deepfakes and rhetorical ethos

Deepfakes are everywhere these days, or at least anxiety about them. These “synthetic media” videos, which MIT Technology Review cautions will “threaten to further blur the line between truth and fiction,” leverage advances in artificial intelligence and raw computing power to produce videos of popular figures saying things they have never said and doing things they have never done. Previously available only to well-funded digital graphics outfits but increasingly available to the Internet’s broader demos, the ability to create such videos has produced embarrassing problems which our era of unbridled social media has (unfortunately) made entirely predictable.

Watching well-made deepfakes like the one below by Jordan Peele has made me reconsider some ancient epistemological problems and elements of the rhetorical tradition concering character and persuasion. As this video demonstrates, deepfakes present a compelling new case study in the philosophical problem of “indiscernibility,” where the “vividness”–the enargeia or evidentia–of a sensory experience cannot alone serve as sufficient justification for believing what we see or hear:

Ancient treatments of the “indiscernibility” or “indistinguishability” problem of course never envision the example of deepfake videos, but they instead rely on more pedestrian examples like eggs and twins. Here’s Sextus Empiricus:

For in the case of things that are like in shape, but that differ in terms of what is underlying, it is impossible to distinguish the apprehensive appearance from the false and the non-apprehensive one. For example, if there are two eggs exactly alike, and I give them to the Stoic one after the other, will the wise person, after fastening upon them, have the capacity to say infallibly whether the egg he is being shown is a single one, or the one and then the other?

Sextus Empiricus, Against the Logicians I.409 (trans. Bett)

Watching these videos with colleagues and friends, I’m struck by how often we rely on notions of character rather than technical expertise to tell the true from the false. Rather than watch for telltale signs of artificiality like the absence of blinking (akin to botched shadows in photoshopped images), people watch the above video and proclaim that “Obama wouldn’t say that sort of thing.”

These reactions have made me reconsider the nature and aims of “character-based appeal” (or ethos) in classical systems of rhetoric. One of the standard three methods of proof–the others being logical (rooted in logos) and emotional (rooted in pathos)–this appeal to character often gets introduced to students as a method of making an audience receptive to a speaker’s views. (A good example of this method is the captatio benevolentiae, a common tactic in Ciceronian oratory.)

But by positioning character not simply as a matter of winning favor but as a heuristic tool for media’s legitimacy, deepfakes prompt us to radically reevaluate the purpose and function of character appeals in ancient rhetoric. If we remain unable to surmount the Sextus’ epistemological skepticism when it comes to on-line videos (not just eggs and twins), we may have to rely on imperfect metrics like expected speech patterns and moral reputation to tell the true from the false, the doctored from the #nofilter.

biduum latinum fordhamense, oct 12 and 13


I’ll be part of the teaching staff at this year’s Biduum Latinum Fordhamense, an active Latin “bootcamp” centered around active engagement with Latin texts from the ancient, medieval, and early modern periods. The theme of this year’s Biduum is astronomy, and we’ll have Eric Ramirez-Weaver from the University of Virginia with us on Friday evening at the American Museum of Natural History to guide us through some central authors and themes.

Take a peak at the full line-up below (copied from Fordham’s site), and get in touch if you’re interested in coming along:

Classical & Medieval Astronomy: the Phaenomena, Pliny and the Presentations of the Heavens
Eric Ramirez-Weaver – University of Virginia
Co-sponsored with the Department of Classics
Friday, October 12, 6:15 pm – American Museum of Natural History, Kaufmann Theater

Biduum Latinum 2018 – De Arte Astonomica: Astronomy in Antiquity, Middle Ages, and Renaissance
Saturday, October 13, 12-5:30 PM

12-1pm:  Pliny the Elder, Historia Naturalis, Bk. II (c. 79 AD)  – Keating Hall, Room 105
1-2:15pm: Prandium (i.e. lunch)
2:15:-3:15pm: Joannes de Sacro Bosco, Tractactus de Sphaera (c. 1230) – Keating Hall, Room 114
3:15-4:15: Nicolaus Copernicus, De Revolutionibus Orbium Caelestium (1543) – Keating Hall, Room 120

4:45-5:30 PM – Missa Latina (= Latin Mass) – Spellman Hall
Celebrated by Fr. Chris Cullen, SJ (Dept. of Philosophy)

We will gather in Keating Hall Basement @ 11:45am.

