Analysis of the terms of reference of the Independent Media Inquiry Part 2

This is part two of an analysis of the terms of reference into the recently announced Media Inquiry. Part one is found here. I am no sure how many parts there will be, but I have at least one more in the works.

The terms of reference of the Media Inquiry:

An independent panel will be appointed to inquire into and report on the following issues, while noting that media regulation is currently being considered by the Convergence Review:

a) The effectiveness of the current media codes of practice in Australia, particularly in light of technological change that is leading to the migration of print media to digital and online platforms;

b) The impact of this technological change on the business model that has supported the investment by traditional media organisations in quality journalism and the production of news, and how such activities can be supported, and diversity enhanced, in the changed media environment;

c) Ways of substantially strengthening the independence and effectiveness of the Australian Press Council, including in relation to on-line publications, and with particular reference to the handling of complaints;

d) Any related issues pertaining to the ability of the media to operate according to regulations and codes of practice, and in the public interest.

My students and I have already briefly discussed how the second entry in the terms of reference speaks to precisely what they are grappling with this semester regarding the existing business model of journalism, what it means for online news and what is required to produce a model of sustainable journalism. First critical sweep of the terms of reference made me think that the Inquiry was going to turn into a Mike Masnick and become online media business model engineers, but a more nuanced reading indicates less of a focus on ‘business models’ and more of a focus on how to save ‘quality journalism and the production of news’. I’ve isolated five key points need unpacking from the second term of reference:

1. the business model of traditional media organisations
2. quality journalism and the production of news
3. how ‘quality journalism and the production of news’ can be supported
4. diversity
5. changed media environment

I’ll address the first two points in this post. The crucial third point is in the next post in my series on the Media Inquiry’s terms of reference.

1. From a political economy approach the business model of traditional media organisations involved the production and consumption of an audience or ‘selling eyeballs’ as Martin Hirst and John Harrison (Communication and New Media: From Broadcast to Narrowcast, 2007) pithily describe it. They go on to say:

The media production process has an unusual relationship with its market. It is not simply a matter of putting ‘ideas’ into the public ‘market’ so that price can be determined by ‘supply and demand’. All media outputs are clearly commodities in a capitalist society. Newspapers are sold, magazins have a cover price, and the eletronic media are increasingly looking to narrowcast mrketing to realise a profit, but the real commodity that the media ‘sells’ is its audience, and the real customer is the advertiser. (33-34)

The real earner for newspaper up until the early 2000s or so was derived from classified advertising. In a journal article that explores what he decribes as the ‘fundamental question’ of convergence being the tension between the commercial imperative and the journalistic ethos, Stephen Quinn proffers this quote John Haile to explain why newspapers are adapting to incorporate ‘convergent’ practices:

I was on an ASNE [American Society of Newspaper Editors] new media panel in Dallas [in 1995], and I remember answering the question of ‘why do this?’ with two words: ‘classified advertising’. That is our largest single source of advertising, and it is the most vulnerable to interactive, searchable media. If ad[vertising] dollars start dropping, you can bet newsroom budgets will follow. That will dramatically affect our ability to do good journalism.

The classified advertising boat has set sale. (Apologies!) Mark Day of The Australian newspaper clearly states the problem in his opinion piece on the Inquiry’s terms of reference:

As to the business models of newspapers: You don’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to know that the loss of classified advertising has put a huge hole in newspaper revenues, and the rivers of gold that used to support journalistic endeavours has become a trickle.

Most journalism students only get a sense of the traditional role of journalists in this business model when they learn about the ‘news hole’ and their job to ‘fill it’. Not only have newspapers lost classified advertising the value of other advertising forms of revenue have decreased for general interest news sites. The value of advertising has radically decreased except when the content is ‘narrowcast’ to specific target audiences that only specific forms of niche content (or sophisticated use of site metrics and data derived from user tracking) can deliver. Advertising-based business models are not the only forms of income that commercial news-based media enterprises can and do utilise, and it shall be interesting to see how much time is spent in the inquiry with questions for existing news-based media enterprises about non-advertising-based revenue models.

