Thursday, December 31, 2009

NCTC's Failure to Premediate Terrorism

This morning the Grey Lady featured two front-page stories on the failure of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) to uncover and prevent the plot, sponsored by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), to blow up Northwest Flight 253 on Christmas Day. The first, "Spy Agencies Failed to Collate Clues on Terror," detailed the failure of the NSA and other affiliated organizations to "connect the dots" about the plot. The second, "Shadow of 9/11 Is Cast Again," analyzed the way in which the NCTC, described as "the crown jewel of intelligence reform after the September 11, 2001, attacks," repeated the mistakes made before 9/11, mistakes which the NCTC had been established precisely to avoid.

The categories with which the Times analyzed this failure, which most likely mirror those with which the NSA approaches the problem of preventing terrorist attacks, were by now familiar and were focused predictably on treating the problem as one of data and information and detection: the NCTC didn't "connect the dots"; they hadn't "assembled the clues"; they failed in their "mission to unite every scrap of data"; they didn't "put the pieces of the puzzle together." Unfortunately, the problem with this approach, like the problem with pre-9/11 security, is that it focuses on the future in terms of probability not potentiality, as a problem of prediction rather than premediation. In other words the thinking of the NSA seems focused on identifying and disrupting plots that already exist rather than premediating potential plots that could, but might never, materialize. Sadly this posture bears a tragic similarity to the way in which the US military seems always to be fighting the last war against Al Qaeda, while Al Qaeda has already moved on to the next one or the one after that.

In other words, the NSA and NCTC have failed to approach the problem of preventing terrorism as a problem of premediation. What this means on the one hand is that they continue to approach the problem as one of trying to identify connections that already exist among the terabytes of data they possess rather than trying to generate from that data as many possible future scenarios as they can. But what it means more sigificantly is that they continue to pursue the problem in terms of data or information rather than in terms of affectivity or structures of feeling. For what seems most telling about the report that the father of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the accused bomber, visited the US Embassy in Nigeria to express concerns about his son’s radicalization, is not that he came with specific data about a possible plot, but with an affectivity of concern over his son's recently radicalized affect. Taken as data or information, this report failed to trigger a security alert. Taken for what it was, an affective premediation, it might have.

Of course, as we now know so well, profiling of all sorts is a regular tool of governmental and private security organizations, which would seem to make this failure to premediate even more curious. After all, the aim of profiling (what Ryan Bingham jokingly trivializes as "stereotyping" in Up in the Air) is to predict future behavior on the basis of demographic and other personal characteristics. But like connecting the dots or assembling the clues, profiling relies largely on a model of data and information, which imagines the future as inevitably knowable and always on the verge of being fixed or determined. Such an approach is focused chiefly on using the past to predict the future. What premediation provides is an alternative model in which the potentiality of the future is used to impact the present. If the affective potentiality reported by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's father had somehow been deployed to premediate potential futures, the NCTC and the NSA might have been in a much better position to have prevented his son from ever having boarded NWA flight 253.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Al Qaeda, Cancer, and the Obama Doctrine of Preemption

I have seen surprisingly little discussion in the print, televisual, and networked media of President Obama's rhetorical decision to characterize the Al Qaeda threat in Pakistan and Afghanistan in terms of the metaphor of cancer, which he introduced just past the half-way point of the speech:

"We're in Afghanistan to prevent a cancer from once again spreading through that country. But this same cancer has also taken root in the border region of Pakistan. That's why we need a strategy that works on both sides of the border."

This metaphor is troubling for any number of reasons. It participates in the long human history of characterizing one's enemies as threats to the health of one's own nation or state--such terms as vermin, parasites, and plagues have historically been employed to unite a nation against its enemies and to make it easier for soldiers to kill other humans. This kind of dehumanization is often coupled with racism or xenophobia, as was the case in Nazi Germany, in Vietnam, and in recent and ongoing military campaigns against Islamic nations. In characterizing Al Qaeda and the Taliban as cancers, Obama sadly opens the door for increased Islamophobia.

The cancer metaphor is also of concern for the way in which it medicalizes the threat of terrorism in order to naturalize or take for granted the need to eradicate it. I mean, who would simply let a cancer spread or metastasize if we could contain it through radiation, chemotherapy, or surgical removal? Choosing to characterize the threat as a cancer presumes one set of approaches to the problem and precludes many others. For example, it undercuts the possibility of seeing either Al Qaeda or the Taliban as having any legitimate concerns and it rules out the possibility of making an argument about the culpability of the US or the West in the development of these different, but at this point interrelated, organizations.

It is perhaps ironic in light of the current administration's focus on health care reform at home that Obama chooses to justify his deployment of additional troops as a form of preventive health care aimed at saving not only lives but billions of dollars in future medical expenses. Painting himself as the good physician, Obama sees no choice but to remove this cancerous invader in order to prevent it from spreading even further. Indeed it might not be going too far to say that the discourse of health care reform serves in some non-trivial sense as a premediation of Obama’s Afghanistan strategy.

Perhaps the most disheartening aspect of Obama's cancer metaphor, however, is that it seeks to provide rhetorical cover for the disturbing fact, pointed out by The American Conservative, that the Obama Administration has endorsed and continues to perpetuate the Bush Doctrine of preemptive warfare, which the Bush-Cheney administration used to justify the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, a military action that initiated the war that Obama has only intensified in the past year. Although rhetorically different from its manifestation during the Bush-Cheney Administration, premediation will continue to furnish the dominant media logic of the Obama Doctrine of preemptive military care.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

FlashForward and V: The Media's Desire for Another 9/11

Last night ABC (the American Broadcasting Corporation) showed the pilot episode of the second of its two new series which exemplify the US media’s ongoing concern with premediation: FlashForward and V. Tellingly, the first commercial break in V’s pilot episode anticipates the November 13 release of 2012, the latest instance of Hollywood's cinematic premediation, based on the belief that the Mayan calendar predicts that the world will end in 2012. All of these televisual and cinematic premediations (and there are countless more, in print media like comics and fiction as well as in other audiovisual media), manifest the media's powerful desire for another 9/11, another global catastrophe or terrorist event. Let me explain.

