Literacies of the Disaster Zone: New Media Genres and Participatory Rhetorics after the 2010 Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill

Ross Jacob R.J Lambert, University of Texas at El Paso


On April 20, 2010, explosions at the British Petroleum (BP) Macondo Project in the Gulf of Mexico initiated what would become the world’s largest accidental release of oil into the ocean. This ecological disaster, a unique combination of natural and human causes, is one of many significant traumas over approximately the last two decades that various stakeholders have documented, participated in, and responded to largely through the expanding and increasingly ubiquitous media of the internet, computers, cell phones, and other networked communicative technologies, which both enable and constrain the variety of responses to traumatic events. This dissertation improves our understanding of the discourse conventions in response to the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill and other disaster contexts—which I term “disaster zones”—by analyzing the production, distribution (circulation), and consumption (reception) of disaster zone discourse(s). Proceeding from postmodernist and poststructuralist assumptions about subjectivity and discourse, I utilize Grounded Theory, Critical Discourse Analysis, and rhetorical historiography to redefine disaster zone genres and recover disaster zone rhetors through a collective case study of the broad range of literate activities following the 2010 BP oil spill. In Chapter 3, I describe the disaster zone as a discourse community characterized by genre participation—including the rhetorical speech set of kategoria (accusation), apologia (defense), and antapologia (defense critique)—and I suggest that these critical genres constitute an interpretive community. In Chapter 4, I expand upon the above genres to explain the epideictic uses and critiques of (in)eloquence in BP’s damage control discourse. My analysis concludes in Chapter 5 with a reception study of the “center” genre of the online victim compensation interface and a resistance study of “periphery” genres, such as protests, graffiti, and rap music. I conclude that different types of disaster zone genres provide relative constraints and affordances for disaster zone subject positions. For example, “optional” genres (Chapters 3 and 4) represent a mixture of constraints and affordances on social subjects in the disaster zone community, whereas “necessary” genres (Chapter 5) represent extreme genre constraints on institutional or “center” subjects (“victims”) and extreme genre affordances for resistant or “periphery” subjects (“agents”). As defined and applied throughout this dissertation, the disaster zone is a dynamic rhetorical concept for understanding past and future trauma discourses, and my study has implications for research methods, pedagogy, and the disciplinarity of Rhetoric and Writing Studies (RWS). In an effort to contribute to a better understanding of research processes, this project outlines a flexible, recursive Grounded Theory CDA methodology for discourse and genre analyses. Toward pedagogical ends, I offer the Gulf of Mexico disaster zone as a useful teaching case for rhetoric and composition courses at any level, as it clearly illustrates real-world discourse practices and rhetorical appeals. Similarly, the disaster zone genres relating to risk, crisis response, and victim compensation are useful teaching cases for technical and business writing courses. Furthermore, these pedagogical implications centralize RWS as an active and productive discipline central to progressive undergraduate and graduate education. In the complex negotiation of subjectivities through disaster zone genre participation, it becomes imperative for the educated public to understand how discourse—especially technologically mediated discourse—functions rhetorically, or else risk uncritical acceptance of institutional constraints on discourse and subjective agency. The discipline of RWS is specially equipped to characterize and problematize these discourses through scholarship and teaching. As teachers of writing and critical thinking skills, we are in a unique position to help improve critical literacy in the public, one class at a time.

Subject Area

Linguistics|Rhetoric|Mass communications

Recommended Citation

Lambert, Ross Jacob R.J, "Literacies of the Disaster Zone: New Media Genres and Participatory Rhetorics after the 2010 Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill" (2018). ETD Collection for University of Texas, El Paso. AAI10816744.