The Australian Newspaper Outrage Cycle

Media editor of The Australian, Sharri Markson, has produced an article titled ‘Activism a threat to journalism‘. In it she draws on sources to argue that ‘activist journalism academics’ on ‘social media’ are a threat to journalism. She paraphrases her boss and Australian newspaper editor, Chris Mitchell:

Editor-in-chief of The Australian, Chris Mitchell, said the greatest threat to journalism was not the internet or governments and press councils trying to limit free speech, but the rise of the activist journalist over the past 25 years and the privileging of the views of activist groups over the views of the wider community.

Worse than the figure of the ‘activist journalist’ is the ‘modern journalism academic’. Here Markson introduces a Mitchell quote so as describe the ‘modern journalism academic’ as someone with opinions on political issues:

Mr Mitchell, who has edited newspapers for more than 20 years, said media academics who were vocal about ideological issues on social media were part of the problem.

“This is at the heart of my disdain for modern journalism academics. And anyone who watches their Twitter feeds as I do will know I am correct,’’ he said.

Tens of thousands of people, including journalism students and those starting their career in the industry, follow media academics Jenna Price, Wendy Bacon and journalist Margo Kingston on Twitter. All are opinionated on political issues.

Through its Media section the Australian newspaper is running a small-scale ‘moral panic’ about the loss of efficacy of legacy media outlets, like the print-based Australian newspaper. Most of the people who work at the Australian newspaper have been to university and would’ve more than likely come across the concept of a moral panic. Even if they haven’t, as savvy media operators that should be familiar with the concept.

The concept of the ‘moral panic’ once belonged to the academic discipline of sociology, but has now largely leaked into everyday language. A moral panic is a diagnostic tool used to understand how fears and anxieties experienced by social group often about social change is projected onto and becomes fixated around what is called a ‘folk devil’.

A ‘folk devil’ is a social figure who may be represented by actual people, but functions to gather fear and anxiety. I have a book chapter on the folk devil figure of the ‘hoon’. There are actual ‘hoons’ who are a road safety issue, but the hoon moral panics that swept across Australia 10 years ago were completely out of proportion to the actual risk presented by hoons. The figure of the hoon represented fears and anxieties about how young people use public space particularly in areas with high retiree and tourist populations.

Clearly, the ‘activist journalist’ and ‘modern journalism academic’ are the folk devil figures. What fears and anxieties do ‘activist journalists’ and ‘modern journalism academics’ represent? ‘Social media’ is used as a collective term in Markson’s piece to describe technologies and social practices that threaten not only the commercial existence of the Australian newspaper, but also its existential purpose. As Crikey reported last week, the Australian newspaper is losing money hand over fist, but I think this ongoing effort to attack ‘activist journalists’ and ‘modern journalism academics’ indicates that the anxiety has a greater purchase than mere commercial imperatives in the Australian newspaper workplace.

Sharri 2
An example of ‘print enthusiast’ Sharri Markson’s advocacy work on social media.

Markson has been a vocal activist for print-based publication and it is clear from her advocacy work on social media that she is a ‘print media’ enthusiast. Indeed, Markson and Mitchell could be described as what are the ‘moral entrepreneurs‘ of the ‘moral panic’ in this particular example. A ‘moral entrepreneur’ is a person or group of people who advocate and bring attention to a particular issue for the purposes of trying to effect change. In traditional moral panic theory this is largely local politicians who try to effect legislative change to compensate for the social changes that triggered the moral panic in the first place.

The Australian newspaper’s ongoing response to the perceived existential threat of ‘social media’ (as an inaccurate collective term to describe far more complex and longer term shifts in the media industry) is a useful example for thinking about the cyclical character of these outbursts. They are small-scale moral panics because they never really spread beyond a limited number of moral entrepreneurs. The latest round is merely another example of the media-based culture wars that began with the so-called ‘media wars‘ in the late 1990s. Again, journalism academics were central in the conflict over what counted as ‘journalism’ and/or ‘news’. More recently, the Australian newspaper attacked journalism programs and their graduates.

