Sunday, June 28, 2009

Michael Jackson and Kurt Cobain

Watching this weekend’s Michael Jackson video retrospectives on MTV Jams and VH1 Classic, I was reminded of the experience of watching the video of Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York, which MTV aired repeatedly on the weekend after Kurt Cobain was discovered dead on Friday, April 8, 1994. Like Jackson, Cobain had died unexpectedly. And like Jackson, his death was not a complete surprise. Just as Michael had been rumored to have health problems related to or exacerbated by his consumption of prescription medication, so Cobain had been battling with heroin and other drugs, having flirted in the months before his death with drug overdoses and attempted suicide.

But what struck me most forcefully about the experience of watching the video retrospective was how affectively different it was from watching the video of Kurt Cobain’s live performance after his death. In an era before YouTube and the omnipresence of embedded videos, before CNN had adopted the running crawl at the bottom of the screen or borrowed the hypermediacy of the PC’s windowed interface, the medium of video still carried with it an almost automatic affective charge of liveness and immediacy, particularly in contrast to film. Watching Nirvana’s Unplugged produced a powerful affective-cognitive dissonance between the feeling that I was watching Kurt Cobain performing live and the knowledge that he was dead.

The uncanny, haunted feelings I had watching Cobain’s video performance were quite different from the way I felt watching the video retrospective of Michael Jackson’s career. Whether taken from his studio albums or live performances, Michael’s videos did not evoke the sense of liveness or immediacy produced by MTV Unplugged in New York. The self-conscious hypermediacy of the videos for Bad, the cinematic production values of the famous "Thriller" video, or the theatrical quality of the stage sets for the live performances—all of them produced a sense not of Michael’s liveness but in some curious sense of his being already dead. This feeling was enforced in part by the fact that one can witness in the video retrospective the death of many earlier MJ personae, from the young lead singer of the Jackson 5 to the teenaged member of the Jacksons to the twenty-something solo megastar of Off the Wall and Thriller, and so forth. Each of these Michael Jacksons had, in some sense, already died.

To note this affective difference is not to make a claim about the relative import of the two deaths, either personally or collectively. Indeed, at the time of Cobain’s suicide I did not own a single Nirvana album, while I had spent countless sweaty evenings from the mid-70s to mid-90s dancing to the music of the King of Pop. Furthermore, Michael Jackson was and always will be a hugely more important figure than Kurt Cobain, both musically and culturally. Nor do I mean to make a claim about the relative emotional impact of the two deaths, for their fans or for the media public at large.

Rather by invoking the affective-cognitive dissonance produced by watching Nirvana Unplugged after Kurt Cobain's suicide, I want to make a claim about the contrasting affectivity of two different historical medial formations: video in 1994 and video in 2009. In 1994 video epitomized the cultural desire for immediacy that made up one half of what Jay Bolter and I characterized as the double logic of remediation. In 2009 video participates in the hypermediacy that lies at the heart of our current culture of premediation, in which we have in some sense always already experienced Michael Jackson’s death.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Iran, Twitter, Anticipation

A quick addendum to the entry below.

In the 6:00 pm EST hour on Saturday, watching CNN's coverage of the "Breaking News" from Iran, "Iran Election Fallout: Blood on the Streets of Iran," I was struck by the affect/emphasis of the commentators. The discussion between Josh Levs and Don Lemon concerning the repeated and continued updating of one's Twitter page was especially interesting.

The affective orientation presented in their exchange is quite different from the affective or temporal immediacy of live video coverage, with its monitoring of action in the present in real-time. With live video there is a sense of connection in real-time, with what is being shown on screen occurring at the same moment as you are watching it. With these Twitter feeds rushing past, there is a different temporality and a different affective sense. On the one hand what is being retweeted on cable news or on live blogs or other online sites has happened in the past; it is not happening now; it is not immediate in the way that live video is. But on the other hand, there is a sense that it is in some sense more immediate insofar as there is an emphasis not on what has been tweeted already, but on what is about to be tweeted. Viewers are encouraged to retweet; Iranians are encouraged to provide reports, however brief. Don Lemon leads into a commercial break, saying "All of that new video and new information coming into CNN moment by moment."

