Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Wikileaks and the Affectivity of Socially Networked Text

On the Op-Ed page of today's New York Times, Andrew Exum, of the Center for a New American Security, opines that there was very little "news" in the latest WikiLeaks release of 92,000 military field reports and other documents about the progress (or lack thereof) of the US-led Afghanistan War. According to Exum, anyone who has been paying attention to news reports from Afghanistan would find little to be shocked or surprised at in the Afghan War Diary, the name that WikiLeaks has given to its latest leak. Exum's response was, to a large degree, mine as well--though I have not made my way through anything close to the 92,000 reports. Nonetheless, I have not found anything surprising in the reports I have read--though of course I have found much that was distasteful, inhumane, and perhaps criminal.

Why, then, has the Afghan War Diary generated as much media and public outrage as it has?

From the Obama Administration's perspective, the latest leak has complicated and made public the conflicting opinions within the presidential circle about how to proceed in Afghanistan. Thus the White House has been forced to mobilize its media machine to counter and contain the perceived damage caused by WikiLeaks. And cynical media critics will point to the 24-7 news cycle and the eagerness of every political "side" to find material with which to propogate its point of view. Certainly print, televisual, and networked news media are always looking for new content, new stories--new "irritations" to the system, which in Niklas Luhmann's terms work both to destabilize and maintain the autopoietic system of the media. What better irritation than 92,000 field reports?

Clearly both of these perspectives make sense. But I think we need to take seriously Andrew Exum's claim that there is in fact nothing "new" in these leaks, not to dismiss their import as he would, but to offer another explanation of their efficacy: that the Afghan War Diary deploys socially networked media for the mobilization of collective affect.

Word of the leak first came to me, as to large numbers of people, through social media like Facebook or Twitter, through email updates from political sites like Huffington Post, Politico, or Daily Koz, or through the increasingly socially networked cable news networks. In our current premediated moment, such "news" operates through anticipation. Reading a tweet or a shared link on Facebook or an email alert from our political blogs produces in the socially networked media user the affective state of anticipation that fuels our social networks and mobilizes collective affect.

Although the Afghan War Diary reports on the recent past, the mode in which it has been circulated by WikiLeaks produces an anticipatory readiness, a bodily and perceptual orientation towards the future--perhaps first to an intermediary site like the New York Times or Huffington Post and then to WikiLeaks itself. Or even before this, or somewhere along the line, many users would retweet or share the link themselves, simultaneously producing the technical and social anticipation of further responses and social media sharing.

Finally, I want at least to point to the role that the affectivity of text has in media events like this. I have written elsewhere (as have others) about the affectivity of audiovisual media, the way in which such media operate as much through how they move people affectively as through what they represent or communicate. But texts, too, operate affectively, not only through reading them but also through their mediated formats--indeed often not through reading them but simply through scrolling or scanning or downloading them. The materiality of the screens of mediated texts, and the variety of options provided by Wikileaks--"The data is provided in HTML (web), CSV (comma-separated values) and SQL (database) formats, and was rendered into KML (Keyhole Markup Language) mapping data that can be used with Google Earth"--produce and intensify an affectivity of anticipation for the experience of a variety of embodied and technical formats.

In calling attention to the way in which the materiality of the Afghan War Diary's mediations mobilize and intensify individual and collective affectivities of anticipation I do not mean to minimize the political importance of the WikiLeaks leak in making evident or "transparent" (in WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange's term) the conduct of the US-led War in Afghanistan. Rather I mean to try to explain this importance in a different way, as resulting less from the new revelations contained in the Diary than from the mode in which the anticipation of reading these revelations was circulated and intensified by our print, televisual, and socially networked media.