Most obviously each of these new television shows pre-mediates a potential global catastrophe. In FlashForward, this catastrophe is depicted as a period of the missing two minutes and 17 seconds, during which every person on the planet blacks out and experiences a piece of their lives exactly six months in the future. In the most obvious sense, this is a form of individualized premediation, extended on a global scale. Very quickly, a website named Mosaic is set up (with the obvious reference to the first popularly successful web browser of the same name), which allows people to share their flashforwards so that, through the use of social networking, people can construct a comprehensive premediation of what will be happening six months from the blackout. One of the key questions that the show addresses is whether these flashforwards are predetermined to happen or whether knowing about them can enable people to change or avoid them. Indeed one of the final commercial breaks for the season premiere of V, unsurprisingly for the next episode of FlashForward, contains the tagline: “How far would you go to prevent the future?”

FlashForward clearly participates in the current cultural desire to premediate potential futures before they happen as a way to shape action in the present (as the Bush-Cheney administration’s incessant premediation of the war in Iraq in print, televisual, and networked media helped to make that war inevitable). But in some sense V promises to reflect the more interesting aspects of premediation, particularly the way in which media today work to modulate individual and collective affect.

Like FlashForward, V portrays a global catastrophe, the simultaneous arrival of huge spacecraft, which hover over major cities across the globe. The bottom of each craft is transformed into an enormous media screen on which the telegenic face of a white female Visitor speaks reassuringly to the world about the delight of the Visitors (as they call themselves) in finding other intelligent life in the universe and about the Visitors’ peaceful aims (“We come in peace, always”). Unlike the blackout, which marks a breakdown of connectivity (though automated surveillance satellites and security cameras continue to operate, providing key elements of the narrative), the arrival of the Visitors provides an ongoing global media event. This media event works to modulate collective affect by spreading feelings of peace and happiness through its “spread hope” website and other forms of social networking, aided by the establishment of Visitor Healing Centers which can miraculously cure innumerable diseases. Unlike the death, destruction, and overall terror prompted by the unexplained global blackout in FlashForward, the arrival of the Visitors initially prompts individual and collective feelings of faith, happiness, and well-being.

Of course, being television and all, these feelings of happiness cannot last. Before the pilot episode is over, we are introduced to the fact that the Visitors are really reptilian creatures in human skin (wolves in sheep clothing). The Visitors, we learn, have come to earth as terrorists. There are sleeper cells already in place on the planet. There are even Visitors who have turned traitor and are actively, if surreptitiously, waging counter-terrorism against their fellow Visitors and encouraging counter-insurgency among humanity. We will have to see how the plot unfolds, but V runs the risk of turning into a less interesting alien version of Sleeper Cell, the smart but short-lived (two seasons) Showtime series that followed the formation and disruption of Islamic terrorist sleeper cells in post-9/11 LA.

In claiming that these two new American television series (and other print, televisual, and cinematic examples) premediate global media catastrophes, I want to make two different but related points. First, as I have been arguing for the past several years, and as I argue in more detail in my forthcoming book, in the post-9/11 era all forms of media have participated in the premediation of future catastrophic events as a way of preparing the media public to deal affectively with the threats and uncertainties of a world filled with potential geopolitical, ecological, or financial apocalypse—to provide some kind of at least affective control over events that they have no other way to influence or prevent. Indeed, the premediation of post-apocalyptic scenarios has become widespread in mainstream and alternative media. The premediation of potential future catastrophes in V and FlashForward function, I would argue, less as specific predictions or representations of future events than as attempts to perpetuate individual and collective affectivity towards the anticipation of an uninterrupted, if potentially threatening, future.

Second, as I contended in my initial paragraph, premediations like V and FlashForward also express the media’s ongoing desire for another 9/11, another global media catastrophe. In making this claim, I am not suggesting that humanity or the media desire the end of the world, or a repetition of the large-scale death and destruction brought about by the events of 9/11 and other similar terrorist attacks in Spain, England, or India. Rather I am suggesting that our media desire a repetition of the intense, global media connectivity and shared, collective affectivity that was experienced during the attacks of 9/11, as well as the shared sense of purpose, mainly in the US but also to a large extent across the world, felt in the aftermath of 9/11. And that this desire is motivated of course in large part, but not exclusively, by the media industry's desire for an increased audience share, for more eyeballs on the screen, and the revenue stream that results. It is precisely this desire, I would argue, that has shifted the orientation of our print, televisual, and networked news media from its historical focus on the present and recent past to its preoccupation with the present and near future, as well as bringing about the proliferation of print, televisual, and cinematic premediations of future global catastrophes epitomized by FlashForward and V. By promoting an affectivity of anticipation (“next,” “coming soon,” “stay tuned”) media of all sorts seek to repeat the intense, collective global medial experience brought about by the events of 9/11.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

FBI's Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide to Premediation

An article in today's New York Times reports that the FBI has released its "Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide" as a consequence of a Freedom of Information suit. The article makes it clear that the FBI is authorized to commence investigations not only on evidence of actions that threaten national security but more importantly on the premediation of actions that might threaten national security.

Valerie Caproni, the FBI's general counsel, makes this point explicit: "'Those who say the F.B.I. should not collect information on a person or group unless there is a specific reason to suspect that the target is up to no good seriously miss the mark,'" Ms. Caproni said. 'The F.B.I. has been told that we need to determine who poses a threat to the national security — not simply to investigate persons who have come onto our radar screen.'"