2. There have been a number of commentators, including my colleague Jason Wilson, who have suggested that ‘quality journalism and the production of news’ cannot be regulated. Jason frames this in terms of measuring bias:

Even if we disagree with a newspaper’s editorial line, we should be extremely wary in arguing that they don’t have a right to hold it.
Any regulation aimed at policing bias in particular outlets would be abhorrent in principle, and very difficult in practice.

The response from most of the commentariat has similarly been framed in terms of a wariness to regulate ‘the press’. Mark Day suggests that regulation within the institution of journalism should be left up to those organisations with a commercial interest in the industry when he says:

Print media codes of practice in this country are internal – that is, produced and monitored by individual publishing houses or the journalists’ union. They carry no legal weight and have no status, except within their own organisations. They refer to work practices, ethics and responsibilities of journalists and are utterly unaffected by technological change. These codes spell out how employers expect their journalists to go about their business and in no way relate to whether the work of journalists ends up on paper distributed by a truck or is transmitted electronically to a screen.

I am not sure if Mark is arguing for an Inquiry or not solely based on this passage (he is against ‘regulation’, has assumed that the Inquiry is about ‘regulation’ and is therefore against the Inquiry), but considering he is clearly stating that the current codes do not appreciate the medium by which the products of journalistic practice are delivered to an audience, then maybe they should? The concern of the ACP and of various researchers within the academic field of journalism studies is that convergence is based on business decisions and not the ideals of journalism that are enshrined in such standards. So what are the standards of ‘quality journalism’?
The APC lists nine ‘general principles’ that relate to more or less nine areas of specific concern relating to the maintenance of the professional ethos of journalism:

1. Accurate, fair and balanced reporting
2. Correction of inaccuracy
3. Publishing responses
4. Respect for privacy and sensibilities [‘Privacy’ has a set of an additional seven principles.]
5. Honest and fair investigation; preservation of confidences
6. Transparent and fair presentation
7. Discretion and causing offence
8. Gratuitous emphasis on characteristics
9. Publication of Council adjudications

It would seem that those arguing in opinion pieces for ‘media freedom’ are not actually offering a defence of the professional ethos of journalism. The institutions of the ‘media’ and ‘journalism’ are not the same thing. You can have a mdia organisation that produces news-based content that is congruent with the ideals represented by the APC’s standards without necessarily being works of journalism. Why? Because actual news is a precious resource in the current media landscape. I am discussing part of this problem with my first year students this week. We are looking at ‘pseudo-events’ and the literal and practical production of news. I haven’t yet seen someone come out swinging in support of a radical defence of the institution of journalism (except for perhaps Wendy Bacon in her piece where she notes that an inquiry into online business models for the sake of journalism would be welcome).

In this analysis I am therefore making a distinction between news-based content and works of actual journalism. Collapsing ‘quality journalism’ into ‘media freedom’ by erasing the difference between media content, news-based media content and works of journalism is a rhetorical move to frame an investigation into the state of democratic institution of journalism and the industry that once supported it as an attack on freedom. The ‘attack’ is a strawperson used to argue the case for an unfetted media industry that may or may not be related to the institution of journalism. The existing (legacy) composition of the media industry and the democratic instution of journalism are not necessarily the same thing. ‘The Press’ refers to a specific composition of the media industry where the commercial interests of the industry were congruent with the ideals of journalism being a democratic institution.

If the term ‘the press’ represented a historically specific period where the media industry and the institution of journalism did overlap, then one question that needs to be asked by those who are concerned about journalism, is regarding whether or not this historical relation still holds. In the era of convergent media, do we have a ‘press’? Is there an overlap between the operational composition of the existing legacy media industry and the democratic institution of journalism? For Hal Crawford, head of news at NineMSN, there isn’t.

