Thought fragments: Media Power, Audiences, and Conversation

Following Axel Bruns tweeting of the QUT Industry Conversations: The future of journalism in Australia where Sally Young was making some good observations about the current state of the journalism industry. Sally examines political communication and the media industry. What sparked my interest in this was Axel’s tweet:

Of course, one response to this is to note, as Axel reports Sally as noting, that alternative spaces have emerged primarily online:

This got me thinking about power relations and the media and precisely what is the character of media power in this shifting media environment. I replied to Axel with:

In the past, media power was largely defined in terms of being the power to direct attention (by controlling media channels, hence the problem with media ownership) combined with the power to represent newsworthy events (people, activities, objects, etc.) with a particular ideological bias. Media power was largely collapsed into the politics of media representation. This was combatted on two fronts. Firstly by advocating for increased diversity in media ownership and secondly by advocating for an increased diversity of ‘media voices’ to give expression and self-representation to populations outside of the ideological representive frame. At stake in all this was the reproduction of a hegemonic social order, where ‘common sense’ itself was felt to be programmed by whichever interests held the most media power.

Something has changed however. The above still holds true, but only in limited circumstances as it no longer (if it ever did) defines the entire field of mediated representation. There is a different logic to media power in these ‘alternative spaces’ that Sally and many other people have noted, and that is what I started thinking about based on Sally’s reported comments.

In March 2010 she gave a paper as part of the Papers in Parliament program of the Senate on “Politics on the Media Today“. In it she presents an account of the decreasing audience share for ‘politics’ through traditional media channels (broadcast and print) and the apparent trend of increasing prevalence of ‘politics’ found on the internet. In response to a question at the lecture for the Senate paper, Sally notes that in the context of the coverage of politics that “the people who aren’t interested already, and they are harder to capture”.

Sally is indicating that those holding on to the traditonal models in the media industry are finding it hard to adapt to the new media environment. The new media industry is governed by communities of interests with their own horizons of community engagement determined by these interests. It seems apparent to me (and others!) that a new form of media power is derived from the capacity to capture participants in such a way that the emerging alternative spaces of expression and conversation overlap with the the traditional audience. ‘Owning the conversation’ is what is at stake. How does this happen?

To understand how the audience participates in a community requires following the relations that lead the audience to the community and then hold their interest. Google Adwords is a classic example in the new media economy of media power. Gunther Kress argues that for any given text in a media environment dominated by writing (such as print journalism), the reading path (entry point) is predetermined. You begin at the ‘start’, hence the importance in journalism of a catchy lead. In what he calls ‘multi-modal’ texts the reading path is determined by the criteria of relevance that a reader (as part of a community) brings to the text. For example, on a web page or a new magazine layout, the reader may engage with a flashy image first and then read some text and then flick through more images. There is no single point of entry.

In Kress’s description the community is assumed, but what if one is looking for a ‘community’? Seeding search results with a commercial slant means that the virtual marketplace of ideas or products (or both as cultural commodities) has an ‘entry point’ that is largely determined. #hastags on twitter serve a similar function, they delineate a common thread in the conversation. Paid #hastags direct the conversation to be anchored to particular commercial interests. Social media serves as a driver to media content. Part of the participatory media models that Henry Jenkins and others have written about is that the audience is now an integral part of the mode of distribution.

Then there is the actual ‘space’ of conversation, that is the designed space of the website or blog. In the conservative news space Alan Jones is a strong media channel for disseminating ideologically biased opinion, for example. While Andrew Bolt’s blog is just one of the spaces that ‘owns’ the conversation. Both are ideological in the traditional sense, but Bolt’s blog is organised around and services the community of interest that fuels his large comment threads.

An emergent form of media power — ’emergent’ only to the extent that the media environment is constantly changing with different players, it isn’t ’emergent’ in the sense that structurally it is already established — is to be able to capture a particular community of interest so that (for the traditional media industry) it overlaps with audiences. Hence, Sally Young’s concern that the audience for political coverage in traditional media is falling, yet she is optimistic that engagement with political reportage in ‘alternative spaces’ is increasing. This connects with some of my other thinking about MasterChef (!!!), media and politics that I’ll return to at a later point.

Journal Collecting

One of the pleasures of having worked in a bookstore with a secondhand books department is being able to access original publications of journals and other collected works. I discovered the joy of finding older publications during my PhD research where I had to construct my own archive. Here are some previous finds. A recent trip to Gould’s Bookshop in Sydney turned up some absolute crackers.

