The meta-organisational capacity of lures

Sianne Ngai’s concept of minor aesthetic categories was developed to think about “aesthetic experiences grounded in equivocal affects”. I worked to think through the concept of ‘meta’ as it circulates in popular culture as a similar minor aesthetic category. Like Ngai’s three examples — the cute, the zany, and the interesting — ‘meta’ is characterised by an inherent affective contradiction of both embracing facts or information as providing answers while at the same time multiplying the conditions of possibility for asking questions. ‘Meta’ does not describe objects or qualities of objects, but the distinct modalities of aesthetic engagement with para-texts and relations of engagement themselves. At stake is the logistics of culture and the circulation of discourse.

The cultural industry has fully embraced this mode of participation. Their role is to facilitate the production of centers of fixation or ‘lures’ around which fans organise. Of critical importance here is the excess of information or content, as David Turner argues in a piece on the transformation of music fandom, “With a surplus of music available, the “community” itself, or rather the sense of oneself as participant, is increasingly the point”.

The market effects of the blockbuster can be repeated, but only via the orchestration of fans from the bottom up. Saturation marketing does not work. Manipulating hype cycles without substantial pay off in the form of participatory listening also does not work. Repeating the distinction in Bennet and Segerberg’s work between collective and connective action, there is meta-detective work operating on a connective level, rather than collective level. To return to Turner:

The connection that fans in decades past built through purchasing music is now better observed through YouTube or even Instagram comments — fan engagement is connected to how much time one is willing to spend hunting for leaks or standing in line for a pop-up shop. The ideal fan doesn’t pay for a singular release, but instead spreads memes and creates enough online noise to keep their favorite artist trending: Recently the indie rock artist Mitski reposted memes in the run-up to her latest album, Be The Cowboy, to Instagram; fans returned the favor, throwing the hashtag #BeTheCowboy across social media. As the industry has monetized fan dynamics, moving toward participation as product, the perceived value of music has changed: it’s less about the artist, or even the artist’s relationship to their fans, than “engagement” itself.

Towards a post-normative communication and media studies

Twitter has announced a call for research submissions that helps them “identify indicators of conversational health that are even more specific to Twitter and its impact.” I expressed my skepticism about this on Facebook and so I am writing up some notes here.

‘Conversations’ are one way to examine interactions on social media. We looked at conversations as the unit of analysis in our Turnbull paper due out in MIA I think in a few months (based on our ANZCA paper). A simple point to make is that the ‘public conversation’ is not the same thing as ‘conversations on Twitter’ or even ‘Twitter publics’. Sure, there are conversations that happen entirely on Twitter (say a Trump tweet and reaction and cross talk), but these are not very useful as the basis of assessing public conversations. How Twitter users produce openings on other spaces, so that the circulation of discourse is necessarily cross-platform. The philosophy behind Cortico’s general approach looks interesting, but Twitter and Cortico will need to partner with other platforms.

There are broadly two ways to map the circulation of discourse. The first is derived from Bourdieu and maps a ‘field’ based on the social interactions between actors and the analytical construction of what is valued in the field (doxa). I think this is inherently flawed because of the reliance on a notion of faith (as in good or bad faith). Bourdieu’s Manet lectures are clear on this. The second is derived from Foucault and maps the discursive regularities between statements and the analytical construction is regarding the conditions of possibility based on ‘authority’ and composition of power relations (dispositif). What Foucault broadly called ‘eventalization’ (only ever in interviews, so the method has to be reverse engineered across a range of works). Interestingly, network graphing techniques seem to be aligned with ‘eventalization’ until you realise that they mostly rely on the providence of digital objects and platform-based network relations between them. There have been few attempts to map networks of discourse in spite of the platforms as this multiplies the work exponentially.

Analysing discourse in terms of the ‘health’ of conversations assumes a normative dimension that I think smuggles in assumptions about the good faith of actors. There are two problems here. First, analytics are unlikely to indicate how a particular user is ‘blinkered’, and therefore has an extremely constrained degree of freedom (in the systems theory sense), what Guattari called a low co-efficient of transversality or Warner might talk about in terms of the character of reflexivity. They will instead show how such blinkered users belong to tribes, because of the discursive coherency and affective congruence of discourse. So what? Second, Twitter does not appear to want to operate upon the good or bad faith of actors, and therefore take obvious steps to reduce the weaponised use of the platform (such as reduced functionality for new accounts until thresholds of participation are passed, such as number of followers or interactions). Getting over the normative assumptions about the good faith of users is an important first step.

Critical News Literacy and Young People

There is a study released today about news consumption habits by young people 8-12 and 13-16 years old:  News and Australian Children: How Young People Access, Perceive and are Affected by the News.

The first point made in the key findings of the report is about how young people receive news from family and friends, including teachers (from the infographic). Trust is extremely high.

My problem with the reporting in the Conversation is focuses on  ‘fake news’. ‘Fake news’ has tabloid ‘outrage’ news value among an educated audience, but it is not actually that interesting from a research perspective.

After being part of three Digital News Reports (2015, 2016 and 2017) the key critical question for me is, how do children and young people develop news literacy and their own sources of news as they mature? If they are accessing news via their family and friends, does this mean this is how they also develop news literacy? By imitating the critical relationships based on cultural values and social norms of their parents? In our research low levels of trust in mainstream news have been interpreted as relatively high levels of critical news literacy. How does this work in the context of young people developing their own news literacy if they have extremely high levels of trust in their primary sources of news?

