Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Debate Viewership and the New Media Temporality

Media observers were surprised at the relatively small viewing audience reported by Neilsen for Friday's presidential debate, as in this morning's short New York Times piece:


The article's final paragraph contains the explanation for this data, but doesn't explicitly connect the dots: Nielsen numbers fail to include other forms of viewing besides families watching at home, particularly debate parties, Internet streaming, and deferred viewing on Tivo, DVRs, or the Web.

Nielsen is an institution based in an earlier media formation, when liveness and immediacy were the hallmarks of TV, were the features that distinguished it especially from film or print. In some of its earliest manifestations at the end of the 90s, the Internet remediated TV's liveness through web-cams, live video streams, and so forth.  And today, via Twitter, blogging, and other forms of live chat, the Internet continues to assume some of TV's mantle of immediacy. A related media shift has been marked on by many observers in relation to polling data, which like the Neilsen ratings, is grounded on media and telecommunications patterns that do not capture the dynamic usage of a significant portion of Obama supporters. The liveness of the home telephone has been increasingly remediated by cellphones and texting.

In today's era of premediation, however, networked media users are less committed to liveness and immediacy.  So much of our TV universe persists well beyond its initial broadcast that TV "viewers" are perfectly content to watch all or part of important shows on YouTube or other video-sharing sites. Viewers can be assured, for example, that if they miss Tina Fey's spot-on remediation of Sarah Palin's interview with Katie Couric, they will be able to find it on the Web. Obviously the same is true of the presidential debates--or of the coverage of the political conventions, where observers were similarly surprised to note that the Republican convention was viewed by more people than the Democratic convention (which may have been the case, but the number of Obama supporters who viewed his speech in another medium is most likely significantly higher than those who similarly viewed McCain's or Palin's speeches).

Because live events are already premediated in any number of different media formats (even before a live event is televised its availability on YouTube and other networked media is always assured), institutions like Neilsen and other mainstream media will continue to have to find new metrics to measure today's and tomorrow's ever-changing media audience.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Premediating McCain

John McCain's behavior in Washington Thursday seemed anything but leader-like as he sat silent for most of the bipartisan meeting in the White House, apparently failing to make clear his position on how to proceed in resolving the stalemate on how to fix the nation's economy.

So, McCain's theatrics leave him with two options to try to use the current economic crisis to resuscitate his failing presidential campaign.

1. First mess up an imminent bailout deal, as he appeared to do Thursday, only to end up bringing conservative House Republicans into the fold, portraying himself as the leader who brought the bipartisan deal together.  

2. More radically, come out Friday against the bailout, and try to capitalize on the overwhelming popular sentiment against bailing out Wall Street, portraying himself as a maverick who is willing to fight the entrenched interests of Washington and New York for the good of the American people.

The first option seems to have little chance of working.  The second, however, has a frightening plausibility to it and may be the only chance the McCain candidacy has of claiming the presidency.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

John McCain, Drama Queen

One thing would be certain--a McCain-Palin presidency would not be boring. In response to almost any kind of disturbance, McCain has shown that he would do something dramatic. Bomb, bomb, Iran! Dismiss senior campaign advisors! Attack Russia! Create a commission! Fire the head of the SEC! Institute a new federal agency! Suspend the campaign! Delay the debates!

Every day we could hope for someone to be fired or demoted, for some function of government to be suspended or disestablished, for some country to be threatened or attacked, for media access to be limited or cut off. 

It might make for great theater, but it would surely be disastrous government!  

Wall Street: Abstraction or Virtuality?

In yesterday's hearing before the Senate Banking Committee, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke was asked by the Democratic Senator of Ohio, Sherrod Brown, "Does Wall Street owe the American people an apology?"  Wall Street, Bernanke answered, is "an abstraction."

As I began to address here yesterday, the question of agency during this extended moment of financial crisis is an interesting one--particularly the question of how agency is mediated among our print, televisual, and networked news media.  Although Bernanke followed up his characterization of Wall Street as an abstraction by acknowledging that "a lot of people made big mistakes," the agency I am interested in identifying is not that of individuals--not the agency that the FBI is reportedly seeking to identify in its current investigation of fraudulent mortgage lending practices on Wall Street.  

Don't get me wrong.  I believe it is crucial that those individuals responsible for getting us into this mess be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law (and perhaps even beyond).  My concern as a media theorist, however, is a different one.  What I am interested in making sense of is how both formal and informal media help to create and amplify the agency of financial crisis to the point where Congress is on the verge of approving $700 billion for an economic downturn that has not yet happened, a crisis that we are told might or will happen unless Congress acts now.  In other words, how does it come about that Congress is about to approve a $700 billion bailout in response to the premediation of recession?

Which brings us back to the question of Wall Street's agency.

Ben Bernanke could not be further from the truth in characterizing Wall Street as an "abstraction."  Such a characterization depends upon a series of familiar fundamental binary oppositions that go back to the earliest moves of modernity: abstract vs. concrete, idealism vs. materialism, imaginary vs. real, mind vs. body, and so forth.  The very financial practices that have inflated the current economic bubble and that now threaten to throw the US and perhaps the world into a recession stand as the refutation of these oppositions.  While critics of these financial practices often point out, for example, that the problem with the buying and selling of derivatives stems from the fact that such mortgages appear to have lost their connection to real properties, these criticisms resort to the same dualistic metaphysics underlying Bernanke's characterization of Wall Street as an "abstraction."

As I tried to suggest yesterday by likening "Wall Street" or "the market" or "the Dow" to a pantheon of gods, these agents are anything but abstract.  They are powerfully complex and heterogeneous actors in our economic drama, what Bruno Latour has characterized as "hybrids," "quasi-objects," or (more recently, in a term also employed by Gilles Deleuze) "assemblages."*  Like Greco-Roman deities, which are complex sociotechnical actants inseparable from their votaries and priests, their icons and temples, their calendars and sacred places, their rituals of sacrifice and remuneration, so our current economic deities are anything but "abstractions."  "Wall Street," "the market," and "the Dow" name heterogeneous formations of humans and non-humans, of material and immaterial forces, of technical and social networks--including their own votaries and priests, icons and temples, calendars and sacred places, and rituals of sacrifice and economic remuneration.  The agency of Wall Street is not the agency of an abstraction, but rather the agency of the complex sociotechnical assemblage of financial employees, bank statements, office buildings, powerful computer servers and distributed financial software networks, and so forth.  