The ‘Outrage Cycle’

The concept of a ‘moral panic’ is a bit clunky and doesn’t really capture the cyclical character of these ideological battles over perceived existential threats. Creator of the ‘moral panic’ concept, Stanley Cohen, included some critical comments about the concept as a revised introduction to the 2002 third edition of his iconic Folk Devils and Moral Panics book. About the possibility of a “permanent moral panic” Cohen writes:

A panic, be defintion, is self-limiting, temporary and spasmodic, a splutter of rage which burns itself out. Every now and then speeches, TV documentaries, trials, parliamentary debates, headlines and editorials cluster into the peculiar mode of managing information and expressing indignation that we call a moral panic. Each one may draw on the same stratum of political morality and cultural unease and — much like Foucault’s micro-systems of power — have a similar logic and internal rhythm. Successful moral panics owe their appeal to their ability to find points of resonance with wider anxieties. But each appeal is a sleight of hand, magic without a magician. (xxx)

A useful model for understanding the cyclical character of the relation between anxiety (or what we call ‘affect’), greater media attention (or what we call, after Foucault, ‘visibility’) and an exaggerated sense of social norms and expectations is Gartner’s ‘Hype Cycle’ model.

HypeCycle

It is not a ‘theoretical’ or even a ‘scientific’ tool; rather, it serves as a kind of rule of thumb about the reception of technological change for the purposes of creating business intelligence. New technologies tend to be hyped so take this into account when making business decisions about risks of investment. (Each year I use the ‘Hype Cycle’ to introduce my third year unit on technological change ; the way it represents technology is useful for understanding social relations and technology beyond technology being an ‘object’.) There is something similar going on with the Australian newspaper’s constant preoccupation with other journalists and in particular the role of journalism academics in society. Rather than the giddy ‘hype’ of the tech press and enthusiasts about technological change, the Australian newspaper’s cycle is organised around ‘outrage’. The Australian newspaper’s ‘Outrage Cycle’ is a useful way to frame how Western societies constantly mobilise to engage with perceived existential threats. The actual curve of the ‘Hype CYcle’ itself is less important than the cyclical character of trigger and response, which is also apparent in ‘moral panic’ theory:

OutrageCycle 2014

I’ve changed the ‘zones’ of the Hype Cycle. ‘Maturity’ did not seem like the most appropriate measure of the X-axis, so I changed it to ‘time’ which Gartner also sometimes uses. I’ve made a table for ease of reference:

Hype Cycle

Outrage Cycle

Technology Trigger

Existential Threat

Peak of Inflated Expectations

Peak of Confected Outrage

Trough of Disillusionment

Trough of Realism

Slope of Enlightenment

Slope of Conservatism

Plateau of Productivity

Plateau of Social Norms

 

Existential threat: In the case of the Australian newspaper, the existential threat is not so much activist journalists and modern journalism academics, but the apparent dire commercial position of the newspaper and the accelerated decline in social importance of a national newspaper. The world is changing around the newspaper and it currently survives because of cross-funding arrangements from other sections of News Corp. The moral entrepreneurs in this case are fighting for the very existence of ‘print’ and the institutional social relations that ‘print’ once enjoyed. A second example of this involves ‘online piracy’, which serves as a perceived existential threat to the current composition of media distribution companies.

Peak of Confected Outrage: It is unclear who is actually outraged besides employees of News Corp about so-called ‘activist journalists’ and ‘modern journalism academics’ in general. There are specific cases, just like with ‘moral panics’, where specific people have triggered the ire of some social groups. They serve as representative ‘folk devils’ for an entire social identity. Similarly, ‘pirates’ serve as an example of ‘bad internet users’ who are part of the disruptions of the legacy media industry. There is a more sophisticated point to be made about reporting on ‘outrage’ and other affective states like ‘fear’ and ‘anxiety’. They become their own sources of newsworthiness.

Trough of Realism: In the case of the Australian newspaper, this is where legacy media advocates face up to the unfortunate reality of the shifting media industry.  It is not clear to me, at least in this example, that this will actually happen. (Perhaps after the Australian newspaper folds?) In terms of ‘online piracy’ facing reality includes companies like Foxtel currently working to create online client versions of their pay TV business. It is basically at this point that proponents have to ‘face reality’.

