In the final paragraph of yesterday’s blog post on
the premediation of Hurricane (now post-tropical cyclone turned post-tropical
storm) Sandy, I wrote:
“The premediation of Sandy does not work to preempt
damage; there is no possibility that the damage is going to be prevented or
displaced. Rather premediation works to prepare people affectively for
what might be coming and to multiply the virtual forms in which the damage
might emerge, what kind of event Sandy will turn out to have been.
Premediation helps to bring Sandy into being not to prevent it. Most
importantly the premediation of Sandy does not exist outside of the event as
something distinct from it but rather is immanent to the event; premediation is
part and parcel of Sandy itself.”
I wanted to return to the relation between
premediation and preemption to expand on and clarify this paragraph.For on the face of it the claim that the
premediation of Sandy does not preempt damage seems plain wrong.The global aim of the massive premediation of
disaster and catastrophe by media, government, and non-governmental agencies is
precisely to minimize damage to life and property.By prefiguring, modeling, and simulating the
potential paths and consequences of Hurricane Sandy’s landfall, premediation
may not aim to preempt damage completely, but surely does aim to preempt some
potential damage, particularly to human life and to technical
But what is so interesting about the way
premediation works, and what links it to preemption, is that is does not
consist merely of warnings about the potential dangers that would result from
the event of Sandy but it creates these very dangers in advance of Sandy’s
arrival as a way to try to contain, control, or minimize the damage that Sandy
will cause.That is, rather than wait
for the disaster to occur and then to repair or remediate it, premediation
creates the effects of the disaster before they happen—closing subways,
schools, Wall Street, businesses, government offices, and so forth.
The working of premediation here is indeed very
close to what Brian Massumi has characterized as “the primacy of preemption” in
US politics during the Bush (and now the Obama) administration.But in the case of Sandy, and similar events
of geopolitical and natural catastrophes, what we are witnessing could more
accurately be described as “the primacy of premediation” in which our print,
televisual, and networked news media create the damage of the catastrophe or
disaster before it happens through the force of premediation alone.
Premediation constitutes the virtuality of
the catastrophe or disaster produced by Sandy, generating real effects prior to
and in some sense independent of the actualization of the hurricane
itself.It is immanent to the disaster
insofar as it is generated in advance of the hurricane itself, much as the wind,
waves, and rains that serve as the forerunners to Sandy’s landfall.And, I would argue, the multiple premediations
of Sandy’s eventual landfall and ultimate dissipation are no less real than the
storm’s meteorological and climatological effects, and are no less part of the
heterogeneous event known throughout the print, televisual, and socially
networked media as Hurricane Sandy.
For several days in advance of its eventual landfall, Sandy has been premediated throughout the print, televisual, and socially networked news media as a "Frankenstorm," a once in a thousand year event. Meteorologists, media professionals, and netizens have been waiting in anxious anticipation of an event whose arrival seems in some sense already to have come.
For nearly a decade I have been tracking the way in which the temporality of news media has shifted from a focus on the present and recent past to a focus on the future. Made visible first in the run-up to the Iraq War, news media have increasingly concerned themselves with the premediation of potential futures as much as with the remediation of the recent past. This shift from remediation to premediation has in part been fueled by the proliferation of big data, of computing technologies that aggregate massive amounts of information in order to mine them for indications of futures that are or might be coming. It has also involved a massive expansion of what kinds of media count as news.
The introduction of global cable news networks in the 1980s and 1990s expanded the reach of live, real-time news coverage from regularly scheduled broadcasts to a 24-7, always on capability to cover whatever crisis or catastrophe or item of interest might arise anywhere in the world (or beyond) at any time. In the 21st century social media have expanded the reach of news media exponentially. Now, in addition to local, network, and cable news on television, and daily and weekly print news media, socially networked media like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, blogs, TUMBLR, Instagram, and others all participate in the remediation and premediation of news across the globally networked world.
