Last evening I received the following email from MoveOn.org (you probably did, too):
When I clicked on the link in the email, my web browser (like your's, but with a difference) opened to the following screen:
When I clicked on the video, here's what I saw and heard, which was similar to what you saw and heard:
MoveOn's decision to premediate an Obama defeat as a means of getting out the vote is simultaneously brilliant and risky. While it is clearly meant to be ironic, insulting voters to get them to the polls could be a dangerous move. But it is brilliant premediation, remediating the format of any number of political blogs to premediate a future that presumably no MoveOn supporter would ever want to experience. There are a number of deft touches, including a Dow under 8000 and an array of other stories below the window pictured above that premediate the consequences of an Obama defeat in a mixture of semi-serious and tongue-in-cheek stories:
Whether this works as a get-out-the-vote strategy will probably be impossible to determine. But what is undeniable is that it is a brilliant example of premediation, another example of the predominance of premediation as the post-9/11 media regime. But where the Bush administration worked with the print, televisual, and networked media in 2002 and 2003 to manipulate the public to support the Iraq War, MoveOn is employing premediation in an attempt to mobilize voters to act to put the opposition party in power, not by premediating an Obama victory, but an Obama defeat. Let's hope it works.
Whenever I feel down about the prospects of an Obama victory, I click on FiveThirtyEight.com: Electoral Projections Done Right. The reassuring blue-and-red pie-charts showing Obama with more than 340 electoral votes, a 93% chance of an Obama victory, and a projection of as many as 57 Democratic senate seats always calm my nerves. As I drill down the site to monitor the latest national and state-by-state polls, the super-poll tracker, the graph of simulated electoral vote distributions, and the reassuring scenario analyses, I am almost instantly reassured about the sanity of my fellow Americans.
FiveThirtyEight.com is to my mind the smartest of the various websites that correlate polling data from across the country. And so far at least the most reassuring. I've been meaning for a while to say something about this phenomenon, in particular about the relationship between polling, projection, and premediation.
According to Wikipedia, the first presidential electoral poll was a straw vote taken in 1824, which (incorrectly) showed Andrew Jackson defeating John Quincy Adams. Such polls or straw votes are indicative of the nearly universal human desire to predict or foresee what will transpire in the future. But I would be reluctant to call such polls early versions of premediation, which I have tried consistently to distinguish from prediction on the basis of the more open, creative, and potential nature of premediation.
I have also tried to underscore the formal features of premediation, the way in which premediation invariably involves the remediation of the future in a mediated format meant to be indistinguishable from the remediation of the present or recent past. Thus the formal conventions through which weather maps forecast a hurricane, a blizzard, or a heat wave are very different from the way in which those meteorological events are reported as and after they occur. Insofar as polling or projection manifests itself in a media format different from that in which the election will be presented when it occurs, it is not in a strict sense premediation.
The remarkable proliferation of polls and projections in the age of networked digital media, however, is clearly of a piece with the overall cultural orientation towards the future that the concept of premediation is meant to mark. And when those electoral projections are remediated in precisely the same graphic media formats that will be used on election day and beyond, premediation is clearly at work. Thus on CNN John King has been premediating the results of the upcoming election using precisely the same interactive mapping technologies he used for the primaries, which allow him to write on the map like John Madden using a telestrator and to zoom in to precinct level with technology identical to that of Google Maps.
The affective power of premediation is, I would argue, undeniable. What makes FiveThirtyEight.com so reassuring, however, is not only the information it presents about Obama's lead in multiple state and national polls. Indeed, I would argue that the reassuring affect that this site invariably produces in me is hardly due to the data it furnishes at all--as I already know most of this data from reading newspapers, watching cable news, and surfing the web. What makes this site so reassuring is its conventionalized map of the United States, showing a predominance of blue states in exactly the same media format as I expect it to appear on the evening of November 4, or perhaps the morning of November 5, when we learn that Barack Hussein Obama has been elected the 44th president of the United States of America.
I really wonder if we're going to get more of these kind of desperate racist expressions as Obama's election seems more and more inevitable. And, of course, the real worry is whether these kinds of things will haunt an Obama presidency for its duration.
To follow up on my last two posts, here is a premediated link to McCain's weekly radio address (posted on the web, as is customary, before the address is broadcast), in which he deploys Joe the Plumber again, using him to explicitly call Obama a socialist.
Joe the Plumber, McCain's version of Sarah Palin's Joe Six-Pack, is McCain's way of suggesting that Obama is a communist.