There are at least three levels to this distinction that can be deduced from the different ways codes of practice/regulation work:

1. A distinction between different kinds of content. First, excluding exemptions born of ‘parliamentary privilege’, defamation law in this country sets up a distinction between ‘honestly held opinions’ of a ‘public figure or event’ and ‘news’. This distinction has existed in practice if not law for decades. Now, however, online media content throws a few other distinctions into the mix. For example, is aggregated ‘news’ still ‘news’? Is a tweet of a link to a piece with a defamatory imputation ‘publishing’? The APC is concerned about the oversight required to maintain journalistic integrity when media content is assembled from the work of others. Second, within critical journalism studies there is a distinction between reporting on newsworthy events that produce news — the ‘gathering of news’ — and the process identitifed by Daniel Boortsin in 1962 as ‘creating news’. The current news-based media industry is awash with ‘pseudo-events’; events designed to manipulate the ‘news hole’ hunger of the media industry and exploit journalistic practices for purposes of generating exposure. (Boorstin’s critical assessment of the news industry was appropriated by Jean Baudrillard for his theories about ‘media events’ and ‘simulacra’, see William Merrin’s work.) There not only a distinction between ‘news’ and ‘opinions’ but the coverage of ‘pseudo-events’ compared to covering actual newsworthy events.
2. A distinction between journalistic practice and the product of this practice. The ACP standards and most codes of practice I have seen for journalism deal mostly with the practice of journalism, rather than what is produced. This is a common way to critically engage with journalism. For example, the ABC’s Media Watch is based around reading work produced by news-based media enterprises in terms of an inferred failure of journalistic practice. For example summarising the critique of a recent Daily Telegraph piece that Media Watch accuses of cherry picking data about pokie reform and problem gambling: ‘This article doesn’t present a contrasting view, due to an apparent failure to seek comment, hence the article is not a product of ‘balanced’ and ‘fair’ reporting. Why is this important? Journalistic content has become more complex. A single journalist filing a single story may have been the way journalistic practice was imagined but the historical role of sub-editors and contemporary role content editors changes this. Journalistic practice has been bolstered by editorial ‘fact checking’ but how appropriate is it to frame the work of online content editors in this way? Are they ‘fact checking’? It will be interesting to see if the Inquiry drills down to this level of distinction and how the existing representatives from the press respond.

Hayekian Economics: I don’t get it

On one of my recent trips up to Sydney from Canberra I listened to the debate hosted at the London School of Economics and produced as a program for the BBC with the theme of Keynes vs. Hayek. I listened to the ‘complete’ version availble on iTunesU, posted by the LSE. Keynes is traditionally understood to belong to ‘the left’ and Hayek to ‘the right’. I listened with an accute curiousity that developed into a sense of disbelief. The most sensible voice in the debate was Lord Robert Skidelsky who suggested that a targeted investment program would get most western economies out of the slump they find themselves in. On the other hand, from a systems theory perspective the Hayekian approach seems the most sensible — let the market-based systems sought themselves out, booms and busts equalise over the long term. But, for Hayekians, how does this happen? Representing the Hayekian side is Professor Georg Selgin. In the written version of his prepared speech (Skidelsky’s presentation is also there), Selgin says:

Liquidate, in short, the whole sub-prime bubble-blowing apparatus that was nurtured by easy monetary policy.

That would have meant letting insolvent banks that lent or invested unwisely go bust.

But instead our governments chose to keep bad banks going and that is why quantitative easing has proven a failure.

Quantitative easing failed because almost all the new money the government created has gone to shore up the balance sheets of irresponsible bankers.

‘Irresponsible bankers’? Ok. This sounds great! In fact, both sides of the debate seemed to agree that at a certain point economics becomes a discussion of morals. For the Keynesians it is a question of recognising the humanity of those suffering because of irresponsible decisions mostly by others (i.e. Selgin’s “irresponsible bankers”). On the other hand, the Hayekians argue that governments should not support ‘markets’ (or the legacy organisation of commercial entities that function “irresponsibly”) through spending because that will just encourage further irresponsibility, so the only appropriate response is to weather the downturn and work on making sure it doesn’t happen again when a ‘bust’ rips through a society.

What I do not understand from the Hayekian position, based on what Selgin was saying, is that the unfettered “market” is both the source of freedom and the ‘fairest’ way to distribute responsibilities while at the same time also the mechanism by which agents that constitute the market (i.e. “irresponsible bankers”) are morally censured/reprimanded (or something) so they will not participate in or contribute to unsustainable ‘booms’ again. I was actually shocked by this suggestion. Firstly, that most “irresponsible bankers” couldn’t care less what damage they do to ‘markets’ through their unfettered pursuit of profit, and, secondly, that the ‘market’ is the same mechanism that enables this unfettered pursuit of profit (discussed by Hayekians in terms of ‘liberty’ or ‘freedom’) will also somehow distribute punitive measures to those deservingly responsible. Is there not an inherent contradiction here, where the ‘market’ is asked to do two things at once? I know there are some allegedly intellectual Hayekians so I’d welcome any response that attempted to resolve this contradiction.