In addition to the temporal shift enabled by this proliferation of forms of mediation we have also seen a shift in focus from the idea that the aim of the news was to report on what actually happened ("all the news that's fit to print") to the idea that the aim of the news is to premediate what might happen, a shift in emphasis from the actual to the virtual as the province of news media. While this is a daily feature of news in the 21st century, some events make this shift to the premediation of the virtual more evident. Clearly we can see this in the nearly non-stop election coverage of the past 18 months or so, where news media focus much more on the potential implications of any actual occurrences (debates, public statements, revelations of past actions) than on the occurrences themselves. And the future-oriented media temporality of catastrophes like the impending landfall of Hurricane Sandy make particularly clear the way in which print, televisual, and socially networked media today participate in a logic of premediation in which media attend less to what is happening or has happened and more to anticipating what might, or is about to, happen.
In keeping with the Deleuzian version of this distinction, it is important to remember that this shift in media temporality is not a shift from "real" news to "simulated" or "imaginary" news. With Deleuze, Guattari, and others, I want to insist that what we are witnessing is a shift in the notion of the real, in which the virtual futures premediated across our socially networked media are as real as the actual pasts reported in our print, televisual, and networked news. Indeed because of the surplus of virtual futures premediated across our socially networked media, it makes sense to think that these virtual futures are indeed more real than the actual pasts that have been traditionally reported in the news.
One of the things that becomes evident in the premediation
of Sandy is the realization that Sandy itself is not the sole agent or origin or
cause of catastrophic disaster but that this disaster precedes Sandy’s arrival.So on Sunday, a full 24 hours before Sandy's expected landfall, subways and roads were closed; flights were
cancelled; schools were cancelled; government offices were closed; people were
evacuated; power may be shut off in anticipation of Sandy's disrupting it.All of
these events preceded the arrival of the storm, its hurricane-force winds, its torrential rains, its
massive flooding. Sandy's premediation has real social, political, and economic effects prior to its meteorological impact. The print, televisual, and socially networked news media do not just report on the effects of Sandy after they happen but in some sense produce these effects virtually before they happen, in anticipation of their happening.
What is key here is the realization that disaster and
catastrophe are always and already forms of premediation, strategies for premediating the
hurricane and the damage and destruction it might bring.The forms that this destruction will take, and
many of its most significant economic and social effects, precede the
hurricane event—or perhaps are part of that event’s becoming.Premediation helps to bring forth events, to
structure them, not just representationally or cognitively but more
importantly, or more accurately, ontogenetically. In this sense premediation is related to Brian Massumi’s account of preemption—but differs from it in certain key respects.
The premediation of Sandy does not work to preempt damage; there is no possibility that the
damage is going to be prevented or displaced. Rather premediation works
to prepare people affectively for what might be coming and to multiply the virtual forms in which the damage might emerge, what kind of event Sandy will turn out to have been. Premediation helps to bring Sandy into being not to
prevent it. Most importantly the premediation of Sandy does not exist outside of the event as something distinct from it but rather is
immanent to the event; premediation is part and parcel of Sandy itself.
About ten days ago I got a tweet from Cosmopolitan Scum @TheBig0ther asking me if there was any thinking on how anti-war protests act, in a sense, to premediate the war to come? It was only when this tweeter actually saw a poster for a "Don't attack Iran" protest that s/he felt that such a war was actually possible. While a similar phenomenon had been recounted in regard to the worldwide protests against war with Iraq in February 2003, the question got me thinking about how negative premediations might function, a question I had taken up in 2008 in a paranoid video premediation about the possibility of Bush-Cheney refusing to relinquish control of the executive branch on January 20, 2009.
It is hardly news to note that the premediation of war with Iran has been intensifying over the past month or so both in official government statements and in the print, televisual, and networked news media. Glenn Greenwald has been particularly good on this topic in Salon, taking on The New York Times, NBC Nightly News, and CNN's Erin Burnett as leading the chorus of voices premediating war with Iran, even engaging in a heated Twitter exchange with Burnett over the past few days. Last Friday, the headline of a piece by Huffington Post's Michael Calderone explicitly drew the connection with the run-up to the Iraq War: "Iran Nuclear Coverage Echoes Iraq War Media Frenzy." That same day Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi cited Greenwald in arguing that we are seeing in the media a rehearsal of the drumbeats that led up to the Iraq War in 2003: "You can just feel it: many of the same newspapers and TV stations we saw leading the charge in the Bush years have gone back to the attic and are dusting off their war pom-poms."