The FBI manual encourages agents to premediate potential security threats, authorizing them "to open an 'assessment' to 'proactively' seek information about whether people or organizations are involved in national security threats." That is, rather than investigating national security threats that have already "come onto [their] radar screen," agents are encouraged to premediate threats that may not already exist.

The metaphor of the "radar screen" is telling, as radar is a real-time technology of monitoring or surveillance linked closely with the media formations and disciplinary apparatus in place when the FBI emerged in the beginning of the twentieth century. No longer tied to monitoring national security threats in real time, the FBI is now empowered to open assessments and conduct investigations based on its premediation of potential security threats in the future. Rather than using technologies of audio-visual surveillance to spot such threats, FBI agents now use technologies of premediation to incite, encourage, or enable individuals to join potential terrorist plots.

This move from surveillance to premediation, from constraining or preventing terrorist behavior to encouraging or enabling it, characterizes the emergence of the current regime of securitization. I describe the distinction between surveilance and securitization in a passage from my forthcoming book: "As opposed to fundamentally disciplinary technologies like surveillance, confinement, and constraint, which aim to 'predict, survey, [and] prohibit' potentially illicit or disruptive activities in order to maintain social and political control, technologies of securitization aim to let happen, open up, and circulate, to encourage mobility and the proliferation of transactions of transportation, communication, and mediation."

Paradoxically, the new powers granted to the FBI in its Domestic Investigations and Operation Guide do not constrain individual freedom of movement, collaboration, or assembly, as would have been the aim of an earlier disciplinary regime of surveillance, but rather encourage it in the name of premediating threats to the nation's security that have yet to, and may never, materialize. And it is precisely on the basis of their potentiality that such threats will be assessed and may eventually become the objects of "preliminary" or "full" investigations.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Premediation Gaming

H/T to Ian Bogost for this link to an online game premediating armed resistance to an attempted coup by the Obama administration. This fear echoes my own and others about the Bush administration failing to surrender power on 1/20/09. Indeed at the end of 2007 I was paranoid enough to create and post a video expressing my fears. After seven years of the greatest arrogation of executive power in the history of the United States, I had some reason to be concerned. After less than a year of Obama's obsessive search for bipartisanship, the makers of The United States of Earth seem nothing but loony. Here is Huffington Post's take on the matter.

Cyberculture Seminar Description

ENG 7035—CYBERCULTURE (Richard Grusin)

This seminar will study cyberculture as a historical phenomenon, dating roughly from the publication of William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) until the late 1990s. For purposes of the course, we will define cyberculture as the cultural response to the introduction of networked personal computers, particularly in the US and Canada, but with attention to European and Japanese responses as well. We will begin with the emergence of cybernetics in the mid-20th century, then proceed to sketch out the connections between the counter-culture of the 1960s and 1970s and the emergence of cyberculture in the 1980s. We will study a variety of print, audiovisual, and networked media forms, including cyberpunk fiction and film and online cyberculture. The seminar will conclude with a survey of the academic development of cyberculture studies in the 1990s.

By studying cyberculture historically we will attempt to identify its cultural, medial, and theoretical particularity—not only as it differs from our current understandings of mobile, socially networked digital media, but also as it shares with and in some sense premediates our current media practices and theories. Cyberculture emerged according to what Jay Bolter and I characterize as the double logic of remediation—a logic of immediacy in which individuals interact with each other through immersion in cyberspace, free from the mediation of bodies, language, or institutions, and a logic of hypermediacy which celebrates the hybridity of the cyborgian human-machine interface. But cyberculture can also be seen to mark an early formation of what I have since 2003 been describing as our current era of premediation, in which print, televisual, and networked media are increasingly concerned not with the remediation of the past, or the immersion in the present, but with the pre-mediation of the future. For in addition to exemplifying the double logic of remediation, cyberspace articulates a logic of premediation in its insistent preoccupation with the future of digital, networked computing.

Several questions will govern our work in the seminar, beginning with “Whither cyberculture?” Was cyberculture a passing historical formation? Or like the counter-culture of the 1960s, has it largely been incorporated by postmodern capitalism into mainstream media culture? Put another way, is cyberculture dead or has it morphed into a new social media formation, perhaps becoming the latest form of participatory media in an age marked by premediation?

In addition to regularly scheduled face-to-face seminar meetings, we will experiment with forms of synchronous and asynchronous communication that helped to vitalize cyberculture and cyberculture studies in the 1980s and 1990s. Students will be expected to write regular short pieces leading to a final seminar project on some aspect of cyberculture growing out of the concerns of the course.

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.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Preemption to Prevention : Bush to Obama

Glenn Greenwald provides a thorough FAQ about the contexts and consequences of Obama's suggestion in yesterday's speech at the National Archive, that the US might need to institute "preventive detention" as a security strategy to protect the US from terrorist threats, particularly threats from Al Qaeda. As critics from the left and the libertarian right have quickly noted, the institutionalization of indefinite preventive detention would provide the US president with far more power to detain without trial so-called enemies of the nation than was ever granted to the Bush or any previous administration.

I count myself among the ranks of those who oppose preventive detention. As the medio-political blogosphere is loudly and correctly objecting, this policy would violate fundamental principles of the US Constitution. What is most interesting about preventive detention for me, however, is the way it indicates the persistence of premediation in the age of Obama.

Premediation furnishes the media regime for the Obama administration's preventive approach to terrorism as it did the Bush Administration's doctrine of preemption. In the case of Obama's prevention as of Bush's preemption, government security action (or "pre"action) is triggered not by an act of terrorism that has been committed in the past, nor by any specific threat or plan or plot to commit terrorism that presently exists, but by the potential to commit terrorism in the future.