But to return to the question posed to Bernanke, does Wall Street owe the American people an apology? Or, to put it differently, what would it mean for "Wall Street" to apologize to the American people? Who or what would make that apology? And to whom or what would it apologize?

Such questions can best be answered if we think of Wall Street not as "abstract," but as what Deleuze might characterize as "virtual."  In describing Wall Street as a Latourian quasi-object or Deleuzian assemblage, I have been trying to resist thinking of it as some kind of immaterial essence or abstraction or conceptualization of very real and concrete sociotechnical, cultural, and economic practices and capital resources. Similarly, however, I would resist thinking of Wall Street as a fixed or stable entity.  By invoking the Deleuzian concept of virtuality I want to highlight the way in which such entities as Wall Street, the market, or the Dow are always emergent or in a state of becoming--and that, like the Greco-Roman gods, their agency derives precisely from this potentiality, from what they have just done and from what they may do in the future.  

Hence premediation.  The priests and oracles of the Greco-Roman pantheon explained many political, economic, and natural occurrences and historical events in terms of the agency of the gods.  Simultaneously they devoted considerable energies and resources to placating, predicting, and even controlling the agency of the gods in the future. Similarly, in invoking the virtual agency of our financial pantheon, today's print, televisual, and networked news media work both to explain the present and recent past in terms of such economic demigods as Wall Street, the market, or the Dow, and to premediate how these gods will act in the near and not-so-near future.  It is the agency of premediation, I would argue, that provides much of the force that is moving Congress to the verge of authorizing as much as $700 billion to prevent what is currently a virtual recession, that is to say, a recession that has only been premediated and that might, despite possibly having motivated Congress to authorize a $700 billion bailout of Wall Street, never even have occurred.  

* "An assemblage is, first, an ad hoc grouping, a collectivity whose origins are historical and circumstantial, though its contingent status says nothing about its efficacy, which can be quite strong. An assemblage is, second, a living, throbbing grouping whose coherence coexists with energies and countercultures that exceed and confound it. An assemblage is, third, a web with an uneven topography: some of the points at which the trajectories of actants cross each other are more heavily trafficked than others, and thus power is not equally distributed across the assemblage. An assemblage is, fourth, not governed by a central power: no one member has sufficient competence to fully determine the consequences of the activities of the assemblage. An assemblage, finally, is made up of many types of actants: humans and nonhumans; animals, vegetables, and minerals; nature, culture, and technology." [Jane Bennett, "The Agency of Assemblages and the North American Blackout," Public Culture (17)3: 445-465.]

Monday, September 22, 2008

Agency and Financial Crisis

Let's get this straight.  The current financial crisis that is said to make government action imperative is first and foremost a market crisis.  

For now, in any event, it is not a crisis in massive unemployment (though we have been in something like an employment crisis for some time); it is not a crisis in massive foreclosures (though we have been in a foreclosure crisis for some time); it is not an urban crisis (though many of our cities have been in crisis for some time); it is not a crisis in our infrastructure (though our infrastructure has been in crisis for some time); it is not a famine or a drought or a health epidemic (though we have seen our share of those in the past).  The current crisis is a crisis in our financial markets. Its most immediate potential victims are those individuals who work in the financial markets, those individuals with substantial investments in those financial markets, including those whose retirement funds are invested in the market, and the corporations that seek to profit from those financial markets.  

So, where does the current financial crisis derive such tremendous agency that it can prompt the US government (on behalf of the American taxpayers) to give something on the order of $1 trillion in aid to these markets to address this crisis, while other crises, like those mentioned above, are unable to garner even a fraction of the support that they need and deserve?

This might appear to be a ridiculously foolish question.  The agency garnered by this financial crisis is capital, is money--it's the economy, stupid! Of course. True enough, I suppose. But it is interesting to note the forms in which this monetary or economic damage manifests itself to the American public, to the average citizen of the US. So maybe a better way to phrase the question is this: how does the agency of the current financial crisis manifest itself in our media? 
At the current moment this agency manifests itself chiefly in non-stop media coverage and diminishing financial statements.  Or more accurately it manifests itself in the fear and trembling produced by the obsessive premediation of impending economic catastrophe in our print, televisual, and networked media. We turn on the TV and see anchors and politicians, economists and financiers, warning us about the impending financial catastrophe heralded by recent turbulence in the markets.  We hear about the billions of dollars in value that have been lost.  We see graphs of the recent financial past heading almost inevitably downwards into our financial future. We look at our 401Ks or our mutual funds or our e-portfolios and we see how much value they have lost. We see gas prices rising and "for sale" signs and foreclosed properties growing like mushrooms.  

So where does the agency of the market to prompt the federal government to hand over nearly $1 trillion to bail out Wall Street come from?  This agency, I would argue, in some sense comes from, participates in, the agency of premediation. The tone of this mediation is urgency. We are to be on the alert, to be concerned, and ultimately to be scared.  The agents that we should fear are called "the market" or "Wall Street" or "the Dow."  "The market will not be happy if too many limitations are put on this bailout." "Wall Street is worried that unless the Fed acts, more turbulence lies ahead."  "The Dow is demonstrating its concern about the terms of the bailout."  Not unlike the pantheon of Greco-Roman gods, these powerful creatures need to be feared and respected and pacified. The mediasphere is filled with the priests and votaries of these gods, warning the public of the danger that could come if they are angered or their will is flaunted.

What is at stake in the premediation of the current financial crisis is whether (to borrow the distinction currently in use by both Obama and McCain) it is Wall Street or Main Street who should be protected from the consequences of the current crisis of confidence in the financial markets.  At the present moment, the gods of Wall Street have a much greater share of the mediasphere than the crowds of Main Street. On Monday afternoon, the agency of Main Street had manifested itself chiefly in brief reports of taxpayers complaining about having to bail out Wall Street, with CNN quickly suggesting and moving away from the question of a populist revolt.  On Tuesday morning we are beginning to hear dissenting voices, not only in the liberal blogosphere but on the pages of our local and national newspapers and even on televisual news. 

