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.

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