Premediated terrorism takes no specific or particular form, and may never come about--or perhaps it may. But in the case of preventive detention it is immaterial if the terrorist threat is actual or not. It is a virtual terrorism that has real (which is to say virtual) consequences. The potential to commit virtual terrorist acts against the US may have as one of its consequences the triggering of US security action, the indefinite preventive detention of the virtual terrorist. Like Brian Massumi's characterization of the primacy of preemption in the Bush era, Obama's prevention comes prior to, or precedes, the terrorist action it would prevent. Prevention operates within a realm of premediated security--securitization, or security action, is triggered by the premediation of potential terrorism rather than the mediation (or remediation) of ongoing or completed terrorist acts.

The political conseqences of preventive detention are horrifying. Medialogically, however, the consequences of prevention are in some sense business as usual. At the present historical moment mediation is oriented persistently towards ongoing futures which can only emerge through the present and into the past by being subtracted or selected from an amorphous and indefinite field of other potential futures. Which is to underscore that premediation was not invented by the Bush administration but creatively deployed by them, particularly during the Cheney-Bush years from 2001-2005--and that premediation persists virtually into any number of potential future media regimes.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Transparency and Affectivity

Yesterday's decision by the Obama administration to bar the release of more than 2000 additional photos of detainee abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan has been criticized from the left by groups like the ACLU as an about-face in Obama's earlier claim that these photos would be released. Refusing to release these photographs, Obama's critics argue, makes a mockery of his avowed commitment to "transparency" in government. Obama justified his decision to keep these photos from the public by arguing that “The publication of these photos would not add any additional benefit to our understanding of what was carried out in the past by a small number of individuals. . . .  In fact, the most direct consequence of releasing them, I believe, would be to further inflame anti-American opinion and to put our troops in greater danger.” 

"Transparency" is indeed the crux of the issue here, but not in the way that the ACLU (or perhaps the Obama administration) understands it. What underwrites the ACLU's position is a commitment to the idea that photographs provide transparent evidence of unconscionable, illegal behavior by US soldiers. For the ACLU photographs are understood chiefly as evidentiary; the right of the public to know about their government's behavior is the fundamental principle on which their argument rests. This right to know is more important than considerations about the consequences of making the photographs public. Transparency, not affectivity, is foremost for the ACLU.  

For the Obama administration, on the other hand, knowledge of the existence of the photographs and the kinds of behavior they show is enough. Or perhaps more accurately, the need for the American public to have photographic evidence of this behavior is outweighed by the global affective and military consequences that releasing these photographs would produce. Obama's argument for withholding the photographs is based not upon what the photographs depict, about the knowledge they would provide about unlawful, inhuman behavior by US soldiers, but about how the photographs would act in the world as media artifacts.  The photos "would not add any additional benefit to our understanding," he insists, but would "further inflame anti-American opinion" and endanger "our troops." Affectivity, not transparency, guides Obama's decision to bar the release of these photographs. 

My aim in unpacking the assumptions underlying this debate is not to make a strong case either for or against the release of the photographs (although as an academic scholar I generally tend to favor accessibility to and availability of the historical record). Rather I invoke this debate because of its affinities to the argument I make about Abu Ghraib in my forthcoming book--that the outrage produced by the release and distribution of the Abu Ghraib photographs derived less from their evidentiary transparency than from their affectivity as media artifacts. Obama's justification for barring the release of these 2000-plus additional photographs, because of their affective potential to inflame anti-American opinion and thus further endanger US troops, restages part of my argument about the Abu Ghriab photographs--that their powerful global impact can be explained less by what they showed the public than by what they did. While I have sympathy with the ACLU's arguments about transparency of government I find their single-minded focus on the evidentiary transparency of the photographs to be medialogically naive.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Pandemic Premediation (Cont.)

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

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

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

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

Pandemic Premediation

It hardly bears saying, but I'll say it anyway. The swine flu pandemic is just the latest instance of premediation in the global print, televisual, and networked media. As is its current practice, news media are focusing their "reporting" of the swine flu pandemic less on what has happened than on what might. True, news media are reporting on the present and recent past--most notably the roughly 100 deaths in Mexico, the serious responses by the Mexican government and populace, and the reported new cases of the flu in the US, Canada, and other nations around the globe. But the bulk of the new coverage is on what might happen--on the future-oriented WHO and CDC declarations of medical emergencies or alerts, on the possibility of shutting down global travel, or on a global outbreak of a swine flu pandemic.

The premediation of this pandemic performs two functions: to create a low level of anxiety and to warn the public for the possibility of a pandemic that might never happen so that whether or not it does happen they will already have been affectively prepared. We are, in other words, already experiencing a virtual swine flu pandemic. The aim of this premediated pandemic is to affectively innoculate the public so that no matter how extensively the virus spreads, no matter how many deaths it might cause, the media public will already have built up its affective defenses against the pandemic. Of course, even if the swine flu pandemic never materializes, the virtuality of this pandemic premediation has already insured the materiality of our collective affective response. Always couched in terms of what tomorrow might bring, premediation works through the mobilization of the present moment to modulate our ongoing affective orientation towards futurity.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Premediation, Economic Crisis, and the Post-9/11 Security Bubble

In "Conspicuous Consumption, A Casualty of Recession," an article on the front page of this morning's New York Times, Shaila Dewan chronicles the shift in economic mood among the American public, even among those people whose income has not been directly impacted by the current recession/depression:

"In just the seven months since the stock market began to plummet, the recession has aimed its death ray not just at the credit market, the Dow and Detroit, but at the very ethos of conspicuous consumption. Even those with a regular income are reassessing their spending habits, perhaps for the long term. They are shopping their closets, downscaling their vacations and holding off on trading in their cars. If the race to have the latest fashions and gadgets was like an endless, ever-faster video game, then someone has pushed the reset button."

Although many people are confident that this turn away from conspicuous consumption will end when the economy rebounds (these people are the same ones who are confident that the economy will magically return to its pre-2008 ways), others see this shift as more permanent: "To many, the adjustment feels less like a temporary, emergency response than a permanent recalibration, one they view in terms of ethics rather than expediency."