But the gods of Wall Street are in turmoil and they are still at the present moment more powerful than the collective voices of Main Street. Only when the premediation of Main Street's agency begins to compete with the premediation of Wall Street's agency will it be possible to imagine an economic future in which the US government acts to bail out the overwhelming majority of the American public who are threatened by this financial crisis, not the minority of those whose investments and livelihoods depend upon the financial markets.    


Premediation and Structure of Feeling

Raymond Williams coined the concept "structure of feeling," as my friend and colleague Jonathan Flatley reminds us, not only because "structure of feeling" "enables us to talk about the sociality of affect, but because it enables us to describe those structures that mediate between the social and the personal that are more ephemeral and transitory than set ideologies or institutions." "Premediation" in one sense functions as such an ephemeral and transitory structure, mediating between individual and collective affect, and in another sense could be seen to describe one of the strategies or frameworks such structures of feeling employ in mediating "between the social and the personal." In either sense, it is clear that at the present moment changes in structures of feeling invariably manifest themselves through our print, televisual, and networked media.

Seemingly overnight, the current structure of feeling has turned dramatically economic. The relation between individual and collective affect in our media environment has begun to focus almost obsessively on the current "economic crisis." Small talk--at Caribou or Starbucks, at PTA meetings or the high school cafeteria, in the workplace or over the dinner table, at CVS or Home Depot, in the library or the doctor's office--almost immediately turns to the crisis in the economy and the proposed bailout. People want to know: what is going to happen to the economy in the future, tomorrow, next week, after the election, and beyond?

This economic chatter is even more extreme on local, national, and global news media. In the US, CNN, Fox, CNBC, and MSNBC are populated with new faces and new charts and visuals, discussing the details of the mortgage and liquidity crisis, explaining the potential features of the proposed bailout, and most interestingly premediating what economic and social disasters would occur if we did not bail out Wall Street. Non-US media outlets like BBC, CBC, or Al Jazeera are similarly participating in this proliferation of economic scenarios.

Of course, all of these media formations are part of what I characterize as "premediation," as they concern themselves with furnishing the content of our media environment and modulating affective structures of feeling as we move into and through any number of potential futures. These structures of feeling, I would argue, which Williams describes as "emergent or pre-emergent," are not fixed and institutionally defined, but like premediation function as something like what, following Deleuze, I would call virtual structures, as potential individual and collective affective qualities and intensities from which actual personal and social structures emerge.

This discursive proliferation of media talking heads, historical narratives, and graphic formats concerned with the economy and the market crisis works to provide competing potential, not-fully-defined premediations of possible futures into which US and global citizens, corporations, collectivities, and nation-states find themselves thrown and among which they will have to navigate. Such structures of feeling operate ordinarily as part of our media everyday, but in periods of crisis and rapid affective change like this one their operations become much more intense and thus much more visible than at moments of relative quiescence or stability.

Premediating the Next Great Depression: "Won't Get Fooled Again!"

In a classic example of the Bush Administration's use of the strategies of premediation to further its own interests, Congress is once again on the verge of being suckered into approving a Bush Administration proposal that is guaranteed to cost the nation over a trillion dollars. The Bush Administration is succeeding in this effort not in response to a catastrophe but on the basis of the premediation of catastrophe. And as today's news headlines make plain, the chief beneficiaries of this "rescue plan" will be Wall Street financial firms, whose CEOs, executives, board members, and major shareholders are among the chief supporters and business partners not only of Republicans in the Bush Administration and Congress, but of Democratic politicians as well.

We've seen this episode before people!

Flash back to October 2002, when the Bush Administration came to Congress seeking authorization to conduct a war against Iraq, not because Iraq had attacked us but to pre-empt Iraq from attacking us. How did the Bush Administration persuade the Congress, the media, and most of the American public that this authorization was necessary? They did it by premediating the consequences of Iraqi possession of weapons of mass destruction and their distribution to terrorists, particularly to Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda. Print, televisual, and networked news media were filled with Bush Administration spokesmen, warning us about the consequences of letting Iraq act in this way, assuring us of their possession of these weapons and of their intent to distribute them to the very people who attacked us on 9/11 because they hate our freedom. You know the rest of the story. Thousands and thousands of deaths later, billions of dollars of damage to Iraq, trillions of dollars of US debt, much of it headed into the pockets of companies like Halliburton and the oil companies--and Congress and the public is finally fed up with funneling taxpayer dollars to this boondoggle.

But wait! Here's another boondoggle! The real-estate mortgage crisis threatens our very way of life, indeed it may even hate us for our freedoms! What should we do? Let's give a trillion dollars of our money to bail out Wall Street from its risk-taking and irresponsible speculation. Why? Not because of what has happened to our economy over the past eight years (which is significant enough), but because of what might happen to our economy if we do not give in to the Bush Administration's demands, if we refuse to accept Hank Paulson's premediation of another Great Depression in his briefings behind closed-doors in Wall Street.

This is, remember, exactly the same script the Bush Administration followed in 2002, only with different Congressional committees as their dupes. Flash back again to the Autumn of 2002. Remember the confidential briefing reports distributed to members of key Congressional committees but kept from the American public, the briefings that convinced people like Hilary Rodham Clinton of the threat posed by Iraq and the necessity of giving Bush authorization to initiate a war? Last Friday, on multiple news channels, an ashen Senator Chris Dodd told financial reporters of the catastrophic horrors that Hank Paulson had premediated for Dodd's Senate Banking Committee. Thus Dodd and other Senate leaders seem convinced (including McCain and Obama) that to prevent this catastrophe from happening the Bush Administration needs to be authorized to wage a pre-emptive war against the threat of another Great Depression.

