they erect, even those meant to be torn down. Ironic speakers often revert to the excuse "I'm being ironic" when their irony goes awry. But being ironic does not justify being ironic. Booth notes (in an echo of Quintilian) that irony forces us to ask "whether the ironist was justified in forcing us to go through all this trouble—is he, finally, writing or speaking well?" (40). As a dangerous and complicated rhetorical process, irony requires special justifications because it establishes perilous dwelling places in the hope that audiences will abandon them. Further, irony is often considered most successful when some audience members take it seriously. As the wolf-confederates, wolf-victims, and sheep-confederates all flee the ramshackle dwelling for higher ground, sheep victims may move in and set up shop. This forces questions about whether ironists can be complicit when the shaky dwelling they create becomes dangerous. As Maegan Parker argues in her analysis of James Forman's ironic "Black Manifesto," the potential for irony to register differently with various audiences requires scholars to begin "holding both the ironist and the audience accountable for the productivity of their encounter" (320). Ultimately, risky ironies must offer a productive dwelling proportionate to the dangers posed by their misinterpretation.
This accountability does not render every ironic act irresponsible. Nor does assigning ironists some responsibility for their shaky dwellings absolve audiences for misconstruing blatant ironies. For instance, on November 28, 2010, the Fox Nation website republished an article from the satirical news website The Onion about a confused, tired Barack Obama sending Americans a rambling 75,000 word email. Fox Nation provided no indication that the story was a joke, and before it was removed hours later, many user comments expressed sincere concern and outrage (Wright). In this instance, one can hardly fault The Onion, a widely recognized source of consistently ironic articles, for Fox Nation's presentation of an ironic text as legitimate news. Sometimes, the audience misappropriating an ironic text bears full responsibility for the dwellings they choose.
But sometimes ironic dwellings are more ambiguous or dangerous. For instance, Gring-Pemble and Watson argue that multiple interpretations emerged from Politically Correct Bedtime Stories, a 1990s bestseller that satirizes the PC movement by drastically sanitizing classic fairy tales with inoffensive language. Though author James Finn Garner seemingly invites readers to reject overenthusiastic political correctness, Gring-Pemble and Watson report that "both opponents and supporters of political correctness responded positively to the book" (133). The book's irony displays a "tendency towards reductio ad absurdum, which may encourage some readers to accept moderate forms of political correctness" (147). The hyper-absurd politically correct language may make milder forms seem reasonable by comparison. Against Garner's likely intent, this ironic text allowed some readers to comfortably dwell with politically correct terminology.
Similar problems emerged from a now infamous July 28, 2008 New Yorker cover depicting Barack Obama in the oval office wearing Muslim regalia. Next to him, Michelle Obama appears as an African American militant. In the fireplace, an American flag burns. The drawing hoped to satirize extremist rumors about the Obamas being an unpatriotic, secret militants, or Muslims, as artist Barry Blitt explains: "It seemed to me that depicting the concept would show it as the fear-mongering ridiculousness that it is" (Sklar). However, many worried that such an inflammatory image would only make the rumors more potent. A Huffington Post blogger argued that the image gathers all the hostile rumors together in one dwelling place: "Anyone who's tried to paint Obama as a Muslim, anyone who's tried to portray Michelle as angry or a secret revolutionary out to get Whitey, anyone who has questioned their patriotism— well, here's your image" (Sklar). Craig O. Stewart's analysis of Huffington Post comments reveals that 81% of readers agreed with this assessment. As predicted, some conservatives saw nothing satirical in the image. On the conservative site Free Republic, several users posted comments praising the depiction for its accuracy. For instance, user Capn'Jack wrote "Who thinks the picture is an 'over-the-top' depiction of them? Certainly not me" ("Satire Backfire"). Capn'Jack and others chose to dwell with the literal meaning of the image.