Whatever the global economic future may bring, the current recession/depression brings into sharp relief the relationship between the credit bubble and the nation's response to the catastrophic attacks of 9/11. The Times article takes note of the much-ridiculed advice of George W. Bush that Americans should respond to 9/11 by going shopping. The reason for this advice is that 9/11 produced both a security crisis and a economic one. In the weeks following 9/11 the stock market suffered tremendous losses, unprecedented until the current crisis. What now becomes clear is how this frantic shopping spree, which spread like wildfire from retail shopping at the mall to car leases and sales to domestic and commercial real estate--all of which was financed by credit that buyers could not afford--functioned as a collective affective response to the dual shocks of 9/11, an attempt to protect the US public from having to face the real possibility that such shocks (to our nation's security and to its economy) could happen again.

As I have been arguing since 2003, the attacks of 9/11 intensified a shift in the temporal logic of mediation in US and global media--particularly in the print, televisual, and networked news media but also in info-tainment media as well. Increasing almost exponentially in the run-up to the Iraq War, US and global news media began to focus less on reporting the actual news of the immediate past and more on pre-mediating the potential news of the near- and long-term future. This premediation manifested itself initially in the run-up to the Iraq War, where for more than a year before its commencement, the print, televisual, and networked news pre-mediated its execution in as many possible variations as news reporters, ex-military commentators, and government officials could imagine. The aim of this premediation, I have argued, was in large part to try to ensure that the US public would not be caught unaware as it had been on 9/11, would not have to suffer the same kind of collective media trauma that the attacks on 9/11 provoked. Premediation functioned as the media logic of the Bush doctrine of preemption, particularly insofar as the Bush administration used premediation of additional terrorist attacks to frighten the American public into accepting a regime of securitization that threatened many of the fundamental civil liberties on which the nation was founded.

What is now becoming clear is how the Bush credit bubble followed the same temporal logic of premediation, through the proliferation of positive, rather than negative, scenarios. As we now know, the credit frenzy of the post-9/11 years (including the lengthy bull market that eventually succeeded the post-9/11 crash) was sustainable only in the face of a future in which housing prices continued to rise, in which capital appreciation never ended. Where security officials stoked the public's fears by premediating the possibility of additional terrorist attacks on American soil, financial officials stoked the public's hopes by premediating the possibility of an endless appreciation of capital and real estate values, literally of the economic value of American soil. 

What may now also be coming clear is that, just as we had been living in a post-9/11 credit bubble, we have been living in a post-9/11 security bubble--fueled by preemption and fear rather than appreciation and hope. In other words, after 9/11 premediation in the US media took a double affective road, simultaneously fostering among the American public security fears and economic hopes. Both affective states were contagious, and both functioned to orient the US public to a rosier future in which the economic and security shocks of 9/11 would never happen again. 

We have now seen that such hopeful economic premediation could not succeed forever in maintaining the subprime credit bubble. It seems only inevitable that it will not be long until the post-9/11 security bubble suffers a similar fate.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Mediation's Multiple Temporalities

We are living in the midst of fundamental economic, social, and political change. The scale of the forces by which we are being moved and with which we are trying to contend is so immense as to make it difficult to get any clear sense of where we as a nation, a species, and a global organism are heading. But one thing is clear. Economic conditions are bad and getting worse. The rapid deterioration of the US and global economy is bringing with it radical alterations in individual and collective affect. Daily reminders like job layoffs, home foreclosures, and commercial vacancies only intensify the affectivity of scarcity, insecurity, and fear.  

According to the New York Times, one way people are dealing with this acceleration of negative affect is by going to the movies. Yesterday my wife and I went to see Slumdog Millionaire; its nearly universal popularity had for some time discouraged me from wanting to see it. Watching the film, I was struck by how its overwhelming popular and industry acclaim was largely the result of the kinds of historical coincidences that had enabled Jamal to know the answers to many of the questions on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Released in limited distribution in November 2008, the film's cinematic portrayal of the slums of Mumbai, and its feel-good message that even a slumdog could succeed by means of the agency of global televisual media, clearly spoke to an American public increasingly battered by the economic recession/depression now understood to have begun in December 2007.  

My sense of the fortuitousness of Slumdog's scheduled release and distribution was underscored by the trailers that preceded the film, the way in which, as projects conceived, financed, and produced before the subprime bubble burst at the end of 2008, they seemed particularly out of touch with the affective timbre and tone of most print, televisual, and networked news media. Perhaps, as the Times suggests, this is what people want from the movies.  But I'm not so sure.  

The trailer for Adventureland, for example, seemed especially to strike the wrong note. Directed by Superbad's Greg Mottola, and set in 1987, the teen comedy tells the story of a young college graduate who, unable to find suitable employment, takes a job at Adventureland, an amusement park. The film's tagline, "The Worst Job Ever--The Best Time of His Life," seemed somehow anachronistic at a moment in US history when real unemployment is well over 10% and when people are lining up by the hundreds and thousands for jobs just like the one that is disparaged in the film. When you can't find a job, it's hard to be amused at a film that makes fun of "the worst job ever."

My point here is not to criticize the Superbad gang for their social insensitivity; that's what the Superbad and Knocked Up franchise is all about. Rather it's to notice the multiple temporalities of our media everyday, the different speeds at which different media are able to respond to major social, political, and affective changes like those that accompany our current economic crisis. Where print, televisual, and networked news are able to adjust to such changes quickly and comprehensively, the much longer production timetables of entertainment media like television series, films, or music videos make rapid response more difficult. For example, there is something unsettling about the juxtaposition on MTV Jams of music videos celebrating bling, Kristal, and other forms of conspicuous consumption with commercials inviting people to mail in their gold jewelry for cash.

