Friday, October 29, 2010

Wikileaks and the Affectivity of Openness

In the span of just over six months in the spring, summer, and fall of 2010, WikiLeaks has made headlines in national and international news sources with three different releases documenting ethically problematic practices in the ongoing US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. On April 5, WikiLeaks released edited and unedited documentary videos of “a classified US military video depicting three airstrikes from a US Apache helicopter on July 12, 2007 in New Baghdad, Iraq.” On July 25, they released the “Afghan War Diary, 2004-2010,” “an extraordinary compendium of over 91,000 reports covering the war in Afghanistan from 2004 to 2010.” And on October 22, WikiLeaks released nearly 400,000 additional reports from Iraq, detailing in the Iraq War Logs evidence of previously unreported incidents of torture and tens of thousands of additional unacknowledged civilian deaths.

Each of these releases has garnered WikiLeaks an extraordinary amount of attention, both positive and negative, in print, televisual, and networked news media. WikiLeaks has both been lauded for making available audiovisual and textual evidence of atrocities perpetrated in the conduct of the war and been accused of taking information out of context and of making available confidential information that could further endanger US military forces in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as inflaming anti-American sentiment in ways that could increase the risks of terror attacks on US soil. Almost all of the discussion surrounding WikiLeaks, however, has focused on the question of media content, on the legitimacy or illegitimacy of releasing confidential information to the global media public. I want to pursue a different tack, however, by taking up the formal and affective qualities of these releases, particularly the way in which they function to foster what I would call an affectivity of openness. WikiLeaks works as much by modulating collective affect, or structures of feeling as it does by providing people with information or content about the war that they did not otherwise possess.

WikiLeaks’ mobilization of the affective sociality of militarism, video, and gaming is one way in which it participates in the politics of everyday affects. The release of 92,000 military field reports from Afghanistan and another 391,832 from Iraq is another form of mediality which provides the affective links to accepting the war as part of our screen-based environment. In both the Afghanistan and the Iraq releases US military and political figures simultaneously insisted both that there was very little "news" in the WikiLeaks releases and that these releases have endangered the lives of American military and other citizens in Iraq, Afghanistan, and across the world. How can both of these perspectives be true? One way to approach this contradiction is to look at the way in which the Afghan War Diaries and the Iraq War Logs deploy socially networked media for the mobilization of collective affect.

Word of these leaks 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 largely 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 and Iraq releases report on the recent past, the mode in which they have 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. These tweets and their accompanying links would then be retweeted or shared on Facebook, be picked up by RSS feeds, simultaneously producing the technical and social anticipation of further responses and social media sharing.

Such circulating texts are not just about sharing information but operate affectively as well, not only through being read but also through their premediated formats--indeed often not through reading them but simply through scrolling or scanning or downloading them or just knowing they will be available in the future. The materiality of the screens of mediated texts, and the variety of options provided by Wikileaks—which consisted in the case of the Afghanistan Diaries of “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 the hours leading up to the formal release of the Iraq War Logs, WikiLeaks tried to orchestrate this anticipation through its Twitter feed, both premediating the upcoming release and then tweeting with links the publication of these leaks in major news sources like The Guardian, Le Monde, Der Spiegel, Al Jazeera, Swedish TV, and the New York Times. On its site, WikiLeaks describes the significance and magnitude of its action in releasing the Iraq Web Logs in the following self-aggrandizing terms:
"At 5pm EST Friday 22nd October 2010 WikiLeaks released the largest classified military leak in history. The 391,832 reports ('The Iraq War Logs'), document the war and occupation in Iraq, from 1st January 2004 to 31st December 2009 (except for the months of May 2004 and March 2009) as told by soldiers in the United States Army. Each is a 'SIGACT' or Significant Action in the war. They detail events as seen and heard by the US military troops on the ground in Iraq and are the first real glimpse into the secret history of the war that the United States government has been privy to throughout.
"The reports detail 109,032 deaths in Iraq, comprised of 66,081 'civilians'; 23,984 'enemy' (those labeled as insurgents); 15,196 'host nation' (Iraqi government forces) and 3,771 'friendly' (coalition forces). The majority of the deaths (66,000, over 60%) of these are civilian deaths. That is 31 civilians dying every day during the six year period. For comparison, the 'Afghan War Diaries', previously released by WikiLeaks, covering the same period, detail the deaths of some 20,000 people. Iraq during the same period, was five times as lethal with equivallent population size."

