Monday, January 31, 2011

Egypt, Premediation, and the Liveness of Futurity

Although it may go without saying, I will say it anyway: the current crisis in Egypt is a case study for premediation in action. The questions that preoccupy print, televisual, and socially networked media all pertain to the premediation of the future of the Egyptian demonstrations. Will Mubarak go or stay? If he goes, who will replace him? El Baradei? The Muslim brotherhood? What are the potential global economic impacts of these events? What does this mean for the future of US relations in the Mideast? How will it impact Israel? Is this a democratic revolution? An Islamic revolution? A class revolution? Will this spread to other Mideast countries as it did from Tunisia?

Undoubtedly there has been a great deal of attention paid to live coverage of the demonstrations in Egypt that began on January 25--whether through mobile media like videophones and SMS, social networks like Twitter and FB, participatory networks on the blogosphere, major international networked newspapers like The Guardian or The New York Times, and live television coverage by cable news networks like BBC, CNN, or Al Jazeera. Indeed the shutdown of internet traffic by the Egyptian government, followed by its disruption of Al Jazeera's live feed, caused much consternation in the global mediasphere. But even while these shutdowns blocked much of the live media traffic out of Egypt, they have also prompted the generation of other channels to bypass the Egyptian government's censorship efforts.

What is interesting about the emphasis on liveness in the media coverage of the Egyptian demonstrations is that, unlike many earlier global media events, the focus on liveness is less about immediacy and real-time coverage than it is about trying to determine where these events are heading, what the future will bring. Think, for example, about two major live media events from the summer of 1997, internet and televisual coverage of the Mars Pathfinder's unmanned exploration or the fatal vehicle crash that killed Princess Diana. These late 1990s remediation events emphasized the immediacy of globally networked telecommunication and its hypermediacy in various media formations--the story was immediacy, connectivity, and real-time coverage. In premediation events like those unfolding in Egypt, the story is much more focused on potentiality, or the liveness of futurity.

In part of course this is due to the emergent nature of the mass demonstrations themselves. Day by day they continue to grow and to change, showing no signs of waning and beginning to manifest various fragile and temporary forms of self-organization. But the characteristics of the demonstrations cannot be separated from their forms of mediation and the way in which they perpetuate an almost constant affectivity of anticipation, an orientation towards the next tweet, or live video, or public address. Indeed it is more telling to recognize that the demonstrations themselves are forms of mediation or counter-mediation of power in opposition and resistance to the forms of state-mediated power perpetuated by the Mubarak government--and that these respective mediations of power are inextricable from, and borrow the forms of, the variety of networks of mediation available in the first decades of the 21st century.

Tired debates about whether this is a Twitter of Facebook revolution or whether it is a popular revolution or the beginning of class warfare (about which debates I hope to post later today or tomorrow) are caught up in fundamental logical and conceptual antinomies that have underwritten liberalism in the West since before the 18th century. But even if one wants to take sides in this classic liberal debate (and whichever side one chooses to argue) it is difficult to deny that news coverage in print, televisual, and socially networked media is focused on the premediation of potential geopolitical scenarios. And insofar as these premediations repeatedly emphasize the immediacy of real-time communication across these heterogeneous media channels, the Egyptian demonstrations make evident both the potentiality of mediation and the liveness of futurity.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Jared Lee Loughner and the Affective Contagion of Violent Rhetoric

Almost from the moment Jared Lee Loughner's assassination attempt was first reported, many in the print, televisual, and networked media (and a handful of politicians) have claimed that his actions were motivated or influenced by the increasingly heated rhetorical climate that has prevailed in the US at least since the 1990s when Republicans undertook a coordinated campaign to delegitimize the Clinton presidency. The past several days have seen an intensification of objections to this claim from across the political spectrum. Moderates and those on the left have argued that such a claim only further perpetuated a hostile and violent political and media climate. On the right the most common argument was that there was no evidence that Loughner had been exposed to any of the offending rhetoric or that he was politically motivated in any way.

John Protevi has written a persuasive blog entry contesting the linear, mechanistic notion of causality that underlies these defenses from the right. This causal logic informs this comment left on my previous blog entry: "there is literally no evidence tying Loughner to the usual overheated rhetoric people have been complaining about." Protevi argues that human action is much more complex than such accounts of "billiard-ball" causality suggest. The violent right-wing political rhetoric of Palin, Beck, and others could have influenced Loughner, Protevi argues, even if he had never directly been exposed to any of it because actions always occur within complex social environments.