We find ourselves, then, at a particularly interesting moment in terms of media temporality, when even previews and coming attractions attempt to create anticipation for forthcoming films and television shows that belong to a moment that is already past. But this is not to argue that media from prior to the current economic crisis cannot speak to our present situation or that all contemporary news media, for example, gets it.  Thus in Week In Review in today's New York Times, a series of opinion pieces on the current economic crisis are juxtaposed on the same page with a Maureen Dowd screed titled "Should Michelle Cover Up?" Where Frank Rich and Thomas Friedman take up things that really matter to us today, Maureen Dowd is still stuck in the Bush era--where, for the time being, many of our films, television shows, and music videos also still reside. 

Or, perhaps it is more accurate to say, given the fact that the economic crisis itself had its inception and production in the Bush era, that what we are witnessing today is the persistence of older affective media formations into the individual and collective affect of the present. The conflation of media times is, after all, in some ways or another always the case. But it is made dramatically evident in times of rapid and significant changes like the ones we find ourselves in today.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Reality of Cable Television

I continue to question the Obama campaign's media strategy.  Obama Press Secretary Robert Gibbs' claim yesterday that there is a gap between cable news and the public illustrates what I described in my previous post as Obama's failure to understand the importance of premediation in the current media environment.  Here's Gibbs:

"But I mean, you know, I think David [Axelrod] talked to you about where the public is on this and I think it's illuminating because it may not necessarily be where cable television is on all of this. But, you know, we're sort of used to that. We lost on cable television virtually every day last year. So, you know, there's a conventional wisdom to what's going on in America via Washington, and there's the reality of what's happening in America."

Gibbs (and by extension the Obama team) fails to understand what Niklas Luhmann characterizes as "the reality of the mass media." Luhmann writes: "Whatever we know about our society, or indeed about the world in which we live, we know through the mass media." When Gibbs opposes the "conventional wisdom to what's going on in America via Washington" (by which he means via cable television) to "the reality of what's happening in America," he fails to understand the way in which the mass media construct that reality through what Luhmann calls their "operations" and their "observations."  It is the failure in particular to understand the media's "operations" that threatens the success of the Obama administration's plan for economic recovery.

Heady from the Obama campaign's brilliant and innovative use of social networking software in the Democratic primaries and the general election campaign, Gibbs et al underestimate the role of the mass media in contributing to the Obama victory (think especially MSNBC or The Daily Show, but also CNN, SNL, and so forth).  Gibbs further misunderstands the role of the mass media in premediating the possibility of a change in the course of events as a way of insuring that there will be more news tomorrow--or in the next hour. The fact that cable television news kept alive the possibility that the front-runner might stumble is not an indication that they got it wrong but an example of how they work to leave open the possibility of a "change in the weather," i.e., how the system of the mass media generates new information. 

As Luhmann so brilliantly recognizes, the system of the mass media is relentless--it is continuous in its operations, in its generation of the possibility of surprise. Failing to take advantage of its premediated formats, topics, and programs will not serve Obama well. Organizing through social networks, distributing videos via YouTube and other Internet outlets, and participating in news conferences and town halls are all useful media tactics. But to think that these "public" media operations are, or should be, distinguished from mass media like cable television is to betray either an amazing arrogance or a stunning naivete about the workings of media in the current media regime of premediation. 

Friday, February 6, 2009

The Failure of Obama to Premediate Economic Recovery

The Obama administration is struggling mightily to get Congress to pass an economic stimulus bill that will do what Obama and his team feel is necessary to turn the US economy around.  As Paul Krugman notes in today's New York Times, the debate over the stimulus package is being controlled by the terms of the Republican arguments of the last eight years about tax cuts, excessive government spending, and so forth. Unlike the Bush administration, which did a masteful job of controlling the terms of the political and, perhaps more important, media debate, Obama and his team are on the defensive, reacting to Republican and media talking points rather than shaping or guiding the political media flow. 

The reason for this is plain to see--and Dick Cheney's recent attempt to terrify Americans about Obama's security policies underscores the problem with Obama's handling of the economic crisis. What Cheney reminds us of is the way in which, especially during the run-up to the Iraq War, the Bush administration blanketed the print, televisual, and networked media with hundreds of spokespeople premediating both the terrible things that would happen if we did not invade Iraq and the wonderful things that would happen in the Middle East after we succeeded in establishing a beach-head for democracy in the Muslim world.

What Obama and his team need to do, and what we have seen very little of over the past few weeks (or in the transition period between the election and the inauguration), is to undertake their own premediation campaign on the economy. And they need to do it now.

First, what needs to happen is that they need to premediate a second Great Depression if we do not act large and act fast.  Where are the images of soup-lines, of abandoned storefronts, of hungry children?  Obama's team must send out its emissaries to all of the cable news networks to remind the nation of the potential consequences of failing to respond adequately to the current financial crisis.  And their appearances need to be accompanied not only by images and sounds from the era of the Depression, but also by downward graphs, diminishing (and increasing) numbers, and shrinking charts to dramatize the potential implications of failing to pass the stimulus package that Obama is convinced that the country needs. 

Simultaneous with this, the Obama team needs to premediate a successful recovery. They need to provide potential scenarios of economic rebirth based on the elements of their plan.  These premediations must not only take the shape of a return to business as usual, but must present potential futures that are transformative and made possible by the important, forward-looking elements of the stimulus package.  Here, Obama people need to bring with them, or circulate among the media, images of wind-farms, of solar installations, of rebuilt bridges and roads, of a renovated and modernized power grid. And they need charts and graphs and numbers. And they need images of future prosperity--again, not a return to some past era but a compelling, attractive, desirable future with green energy, smart consumption, fuel-efficient cars, and so forth.