Slope of Conservatism: In Gartner’s original version, technologies become adopted and companies learn how to use them appropriately. In the ‘Outrage Cycle’ the Slope of Conservatism is ironically named as it signals social change. In some ways, Markson’s advocacy of ‘print’ is a bad example of this. A better example is the way sports fans learn how to adapt to the commodification of broadcast sporting events.

Plateau of Social Norms: The constant change in social values and relations that have characterised Western societies for the last 300 years continues unabated, indicated by the increasing ‘liberalisation’ of normative social values, but societies often pass thresholds of organisational composition where certain norms are dominant. Heterosexual patriarchal social values and racist social values were normative up until the postwar period in Australia, then they began a very slow process of changing and we are still in the midst of these shifts. Most people who work in the media industry are learning to operate in the new norms that characterise contemporary expectations regarding the production, distribution/access and consumption of media and journalistic content. Recent examples of this include the popularity of the ‘home theatre’ as the most recent evolution of domestic cinema culture that become part of mass popular cultures with the VCR.

The ‘Outrage Cycle’ as a Business Model

In our editorial introduction to the recent ‘Trolling’ special issue of Fibreculture Journal, my colleagues Jason Wilson, Christian McCrea and I wrote:

Major media corporations and tech giants have become bogged down in nymwars, post-hoc jerry-rigging and outright comment bans as they attempt to erase conflict around perenially divisive topics. All the while, as media companies are all too happy to trade on clickbait and outrage, there’s a suspicion that they have appropriated and mobilised the figure of the troll in order to constrain a new outpouring of political speech. Trolling has perhaps displaced pornography as the obscenity which underwrites the demand that the Internet be brought under control.

Jason in particular has emphasised the normative character of particular kinds of outrage. On the topic of a recent research report report from the respected Pew Centre about the normative effect of social media, Jason wrote for the Guardian ‘newspaper’:

In the midst of social media’s perpetual flurries of outrage, we teach one another that the range of acceptable opinion is small, that we are individually responsible for comporting ourselves within these limits, and that the negative consequences are unpredictable, and potentially catastrophic. Accepting cues – from media, government and other authorities – about the dangers of incivility and extremism, we monitor each other’s conduct, ensuring that it doesn’t cross any arbitrary lines.

We can read the perpetual Outrage Cycle of the Australian newspaper as a machine for the production of new normative social values. Without being subsidised by other business areas of the News Corp enterprise, the Australian newspaper would be out of business, so to say that the Australian will inevitably fail is to miss the point that it is already in a state of constant ‘fail’. Unless someone thinks that the Australian newspaper will actually become profitable again (and will do so while its editor-in-chief and media editor are advocating for ‘print’), the social function of the Australian newspaper is not to make money as a commercial journalistic enterprise but to serve a social role that reinforce what its employees perceive to be normative social values.

The Australian newspaper and other News Corp print-based products seemed to be currently organised around using this ‘Outrage Cycle’ as a business model. Isolate a perceived existential threat (religion, class difference, education, etc.) and then represent this on the front page of newspapers in such a way as to create feelings of fear, anxiety and outrage in the community. We know that they do not aim to represent and report on this fear, anxiety and outrage, because otherwise their front pages would be full of articles about readers of their own newspapers.

Neo-Antagonisms

My comrade in another country, Jason Wilson, has a rousing Guardian column critiquing the middle-class progressive view that credentialised expertise — in the form of political ‘wonks’ — shall save us (and follow up Tumblr post clarifying comments about Piketty’s celebrity wonk book). Jason’s thesis is that politics is inherently antagonistic. The consensus-driven post-war prosperity was an anomaly and all post-political ‘Third Way’ technocracies of the 1990s have failed. With manifest irony, the problem is — to appropriate Heidegger — the essence of technocratic political wonkery is politically apolitical. Jason argues that political wonks need to resuscitate a partisan appreciation of society. The most savage way to interpret his critique is that alleged progressive political wonks want to perfect and take care of ‘the system’ first… and care for ‘the people’ second.