Some of the finds includes the volume that Adrian Martin references here Language, Sexuality & Subversion. He speaks of reading this as a 17 year old! I was reading Plato’s Republic still, hadn’t got to the post-structuralists yet! ha!

Another is “Cultural Studies 6: Cultural Studies and Theory” one of the edited collections from the Birmingham School’s Working Papers in Cultural Studies series. These were central to the development of British Cultural Studies in the 1970s. In this volume the authors stake out a shift away from a ‘radical liberalism’…:

The two sections of WPCS 6 signify out experience in this Centre, of a theoretical shift in our approach to cultural studies. In this introduction we aim to outline the dimensions of this shift, in the context of our understanding of its historical and political situation. Generally speaking, we are signalling retrospectively, from an emerging Marxist perspective, the theoretical and political limitations of the liberal radicalism from which ‘cultural studies’ and the Centre emerged in the early ‘sixties, and trying to clarify, in a preliminary way, the contemporary forces which shape us, and within which what we produce is to be taken into account.

I’ll post more material from this volume and the others over the forthcoming weeks. It is part of a long term project of mine to map the circuits of publishing and translation in the late 1970s and into the 1980s. I am in no rush to do ‘proper’ research in the area, rather I want to use it as a way to remain enchanted with the drudging egoistic mechanics of scholarly publishing. Maybe one day when it is time to settle up I’ll turn to this new archvie that I am creating.

Writing on Nationalisms

I am working on two papers that require a rigorous conceptualisation of the ‘nation’. One is hopefully going to be a group effort from some of my colleagues here and it is about an event space in Canberra. I am constructing a draft introduction so we are have a shared reference point. The other paper develops some of my PhD research and examines a particular episode in the history of Australian modified-car culture, the 1980s “V8’s ’til ’98” media-led consumer campaign. In both cases, a concept of the ‘national’ is required that is in some ways similar.

There are a number of ways to think about the ‘national’ as a concept that can be used in these contexts. Often the ‘national’ is described as a function of identity, both collective and individual. At moments of crisis, such as war or civil unrest, the national is articulated in such a way as to produce a cohesiveness. It normally draws on discourses of the ‘nation’ circulated as an economy of signs and symbols that most members of a nation would instantly recognise. Much attention has been paid to understanding the power relations involved in this process and how the ‘imagined community’ of the nation is produced.
The process of producing the national does not only occur at moments of crisis or in better times during rituals of celebration and purification (such as national days or remembrance days) that sanctify the national imaginary through particular signs and symbols. Often this happens by excluding other signs and symbols or ‘purifying’ the representative frame through which the elements that constitute the ‘national’ are valorised and the ‘imaginary’ sanctified.

The way the national is articulated as part of everyday life is not part of a crisis or celebration. Michael Billig’s (1995) concept of “banal nationalism” is useful for understanding how the ‘national’ is articulated through the practices of everyday life. Billig argues that along with the more spectacular expression of national identity at specific times and places, nationalism is reinforced through a multitude of small and subtle ways that are so commonplace to be otherwise unremarkable. When introducing the concept, Billig remarks that “banal nationalism is not a flag which is being consciously waved with fervent passion; it is the flag hanging unnoticed on the public building” (8). I am using Billig’s concept of ‘banal nationalism’ in two different ways in the two papers.

In the “V8’s ’til ’98” paper the historical example of the possible withdrawing of the automotive technology of the V8 engine from the consumer market produces an anxiety amongst automotive enthusiasts. A defence of the V8 is mobilised around broader anxieties relating to the globalisation of the Australian automotive industry. The ‘economic rationalisation’ of the Australian automotive industry was a policy goal of the Hawke Labor government and policies were introduced to increase the market fitness of the industry. It was known as the Button Plan after its chief architect John Button. ‘Economic rationalisation’ was the Australian version of a broader global process of neo-liberalisation in late capitalist societies.

The anxiety around the possible discontinuing of the V8 were expressed in the enthusiast media in terms of an influx of foreign-designed and foreign-manufactured automotive technologies. ‘Asian’ automotive technologies were explicitly identified as a threat and their introduction into the Australian market was discoursed as a conspiracy in some of the most flagrantly racist language I have come across in my archival research. At stake was not so much the technology in itself or the technology as a signifier of a particular identity, but the capacity of the technology to function as part of particular Australian socio-technical assemblage within the system of automobility. This socio-technical assemblage is of a particular automobilised subject of the masculine Australian driver combined with a particular automobile technology of a car powered by the ‘high-performance’ large capacity V8 engine that are used to perform upon (or, better, process) the particular space of the Australian road. The anxiety around the V8 was mobilised to defend the way automobilised Australian subjects could exist witin the dynamic system of flows and spaces of the Australian system of automobility. Other automotive technologies were dismissed in the enthusiast media on the grounds that they cannot ‘hack’ the ‘tough’ Australian conditions.

