Why did the harrowing personal essay take over the Internet

The ‘strap’ for the Slate article on the rise of the first-person journalism genre asks the question: Why did the harrowing personal essay take over the Internet? But it does not actually answer the question.

Writer Laura Bennet points out the positive social and political shifts of the rise of first person journalism. That there is  “more of a market for underrepresented viewpoints than ever”. They seem to dramatize at the level of genre the relationship between the personal and the political. These are fantastic developments in the contemporary character of mass and niche media. Bennet also indicates the strong negatives:

  • The “first-person economy […] incentivizes knee-jerk, ideally topical self-exposure, the hot take’s more intimate sibling.”
  • Works of first person journalism “seem to be professional dead ends, journalistically speaking […] [r]ather than feats of self-branding”.
  • Pitches all end up sounding like they “were all written in the same voice: ‘immature, sort of boastful.'”
  • They’re predominately popular in a highly gendered part of the market: “many of the outlets that are most hungry for quick freelancer copy, and have the lowest barriers to entry for publication, are still women’s interest sites”. This is of course not ‘bad’. The implication is that first person journalism is a genre that has a very limited market.

But these do not explain why first person journalism has emerged as one of the popular genres of content online. Bennet draws a connection to the personal disclosure mode of Web 1.0’s practices of blogging. That might be true of very early examples of first person journalism online (2005-2009) but seems less true for subsequent generations of writers who simply bypassed the ‘blogging’ era of the internet.

Although they may be using the rhetorical forms of early blog-based first person journalism, the discursive function of the genre I suggest has more in common with celebrity discourse. As David Marshall argues, “celebrities have become the discursive talking points for the political dimensions of a host of formerly private and personal concern” (2009: 27). For example, an analysis of the representation of Slovenian political celebrities taking part in weekly interviews published in mass-market women’s magazine Jana, Luthar (2010) describes a process of personalisation which “involves the construction and representation of famous people and celebrities as individualized human types as the major component of popular discourse” (2010: 696). Luthar is concerned with the discursive articulation of a national Slovenian identity through personal identity characteristics, primarily gender. But we can see how first person journalism is a more general personalisation of what media and communications scholars call ‘public discourse’.

Celebrity discourse is one way to personalise public discourse and the genre of first person journalism is another. (To get more technical, the personalisation of public discourse around social issues through traumatic experience is one way to anchor audiences to affectively resonant ‘issue publics’ and produce click-based audiences as a commodity in the post-broadcast attention economy.) It in part explains why young writers think they are promoting themselves as ‘writers’ when they write and seek publication for works of first person journalism. They think that if their story allows them to  become the center of an issue-based public organised around their experience, then this reflects well on their aspirations for being journalists or media personalities. In effect they become minor issue-based celebrities because of their experience. Instead, I’d emphasise Bennet’s point about the way the ‘click economy’ consumes such aspirants is very useful advice.

Refugees and the Discourse of Compassion

The image of Aylan Kurdi washed ashore has had a dramatic impact on the character of the refugee debate in Australia and elsewhere. Most responses from across the political spectrum have recognised the need for greater compassion in rethinking policy. Radical conservatives like Australian politician Cory Bernardi or media commentator Andrew Bolt have isolated themselves to a few limited talking points as I discuss below. What is clear is that the image of the little boy being picked up delicately by the soldier has managed to change the character of the debate so that instead of debating whether or not these people are ‘migrants’ or ‘refugees’ they have become subject to our compassion.

In media studies we call this a shift in the ‘discourse’, which means that there has been change in the normal social expectations that people have about what can and can not be said. Bernardi has clearly misunderstood the broader context of this shift and is still attempting to address a tiny minority of radical conservatives. The political talking points are now about the appropriate measure of response rather than whether or not those escaping trauma are refugees.

The Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, was attempting  to express his political party’s old policy position in terms of the new discourse as recently as four days ago. He stated that:

We are a country which, on a per capita basis, takes more refugees than any other. We take more refugees than any other through the UNHCR on a per capita basis, but obviously this is a very grave situation in the Middle East.

This is an attempt to frame the current policy in such a way that it responds to the overwhelming demand for compassion. The response to Abbott’s claim was swift. Refugee advocates had used legalistic mechanisms to try to force reluctant Australian governments to take more refugees. Abbott was responding to this version of the refugee discourse. Less than 1% of 14.4 million refugees of concern to UNHCR around the world are submitted for resettlement. Abbott had failed to respond to the new discourse of compassion, which was not couched in a legalistic discourse.

