On Being Gaslit

Gaslighting, via Wikimedia

Several years ago I started hearing lots of folks talking about “gaslighting.” It’s hard to imagine yourself succumbing to manipulation — so, while I pitied those folks who had been made to doubt themselves, I assumed that, because I typically interacted with reliable folks, I was somehow immune. Guess what? I’m not.

In late December of 2018 I had a pleasant Twitter conversation with a graduate student in the UK. We briefly discussed, through the exchange or five or six tweets, the value of having good editors; she told me she’d be coming to the East Coast, and I said I hoped our paths crossed. A week later, she sent me a cryptic 100-word Twitter (private) DM, which indicated that she’d “heard rumors” and “seen evidence” of my bad behavior, and that she’d be blocking me immediately. I couldn’t ask for clarification or proffer an apology if one was due. She had instantaneously cut me off.

I was devastated. What had I done? I asked around — among acquaintances who might’ve been in her orbit, among my Very Online friends — to see if I had slighted anyone, committed any serious faux pas, offended people. No one had a clue. Still, the charge stuck with me. I dwelled on it for weeks. I considered offering a General Public Apology to All the People of Earth, just to cover my bases. I talked to my colleagues and editors about what they thought I might’ve done. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t make myself write anything because I feared that I might inadvertently commit further transgressions — whatever they might be. Then several weeks later I had an email exchange with a faculty colleague from this same British university, and I casually asked if he had ever interacted with my stranger-interlocutor.

Oh, boy. He had stories. She had apparently leveled similar claims at other colleagues. She’d publicly charge folks with ambiguous misdeeds, offering no specific grievance or constructive recommendations for redress, then depart. I shouldn’t take it personally, he said. Still, the fear of making further mistakes has stuck with me. I want to do right by people. I want to uphold community standards and be responsible and kind.

Just a couple weeks later, while I was visiting Carnegie Mellon and Pitt (I remember all of this happening on the treadmill in the hotel gym), I received another Twitter DM from a European stranger. She “warned” me that an international colleague with whom I had collaborated was known for exploitation. I expressed concern and sympathy for her experience; noted that I, personally, had witnessed no such behavior; and asked what she wanted me to do with this information, how she wanted me to respond. She never replied. That afternoon I gave one of the worst talks I’ve ever given in my life (sorry, Pittsburgh). I was totally preoccupied. I couldn’t help but wonder and worry about my responsibility: what was I to do with this ambiguous caveat for which I had absolutely no empirical evidence, or even an identifiable plaintiff?

Almost exactly a year later, while I was in London, Ontario, the same person contacted me again, this time to inform me that my work was a joke. The fact that I had recently liked a tweet by this particular “exploitative” colleague indicated that I was sucking up to him, that I was a hypocrite, that my work had worth only through my association with him. My books were “laughable,” but he helped to legitimate them. I expressed my regrets for being unable to engage with her on these terms, then blocked her. She then emailed me to launch the same insults and lament my “betrayal.” It was clear I was dealing with an unstable individual. I blocked her email address and haven’t heard from her since. Let’s hope that chapter’s over.

It was then that I realized: oh, this is gaslighting! I’ve been gaslit! (Or maybe it’s just plain old trolling? Whatever — gaslighting sounds better.) And then it dawned on me that this had happened before. In my marriage, for example, I was made to feel guilty for the fact that I didn’t have substance-abuse problems or major debt. I was literally told, on our first night of (ultimately futile) couple’s therapy, that he resented the fact that I “didn’t suffer like [he] did.” Wow. It took three years of therapy to work through those feelings. (Shout out to Janet Shapiro! Woot woot!)

And just last week it happened again. I announced an upcoming talk via Twitter, and a (tenured) colleague from a nearby institution — who’d written a great article on a similar topic four years earlier — jumped into the discussion to inform others that my talk was “based on” her article, then shared a link to said article. I said yes, Colleague, your work is valuable and useful. I cited your article — and I even dedicated a whole paragraph to its contributions — in a previous piece. That didn’t suffice. So I continued: this most recent essay — the one that provides the basis for my upcoming talk — was an art review in a popular venue, not a scholarly article, and it was informed by myriad sources.

That wasn’t good enough. The public accusations continued for days. [What follows is a paraphrase; I can’t bear to look at the original conversation:] I should’ve reached out to her, asked for permission. I should’ve acknowledged that my review would not have been possible without her work (despite the fact that numerous popular writers, scholars, and artists have worked with similar ideas over the past two decades, and especially over the past two months!). I was undermining feminist citation. I was a bad example for junior scholars. I model poor practices for my students; she chooses to teach differently. These are all matters that concern me deeply, and I’m told by lots of folks that I’m a pretty good advisor and public role model. I hope that’s true. She hit me where it hurts.

When I noted a desire to discuss these complex issues — writing for public venues, “owning” ideas, drawing from various sources of inspiration for our work — in a more appropriate venue, my colleague stated that these grievances must be aired publicly, so junior scholars could understand their importance. As if all of this were about generous mentorship.

And it went on.

Ultimately, I muted. The grievance could still be going on, for all I know. As the tweets piled up, I heard from roughly two dozen colleagues and acquaintances — most of whom were familiar with the plaintiff — who informed me that I was being gaslit, noted that they’d either seen this behavior from her before or experienced it themselves, and encouraged me not to engage.

Still, it pains me to see repeated, misleading, character-damaging accusations leveled publicly — and to realize that a public retort on Twitter, a grossly insufficient medium, would only exacerbate the disagreement. Yet I can’t allow myself to be gaslit. Again.