The experience of the system of automobility is part of everyday life. Members are subjectivised very early in their lives through governmental discourses that attempt to produce ‘safe’ road user subjects. For example, everyone within an automobilised society must learn how to cross the road. This is a particular competence that is designed to enable subjects to properly identify the dangers and associated risks of directly participating in the system of automobility. One consequence of this (that the road safety industry has never come to terms with) is that the space of the road is therefore potentialised in different ways depending on what Grossberg calls ‘mattering maps’ of the subjectivised individuals. The aim of governmental discourse is to produce anxiety that functions as self-surveillance for not only being aware of the dangers, but the primary risk of a subject developing a dangerously blasé attitude towards the risks. Different societies produce different systems of automobility. The cultural dimension of the system of automobility coupled with its banal everyday intimacy means that when a subject of one system of automobility is transported into another system of automobility he or she can experience the radical shock of an entirely different way of existing (within the system of automobility).

The “V8’s ’til ’98” media-led consumer campaign functioned as a moral panic about whether or not automobilised Australian subjects would be able to perform a particular Australian (and masculine) form of processual production of and engagement with automobilised time-space. A properly processual conception of the subject is essential for appreciating the capacities for action afforded by linkages with socio-technical assemblages. I am attempting to isolate the subjective dimension of part of a process of what Whitehead calls ‘appetition’. It is a way of avoiding definitions of the ‘subject’ derived from structuralist concerns with identity. Brian Massumi’s work is similarly concerned with the processual dimension of experience. His description of ‘anticipation’ captures some sense of this subjective dimension of appetition:

Orders of substitution and superposition are orders of thought defined as the reality of an excess over the actual. This is clearest in the case of anticipation, which in a real and palpable way extends the actual moment beyond itself, superposing one moment upon the next, in a way that is not just thought but also bodily felt as a yearning, tending, or tropism. […] But the definition also applies to substitution […]. Substitutions are cases in a combinatoric (a system of “either-ors” sometimes conjoined as an “and”). Not all possible actions are present as perception to the same degree. All of the permutations composing the combinatoric are not actionably present to the same degree in every perception. (original italics, 2002: 91)

Massumi is describing the relation between possible actions and the future as expressed within perception. The ‘possible’ is produced through perception as a dynamic infrastructure for immanent future action. The banal nationalism experienced on the road as part of the system of automobility is not only produced through explicit signifiers of nationhood (in Australia, this is exemplified by the Southern Cross stickers on the rear window of vehicles), but in the way the experience itself is produced as a processual relation by the socio-technical assemblage of (nominally) car, driver and road.

To invert the focus of Meaghan Morris’s analysis of the automobilised drama of Mad Max (in her “White Panic” essay, which used to be at the Sense of Cinema site, but is no longer there?), the event produced is not of the masculine violence of the car crash as a metonymic event of colonisation and the ‘white panic’ of occupying ‘the road’ as an existential horizon of national purification, rather the event produced is of a kind of mastery of ‘the road’ through the magnification of power afforded by the V8 engine. This event still demands a masculine violence, but of domination and competition articulated through a mastery of the flows of time and space within the system of automobility. The event of the crash is an exception within the differential repetition of this other far more common and banal event, which is the event of ‘traffic’. The panic around the possible withdrawal of the V8 from the Australian automotive market is a panic born of the consequential disenfranchising of Australian automotive subjects from being able to experience the processual dimension the Australian system of automobility.