The creation of these competing dwellings complicates ethos on every level. Rhetorical scholars argue that dwelling involves invitation and responsibility. As Johanna Scmertz argues, creating new dwellings also opens "empty spaces, and new places, from which others may speak" (89). Nedra Reynolds argues that ethos defined as rhetorical dwelling emphasizes "a way of claiming and taking responsibility for our position in the world, for the ways we see, for the places from which we speak" (336). Similarly, Michael Hyde speaks of the responsibility inherent in constructing rhetorical dwellings:
The call of human being, of conscience, calls on us to be rhetorical architects whose symbolic constructions both create and invite others into a place where they can dwell and feel at home while thinking about and discussing the truth of some matter that the rhetor/architect has attempted to disclose and show forth. (xvi)
As already noted, irony sometimes makes it difficult to discern where rhetors dwell, threatening their ability to establish productive dwellings for a community.5 This scholarship on dwelling, complete with its attendant concern about public deliberation, reminds us that rhetors must consider their responsibility for all the dwellings they create, not only the sincere ones. Leaving shaky dwellings unoccupied can be rhetorically reckless. Some ironic texts more readily incite sheep victims to occupy shaky dwellings, and the shaky dwellings of some ironic texts hold more dangerous potential than others. These risky texts deserve careful deliberation about the responsibilities of those who construct them. The following section analyzes the ironic event Rapture Relief to demonstrate how dwelling can clarify issues relating to risky rhetorical moves.
Rapture Relief: Dwelling in the Aftermath of Armageddon
Few ironies risk greater disaster than jokes about the end of the world. Holding an ironic apocalyptic event requires careful consideration; even the world's smartest man refused to take on that rhetorical challenge. Still, the group Seattle Atheists decided to lampoon Harold Camping's predictions through the event Rapture Relief, a satirical promotional and fundraising event described as a "humanitarian aid campaign for Armageddon survivors." As the group itself realized, the event is fraught with peril. And yet, I use the considerations introduced above to argue here that Rapture Relief offers a cohesive, productive rhetorical dwelling for wolf-confederates, which outweighs the smaller potential risks of strengthening the sheep-victim position. In the process, the event illustrates how rhetors can justify risky ironic texts and actions.
Publications from Seattle Atheists about Rapture Relief satirize Camping's predictions by taking them seriously. Rapture-Relief.org parodies Family Radio's predictions about the impending apocalypse before punctuating those predications with some ironic litotes: "the universe will cease to exist. This is obviously disconcerting news." (Rapture Relief). In response, the group satirically offers to lend a hand:
While the world is tortured in this terrible Apocalypse, who better to help the world than atheists? Elite squads of godless heathens, who already live all over the Puget Sound, will help bring people out of the rubble and rebuild their lives. The Post-Apocalyptic Pony Express will help restore communication service by carrying letters across the tattered remains of civilization, giving humanity hope with the sight of the cutest ponies6 money can buy. (Rapture Relief)
The campaign began collecting money shortly before May 21 and offered to either help Armageddon victims with the funds or, "on the off chance that [Camping and Family Radio] are completely wrong," pledged to donate the money to Camp Quest West, a summer camp that teaches critical thinking and science. To promote Rapture Relief, the organization created a website, Twitter feed, and Facebook page, produced a radio commercial that sounds as though it was recorded from a post-apocalyptic wasteland, sent a press release, and held several events, including an atheist booth at a local street fair and a week of wearing "The End is Nigh" signboards from May 23-27 at a Seattle mall.
This campaign threatens misinterpretation, potentially to disastrous effect. The Seattle Atheists worried about the same problem, and initially referred to their event as "A Satirical Fundraiser." According to Seattle Atheist board member Kyle Hepworth, "at one point we had 'satirical' in the headline because we were worried that people wouldn't get it, but they got it pretty good" ("Rapture Relief"), leading the group to eventually drop the telltale designation (the radio ads continued to refer to the event as "A Satirical Benefit"). Their hesitation suggests awareness of irony's power and danger, and their rhetorical strategy to mitigate the danger involves leading with irony and then moving into sincerity to clarify and further the group's dwelling. The group's first press release, which adapts much of its language from the website, initially presents the event ironically and then tips its hand about the group's true perspective: "Of course, it's possible that these people are just deluded, wasting their money, time and lives on a gigantic fearmongering campaign" (Keiser). Later, the release underscores this perspective by making the double voicedness of irony particularly blatant: "Camp Quest teaches children science and critical thinking, something we clearly need more of *cough* Family Radio *cough*" (Keiser).