To its credit, the Times details the feeding frenzy under way on Wall Street, even posting photographs and identifications of ten white guys angling to turn the bailout into a profit-maker for their companies:

Naming names is a good start. But what really needs to happen is that we need to remind ourselves and our elected representatives of the mistakes that were made in October 2002, when the powerful premediation of another 9/11 persuaded the Congress to authorize a absolutely unnecessary and tremendously costly war in Iraq. Here we go again, as the Bush Administration, Congress, and the global news media all participate in the premediation of another Great Depression, with the aim of persuading the Congress to authorize what will amount undoubtedly to more than $1 trillion in bailouts which, like the war in Iraq, will help the corporate friends, supporters, and business partners of those in the government at the expense, once again, of the American people.

As W liked to say in frightening us into a war in Iraq, "Fool me once, shame on you--Fool me twice, shame on me."

I prefer Pete Townsend:

"Won't Get Fooled Again!"

We'll be fighting in the streets
With our children at our feet
And the morals that they worship will be gone
And the men who spurred us on
Sit in judgement of all wrong
They decide and the shotgun sings the song

I'll tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around me
Pick up my guitar and play
Just like yesterday
Then I'll get on my knees and pray
We don't get fooled again

The change, it had to come
We knew it all along
We were liberated from the foe, that' all
And the world looks just the same
And history ain't changed
'Cause the banners, they all flown in the next war

I'll tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around me
Pick up my guitar and play
Just like yesterday
Then I'll get on my knees and pray
We don't get fooled again
No, no!

I'll move myself and my family aside
If we happen to be left half alive
I'll get all my papers and smile at the sky
For I know that the hypnotized never lie

Do ya?


There's nothing in the street
Looks any different to me
And the slogans are replaced, by-the-bye
And the parking on the left
Is now the parking on the right
And the beards have all grown longer overnight

I'll tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around me
Pick up my guitar and play
Just like yesterday
Then I'll get on my knees and pray
We don't get fooled again
Don't get fooled again
No, no!


Meet the new boss
Same as the old boss

Feeding Frenzy on Wall Street!


"Big Financiers Start Lobbying for Wider Aid"

And on A20, where the article is continued:

"Big Financial Firms Start Lobbying, Seeking to Profit From Rescue Plan"

Wall Street refrain in re proposed Fed bailout: 

"There's MONEY to be made! 

There's MONEY to be MADE! 


Saturday, September 20, 2008

"Irresponsible" Bailout

As a taxpayer who will have to help foot the bill for the massive bailout of our corrupt borrowing and lending system, I do not accept the fact that my family and I (and millions of other individuals and families who have been responsible economic citizens) should have to be responsible for rescuing other people and corporations from their irresponsible behavior.  As Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson reminded us just yesterday, "we all know" that the economic crisis we find ourselves in is a direct result of "lax lending practices earlier this decade [that] led to irresponsible lending and irresponsible borrowing."  Given that this is common knowledge, shouldn't those who have engaged in such "irresponsible lending and irresponsible borrowing" be forced to be responsible for their own actions?

Rather than begin by bailing out irresponsible corporations and individuals, the federal government should begin by protecting the investments of the millions of Americans who have behaved responsibly.  Why not devote half a trillion dollars to insure the savings, insurance, and investments of those of us who did not participate in the frenzy of irresponsible borrowing, or those companies who did not lend irresponsibly?  Once those who have behaved responsibly are protected, only then should the government turn towards bailing out those who, by acting so irresponsibly, have gotten the country into this mess in the first place?

I'm not an economist or a legislator, so I'm not certain how a principle like this might be put into place.  But perhaps one place to start would be to protect individual worth up to a certain dollar amount per person, protecting those with the least rather than, as this bailout promises to do, those with the most?

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Premediating Economic Recovery

In what was arguably the most cynical speech yet in what has been arguably the most cynical campaign in the history of American presidential politics, John McCain took a page out of the Bush-Cheney playbook from the run-up to the Iraq War, attempting to premediate economic recovery under a McCain-Palin administration.  In a speech scheduled at 9:00 AM EST (8:00 AM in Green Bay, Wisconsin, where McCain and Palin found themselves this morning), McCain provided his own analysis of the current economic crisis (blame Barack Obama) and premediated the way in which a McCain-Palin administration would solve the problem.  McCain's speech attempted to premediate economic recovery in the following ways.

1. McCain's speech was scheduled in advance of Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson's scheduled 10:00 AM EST speech in which he was to announce a bipartisan agreement with Congressional leaders to establish a government-funded trust to secure the billions of dollars of failing mortgages that have led to the current financial crisis.  Thus McCain's address pre-mediated Paulson's address, trying to present McCain as getting the jump on the crisis.

2. In his speech McCain proposed a Mortgage and Financial Institutions trust that would work similarly to the solution that Paulson was to describe, except that McCain's proposed MFI would aim to address economic crises before they happened, pre-mediating rather than re-mediating these crises.

3. The conclusion of McCain's speech was timed to coincide with the opening bell on Wall Street, where stocks were universally expected to open significantly higher this morning.  The money shot for the speech was a split screen with McCain and the ritualistic ringing of the bell on the floor of the NYSE, which opened up nearly 400 points in less than 15 minutes.  Because of this brilliant theatrical maneuver, McCain's economic speech pre-mediated a sharp rise in the DJIA, as if he was in some sense responsible for its rise.

Given the prominent role played by former Karl Rove operatives, it is no surprise to see the McCain campaign employ the strategies of premediation that worked to mobilize Congress and American public opinion to support the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  These strategies, while powerful, may not have the same efficacy in a presidential campaign that they did when they were employed by a White House that could control the media landscape.  The Obama campaign will contest these narratives point by point in a way that did not happen in the run-up to the Iraq War.  If they are to be successful, however, they, too, will need to continue to employ their own premediation strategies, as they did so brilliantly in the primaries with their message of hope and change.  These strategies must be coupled with aggressive attacks on the McCain campaign's message and McCain's record (and Palin's lack).  But elections are about the future, and it is only by prevailing in the contest to premediate the next presidential administration that Obama and Biden can be sure that it is they, and not McPain, who will be inaugurated on 1/20/09.


