Monday, January 12, 2015

Making sense of Charlie Hebdo in the Networked age - the media exceptionalism vortex

"Making sense?" What a ridiculous and unworthy claim!

Who can make sense of the attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and the murder of 10 of its journalist-cartoonists plus two police officers, as well as four shoppers in a Vicennes Kosher supermarket, and in a separate incident, a police officer: 17 in all.

So far, the events in Paris, like the events in Sydney in December last year, have been accorded high level importance as exceptions to everyday life. Each event was accorded detailed coverage as the most important event on hand - until the next one. The media makes is possible to magnify outrageous acts as exceptional, generating  an equal and opposite sense of exceptionalism in more media coverage. As long as the media can be there - through the combined convenience of modern travel (the journalists are on the spot) and the immediacy of communication networks - the events are seen as exceptional, and thus worthy of coverage.

For students of media this can be considered the media exceptionalism vortex. In this domain, a mediated act provokes another in order to match the first. However, because the first "event" happens in an unplanned and spontaneous way, the explanation takes much longer than the event. The media takes on the role of instantaneous historian: responding to the the event by filling in a landscape that keeps changing.

While the reporting continues, claims and counterclaims emerge about the intentions of the perpetrators, the impact of the event and a long term view or perspective.  These four categories need to be immediately serviced with speculative claims, evidence, and theory. Contemporary news media is constructed around a sequence of event-intent-impact-perspective. Truth and justice is not the principle goal of this reporting. The goal is images and personages whose contributions heighten these four pillars of contemporary mediation.

Anyone can set up a television or Internet site to report on the four. In fact millions have - web pages, social media, You Tube,Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Google+, Ali Baba ...

Why are there so many outlets for news and analysis? How do they flourish in the crowded marketplace of ideas, amidst the media clutter?

The answer can be found in the fragmentary yet maximized claims each outlet and individual offers. Every one claims to be an exception and to be exceptional.

In other words, the key proposition driving every media report and comment is its claim to be exceptional. Only exceptional events are covered, and as Noam Chomsky pointed out, these are the events considered by the media to belong to the Righteous, to us, not to them, which are horrendous. Chomsky

To start with, the "event" must be exceptional to gain the attention of the media, after which every piece of analysis offered fits into claims of exceptionality. The intent-impact-perspective create a framework for sustaining the exceptionalism. Nothing can be banal, everyday or ordinary.  Reporting must be exceptional, while every report associated with the original event has a hint of the virtue of us as watchers.

Several aspects of the events in Paris illustrate this analysis.

Charlie Hebdo itself has been exceptionalized. Its foolhardy bravery in publishing secular cartoons and caricatures was necessary in a liberal society - but it was also stupid. After raising the ire of Muslims and no doubt true believers of many other faiths that it pilloried with parody, it crossed the threshold. As an anonymous poster on b/chan wrote: "Charlie Hebdo was an extremely racist publication that punched down at the oppressed Muslim minorities of Europe." boards Anon

In more elaborate terms, here is a perspective from Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine: 
Similarly, the media has refused to even consider what it would mean to a French Muslim, living among Muslims who are economically marginalized and portrayed as nothing but terrorists, their religious garb banned in public, their religion demeaned, to encounter a humor magazine that ridiculed the one thing that gives them some sense of community and higher purpose, namely Mohammed and the religion he founded. Lerner criticism
Were Charlie Hebdo's editors ignorant of the way their images transcended the libertarian malcontents drawing cartoons and publishing in an office in Paris? Were they unthinking of the way those images circulated around the world in the virtual space? Did they care about the implications of their actions? Did the editor, Stephane Charbonnier recognize that in being added to an el-Qaida in Yemen hit list in 2012, and not changing his behavior he was provoking a reaction? Presumably yes. Slate report
"Our job is not to defend freedom of speech but without it we're dead. We can't live in a country without freedom of speech. I prefer to die than to live like a rat," Charbonnier told ABC News. ABC News
Foolhardy indeed.