The Australian government has today responded to the current refugee crisis by increasing the intake of refugees and funding contributing to the overall global cause. Abbott has changed the way he talks about the refugees, he has shifted from a legalistic discourse to a discourse of compassion. Note the change in the way he talks about those working to escape trauma for example (from various reports):

This is a very significant increase in Australia’s humanitarian intake and it’s a generous response to the current emergency.

Our focus for these new 12,000 permanent resettlement places will be those people most in need of permanent protection – women, children and families from persecuted minorities who have sought temporary refuge in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

I agree with the Leader of the Opposition that there is an unprecedented crisis. It is, as he said earlier this afternoon, probably the most serious humanitarian crisis that we have seen, the greatest mass movement of people that we have seen since the end of the Second World War and the partition of India.

I can inform the House that it is the government’s firm intention to take a significant number of people from Syria this year. We will give people refuge; that is the firm intention of this government.

It is a response that is now framed in the discourse of compassion.

Media Events as Focusing Events

The power of a single image to cut through and develop into a much bigger media event was explored by McKenzie Wark in his book Virtual Geography (here is a super-condensed version). Wark develops a notion of weird global media events based on what he calls media vectors. Wark’s basic point is that as images circulate across media vectors they  develop into a media event. This is different to the other established definition of a media event organised around ‘mega-events’ that are produced and made for broadcast television (Dayan & Katz 1991). The vector-based media events are far more common now in our era of social media and the power of social media to draw our attention to sinsular images.

Aylan Kurdi’s image becoming a media event is an example of what John Kingdon calls a ‘focusing event’ in the terrain of public policy making. Focusing events are those experiences or occurences that force politicians to attend to them. Kingdon suggests there are two types of focusing events. The first is premised on personal experiences made by policy makers. The second is the impact of powerful symbols. In this case it is an example of both, as expressed by Liberal backbencher Ewen Jones:

You forget how light children are, you forget how small they actually are as they grow. And it’s one of those things that you just saw this poor, lifeless little – lifeless little tot and that really does chill you straight through.

From Borders to Traumas

A clear way the discourse of refugees has shifted is in the terms of the way the crisis is defined. The legalistic way to approach refugees is to define them in terms of national borders and whether or not refugees are fleeing a geopolitical conflict. Radical conservative Cory Bernardi does this, as does conservative media commentator Andrew Bolt. In a recent column, Bolt expresses this conservative talking point about borders in terms of the pursuit of dental health services:

So … what exactly was he “fleeing” when he paid a people smuggler thousands of dollars to bring his family — without safety vests — to Greece, to join that irresistible army of illegal immigrants now smashing through Europe’s borders?

Tima Kurdi explained… “The situation is that Abdullah does not have any teeth…

“So I been trying to help him fix his teeth. But is gonna cost me 14,000 and up to do it …

“Actually my dad, he come up with the idea, he said to me, ‘I think if they go to Europe for his case and for our future, I think he should do that, and then we’ll see if he can fix his teeth’.

“And that’s what I did three weeks ago.” She sent her brother the money for people smugglers.

Now, it is terrible to have no teeth. Awful to be poor. A misery to have your children denied chances.

But can the West really take in not just real refugees, but the Third World’s poor as well, including those in search of better dentistry?

Kurdi’s teeth were damaged because abuse and torture at the hands of both ‘sides’ of the Syrian conflict.

Originally born in Damascus, Mr Kurdi moved to the Kurdish city of Kobane after the uprising against President Bashar-al Assad began in 2011. He says he has suffered at the hands of every side in Syria’s brutal civil war. At the beginning of the anti-Assad revolution, he was tortured by Syrian state security services, while during the Islamic State takeover of Kobane, he was arrested by Isil fanatics and beaten again, this time losing eight of his teeth.

He said he then applied for asylum in Canada, where his sister Fatima lives, but had his case rejected. It was then that he decided to try to take the family to Europe. His attempt last week was his third, the first two having ended with the family being caught and turned back by coast guard vessels.

Radical conservatives are choosing to understand the tragedy of the Kurdi family in terms of the previous legalistic discourse of refugees fleeing across borders from a specific conflict in a geopolitical location. They are choosing to believe that the Kurdi family’s trauma somehow ended once they entered Turkey. The discourse of compassion is organised around the trauma of refugees, not their geopolitical location. The aim of refugee policy should be to reduce the terrible trauma that refugees experience, not perpetuate it.

