Friday, January 23, 2009

Obama's Blackberry and the Affective Life of Media

There has been endless media fascination with and speculation about the issue of whether President Obama would be allowed to keep his Blackberry.  That issue has now been resolved. Obama will be allowed to have a specially designed model, approved by national security officials. He has also agreed to abide by a certain set of rules on how he can use it and whom he can communicate with.

The arguments for and against allowing him to keep the Blackberry have focused on information and communication. Obama has argued that the Blackberry will allow him to keep in touch with people "outside the bubble" so that he will be able to make more informed decisions as president. His security advisors have argued that Obama's email communications via the Blackberry would be vulnerable to hacking, thereby creating a risk that the nation's enemies might obtain confidential information that could jeopardize the nation's security. The compromise solution employs both behavioral protocols to limit who Obama can communicate with and technical protocols that limit the information that Obama is authorized to receive and that unauthorized parties are able to obtain (I use the term "protocol" here in the sense outlined by Alexander Galloway in his excellent book of that name). 

What this limited solution makes evident, however, is another, perhaps more fundamental, reason that Obama was so insistent on keeping his Blackberry--his affective engagement with the device itself.  In my recently completed book manuscript I detail "the affective life of media." I argue that our media devices participate in everyday affective interactions with us, that we are affective cyborgs who distribute our affectivity in something like feedback loops among our embodied selves and our media devices. 

While the compromise solution of a constrained Blackberry and a constrained Blackberry user might seem to miss the mark of keeping Obama in touch with the world outside the presidential bubble, to offer Obama only a limited and therefore less attractive Blackberry experience, what it leaves unchanged is Obama's physical relationship with the device. What really matters is that he remains in touch with his Blackberry. Interestingly, in the debate over the Blackberry, Obama has repeatedly said that the Blackberry would have to be "pried out of his hands." Aides have speculated that it would be impossible to get the Blackberry off of Obama's belt.  These comments, and others like them, emphasize without recognizing it, the embodied, affective character of Obama's relationship with his Blackberry.

While much speculation about the presidential Blackberry has focused on the communication security engineered into the device, and the precise limitations on the information that the President will be allowed to obtain, what would be most interesting to know is what, if any, changes will be made in the device's affective affordances, in the way in which Obama relates affectively to his Blackberry. It would also be interesting to know whether other elements of the interface will change, thereby modifying Obama's affective interaction with the software. No matter what changes are engineered into the new presidential Blackberry, my guess is that the key embodied affective interactions--wearing it on his belt and holding it in his hand--will remain unchanged. This would help to explain why Obama would accept the limitations on the information he is able to obtain via the device and the people with whom he is able to communicate. 

[NB: Andrew Engel, a doctoral student at Wayne State, argues persuasively that mobile phones can be understood as "companion species," in the sense outlined by Donna Haraway in two recent books. In this light, it is interesting to see Obama's fight to keep his Blackberry as analogous to his daughter's insistence that the family get a dog for the move to the White House--although this connection has, as far as I know, gone unnoticed in print, televisual, and networked media.]

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Israeli Premediation

Thanks to Jeremy Clemmons for pointing out this article on how the Israeli government attempted to premediate their "war" against Hamas in Gaza.  One can't help but wondering if the nearly universal condemnation of the Israeli aggression was due in part to the failure to premediate this war effectively in the global mediasphere. A more effective premediation campaign, as in the case of the US premediation of the war against Iraq, would not have made the assault on Gaza any more justifiable, but it might have served to modify the international response to this unjustifiably one-sided act of aggression.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Premediating Post-Inauguration Letdown

Two days before the inauguration, the Los Angeles Times is already premediating a post-inauguration letdown for Obama supporters: "For Obama Supporters, Post-Inauguration Letdown is Inevitable."

Progressive Patriotism

Among the premediated inaugural activities covered by CNN, Fox, and other news networks was a live program on HBO, which presented the "Obama Inaugural Celebration," featuring performances on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial by notable progressive celebrities from the entertainment media. Actors like Tom Hanks and Samuel Jackson did short readings. Musicians like John Mellencamp, who sang "Ain't That America" before a flag-filled backdrop, did patriotic numbers., for example, performed as part of a trio with Sheryl Crow and Herbie Hancock singing Bob Marley's "One Love," and Queen Latifah sang a duet of "My Country 'tis of Thee" with Josh Groban. 

Perhaps the most troubling moment of the entire Inaugural Celebration was the performance of Garth Brooks, who sang a medley that included a truncated version of Don Maclean's "American Pie" and a raucous sing-along of "Shout," the theme song of John Belushi's Animal House and a hackneyed and un-selfconscious example of white America's centuries-long exploitation of black American musical traditions.

Brooks was followed shortly by U2, whose performance began with Bono's questionable assertion that Obama's inauguration fulfilled the "Dream" that Martin Luther King articulated on the same location some 46 years ago. Bono's rose-colored vision of American racial politics was usefully countered later by his insistence that freedom was not just an American dream but one of other people as well, including among his shouted list of people who wanted to be free "the Palestinians." 

Obama's brief speech freely remediated King's "I Have a Dream" speech in urging people to be patient in dealing with the difficult problems faced by the nation. Obama was followed by the trio of  Springsteen, Pete Seeger, and Seeger's grandson leading a sing-along version of "This Land Is Your Land." The Inaugural Celebration ended with Beyonce soulfully singing "America the Beautiful" joined by a chorus of all of the performers of the 2-hour special, the conventional closing tactic of star-studded events like this one.

As enjoyable as some of the performances were, and as happy-making it is that this celebration means that eight years of Bush-Cheney rule are about to end, the sorry but unavoidable conclusion to be drawn from this entire event is that the ideological performance of liberal or progressive patriotism is only barely more tolerable than its conservative counterpart. And insofar as it is more tolerable, this is due perhaps more to the better musical and aesthetic taste of progressive patriots than to the particulars of their political vision of America.

The progressive patriotism of the nationalism and American exceptionalism that premediate Obama's inauguration and presidency reminds us that the more things change in Washington, the more they stay the same in the premediated imaginary of the United States of America. 

Saturday, January 17, 2009

"The Inauguration of Barack Obama"

"The Inauguration of Barack Obama" has become a multi-day, globally networked premediation event. The frenzied premediation of Barack Obama's inauguration, which has been underway at least since his Grant Park acceptance speech, is finally about to come to an end. In a mere couple of days we will know which Lincoln speeches Obama alludes to, whichwere the best parties, how many people will actually attend the Washington (or how many the various official and unofficial estimates report). Given the weekly cycle of print and televisual news media, inaugural premediation intensified on Sunday, two days before the inauguration.

My local paper, the Detroit Free Press, provided a 10-page Special Section, "The Inauguration of Barack Obama," as an added front section in which the Sunday paper was wrapped.  The New York Times featured the inauguration on the Op-Ed page, the Week In Review, and the Magazine, not to mention in multiple stories in its front section. CNN featured a program from 2-5 pm EST, called "The Inauguration of Barack Obama." The Comcast Information Guide description makes CNN's premediation a part of the inauguration itself: "Preinaugural Activities Are Covered. Wolf Blitzer, Anderson Cooper, John King and Soledad O'Brien anchor." 

And in the next 48 hours there will be more. "The Inauguration of Barack Obama" is a recurring program on CNN, increasing in frequency until Inauguration Day, when CNN will begin its coverage of this premediation event at 5 AM, before any of its competitors. MSNBC begins its Inaugural Day premediation at 6 AM, ABC, NBC, and CBS at 7 AM, and Fox News at 8:30.  

Premediations 'R' Us.