Lenin referred to "infantile disorder" in the ultra-left? Is it possible to see the libertarianism that is available to social entrepreneurs like the Charlie Hebdo journalists as similarly infantile? "We can do whatever we like!" goes the mantra. We are exceptional in seeking to overthrow the tyranny that controls society through religion. This exceptionalism proved to be ill-advised.

The exceptionalism of Charlie Hebdo was realized when Charbonnier and his colleagues were gunned down. They became the event. All of a sudden the intent-impact-perspective became central to the coverage, as every journalist and writer attempted to be exceptional in their coverage.    

No wonder it is impossible to make sense of the Charlier Hebdo assassinations and related Parisian events. There are so many claims to exceptionalism that there is no way to process those claims as the media begs us to accept that their coverage of the event mirrors that exceptionality. Talk about cognitive dissonance. Comprehension becomes a fuzz of unethical recognition - there is no virtue in any of this exceptionalism.

Spending more time trying to understand the events makes it necessary to immerse oneself in the media.  As they offer analysis in the  intent-impact-perspective stakes, comprehension diminishes. What does it all mean? In the first instance it means remaining in the media exceptionalism vortex, which provides its own limited meaning about itself.

We enter the realm of the meaning deficit, which grows in inverse proportion to the news coverage and the activities of publicists. The Public Relations and Marketing people who are a large part of the media business, work diligently to attract audiences to their programs. They make a living insisting on the exceptionalism of the coverage their media outlet offers.

This cycle of exceptionalism proves itself to itself, while reducing comprehension of the event in an absurd cycle of decreasing knowledge. This is in contrast to Immanuel Kant's Imperative, where knowledge has a structure that originates in experience. Contemporary media offers less experience in an ever-widening circle of exceptionalism - seeing events as spectacular, the viewer is folded into the exception, into action that happens on the screen, of which they are a meaningless part, even while told their participant-observation is worthwhile. This is an extension of Guy DeBord's Society of the Spectacle thesis. Debord saw society as a series of images, overpowering collective interests to produce alienation. This alienation is accentuated in the Internet age, although the technology industry tells us to believe that more networking is good for us. What we get instead is  exceptionalism without activist content as the vortex folds our consciousness into its limits.

(MacKenzie Wark has published a welcome dual volume study on Debord, which should herald more attention to the spectacle associated with media coverage of terror WarkWark 2.)  

The million-plus person march on Sunday January 11, 2015, in Paris  consisted primarily of middle class white folk, indicated by detailed and lengthy watching of CNN and Al Jazeera television coverage. All were worthy protagonists advocating by their presence a commitment to the idea of free speech. What they were really doing was participating in the exceptionalism offered by the media reproduction of themselves.

I was reminded of the anti-Iraq war marches in 2003. In London, more than a million people protesting the US move against Saddam Hussein.(Beautifully rendered by Ian McEwan in his novel Saturday McEwan) All around the world people were recoreded expressing their anger and frustration at the "weapons of mass destruction" claims George W Bush had made as the premise for the invasion of Iraq. The media reported these exceptional events, and nothing happened.

Last weekend in Paris, the PR was superb. The line up of international leadership pretty good.

French Primer Minister François Hollande got in first, claiming: '“Paris is the capital of the world today,” ...  'as world leaders linked arms to begin the march in Paris.' An exceptional day, with exceptional coverage.

It was difficult not to be disturbed by the publicity-insistence of Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, generating his own exceptionalism. According to The Times of Israel, "Netanyahu was initially situated in a second row of leaders, but shimmied his way into the front row." Bibby can't help himself Ever the exceptionalist, Netanyahu managed to make himself the center of attention. Then he gave a sermon on the wrongs of fundamentalism, violence and injustice. When you are exceptional, all you can see is the media, you cannot see hypocrisy.

An exceptional day with a concatenation of media forces at work. And what was achieved? The global system of media reproduced itself in the media exceptionalism vortex.