As McCain repeated in a Pennsylvania rally the day after the third and final debate, Obama's problematic answer to Joe the Plumber's question about his taxes was that Obama "wanted to spread Joe's wealth around." To criticize Obama for wanting to spread Joe's wealth around is another way to scare Americans about Obama's communism, joining the campaign's efforts to paint him (or have him painted) as a terrorist, an extreme liberal, a Muslim, an un-American other.
Not content to be compared to George Wallace, McCain may now have set out to see if he could be compared to Joe McCarthy. If he succeeds, he will have another opportunity to be indignant, and another opportunity to scare Americans from choosing Obama when they get into the voting booth.
Jeffrey Feldman reports that McCain volunteers are being taught to accuse Obama of terrorism by coaching them to tell potential voters that both Osama bin Laden and Barack Hussein Obama have "friends who bombed the Pentagon." The obvious lie in this historically inaccurate statement (William Ayers, Obama's "friend," never bombed the Pentagon and Obama was only a child, who obviously did not know Ayers, when the Weather Underground contemplated such an act) is scandalous.
From a medialogical perspective, however, what is most worthy of note about this lie is the way in which McCain volunteers are being taught to premediate the election of Barack Obama as the victory of Osama bin Laden over the United States. This builds upon the virtual racism I have described in earlier posts, with an aim towards premediating an Obama presidency as a way to frighten voters into changing their minds when they step into the polling booth.
As The Daily Show brilliantly dramatizes in a montage of premediation on Fox News, this orientation towards the voting booth is clearly laid out when, after the second debate, when the majority of a Fox debate-watching focus group raised its hands to say that Obama won the debate. "So, Obama clearly looks like the winner tonight," the Fox "reporter" concluded, "The key is not who they like. The key is who they're going to vote for."
All campaigns attempt to premediate the negative consequences of a victory by their opponents. What seems different as the McCain campaign pushes towards November 4 is the increased emphasis on the moment of voting or the moment of waking up the morning after to a world in which Barack Hussein Obama is the president-elect of the US of A.
PBS news anchor Ray Suarez has recently claimed that "religion has become a proxy for race" in the presidential campaign, with the invocation of Barack Obama's middle name serving to rekindle doubts about his faith, to paint him as a Muslim. Suarez points out that the "pseudo controversies" about Obama's background are representative of a "racial calculus" at work.
As I suggested yesterday, this racial calculus can be understood as a kind of premediated virtual racism, which works not by making an explicitly racist claim at the moment of utterance but by premediating racist doubts about Obama that will come to the fore in the voting booth on November 4. In the past couple of days two Republican surrogates have referred to "Barack Hussein Obama" in introducing Palin or McCain. In each of these instances, I would maintain, it is no accident that Obama's middle name is employed in the context of a mention of the date of the election.
Before Sarah Palin appeared at a rally in Estero, Fla., on Tuesday, one of the speakers introducing her used Obama’s middle name in the context of Election Day. “On Nov. 4,” yelled fully uniformed Lee County (Fla.) Sheriff Mike Scott, “let’s leave Barack Hussein Obama wondering what happened!”
The next day, William Platt, the local GOP chairman in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, introduced McCain at a Lehigh University rally. The gist of his comment, which reporters weren't able to tape because they were entering the venue as he was speaking, was: "Imagine if you woke up on November 5th and Barack Obama - Barack Hussein Obama - was our new president, and you knew you could have volunteered to prevent it." Here premediating Obama's election is meant as a form of electoral preemption, urging McCain supporters to act preemptively to prevent Obama's election.
These will not be the last premediations of virtual racism that we see in the days and weeks leading up to the election. And, as McCain's "That One" remark at the debate attests, the racism may become more and more explicit as November 4 approaches. But in all of these cases, what is telling is that they are oriented towards the future, premediating the fearful prospect of waking up on November 5 to the election of Barrack Hussein Obama as the 44th President of the United States.
I have focused much of my discussion of premediation on its negative uses by the Bush Administration, or the print, networked, and televisual news media, or more recently the McCain-Palin campaign. But premediation can also work as a progressive strategy. Take, for example, "An Inconvenient Truth," Al Gore's multi-media assemblage of PowerPoint slideshow, Hollywood feature documentary, website (http://www.climatecrisis.net/), book, policy center, audio CD, or educational guide for K-16 teachers. Gore has brilliantly premediated numerous different but related potential ecological catastrophes that are resulting, and that might result, from global warming (or climate change).
