Sunday, November 19, 2017

Art, podcasting, high cosmopolitanism

What does a podcast do? Recently, I recorded a podcast for the McMullen Museum at Boston College. It was a conversational interaction with my Communication Department colleague Celeste Wells. For just over 20 enjoyable minutes we discussed two paintings in the current exhibition Nature's Mirror: Reality and Symbol in Belgium Landscape.  

This is a tremendously diverse display of what might be termed high-cosmopolitanism, in so far as its chronological scope stretches from wood prints made during the early days of the printing press in the sixteenth century to early twentieth century paintings.

As high cosmopolitanism it offers a perspective of a diverse Belgium, as cities and towns emerged in the formative days of capitalism, through to the First World War. As "art" it is "high" in the way Raymond Williams defined high culture - art on gallery walls within boundaries that are learned within formal culture and privilege. As high cosmopolitanism it offers representations about the way of life of diverse peoples, whose class and cultural orientations are mostly coexistent. Their "structures of feeling" (to take another Williams term) are shown in the unfolding social consciousness of the many ways of life of the people and places depicted. 

The current exhibition  is as good as anything I have seen in a traditional museum setting.

Celeste discussed  Léon Spilliaert's (1881-1946), “Scene of War,” 1917. I discussed Eugèbe-Joseph Verboeckhoven's (1799-1881), “Mountainous Landscape with Bridge,” n.d.

Images of the paintings are in the link to the podcast.

Podcasts are all the go! And as I note in my contribution to the podcast, one of the reasons I chose the bridge was because of the way it described technology as a means by which humans communicate - in this case, a structure as a means of transport for communication purposes. The technology of the bridge saves time in traversing the valley, allowing messengers to deliver information more quickly, yet to me, the bridge is about the fragility of surviving a crossing on the rickety structure. Due to the bridge, people move through space in shorter amounts of time. The impact on human life, in creating civilization through engineering feats like a spidery bridge, was and is significant.

A similar point was made by the American culture and communication historian James Carey in Communication as Culture, where he referred to the invention of the telegraph as the way to restructure social and commercial life, which changed space and time.

Back to the podcast: Podcasts involve hearing, which is almost an olfactory sense, such is its richness. Perhaps the currency that podcasts are experiencing in the present moment is due to the way they draw listeners in through aural sensibility, to massage the part of the human brain that has not been adequately stimulated in the face of the visual onslaught of the always-on screen. Think about the dominance of the screen: the "pixilated people" as I once somewhat critically suggested, are primarily about a visual experience based on optic nerve sensations.

The podcast removes the obsessional visual characteristic from the calculation of digitally delivered information services. Instead, it offers a way to knowledge that requires listening as a singular mode of information delivery. In this sense, I am reminded of "Following You: Disciplines of Listening in Social Media" an article by my fellow Australian Kate Crawford, who describes listening as an analogy for how Social Media is utilized. She suggested a range of potential ways for listening: the most relevant is where Social Media engages listeners in reciprocal and receptive attention to each other. This was fine (and is still relevant) in 2009 when Crawford published the article.

In 2017 conditions have altered. Now podcasts create, directed listening and less reciprocal listening, where the the full attention of the listener's aural capacity is called upon, with not much expectation for a digital or on-line reaction. It is difficult to imagine a podcast being successful. It is not a Twitter or instant messaging or Social Media system, previously defined, in which the interactive commentary, the conversations, are what have salience.

In contrast, there is a somewhat reactionary characteristic to podcasts - its directedness is structured around highly attentive listening to one way speech. It reduces the social in Social Media by offering mobility to the spoken word. It shares this with the Walkman which took music to the streets, moving it out of the lounge room, the bedroom, and concert hall into the private space of the listeners' headphones. It changed the culture, and as Stuart Hall and a group of authors noted in Doing Cultural Studies: The Story of the Sony Walkman, that little device had a big impact on culture. Unfortunately, I would suggest that its impact includes a negation of social interaction even social life itself, as it privileged individual consumption and aural pleasure over sociality. (I am interested in the shifting definitions of  private and public, mostly because the success of private culture reduces, even denies the capacity for shared, collective social life).   

As usual, the analysis is complex.The aural intensity of podcasts continue the richness the Walkman offered, as well as the negation. Both technologies share a focus on aural intensity while cutting off the possibility for community interaction by delaying reactions to speech. 

Despite these misgivings, a podcast offers a way to explore negotiated meanings within art for listeners. 

And I want to enthusiastically suggest that any opportunity to identify and reflect through speech on the high cosmopolitanism of Nature's Mirror is welcome. The exhibition offers the chance to reflect on Belgian social life, drawing attention to historical knowledge about art and society, as well as offering an appreciation for the important work artists do in responding to the world while reflecting on how the world looks many years later.

Here are some questions abut podcasts:

What is a listening community? What does a listening community look like when the verbiage is about art? Can ideas be brought from the history of listening to music that will inform an understanding of podcasts?


