I recently returned from a very enjoyable and very fruitful week in Paris, combining business with pleasure. I spent time with family, and also enjoyed a series of meetings with my dear friend and colleague, Daniel Dayan. We continued our long-term discussions and debates, moving forward to a more concerted effort, imagining more focused work together. His semiotical approach to power will inform my sociological approach and visa versa, with Roland Barthes, Victor Turner, Hannah Arendt and Erving Goffman as our guides. At least that is one way I am thinking about it now. Or as Daniel put it a while back in an earlier discussion: my politics of small things will combine with his analysis of the politics of even smaller things.
We had three meetings in Paris, a public discussion with his media class at Science Po, an extended working breakfast and lunch at two different Parisian cafés, and a beautiful dinner at his place, good food and talk throughout. I fear I haven’t properly thanked him for his wonderful hospitality.
At Sciences Po, Dayan presented a lecture to his class and I responded. This followed a format of public discussion we first developed in our co-taught course at The New School in 2010. He spoke about his theory of media “monstration,” how the media show, focusing attention of a socially constituted public. He highlighted the social theory behind his, pointing to Axel Honneth on recognition and Nancy Fraser’s critique of Honneth, Michel Foucault on the changing styles of visibility: from spectacle to surveillance, Luc Boltanski on the mediation of distant suffering and especially J. L. Austin on speech acts.
At the center of Dayan’s interest is his metaphor of “the media as the top of the iceberg.” He imagines a society’s life, people showing each other things, as involving a great complexity of human actions and interactions, mostly submerged below the surface of broad public perception, not visible for public view. The . . .
Read more: Spring Break with Daniel Dayan: the politics of small things meets the politics of even smaller things
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.
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
Watching Others Watching
Osama bin Laden has been killed and what do we get to see? A group of distinguished spectators watching an invisible screen. Vice President Joe Biden is close to the screen. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is seen covering her mouth with her hand, perhaps in horror. President-elect Barack Obama is leaning forward. A New York City subway newspaper has speculated that this was “the moment the president watched bin Laden die.” The visibility of an event has been replaced by the image of a group of officials who are watching what is invisible to us.
Bin Laden’s death is one of this year’s major events. Transpiring less than a week after the British Royal Wedding, it reveals the futility of the London bash. It reminds us that from time to time there are events that are truly historic, events that end a period of intellectual and affective unrest. Yet, there is something puzzling about the death of bin Laden. Important events tend to be visible. Can we believe in their magnitude if visibility is missing? In fact, can we believe they truly happened? Why do we feel short-changed, almost disappointed, waiting for the rest of the event to occur? Perhaps because bin Laden’s death was a deed but not a discourse, a blow but not an expressive event. Or perhaps we are not used to events that are both blind and mute.
A Blind Event
In the absence of images, testimonies and narratives curiously vacillate. They start to stutter. During the raid, bin Laden attempted to resist and was shot in the head. Bin Laden threatened the American commandos with a gun and was shot in the head. Bin Laden hid behind a woman, using her as a human shield, and was shot in the head. Bin Laden’s wife rushed the assaulter and was shot in the leg. Bin Laden was unarmed but shot and killed.
Here is another example of an indecisive account. “Bin Laden was buried at the North Arabian Sea from the deck of a US aircraft carrier at 2 am EST . . .
Read more: Osama and Obama: One Death, Four Invisibilities
I’ve been on the road this week, giving a public talk in Santa Barbara at Fielding Graduate University, and taking a break from a very hectic writing and teaching schedule. Returning to frigid New York, I feel cut off from my usual news sources and news gathering customs. As it happens I couldn’t read the paper version of The New York Times first thing, as is my morning custom, didn’t listen to Morning Edition and All Things Considered on NPR, and didn’t go from there to search the web for interesting under reported news and commentary. Instead I took a look at cable news, and found, to my dismay, that I really didn’t understand what had happened this week. This underscored Laura Pacifici’s point. Audiences consume “news products” that confirm their beliefs; news reporting and commentary are not informing. It struck me that this is the way that many people keep up with public affairs. I felt like I was in a fog. No wonder fictoids work! I was warmed by the Santa Barbara sun, chilled by “the lame stream media.”