Some may see this as cynical. But I would call it realistic. Collective public mood and affect are shaped and modulated these days by the premediated flows of print, televisual, and networked media. Arguments do not prevail on their "merits" or on the rational calculus of individual citizens. Mood and "structures of feeling" are contagious and are shaped by the repetition of audiovisual images of potential futures. As with Iraq, the key is not that any one future be premediated, or that these premediations prove true in any specific sense, but that our everyday media are so replete both with negative premediations of failing to follow Obama's stimulus plan and positive premediations of the recovery that will happen if we do follow this plan that the force of public sentiment behind Obama's plan grows so strong that those who would oppose it must get out of the way or be overrun. 

The difficulty here, as opposed to the period in the run-up to the Iraq War, is time. Bush-Cheney had months during which to beat the drums, to deploy their troops of media spokespeople with (s)talking points and figures and images and maps. In the current economic crisis, time is of the essence. If Obama fails to get a stimulus robust enough to begin to turn the economy around, and if things begin to get worse, the current economic crisis will no longer be felt to be the fault of the Bush administration or of the Republicans in Congress who watered it down.  If Obama does not stick to his guns and make it clear that anything short of his plan could lead the nation into its second Great Depression, he and his administration will be made to own the economic mess that should rightly belong to the Bush-Cheney administration and their Congressional Republican collaborators.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Premediating Dick

So, barely a fortnight after leaving office, the gnarly old Dick is at it again, premediating on the end of the world, or at least a terrorist attack on US soil that will make us appreciate 9/11 for the walk in the park he thinks it was. Next time, he says, we will face “a 9/11-type event where the terrorists are armed with something much more dangerous than an airline ticket and a box cutter – a nuclear weapon or a biological agent of some kind.”

On Huffington Post, Mark Ginsberg, former US ambassador to Morocco, paints Cheney as a Wyoming Dorothy, skipping through the darkened forest exclaiming, "Lions and Tigers and Bears, oh my!" Ginsberg reminds us, as have many other commentators on Cheney's paranoid premediation, that Cheney, Bush, and Rice, among others, blithely ignored warnings in the summer of 2001 that Al Qaeda was planning an attack on US soil.  And to Cheney's prediction that Obama will simply open the doors of Guantanamo prison and let loose hundreds of hard-core terrorists to wreak havoc on the US, Ginsberg points out that Cheney et al have already been responsible for the release of a dozen or more Guantanamo detainees who have now found their way into leadership positions in Al Qaeda-related organizations.  

Perhaps most indicative of Cheney's inability to accept responsibility for anything that the Bush administration did or didn't do are his comments on the current economic crisis: “It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” Cheney said. “The combination of the financial crisis that started last year, coupled now with, obviously, a major recession, I think we’re a long way from having solved these problems.” The financial crisis and the recession, like 9/11 or Abu Ghraib, were things that just happened, like Hurricane Katrina. Who could blame the Bush administration for a hurricane? Or for that matter, who could blame Bush-Cheney for failing to provide funds to repair and maintain the levees or failing to provide sufficient and timely relief aid or failing to provide adequate funds to rebuild the levee system and restore New Orleans to something approximating a pre-Katrina level of functionality?    

For wrinkled Dick Cheney, the Bush administration bears no responsibility for anything negative that happened during its time in office, while the Obama administration is to blame for all of the negative things that haven't yet happened during its time in office, but which Cheney is certain are inevitable. This is the logic of premediation par excellence by the master premediator of them all. And the consequence of this kind of premediation is that if or when such an attack like that predicted by Cheney does happen, it will prompt among many Republicans the response that (unlike the attacks of 9/11) these new attacks are to be blamed on the administration on whose watch they occurred.

This is not only devious. It is evil.  

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Lecture at Ryerson University's Infoscape Lab

Here's a link to a lecture I gave on Thursday at Ryerson's Infoscape Research Lab.  The lab is directed by Greg Elmer, who holds the Bell Globemedia Research Chair at Ryerson.  The lecture was co-sponsored by Ryerson's Digital Cinema Laboratory, as well as by York University's Augmented Reality, Future Cinema, and Mobile Media Labs.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Obama's Blackberry and the Affective Life of Media

There has been endless media fascination with and speculation about the issue of whether President Obama would be allowed to keep his Blackberry.  That issue has now been resolved. Obama will be allowed to have a specially designed model, approved by national security officials. He has also agreed to abide by a certain set of rules on how he can use it and whom he can communicate with.

The arguments for and against allowing him to keep the Blackberry have focused on information and communication. Obama has argued that the Blackberry will allow him to keep in touch with people "outside the bubble" so that he will be able to make more informed decisions as president. His security advisors have argued that Obama's email communications via the Blackberry would be vulnerable to hacking, thereby creating a risk that the nation's enemies might obtain confidential information that could jeopardize the nation's security. The compromise solution employs both behavioral protocols to limit who Obama can communicate with and technical protocols that limit the information that Obama is authorized to receive and that unauthorized parties are able to obtain (I use the term "protocol" here in the sense outlined by Alexander Galloway in his excellent book of that name). 

What this limited solution makes evident, however, is another, perhaps more fundamental, reason that Obama was so insistent on keeping his Blackberry--his affective engagement with the device itself.  In my recently completed book manuscript I detail "the affective life of media." I argue that our media devices participate in everyday affective interactions with us, that we are affective cyborgs who distribute our affectivity in something like feedback loops among our embodied selves and our media devices. 

While the compromise solution of a constrained Blackberry and a constrained Blackberry user might seem to miss the mark of keeping Obama in touch with the world outside the presidential bubble, to offer Obama only a limited and therefore less attractive Blackberry experience, what it leaves unchanged is Obama's physical relationship with the device. What really matters is that he remains in touch with his Blackberry. Interestingly, in the debate over the Blackberry, Obama has repeatedly said that the Blackberry would have to be "pried out of his hands." Aides have speculated that it would be impossible to get the Blackberry off of Obama's belt.  These comments, and others like them, emphasize without recognizing it, the embodied, affective character of Obama's relationship with his Blackberry.

