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.