Wednesday, October 26, 2011

40 Days in the Wilderness: Premediation and the Virtual Occupation of Wall Street

Given the biblical implications of 40 days and nights, this is as good a time as any to add my voice to the swelling chorus of academic analyses of #occupywallstreet. Nearly two weeks into the occupation of Wall Street I had suggested in an initial analysis that no matter how the occupation turned out it was already successful insofar as it had premediated the occupation of Wall Street and other occupations across the world. In particular I argued that “Insofar as premediation generates potential or virtual futures as a way to mobilize individual and collective affect in the present,… #occupywallstreet opens up paths to potential futures in which the occupation of Wall Street (or the political occupation of other sites) is actualized.” 40 days into the occupation, I want to develop this claim further to argue that it is precisely its virtuality, its resistance to making specific demands or adopting a platform, that makes #occupywallstreet successful and that will keep it growing and thriving.

The virtuality of the movement is evident in its very name, which calls for the occupation of Wall Street even while not occupying Wall Street per se. The occupation of Zuccotti Park is near Wall Street, but Wall Street is not occupied either as street, building, or financial institution. Wall Street is, however, virtually occupied, as Times Square has been, as Chicago or Los Angeles or the London Stock Exchange have been. While some veterans of earlier protest movements have argued that occupation involves going inside buildings and taking possession—as Wisconsin protesters did in the State Capitol—it is the potentiality of these virtual occupations, I would argue, their premediation of greater and more numerous and powerful potential occupations in the future, that vitalizes the Occupy movement.

The virtuality of the Occupy movement is evident as well in the widespread feeling that the movement should not at this point make explicit demands, for doing so would prematurely and unnecessarily constrain or limit the movement’s gathering strength. Despite increasingly vocal appeals by the chattering class of the mainstream political media for the Occupy movement to develop a list of specific demands it has now become almost a truism that such demands would be premature. In a brief video interview Wallace Shawn gives voice to the widely shared belief that the movement is in the preliminary stage, that it is "before the moment of specifics." Judith Butler plays off of this belief in her recent speech at Washington Square Park about demanding the impossible, which is another way to refuse actualizing or realizing any particular demands, but rather of encouraging the proliferation of informed, half-formed, nascent or potential exams.

Premediation works by mobilizing affect in the present, by deploying multiple modes of mediation and remediation in shaping the affectivity of the public, in preparing people for some field of possible future actions, in producing a mood or structure of feeling that makes possible certain kinds of actions, thoughts, speech, affectivities, feelings, moods, mediations that might not have seemed possible before or that might have fallen flat or died on the vine or not produced echoes and reverberations. As an event of premediation, #occupywallstreet is also working to change the mood or collective affective tone in the media, in public discourse, in social networks, and in the political sphere so that talking about amnesty for college or mortgage debt or demanding increased taxes on the wealthiest individuals and corporations or thinking about restructuring property relations and economic becomes not only permissible, but indeed begins to appear as common sense or received wisdom. So #occupywallstreet may make it possible, say, for politicians to take positions they could not have taken before, by providing cover, or clearing the ground, by means of the shaping of collective moods or structures of feeling out of which more intense feelings about economic injustice are generated.

Before any specific goals or demands can be formulated, and perhaps even if they never are, what has to happen first is that #occupywallstreet must continue to do what it is already doing—fostering and intensifying what Jonathan Flatley would characterizes as “a revolutionary counter-mood.” The heart of this revolutionary counter-mood can be found in what the opening lines of the September 29 Declaration of the Occupation of New York City call a collective "feeling of mass injustice." “As we gather together in solidarity to express a feeling of mass injustice, we must not lose sight of what brought us together. We write so that all people who feel wronged by the corporate forces of the world can know that we are your allies.” The initial aims of #occupywallstreet seem clear—to produce and intensify a mood of occupation or civil disobedience, a shared feeling of injustice towards such developments as income inequality, the foreclosure crisis, workplace discrimination, student loan debt, and a host of other 21st century developments. It is too early to have the kind of specific list of grievances, demands, goals, but rather this is the time to try to spread and complexify the networks of revolutionary feelings, to try out the power of popular assembly, to let it grow and mutate and mobilize to see how powerful or extensive it might get.