The Rain in Spain is Raining on McCain

I know that the liberal press and left-wing blogosphere is belitting John McCain for an interview with a Spanish-language radio station, Radio Caracol Miami, in which he apparently failed to realize that Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero was the prime minister of Spain. McCain repeatedly answered quetions about his willingness to meet with Zapatero as if he was talking about a Latin American, not a European, leader.  But, come on, be fair.  McCain's interviewer, a woman, was speaking a heavily accented English.  When, in her last attempt to get him to understand the question, she said that she was talking about Europe not Latin America, McCain can be heard to ask, "What?  New York?"  If this woman can't learn to pronounce English names in a manner  that is clear enough for McCain to understand, is it fair to blame him?  Even if Arizona shares a border with Mexico....

Credit Crisis/National Debt

As I watch CNBC report on the Fed's efforts to quadruple the amount of US$ available for foreign banks to lend to their borrowers hungry for dollars, I am reminded that the real crisis we face is not the price of securities but the credit crisis resulting in very large part from the sub-prime lending practices that proliferated during the past 8 years of Republican-controlled government. During these same 8 years, the Federal Budget has gone from having a surplus to having record deficits.  The National Debt now stands at something over $9 trillion ($9,000,000,000,000).

This raises a question: to what extent is the Federal Government's voracious appetite for cash related to the current credit crisis?  I'm no economist, but I can't help believe that there must be a connection.  And if there is, then shouldn't this be part of the message that the Obama/Biden campaign needs to be communicating to the American people?

My 2 cents--cash on the barrel.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Is Recession Possible in a Networked Global Economy?

In a front-page article in today's New York Times, David Leonhardt notes that, "just as at the start of the summer, economists can't even agree whether the country is in a recession." 

On the face of it this is a stunningly absurd comment.  American industry continues to lay off thousands of employees, fuel costs are way up even as the speculative rise of oil prices has for the moment reversed itself, major financial companies are collapsing or being bought out by the federal government.  And economists can't decide if we're in a recession???   Maybe they can ask John McCain to set up a commission!

But in thinking about the idea of a recession, I wonder if perhaps this model no longer makes sense in a networked global economy fueled by financial theories and practices only made possible by the computations enabled by digital computing.  The metaphors of inflation, recession, and depression are based on an analog model of the economy, of the economy as a physical, even an organic, system.  Do these metaphors make sense for today's economy? 

Perhaps it would make more sense to think about the success or failure of today's economy in different terms, on the basis of models of networked connectivity and robustness.  The collapse of Fannie and Freddie, of Lehman Brothers or AIG--should we think of these as server crashes, as losses of connectivity, of a narrowing of broadbands of commerce and communication?  In a networked digital model, servers can crash and traffic can be re-routed.  One site may be down but other sites might continue to operate.

I'm not an economist--I'm just a media theorist who follows the news and thinks about things. So I am hardly in a position to explain what the implications would be of shifting the metaphors through which economists think about the economy.  But there is one thing I am in a position to say and one thing I want to make clear.  In suggesting that recession might no longer be possible in a networked global economy I do not mean to minimize the damage and pain caused by our current economic crisis.  Rather I mean the reverse.

Whether the economy can best be understood in analog or digital terms, it is clear that server crashes or network disruptions or other economic troubles cause real human pain.  In suggesting that the metaphors of inflation, recession, or growth might no longer be applicable to a networked digital economy I do not mean to minimize the destruction that the current formation of global capitalism has caused to our planet and its human and nonhuman inhabitants, but rather to suggest that by sticking to these outmoded analog metaphors, economists seem more like scholastic arguing about how many angels you can get on the head of a pin than they do like experts or authorities able to help us move forward through what are unarguably the worst economic times this country has seen since the Great Depression.


Monday, September 15, 2008

Cell Phone Anointing Miracle

Below is  video of Day 9 of a "Holy Spirit Awakening" that happened in May 2008 at MorningStar Fellowship Church in Fort Mill, SC.  This church is affiliated with Sarah Palin's home church in Wasilla.  But what is of particular interest for media theory is the way in which this spiritual awakening avails itself of premediated cell phone networks to spread the spirit of God and accompanying miracles.  Apparently similar miracles have been reported from people watching the webstream of MorningStar church services.

For more on Sarah Palin's connections to MorningStar and the "Third Wave/New Apostolic Reformation" movement, see  this article by Bruce Wilson.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

"Kill, Kill, Kill"/ "BYE BYE, BLING": On the Superiority of Print

Walter Benjamin and Siegfried Kracauer both commented on the cultural significance of the daily or weekly illustrated newspaper, whose juxtapositions of text, photography, and advertisements provided unprecedented insights into the contradictions of modernity.  A single page in today's national edition of the New York Times provides an example of the largely unconscious revelations available in print newspapers, revelations that are not visible, or non-existent, in the online edition of the Times.

Page 11 of the September 14, 2008, National Edition features articles with three headlines containing the word "kill," each of which reports on political violence in a different part of the Middle East.

1. "Palestinian Is Killed In a Clash With Israelis."

2. "Bomb Kills 8 Kurdish Soldiers, Inflaming an Iraqi Regional Dispute."

3. "A Bomb Blast Near Kabul Kills an Afghan Governor and 3 Others."

The first two headlines are at the top of the page; the third is just below the fold.  Above the fold (and thus above the third headline) is the following photograph, which accompanies the third article:

While the juxtaposition of three headlines of political violence in the Middle East with a graphic photograph of the wreckage of a car in which a provincial Afghan governor was killed by a suicide bomber is unsettling enough to encounter over a cup of Sunday morning coffee, the truly disturbing juxtaposition involves the advertisement that anchors the bottom third of the page.

A photograph of a large graduated diamond necklace on the right side of the ad accompanies the following text, in large caps: "BYE BYE BLING, HELLO POSSIBILITIES"  The ad, for a company called CIRCA, is not selling the necklace, but offering to buy it.  The text of the ad, in much smaller print, reads as follows:  "You never imagined letting go of something could be so rewarding.  As the only international jewelry buying house, CIRCA understands.  We give you power to transform yesterday's trinkets into tomorrow's treasures instantly.  Impeccable service and knowledgeable staff; with unprecedented pricing, CIRCA knows Change is Good."