The event carries extra risks because it is designed to garner attention and prompt reactions. In a radio interview, organizers acknowledge that the event was intended as a meme that would spread with its own momentum and agency. The event received a fair amount of media coverage, scoring mention in a Seattle Times article about atheist Rapture Parties and receiving a full article in the Seattle PI, which did not specifically identify the event as ironic. Several other blogs, many with atheist and liberal predilections, linked to the article. Even The Christian Post covered the cause.
Figure 2: A Seattle Atheist satirically promotes Armageddon.
However, I argue that several rhetorical factors protect the event from backfiring. The first factor is the group's ethos as atheists. No one will suspect that non-believers believe this prophecy. The ethos of the group should clarify their dwelling for many audiences. This contrasts with the Hawking party, because Hawking's ethos as a scientist may create a mistaken impression of special, authoritative knowledge about the dangers of the LHC. Additionally, the group's strategy of blending sincerity with their irony clarifies their dwelling for potentially confused audiences. In the Seattle PI article, Seattle atheist representative John Kaiser first offers an ironic description of the event ("When you give to this fund, Seattle Atheists will use the money to help survivors of any Armageddon-sized disaster in the Puget Sound area") and then provides a sincere summary of the group's mission ("We wanted to highlight […] the need for critical thinking") ("Seattle Atheists Collect").
But perhaps the campaign element most prone to rhetorical reappropriation is the group's decision to wear "The End is Nigh" signs around the city (much of the sign campaign was concentrated during the week of May 23-27, after the prophesied Armageddon had failed to materialize, leading some group members to wear signs reading "The End Was Nigh"). According to Ask An Atheist host Sam Mulvey, the signs received a significant amount of attention. Of all the campaign's elements, the signs most closely resemble the speech being satirized. As Kierkegaard argues, "it is the ironist's pleasure to seem ensnared by the same prejudice imprisoning the other person" (267), and many ironic texts are nearly indistinguishable from the texts of their victims. It is theoretically plausible that passersby might confuse the atheists with genuine doomsayers and embrace the prophecy, causing the atheist group to unwittingly further the rhetorical work of Project Caravan. However, Hepworth reports that the most passersby averted their eyes and avoided the sign wearers. This avoidance was often broken by a sign bearer shouting at the pedestrian "The rapture is probably not going to happen," which clarifies the irony. Hepworth comments "My favorite thing is when you can get someone who's averting their eyes to look right at you and smile with pure relief" ("Rapture Relief"). Videos shot by Seattle Atheists of encounters with bystanders at Seattle's Pike Place market show annoyance, avoidance, and laughter, but no enthusiasm for the prophecy.
Despite the Seattle Atheist's lightheartedness, a minority of audience members may have become sheep-victims who occupied the dwelling rejected by wolf confederates. Most available indications suggest that the group's message was relatively safe from misappropriation. One of the few published reactions to Rapture Relief is a Seattle Times letter to the editor from Frances Dinger, who was "tickled" by the atheist celebrations and considers the fundraiser to be "productive." Further, the majority of Americans had rejected Camping's prophecies; even most evangelical Christians considered Camping a heretic for violating a warning in Matthew 24:36 that only God knows the day or hour of the end times. And fully investing in the prophecy requires a major commitment and corresponding lifestyle change; profiles of prophecy adherents featured on CNN, The Huffington Post, and NPR feature believers who gave up money, jobs, pets, family members, life savings, and future plans in anticipation of the Apocalypse. It is unlikely that merely seeing a sign would incite a person to make such sacrifices, especially as sandwich signs are presumably only the first of several rhetorical acts necessary to develop rapt Rapture enthusiasts.
But in at least one documented way, Rapture Relief and similar ironic parties did rhetorically bolster the dwelling of the end-times prophets. According to the Seattle Times article on the rapture parties, many within Family Radio interpret the mockery as a fulfillment of prophecy: "Thomas Holt, a volunteer with Family Radio, calls those who poke fun at Camping's predictions 'scoffers,' referring to 2 Peter 3:3-4, which says: 'you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires'" (Tu). However, given the fervency of that inner circle's belief, Camping and friends would likely interpret any rhetorical action as validation of the prophecy.