Wikipedia offers two different ways to access the documents, each of which works to intensify an affectivity. “Diary Dig” allows visitors to the site to browse and search the reports for key terms or dates or locations, bringing up long lists of reports which match the terms entered into the site's search engine. And “War Logs,” which allows them to browse and comment on the various sigact reports, uses participatory media techniques like tagging, favoriting, and sharing to encourage the wisdom of the crowd to deploy affective or cognitive labor to give shape to the mass of date presented on the site. As an incentive to help tag and thereby provide some kind of order to the nearly 400,000 reports, WikiLeaks has created a kind of War Logs competition, a list of high scores of people who have favorited the most sites. Both modes of interacting with the site work to emphasize and reinforce the feeling of participating in a process of openness that is WikiLeaks' "raison d'ĂȘtre."

In calling attention to the way in which the premediated materiality of the Iraq War Logs mobilize and intensify individual and collective affectivities of openness, I do not mean to minimize the political importance of the leak in making evident, open, 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 specifics of 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 and fulfilled by the documents' availability on the WikiLeaks site.

Organizations like WikiLeaks, as well as many “open government” organizations and software design projects, do extremely important work both in making the content of government transparent and, arguably more importantly, designing software that will allow the networked public to monitor the statements, policies, and actions of powerful governmental, media, and non-governmental organizations. What I have been calling attention to here is another, often neglected, element of these open government and open software movements—the way in which they produce, mobilize, and intensify an affectivity of openness among global netizens that operates according to different temporalities and media logics, some of which work almost independently (or even against) the development of open software or government platforms. To understand the efficacy of our print, televisual, and networked media in an era of premediation and social networking, we need to attend not only to the content of the messages circulated by these media but to their affectivity and mediality as well.


The distribution and intensification of premediation in the 21st century is evident in the new slogan for MSNBC’s political news programs, “Lean Forward,” which is of a piece with the temporality of anticipation that I have outlined in Premediation, especially the anticipatory gesture with which today’s global netizens lean forward almost lovingly towards their media devices.

MSNBC's new slogan speaks to the idea that global media today, as well as our networked public culture, are focused on the future rather than on the present or recent past, that we live in a moment of anticipation in which people are encouraged to “lean forward” towards the next moment of socially mediated interaction. This anticipation is tied directly to the media formation of the first decades of the 21st century, to the structure of social media, Facebook, Twitter, email, and texts—to something as seemingly innocuous as the proliferation of and everyday media form like the shared, synchronized online calendar, which fills the future with, and orchestrates, premediated individual and collective personal, social, or professional events. MSNBC has tried to plug in to this anticipatory temporality of the 21st century in its branding campaign for“Lean Forward,” which features two 1-minute commercials to introduce the campaign and six additional 30-second commercials, one for each of its various news shows. I want to focus here on the two longer branding commercials, to look at the ways in which they present a televisual mediation of the temporality of anticipation that marks our premediated moment.

Each spot features a variety of different people in motion, depicting mobile embodiment, people moving forward. In each commercial, interestingly, the predominant motion forward is from left to right across the screen, as in a book or as in a scroll across the bottom of the screen—a textual lean forward in an audiovisual medium. But this movement from left to right is also significant in another respect, in that it reverses one of the standard iconographic tropes of American progress from the 19th century, the movement of the American empire across the continent from right to left, marking the move from East to West as if across a map. This trope figures prominently in Emanuel Leutze’s Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way, which hangs in the US Capitol,

as well in popular lithographs like Thomas Gast’s American Progress, which represents an allegory of technological progress moving from the civilized East to the Western frontier, from right to left again as on a map.

In the 19th century, the iconography of westward movement in nationalistic images like these deployed a harmony between pictorial and cartographic space in order to naturalize and make inevitable the manifest destiny of the United States to control the continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean.

MSNBC’s remediation of cartographic visual space as televisual space marks a cultural shift from a more fixed, geopolitically stable world to a more fluid one, in which it is motion itself that matters. Perhaps a cynical critic from the right might see the movement from left to right as marking the movement of Hollywood liberalism from California across the nation. While I don’t think that was the aim of those who produced the commercials, there is a sense in which something not unlike this might indeed be the case, as the two commercials work to present the movement of affectivity and mobility across the nation from West to East as a reversal for the age of premediation of the 19th-century march of the progress of the American nation from East to West, or right to left, across the national pictorial and geographical space. However one might read the movement of the images, MSNBC is clearly promoting the idea that the country needs to move forward from the left.