One hardly knows where to begin.  Underneath the photograph of an Afghan man grieving over his dead relative, we read of how rewarding it is to let something go:   BYE BYE BLING, HELLO POSSIBILITIES.  A diamond necklace worth tens of thousands of dollars is characterized as "yesterday's trinket."  It would not be unreasonable to imagine that the circumstances that might put one in position to want to sell such a "trinket" could even be the death of a relative whose "trinket" it was.  "You never imagined letting go of something could be so rewarding."  And then the coup de grace of the final line, which remediates John McCain's remediation of Barack Obama's campaign slogan: "Change is Good."

To think seriously about this newspaper page is to think seriously about the possibility that the United States of America has gone insane.  That such obscene juxtapositions go unnoticed by those responsible for the layout of the Sunday Times, that the American public encounters without noticing such obscene incongruities as a matter of course on an everyday basis, cannot be dismissed as insignificant.  As Benjamin and Kracauer knew, the media formation of the illustrated print newspaper provided what Kracauer in a different context characterized as an ornament of mass culture.  But as print newspapers are increasingly giving way to online versions, we need to ask, in the words of the CIRCA ad, if letting go of print newspapers is indeed so rewarding.

For readers of the New York Times online, these juxtapositions would be invisible.  The three articles on page 11 appear in a list of clickable headlines on the "International" page of the online times.  The photograph of the bombed-out car and the grieving relative is visible only if one clicks on the article about the Afghan bomb blast.  And the CIRCA ad is nowhere to be found.  What are the effects of this difference in the Times reader's experience?   

To read the Times online is to be protected from the shock of these unintended juxtapositions. Maybe this is a good thing.  One doesn't need to be hammered with the juxtaposition of three headlines about killing in the Middle East.  One doesn't have to be assaulted by graphic photographs one doesn't choose to know about.  One doesn't need to be exposed to the hyper-capitalism of newspaper advertising.  As the CIRCA ad insists, maybe letting go of yesterday's media formation of the print newspaper has indeed let us transform the online newspaper into tomorrow's treasure.

Or maybe not.  Maybe something important is lost by the disappearance of these unintended juxtapositions.  Maybe it is important for us to be exposed to images that we might not choose to see, to be kept appraised of advertisements for products or services or points of view we may not be aware of or do not agree with.  While technophiles and marketing gurus have for the past two decades touted the glories of the customized consumer experiences made possible by networked digital media, maybe such customization is responsible for the fragmentation of our politics and society at the beginning of the twenty-first century.  

As I have argued elsewhere, in the years following the events of 9/11 print, televisual, and networked media have been increasingly preoccupied with pre-mediating the future so that the American public will not again have to experience the shock of a traumatic surprise like that they faced on September 11, 2001.  The print newspaper is a media formation that predates that shock and that persists beyond it.  Although the print newspaper reading public continues to dwindle in the face of digital newspaper formats, juxtapositions like those on page 11 of the September 14, 2008, Sunday Times provide perhaps the strongest argument why such "trinkets" should not be disposed of so quickly.  

Friday, September 12, 2008

Hurricane Ike, Premediation, and Extreme TV

In an earlier post I noted that hurricanes provide exemplary opportunities for premediation by especially televisual news media.  The lengthy period leading up to landfall provides for numerous opportunities to premediate future catastrophic events--evacuation, flooding, wind damage, looting, death, property damage, etc.  In the case of Hurricane Ike, this includes some interesting narratives about the impact on oil prices and potential oil shortages resulting from the disruption of oil refining in the Gulf and in the Gulf Coast states.  In fact CNN reports how cars are lining up at gas stations as far away as South Carolina, not in response to shortages that have already occured but in anticipation of shortages that are being premediated on TV.

CNN's 24/7 coverage of the impending landfall of Hurricane Ike provides another interesting example of the form this premediation takes.  On Friday, September 12, its ongoing coverage is being called "Extreme Weather"--presented as CNN's version of one of the newest televisual genres, "Extreme TV."  Epitomized by recent shows like Ice Road Truckers or The Deadliest Catch, extreme TV will be coming soon to the major networks as well.  What is interesting about CNN's coverage is that it not only remediates the concept of extreme TV, but its reporters on-site can be seen to remediate the formats of these shows as well, providing media coverage of extreme situations that are unavailable to the average viewer.  For example, CNN has set up its operation on-site at a Holiday Inn Express that has been evacuated; the CNN reporter bravely tells viewers that the management turned over the keys to the CNN crew.  Where the public and the property owners have evacuated, CNN presents its extreme weather coverage.  

CNN's "Extreme Weather" is only the latest example of a long line of news events that have been treated as if they were episodes of an ongling television series or mini-series.   As with other such examples, this is but the latest evidence of the ways in which news media continue to shift their focus from reporting on the present or recent past to premediating the future.  Even when they do report on what is happening live, as in the run-up to Hurricane Ike's landfall, they do so within a premediated format, in this case that of extreme TV.  Indeed the arrival of Hurricane season has become almost as regular and predictable as the arrival of football season.  And the premediated formats through which it is presented to the public on the Weather Channel and the various cable news networks have now become nearly as conventionalized and regulated as those that can be found on networks like ESPN and other major sports networks.  

Virtually Sarah Palin

Much energy on behalf of Democratic operatives and liberal bloggers has gone into the effort to discover and make public "the real Sarah Palin."  What this effort has failed to understand is that the real Sarah Palin is virtual: Sarah Palin is the first virtual candidate for the vice-presidency.

The search for the real Sarah Palin has operated on a variety of different fronts, in every case with the aim of making the American public aware of Palin's true positions on domestic, local, national, and international issues.  Networked, print, and televisual media have spent the past two weeks engaged in the enterprise of exposing contradictions and inconsistencies between her past positions and her campaign stump speech.  Scores of investigators have devoted themselves to digging up dirt from her personal life that would challenge the "hockey mom" narrative of a socially conservative mother of five turned governor of the largest state in the nation.  