Let me frame it another way. Below is a clip of one of the “irresponsible banker”-types that Selgin is discussing. Real capitalists (who are the real problem) do not care where their profit comes from; they game the markets to exploit any opportunity possible. This is a pathological position based on an active disavowal of humanity and the suffering that accompanies the collapse of a market (or for that matter the unethical production of surplus value). (Found via here and here.)

The ‘market’ as discussed by the trader above is not the Hayekian market of Selgin — one that is both the source of ‘freedom’ and moral disciplinarity — it is the market constituted by thousands of capitalists who attempt to embody the most pathological dimensions of capital itself. There is no discussion of the creation of real value and no discussion of how to correct the immorality of previous consitutent participants of an obviously failed composition of the ‘market’. How would a Hayekian respond to the above trader? How would a Hayekian concerned with booms as well as busts respond to the current mining boom in Australia? What mechanisms would be put into place to restrict the irresponsible boom that is currently being created through the commodities market?

Do Hayekians have a concept of a sustainable opportunity? This is my interest in all this. I am thinking about the current state of the journalism industry that can no longer rely on legacy business models from the print-era or broadcast-era media industry. Is there a Hayekian concept of opportunity that is not framed in terms of the entrepreneurial recognition of a capitalist profit that only has to be actualised through a commercial enterprise, but is rather turned towards a sustainable commercial model? I have been researching this and I have not come across anything like the concept of a “sustainable opportunity” in any of the economics/business literature.

This is why Skidelsky’s response seems to be the most appropriate to me. A targeted investment plan does not mean investing money into capitalist enterprises solely designed to realise profit and hence game an inherently pathological market (i.e. the stupidity of the bank bailout), it means investing in projects that will produce real value.

Analysis of the terms of reference of the Independent Media Inquiry Part 1

The terms of reference of the recently announced Media Inquiry are dense and need to be unpacked. I am writing up some brief notes here that I will probably use as material in my online news units I am teaching next year. I started this a few days ago and when it go to over 2500 words halfway through the second entry into the terms of reference I decided to split my post into four. This is on the first entry in the terms of reference I shall post the other parts when they are finished.

The terms of reference:

An independent panel will be appointed to inquire into and report on the following issues, while noting that media regulation is currently being considered by the Convergence Review:

a) The effectiveness of the current media codes of practice in Australia, particularly in light of technological change that is leading to the migration of print media to digital and online platforms;

b) The impact of this technological change on the business model that has supported the investment by traditional media organisations in quality journalism and the production of news, and how such activities can be supported, and diversity enhanced, in the changed media environment;

c) Ways of substantially strengthening the independence and effectiveness of the Australian Press Council, including in relation to on-line publications, and with particular reference to the handling of complaints;

d) Any related issues pertaining to the ability of the media to operate according to regulations and codes of practice, and in the public interest.

‘Technological change leading to media platform migration’ describes a long process that has changed the media landscape. The two key ideas here ‘technological change’ and ‘media platform migration’ have been discussed a number of ways in scholarly literature.

Firstly, when we discuss ‘technological change’ it is important to clearly define what the character of this change as it will come with various built-in assumptions and expectations. There are three schools of thought about technological change. First, the view that ‘technology’ determines change. A key proponent of this view is someone like Marshall McCluhan and this position is summarised well in the media inquiry context by Bernhard Keane in Crikey:

Let me grotesquely simplify a complex issue to explain: the internet has had two kinds of socio-economic impacts: we all initially thought the boundless ocean of content it provided to users was the revolutionary change wrought by new media. To use McLuhan’s phrase, the message (the content) was supposed to be the message (as in social impact), because there was so much more content than ever before. But in the past decade, and especially in the past five years and with the growth of mobile online access, interconnectedness, primarily via social media, has become the main socio-economic impact of the internet. How we use the internet is its biggest impact, bigger even than the content we get from it. As per McLuhan, it’s the medium (how we engage with it) that is the message of the internet, not the content.