40 days into the occupation, #occupywallstreet is perhaps still becoming a movement. Or to play off of Erin Manning’s recent book, Relationscapes: Movement, Art, Philosophy, I would suggest that #occupywallstreet might best be understood as a becoming movement, still in a stage of preacceleration or incipient movement. As a virtual movement #occupywallstreet remains in an ongoing process of inventing what a global social and political movement can be in the 21st century. In so doing it is producing its own rhythms, its own temporality, through stages of preacceleration and intensification and emergence and articulation, only then to return to another interval of preacceleration and re-intensification and re-individuaton. “When articulation becomes collective, a politics is made palpable whereby what is produced is the potential for divergent series of movements. This is a virtual politics, a politics of the not-yet… These are not politics we can choreograph but politics in the making…. These are politics of that many-bodied state of transition that is the collective” (27).

It is precisely this incipience, this preacceleration, that makes #occupywallstreet so frustrating to politicians and political commentators, who are trapped within neoliberalism’s calculus “of the rational modern subject,” according to which the Occupy movement does not compute—does not even compute exactly as a movement, since it has no clear aim or goal. This incipient emergence can be both powerful and frustrating for those participating in the occupation, as expressed in this recent piece from Harrison Schultz: “For the sake of keeping your head sane and your heart still engaged, be aware: we are not in control. You are not in control. We at the NYC occupation are not in control. The website hosts are not in control. No one is in control of this hurricane.” As Schultz suggests, not unlike recent geotechnical, political disasters like 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the BP Oil Spill, or the Sendai quake, or the occupation’s more immediate precursors in the University of California student protests, the Arab Spring, or the labor protests in Madison, #occupywallstreet is emerging as a complex 21st-century media event, with its own temporality, its own affectivities, and its own scale.

In her recent post on “Lessons from #occupywallstreet,” Jodi Dean addresses the movement’s incipience and its untapped potential, the fact that “the movement exceeds any single occupation.” Dean writes: “We will start learning the different tonalities and variations of this movement. Some sites might become more intensive as others regroup. Some might abandon one site in order to occupy new possibilities. Regrouping is an opportunity: an opportunity to build outside of the prying eyes and presumptive expectations of a 24/7 media cycle concerned only with pumping content through feeds.” The “regrouping” that Dean speaks of functions similarly to what Manning describes as the “interval.” “Political philosophy has not made space for the interval within the vocabulary of the rational modern subject,” writes Manning, “yet the interval has nonetheless leaked into the complex iterations of pure plastic rhythm’s political becomings” (28).

Insofar as #occupywallstreet in fact creates such an interval in the daily rhythm of business as usual, it has the ability to open the political space for potential becomings whose scope and power remain untapped and unsounded. Dean sees the arrival of winter in the northern hemisphere as providing for an opportunity to regroup, an interval, from which the Occupy movement can emerge with even greater vitality than it currently possesses. In the past few days, police crackdowns in Chicago, Atlanta, and most violently Oakland have brought about state-sponsored intervals which will almost certainly have the result of intensifying the movement. And insofar as Atlanta and Oakland are relatively temperate in the winter, it would not be surprising to see those nodes on the Occupy network intensify in the coming months. As a virtual occupation of Wall Street and hundreds of other sites around the world, the Occupy movement should take advantage of whatever intervals it can make or find to help actualize a more just world. By premediating and proliferating potential futures for social and political opposition and a more just world, #occupywallstreet will be able to intensify "a feeling of mass injustice," thereby mobilizing collective affectivity towards an increasingly powerful revolutionary counter-mood of occupation.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Occupy Wall Street Premediates the Occupation of Wall Street

Nearing the end of its second week, the movement called Occupy Wall Street has begun to attract both media and celebrity attention. Excessive police brutality over the past weekend caught the eye of the New York Times, the big three US network news broadcasts, and (before either of the other two) cable news networks like MSNBC, CNN, and Fox. This mainstream media discussion has fostered an increasingly intense debate in online media and the blogosphere about the trivial or condescending nature of the media coverage, as well as about the significance of this "occupation," its strategy, tactics, messaging, and long-term goals.