Unsurprisingly, in light of the media anonymity in which the first-term governor of Alaska has lived and governed,  all of these efforts have born fruit.  The media has presented us with "Troopergate," the ethics probe into Governor Palin's alleged firing of a state employee for failing to fire her ex-brother-in-law, an Alaska state trooper.  We've learned that the repeated assertion in Palin's and John McCain's stump speeches that Palin opposes earmarks, particularly the infamous "bridge to nowhere" is a lie--Palin campaigned in support of the bridge and took the over $200 million of earmark money designated for the bridge and spent it on other Alaska projects.  The media has exposed Palin's questionable decision to claim "per diem" travel money for choosing to live at home rather than in the governor's residence in Juneau.  And we've heard numerous allegations about Palin and her family: that Palin's daughter is the real mother of Trig Palin; that Sarah Palin had an affair with her husband's business partner; that Track Palin, her 18-year-old son who has been lionized for his decision to join the military and his deployment to Iraq, is a drug-addicted thug, whose Oxycontin abuse was but one of the reasons his parents pressured him to enlist.  And the list of verified and alleged facts and contradictions goes on.

But all of these efforts to uncover the real Sarah Palin miss the point.  Palin is a virtual candidate, whose role in the campaign is to generate support for and increase the intensity of the McCain campaign by providing a source of potentiality and possibility onto which voters and the media can project their own beliefs and desires.  This virtual candidacy works by intensifying the affect of both McCain and Obama supporters, for whom the reality of Sarah Palin means and feels quite differently, and mobilizes and amplifies different premediated networks of practices, behaviors, and beliefs.  

This virtuality is epitomized in the brilliant way in which the McCain campaign has introduced Sarah Palin to the American media public.  For the first two weeks after the announcement of her selection she has been off-limits to the media, who have been prevented from interviewing her, from trying to determine what she really thinks, what her real capabilities are, how she thinks.  The McCain campaign has made her available through the narrative of the Republican Convention and through her joint campaign appearances with McCain, where she has repeated a series of lines drawn from or based upon her acceptance speech.  Both mainstream and participatory media have had to define her through her mediated traces on print, televisual, and networked media--videos, newspaper and magazine articles, political records, and so forth. A viral email from Ann Kilkenny, an Alaskan neighbor of Palin, epitomizes the way in which the search for the real Sarah Palin has proceeded.

After two weeks, however, Palin has finally been allowed to be interviewed by Charles Gibson, the ABC News anchor.  After the first night of a multi-part interview, the news about the real Sarah Palin is that she doesn't know what the Bush Doctrine is (the declaration in September 2002 that the US has the right to engage in preemptive warfare) and that she is equivocating about her earlier proclamation that global warming was not the result of human causes. Although in subsequent interviews it is likely that we will learn more about "the real Sarah Palin," the McCain campaign has staged these interviews to allow them to continue to mobilize the virtual Palin.  

Look at the interview structure, which is scheduled to take place over two days at different Alaskan locations.  On the first day Gibson interviewed Palin in two locations, sitting down inside somewhere and walking outdoors near a section of the Alaskan oil pipeline. Why these two different sites?  So that the McCain campaign can benefit from two different manifestations of the virtual Palin to determine how to deploy her in future media events, to allow different elements of their supporters to realize different aspects of Palin's virtuality.  This virtuality, it is important to emphasize has affective and bodily affordances.  How does Palin impact viewers while sitting across from Gibson, with her business skirt lying across her crossed legs above the knees?   What is the effect of her strolling with Gibson, showing him the technologized Alaskan landscape like a landed woman showing off her estate?  And of course, these different settings provide different video formats to be remediated in different media formations--on the campaign website, on TV ads, on networked print, televisual, and networked news. Furthermore, the multi-day format gives the McCain/Palin campaign the chance to recalibrate her message both in terms of its content and in terms of its affective qualities.  The ABC interview should not be understood as the first opportunity for the media to present the public with the real Sarah Palin, but rather the latest opportunity for the premediation of the virtual Sarah Palin.  This interview is less about what Palin has done or said, about what Palin knows, than it is about how Palin will be remediated by the McCain campaign and the media themselves in the less than two month before the 2008 election.

In focusing on what Palin really thinks or knows or believes or has done (on Sunday, CNN will present Joe Biden and Sarah Palin "revealed"), the media will continue to fail to recognize the way in which what she brings to the McCain campaign is her virtuality, not her reality, and that the search for the real Sarah Palin will do little or nothing to reduce the intensity of support that she brings to the Republican ticket.  The same is true of the Obama campaign.  Rather than continue to deploy their considerable resources on uncovering and exposing the real Sarah Palin, the Obama campaign needs to figure out how to reduce or redirect the affective intensity that the virtual Sarah Palin has brought to the presidential race, which can only be done by recognizing that it is precisely this virtuality that has brought Obama himself to the position he is in.  

To spend time responding or reacting to what Palin has said is to misunderstand what she brings to the McCain campaign, is like trying to catch a sunbeam or a soap bubble  The election of 2008, more intensively than any prior presidential election, hinges on the respective campaigns' abilities to premediate their candidates' (and the American people's) potentialities and virtuality rather than to present the most convincing case about the candidates' solutions to the realities of the global geopolitical situation that faces us today.  Or more precisely, the result hinges on convincing the public of the potentiality of the candidates to deal with the realities of the situation in which we find ourselves.  

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Obama vs. McCain: Social Networking vs. Reality TV

John McCain's selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate has been described in the media as a "game changer"--a decision that helps to clarify the sharp differences between the two candidates. What hasn't been recognized is the way in which the selection of Sarah Palin has framed the upcoming election as a battle between two different 21st-century media formations--social networking and reality TV.

Common wisdom has it that Barack Obama's victory over Hillary Clinton was due in large part to his campaign's technologically savvy deployment of social networking media to recruit supporters and register voters, raise money, and engage a swarm or "smart mob" of millions of volunteer activists in getting out the message and the primary vote. The build-up to Obama's vice-presidential choice, culminating in the announcement of Joe Biden via text-messaging, epitomized the bottom-up new media technologies that the Obama campaign has used to systematically remediate late 20th-century practices of presidential campaigning.

