Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Premediation, Economic Crisis, and the Post-9/11 Security Bubble

In "Conspicuous Consumption, A Casualty of Recession," an article on the front page of this morning's New York Times, Shaila Dewan chronicles the shift in economic mood among the American public, even among those people whose income has not been directly impacted by the current recession/depression:

"In just the seven months since the stock market began to plummet, the recession has aimed its death ray not just at the credit market, the Dow and Detroit, but at the very ethos of conspicuous consumption. Even those with a regular income are reassessing their spending habits, perhaps for the long term. They are shopping their closets, downscaling their vacations and holding off on trading in their cars. If the race to have the latest fashions and gadgets was like an endless, ever-faster video game, then someone has pushed the reset button."

Although many people are confident that this turn away from conspicuous consumption will end when the economy rebounds (these people are the same ones who are confident that the economy will magically return to its pre-2008 ways), others see this shift as more permanent: "To many, the adjustment feels less like a temporary, emergency response than a permanent recalibration, one they view in terms of ethics rather than expediency."

Whatever the global economic future may bring, the current recession/depression brings into sharp relief the relationship between the credit bubble and the nation's response to the catastrophic attacks of 9/11. The Times article takes note of the much-ridiculed advice of George W. Bush that Americans should respond to 9/11 by going shopping. The reason for this advice is that 9/11 produced both a security crisis and a economic one. In the weeks following 9/11 the stock market suffered tremendous losses, unprecedented until the current crisis. What now becomes clear is how this frantic shopping spree, which spread like wildfire from retail shopping at the mall to car leases and sales to domestic and commercial real estate--all of which was financed by credit that buyers could not afford--functioned as a collective affective response to the dual shocks of 9/11, an attempt to protect the US public from having to face the real possibility that such shocks (to our nation's security and to its economy) could happen again.

As I have been arguing since 2003, the attacks of 9/11 intensified a shift in the temporal logic of mediation in US and global media--particularly in the print, televisual, and networked news media but also in info-tainment media as well. Increasing almost exponentially in the run-up to the Iraq War, US and global news media began to focus less on reporting the actual news of the immediate past and more on pre-mediating the potential news of the near- and long-term future. This premediation manifested itself initially in the run-up to the Iraq War, where for more than a year before its commencement, the print, televisual, and networked news pre-mediated its execution in as many possible variations as news reporters, ex-military commentators, and government officials could imagine. The aim of this premediation, I have argued, was in large part to try to ensure that the US public would not be caught unaware as it had been on 9/11, would not have to suffer the same kind of collective media trauma that the attacks on 9/11 provoked. Premediation functioned as the media logic of the Bush doctrine of preemption, particularly insofar as the Bush administration used premediation of additional terrorist attacks to frighten the American public into accepting a regime of securitization that threatened many of the fundamental civil liberties on which the nation was founded.

What is now becoming clear is how the Bush credit bubble followed the same temporal logic of premediation, through the proliferation of positive, rather than negative, scenarios. As we now know, the credit frenzy of the post-9/11 years (including the lengthy bull market that eventually succeeded the post-9/11 crash) was sustainable only in the face of a future in which housing prices continued to rise, in which capital appreciation never ended. Where security officials stoked the public's fears by premediating the possibility of additional terrorist attacks on American soil, financial officials stoked the public's hopes by premediating the possibility of an endless appreciation of capital and real estate values, literally of the economic value of American soil. 

What may now also be coming clear is that, just as we had been living in a post-9/11 credit bubble, we have been living in a post-9/11 security bubble--fueled by preemption and fear rather than appreciation and hope. In other words, after 9/11 premediation in the US media took a double affective road, simultaneously fostering among the American public security fears and economic hopes. Both affective states were contagious, and both functioned to orient the US public to a rosier future in which the economic and security shocks of 9/11 would never happen again. 