The affordances of the ‘internet’ enables or produces ‘interconnectedness’. Another way to think about this is from a social perspective. You want to talk with friends — as a form of social interaction — you can do this in a variety of ways online. The need to talk to friends and other examples of sociality serves as the driver of technological change. This is called social determinism. A more relevant example is the emergence of ‘interconnected’ media ecologies organised around core cultural values where content, ‘sharing’ practices and ‘engagement’ are determined by the sociality of participants. In partisan ‘culture war’ battles played out in the media these are often referred to as ‘echo chambers’ to describe their social function of accentuating the apparent ‘voice’ of a given perspective that is out of proportion with the actual frequency of the cultural values in a given population. Another example are niche or specialist media enterprises that service particular areas of interest. Just as an enthusiast-run arts and craft forum fits this definition, so do global enterprises such as The New York Times or The Washington Post.

The third perspective on this is a mixture of the two and is derived from sociological work into science and technology. What is examined here are ‘socio-technical assemblages’ rather than a specific technology or sociality often associated with such technologies. Keane’s piece in Crikey has some elements of this in the way he emphasises the importance of how internet-based technologies are used. Other examples everyday socio-technical assemblages include the road-car-driver to describe the way drivers are empowered in certain ways and new practices or habits emerge premised on the interaction of the more or less three elements of the assemblage with each other. Think about how you engage with ‘traffic’ as a pedestrian versus as a driver, or different suburbs with suburb-speficic rituals of courtesy (or bull bar use) and so on. There are different habits and ways of perceiving of what is ostensibly the ‘same’ environment of the ‘road’.

A way to think about this in the context of online media and ‘technological change’ is by thinking about the habits of media audiences that have embraced and adapted to relatively new ways of engaging with media content. There are different compositions of practices and habits across the production and consumption of media content and even entire media enterprises. A practical example is that in the magazine world I come out of we would speak of ‘toilet length’ features! The practice of reading magazines while going to the bathroom meant that these specific habits of reading needed to be factored into the production of stories. There is a socio-technical assemblage of reader-magazine-toilet for which there are certain habits and practices. What new habits have emerged based on practices of reading/engagement with new technologies? Is there a ‘train journey’ feature? A ‘waiting in line for coffee tweet linking to a blog post infographic’ habit?

You may already see why this is a problem for established media enterprises that relied on revenue streams organised around now extinct habits, such as the role and function of the weekend classifieds. There is no longer an early morning classifieds brigade that used to attack newsagency distributors for early copies of newspaper to hunt bargains. The habits of classifieds-hunting have been dissassembled from the socio-technical assemblages that included print newspapers and have develeped into newer assemblages organised around eBay (Australia) or Craig’s List (US). There are new rhythms and practices that characterise these emergent media-based assemblages.

Secondly, ‘media platform migration’ describes another process and this part of the inquiry has strong connections to the much larger Convergence Review. Again there are a number of ways to think about this ‘migration’ process. What precisely is being ‘migrated’? Is it content? Is it a specific medium? Is it a set of social relations and functions that used to be associated with a particular medium or form of content and now is associated with another medium or form of content?

In terms of an entire medium appearing in another medium, this practice has been termed ‘remediation’ by Jay Bolter and David Grusin. For example, a PDF version of a print magazine may ‘remediate’ the magazine print medium to an online context. They note there are always ‘traces’ (in the high philosophical Derridean sense) of the previous medium in the remediated version.

Another way to think about a media platform is according to the affordances the medium allows. So the text heavy versions of newspaper earlier in the 20th century relied on primarily temporal modalities. This happened after that. It was structured into ‘narrative’ as the primary modality for representing information. Hence, the importance within journalism for ‘stories’. A narrative-based story frames events of the world and imbues them with an ordered sense alongside other events. Now with the absolute dominance of the ‘screen’ there has been a shift to spatial modalities for representing information. An example is the emergence of database journalism and more generally the visual layout of information (this alongside that). The affordances of the ‘screen’ and spatial modalities have filtered back through print so now print layouts and designs follow cues from websites.

A third way to think about ‘media platform migration’ is in terms of they way digital content can now circulate across a number of screen-based interfaces from the computer screen, to tablets to mobile phones to proprietary ‘walled garden’ networks such as those found in social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.). For example, are the rituals and habits of consuming youtube videos on one’s phone the same as watching them through Facebook on a browser on a desktop computer?

