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.

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