In his brilliant 2008 book, Affective Mapping, Jonathan Flatley details the ways in which Heideggerian stimmung, or mood, and Raymond Williams' structure of feeling, describe how individual and collective affect can be influenced by the affective environment created by natural, social, cultural, and technical factors. Mood, Flatley argues, extrapolating from Heidegger, is how "historical forces most directly intervene in our affective lives." Flatley follows Heidegger (whose experience in Nazi Germany made this evident almost daily) in seeing moods as "an atmosphere, a kind of weather," which are not inner states but work through us both individually and collectively. "Stimmung is a collective, public phenomenon, something inevitably shared. Moods constitute the 'way in which we are together.'" Flatley likens Heideggerian stimmung to Williams's concept of "structure of feeling," but sees the latter as more social or even class-based. Thus where anger would be a mood, the anti-government attitude of the Tea Party would be a structure of feeling. Both, however, work to mediate individual and collective affectivity and action.

Seen from the perspective of mood or structure of feeling, the relation between Jared Loughner's actions and the violent, anti-government rhetoric of politicians and media figures on the right becomes more clear. Repeated assertions of the appropriateness of using violence against elected government officials when one is unable to use democratic measures to get one's way produce a structure of feeling and an anti-government violent mood within which individual and collective political action and affectivity unfold. We do not directly have to read or hear any particular call for anti-government violence for it to influence our actions. The totality of such violent rhetorical expressions, repeated ad nauseum in print, televisual, and networked media, provides the atmosphere or environment within which our relation to the government takes shape.

While the current anti-government mood or stimmung does not directly cause any particular action, it does, in Fltley's terms, provide us with the knowledge of "what is collectively possible at [this] moment; it tells us what our shared situation is and what may be done within that situation." It is from this perspective of mood or structure of feeling that Jared Lee Loughner can be seen to have been influenced by the violent anti-government rhetoric that has become an unfortunate but inescapable feature of media and political discourse on the right in the first decades of the 21st century.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Violence, Agency, and Technical Mediation in Arizona

The shooting of Gabrielle Giffords and others in Arizona on Saturday has prompted a vigorous debate about the role of violent right-wing rhetoric in prompting the criminal behavior of Jared Lee Loughner. Many sensible people (mainly on the left) have sought to blame politicians who urged their supporters to "reload" or to make use of "Second Amendment remedies" or to "overthrow the liberal government." Less sensible people (mainly on the right but disappointingly in the conservative, i.e., mainstream, media as well) have argued that laying blame in this way only further inflames an already volatile climate. The arguments against this "false equivalence" between rhetoric on the right and the left have been widely distributed and are persuasive.

The current debate has seen the revival of a favorite NRA meme--"Guns don't kill people; people kill people"--as well as its extension to rhetoric or words. The most brilliant discussion of this meme that I know is Bruno Latour's, in his 1994 article "On Technical Mediation." Latour criticizes both the sociological determinism of the NRA (who see guns, or technology generally, as only a neutral instrument) and the technological determinism of those who blame gun violence on the technology itself. For Latour, agency is always hybrid and distributed; it is the actant formed by the alliance between gun and shooter that kills people. Latour cleverly diagrams how agency is commonly detoured or translated into some other form when actors encounter other potential actants.

Thus, an angry man who finds a gun becomes a different agent that an angry man without one; the alliance of man and gun produces the potential for a different action than an angry man alone, transforming the possibility of say violent words or physical violence into the possiblity of gun violence. Similarly a gun on the shelf of a gunstore is a very different agent than a concealed weapon brought to an Arizona Congresswoman's meet and greet.

This schematic account of the relation between agency and technical mediation is of course only a sketch. Latour sees action as always occurring within more complex assemblages or networks of humans and nonhumans, individuals and institutions, words and things. Which brings us back to the role of the current right-wing political rhetoric in Saturday's shootings. It is of course an oversimplification to blame the shootings on such technical mediators as Sarah Palin's famous map of Congressional districts in the crosshairs, as disturing as such images are.

But it is even more simple-minded to claim that such images and their accompanying rhetoric, circulated and amplified in the print, televisual, and networked media, play no role in acts of violence like that committed by Jared Lee Loughner. As I have argued in my recent book, technical and social media work to mobilize individual and collective affect and action. By premediating acts of violence against elected officials, such mediations as Palin's map, circulated and remediated by mainstream and participatory media, work to mobilize all sorts of actions, including those for which Loughner was the trigger.

As an agent, Loughner cannot be understood simply as an isolated, autonomous human (sane or insane). Rather his action must be seen (like all action) as the act of a complex, hybrid agent or quasi-agent, an assemblage made up of a troubled young man who liked to read and saw himself as a dreamer, the rhetorical incitements to violence proliferating on print, televisual, and networked media, the Glock 19- 9mm gun that was legally purchased at Sportsman's Warehouse in Tucson on Nov 30, and other potential actants yet to be identified. Neither guns nor people kill people. People are killed as the result of complex chains and hybrid assemblages of humans, nonhumans, rhetorical mediations, and countless other potential actants. To think that violent right-wing rhetoric did not contribute to the agency of Saturday's murders is as simplistic as the politicans and media figures who spouted, circulated, and amplified such rhetoric in the media.