In 2010 the MSNBC branding ads portray mobile bodies and technologies moving through US national space, with technology, culture, and a wide variety of people communicating a kind of affectivity of forwardness, an affectivity of motion of progress of anticipation. In the first spot, “Declaration of Forward,” this anticipatory movement is depicted not only visually but also in terms laid out by the narrative voiceover:

The governing conceit of the ad is of course MSNBC’s remediation of the Declaration of Independence as a 60-second branding commercial. From its initial sampling of the Declaration of Independence (1776), “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” MSNBC positions itself as the 21st century media equivalent of the American colonies contesting the sovereignty of the British crown. “The Declaration of Forward” distinguishes itself from the “Declaration of Independence” of the United States of America, through its commitment to a principle of leaning forward, a vital, affective anticipatory premediation of the future. In remediating the 1776 Declaration, MSNBC elides, condenses, and supplements the document’s fundamental assertion of human equality and inalienable rights into a declaration of moving forwardness, of physical and temporal anticipation. Even while explicitly including women among those counted by the “Declaration of Forward,” the commercial moves ahead quickly from “self-evident truths” to the “pursuit of happiness,” by eliding the agency of a Creator who endows people with rights. People aren’t endowed with these three famous rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, they just “have” them—and they have as well in the “Declaration of Forward” a fourth right, the freedom to believe that “our best days are still ahead.” In MSNBC’s “Declaration of Forward,” the freedom to anticipate that our best days are ahead takes the place of independence. The declaration of this new freedom rewrites the 1776 “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” to “life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, and the freedom to believe that our best days are still ahead.” This new premediated freedom to believe in a better future replaces the 1776 Declaration’s fundamental assertion that governmental power comes from the consent of the people governed and that therefore people have the right to abolish their government if it fails to secure these rights.

“Hardwired,” the second spot in MSNBC’s “Lean Forward” campaign, picks up both the question of unalienability and the anticipatory gesture of leaning forward. “Hardwired” uses visual and narrative mediation to suggest a technical rather than a divine agency. People are not “endowed” by a “Creator” with inalienable rights but possess “an innate sense of direction.” “Hardwired” implies both a technological and a genetic agency in originating and maintaining an anticipatory vitality that seems to start at the moment of conception.

This commercial’s opening montage begins with an image of vital, swimming sperm, juxtaposed with an ultrasound image of a fetus, followed by a sequence of three topless infants trying to move forward, one on its stomach, another on its hands and knees, and a third just rising to two feet before heading forward into the camera and screen. The “innate” quality of this moving-forwardness is clearly tied to female reproduction, from the female narrative voiceover to the images of graduation and wedding ceremonies among othere. The action in the spot, both visually and narratively, is forward-moving, as in the first spot almost exclusively from left to right and towards the screen and the viewer’s mediated space. In the final lines of the commercial, the narrator’s cadence creates in the viewer an expectation or anticipation of the pledge of allegiance. “We are one nation, in progress,” is followed by a long pause which recalls the last lines of the pledge of allegiance: “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” But instead of God, indivisibility, liberty, and justice for all, we get “in progress” accompanied by the declaration of the nation’s innate evolution and movement forward: “We were built to evolve, we were not made to sit still.”

In both of these ads, MSNBC models portions of its rhetoric on two of the “sacred texts” of every American’s high school civics class. In each case the document is rewritten to eliminate both the agency of divine sovereignty and the universal right to self-governance. As an avowedly political news network, as opposed to financial networks like CNBC, sports networks like ESPN, entertainment networks like E or BET, or general news networks like CNN, MSNBC uses its Lean Forward campaign to remediate the governmentality of these national documents in terms of the mediality and affectivity of anticipation. In so doing MSNBC redefines American national identity, depicting the nation not in terms of spatial qualities like wholeness or universality but in terms of temporal qualities like evolution, progress, or motion. Anticipation, not independence or allegiance, marks MSNBC’s forward-leaning, premediated America.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Chilean Miner Rescue and the Premediation of Positive Global Affect

What made the Chilean miner rescue into an almost instantaneous global media event? What made it into history?