We have now seen that such hopeful economic premediation could not succeed forever in maintaining the subprime credit bubble. It seems only inevitable that it will not be long until the post-9/11 security bubble suffers a similar fate.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Mediation's Multiple Temporalities

We are living in the midst of fundamental economic, social, and political change. The scale of the forces by which we are being moved and with which we are trying to contend is so immense as to make it difficult to get any clear sense of where we as a nation, a species, and a global organism are heading. But one thing is clear. Economic conditions are bad and getting worse. The rapid deterioration of the US and global economy is bringing with it radical alterations in individual and collective affect. Daily reminders like job layoffs, home foreclosures, and commercial vacancies only intensify the affectivity of scarcity, insecurity, and fear.  

According to the New York Times, one way people are dealing with this acceleration of negative affect is by going to the movies. Yesterday my wife and I went to see Slumdog Millionaire; its nearly universal popularity had for some time discouraged me from wanting to see it. Watching the film, I was struck by how its overwhelming popular and industry acclaim was largely the result of the kinds of historical coincidences that had enabled Jamal to know the answers to many of the questions on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Released in limited distribution in November 2008, the film's cinematic portrayal of the slums of Mumbai, and its feel-good message that even a slumdog could succeed by means of the agency of global televisual media, clearly spoke to an American public increasingly battered by the economic recession/depression now understood to have begun in December 2007.  

My sense of the fortuitousness of Slumdog's scheduled release and distribution was underscored by the trailers that preceded the film, the way in which, as projects conceived, financed, and produced before the subprime bubble burst at the end of 2008, they seemed particularly out of touch with the affective timbre and tone of most print, televisual, and networked news media. Perhaps, as the Times suggests, this is what people want from the movies.  But I'm not so sure.  

The trailer for Adventureland, for example, seemed especially to strike the wrong note. Directed by Superbad's Greg Mottola, and set in 1987, the teen comedy tells the story of a young college graduate who, unable to find suitable employment, takes a job at Adventureland, an amusement park. The film's tagline, "The Worst Job Ever--The Best Time of His Life," seemed somehow anachronistic at a moment in US history when real unemployment is well over 10% and when people are lining up by the hundreds and thousands for jobs just like the one that is disparaged in the film. When you can't find a job, it's hard to be amused at a film that makes fun of "the worst job ever."

My point here is not to criticize the Superbad gang for their social insensitivity; that's what the Superbad and Knocked Up franchise is all about. Rather it's to notice the multiple temporalities of our media everyday, the different speeds at which different media are able to respond to major social, political, and affective changes like those that accompany our current economic crisis. Where print, televisual, and networked news are able to adjust to such changes quickly and comprehensively, the much longer production timetables of entertainment media like television series, films, or music videos make rapid response more difficult. For example, there is something unsettling about the juxtaposition on MTV Jams of music videos celebrating bling, Kristal, and other forms of conspicuous consumption with commercials inviting people to mail in their gold jewelry for cash.

We find ourselves, then, at a particularly interesting moment in terms of media temporality, when even previews and coming attractions attempt to create anticipation for forthcoming films and television shows that belong to a moment that is already past. But this is not to argue that media from prior to the current economic crisis cannot speak to our present situation or that all contemporary news media, for example, gets it.  Thus in Week In Review in today's New York Times, a series of opinion pieces on the current economic crisis are juxtaposed on the same page with a Maureen Dowd screed titled "Should Michelle Cover Up?" Where Frank Rich and Thomas Friedman take up things that really matter to us today, Maureen Dowd is still stuck in the Bush era--where, for the time being, many of our films, television shows, and music videos also still reside. 

Or, perhaps it is more accurate to say, given the fact that the economic crisis itself had its inception and production in the Bush era, that what we are witnessing today is the persistence of older affective media formations into the individual and collective affect of the present. The conflation of media times is, after all, in some ways or another always the case. But it is made dramatically evident in times of rapid and significant changes like the ones we find ourselves in today.