The focus of much of this discussion (even the meta-media critiques) has been on the significance of the occupation itself, what it represents, what it might become. What has been missing from these mainstream and participatory media accounts is any sustained critical and theoretical discussion of Occupy Wall Street as itself an act of mediation, or as I understand it, of premediation. Occupy Wall Street is best understood as a premediation of the occupation of Wall Street. Let me explain.

Because most of the successful political premediations of the 21st century have been in the service of state and corporate power, I have often been asked whether premediation could contest, oppose, or overturn hegemonic power. Put most starkly, can premediation advocate or help to actualize political change or revolution?

Since introducing the concept in 2003, I have consistently maintained that premediation is not tied to a particular politics. Premediation describes a media formation which emerged and intensified within a historically specific social, political, and technical media regime. Because premediation readily fuels and is fueled by fear, the post-9/11 security environment has been a particularly rich moment for state power to deploy strategies of premediation as a form of preemptive control, as seen in Bush-Cheney's dramatic expansion of executive power in waging the Iraq War and creating a powerful domestic security apparatus.

Insofar as premediation generates potential or virtual futures as a way to mobilize individual and collective affect in the present, there is no reason why such futures could not kindle or nourish a collective affective state of opposition or rebellion. This, I would argue, is what Occupy Wall Street has succeeded in doing, no matter how long the occupation lasts or what eventually comes of it. And in so doing Occupy Wall Street opens up paths to potential futures in which the occupation of Wall Street (or the political occupation of other sites) is actualized. No matter what its goals, tactics, or ultimate conclusion, Occupy Wall Street is successfully premediating the occupation of Wall Street.

This premediation was already evident in the July call for a September 17 occupation, presented on the Adbusters website. The current site archives the ways in which the September 17 event was premediated for over two months. In its initial call to occupy Wall Street on September 17, the Adbusters website seemed designed more to premediate potential occupations in the future than to prompt an actual occupation in September 2011. In the run-up to September 17 the site offered a variety of premediated formats to promote and mobilize individual and collective revolutionary affect through circulation across socially networked media.

The way that Occupy Wall Street functions mainly as a premediation of the occupation of Wall Street can be further drawn out if we compare it to the large protests and 24-7 occupation of the Wisconsin state capitol building in Madison in February and March of this year. Writing about those protests in February, I suggested that they functioned as Benjaminian test performances for socially networked media. This seems even more to be the case with Occupy Wall Street, which seems to have as much to do with generating audiovisual images of protest, occupation, and rebellion in print, televisual, and networked media as with occupying any particular portion of institutional Wall Street.

Still the differences between the two protests should not be understated. The Madison protests were motivated by clear and immediate political wrongs, which were threatening to be made into state law. Occupy Wall Street scheduled its demonstrations and occupations as far back as July and premediated the September 17 occupation in a variety of media forms. Occupy Wall Street differs from the Madison protests as well in regard to the contrast between the significant national celebrity presence at the Wall Street protest as compared to the more regional presence of labor leaders and local politicians in the Madison protests earlier this year.

In making this comparison I am not making the (perhaps justifiable) claim that the Madison protests were authentic expressions of widespread popular political opposition while Occupy Wall Street was an inauthentic political action staged by a group of net activists. Rather I am arguing that it is precisely the premediation of potential future occupations that constitutes Occupy Wall Street's political efficacy and that this premediation is no less "authentic" (a concept I find problematic in any event) than the protests in Wisconsin.