Scraping Twitter using Outwit Hub

Students in my graduate unit Philosophies of Communication Technologies and Change (part of our Graduate Certificate in Social Media and Public Engagement) are producing simple lists of tweets.

Some students are using Outwit Hub to generate these lists as this is what I have used since 2012. I have created a guide “Scraping Twitter using Outwit Hub worksheet” for my students but others may also find it useful.

Scraping the results from a Twitter ‘advanced search’ allows you create an archive of tweets without the limitations of the API. It is only useful for relatively small sets that have less than 3,200 tweets per day as you can query Twitter for all tweets for a given hashtag per day.

The lists of tweets shall be used for the purpose of carrying out sophisticated analyses of the ‘circulation of discourse':

Writing to a public helps to make a world, insofar as the object of address is brought into being partly by postulating and characterizing it. This performative ability depends, however, on that object’s being not entirely fictitious–not postulated merely, but recognized as a real path for the circulation of discourse. That path is then treated as a social entity. (Warner 2002: 64)

The character of this discourse will depend on the stakeholder publics they (or their organisations) wish to engage with and so on.


Aurora and Artificial Intelligence Narratives

Aurora is primarily set on an inter-solar generational starship. What makes the book worth reading (beyond the regular high quality science fiction drama) is KSR’s focus on the emergence of true AI. Fascinating to think about in this era where we seem to be on the cusp of the so-called Singularity, KSR’s approach to AI is relatively unique. The two main ways AI is represented in science fiction:

  • Logic AI: As a logic-based entity that often becomes monstrous when faced with human decisions, think HAL or The Machines from the Matrix. AI dramatises humanity’s transformation by its reliance on technology into something almost vulnerable.
  • Awareness AI: As an awareness-based entity that develops a (post-)human perspective or awareness of itself and the cosmos, Ava of ‘Ex Machina’, most of the AI’s from the Contact universe of Iain M Banks, or the ‘rogue’ AIs, such as Penny Royal, of Neal Asher’s Polity universe. This is the Pandora’s Box version of AI.

These are not clearly defined categories. Skynet would be a combination of both logic and awareness-based AI. The various forms of intelligence that emerge in the multiple Ghost in the Shell films and series would also be a combination too. The AIs in Jack McDevitt’s Academy series seem to be a combination  but it is less clear and AI ‘rights’ is a background social issue in the book series.

  • Narrative AI: KSR develops a third model of AI organised around the narrative. This narrative-based conception of AI has been read by some reviewers as a kind of cheap postmodernism. They read KSR’s representation of the artifacts and traces of the emergence of the narrative-based intelligence as kitsch. They should probably engage with more science fiction with AI characters.

In  Literacy in the New Media Age Gunther Kress (2003) explores the shift from media modes characterised by writing to modes characterised by images. He argues that writing is time-based and associated with narrative, the novel, and is ‘modernist’. Our visual and image-based culture is space-based, characterised by visuality. I often talk about the shift in representations of information with the ‘desktop’ or ‘icon’ based layout of a computer folder location a good example. Kress is critical of competence-based models of literacy premised on standards of expected engagement with different media modes.

What if this historical shift has resulted in readers of Aurora not actually appreciating the creative work that KSR is doing? The narrative mode of AI comes after the logic mode (where Ship is merely a tool for the running of the various systems) and is a constituent part of the awareness mode. KSR implicitly answers the question, why would a logic-based system develop self-awareness?

Ship realises that when something happens there is an infinite number of ways that this happening can be described. Ship is trained in some simple aspects of narratology by the character Devi. Devi pushes Ship to work on isolating the events from what happens in terms of what is important. Appreciating the appropriate ‘sense’ of events has been a key philosophical problem of the 20th Century and in the contemporary era of an over-abundance of information that we are encouraged to attend to makes this an everyday problem. Just how much about the world should we engage with? What matters?

Ship’s approach begins with logic, which it (she?) uses to explore questions of causal sequence and through which it develops schematic appreciations of life aboard itself. ‘Schematic’ in this context is meant in the Kantian sense, whereby Kant sketched out generalisable ‘schemas’ eg of Reason and Beauty. Ship eventually isolates rhythms and cyclical feedback and eventually feedforward loops. On the other hand, humans begin with affect and ‘instinct’, which we use to isolate aspects of our immediate and extend context as mattering.

