Friday, October 7, 2011

Uprising – emotionalization: a US version in Occupy Wall Street

Recently I have relocated from Boston to Bond University on Australia’s Gold Coast, far, far away from the action in the US – in fact, far from the action anywhere! (As one of my cousins said – “Nothing ever happens here.”) But there’s plenty happening by way of uprisings elsewhere. Not least of which is the activity referred to in New York City as Occupy Wall Street.

Readers of this blog and my book of the same name (Uprising – The Internet’s Unintended Consequences) will be aware that my interest is in the relationship between the Internet and the unintended consequences that are generated by the unregulated flow of information and knowledge on the network. This relationship is viewed from a critical perspective. This perspective usually embodies actions against the status quo in a progressive political direction.

In Mass Communication Theory, Denis McQuail’s frequently used media studies textbook (now in its 6th edition), McQuail makes the point that the critical approach to media can begin with the “what ought” question. This is normative (read progressive sociology) in action, where media is expected to construct an imaginary set of possibilities for human emancipation, as well as inform the material results of those possibilities.

As a kind of respectable academic approach to the social world, normative sociology has had to give way to much more pressing needs. Cultural studies filled the gap left by a style of sociology that forgot the “what ought” and replaced it with theoretically inclined empirical reportage. Ultimately it was politically defanged sociology. 

The Internet is connecting with each other a generation of students trained in and around cultural studies. It is informing the otherwise politically uncharged academic space of sociology with “what ought” questions. These questions surpass academic work that documents the status quo, even though that is a necessary project.

To give this accolade to cultural studies would be to overstate the case. The connection between material conditions within everyday life – unemployment in the US at true rates of 16%+ and much higher in rust belt areas especially Detroit, and even higher amongst African American and Latino communities -  and the Internet is immediate. Cultural studies at least focuses on the immediacy of culture and its context.
Emotions are being generated in ways that have not been anticipated – look at the way New York City police attacked Occupy Wall Street protesters for evidence of how the immediacy of digital communication operates to mobilize action! Protesters can swarm, mass and congregate based on Internet-based communications.  
Everyone is ultimately on the same network, where there is little or no mediation and regulation of moderate the emotion. No authority is editing and managing the flow.

Proletarianization in this era is what I have defined as the link between unregulated information on the Internet and the emergence of behavior and action that takes the form of social movements.

It is especially helpful to contrast the digital intensity of the protestors’ emotions and actions around Wall Street (and in Athens, Cairo, Tripoli, Paris? London) with the old media of television and print.

Below is Canadian critic Naomi Klein discussing mainstream media on Democracy Now, October 6, 2011.
“It really is a sick cultural ritual. Every time there is a new generation of politicized, engaged young people who come forward, there is this ritual mocking of them, a kind of a hazing. And it’s such a corrupt and corrupting way to welcome a new generation into politics.

“Coming from a media culture that has worked so hard to dumb down this society it is enormously ironic that they are mocking these very, very well informed [people].”

The point is that there are parallel universes: the Internet and every other conventional or traditional media. The “sick cultural ritual” may interest some people, but to Internet users, it provokes the “so what?” answer. It is irrelevant.  

Media culture is the Internet. The “what ought” question arising from Occupy Wall Street is the question of emotion (what American media scholars tend to refer to as “effect.”) What ought media do in this new (Internet) context?

The answer will be an escalation of emotion from the police, the state, the government and official culture in general.  This escalation will continue because the Internet makes it so. A counter escalation will operate from the protests, as has been witnessed in the Arab Spring. No one will back down because there is no moral suasion within the conventions of civil society: the old media cannot generate the immediacy of emotion like the new media.

I call this the emotionalization of resistance. It is due to the Internet.

Expect chaos.