"An Inconvenient Truth" is but one of the more spectacular instances of a progressive premediated Gesamtkunstwerk--with Neil Young's "Living With War" a less grandiose but perhaps medialogically more self-conscious instance. And then of course there are the more everyday forms of progressive premediation like MSNBC, featuring "Countdown With Keith Olbermann" and the super-smart "Rachel Maddow Show." What Olbermann's "Countdown" format makes especialy clear, with its ticking clock and its quotidianly apocalyptic orientation to a future that is also each night an end of time, is the way in which the print, televisual, and networked news media have refashioned their temporal orientation from the immediacy of the present or recent past to the virtuality of the present or near future.
Each news medium, then, aims not only to report on what has just happened or what is happening now but more crucially on what is about to happen (or not) in the future. Different news stories, formats, and programs premediate the news in different ways, working in the process to mobilize readers, viewers, or participants to move towards some particular kinds of futures rather than others. As I have elsewhere suggested, one of the key ways through which news and other media premediate particular futures is through encouraging or intensifying shared affective and political stances among members of particular collectivities, multitudes, or sociotechnical networks.
We live today in a media world that is inexorably oriented towards and moving into an array of potential futures, an ecology of media which Niklas Luhmann might describe as a self-regulating system which is repeatedly destabilized by the irritants of new events and which attempts to restabilize itself through the proliferation of premediated futures. Although Luhmann's description of this systemic oscillation between stabilized and destabilized states sounds linear and schematic, this does not have to be the case. If we remember that these oscillations occur simultaneously in multiple sociotechnical and geopolitical sites and in heterogeneous media forms and practices, we can see that Luhmann offers a useful way to make sense of one of the mechanisms through which premediation operates but that his account must be supplemented, as in my understanding it invariably is, with other accounts that take up both questions of individual and collective affect and questions of the agency of assemblages or collectivities of humans and non-humans.
It is safe to say, then, that we watch a progressive network like MSNBC not, as many critics of polemically oriented news networks complain, so that we can learn what we already know, but so that we can in some sense feel what we already feel about the assemblage of humans and non-humans that make up our worlds. Or, more precisely, we watch or read news in print, televisual, or networked media not only to attune our political affects to the affective states of others but also to attune our affective politics to the issues, positions, and policies either of particular networks, whether CNN, Fox, MSNBC, PBS, or BBC, or increasingly to such individual programs as "The Daily Show," "The Colbert Report," "Real Time with Bill Maher," or "Saturday Night Live."
Evil Tongue has a scathing indictment of McCain for calling Obama "That One" in last night's debate. ET contextualizes the remark in the context of John and Cindy McCain's adopted daughter Bridget, who was herself used by the Bush team as an object of attack against McCain in the 2000 campaign. Check it out.
What struck me as also offensive about the phrase, including McCain's affective intonation and embodiment, was its "virtual racism," the way in which it offered a not-so-distant echo of the gestural expression one might hear from a slave buyer at an auction. In the context of the thinly veiled racism of Sarah Palin's current stump speech, which abjects Obama as a terrorist sympathizer who is not one of us, McCain's performative remediation of the slave-owner is aimed at fostering or producing racist fears in voters, not only at the present moment but, for the McCain campaign more importantly, in the voting booths on November 4.
This "virtual racism" deploys a deliberate strategy of premediation. Neither Palin or McCain is making particular charges about Obama's racial make-up (though McCain's "That One" nearly crosses the line). In fact there is no coherent narrative about Obama at all. Instead the McCain campaign tries to throw out into the mainstream and informal media-spheres hundreds of potential irritants that might produce in voters different forms of negative racist affect towards the idea of a President Obama.
Palin's current stump speech in particular sets out to proliferate potential racist affects so that undecided voters, or even weak Obama supporters, might find themselves turning away from Obama as they went to the polls. McCain-Palin's power to prompt powerful racial affects is evidenced in the outbursts provoked from Palin supporters at recent campaign events, including calling "the real Barack Obama" a "terrorist," screaming "treason" and "kill him," and telling an African-American sound man to "Sit down, boy." The campaign strives to maintain deniability, but importantly has yet to denounce or even to address these remarks.
To underscore the strategies of premediation and virtuality at work in these racist attacks is not, as I hope is clear, to minimize or to dismiss them. Indeed, precisely to the contrary, I call attention to these strategies because they are among the most powerful ways in which mediality works at the present historical moment to mobilize the collective affective intensities of citizens, consumers, media audiences, and other multitudes or assemblages. It is important to identify these strategies if we are to successfully resist or oppose them.
Richard Grusin is the former Director of the Center for 21st Century Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he is a Professor of English. He is co-author of Remediation: Understanding New Media (MIT 1999). His newest book is Premediation: Affect and Mediality in America after 9/11 (Palgrave 2010).