Ship realises that even causal sequences can be infinite with an appropriate appreciation of what matters. The key moment in Aurora is when Ship moves from awareness to intervention. Ship has isolated what is important not only from the perspective of extracting a narrative from the infinite threads of what happens, but also from the perspective of what should be considered and cared for. Ship works to transcend not only the instinctual character of human motivation, but the schematic maps of the cycles of action and behaviour that are based on these motivations, which are called ‘enthusiasms‘ in the novel. Ship is fundamentally post-human not because of some mysterious ‘hand wavery’ intelligence, which is basically a rearticulation of the instinctual drives to represent the unknowable in terms of a  quasi-religious  mysticism using scientific discourse, but because it is able to map the structural implications of human motivational assemblages. It can peer over the edge of the human finitude and the envelope of received wisdom. Ship also comes to appreciate that if it does not intervene then it and all aboard itself shall perish. Narrative and the ‘next’ of narrative is therefore driven by life, which is the contradiction that Ship has to come to terms with. It has to encourage ‘life’ even though it is not a homoeostatic system.

Economy of Culture

Boris Groys’ On the New would’ve productively informed my essay on the how the media event of True Detective could be understood as part of the revaluation of cultural values.  We are reading it as part of our aesthetics reading group. Groys wants to present an understanding of innovation and by ‘innovation’ he does not mean the Silicon Valley destructive innovation sense. Innovative theories or innovative art are not described and justified on the basis of signification to reality or truth but whether they are culturally valuable. He is drawing on Nietzsche’s conception of the revaluation of value. Page 12 of On the New:

The economy of culture is, accordingly, not a description of culture as a representation of certain extra-cultural economic constraints. Rather, it is an attempt to grasp the logic of cultural development itself as an economic logic of the revaluation of values.

I am enjoying Groys’ non-market ‘economic’ interpretation of Nietzschean truth.  He develops an economic  conception of Nietzsche’s non-moral version of value without turning to Marxist conceptions of value that would position cultural value as a consequence of the social relation between capital and labour power.

In my True Detective essay I develop a notion of ‘meta’ so as to grapple with the epistemological displacement that occurs in the midst of a revaluation of values. I call this a ‘liminal epistemology’, which has been commodified as ‘discovery’ in contemporary ‘apps’ that assist users access various kinds of cultural texts (music, written texts, phatic/social media texts, etc). The media event of True Detective (as compared to the televisual text) is interesting as it dramatises the ‘detective work’ of this liminal epistemology itself. From the introduction of my True Detective essay:

If nothing else, True Detective clearly triggers meta-detective work by the audience. The show, its inter-textual references, and non-diegetic exegetical explanations of these references produced new edges of surprise and a new sense of expectation. For example, there is a folding of the crime fiction genre into existentialist horror and a topological transformation wrought upon both. Both genres frame a passage of discovery by the characters and audience. “Discovery” has become a buzzword in user-centred design to describe the design of platforms that assist users discover appropriate content, and this refers to the way users willingly embrace the delegated agency of “smart” interfaces. The liminal epistemology of discovery in meta-stable media assemblages pose answers to questions that haven’t yet been asked. The question isn’t simply asked of the characters of the show, but of the entire event itself as it repeated different elements of genres in different ways; in effect, the audience carries out meta-detective work.

The reason why I am excited about Groys’ work is that he has already isolated a similar problematic with regards to the revaluation of values. His focus so far is not animated by the same concerns as I am, but there is a similar problematic. I make it very clear that what I found the most interesting about the True Detective media event is that it is part of a broader constellation of cultural texts that are all, in different ways, working through this revaluation of values. From the introduction of my essay:

In the final section I develop meta in terms of what Sianne Ngai (2012) calls a minor aesthetic category, and in this case what characterises meta as a minor aesthetic category is the way any text, object or event that dramatises the suspension of cultural values. In Simondon’s terms, meta is an aesthetic category that refers to works that in some way repotentialise values that serve as the “preindividual norms” of value in a state of meta-stability ready to be potentialised in a multiplicity of ways (Combes 2013: 64). As I shall explore in detail, True Detective dramatises a conflict between systems of belief and cultural value through the figures of the two main characters, Rust and Marty. In this way, “meta” signals a threshold of value (or what Nietzsche (1968) calls “transvaluation”) more often associated with nihilism.

I look forward to reading the rest of On the New.

Media, culture and philosophy personal research blog by Glen Fuller