The grammar of progressive politics needs to put ‘the people’ before the ellipsis, sure, but what if antagonism is integral not only to democracy but to capitalism? Think about narratives of ‘disruption’ and the way total precarity is deployed as a capitalist technocratic project, it turns antagonism inward so the self becomes the site and project of coping with all kinds of insecurities while at the same time turning outward to fetishise the maintenance of borders. Do we need a way to appreciate different kinds of antagonism? What about all the ‘wars’ we have in the Culture Wars, or the neoconservative preference for launching wars on things (war on drugs, war on poverty and so on). What would this aesthetics of antagonism look like? How would it be ‘judged’?

A simple observation

A simple observation about the current refugee crisis.

Australians supporting the current way we deal with refugees as a nation are often concerned about refugees being free loaders and seeking out more than they deserve.

Australia is a rich and prosperous country, why should others who are less fortunate demand a slice of our fortune? If my neighbour has a Lamborghini and I would love to own one, then following the refugee free-loading logic, I should be able to simple take it, yeah?

It all seems pretty straight forward. Our political leaders are protecting us from the undeserving masses that will swamp us otherwise. We should celebrate and support our leaders for standing up for us and for not being ‘wimps’.

The crux of the problem is that refugees do not come here to take our material wealth away from us. They may also appreciate fine automobiles and desire a Lamborghini, but they do not seek out refuge in Australia expecting material wealth.

They come here for the essentials of life: food, shelter and security. This is what they expect, what is enshrined in our international commitments.

This is not about insisting that people can be free loaders, this is about helping others seek out freedom.

 

EDIT: For those wondering why I mention neighbours and Lamborghinis, it is because of a comment on New Matilda, reproduced in part below, by someone who fundamentally does not understand the distinction made above:

The fundamental thing is that no one, not even me, thinks that anyone should be despised for wanting a better life, my neighbor owns a Lamborghini and I would dearly love to own such a car but that does not mean that he should give it to me. Its the same with the privilege of living in Australia just because these people want to live here does not oblige our government to comply. I certainly agree with the thrust of what you say about the balance that we need strike between free enterprise and the needs of the collective. I know the luvvies from the left think otherwise but I think that we largely have the balance close to being OK in this country, not perfect by any means but not that bad either.

No Shared Identity?

Mark Fisher‘s recent piece on “Exiting the Vampire Castle” earned a response (“B-Grade Politics“) from Angela Mitropoulos.

EDIT 27/11/13: See comments below. I am accused of individualising critique on the grounds it is ‘personal’.

I’ve removed the section that placed Angela’s comments in the context of her other recent online postings where she is critical of what I guess you could call ‘Leninist-brocialism‘. I have expanded the below to clarify my point (considering two people with PhDs do not understand it). Now I have structured this post as 1. very simple rearticulation of the two pieces and 2. an expansion of my point.

Put very simply: Mark’s and Angela’s respective pieces approach the question of engaged political critique from different positions. From Mark’s perspective the point of engaged political activity is to overcome the individualising mechanisms of capitalism. From Angela’s perspective the point of engaged political activity is to extrapolate from the ways we are exploited at a personal level to find the broader political dimensions. So far, not insurmountable differences.

The differences become insurmountable at the next level: For Mark, what he calls identitarianism is a kind of white-anting within progressive political movements, exacerbated by the way we are encouraged to project a version of the self through social media. For Angela, any move to elide difference is to betray a commitment to anti-racism and/or anti-sexism and to base critical engagement on a political subject that according to this logic is defined as straight, white and male.

Rather than finding some way to overcome these differences, the final level turns them against each other: Mark draws on Nietzschean notions of bad conscience, describing those who subscribe to Angela’s position as the ‘moralising left’. Angela suggests that by ignoring race and sex, Mark is ignoring how capitalist exploitation is actually played out, and maybe ironically (but unlikely) Angela suggests Mark’s post was about his own enjoyment. For Angela, because Mark is relying on a notion of class, he is basically reinscribing the identity-based politics that he is allegedly critiquing.

Good? I hope that is an adequate summary and that I have represented the different positions fairly. I had assumed readers of my original post had read both Mark’s and Angela’s respective pieces, and had a relatively sophisticated understanding of these issues.

My interest in this the relation between experience, identity and what Spinoza calls a ‘common notion’. Do we have a ‘common notion’ of living in capitalism? I believe Mark was trying to address this.

Of course, my understanding of ‘common notion’ is via Deleuze.

