On Being Convinced, On Being Compelled

What compels someone to action?

This question is asked tirelessly year after year, especially during election season—major party strategists are, at this very moment, dissecting the latest pole numbers and election forecasts as they work to mobilize their bases to head to the poles and vote. At the same time, movement organizers, activists, advertisers, and CEO’s the world over are wondering more or less the same thing.

I’m not going to venture into the nebulous debates on human agency or free will; these discussions still simmer in the ivory tower, and we haven’t time to engage with them here. What I want to get at here is the notion of being compelled.

To be compelled to do something or feel some way is distinct from being convinced or coerced. We can say something is compelling, even if we do not agree with it, though we might just as quickly offer it as a justification for an action we took: “I was compelled.” We seem almost to have been hailed by something beyond ourselves.

One thing is certain, however: to be compelled has nothing to do with being ordered or told to do something. To be compelled implies a genuine feeling, an organic want, it implies a stirring somewhere deep.

What do you find compelling? Sit with that question for a moment.


Most of the time, if we want to make a point, or if we want to convince someone of something, or even if we simply want to communicate our point of view, we tell. We explain. We use reasoning to develop an argument; we meticulously build an impenetrable fortress of systematic, logical thought. Nowhere is this more true than in academia, though certain creative and rebellious thinkers (I’m looking at you Deleuze and Guattari) have shown that this doesn’t need to be so.

Regardless, when we think about the word compelling, in academia as in art, we rarely think of an impeccably reasoned statement of fact. No wonder so much academic work we find to be dry. We may be convinced; “well, they have a point,” we might say. But are we compelled? To action? Only rarely.

I’m currently working on a project that explores surveillance in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City. Part of my motivation for undertaking this project is indeed political: I want to draw attention to the steady creep of watching eyes into every facet of our lives. Given some time, I’m certain I could write a few books on the topic, filled, of course, with arcane jargon and obscure philosophy. But would it be compelling? To a few academics in the field, perhaps. But to you? To your grandfather? Not likely.


We feel compelled when we feel we have made a decision for ourselves. We may recognize that others have influenced us, but in the end we need to feel like we have made up our minds on our own. The surest way to close someone off to your point of view is to argue with and berate them. So, how might you restructure an argument such that it less a logical argument? How might your re-approach a topic such that your analysis is more emotive? Radically, how might you think about your project such that people are allowed to fill out the argument and decide for themselves?

This is the question I have been asking myself recently in relation to this surveillance project of mine. At my field site on West 23rd Street, where, on September 7th, 2016, a homemade pressure-cooker bomb went off and injured over 30 people, it is undeniably true that surveillance cameras helped police catch the perpetrator, and in so doing likely helped to prevent further harm. At the same time, the complete sacrifice of our privacy and the constant surveillance of all public space in the name of safety (or of fear) is a development that should not happen without serious consideration.

I am aiming, then, towards something less explicit in its message, something that allows for some contradiction and confusion, something based less in the tree-space of true/false arguments and more in the rhizome space of affect and partial understandings. If we ever feel completely certain of something, shouldn’t we question that certainty? This sense of questioning is what I mean to provoke in my project.

Does this mean that my message might get lost? Or misinterpreted? Or rejected? Certainly. Does it mean people may be confused? Or disagree? Of course, but this is always the case. And indeed, perhaps I don’t have a unified message to send. Perhaps the complexity of the topic demands more than an op-ed in the Sunday Times.

I am drawn to Kim Stringfellow’s installation and accompanying book, Greetings from the Salton Sea, for guidance. Stringfellow rejects the urge to consolidate a unitary analysis of the Salton Sea and its ecological and social histories. In wondering about what will befall the Salton Sea if conservation measures aren’t adopted, Stringfellow writes that her “attempt to accurately divine the future was, in a way, not so crucial. It occurred to me that it was more meaningful to convey how the place itself was presently transitioning, both the good and the bad, because at the end of the day nothing remains the same.”

While Stringfellow is certainly addressing the impossibility of predicting the future under such complex and contested circumstances, I think I also detect a hint of forbearance in her conclusions. If her work has been successful (read: compelling), then we, the people reading her book and visiting the Salton Sea virtually on her website, don’t need to told the answers. We will know enough, and we will understand enough, to make a decision for ourselves.

Similarly, the least powerful parts of the film Food, Inc., which explores the injustices and inhumanities of the American agricultural industry, were those sections that outlined facts and figures. By contrast, the most touching and compelling parts were those that appealed to our emotions. I can’t remember how much money Monsanto makes, but I was certainly compelled by the story of the seed cleaner that was put out of business by Monsanto’s lawyers.

I am not saying we must abandon logic or renounce a search for truth(s). And certainly, in each of these examples, many arguments were forwarded, many reasoned statements made. But when it comes to compelling people to action, this is not enough. I suggesting that, if we hope to get anywhere in explaining ourselves to others, we must go beyond these strategies, and in so doing open ourselves up to contradiction. To change the world, we must learn how to be compelling, and learn how to be compelled.

~ by samkelloggmcc on October 25, 2016.

10 Responses to “On Being Convinced, On Being Compelled”

  1. I found your blog post to be the most thoughtful. Reading through it really felt conversational yet productive. I engaged with each of the themes you brought up and found it inspiring further thoughts and tangents. Your breakdown of the semantics of the word “compel” and its passive yet active suggestions. Good work!

  2. I would like to give you the award of the “most engaging” blogpost. You do a great job with inviting readers into your conversation and as you break-down your ideas step-by-step, you make an attempt to provide an example to link one’s individual thinking to your analyses!

  3. To whom it may concern:

    I would like to nominate your blog post for the award of being the “most personable”. This blog post is filled with your voice, and while I don’t know your name, I do feel as if there’s a genuine person behind this blog post.

  4. I’m also chiming in here, and giving you the award of “most observational.” I am a bit biased, though, as my project is very similar, but I’m focusing on other areas. Your comment on Food Inc’s weakness being the moments when they share statistics, facts, and figures is true, and pinpoints the importance of being personable when presenting an issue at hand to keep the viewer interested.

  5. Award: Most Critical Piece- I thought this piece was so thoughtful and critical of real world observations and ideas. It’s so clear from your writing that you yourself are usually a critical thinker and the writing compels me to more deeply observe and critically think about my surroundings!

  6. I’m going to nominate this as “most thought provoking.” I had a (significant) existential crisis after just the first paragraph of this post. I’m now thinking over how I can become even more compelled by my own ecology, and, in turn, compel those who visit my site. Well done!

  7. most cohesive and best prose. you tie your points together elegantly, letting readers seamlessly follow your post. they also *want* to follow it.

  8. Most Professional,
    This article reads like something that I’d find in a professional magazine, which I enjoyed thoroughly. I also appreciated how you did not just tack on a paragraph regarding your ecology, as I am guilty of doing so. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was found in a journal.

  9. The most critical as well as provoking piece. I think your work really make me think about many things that we have been taken as normal and reviewing the usually ignored truth and my surroundings.

  10. Most critical post. Love how your slowly analyzes your own project and brings up “compelling”, which seems to be a simple and natural concept but you really reveal the core of it through detailed definition and your connection with your own project. Deeper understanding on being compelling, well done!

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