That Occupy Wall Street is first and foremost a successful instance of premediation is borne out in part by the heavy Hollywood and public intellectual media presence, from Roseanne Barr, Susan Sarandon, and Lupe Fiasco to Michael Moore, Cornel West, and the Yes Men. Again, this is not to criticize Occupy Wall Street but to try to explain what I take to be its long-term social and political impact. The presence of media figures from the left is part and parcel of the liberal premediation assemblage, much as the presence of televangelicals and right-wing "intellectuals" populate and propagate conservative versions of premediation.

The most lasting legacy of Occupy Wall Street might very well be precisely its successful demonstration of how premediation can be mobilized in the service of resistance and opposition rather than securitization and control.


Thursday, March 10, 2011

Part 3: Conversation with Henry Jenkins on Remediation, Premediation, and Transmedia

Here's a link to the third and final part of my conversation with Henry Jenkins on remediation, premediation, and transmedia. It's on history and politics--the meatiest of the three parts. Check it out.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Part 2: Conversation with Henry Jenkins on Remediation, Premediation, and Transmedia

Here's a link to the second part of an extended conversation I had with Henry Jenkins on the relationship between remediation, premediation, and transmedia.

Conversation concludes with Part 3 on Friday.


Monday, March 7, 2011

Conversation with Henry Jenkins on Remediation, Premediation, and Transmedia

Here's a link to the first part of an extended conversation I had with Henry Jenkins on the relationship between remediation, premediation, and transmedia.


Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Are Recent Protests Test Performances for Social Media?

Were the mass protests-turned-revolt in Egypt inspired by mobile, social media? Variations of this question have generated innumerable blogs, tweets, status updates, emails, and stories in the print, televisual, and networked media over the past month. I posted on this question myself in a recent entry, in which I concluded, after suggesting some of the many ways that social media operated within the Egyptian revolt, that it was time to begin asking some different questions.

Having on Wednesday taught Walter Benjamin’s famous essay on mechanical reproduction and spending Saturday in Madison, Wisconsin, protesting the attempt by newly elected Republican Governor Scott Walker to strip public employees of almost all of their rights to bargain collectively, I have some new questions to ask about the relations among social media and collective political action. For now, I’ll stick to one: are events like the protests in the Middle East and the Midwest 21st century versions of the “test performances” Benjamin describes occurring in film.

The concept of “test performances” comes up in Benjamin’s distinction between the stage actor and the film actor. While the stage actor performs for an audience in a theater, the film actor performs for the apparatus of cinema. The performance of the film actor for an audience of experts involved in making the film is a test like those of athletes or of office and factory workers in the 1930s, whose performance is measured and evaluated by various experts and authorities. The film actor, though, was further distinguished by the reproduction of his performance on film, which removed its auratic qualities.

The key issue in answering the question might concern audience. The protest in Wisconsin was performed less for the audience at the Capitol in Madison than for the local, national, and global news media. The protests have generated hundreds of thousands of emails, photos, sound clips, videos, tweets, FB updates, blogs, and news items for the print, televisual, and global news media. Over the past week Madison has been a dense and complex node at the intersection of many different networks—television, newspaper, government, education, labor, media, and so forth. As thousands of protesters follow transportation networks (car, bus, bike, or foot) to the capital, they bring with them a variety of other networks, geolocated via phones, GPS, or other mobile devices, as well as connected by cameras, audiovisual recorders, or credit cards, each of which has the power to activate other networks.

The protesters, I would argue, act through these networks. This action is amplified by numbers—both because the increased number of protesters increases the number of network media events but because in representing a larger number of protesters, each mediation stands for or carries with it or acts as a spokesman for a larger number of people, a larger collectivity.