While much speculation about the presidential Blackberry has focused on the communication security engineered into the device, and the precise limitations on the information that the President will be allowed to obtain, what would be most interesting to know is what, if any, changes will be made in the device's affective affordances, in the way in which Obama relates affectively to his Blackberry. It would also be interesting to know whether other elements of the interface will change, thereby modifying Obama's affective interaction with the software. No matter what changes are engineered into the new presidential Blackberry, my guess is that the key embodied affective interactions--wearing it on his belt and holding it in his hand--will remain unchanged. This would help to explain why Obama would accept the limitations on the information he is able to obtain via the device and the people with whom he is able to communicate. 

[NB: Andrew Engel, a doctoral student at Wayne State, argues persuasively that mobile phones can be understood as "companion species," in the sense outlined by Donna Haraway in two recent books. In this light, it is interesting to see Obama's fight to keep his Blackberry as analogous to his daughter's insistence that the family get a dog for the move to the White House--although this connection has, as far as I know, gone unnoticed in print, televisual, and networked media.]

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Israeli Premediation

Thanks to Jeremy Clemmons for pointing out this article on how the Israeli government attempted to premediate their "war" against Hamas in Gaza.  One can't help but wondering if the nearly universal condemnation of the Israeli aggression was due in part to the failure to premediate this war effectively in the global mediasphere. A more effective premediation campaign, as in the case of the US premediation of the war against Iraq, would not have made the assault on Gaza any more justifiable, but it might have served to modify the international response to this unjustifiably one-sided act of aggression.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Premediating Post-Inauguration Letdown

Two days before the inauguration, the Los Angeles Times is already premediating a post-inauguration letdown for Obama supporters: "For Obama Supporters, Post-Inauguration Letdown is Inevitable."

Progressive Patriotism

Among the premediated inaugural activities covered by CNN, Fox, and other news networks was a live program on HBO, which presented the "Obama Inaugural Celebration," featuring performances on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial by notable progressive celebrities from the entertainment media. Actors like Tom Hanks and Samuel Jackson did short readings. Musicians like John Mellencamp, who sang "Ain't That America" before a flag-filled backdrop, did patriotic numbers., for example, performed as part of a trio with Sheryl Crow and Herbie Hancock singing Bob Marley's "One Love," and Queen Latifah sang a duet of "My Country 'tis of Thee" with Josh Groban. 

Perhaps the most troubling moment of the entire Inaugural Celebration was the performance of Garth Brooks, who sang a medley that included a truncated version of Don Maclean's "American Pie" and a raucous sing-along of "Shout," the theme song of John Belushi's Animal House and a hackneyed and un-selfconscious example of white America's centuries-long exploitation of black American musical traditions.

Brooks was followed shortly by U2, whose performance began with Bono's questionable assertion that Obama's inauguration fulfilled the "Dream" that Martin Luther King articulated on the same location some 46 years ago. Bono's rose-colored vision of American racial politics was usefully countered later by his insistence that freedom was not just an American dream but one of other people as well, including among his shouted list of people who wanted to be free "the Palestinians." 

Obama's brief speech freely remediated King's "I Have a Dream" speech in urging people to be patient in dealing with the difficult problems faced by the nation. Obama was followed by the trio of  Springsteen, Pete Seeger, and Seeger's grandson leading a sing-along version of "This Land Is Your Land." The Inaugural Celebration ended with Beyonce soulfully singing "America the Beautiful" joined by a chorus of all of the performers of the 2-hour special, the conventional closing tactic of star-studded events like this one.

As enjoyable as some of the performances were, and as happy-making it is that this celebration means that eight years of Bush-Cheney rule are about to end, the sorry but unavoidable conclusion to be drawn from this entire event is that the ideological performance of liberal or progressive patriotism is only barely more tolerable than its conservative counterpart. And insofar as it is more tolerable, this is due perhaps more to the better musical and aesthetic taste of progressive patriots than to the particulars of their political vision of America.

The progressive patriotism of the nationalism and American exceptionalism that premediate Obama's inauguration and presidency reminds us that the more things change in Washington, the more they stay the same in the premediated imaginary of the United States of America. 

Saturday, January 17, 2009

"The Inauguration of Barack Obama"

"The Inauguration of Barack Obama" has become a multi-day, globally networked premediation event. The frenzied premediation of Barack Obama's inauguration, which has been underway at least since his Grant Park acceptance speech, is finally about to come to an end. In a mere couple of days we will know which Lincoln speeches Obama alludes to, whichwere the best parties, how many people will actually attend the Washington (or how many the various official and unofficial estimates report). Given the weekly cycle of print and televisual news media, inaugural premediation intensified on Sunday, two days before the inauguration.

My local paper, the Detroit Free Press, provided a 10-page Special Section, "The Inauguration of Barack Obama," as an added front section in which the Sunday paper was wrapped.  The New York Times featured the inauguration on the Op-Ed page, the Week In Review, and the Magazine, not to mention in multiple stories in its front section. CNN featured a program from 2-5 pm EST, called "The Inauguration of Barack Obama." The Comcast Information Guide description makes CNN's premediation a part of the inauguration itself: "Preinaugural Activities Are Covered. Wolf Blitzer, Anderson Cooper, John King and Soledad O'Brien anchor." 

And in the next 48 hours there will be more. "The Inauguration of Barack Obama" is a recurring program on CNN, increasing in frequency until Inauguration Day, when CNN will begin its coverage of this premediation event at 5 AM, before any of its competitors. MSNBC begins its Inaugural Day premediation at 6 AM, ABC, NBC, and CBS at 7 AM, and Fox News at 8:30.  

Premediations 'R' Us.