Thursday, May 28, 2015

The News and ISIS

Writing in 1980, the Cambridge University-based Welsh Cultural Studies scholar Raymond Williams made the following comment: 


Let us face it then: the news has been very bad lately. But it is very difficult to be sure how much of this badness has been in the events themselves, and how much in their intense and relentless interpretation by the authorities: a one-sided polemic ..." Williams on News

It was, Williams suggested, a style of news which he could not remember being at such a "pitch since the late Forties." 

He was writing about the era of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, both of whom, in the early days of their international preening, worked to assert UK (The Malvinas/Falklands War) and US dominance around the world (Afghanistan, USSR, Nicaragua). 

Watching media reports of ISIS and the consolidation of the Caliphate across the Syria-Iraq border, the news here too has been "very bad." The urgency of all the reporting has been an inside out litany of puzzlement. 

The news was once open to the following quizzical analysis, suggested Williams:


The fact that certain events have undoubtedly occurred – have happened to people, have been observed, have been reliably reported, have been tested from the evidence of participants and witnesses – has been used to conceal or to override the equally evident fact that as they move from events to news they are being narrated, and that certain long-standing problems of narration – the identity of the narrator, his authority, his point of view, his assumed relationship to his readers or hearers, his possible wider purposes in selecting and narrating these events in this way – come inevitably into question. Williams 
 (Sensitivity to gender bias - his this and his that -  was not yet part of the system of discussion in 1980).
The news in mid-2015  is less "a one-sided polemic" open to questions about the man who was presenting it to the public. Now, it is a multi-leveled series of unstable modal points, data even, whose provenance is perfectly known, down to the millimeter, thanks to Global Positioning Systems!  

The polemic has been replaced by chaotic disbelief in urgent precision. For every news authority, there is an alternative, including the enemy itself. Television news increasingly switches sometimes interchangeably, between ISIS-provided live action footage and Iraqi, Syrian government footage, .

Questions about how to make sense of what ISIS has achieved swirl across time-zones, evacuated then filled with ideological interests that offer less a narration, as Williams suggested, and more a pastiche, a dada-esque patchwork of networked information. The single point around which this story forms is that of the end of historical imperial interests in Iraq and Syria. The Broken Borders  plans which I have written about before, are a key motivation for ISIS and the Caliphate. The colonial borders have been broken, as the borders of Iraq and Syria are patrolled by members of ISIS: this is now an "old" story, (new borders - 2014) yet relevant to the way the official news presents the situation: resolvable with more violence. 

The polemic of the single narrative has been extended with the singular narrative of violence. It is a narrative rooted in the military-industrial complex, and in its singularity it remains a vestige of the single imperial narrative. 


Here is Williams again on this "old" form narrative news.
 But the whole problem is the selection of one interpretation as newsWilliams  
The news now happens in the networked environment. News watchers flick between channels, making up their own minds even as the official versions insist on the singularity of the violence narrative, dominated, sad to say, by a US appetite for violence. 

Williams argued in favor of the change in this singular approach in 1980! He saw networked communication as a positive response to the singularity. New communications offered an enlargement of opinions which reflected the social conditions which many people experienced, but which remained unreported:
One notable opportunity for such enlargement now exists in the new communications technology, especially in the conmmon-carrier (sic) and interactive versions of teletext. Williams
Yes, the news remains very bad lately. It is also creating new opportunities for the public to understand the chaos of many voices. Is it possible that out of the new spaces of networked news, better social relations will emerge?