A fourth way to think about ‘media platform migration’ is probably closer to the sense imagined in the inquiry’s terms of reference and that is in terms of specific forms of media content undergoing a process of migration from the way it is been distributed for the last 50-60 years through mass media (print and broadcast TV & radio) to the way it circulates now primarily as digital content and ‘online’. But content can not (or should not) be isolated from the specific context where it was produced, how it is circulated and the character of its consumption. I’d be very wary of any kind of essentialised conception of a specific form of media content, such as ‘news’, as it does not take into account the broader context and assemblages that make such content possible. There is no point taking an essentialised view of ‘news’, for example, as it operated in newspapers without understanding the relation between the professional practices that produced this form of media content and the material conditions of production that made it possible. Here I mean banal things like advertising, management structures, established forms of distribution, different forms of social capital that make the media content worth engaging with (‘reputation’, ‘trustworthiness’, etc) and so on.

The ‘current media codes of practice’ again requires some unpacking. Jonathan Holmes explains some of the complexities on the ABC’s Drum site by tracing the patchwork of medium-specific codes of practice and the instutional bodies that oversee or enforce them. As the first entry in the terms of reference specifically mentions the migration from print to online it would seem that the current regulatory body primarily, but not only, for print, the Australian Press Council, is the focus. The APC offers an extract from the Chair’s Foreword to the Council’s 2009-10 Annual Report as indicative of where they see the Council going in a section titled ‘Responding to the Internet’.

It is worth noting that the report states that Council’s existing jurisdiction includes both print and ‘on-line’ publications of its members. It broadly describes the challenges posed to the ‘practical effectiveness of the standards’ by online publishing and the migration of print to online content and (importantly) the changing character of new-based media enterprises. I have summarised these below:

1. Newspapers are in effect becoming multi-media enterprises
2. Two tendencies emerge. a) Greater range of information and opinion that can be disseminated more widely and ‘economically’ [which I think means ‘cheaply’]. b) New opportunities and rate of publication can adversely affect accuracy and quality [of journalistic content?].
3. The same standards are not being applied to online content as that of print. (Evidenced by complaints being received by the Council.)
4. “The rapidly growing convergence across media platforms should be accompanied by an appropriate degree of convergence [not uniformity] between the standards and processes of the Council and other media regulators.”

It seems that the first entry in the terms of reference is tailored towards helping the APC work towards maximising the ‘practical effectiveness’ of its own standards in the ways it has already defined, even without necessarily getting to the third entry in the terms of reference that specifically refers to the APC. For future reference, the APC’s General Statement of Principles has a footnoted definition of ‘public interest’ which is relevant for unpacking the fourth entry in the terms of reference.

Matters of Concern

In Bruno Latour’s now relatively famous paper “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern” he launches into a scathing critique of most of the methodology that defines cultural studies:

When naive believers are clinging forcefully to their objects, claiming that they are made to do things because of their gods, their poetry, their cherished objects, you can turn all of those attachments into so many fetishes and humiliate all the believers by showing that it is nothing but their own projection, that you, yes you alone, can see. But as soon as naive believers are thus inflated by some belief in their own importance, in their own projective capacity, you strike them by a second uppercut and humiliate them again, this time by showing that, whatever they think, their behavior is entirely determined by the action of powerful causalities coming from objective reality they don’t see, but that you, yes you, the never sleeping critic, alone can see. Isn’t this fabulous? Isn’t it really worth going to graduate school to study critique?
[…]
One thing is clear, not one of us readers would like to see our own most cherished objects treated in this way.

Now some contemporary thinkers embrace this line and turn their attention to ‘objects’ so as to resuscitate the dignity of objecthood. Objects can no longer be defined as a function of relation with subjects, they say. Perhaps they are concerned about their own existence as relatively powerless, but functioning objects in various social systems? By discovering the dignity of objects they will also discover dignity for themselves?