Although I was on vacation, I managed to keep DC going, thanks to interesting posts by DC contributors. Will Milberg presented a very different account of the China – America relationship. I am convinced. The issue is less about currency valuations, more about economic practices of them and us. As Milberg succinctly put it:
“The key to the problem of global imbalances is to resolve them in an expansionary way rather than a contractionary way. In the wake of the crisis and a deep and widespread recession, we should be thinking about a reform of the international payments system that shifts the burden of adjustment from deficit countries (who are forced to contract their economies in order to reduce imports) to surplus countries (whose extra spending raises their imports).”
Gary Alan Fine, following up on his brilliant Jared Lee Loughner post, considered a fundamental problem in representative democracy, should we vote for representatives because of their personal qualities or principled positions. He . . .
Read more: DC Week in Review: Obama, no Lincoln, and a few other observations
Laura Pacifici is a senior at Brown University concentrating in Political Science. A contributor to an international publication, Voices, she is particularly interested in domestic policy issues and has a forthcoming article on the criminal justice system. After graduating in May 2011, Laura plans on a career in law and politics. Jeff
Almost as quickly as the news media insinuated that vitriolic political rhetoric contributed to Jared Loughner’s killing spree in Tucson, these same reporters and commentators were sharply criticized for having pointed to political explanations. While David Brooks and others such as Charles Blow in their most recent columns were disturbed by these developments, I am not surprised that the news media all but ignored –as Brooks pointed out– psychological explanations in its quest to understand Loughner’s act. This, I believe, is a result of the fact that increasingly we are turning to political commentators such as Keith Olbermann and Bill O’Reilly and away from Diane Sawyer and Brian Williams to deliver our news.
In relying more on “news commentators” and less on traditional “news broadcasters”, we have contributed to the merging of “news” and “commentary.” Commentators on the left and the right know what their niche and partisan viewers expect of them; their task is to fulfill these expectations. This leads to a creative, if unfortunate interaction: Major events come with a prepackaged political bent. It is no surprise that, burdened by the demands of the 24-hour news cycle, these commentators would respond to an event like the massacre in Tucson using politically based explanations.
The news media is not immune from our polarized political climate. Nor is it immune from the increasingly inflammatory rhetoric used by today’s partisans to smear their opponents. Jeff Goldfarb in his recent post discussed the nature of this rhetoric. He pointed to the relentless use of the term “Obamacare” as a modern-day example of what Orwell in his canonical 1984 called “newspeak”, which Goldfarb describes as a language that conceals and manipulates rather than reveals.
By tuning in night after night to the Keiths and the Bills, to the MSNBCs and the FOXs, . . .
Read more: The Media and the Motivations of an Assasin
Vince Carducci is a doctorial candidate in sociology at the New School. In his post, he highlights an important development in trade policies–one that was ignored by the mainstream Western press.
Brazil is fast setting the pace for both developed and developing nations by declaring itself the world’s first “Fair Trade” nation, an announcement that comes on the heels of the election of its first woman president. Scholars and advocates have taken note. But while Dilma Rousseff’s election has been reported, the Fair Trade story has gone unnoticed in the mainstream Western media.
On November 17, President Luis Ignacio “Lula” da Silva, whose tenure ends at the end of this year, signed a decree formally establishing a National System of Fair Trade. At the same time, he initiated a national business incubator network to encourage grassroots economic development. The actions continue the evolution begun in 2004 with the establishment within the Ministry of Work and Employment of the National Secretary of Solidarity Economics to liaise with federal government bureaus, local municipalities, and civil society organizations in developing policies and programs that foster economic and political equity and social inclusion in Brazil.
What is “Fair Trade?”
To better understand this event, one must distinguish between the concepts of Fair Trade and solidarity economics. Fair Trade is more commonly known to American consumers and entails a specific set of exchange practices. These include: pricing floors, living wages, long-term financing guarantees and purchasing agreements, profit sharing, community reinvestment, and the like, the costs of which account for the extra two bits or so one pays at the local coffeehouse for an “ethically sourced” cup of cappuccino.