Even if the irony provides some rhetorical comfort to those it mocks, I argue that Rapture Relief compensates by constructing a coherent, productive dwelling where wolf confederates can congregate. Examining the blend of ironic and sincere rhetoric surrounding Rapture Relief, I find several attempts to construct a dwelling that establishes productive domains for the "collaborative and moral deliberation" Michael Hyde associates with dwelling. This dwelling is enthusiastically invitational, both because the group ironically proselytizes their beliefs and because they request likeminded volunteers to contribute to the satirical cause.
Perhaps the most dominant aspect of the group's dwelling is the championing of critical thinking over hysteria. This theme emerges in Rapture Relief's promotional materials and support of Camp Quest, which is framed as a direct antidote to fear-based prophecies. A Rapture Relief press release reads, "the money will go to Camp Quest, a summer camp that teaches children science and critical thinking—the kind of thinking that can prevent this kind of nonsense in our next generation." Ultimately, the group raised over $2100 for Camp Quest. Significantly, the group positions the need for critical thinking as a matter of public concern rather than an esoteric philosophical or epistemological issue. The group views their works as contributing to productive, ethical public deliberation, writing in a press release: "we will do our part to help the next generation avoid getting into this heartbreaking situation themselves." Mulvey also identifies the positive endorsement of critical thinking as a significant dwelling for the group, commenting during an interview with Seattle Atheist members "You're replacing this weird rapture scare with something that's incredibly hopeful" ("Rapture Relief"). This critical thinking7 dwelling offers audiences a holistic, generative perspective, so the irony offers, in Booth's terms, a "large structure of beliefs" and "a whole way of life" (38).
Rapture Relief implies another less overt dwelling. Raising funds for a non-existent disaster and then giving the money to a real cause indicates a desire to focus on immediate, tangible concerns rather than imaginary threats. This dwelling emerges in the campaign's iconography, which depicts a red Christian cross falling over and cracking into a Red Cross symbol. In an echo of Booth, the group visually portrays one dwelling falling in order to create a stronger, more robust dwelling in its place.
Figure 3: The Rapture Relief logo
At least some audience members identified a similar dwelling in the campaign. In her letter, Dinger8 interprets a similar aspect of the group's dwelling, which she considers inclusive: "People of all creeds can find commonality under the banners of charity and volunteerism. Let's help each other solve the problems of the here and now; the hereafter can wait" (Dinger). Similarly, the fact that the atheists so cheerfully offer to lend a hand during their divine punishment could function as a rhetorical strategy that emphasizes atheists' morality. As Keiser states in the Rapture Relief press release, "Who better to care for those stuck with front-row seats to Armageddon? […] We're atheists. We're pretty sure we won't get raptured." Instead of wailing and gnashing their teeth, the group satirically offers to alleviate the pain of their own divine punishment and look after a community others consider doomed. Behind this ironic offer emerges a genuine ethic of care that demonstrates the moral character of the group.
The Rapture Relief dwellings are further reinforced by the public and expansive nature of the ironic performances. By taking their campaign into public spaces such as malls and the Pike Place Market, the Seattle Atheists are encouraging public response and deliberation. While giving this irony such high visibility increases its danger, this exposure also reinforces the campaign's concern for community. The event is not an insular party or private joke but an opportunity to engage the public about how it cares for its members and deliberates about matters of concern. The campaign is invitational, asking participants to spread the word and commit acts of volunteerism, such as donating blood. The public nature of the campaign contributes to its function as epideictic rhetoric. The campaign is not only about persuading people that Camping's immediate prophecy is wrong; it also offers a way of being and dwelling in the world, of thinking through problems, and interacting with community. In taking their campaign public, Seattle Atheists developed the kind of dwelling Dale Sullivan identifies with epideictic rhetoric:
If we return to the etymological roots of ethos, which—as we have seen—is 'place' or 'dwelling,' we can apply the term in a new way. Ethos is not primarily an attribute of the speaker, nor even an audience perception: It is, instead, the common dwelling place of both, the timeless, consubstantial space that enfolds participants in epideictic exchange. (127)
Within this epideictic space, the group ironically develops another property that Sullivan associates with epideictic rhetoric: vision. According to Sullivan, trustworthy rhetors see with a clarity that others cannot, and this vision carries shades of divine inspiration: "there is a sense in which the epideictic rhetor is perceived as a seer, a prophet with supernatural vision" (120). The satirical prophecies of the group grant them an inverted form of this vision, in which they see clearly the falsity of Camping's of prophecies. The group's ironic religious approach also works as an inversion of Hyde's claim that dwellings may serve a theological function.