[Spinoza] always defines a common notion like this: it’s the idea of something which is common to all bodies or to several bodies—at least two—and which is common to the whole and to the part. Therefore there surely are common notions which are common to all minds, but they’re common to all minds only to the extent that they are first the idea of something which is common to all bodies. Therefore these are not at all abstract notions. What is common to all bodies? For example, being in movement or at rest. Movement and rest will be objects of notions said to be common to all bodies. Therefore there are common notions which designate something common to all bodies. There are also common notions which designate something common to two bodies or to two souls, for example, someone I love. Once again the common notion is not abstract, it has nothing to do with species or genera, it’s actually the statement [ÈnoncÈ] of what is common to several bodies or to all bodies; or, since there’s no single body which is not itself made up of several, one can say that there are common things or common notions in each body.

I read this in a number of ways. Following Massumi’s notion of “becoming-together”. Following Guattari and Negri’s notion of “new alliances” (PDF). Massumi is useful because he frames this ‘political economy of belonging’ in terms of the experiences shared by those who ‘become-together’. Experience for Massumi may very well be subjectively felt, but it is not ‘subjective’; it is pre-personal and through which the individual is individuated. Guattari and Negri’s notion is useful because it posits a ‘common consciousness’ apprehended by a ‘revolutionary imagination’ that serves as the ‘basis of the constitution of a future movement’.

Deleuze’s reading of Spinoza’s ‘common notion’ is framed in terms of sadness and joy. Sad affects are when bodies are acted upon in conditions that ‘do not agree’ with it, and ‘nothing in sadness can induce you to form a common notion’. On the other hand, joy is the condition of a ‘common notion’ (from Deleuze’s lecture):

One never makes progress on a homogeneous line, something here makes us make progress down there, as if a small joy here had released a trigger. Anew, the necessity of a map: what happened there that unblocked this here? A small joy precipitates us into a world of concrete ideas which sweeps out the sad affects or which is in the process of struggling, all of this makes up part of the continuous variation. But at the same time, this joy propels us somehow beyond the continuous variation, it makes us acquire at least the potentiality of a common notion.

I’ve written a great deal about how affective-complexes involving ‘joy’ and their relation to localised fields of knowledge are played out as ‘enthusiasm’ in working class subcultures.

Returning to the distinction between Mark’s and Angela’s respective pieces, I read both as suggesting that there cannot be a ‘common notion’, but for different reasons. Angela is arguing that racialised and sexed bodies are exploited more than straight, white and male bodies in the current composition of capitalist relations, and that there cannot be a ‘common notion’ across these differences if difference is elided; she writes:

That is, unless ‘success’ has been practically and more or less consciously defined as the recruitment of people who do not want to talk critically about race or gender politics, will not overly criticise those (white men) who present themselves as their ‘leaders,’ and who will actively curtail any committment to anti-racism or anti-sexism in the name of a ‘class unity’ magically redefined as essentially white and male.

Mark, on the other hand, is advocating what is common:

A left that does not have class at its core can only be a liberal pressure group. Class consciousness is always double: it involves a simultaneous knowledge of the way in which class frames and shapes all experience, and a knowledge of the particular position that we occupy in the class structure. It must be remembered that the aim of our struggle is not recognition by the bourgeoisie, nor even the destruction of the bourgeoisie itself. It is the class structure – a structure that wounds everyone, even those who materially profit from it – that must be destroyed.

Mark is using the word ‘class’ here in a specific way; class is necessarily based on the shared experience of living in a capitalist composition of social relations (“frames and shapes all experience”). This is an experience of exploitation in different ways depending on one’s particular position we occupy in the class structure. Already his piece is at odds with an approach which seeks to reduce individuals to their individualising identity. An appeal to a shared experience is problematic for those who believe that they do not share any experience. Class consciousness is a knowledge of this experience and a knowledge of our relational positioning in this shared experience. (At a very simplistic level: most of the commentary about Mark’s piece I have encountered online and offline begins by identifying and agreeing with his experience of ‘snarky social media’ .) Does a ‘brosocialist’ have anything in common with those who identify as queer and/or coloured? Is there a ‘common notion’?