Two events I witnessed/participated in can help elucidate the way in which the protests work as test performances. The first occurred last Saturday, where Nathaniel Stern and I watched a small group of Tea Partiers try to provoke a union leader and union supporters for the sole purpose of capturing it on video.

The young man in the brown leather jacket with a video camera was with the Tea Party provocateur in the blue and purple hockey jacket and ski cap. They were trying to rile up protesters then film them up close with shaky video to give the impression that the protesters were angry and violent. Initially the provocateur tried to provoke a union leader, who showed admirable restraint in trying to explain the process of collective bargaining before turning away. Meanwhile some union supporters had begun a chant; the man with the video camera went up in their faces, shaking the camera to give the impression that the scene was riotous and potentially violent. This is an increasingly familiar media tactic used on the right, performed solely as a test for the media. The audiovisual event that was produced from this event bears little relation to the actual historical events as they happened on the grounds of the Capitol—nor was it meant to.

A second, more benign version of this occurred on Tuesday at the Capitol, when Lane Hall and I were asked to participate in a press conference being staged by union organizers. The organizers had rounded up demonstrators to stand behind the three union members who spoke and answered questions. This test performance, too, was oriented not towards the small audience in the Capitol’s NW hearing room but to a local, regional, and national television audience. Indeed on the 5:00 local news on TJM4, the “supporters” were plainly visible behind the 3 union spokespeople (though I was off to the side, out of camera range).

Both of these performances, one from the right and one from the left, were not aimed at the audiences on the spot, at a particular historical moment, but were directed at the local, national, and global print, televisual, and networked media. In the ongoing protests, whatever pressure the protests put on Wisconsin’s Republican leadership comes much less from the results of the action of protesting at the Capitol itself than from its amplification, multiplication, and distribution across millions of screens—from HD television and computer monitors, to mobile devicess, and so forth. For the battle to be won on the grounds of the capital it will have to be won as well on the screens of the world.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Was Egypt an Internet Revolution?

January 2011 will go down in media history as a momentous month. The month began with the continuation of extensive coverage of the Wikileaks Cablegate controversy in print, televisual, and networked media. Media attention to Wikileaks was eclipsed in large part by the mass shooting in Arizona on January 8, echoes of which had already begun to fade by the time that mass protests forced Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to step down on January 15. But the most geopolitically significant event of the month was the popular revolution in Egypt, which started on January 25 and which finally culminated on February 11 with the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak.

Was this an internet revolution?

Two weeks ago I blogged about the way in which live coverage of the Egyptian protests participated in widespread premediation of the future of Egypt. That premediation continued on February 10 as the world awaited Mubarak's supposed resignation speech; it continued up until Mubarak finally resigned on February 11. Both before and now after his resignation, cable news networks and the political blogosphere have been filled with premediations of what will follow Mubarak's departure. And you can rest assured that such premediations will not end any time soon. In the 21st century print, televisual, and networked news media are oriented largely to anticipating the future, even while covering news live as it happens.

One proiminent theme running through the premediation of Egypt's and the region's future involved the role of the internet in mobilizing political revolution. The uprisings in Egypt have produced the latest chapter in a familiar debate about the political efficacy of social media: were these mass protests caused by mobile social media like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, or were they the genuine, authentic expression of the will to democracy of the Egyptian people? Cable news networks are obsessed with the connections to Twitter and Facebook, focusing on Google marketing executive Wael Ghonim, who first set up a crucial Facebook page and was arrested and interrogated by Egyptian security forces before being released on February 7. Malcolm Gladwell has weighed in with his typically superficial dismissal of the role of social media in political revolution, and Frank Rich has echoed him in his February 6 NYT column.