Contributions to lunch are welcome
For information contact Matthew McGowan (

a theocritean ogresse at the met

Last night’s world premiere of Ogresse at the Metropolitan Museum combined a stunning array of musical styles–from banjo-driven Americana to Parisian jazz–into a unified tale of loneliness, companionship, and revenge. Performed by lyricist/vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant and composer/conductor Darcy James ArgueOgresse tells the story of a beastly woman who “lived alone / with the birds and the trees / with her memories.” When a man goes to the forest with plans to murder the ogresse for devouring a girl from the neighboring town, they develop an unexpected love for each other and must sift through their hostilities.

Much richer than just a reconceived Beauty and the Beast, this one-woman song cycle is a dense, virtuosic showcase of musical talents of all stripes: vocalist, pianist, saxophonist, percussionist, and a dozen others. Paralleling the variety of the skills and instruments on stage, Argue’s score surveys a huge number of genres and textures, well beyond his earlier big-band recordings. Some songs in Ogresse call to mind the lyricism of Cole Porter tunes in the Great American Songbook, buoyed by foot-tapping arrangements:

She’s big
She’s bigger than a tree
She’s vast
She’s vaster than the sea
She opens her mouth
It’s the size of a planet
If you get too close
Then she’ll fit you right in it

Warren Wolf’s xylophone playing–both as backdrop and solo–stands out in many of these songs, as does Brandon Seabook’s work on the guitar and banjo, which drives Ogresse‘s narrative moments.

There is so much to say about Ogresse on its own terms, but as a classicist watching last night, I could not stop thinking about Theocritus’ Idyll 11, a poem that narrates the cyclops Polyphemus’ unrequited love for the sea nymph Galatea. I’m not sure if Salvant and Argue know Theocritus’ poem–if they do, they have beautifully reinterpreted this ancient bucolic through another woodsy outcast and (sometimes-)comically poignant melodies.

Back to Theocritus. Conscious of his one-eyed ugliness and isolated in his unpolished rusticity, Polyphemus finds solace in his wistful singing for Galatea (you can find a good, readable translation by Diane Arnson Svarlien at Diotima):

He often sat alone, awake at dawn
Among the piles of seaweed by the shore;
Melting with desire he sang to her,
Leaving his sheep to find their own way home.
Wounded deep, the barb beneath his heart
Of Aphrodite’s arrow, he found this balm;
From the high cliffs staring out to sea
He sang this song:

“White Galatea, whiter than cottage cheese,
Why cast away the one who loves you?
Softer than lamb’s wool, springier than the knees
Of a newborn calf, bright as an unripe grape,
Why come near when sweet sleep holds me still
Then disappear when sweet sleep lets me go?
I wake to see you bolting up the hill
Like the sheep who saw the gray wolf.


Delightful girl, I know why you run away.
My looks are frightening. I know it’s true,
One long shaggy eyebrow runs from ear to ear
With one huge eye below. My nose is flat
And wide. Yet, as I am, I keep a thousand head
Of cattle, and from them I fill a vat
Of the best milk to drink. All year round
I never run out of cheese, not even in
The coldest winter. My baskets are always full.”


And so the Cyclops shepherded the ills
Of his desire with song, the Muses’ salve,
More surely than he could with doctor’s bills.

There are moments in Salvant’s libretto that recapture this lonely, idyllic sadness. To take one example, Salvant’s ogresse echoes Polyphemus’ disgust with his own appearance and resignation to a life of solitude:

But who’s gonna love
A big black beast like me
Who’s gonna love me
But a freak like me

Ogresse‘s title character even reenacts Polyphemus’ attempts to soothe his longing for Galatea through song:

And now, when you’re gone
I try to soften the sting
By singing the songs that you sing
I sing to you, my darling

Salvant’s story is, of course, not a straight retelling of this Theocritean vignette, and in fact the conclusion of Ogresse takes a page from something like Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men rather than a serene Hellenistic idyll. But the perennial themes and complex character at the center of Theocritus’ poem suggest that Salvant and Argue have produced something not simply of the literary moment. Instead, they have captured the richness of the bucolic tradition and successfully coupled it with the sonic bustle of big city jazz.

Cécile McLorin Salvant and Darcy James Argue will perform Ogresse in Newark, Washington, and Princeton in November.