Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Pandemic Premediation (Cont.)

I want to elaborate with a little more specificity what I mean by saying that the swine flu pandemic is being premediated. By premediation, I am not simply referring to a kind of vague or general forecast of a possibility that the current swine flu outbreak that began apparently in Mexico could transform itself into a global pandemic. Rather I mean to call attention to the ways in which print, televisual, and networked news media are pre-mediating the epidemic according to the same formal, conventional media practices that they would (or will) employ if such a pandemic would occur.

As in the run-up to the Iraq War (which I detailed more fully in my 2004 essay,"Premediation"), the run-up to a potential pandemic is notable for the way in which news media rehearse the forms of coverage that they would undoubtedly employ if a pandemic would occur. Take, for example, the use of maps. Here's the New York Times:

Obviously, this is precisely the kind of map that would be used (though with much more color and detail) if a pandemic were to occur. CNN News was (unsurprisingly) more dramatic in their cartographics, using a map of North America in much the same way they would use an electoral map, coloring in those states where cases of swine flu had been reported. In their map, Canada was treated not as the Times did, province by province, but as a single country. As John Stewart, who understands premediation as well as anyone, so insightfully asked in his report on "Snoutbreak '09: The Last 100 Days," "For six mild cases of the flu, you're going to turn 4 million square miles bright red?"
But maps are not the only form of premediation being employed in the swine flu pandemic. Crawls, breaking news, dramatic lead-ins, special reports, interviews with government officials and people affected by the virus--all of the usual modes of televisual news reporting are being deployed. My local paper, The Detroit Free Press, featured a story on how the Michigan state government was combatting the virus and published a syndicated AP article, "What you can do to protect yourself from swine flu," an article that would likely be no different, if more urgent, than the article they would print if a pandemic were to occur. And one does not have to look far to find numerous other examples of this premediated pandemic.

In calling attention to some of the specific forms of premediation being employed, I mean to underscore and elaborate the point I made in my previous post: that medialogically we are already experiencing the pandemic. Our media experience in the run-up to a pandemic that might never occur is very much of a piece with, and in many cases identical to, the media experience we will have if a pandemic does occur. The effect of this virtual pandemic is at least twofold: to prepare us affectively for a pandemic if it were to happen, so that the public could deal more effectively with the shock of the disaster; and to provide us with the affective, medialogical experience of a pandemic whether or not it ever materializes.


Giovanni said...

I wonder if you regard the cinematic premediations - say, 28 Days Later - as functioning in a similar way or even belonging fundamentally to the same category as those operated by the news media.

I think you could make a reasonable case that Under Siege was an effective premediation of 9/11, and an equally good case that there is significant overlapping between the rhetoric and aesthetic of cable news and cinema. CNN's so called 'holograms' during election day are the most crudely obvious example of how self-conscious this overlapping can be, but perhaps the maps you and Stewart describe fall under the same rubric.

Richard Grusin said...

I talk about this in my article and forthcoming book. In a general sense, yes, the films you mention (and others) are forms of premediation in that they participate in the widespread culture orientation towards potential or virtual futures. But they work in different ways and are less powerful, I think, because they do not have the same claim on what we might as well call the "real" as news media do. These films operate according to cinematic conventions rather than televisual or journalistic ones--although of course in this age of remediation cinema increasingly borrows and refashions the formal and visual conventions of other media like TV, the web, etc.

Giovanni said...

although of course in this age of remediation cinema increasingly borrows and refashions the formal and visual conventions of other media like TV, the web, etc.

And viceversa, though, which was my point about CNN's holograms. But more the point, I think the public's faith in these claims to the "real" has been shaken to the point where one of the chief narratives of the swine flu thus far has been precisely that it might all be just a fiction, a beat-up in the name of driving ratings and newspaper sales. And that narrative of course is carried by the news media themselves - Ben Goldacre wrote earlier this week of all the invitations he's received from media outlets around the globe to make that very claim on their programs (which he won't).