Critical News Literacies?

What is the relationship between perceptions of bias (key finding 3) and the capacity to spot ‘fake news’ (key finding 4)? Arguably ‘fake news’ is irrelevant compared to the ideological framing of most of the mainstream news. The key development of 8-12 to 13-16 year olds seems to be the radical reduction in the percentage share of those responding to the survey who don’t know about various measures of bias (Figures 18-20). That is, there is roughly half the number of young people who responded ‘I don’t know’ to questions 13-16 year olds compared to 8-12 year olds. Rightly or wrongly having a view on the bias of news representations demonstrates critical or discerning engagement and this increases.

Breitbart and American Sniper

I scraped Breitbart’s all posts from Facebook page. This is a representation of all ‘engagement’ (likes, comments and shares) for each month. The first six months of 2015 saw tremendous growth in engagement and it would be worth exploring what actually happened in that period, so I did a search of the Nexis service for ‘Breitbart’ across January – June 2015 to see if mainstream news services mentioned the site. Nexis is not comprehensive but it does track most major news publications and services. I did not include ‘press releases’ or ‘newswires’. Plus I collated all the articles that mentioned ‘Breitbart’ without any data cleaning so likely multiple entries for same article published in slightly different ways.

The table at the bottom of this post lists the publications with the most mentions of ‘Breitbart’.  A few comments about this list. I had to search for ‘US Official News’ as I had not heard of it before. It is LexisNexis’s own news aggregation service. I think I can assume that only subscribers to LexisNexis can access this so it is not important for getting a sense of this period. MailOnline is next and as a click chasing operation it clearly went after ‘outrage’. There are multiple entries for WaPo blogs in the list so I think posts are being counted more than once. Interesting to see the Canberra Times down the bottom.

A key event early in this period was the release of the movie American Sniper. It is a useful example of how news sites refer to Breitbart as being representative of a conservative ‘right wing’ position when discussing the movie in the context of the ‘culture wars’. Breitbart ran a review describing the movie as a “Patriotic Pro-War on Terror Masterpiece” January 16. A number of news outlets then cited this review so as to include a ‘right wing’ perspective. CNN was the first outlet to refer to this review in a kind of explainer of why the movie seemed to succeed at the box office “Why American Sniper is a Smash hit” January 19. Hollywoodreporter.com was next with “Oscars: ‘American Sniper’s’ Hopes for a Win Complicated by Politics” January 21. CNN published another piece citing the Breitbart review this time framing the ‘culture wars’ response as largely misguided if not outright wrong “What people got wrong about American Sniper“. The piece compares the movie to Spingsteen’s misunderstood Born in the USA. Washington Post ran two pieces in its Style Blog “Everything you need to know about the American Sniper culture wars controversy” and “Civil rights group: Eastwood, Cooper need to help stop anti-Arab speech inspired by ‘American Sniper’” published 26 and 28 January respectively. The 28 January piece cites a second Breitbart piece about reported incidents of anti-Arab speech triggered by the movie. Lastly, on 28 January a New York Times story “American Sniper fuels war on the home front” reports on the controversy from the previous fortnight and cites a third Breitbart story on a tweet by Seth Rogen.

Reading the three pieces mentioned in these articles requires a subtle attuned to the concerns of Breitbart. The review celebrates the movie and what is understood to be general sentiment behind it. It also couches the movie as a kind of repudiation (I think?) of ‘Big Hollywood’. ‘Big Hollywood’ is a meta-tag on the site and therefore can be understood to be one of the major concerns. I think it refers to the conservative belief that the ‘cultural left’ rules Hollywood and that there is a kind of conspiracy to de-valuing ‘right wing’ culture. The other pieces are similar and even more explicitly framed in terms of broader concerns. The second WaPo blog piece is about ‘mainstream media’ reporting on ‘hoaxes’ as if they were true. The third piece interprets a tweet by Seth Rogen in such a way as to suggest that the movie is akin to Nazi propaganda. These are also tagged Big Hollywood. In this context then ‘Big Hollywood’ is not only about the movie industry but popular culture more broadly.

Table: Most mentions of ‘Breitbart’ Jan-Jun 2015.

PUBLICATION Count
US Official News 64
MailOnline 40
Washington Post Blogs 35
The Guardian 22
Politico.com 18
CNN.com 15
The National Journal 10
Independent.co.uk 10
Governance, Risk & Compliance Monitor Worldwide 9
Washington Post BlogsThe Fix 9
The Times (London) 9
Arutz Sheva 8
Tampa Bay Times 8
The New York Times 7
The State Journal- Register (Springfield, IL) 7
Pittsburgh Tribune Review 6
The Washington Post 6
Washingtonpost.com 6
Investor’s Business Daily 6
Slate Magazine 6
Washington Post BlogsErik Wemple 5
ALALAM 5
Express Online 5
Legal Monitor Worldwide 4
Jpost.com (The Jerusalem Post online edition) 4
Washington Post BlogsThe Style Blog 4
Contra Costa Times (California) 4
 The New York Post 4
The Justice: Brandeis University 4
USNEWS.com 4
telegraph.co.uk 4
Jüdische Allgemeine 4
Jerusalem Post 3
San Jose Mercury News (California) 3
hollywoodreporter.com 3
Yerepouni Daily News 3
La Croix International 3
McClatchy Washington Bureau 3
Class Action Reporter 3
i-Independent Print Ltd 3
The Dialogue 3
Canberra Times (Australia) 3

 

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.