As the Egyptian revolution continues to intensify, the debate over whether it is a Twitter or Facebook revolution or whether it is a popular revolution caused by mass popular unrest looks in many senses increasingly simple-minded. On the eve of and in the aftermath of Mubarak's departure it seems impossible to deny that the revolution was intensified, amplified, and mobilized by all sorts of media--not just social media but also by global networked print and televisual news media. The pressure put by mass and participatory media on politicians in US and Egypt undoubtedly has helped to accelerate Mubarak's departure. But this pressure was inseparable from, and given its own urgency and intensification by, the proliferation of audiovisual mediations of mass protests in Cairo and Alexandria, as well as elsewhere in the West and in the Middle East.

It is time to move beyond the tired liberal antinomy between the human and the technical, between social and medial agency. As I have argued in response to the similar debate surrounding the mass shootings in Arizona, agency is never singular but is always the product of hybrid networks of human, social, technical, medial, and other actants. What makes social media efficacious is precisely that they are such hybrid networks, complex alliances of human will and desire, technical networks, media formats, embodied individual and collective affectivity, and so forth.

While I have no patience with utopian technologically determinist claims that social movements like those currently under way in the Middle East are caused by Facebook or Twitter or YouTube or mobile phones or cable news networks like Al Jazeera, I have even less patience for the stubborn resistance of Gladwell, Rich, and others to the idea that these social media networks have little or no effect on the ongoing events in the Middle East. We do not have to deny the amplifying, intensifying, and co-creative effects of social media in order to recognize the mass popular movements in the Middle East as the expression of revolutionary fervor or agency.

Sadly, continuing to deny these effects begins to look increasingly like the denial by Fox News and others on the right that the media climate of anti-government violence in the run-up to the 2010 election had no impact on Jared Lee Loughner's mass assassination efforts in Arizona. When Frank Rich, Malcolm Gladwell, and other vocal deniers of the agency of social media in the Egyptian revolution end up maintaining the same simple-minded account of human agency expressed by Sarah Palin in regard to the mass shootings in Arizona, it's a sure sign that they need to embrace a more complex understanding of human, technical, and medial agency.

So was Egypt an internet revolution? We need to begin asking a different question.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Egypt, Premediation, and the Liveness of Futurity

Although it may go without saying, I will say it anyway: the current crisis in Egypt is a case study for premediation in action. The questions that preoccupy print, televisual, and socially networked media all pertain to the premediation of the future of the Egyptian demonstrations. Will Mubarak go or stay? If he goes, who will replace him? El Baradei? The Muslim brotherhood? What are the potential global economic impacts of these events? What does this mean for the future of US relations in the Mideast? How will it impact Israel? Is this a democratic revolution? An Islamic revolution? A class revolution? Will this spread to other Mideast countries as it did from Tunisia?

Undoubtedly there has been a great deal of attention paid to live coverage of the demonstrations in Egypt that began on January 25--whether through mobile media like videophones and SMS, social networks like Twitter and FB, participatory networks on the blogosphere, major international networked newspapers like The Guardian or The New York Times, and live television coverage by cable news networks like BBC, CNN, or Al Jazeera. Indeed the shutdown of internet traffic by the Egyptian government, followed by its disruption of Al Jazeera's live feed, caused much consternation in the global mediasphere. But even while these shutdowns blocked much of the live media traffic out of Egypt, they have also prompted the generation of other channels to bypass the Egyptian government's censorship efforts.

What is interesting about the emphasis on liveness in the media coverage of the Egyptian demonstrations is that, unlike many earlier global media events, the focus on liveness is less about immediacy and real-time coverage than it is about trying to determine where these events are heading, what the future will bring. Think, for example, about two major live media events from the summer of 1997, internet and televisual coverage of the Mars Pathfinder's unmanned exploration or the fatal vehicle crash that killed Princess Diana. These late 1990s remediation events emphasized the immediacy of globally networked telecommunication and its hypermediacy in various media formations--the story was immediacy, connectivity, and real-time coverage. In premediation events like those unfolding in Egypt, the story is much more focused on potentiality, or the liveness of futurity.

