The Rhetoric of Exorcism: George W. Bush and the Return of Political Demonology

By Gunn, Joshua | Western Journal of Communication, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview
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The Rhetoric of Exorcism: George W. Bush and the Return of Political Demonology

Gunn, Joshua, Western Journal of Communication

EVER SINCE THE commercial airline missiles destroyed New York City's World Trade Center on 9/11/01, images of violence and catastrophe have seared the collective mind. A popular image shot by freelance photographer Mark Phillips seemed to capture the face of a demon in a large plume of smoke emanating from one of the twin towers (see fig. 1). Soon after the Associated Press secured one-time printing rights to the so-called "smoke demon" image, it became available to Internet users who quickly disseminated it with foreboding commentary about the Christian apocalypse. For many evangelical Protestants in particular, the smoke demon provided evidence that the "current seat of Satan's power" resides in American financial institutions, and that the demise of the World Trade Center is a sign from God (or the Devil) that the end-time is near (Mikkelson & Mikkelson). The goal of this essay is to show how speech writers used a similar, demonic anthropomorphism to craft a righteous presidential rhetoric that helped overcome the widespread experience of anomie and speechlessness caused by the violence of 9/11.


To this end the essay proceeds in four parts. Part one provides a context for the study by describing the recent increase of demonic rhetoric in popular culture. Part two locates the demonic in relation to the religious genres of exorcism and conversion, two iterations of the larger cultural form of religious transformation. In part three, I examine the parallels between exorcism and the political purging of figurative bodies, specifically those that appear in the speeches of George W. Bush in the aftermath of 9/11. Finally, the essay concludes with a discussion of the implications of such a reading for rhetorical theory and practice, focusing particularly on the continued relevance of genre to the study of political discourse.

Demons and Possession in Popular Culture

The Demonic Default

Similar to the childhood game of seeing animals in clouds or finding "the face of Mother Theresa in a cinnamon bun," the attribution of form, particularly a human-like form, to an otherwise vague and diffuse stimulus is an perceptual illusion termed "pareidolia" (Carroll 2002). According to the anthropologist Stewart Guthrie, pareidolic anthropomorphisms, such as the smoke demon, frequently concern religious figures, for the attribution of form to the ineffable in general is the psychological basis of religion (also see Cassirer). (1) Guthrie also claims that religious anthropomorphisms tend to attribute a given deity or supernatural figure with the power of speech (198). Gods and demons speak, and they often have the power to mute speech. From an evangelical perspective, for example, one could claim that Satan's destructive power on 9/11 momentarily robbed the U.S. citizenry of its voice, its power to name, and thereby its ability to comprehend and cope; with destruction and death, Satan silences.

The ineffability of 9/11 has created numerous rhetorical acts designed to restore the voice and security of the polity, including a litany of rituals, speeches, and performances mourning the loss of the dead, commemorating rescue efforts, and celebrating communal bonds. Speakers who sought to assuage audiences by amplifying the virtues of the American people repeatedly used the words courage, honor, freedom, trust, and faith. In other words, the Western terminological repertoire for expressing goodness, secular and divine, is large. Those who sought to characterize the "terrorists" or their deeds, however, were limited in their expression. They described the terrorists' intent and motives as "evil," reducing human action to inhuman motion and thereby dehumanizing the racial/religious Other as monsters controlled by a malevolent force.

The rhetorical invention of evil is difficult because Westerners have a limited repertoire of language for characterizing it. Historically, of course, the demonic personifications of religious discourse have provided the bulk of Western representations of evil (see Russell The Devil; Delbanco).

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The Rhetoric of Exorcism: George W. Bush and the Return of Political Demonology


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