Friday, October 29, 2010


The distribution and intensification of premediation in the 21st century is evident in the new slogan for MSNBC’s political news programs, “Lean Forward,” which is of a piece with the temporality of anticipation that I have outlined in Premediation, especially the anticipatory gesture with which today’s global netizens lean forward almost lovingly towards their media devices.

MSNBC's new slogan speaks to the idea that global media today, as well as our networked public culture, are focused on the future rather than on the present or recent past, that we live in a moment of anticipation in which people are encouraged to “lean forward” towards the next moment of socially mediated interaction. This anticipation is tied directly to the media formation of the first decades of the 21st century, to the structure of social media, Facebook, Twitter, email, and texts—to something as seemingly innocuous as the proliferation of and everyday media form like the shared, synchronized online calendar, which fills the future with, and orchestrates, premediated individual and collective personal, social, or professional events. MSNBC has tried to plug in to this anticipatory temporality of the 21st century in its branding campaign for“Lean Forward,” which features two 1-minute commercials to introduce the campaign and six additional 30-second commercials, one for each of its various news shows. I want to focus here on the two longer branding commercials, to look at the ways in which they present a televisual mediation of the temporality of anticipation that marks our premediated moment.

Each spot features a variety of different people in motion, depicting mobile embodiment, people moving forward. In each commercial, interestingly, the predominant motion forward is from left to right across the screen, as in a book or as in a scroll across the bottom of the screen—a textual lean forward in an audiovisual medium. But this movement from left to right is also significant in another respect, in that it reverses one of the standard iconographic tropes of American progress from the 19th century, the movement of the American empire across the continent from right to left, marking the move from East to West as if across a map. This trope figures prominently in Emanuel Leutze’s Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way, which hangs in the US Capitol,

as well in popular lithographs like Thomas Gast’s American Progress, which represents an allegory of technological progress moving from the civilized East to the Western frontier, from right to left again as on a map.

In the 19th century, the iconography of westward movement in nationalistic images like these deployed a harmony between pictorial and cartographic space in order to naturalize and make inevitable the manifest destiny of the United States to control the continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean.

MSNBC’s remediation of cartographic visual space as televisual space marks a cultural shift from a more fixed, geopolitically stable world to a more fluid one, in which it is motion itself that matters. Perhaps a cynical critic from the right might see the movement from left to right as marking the movement of Hollywood liberalism from California across the nation. While I don’t think that was the aim of those who produced the commercials, there is a sense in which something not unlike this might indeed be the case, as the two commercials work to present the movement of affectivity and mobility across the nation from West to East as a reversal for the age of premediation of the 19th-century march of the progress of the American nation from East to West, or right to left, across the national pictorial and geographical space. However one might read the movement of the images, MSNBC is clearly promoting the idea that the country needs to move forward from the left.

In 2010 the MSNBC branding ads portray mobile bodies and technologies moving through US national space, with technology, culture, and a wide variety of people communicating a kind of affectivity of forwardness, an affectivity of motion of progress of anticipation. In the first spot, “Declaration of Forward,” this anticipatory movement is depicted not only visually but also in terms laid out by the narrative voiceover:

The governing conceit of the ad is of course MSNBC’s remediation of the Declaration of Independence as a 60-second branding commercial. From its initial sampling of the Declaration of Independence (1776), “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” MSNBC positions itself as the 21st century media equivalent of the American colonies contesting the sovereignty of the British crown. “The Declaration of Forward” distinguishes itself from the “Declaration of Independence” of the United States of America, through its commitment to a principle of leaning forward, a vital, affective anticipatory premediation of the future. In remediating the 1776 Declaration, MSNBC elides, condenses, and supplements the document’s fundamental assertion of human equality and inalienable rights into a declaration of moving forwardness, of physical and temporal anticipation. Even while explicitly including women among those counted by the “Declaration of Forward,” the commercial moves ahead quickly from “self-evident truths” to the “pursuit of happiness,” by eliding the agency of a Creator who endows people with rights. People aren’t endowed with these three famous rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, they just “have” them—and they have as well in the “Declaration of Forward” a fourth right, the freedom to believe that “our best days are still ahead.” In MSNBC’s “Declaration of Forward,” the freedom to anticipate that our best days are ahead takes the place of independence. The declaration of this new freedom rewrites the 1776 “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” to “life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, and the freedom to believe that our best days are still ahead.” This new premediated freedom to believe in a better future replaces the 1776 Declaration’s fundamental assertion that governmental power comes from the consent of the people governed and that therefore people have the right to abolish their government if it fails to secure these rights.

“Hardwired,” the second spot in MSNBC’s “Lean Forward” campaign, picks up both the question of unalienability and the anticipatory gesture of leaning forward. “Hardwired” uses visual and narrative mediation to suggest a technical rather than a divine agency. People are not “endowed” by a “Creator” with inalienable rights but possess “an innate sense of direction.” “Hardwired” implies both a technological and a genetic agency in originating and maintaining an anticipatory vitality that seems to start at the moment of conception.

This commercial’s opening montage begins with an image of vital, swimming sperm, juxtaposed with an ultrasound image of a fetus, followed by a sequence of three topless infants trying to move forward, one on its stomach, another on its hands and knees, and a third just rising to two feet before heading forward into the camera and screen. The “innate” quality of this moving-forwardness is clearly tied to female reproduction, from the female narrative voiceover to the images of graduation and wedding ceremonies among othere. The action in the spot, both visually and narratively, is forward-moving, as in the first spot almost exclusively from left to right and towards the screen and the viewer’s mediated space. In the final lines of the commercial, the narrator’s cadence creates in the viewer an expectation or anticipation of the pledge of allegiance. “We are one nation, in progress,” is followed by a long pause which recalls the last lines of the pledge of allegiance: “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” But instead of God, indivisibility, liberty, and justice for all, we get “in progress” accompanied by the declaration of the nation’s innate evolution and movement forward: “We were built to evolve, we were not made to sit still.”

In both of these ads, MSNBC models portions of its rhetoric on two of the “sacred texts” of every American’s high school civics class. In each case the document is rewritten to eliminate both the agency of divine sovereignty and the universal right to self-governance. As an avowedly political news network, as opposed to financial networks like CNBC, sports networks like ESPN, entertainment networks like E or BET, or general news networks like CNN, MSNBC uses its Lean Forward campaign to remediate the governmentality of these national documents in terms of the mediality and affectivity of anticipation. In so doing MSNBC redefines American national identity, depicting the nation not in terms of spatial qualities like wholeness or universality but in terms of temporal qualities like evolution, progress, or motion. Anticipation, not independence or allegiance, marks MSNBC’s forward-leaning, premediated America.

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