In part of course this is due to the emergent nature of the mass demonstrations themselves. Day by day they continue to grow and to change, showing no signs of waning and beginning to manifest various fragile and temporary forms of self-organization. But the characteristics of the demonstrations cannot be separated from their forms of mediation and the way in which they perpetuate an almost constant affectivity of anticipation, an orientation towards the next tweet, or live video, or public address. Indeed it is more telling to recognize that the demonstrations themselves are forms of mediation or counter-mediation of power in opposition and resistance to the forms of state-mediated power perpetuated by the Mubarak government--and that these respective mediations of power are inextricable from, and borrow the forms of, the variety of networks of mediation available in the first decades of the 21st century.

Tired debates about whether this is a Twitter of Facebook revolution or whether it is a popular revolution or the beginning of class warfare (about which debates I hope to post later today or tomorrow) are caught up in fundamental logical and conceptual antinomies that have underwritten liberalism in the West since before the 18th century. But even if one wants to take sides in this classic liberal debate (and whichever side one chooses to argue) it is difficult to deny that news coverage in print, televisual, and socially networked media is focused on the premediation of potential geopolitical scenarios. And insofar as these premediations repeatedly emphasize the immediacy of real-time communication across these heterogeneous media channels, the Egyptian demonstrations make evident both the potentiality of mediation and the liveness of futurity.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Jared Lee Loughner and the Affective Contagion of Violent Rhetoric

Almost from the moment Jared Lee Loughner's assassination attempt was first reported, many in the print, televisual, and networked media (and a handful of politicians) have claimed that his actions were motivated or influenced by the increasingly heated rhetorical climate that has prevailed in the US at least since the 1990s when Republicans undertook a coordinated campaign to delegitimize the Clinton presidency. The past several days have seen an intensification of objections to this claim from across the political spectrum. Moderates and those on the left have argued that such a claim only further perpetuated a hostile and violent political and media climate. On the right the most common argument was that there was no evidence that Loughner had been exposed to any of the offending rhetoric or that he was politically motivated in any way.

John Protevi has written a persuasive blog entry contesting the linear, mechanistic notion of causality that underlies these defenses from the right. This causal logic informs this comment left on my previous blog entry: "there is literally no evidence tying Loughner to the usual overheated rhetoric people have been complaining about." Protevi argues that human action is much more complex than such accounts of "billiard-ball" causality suggest. The violent right-wing political rhetoric of Palin, Beck, and others could have influenced Loughner, Protevi argues, even if he had never directly been exposed to any of it because actions always occur within complex social environments.

In his brilliant 2008 book, Affective Mapping, Jonathan Flatley details the ways in which Heideggerian stimmung, or mood, and Raymond Williams' structure of feeling, describe how individual and collective affect can be influenced by the affective environment created by natural, social, cultural, and technical factors. Mood, Flatley argues, extrapolating from Heidegger, is how "historical forces most directly intervene in our affective lives." Flatley follows Heidegger (whose experience in Nazi Germany made this evident almost daily) in seeing moods as "an atmosphere, a kind of weather," which are not inner states but work through us both individually and collectively. "Stimmung is a collective, public phenomenon, something inevitably shared. Moods constitute the 'way in which we are together.'" Flatley likens Heideggerian stimmung to Williams's concept of "structure of feeling," but sees the latter as more social or even class-based. Thus where anger would be a mood, the anti-government attitude of the Tea Party would be a structure of feeling. Both, however, work to mediate individual and collective affectivity and action.

Seen from the perspective of mood or structure of feeling, the relation between Jared Loughner's actions and the violent, anti-government rhetoric of politicians and media figures on the right becomes more clear. Repeated assertions of the appropriateness of using violence against elected government officials when one is unable to use democratic measures to get one's way produce a structure of feeling and an anti-government violent mood within which individual and collective political action and affectivity unfold. We do not directly have to read or hear any particular call for anti-government violence for it to influence our actions. The totality of such violent rhetorical expressions, repeated ad nauseum in print, televisual, and networked media, provides the atmosphere or environment within which our relation to the government takes shape.