Mark, secondly, is suggesting that the current compositions of capitalist relations encourage the circulation of sad affects and the erasure of what is common; enter his notion of the ‘Vampires’ Castle’:

the Vampires’ Castle seeks to corral people back into identi-camps, where they are forever defined in the terms set by dominant power, crippled by self-consciousness and isolated by a logic of solipsism which insists that we cannot understand one another unless we belong to the same identity group.

The ‘Vampires’ Castle’ is both structure and ephemera; it is an ‘assemblage’ in Deleuze and Guattari’s sense.  The ephemeral character of structure is really very difficult to even describe, let alone talk about. Deleuze discussed it in “What is structuralism?” and instead turned to the terminology of the ‘machinic’, etc.

My overall point, can we have positive identities or a positive sense of identity that is shared? Yes, of course. Mark is describing a situation where we are encouraged to misrecognise this shared dimension. Importantly, to return to Angela’s second point above, she pours scorn on ‘recruitment’. Clearly, she frames her identity in terms of the capacity to talk critically about race or gender politics. It would be interesting to know if Angela thinks she shares any dimension of experience at all and, if so, how does she police the boundaries of how this shared dimension is defined.

As a final additional point, it is amusing that Deleuze frames the development of adequate ideas (adequate ideas are when you appreciate the relations of causality in the balance between positive and negative affects) from common notions in terms of ageing:

Knowing how to age is arriving at the moment when the common notions must make you comprehend in what way things and other bodies disagree with your own.

The Aspirational as Affective Fact

So what is an affective fact? The mechanism is quite simple:
Threat triggers fear. The fear is of disruption. The fear is a disruption.

Brian Massumi’s concept of the “affective fact” was an attempt to come to terms with post-911 governance by George Bush Jr. The concept foregrounds the virtual in governance. In The Future Birth of the Affective Fact, Massumi writes:

The event’s consequences precede it, as if it had already occurred. It event remains virtual – future-past — but is real and present in its effects. The present reality of its effects mean that it can be responded to pragmatically all the while remaining virtual.

The discursive logic of narrative is peripheral to the tautological logic of effecting causes. Governance by affective fact works to produce indexical signs of a future event (fire) to cause an event in the present (smoke); Massumi describes this as a “semiotics of alarm”. He writes, the “affective fact induced by the indexical sign of alarm is that there was in effect a danger, as certainly as there was an alert”. Affect serves as a mechanism in the operational linkage between the possibility of danger and the undeniable factuality of the alarm.

In Australia, the state of affairs was somewhat different. The long decade of John Howard’s conservative coalition was premised on economic growth and even after the Bali terrorist attacks Australia did not invest in governmental modes of security as much as the US. One of the key qualities of Australian situation was the rise of what was called the “aspirational voter“:

upwardly mobile men and women on the make, buying their name-brand values off the self, devoid of any class or political loyalty, defined only by their purchasing power and their driving ambition to acquire the gadgets and graces of the middle class.

Instead of trying to fill the discursive position of the aspirational with an empirical account of those who roughly do (or do not) fulfil most of the requirements of being considered ‘aspirational’ as an identity category, I want to consider aspirationalism as indicating a series of affective facts. Aspirationalism is a movement or process with a number of qualities, here are two:

1. Becoming-majoritarian

The aspirational wants to be part of the ‘majority’. The ‘majority’ does not have to be counted as an actual majority, only represented as such. There is no conservative and progressive or right/left only majoritarianism and minoritarianism. The majoritarian are the ‘winners’ in a competition they create. The aspirational does not understand how this could ever be a criticism: it is natural to compete for scarce resources, therefore it makes perfect sense to barrack for the winning team.

2. Probe-heads of opportunity

If the paranoid governmental apparatus is characterised by an overemphasis on security concerns, then the aspirational governmental apparatus singularly attends to economic growth. The affective fact of aspirationalism is the ‘opportunity’.  An opportunity is a particular kind of configuration of social relations where someone benefits in the future based on present action. More importantly, however, is that an ‘opportunity’ in the current composition of governance serves as an invitation to become (more) majoritarian. This is now defined almost entirely on economic grounds. Importantly, this is experienced as a positive affect — in the Spinozist sense of increasing one’s capacity to act — even though it is an affection of one’s aspirational majoritarian peers.