So, I offer my response here. Parts may be cryptic, and that’s intentional:


I’m terribly sorry if you feel slighted. I wish this conversation could’ve happened in more appropriate manner, rather than exploding in public.

Your 2016 article about PowerPoint is fantastic. I assign it in my classes. I cited it in an article. I publicly engaged with and extolled your work.

Yet I, too, have been thinking about slides since I read Edward Tufte’s and David Byrne’s work nearly two decades ago. A Dexter Sinister slide-show / overhead projector performance at The Kitchen in 2008 also profoundly influenced me. No, I never cared about sides enough to write about them — but I did explore some related ideas in the classroom. I remember showing Peter Norvig’s Gettysburg Address PowerPoint in my “Textual Form” class at Penn in 2003. I’ve been inviting students to share creative slide-deck presentations for years. In my “Media and Materiality” class in 2012, we spent some time on “slideshow art.”

And as you know, over the past two decades I’ve also written 100 or so essays, articles, and books about how media are arranged and presented in various spatial contexts, about site-specific interfaces, about graphic design, etc. — all themes that are applied in my two Art in America pieces. For the past 15 years I’ve published a bunch of pieces about how to critique interfaces, which is essentially what I’m doing in the article that offends you so deeply. And in 2015, a year before you published your article, I published an article about dashboards and control rooms, which are, essentially, spaces where authority figures look together at slides on screens — which is essentially what’s happening in Cuomo’s press conferences.

I say this not to suggest that “I got there first.” Who cares? Lots of folks “got there” before both of us did. Instead, I’m merely noting that my thoughts about presentation software weren’t birthed, as you suggest, with your presentation in [remote Scandinavian city] (which, to be quite honest, I don’t remember*) or your article. But yes, your article, in building atop previous work on PowerPoint, helped me understand the history of these platforms and how they technically structure content.

[*My forgetfulness is in no way a reflection on the quality of your talk. I typically arrived in [remote Scandinavian city] after an overnight flight, and I was always very tired during my visits there.]

Last summer I gathered dozens of examples of PowerPoint, Google Slide, and Prezi art for use in an “intentionally bad slideshow” workshop in my undergrad “Tools” class, and I shared all that material online. An Art in America editor asked if I’d like to write about it. I figured it could be a good “teaching text,” to help my students appreciate contemporary artistic (mis-)applications of the software — a topic that is *not* a central concern in your article. I drew on my training in art history to *supplement* the work that I, as well as you and your predecessors — Henry Petroski, Robert Nelson, Edward Tufte, David Byrne, Dexter Sinister, Darsie Alexander, etc. — had already done. Art in America is an art magazine; I thus emphasized artistic examples and references. It is also a non-scholarly venue, which means that it adheres to different referencing standards — but in the 2000-word (i.e., short) published article I still CITED AND DEDICATED A WHOLE PARAGRAPH TO YOUR WORK. (I also included a link to our class website, where readers could find dozens more relevant resources.) This, to me, is one of the great joys of scholarship and creative production: we can build on one another’s work. Yet as you told me recently, you found the existence of my article “troublesome.” You expected me to reach out to ask for permission to reference your published work. I’ve never had anyone do that with me, and I certainly don’t expect it. I honestly don’t know of anyone else who does.

A month later, as the pandemic stormed in, and as seemingly *everyone* on social media and in the popular press was offering tiny “think pieces” about Cuomo’s PowerPoints, Art in America asked me again if I’d like to write a review of his press conferences *as a creative performance*. Countless folks on social media, in newspapers and magazines, etc., were already talking about how Cuomo’s press conferences — and particularly his slides — lent him a sense of competence and authority. This was not a novel or scholarly insight. I wanted to understand what, graphically and performatively, made his presentations so charismatic (perhaps deceptively so).

Art and performance reviews are typically based on observation and aesthetic judgment. My Cuomo review was a description and analysis of what I was (and what others were) seeing in real-time. And guiding my observation were my undergraduate training in rhetoric and political communication, my dissertation work on the aesthetics of public deliberation processes and formalism in media and architecture, my postdoc work in art and design history (which included much thinking about the slide projector as a pedagogical medium), and my own decades of publications on media and space. Honestly, Colleague, your PowerPoint article was only one of about a thousand ideas that were running through my mind as I wrote the review; it wasn’t a major influence. I’m sorry, but it’s true. My review focused on graphic design and rhetoric. Your article does not; it makes a different, valuable contribution. As does all of our predecessors’ work.

Art and performance reviews in popular venues rarely, if ever, feature scholarly citations. And online reviews in this particular publication allow links only to sources for direct quotes. If I *were* to have cited some sources in my 1000-word online review, though, those that most influenced me were Joe McGinnis’s The Selling of the President, David Reinfurt’s A New Program for Graphic Design, Gillian Rose’s Visual Methodologies, and Aristotle’s Rhetoric. Still, I linked from the Cuomo review back to the original article — the one on PowerPoint art — for readers who wanted more context.

The Cuomo piece, which seems to most upset you, is a popular review, not scholarship. Your work stands as an important work of scholarship. Mine stands as a short, ephemeral review in the popular press. Our work does different work. Nobody’s work is “erasing” anyone else’s.

You also asked why I didn’t reach out. That’s because, in the past, you haven’t responded to my emails. And when we’ve found ourselves at the same conferences and events, you’ve often left the room when I’ve presented. You seemed to have very little interest in my work or me.

Finally — again, since you asked, Colleague — yes, lots of people have written about libraries and dashboards and Hudson Yards (and *many* other topics I’ve addressed in my work) without citing me (you did it yourself, in an interview about public libraries). These folks drew from other sources of inspiration. It sometimes stings, but yes, it happens. And it’s rarely nefarious.