Beyond epideictic rhetoric in public spaces, the campaign also attempts to create viral dwellings in virtual spaces. By relying heavily on social media, Rapture Relief extends its invitation to dwelling. The online dimension of the campaign demonstrates Crittenden, Hopkins, and Simmons' argument that social media technologies redefine "the concept of satirists as opinion leaders" (174) by allowing novices to spread ironic messages. Other studies suggest that irony can flourish in online social spaces. Mohammud's content analysis of the Colbert Nation forum demonstrates that, while the satirical nature of "The Colbert Report presents difficulties for some viewers involved in posting to the forum" (187), most comments suggest that the show is "ultimately very successful in weaving parody with political commentary" (187). The dialogic nature of the online space, where commenters can point out irony to those who miss the joke, also helps participants "get it." The immediate and lasting structure of social media exchanges also allow dialogue during the event and preserving it for future audiences, enhancing the dwelling by capturing it for future engagement. As John Jones argues, "Social media are both particular and universal, allowing for direct, timely interactions between users while also preserving those interactions just as writing preserves communication" (36). The technology gives ephemeral comments the opportunity to coalesce into an enduring dwelling.
The impact of Rapture Relief's social media presence is unclear. The YouTube videos embedded above, for instance, generally received less than 30 views at the time of writing. The Rapture Relief Facebook page, continuously updated in the days preceding the End of Days, received only a few likes, comments, and shares for most posts. However, the event was picked up several times in Reddit's atheism forums, with a focus placed almost entirely on the group's sincere efforts (one poster titled the thread "Seattle Atheists use May 21 and create a 'Rapture-Relief' fund, money will be donated to a children's camp that teaches critical thinking if there is no rapture"). Many comments endorsed the value of critical thinking, while only one led to a slightly confused discussion of how the funds will be used should the Rapture actually occur. Overall, these Reddit presentations of the fundraising effort reveal the sincere dwelling created by the ironic event. Further, they show that the dwelling is durable in an online space composed largely of like-minded audience members. The expansion of the dwelling through cyberspace may have also increased the campaign's final fundraising total.
Despite the strong dwellings that can emerge through the group's ironic rhetoric, the Seattle Atheists ultimately found that irony alone was insufficient to fully respond to the Camping prophecies. The group added a sincere element to its campaign by issuing a call for a fraud probe into Family Radio. In a press release, the group asks for financial and rhetorical accountability from Family Radio, which raised millions of dollars promoting a rapture campaign that resulted in deaths and several destitute, disappointed devotes: "this prediction has had consequences. Already we read anecdotal evidence of people spending their retirement savings to publicize this nonevent or giving away their goods to make themselves right with God." (Kaiser). In calling for the fraud investigation, the group asks ethos questions similar to those posed by this article's analysis of irony: what are the responsibilities of those who commit perilous rhetorical acts?9 The group found irony unsuited for asking this particular question (especially with the legal consequences they mean to invoke). The move corresponds to the group's pattern of leading with irony and then moving to more literal speech as a way to clarify and elaborate its position. The group dwells powerfully within irony but also moves beyond it to enlarge their domains of thought. Still, within irony, the group constructs a productive dwelling that engages in thoughtful, public deliberation.