Fair Trade is sometimes called alternative trade because it seeks to circumvent prevailing market transactions, especially those espoused under neo-liberalism and the process of globalization. For reformers like Joseph Stiglitz, Fair Trade is a viable model for international development in that it advances “trade not aid” as the solution to growing global inequality. Yet Fair Trade has also been criticized as a new form of dependency, tying the livelihoods of Third World . . .
Read more: Brazil Leads the Pack on “Fair Trade” Policies
On Nov. 9, Jeff pondered the use of fictitious “facts” presented in the cable political arena–fictoids.
There was once a Chinese correspondent who filed a news story to his hometown newspaper, The Beijing Evening News, by copying an article from an American “newspaper.” A nice show of laziness, as he was not only plagiarizing but also taking his secret source, The Onion, too seriously and his journalistic task not seriously at all.
But you certainly don’t have to be a lazy Chinese correspondent to start spreading urban legends, and sometimes these legends have potentially much more damaging political consequences. Recall the thirty four warships that radio host Glenn Beck said were accompanying president Obama on his trip to Asia? (link) Or, heard about the re-posting of another article from The Onion on FoxNation.com last week without a clear statement from the editors that the source was the satirical paper? (See coverage of the issue at Gawker.)
Some people will say the darndest things in order to get attention, or better yet, to be of influence. Nothing new here. But with the ubiquitous political use of fictoids, one wonders to what extent the misinformation fundamentally damages our traditions of public deliberation. And those who help create and circulate fictoids around the world are often well rewarded: they get a lot of attention, potential influence, and a guarantee that many a media outlet and their guests will spend less time discussing considerably more important issues.
Will the debunking of fictoids contribute to a healthier form of discussion? As noted by earlier DC contributors, our media outlets are fragmented.(See for example Martin Plot’s Oppostion and Truth) It is helpful when Anderson Cooper deconstructs the hollow estimates of the costs of President Obama’s recent Asia trip. (link)
The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman even lauded Cooper for having done the country a favor. (link) But isn’t Cooper just preaching to the choir? If you are in the game for the attack and think that the means justify the end, you are . . .
Read more: 34 Warships and Other Fictoids
Martin Plot is a former student, and good friend and colleague. I have learned a great deal from him about the relationship between aesthetics and politics, specifically concerning the temptations and dangers of kitsch. He joins DC with this post offering his critical view of the question of truth in American politics. -Jeff
Many commentators on the Democratic side (including Jeff) are mesmerized by the fact that most in the Tea Party movement, and the Republican Party at large, seem completely delusional, asserting facts that are not so and assuming ideological positions that distort reality almost as a matter of sport. The problem is not, however, one of simple dichotomies between reason and un-reason, and of truth and fiction, the problem resides in the dynamic that is slowly transforming our political regime.
French philosopher Merleau-Ponty explained this in the epilogue to his Adventures of the Dialectic. At two different moments in that text he uses two phrases in an almost indistinguishable way. At one point, he says, in condemning the Soviet dictatorship, that a different regime is needed, one that makes room for opposition and freedom. Later on, almost as if he were saying the same thing—and he was, in the context of his philosophy—he calls for a regime that welcomes opposition and truth. For Merleau-Ponty, truth is opening, or what he calls hyper-reflection and hyper-dialectics, which means opening to both other perspectives and the unfolding of time. Put straightforwardly: hyper-reflection means that even “reason”—or what he calls “the point of view of reflection”—needs to understand that it has its own blind spots. Therefore, it needs to be opened to contestation. Hyper-dialectics, on the other hand, means that whatever is the case today, may not be the case tomorrow. Therefore, present circumstances should never be expected to remain unchallenged.
In this context, the problem with Republican illusions, and lies that are mostly self-delusions, is not simply that they are wrong and untrue. The problem is that they find no opposition, that Democrats are afraid of confronting . . .
Read more: Opposition and Truth