I turned in a different direction for the argument in my dissertation, which having completed now four years ago is practically historical in relation to my current thinking. As I was dealing with enthusiast cultures that organized around cars I did not want to fall into the trap of a neo-Freudian account of enthusiast practice that reproduced the fetishistic dimensions of enthusiast engagement. This was an intellectual decision, as it would have been too easy to follow this ‘common sense’ neo-Freudian line of scholarship.

Instead I turned to investigating enthusiasm itself. What is it about ‘enthusiasm’ that mobilizes enthusiast bodies into action? I still don’t know. I focused more on the event-based structure of enthusiasm, that which produced a processual cadence essentialized by Latour above as ‘cherishing’. I thought about enthusiasm as an event, a virtual structure of relations differentially repeated with any number of different objects and subjects. The motor for this event was not ‘in’ the objects or the subjects, but the process of becoming-together between the contingencies of challenges that mobilized enthusiasts into action as enthusiast practice and affective contours that constitute the enthusiast habitus and encourage communication across them as they are activated in positive and negative ways. ‘Positive’ and ‘negative’ in the sense of scholarship on affect where positive affections increase one’s capacity to act, while negative affections diminish one’s capacity to act. Enthusiasm is a positive affection.

Enthusiasts would dismantle, modify and repair the ‘black box’ of the automobile. They would produce an experience-based practical knowledge — ‘know-how’ — deployed to overcome challenges and establish a reputation in subcultural and masculine economies of respect. The contingencies that characterized the challenges of enthusiast practice could also be regarded as ‘problems’ for non-enthusiasts. A challenge is not an object; it is a virtual and processual structure characterized by the limit of understanding of the enthusiast, but one that is open to the future. A challenge is not yet a problem as the translation of the singular coordinates of a challenge into that of a problem means that the processual structure of the challenge has been conditioned into possibilities for solution. A challenge becomes a problem in discourse and in a backformed comprehension of the possibilization of the contingency into a field of solutions. (Massumi describes something similar, but not the same, with sport and play in Parables of the Virtual.) This is why ‘know-how’ is acquired by doing and maybe showing, but definitely not by talking or teaching in any conventional sense (unless ‘talking’ or ‘teaching’ are constituent elements of a specific challenge). Deleuze described a somewhat archaic version of this process when he argued that the Stoic sage “identifies” with the quasi-cause:

The Stoic sage “identifies” with the quasi-cause, sets up shop at the surface, on the straight line which traverses it, or at the aleatory [contingent] point which traces of travels this line. The sage is like the archer. However, this connection with the archer should not be understood as a moral metaphor of intention, as Plutarch suggests, by saying that the Stoic sage is supposed to do everything, for the sake of attaining the end. One rather acts in order to have done all that which depending on one in order to attain the end. Such a rationalization implies a late interpretation, one which is hostile to Stoicism. The relation to the archer is closer to Zen: the bowman must reach the point where the aim is also not the aim, that is to say, the bowman himself; where the arrow flies over its straight line while creating its own target; where the surface of the target is also the line and the point, the bowman, the shooting of the arrow, and what is shot at. This is the oriental Stoic will as proairesis. The sage waits for the event, that is to say, understands the pure event in its eternal truth, independently of its spatio-temporal actualization, as something eternally yet-to-come and always already passed according to the line of the Aion. But, as the same time, the sage also wills the embodiment and the actualization of the pure incorporeal event in a state of affairs and in his or her own body and flesh. (146)

In a sense (pun intended), Deleuze’s description of the Zen-like actualization of the archer and his attendant technologies of archery is when he is at his most Foucauldian. Foucault’s ‘discourse events’ are the spatio-temporal actualization of a pure event that defines the limits of intelligibility and authority as it is distributed into what is sayable and what is visible for a given body of knowledge. Foucault made this discovery in the archive, where the processual dimension was already backformed into discourse. Michel de Certeau repeats this while discussing what he calls ‘know-how’ in the Practice of Everyday Life for non-discursive situations. The on-going process of actualization that produces a distribution of subjects and objects and normative subject-object relations is the ‘grid’ that Deleuze discusses in the Fold as always already intervening in chaos. While this is all very interesting, I am sure, it seems to have even less relevance for contemporary thought than does a rigorous if futile investigation into the dignity of objects.