While the current anti-government mood or stimmung does not directly cause any particular action, it does, in Fltley's terms, provide us with the knowledge of "what is collectively possible at [this] moment; it tells us what our shared situation is and what may be done within that situation." It is from this perspective of mood or structure of feeling that Jared Lee Loughner can be seen to have been influenced by the violent anti-government rhetoric that has become an unfortunate but inescapable feature of media and political discourse on the right in the first decades of the 21st century.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Violence, Agency, and Technical Mediation in Arizona

The shooting of Gabrielle Giffords and others in Arizona on Saturday has prompted a vigorous debate about the role of violent right-wing rhetoric in prompting the criminal behavior of Jared Lee Loughner. Many sensible people (mainly on the left) have sought to blame politicians who urged their supporters to "reload" or to make use of "Second Amendment remedies" or to "overthrow the liberal government." Less sensible people (mainly on the right but disappointingly in the conservative, i.e., mainstream, media as well) have argued that laying blame in this way only further inflames an already volatile climate. The arguments against this "false equivalence" between rhetoric on the right and the left have been widely distributed and are persuasive.

The current debate has seen the revival of a favorite NRA meme--"Guns don't kill people; people kill people"--as well as its extension to rhetoric or words. The most brilliant discussion of this meme that I know is Bruno Latour's, in his 1994 article "On Technical Mediation." Latour criticizes both the sociological determinism of the NRA (who see guns, or technology generally, as only a neutral instrument) and the technological determinism of those who blame gun violence on the technology itself. For Latour, agency is always hybrid and distributed; it is the actant formed by the alliance between gun and shooter that kills people. Latour cleverly diagrams how agency is commonly detoured or translated into some other form when actors encounter other potential actants.

Thus, an angry man who finds a gun becomes a different agent that an angry man without one; the alliance of man and gun produces the potential for a different action than an angry man alone, transforming the possibility of say violent words or physical violence into the possiblity of gun violence. Similarly a gun on the shelf of a gunstore is a very different agent than a concealed weapon brought to an Arizona Congresswoman's meet and greet.

This schematic account of the relation between agency and technical mediation is of course only a sketch. Latour sees action as always occurring within more complex assemblages or networks of humans and nonhumans, individuals and institutions, words and things. Which brings us back to the role of the current right-wing political rhetoric in Saturday's shootings. It is of course an oversimplification to blame the shootings on such technical mediators as Sarah Palin's famous map of Congressional districts in the crosshairs, as disturing as such images are.

But it is even more simple-minded to claim that such images and their accompanying rhetoric, circulated and amplified in the print, televisual, and networked media, play no role in acts of violence like that committed by Jared Lee Loughner. As I have argued in my recent book, technical and social media work to mobilize individual and collective affect and action. By premediating acts of violence against elected officials, such mediations as Palin's map, circulated and remediated by mainstream and participatory media, work to mobilize all sorts of actions, including those for which Loughner was the trigger.

As an agent, Loughner cannot be understood simply as an isolated, autonomous human (sane or insane). Rather his action must be seen (like all action) as the act of a complex, hybrid agent or quasi-agent, an assemblage made up of a troubled young man who liked to read and saw himself as a dreamer, the rhetorical incitements to violence proliferating on print, televisual, and networked media, the Glock 19- 9mm gun that was legally purchased at Sportsman's Warehouse in Tucson on Nov 30, and other potential actants yet to be identified. Neither guns nor people kill people. People are killed as the result of complex chains and hybrid assemblages of humans, nonhumans, rhetorical mediations, and countless other potential actants. To think that violent right-wing rhetoric did not contribute to the agency of Saturday's murders is as simplistic as the politicans and media figures who spouted, circulated, and amplified such rhetoric in the media.