McCain's campaign, by contrast, has been criticized for failing to employ the internet and other new networked technologies to empower its supporters. As a self-avowed technological illiterate, McCain has failed to capitalize on social networking technologies to expand and mobilize his base. As a 21st-century man, however, McCain is not innocent of new media formations. He is reportedly addicted to his cellphone, to the point that his advisers have, like parents of a misbehaving teenager, had to restrict his usage of this new media technology.

While Obama employs the texting capabilities of cellphones as part of his social networking campaign, McCain uses the cellphone strictly for one-on-one interpersonal communication. The selection of Sarah Palin, however, reveals that it would be a mistake to dismiss McCain as someone who is unable to use new media formations in the service of his campaign. Her surprise selection, which elevated a woman virtually unknown to the US media audience to the overnight media celebrity of the Republican vice-presidential nominee, remediates the structure of reality TV shows that are also significant parts of our contemporary televisual media environment. The intensity of feeling surrounding the selection of Sarah Palin, manifested in the explosion of emotional commentary throughout the blogosphere, is virtually identical to the way in which the virtues and vices of reality TV contestants are debated on the internet by avid fans. Although many of us have been amazed to see how someone who was unknown to the American media public ten days ago can inspire such intense and widespread support (and criticism), this kind of public fan reaction has been premediated for more than a decade by the emergence of reality TV as arguably the dominant genre of serialized television in the first decade of the 21st century.

In some sense, one might want to frame this contest of media formations as a battle between past and present, old and new--a battle that mirrors the contrast between McCain and Obama. But this too would be a mistake. Sarah Palin's youthfulness reminds us that history works unevenly and is not in any strict sense progressive. Broadcast media have not been superseded by networked media--social networking has not eliminated other more top-down forms of collectivity. New technologies do not determine new media or social formations even if they enable new possibilities that could not have been actualized in the same way in other technological regimes.

The outcome of the 2008 presidential election will not determine which of these competing new media formations--social networking or reality TV--prevails in the future. Nor will the outcome be determined by which media formation is more powerful in contemporary American culture. But one thing is certain: the outcome of the 2008 presidential election will be impacted as much by the efficacy of competing media formations as it will by the differences between policy formations and party platforms.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Premediating Gustav, Remediating Katrina

Hurricanes are arguably the epitome of premediated news events. News coverage consists of a week or more of build-up as they are tracked from their emergence as tropical depressions in the Atlantic to their development into tropical storms and then finally their arrival as actual hurricanes headed towards landfall in the Gulf of Mexico or the Eastern seaboard of the US. In the run-up to landfall (or sometimes the turn away to the open seas), global print, televisual, and networked media coverage focuses exclusively on the virtual, premediating possible future paths along with the death, damage, and destruction that might lie ahead. More than any other natural disaster, hurricanes provide ample evidence that news media today are focused as much on the virtuality of the future as they are on the actuality of the present or recent past.

Hurricane Gustav proved particularly susceptible to premediation, both because it appeared headed directly towards New Orleans and because it appeared that its landfall would coincide with the beginning of the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul. Not only were news reporters preoccupied with questions about how New Orleans would withstand its second major hurricane in three years and how well the Bush administration would be prepared to deal with this hurricane, but political reporters found themselves addressing the question of how the hurricane headed for the mouth of the Mississippi would impact the Republican convention being held near its source.

This impact, of course, would not be a result of wind or storm surge or rain or tornadoes, but rather of media coverage. How would it look for the Republicans to be celebrating and attacking their Democratic opponents if New Orleans was once again flooded by broken levees and people were seen stranded, or worse dying, in Gustav's wake? Perhaps equally important, how much media coverage would the Republicans receive in the face of another Katrina-like disaster? When the first day of the Republican Convention was dramatically truncated in anticipation of Gustav's landfall on Monday morning, it was a clear example of how premediation of a hurricane could have an impact not unlike a hurricane itself, how the virtual Gustav could have a real impact on thousands of delegates, convention support people, transportation and communication networks, and of course the media themselves.

Gustav was particularly interesting because its premediation inevitably entailed the re-mediation of Katrina. Not only was Gustav's trajectory and intensity compared to Katrina's, but the response of local, state, and federal governments was measured against what had happened three years ago to the week. This remediation took many forms. It was a formal remediation in that the modes of coverage (maps, weather reporters, hurricane graphics, etc.) were similar to those of Katrina or most other hurricanes. It was a remediation as well of the political practices of evacuation and storm preparation that occurred prior to Katrina. But it was also a remediation in the sense that remediation involves the notion that new media forms mark improvements of older media forms, or remedies of past defects. This was most evident in the coverage of the rebuilt and reinforced levees, the new evacuation procedures, the enhanced generators at Tulane's hospital, and the preparations made by FEMA and the federal government.

Finally Gustav offered the Bush administration something of a "do-over," a chance to prove that it had learned the lessons of Katrina, that it had remediated its own approach to natural disasters. It also offered John McCain a chance to remediate his and Bush's response to Katrina by flying to the Gulf Coast with his vice-presidential selection, Sarah Palin, in advance of the hurricane's arrival, to demonstrate that he would be a president who could take charge in situations like this. And in cutting short the convention in advance of Gustav's landfall, he could underscore his claim to be concerned more with the welfare of the nation than with his own political ambitions. McCain himself sought to premediate his own presidential behavior through the remediation of Bush's belated and feeble response to Katrina.

As often happens in the case of premediation and virtuality, the real often emerges in ways quite different from its prior mediations. Gustav struck only a glancing blow. Sarah Palin, rather than demonstrating her heroism in the hurricane ended up disclosing her daughter's pregnancy and hiring an attorney to defend her in ethics charges in her home state. And George W. Bush, in his first statement after Gustav's landfall to the west of New Orleans, emphasized the importance of what we did after the hurricane struck, underscoring the need to make sure that the energy infrastructure of the Gulf oil industries was intact and urging the Congress to enact legislation opening offshore oilfields for immediate drilling. The Bush administration fails once again to remediate itself, preferring, as in the run-up to the Iraq War and the War Against Terror more broadly, the premediation of the future to the remediation of the present or recent past.