There is no shortage of reasons for the rapid mobilization of such intense, widespread media and public interest in the rescue of 33 Chilean miners trapped underground for 69 days. Simply from a feel-good perspective, such an event commands the attention of print, televisual, or networked news media. Whether on Twitter, Buzz, or Facebook, in the socially networked blogosphere, or among national and global English-language corporate media like CNN, Fox, NBC, or BBC, how could anyone not be overjoyed to watch the lives of 33 trapped miners saved through a successful high-tech engineering rescue mission?

Around the world, the rescue of the miners infused into our media everyday a socially networked affectivity of collective, indeed global interest, hope, and joy. The narrative emerging both from and into this media event combined elements of heroism, hope, technology, and national pride. The mediated, collective joy that marks the Chilean miner rescue feels like a compensation for the mediated suffering of recent disaster-events, going back to Katrina, but encompassing Haiti, the BP/Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and most tellingly here the Chilean earthquakes of 2007 and 2010—made more welcome, and more powerful, among a media public suffering from the worst global economic recession since the 1930s.

But media events—especially feel-good ones like this one—do not emerge magically or without effort. They require tending and care. The rescue of the Chilean miners became a global media event by mobilizing an extensive, heterogeneous social network of human and non-human technical resources. These resources were deployed not only to articulate the feel-good narrative, but also (I would argue) more importantly to distribute positive affectivity through and immanently within global media forms and practices. The Chilean miner rescue afforded an opportunity for collective global mediation of an almost unqualified joy.

Among individual, social, and corporate media networks, the rescue provided an affective reaffirmation of the necessity of technology for the subordination of the planet. Media professionals, amateur hacktivists, or engaged netizens—throughout the socially networked world everyone took an interest in, became hopeful for, and then felt good about the successful rescue. In light of other recent natural, ecological, and economic disasters, the positive technological resolution of an industrial accident by a national government provided a sense of reassurance concerning the human mastery of nature through the use of drilling technology—particularly in the Western Hemisphere.

Although mining and drilling for oil at great depths represent analogous structures of extractive capitalism, it is important to note that many of the extractive technologies used to allow humans to travel from the surface of the planet to its depths for the capitalization of nature are of a piece with the media technologies used in the rescue, as well as those that enable networked communication across the globe. On the second night of the rescue CNN made particular note that the fiber optic and tele-video technologies used in the rescue were the very same technologies used regularly by CNN.

As John Stewart lampooned on the rescue’s second day, CNN had earlier conflated the television studio with the Chilean mine by among other things producing a replica of the rescue capsule, which provided the opportunity for its reporters and other staff to play the role of trapped miners to demonstrate how the miners would be bodily impacted during the rescue. But as The Daily Show also reported, the complicity between mining and media technologies went both ways. On every side the heroic and technological rescue was performed with the global media in mind. Even before the rescue had begun the miners had already been developing a verbal contract for sharing revenues generated from selling their stories to the media just as the Chilean government took full advantage of print, televisual, and global news media to distribute its own affectivity of caring and competence.

The Chilean miner rescue emerged as an exemplary premediation event in the globally networked and socially mediated second decade of the 21st century. Like all premediation events, the rescue functioned to mobilize collective affectivity. The rescue event was a complex and heterogeneous assemblage, made up of rocks and air, water and food, laborers and capitalists, clothing and equipment, technology and society. All of these diverse elements of the assemblage and more were held together under the intensifying mediated force of the rescue event.

Most crucially the Chilean miner rescue occurs over an extended period of time, which allows for the mobilization and proliferation of anticipation—marked in this case not as the negative affective anticipation of fear or danger, but the positive affectivity of hope and joy. Indeed the temporality of the miner’s rescue was anticipatory through and through, beginning with the earliest determination of the number and health of the survivors, to the days of anticipating the completion of the drilling, followed by the successful lowering of the rescue capsule down into the mine, to the scheduled rescue of the first miner, to the repetition of this structure of anticipation and joy. Each stage of the event anticipated the next, keeping the anticipatory premediation moving forward, intensifying into a global media event as the moment of the rescue approached.

The Chilean miner rescue has already established itself as a global historical event. This is of course on account of the heroic actions of the Chilean government, US and international technological experts, and the miners and rescuers themselves. But equally importantly it has established itself as a historic event not only through its heroic rescue narrative but also for the way in which it mobilized global affectivity through the workings of premediation. In the second decade of the 21st century historical events are not separable from global media events.