While the comparison of the current premediation of Iran with the media's role in premediating war with Iraq in 2002-3 is well-taken, what can get lost in the comparison is the arguably more interesting differences between the two situations, particularly between the way in which war with Iran is being premediated by the Obama administration and the way in which the Bush-Cheney administration premediated the war in Iraq. In both cases premediation operates through government spokesmen, military and intelligence proxies, and media outlets. But what distinguishes the current premediation of war in Iran is the way in which, unlike Bush-Cheney, the Obama administration spokesmen operate to premediate war with Iran not by making the case for such war, but the opposite--premediating war with Iran by explaining why such a war would be a bad idea.
Over the past weekend both the US and British governments (who together led the way in making the case for war against Iraq in 2002-3) have made it clear that they disapprove of an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. Statements from the Israeli government, on the other hand, insist that all options are on the table. Meanwhile, Iran has cut off shipments of oil to Britain and France, ahead of sanctions by the French and the British that would have ended that trade in the near future, and are now threatening to cut off other European nations as well.
Despite the Obama administration's caution, global news media continue to premediate a variety of different military confrontations involving Iran. The most visible involves the Strait of Hormuz, where Iran has threatened to cut off oil traffic through the Gulf. Cable news media like CNN have begun accompanying their stories about this potential development with maps of the Gulf oil routes and video of Iranian warships, premediating (as they had in the run-up to the Iraq War) the audiovisual mood of war in advance of any potential blockade--and irrespective of whether such a conflict even occurs.
On February 20, the front page of the New York Times provides an even more complex premediation of a possible Israeli attack on Iran, one which bears more than a passing resemblance to the shape of articles and cable news stories that proliferated in the run-up to the Iraq War. Although the thrust of the article is to outline the difficulties of an Israeli attack, the detailed premediation of various options--including how many (and what kind of) planes Israel would need, where their flight paths could take them, how they would have to refuel, what their targets and timing would be, and whether they could pull it off without the help of the US--make such an attack all the more tangible. And while such an attack remains for the moment only virtual, its effects on the collective mood of the global media public is quite real.
On NBC Nightly News that same evening, a similar case was made, including maps in motion with the three different flight plan options and a retired general to make the case against Israel attacking Iran.
The question to be asked about these negative premediations is whether they work to make such attacks less likely or whether, even while arguing against an Israeli attack, such premediations make such an attack, or some form of war with Iran, more likely. What seems clear is that these premediations (both for and against a potential war with Iran) are serving to shape the mood of the nation, in part to prepare the media public to accept a war if it were to come about, and in part to minimize the sense that such a war would be unnecessary, unjust, or just plain wrong.
Interestingly, if Israel were to attack Iran despite the Obama administration's negative premediations, this would not be the first time that Obama has discouraged a course of action in the Middle East that his administration later followed in some form or another. Clearly some version of this course of action was followed with Libya, and the current hands off policy in Syria might also turn out to be a similar prelude to US intervention of some sort or another.
But I am less concerned, and less qualified, to analyze the Obama administration's foreign policy strategy than I am interested in making sense of their policies and practices of premediation. What makes the Obama administration's negative premediation strategy so interesting is the way in which it clarifies that premediation works independent of its specific content. That is, although the Bush-Cheney premediation of potential paths to war with Iraq turned out to be followed by the shock and awe of March 2003, the premediation of this war had already worked to produce a national affect of at-warness prior to and independent of the war itself.
Similarly, in the current situation we can see that premediation does not only have to work by advocating a particular course of action but can work as well to produce a warlike national mood even while discouraging a course of action. What distinguishes premediation from prediction or preparation or planning is that it works not only whether any of the premediated possibilities actually come about but even when what is being premediated is the opposite of what might come about. Or put differently one can premediate war not only by rehearsing it or making the arguments for it but by discourarging it, making the arguments against it. Both open up, or proliferate, potential paths towards (or away from) war. And most powerfully both produce the same collective mood or orientation towards war, thereby providing an environment in which such war seems not unthinkable but rather thinkable as something that we may see, and indeed have already seen, on TV.
So, can anti-war protests be seen to premediate the very course of action they are protesting against? To answer a question with a question, how could they not?
Richard Grusin is the former Director of the Center for 21st Century Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he is a Professor of English. He is co-author of Remediation: Understanding New Media (MIT 1999). His newest book is Premediation: Affect and Mediality in America after 9/11 (Palgrave 2010).