Kant’s discussion of enthusiasm is interesting at this point and perhaps more so is Lyotard’s discussion of Kantian enthusiasm. I don’t mean the version of Kant’s enthusiasm that is most commonly discussed with regards to Kant’s positive comments about the enthusiasm of spectators for the French revolution as proof of the moral judgment of the revolution as ‘good’. I mean in the context of Lyotard’s interpretation of a practical rationality that relies on enthusiasm as its impetus for ‘striving’. Enthusiasm signals a failure of ideas, it triggers an inflammation in the powers of imagination to overcome this failure. The concept of enthusiasm I developed many years ago extracts the virtual coordinates of this process as the processual differential repetition of the enthusiast body as it continually encounters challenges.

Of course, the Enlightenment project in part was defined by the work of Kant and others to rescue ‘rationality’ from all kinds of mystical and religious enthusiasms. The contradiction is that we need enthusiasm so as to achieve great things. Hence the problem, recast slightly, of the critique of critique. It was meant to be self-evident once the limits of rationality and conditions of possibility had been sufficiently laid out; the ‘naive’ believers (as Latour calls them) would simply come to their Enlightened sense. Instead critique itself poses a challenge that is not simply overcome with enthusiasm, the challenge posed by critique serves as another opportunity to differentially repeat enthusiasm itself. Witness political discourse, no minds change, only banal discriminations performatively reproduce themselves.

I don’t agree with Latour’s solution: “a multifarious inquiry launched with the tools of anthropology, philosophy, metaphysics, history, sociology to detect how many participants are gathered in a thing to make it exist and to maintain its existence. Objects are simply a gathering that has failed — a fact that has not been assembled according to due process.” Should we treat all enthusiasts of a given reality, of a given distribution of possibilities, as if they need to resuscitate the dignity of ‘cherished’ objects? No, they are working to actualize a particular world, an entire distribution of subject-object relations. Evangelicals name the Apocalypse as quasi-cause. Harnessing enthusiasm does not involve critique, it involves assembling challenges to mobilize (enthusiast) bodies into action. Increasing their capacity to act, rather than diminishing their capacity to act with ‘solutions’ to their banal everyday problems.

I started writing this post thinking about why Latour’s argument for turning to matters of concern is relevant for journalism, but it became something else. Apologies!

Fourth Person Singular

Levi is trolling ‘correlationists’ again with this post.

His logic is that the correlationist perspective inevitably leads to racism:

“why did Eurasia manage to conquer the Americas, the Australian continent, and Africa and not the reverse?” This is such a great question because it backs the anthropocentric humanist into a corner.
[…]
In short, if one adopts the correlationist hypothesis they are inevitably led to racism when answering these questions (shades of Heidegger’s sendings of Being and the primacy of the Greco-German culture here).

I’ve replied to his post on his site, but I am reproducing it below:

Or you can point out that this exercise it flawed from the beginning by your working assumption that ‘to conquer’ is somehow a better event than, for example, ‘to sustain’ (for example, evidenced by 40,000 years of civilisation on the Australian land mass prior to European intervention)? Or that there is assumed to be no process of ‘becoming-together’ of cultural transformations of an essentialised ‘Eurasia’ as it came into contact with other civilisational assemblages?

Human history has not even begun to be written yet. Why assume that essentialised Eurasian ideals that valorise the composition of the world in this tiny instant in geological time (a couple of centuries) are ideals that are even worth using as an analytical tool?

Rather than being backed into the corner, the correlationist wonders at such uncritical assumptions, particularly when you are attempting to give voice to ‘things’. Surely any perspective from a ‘non-identity’ has to pass through a cosmological perspective (fourth person singular) first? Then there is an ethical decision to be made about which events are worthy of implicating oneself in (‘to conquer’ versus ‘to sustain’, for example).

Levi, you teach students and engage with them. How many of them have the skills to engage with what you teach? ‘Engagement’ is a core problem for this generation of youth: investment in technologies of convenience are not making an aggregate of the population stupid, they are simply redirecting their intelligence away from worthy tasks. The neutered capacity of youth does not indicate a decline of intelligence, only that the apparatuses of capture deployed under the monumental shadow of capital have become more efficient. The mistake of neo-Kantians was to believe that pointing out the limits of rationality would be enough for self-critique, when it is merely another opportunity to reaffirm investment in faith and stupidity.