Adorno as a critical theorist of temporality

Any critique of Adorno’s concept of the culture industry or mass culture that begins by introducing the notion of identity and the relation between identity and any segment of culture focuses on what is essentially the weakest, if not inconsequential, part of Adorno’s critique. The ‘identity’ critique is based on an overvaluation of the importance of variation (aesthetic or otherwise) in a cultural commodity or a range of cultural commodities. For example, the distinction made by Bernard Gedron between a cultural text and a functional artefact in his critique of Adorno’s critique of popular music relies on the kind of ‘information’ that Adorno argued was required for patrons of mass culture to be able to identify the objects of their ‘curiosity’. Gedron argues that unlike a particular part of a particular model of a mass produced automobile that can be swapped out for another part, a cultural text does not have this parts interchangeability. A more sophisticated version of this critique in the latter part of Gedron’s article is to suggest that the apparent changes within a given market of popular culture is clearly evident of Adorno’s inability to sufficiently account for variability of identity. A focus on cultural commodities at the expense of other aspects of Adorno’s critique signals an utter misapprehension of Adorno’s critique. More broadly, as noted by Max Pensky, there is a normative mode of engagement with Adorno’s writings that is little more than a “ritualistic gesture, reiterating the familiar charges of elitism, pessimism, and high-modernist myopia.” Pensky continues to say that the “trouble is that such accounts effectively preclude critical engagement with the body of thought in question.”

A far more useful way to read Adorno is as a critical theorist of temporality. By ‘temporality’ I do not mean a temporality in the Hegelian-Marxist sense of a dialectical movement that attempts to capture a teleological historical development from one historical mode to another. Bruno Latour’s argument that we have never been modern strongly suggests an alternative thesis to a developmental conception of history. For Latour, modernity is an event that is differentially repeated and (re)produces particular configurations of relations. This is a Foucauldian type of argument, where epistemic shifts are aggregated dispositifs that must continually (re)produce particular compositions of hierarchical power relations. Power does not come from above however, it runs through populations in the ways they reproduce the conditions of their own subjection.

The theory of temporality that I am extracting from Adorno’s writing has more in common with the later writings of Althusser than with a dialectical negative critique of historical development. A productive ‘philosophy of contingency’ dominates the later work of Althusser, and is very useful for understanding the properly immanent nature of contingency. The ‘encounter’ of an ‘aleatory materialism’ “becomes the basis of all reality”:

Whence the form of order and the form of beings whose birth is induced by this pile-up, determined as they are by the structure of the encounter; whence, once the encounter has been effected (but not before), the primacy of the structure over its elements; whence, finally, what one must call an affinity and a complementarity [completude] of the elements that come into play in the encounter, their `readiness to collide-interlock’ [accrochabilite], in order that this encounter `take hold’, that is to say, `take form’, at last give birth to Forms, and new Forms — just as water ‘takes hold’ when ice is there waiting for it, or milk does when it curdles, mayonnaise when it emulsifies. Hence the primacy of ‘nothing’ over all ‘form’, and of aleatory materialism over all formalism.

“The Schema of Mass Culture” presents an argument for how mass culture produces populations that are trained to process contingencies in ways that reproduce the culture. That is, the schema of mass culture is to modulate the capacity of populations to process a temporal order that belongs to an aleatory materialism. Adorno initially describes this modulation as ‘pre-digestion’: the “permanent self-reflection based upon the infantile compulsion towards the repetition of needs which it creates in the first place”. Difference as that which forces repetition is annihilated; instead there is a circularity that short-circuits self-reflection. This is the ‘totality’ of mass culture, a series of “pre-digested” tendential movements. The elements of this short-circuiting relation are practically irrelevant (which geek with which Apple product? Does it matter beyond an “infantile compulsion”?).

Consumers therefore find themselves in what Adorno calls an “abstract present”. Co-ordinates of recall beyond the short-circuit are extinguished, except in peculiar discursive moments where the past, as ‘nostalgia, is mobilised to valorise the appropriateness or not of the present. The reward for this erasure is that the “tension” of the consumer suspended by the short-circuit is guaranteed a ‘happy ending’ in the “ritual conclusion”. Adorno relates this ‘tension’ to the capacity to witness suffering, that is, negative affect. In its place is a passive affection of the ‘happy ending’. Negative affects are not necessarily passive, as Elspeth Probyn has noted in her work on ‘shame’. The experience of shame signals, in the first instance, that a subject is interested, thus sending the subject off on what Sylvan Tomkins called an ‘activation contour’ that develops in the body as the experience of shame. Perhaps the subject is spurred into action by this negative affect, and thus suffers from ‘active affections’ and the correlative increase in the capacity to act. The resolution of tension in the short-circuit of the ‘happy-ending’ is a depotentialisation of affect, so the short-circuit becomes a mechanism for the production of passive affections or what Weber called ‘charisma’.

