Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Presumed Innocence

DSK's apartment on 153 Franklin St, New York City © 2011 Patsw | Wikimedia Commons

In France, is Dominique Strauss-Kahn “presumed innocent” until proven guilty? In fact, he is presumed guilty until proven innocent. Or worse, he is presumed guilty, until confirmed guilty since the French media usually expect courts to confirm their own “enlightened” judgment and can be extraordinarily vindictive when they don’t. Thus, a petition signed by thousands of journalists “condemning” the court that condemned the national French TV Channel Antenne II for broadcasting unsubstantiated allegations. This post is about the media treatment of the presumption of innocence.

Consider a driver who deliberately speeds and runs over a policeman in front of a crowd of witnesses in order to avoid being checked at a road block. The driver is described in the news as the “presumed” author of the policeman’s coma. The word “presumed” here is a language automatism, an adornment, a legal curlicue. There is not a shadow of a doubt that this driver‘s car hit the policeman. No matter how grotesque, the word “presumed” tends to be repeated in such situations “ad nauseaum.”

With DSK, we are in a situation where the presumption of innocence matters because the facts are not established. Despite various forms of lip service, this presumption is resolutely trampled. In a recent talk show about the Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair, stand-up comedian Michel Boujenah expressed uneasiness about the fact that most of the journalists around him started from the premise that DSK was guilty. He reminded them that DSK had to be considered innocent until proven guilty. “Yes, yes,” said the journalists. Then they went on with their debate. To them, the presumption of innocence was an annoying contrivance, something akin to the presence of a vocal anti-racist at certain dinner parties; a presence that proves annoying since it prevents guests from cracking race jokes. The stand-up comedian reiterated his remark. He was definitely spoiling the fun. “OK,” replied one journalist, just add an “if” to everything I say. Just put my words in the conditional!” Then he resumed the discussion as if the guilt of DSK was beyond any doubt.

Ferry’s bomb

Such a contempt for the presumption of innocence serves as a background for a “public-sphere-bomb” that has just been thrown in the ongoing debate about Dominique Strauss-Kahn by the philosopher and former Minister of Education Luc Ferry.

In another talk-show watched by millions, Luc Ferry denounced a . . .

Read more: Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Presumed Innocence

Political Leadership and Hostile Visibility

Obama place a wreath at the base of the Yongsan War Memorial, U.S Army Garrison Yongsan in Seoul, Korea, Nov. 11, 2010 © Samantha Appleton |

This is Daniel Dayan’s second in a series of posts written in response to the WikiLeaks dump.  It analyzes how leadership is practiced in a changing media world, moving from “investigative’ to “ordeal” journalism.  I think it provides theoretical clarification of yesterday’s post on “The Politics of Gesture in Peru,” and I think it also can be used to illuminate the discussion of how leaders, particularly President Obama, have responded to the dramatic events in Cairo, which I will address in my next post. -Jeff

From Flower Wreaths to Live Behabitives

Presidential gestures are often boring. Presidents must carry flower wreaths, listen to anthems, hoist flags, light eternal flames.  In J.L. Austin’s terms, one could say that these routine tasks enact  the “behabitive dimension.”  This gestural dimension is steadily growing. It also is changing by becoming less routine, even risky.

Today’s gestures are meant to respond to unexpected situations. They take place in real time. There is nothing routine when Bush responds poorly to Katrina victims, or when Sarkozy calls young people who insult him “scumbags” (racailles).  Of course, presidential jobs still consist of what Austin would call “exercitives.” Yet, the “exercitives,” speech acts making decisions such as orders and grants, increasingly give way to a vast array of “behabitives” such as offering condolences, “apologizing,” asking forgiveness, dissociating from, displaying solidarity .

Why the Importance of Behabitives?  The Question of Visibility

While at the heart of governmental action, processes of deliberation, moments of decision are not really visible. They only become visible through announcements, or, much later, through their results. Yet the multiplicity and variety of media available allow for an almost continuous visibility of the political personnel.This visibility is expected to consist in presentations of self, which are anticipated, deliberately performed and controlled by those who choose to appear in public.

This visibility also consists in situations where those who “appear in public” lose  control over their appearances.  Suddenly thrown in the public eye, political actors are . . .

Read more: Political Leadership and Hostile Visibility

WikiLeaks and the Politics of Gestures

This is the first of a series of posts by Daniel Dayan exploring the significance of WikiLeaks.

Is WikiLeaks a form of spying? Transferring information to an alien power can induce harm. This is why spying constitutes a crime. In the case of WikiLeaks, the transfer concerns hundreds thousands of documents.  The recipients include hundreds of countries, some of which are openly hostile. In a way WikiLeaks is a gigantic spying operation with a gigantic  number of potential users. Yet, is it really “spying?”

Spying (in its classical form ) involves a specific sponsor in need of specific information to be used for a specific purpose, and obtained from an invisible provider.  WikiLeaks “spies” eagerly seek to be identified (Julian Assange, WikiLeaks founder and editor in chief,  has been voted Le Monde’s “man of the year”). Information covers every possible domain, and there is no privileged recipient. Anyone qualifies as a potential beneficiary of Wiki-largesses and most of those who gain access to the leaked information have no use for it. Spying has become a stage performance.

On 9/11 a group of Latin American architects hailed the destruction of The Twin Towers as a sublime event. The pleasure of seeing Rome burning had been made available for the man of the street. It was –suggested the builders – a democratization of Neronism.  In a way, WikiLeaks, could also be described as a democratization of spying.  It offers a form of  “public spying.” Distinct from mere spying (a pragmatic activity), it proposes “spying as a gesture.”  This gesture concerns other gestures. What WikiLeaks discloses is less (already available) facts than the tone in which they are expressed.

Content or gestures?

If the Assange leaks reveal nothing that we did not know already, what counts is less their  propositional content than the enacted speech acts.  The vocabulary of WikiLeaks gestures starts with the noble gestures of war.  Many commentators tell the WikiLeaks saga in military terms. For the Umberto Eco, it is a“ blow:” “To think that a mere hacker could access . . .

Read more: WikiLeaks and the Politics of Gestures