Monday, October 29, 2012

Premediating 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.

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