What post-structuralist philosophers call a relation of futurity is therefore hobbled. This is not some kind of magical process however. There is a mechanics of the event structurated in perception through a suspended expectation. This is the happiest ending, as it were. An ending where this in fact no resolution, but the constant repetition of tension. Adorno likens this to the variety act, which for spectators is experienced as a kind of ‘waiting’; where the “waiting for the thing in question, which takes place as long as the juggler manages to keep the balls going, is precisely the thing itself”. Adorno describes this as a “suspension of living developmenet”, an apparatus of capture produced through the riveting experience of observing potential failure.

There are therefore two ways that the short-circuits produced by the culture industry ‘end’ (or, better, cycle again for another ‘beginning’) and that is through the projection of a ‘happy ending’ as a resolution of tension to produce the subservience of passive affections or a manipulation of tension as a way to capture attention. What if one becomes aware of this short-circuit? What if it is simply refused? What is the secondary apparatus of capture produced by mass culture that ensures there is no escape?

The secondary apparatus of capture is located in the total commodification of ‘curiosity’ and its relation to what Adorno terms ‘information’. Like the surplus labour that is used to control workers, there is a “reserve army of outsiders” ready to participate. They are organised in relation not to the exchange value of their labour but in the production of visibilities of the latest novelty. Did you hear about…?!

The less the system tolerates anything new, the more those who have been forsaken must be acquainted with all the latest novelties if they are to continue living in society rather than feeling themselves excluded from it.

Mass culture becomes a sport, which is “not play but ritual in which the subjected celebrate their subjection”. There is a compulsive repetition to inflict upon oneself “the same injustice he has already endured at the violent hands of society”. Exemplar: Love it or leave it. Kiss the flag. Are you with us or against us. “The act of repetition schools obedience,” Adorno writes, and in doing so absorbs the radical potential of anxiety. Beyond participation, the spectator contains nothing of the potentially redeemable characteristics of sportsmen (“certain virtues like solidarity, readiness to help others or even enthusiasm which could prove valuable in critical political moments”). Mass culture only wants the “howling devotees of the stadium” as they replace spontaneity is a “crude contemplative curiosity”. There is another circuit here, both an extension and an intensification of the short-circuit of pre-digested interest. Instead of facing towards a circular ending planned into the commodity, the commodification of curiosity is a way of incorporating contingency and dissolving its radical potential.

Adorno describes information as the socialisation of curiosity; that is, information “refers constantly to what has been preformed, to what others already know”.
Information is a socialisation of curiosity in the sense that information as a mechanism of control “enforces solidarity with what has already be judged”. It is a deprivation of knowledge about the object of curiosity for the purposes of bestowing the curiosity with satisfaction. Is this not how the entirety of online ‘discussion’ functions? The distribution of knowledge as a diluted ‘information’ about whatever contingency in the world fires up our ‘curiosity’? Whoever cannot answer the challenge of providing curiosity with its palliative antidote of information, that is, of “effortlessly reproducing the formulas, conventions and judgements of mass culture as if they were his own, is threatened in his very existence, suspected of being an idiot or an intellectual”. This is played out in the production of “hieroglyphic meaning” as consumers cannot escape either short-circuit. They turned inward, that is, turn into the elements of the relation rather than the implication in the relation at all.

The more the film-goer, the hit song enthusiast, the reader of detective and magazine stories anticipates the outcome, the solution, the structure and so on, the more his attention is displaced towards the question of how the nugatory result is achieved, to the rebus-like details involved, and in this searching process of displacement the hieroglyphic meaning suddenly reveals itself. It articulates every phenomenon right down to the subtlest nuance according to a simplistic two-term logic of ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’, and by virtue of this reduction of everything alien and unintelligible it overtakes the consumers.

Hence, the tension is reproduced as a general anxiety of whether or not the subject of mass culture, the consumer, is sufficiently implicated in its workings: “Participation in mass culture itself stands under the sign of terror”. The micro-fascisms of everyday life betray an anxiety that is harboured “within the very medium of technological communication”. It is not that you are anxious about leaving your mobile phone at home, it is the anxiety produced when you do. What short-circuits have you accidently disconnected yourself from? How will you be an insufficient spectator of pre-digested curiosities? Under a hieroglyphic aegis, how will you be able to smuggle in the judgement of contingency with the satisfaction of knowing what comes next?

Hilarious. Miranda Devine, Say Yes to Climate Action

Miranda Devine’s latest column is a howler. I guess we should expect her to represent the carbon tax as taxing the air we breathe if she thinks that Newspoll is a scientific survey.

Beyond Devine’s built-in hilarity is the location and content of the Google Ad below her article, which links to the climate action website sayyesaustralia.org.au. Considering the quality of Devine’s columns her intended audience is probably very confused by this.