What we are witnessing is the new form of immediacy in an age of premediation. Rather than emphasizing the liveness and immediacy of a real-time video feed, the CNN reporters talk excitedly about how the Twitter stream changes every second. On the one hand this is analogous to Walter Benjamin's account of the affective distraction of watching cinema, as the images flash by faster than one can process them. But the affect of social networks is more an affect of anticipation than distraction. Lemon and Levs, like all social networkers, have an anticipatory orientation, looking forward towards the next refreshing of the tweet stream or the live blog, the next email of status update. Rather than monitoring the action in Iran in real time, they position themselves as monitoring the Twitter feed as it is about to flash by.

As I concluded in my previous post, in our current media formation, immediacy is less about the liveness of real-time than the liveness of futurity. Immediacy is not about the experience of what is happening on screen now but about the anticipation of what is about to happen in the immediate future. The real-time of Virilio has given way to the virtual time of premediation.

Iran, Immediacy, Premediation

Media coverage of the aftermath of the fraudulent Iranian presidential election is notable for the ways in which televisual immediacy in the news has shifted in an era of social networking and premediation. As I have argued elsewhere, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 mark in some sense the last global remediation event, epitomizing the double logic of remediation that emerged most powerfully in the explosion of the 1990s. Televisual media coverage of 9/11 combined the immediacy of live video with the hypermediacy of the windowed interface. Across the globe people could watch live the burning and collapse of the Twin Towers in the midst of a hypermediated environment of multiple media feeds, both visually on screen and textually through print, televisual, and networked media. Televisual immediacy and digital hypermediacy combined to produce a collective affective sense of shock and terror.

In the past week, media coverage of events in Iran has had a very different feel and has demonstrated a very different media logic. In part this is the result of the heavy-handed media crackdown by the repressive Iranian regime. Live video coverage has been interdicted; journalists' visas have not been renewed; news reports to the outside world have been severely curtailed. In the absence of live and robust media coverage by global media outlets like CNN, BBC, or Al Jazeera, social networks like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter have stepped in to fill the void. Live-blogging on sites like Huffington Post has been particularly helpful in mediating the chaotic flow of words, images, sounds, and videos coming from Iran. While we may not have live video feeds coming to us directly from Iran, we do have multiple social networks just waiting for the next tweet or video or status update.

Hyperbolic claims for a new Twitter Revolution have filled the print, televisual, and socially networked mediasphere. Internet guru Clay Shirkey epitomizes this media hyperbole in claiming that this is "the big one[,] . . . the first revolution that has been catapulted onto a global stage and transformed by social media." It was certainly true that, especially in the first days after the election, in the face of the Iranian government's crackdown on many socially networked internet sites, Twitter proved to be extremely agile and difficult to shut down. Almost by the minute, specifications for mirror sites and other non-Iranian servers were spread through hundreds and thousands of tweets. Many Iranians took advantage of software developed by the Falun Gong to resist Chinese censorship by providing servers that changed IP addresses almost by the minute. Yet as many others have noted, what has been transformed is not the Iranian revolution (if it in fact proves to be one) but Western media coverage. Twitter and other social media have provided vehicles for those in Iran to communicate to the rest of the world, and in some cases has been used to publicize protests and demonstrations in Iran. But these instances mainly intensify practices that have been under way for some time.

Indeed, after some initial mis-steps in the weekend following the June 12 election, CNN has begun to foreground the constraints under which it has been forced to operate, reporting dramatically on the restrictions its reporters have had to deal with. Consequently, instead of its reporters covering live events in Iran, CNN has been covering other media, particularly social networks like Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook. Although CNN has taken great pains to emphasize the difference between their usual practices and their current reporting on social networks and amateur videos, Jon Stewart has not been alone in pointing out that CNN's Iran reporting only intensifies and extends their growing reliance on email, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and iReporters over the past couple of years.

This fascination with social networking on the part of the MSM marks a transformation of the notion of perceptual or affective immediacy, from the liveness of video to the connectivity of social networking. As I spell out in much greater detail in my forthcoming book, this shift is part of a larger sea change from remediation to premediation. This change is particularly evident in the temporality of print, televisual, and networked news media, which has increasingly modulated from remedition's concern with the immediate present or the recent past to premediation's concern with the becoming present of the future. As epitomized by the ongoing media coverage of the social unrest in Iran, which is focused on the next tweet or YouTube video, the next email message or Facebook update, the concern with immediacy has not disappeared, but rather has been relocated from the liveness of the present to the liveness of futurity.