Friday, February 3, 2017

The Tweetering President's Praccess on Social Media

In my 2011 book Uprising: The Internet's Unintended Consequences, unregulated interactive communication through the Internet was presented as a public policy reform that would unleash remarkable energy forces for change. The shift in the simple transport of digital information would bring into circulation unregulated expressions of life and culture, or proletarianization.

My use  "proletarianization" reflected that hyper-fast global capitalism wanted all and every culture and any idea to be in free digital circulation. In this unregulated form, free ideas would transform the world, while the increase in traffic and users would contribute to the growth and maintenance of capital. It appears that is where we are at.

The transformation of the world has been determined by the singularity of Internet communication, or Network Society according to Manuel Castells. From December 1995 with 16 million users to September 2016 with 3.7 billion, the Internet connects everyone within the global communication system. This US-centric enterprise merges a US world view of consumerist progress with liberal democracy.

President Trump has used Twitter to engage with these users, not everyone of whom is on Twitter, or reading his tweets. Nevertheless, the main feature of the Tweetering President is his direct access to the public. Set against a historical system of US government in which several institutions managed, manipulated then released statements from presidents, usually as Press Releases and statements to television audiences, the action of President Trump redefines "access." I call it "Praccess," direct Presidential access to any citizen who users the Twitter platform.. Indeed, anyone with access to the Internet is able to experience direct communication from Trump.

Access to Information (ATI), also describes this new practice. As the South African academic Richard Calland suggests, ATI serves "egalitarian socio-economic interests." He was correct - the egalitarian instinct deployed in the Trump Praccess connects directly to citizens even as it denies them other rights. (Dropping environmental protections, for example).  

"Praccess" is a play on "praxis," a term that was used in European left, Frankfurt School, social, educational and liberal contexts to describe action aimed at changing society. The summary in Wikipedia indicates the scope of its utility, and connects Praccess to the emerging tradition of Trumpian social transformation. Time will tell if "Praccess" proves to be more radical than many theorists of praxis ever imagined.

Certainly there are suggestions that it is more radical. By the end of his first couple of weeks in office, President Trump's Praccess moved swiftly to assert change, drawing on a curious communicative turn to legitimize his right to make policy as the elected leader and to channel those rights directly to the public.  

Praccess could be anticipated before the leading man's ascension to the presidency. For example, in a detailed Legal Analysis of Trump's legitimacy to govern, Eisen, Painter and Tribe published THE EMOLUMENTS CLAUSE: ITS TEXT, MEANING, AND APPLICATION TO DONALD J. TRUMP, on December 16, 2016.

Before Praccess and before the inauguration, their analysis seemed extreme. However, they offered a perspective that did not fully appreciate how Praccess and ATI would play out. (And how could they?)
Since Election Day, Mr. Trump has issued a series of statements describing in vague terms how he might address his multifarious conflicts of interest. Many of these statements have taken the form of Tweets, because 140-character missives are apparently the newnormal for carrying out governmental and constitutional business.

As the "new normal," Praccess allows government business to elide into the personal communication of the man in charge. This new approach is weird in its unconventionality. 

Look for example at the way Dalia Grybauskaitė, the Lithuanian president, characterized how European Union officials interact with the Administration: “I don’t think there is a necessity for a bridge. We communicate with the Americans on Twitter.”

At another register entirely is the way Twitter has made Praccess a site for interactions between the President and anyone - not only US citizens. The entire globe of Internet users is involved, thereby dramatically changing the idea of citizenship itself. 

Consider that there was a time when domestic US politics was restricted to its geographical borders. Growing up in Australia I did not see US Presidential Press Conferences on television, or hear excerpts from the weekly radio broadcasts, or know about the self-serving statements by US Presidents about what was good for America. The Internet made it possible for US television, CNN and MSNBC especially, radio and now all things Praccessable to be part of the global discourse. Citizenship did not look like this before, as we waited for the institutions of government to parse then display the greatness of presidential power.    

This shift, the global incorporation of the global citizen into Praccess, is a high risk venture which exposes everyone to the free flow of opinion, invective and anger. 

For example, Former Mexican President, Vincente Fox Quesada took to Twitter in response to Trump, escalating to a new level interactions between heads of state and former heads of state.
Sean Spicer, I've said this to and now I'll tell you: Mexico is not going to pay for that fucking wall.
Free ideas in the context of Praccess are approaching the end point of the claims Internet advocates like John Perry Barlow made 20 years ago for the free flow of information in his Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace.   

“I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us.” ...  “You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear.”

A helpful 20 year review in WIRED  magazine in 2016 is worth reading to see how Internet missionaries like Barlow stayed with the project. Will Praccess change Barlow's view? After all, Praccess is government fully engaging with, even embodying the Internet. 

The instincts playing out within proletarianization on the Internet are becoming more barbaric. Praccess is a direct form of address to citizens, with few historical connections to established methods of interpersonal address. It is as if everyone accepts the shift to direct 140 character speech, no "Please" or "Thank you" ever!  

As such, Praccess is nothing more than the claims of a president seeking to unmake a nation of its liberal achievements. The Internet as observed in Twitter is at least achieving its ambition. An Uprising indeed!