Dwelling and the Responsibilities of Irony
Because we use the term "Armageddon" so liberally, and because of its association with the destructive forces of Satan and Michael Bay, we forget that Armageddon refers to an actual place.10 The term refers to the Palestinian city of Meggido, the "place where the kings of the earth under demonic leadership will wage war on the forces of God at the end of history" (Lerner). It serves as a gathering place, but one of ultimate destruction. In this place, all human dwellings are eradicated. Rapture Relief encourages audiences to dwell with an enduring humanist future instead of dwelling with imaginary demonic destruction. The campaign creates and sustains productive rhetorical dwellings rather than forecasting the annihilation of them all. Not all ironies of Armageddon offer a substantial dwelling. Hawking apparently decided that his fake LHC apocalypse party created too many rhetorical black holes, so he rescinded the Evite.
Intertwined with the potency and allure of irony lies a danger that ironic texts will turn against themselves, providing ammunition for intended victims. This danger deserves more scholarly consideration, and this article fosters a discussion about how to responsibly address the potential of ironic texts to provide rhetorical dwelling to sheep victims. Here I argue that responsible ironies construct a strong, productive dwelling for wolf confederates and minimize the probability of sheep victims turning the shaky dwelling into a base of operations. But certainly, the problem warrants even more variables. This article focuses on doomsday ironies as one variety vulnerable to reappropriation, but ironies focusing on race, religion, gender, sexuality, and politics often carry similar risks. At the same time, these ironies are too valuable and ubiquitous to give up, and often, risky ironic moves are justified through the powerful wolf confederate dwellings they create. Rhetors must learn to responsibly consider and evaluate the risks of their ironic texts, and scholars in rhetoric and communication can provide frameworks that inform these decisions. That way, audiences will know where to stand the next time the world might end.
The author wishes to thank Lars Soderlund, Casey Wiley, Steven Sherrill, Casey Boyle, and several anonymous reviewers for their feedback on this article.
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1 As just one of dozens of examples of bars and clubs offering themed May 21 parties, the Grant and Green Saloon in San Francisco invited people to celebrate "being left behind in style" (SF Gate) with a rock band called Drop Apollo.
2 Complicating my analysis is that fact that Hawking might have made the statement jokingly—that is, he could have been ironic about his desire to throw an ironic party. In this case, this entire article may be a victim to Hawking's irony. Certainly, this is a possibility, but a possibility that actually adds to the point about the complexities of ironic dwelling. Regardless, the implications of the statement hold whether it was made sincerely or ironically.
3 See Quintilian. The Institutio Oratoria. trans. H.E. Butler. (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1921): VI.ii.15, VI.iii.23.
4 Booth treats the Greek term topoi, the Latin term loci, and the English term commonplaces as synonymous, and seems to assign all this vocabulary essentially the same meaning found in Giambattista Vico's definition of the loci as "the dwelling place where the argument resides" (25). Many rhetorical scholars may take issue with Booth conflating the nuances of the terms topoi, loci, and commonplace, and that concern, while justified, is the topic of another article. This article uses the term dwelling to indicate a space where audience members gather together to share deliberation, identity, and perspective as they craft further symbolic action.
5 This ambiguity is not always a bad thing, especially when ironists are making a subversive point which threatens their security and safety. See Graban, Terez "Feminine Irony and the Art of Linguistic Cooperation in Anne Askew's Sixteenth-Century Examinacyons." Rhetorica. XXV (2007): 385-411 and Thornton, Patricia M. "Framing Dissent in Contemporary China: Irony, Ambiguity, and Metonymy." The China Quarterly. 171 (Sep. 2002): 661-81 for two examples.
6 The idea of providing relief through ponies is a theme of the group's website and serves as an irony marker through its conspicuous ridiculousness.
7 "Critical thinking" is an ambiguous and often contested term, as people on opposite sides of an issue often claim they are the ones thinking critically. I do not mean to imply that Seattle Atheists have a monopoly on it. Regardless, the group members seem to share a functional definition of the concept and seem to value the concept highly.
8 I am unclear whether Dinger has previous affiliation with Puget Sound area atheist groups or if she first heard about their work through the Seattle Times article.
9 I do not mean to imply that Seattle Atheists Association offers the definitive answer by holding Family Radio largely responsible for the fallout from the prediction. Others could argue that individuals bear responsibility for the rhetoric they choose to dwell with.
10 Not all theologians interpret the mention of Armageddon in Revelation 16:16 as a reference to an actual place.