I had the pleasure of interviewing Charles Stafford, Professor of Anthropology at the London School of Economics, about his new anthropology journal Anthropology of this Century. Click below to read the interview.
Foucault asks “Can the market really have the power of formalization for both the state and society?” (Foucault 2008: 117, originally 1978-79). House Budget Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan is convinced it can. He outlines it happening in the 2012 and 2013 fiscal year budgets. The impact of this neoliberal fantasy on democracy is stated by Couldry: “‘Democracy’ operated on neoliberal principles is not democracy. For it has abandoned, as unnecessary, a vision of democracy as a form of social organization in which government’s legitimacy is measured by the degree to which it takes account of its citizens’ voices” (Couldry 2010: 64). What is the impact of the dearth of diverse progressive voices on public and private media within the hegemonic public sphere?
The Nation states that the GOP’s 2013 budget or the “Ryan Plan” helps the very wealthy, corporations, Pentagon, and health insurance companies while forcing the poor, elderly, disabled, and middle class to sacrifice (Zornick 2012). President Obama called the budget “social Darwinism.” A great term, curiously investigated by the Washington Post. Back in February, 2011, during the last federal budget battle, the New York Times claimed that the GOP targeted to slash funding for job training, environmental protection, disease control, crime protection, science, technology, education, and public media (Editorial 2011). It is a theory of classical liberalism that as these issues of national importance are proposed and debated it is fundamental to the workings of democracy that citizens have diverse information options. This is the job of journalists, newspapers, television news — “the media” — whose investigate capacities have been gutted by parent companies’ market fundamentalism and whose federal funding, when it barely existed, is under attack. Six bills were proposed in 2011 to eliminate federally funding PBS (Tomasic 2011). In this neoliberal media logic, if it fails the single criteria of increasing capital, it misses the cut.
The same week the draconian 2013 Ryan Plan was revealed saw the elimination of two paternalistic guardians of the “American public sphere” –the Media Access Project (MAP), a public interest law firm and 40-year veteran resisting the deregulation and privatization of public media resources. And, most dramatically, Keith Olbermann was fired from Current, a cable television news network. Like him or hate him, he is one of the few television newscasters willing to bluntly critique such instances of neoliberal governmentality on that most hegemonic if media systems: television. As both private public interest and not-for-profit public interest media institutions falter, and federally funded public media systems are assaulted, how will diversity in the American public sphere survive?
I need to briefly address the following normative notions: neoliberal governmentality and the hegemonic or American public sphere.
MAP and Olbermann focused on diversifying the programming within the hegemonic public sphere. They see themselves, their work, and their information as central to dominant national issues within a single American public sphere. They are not interested in producing the conditions for a subaltern counterpublic as Nancy Fraser (1992) describes. Their interest is in competing on a national-level with the likes of Fox News, MSNBC, and other media giants. MAP and Olbermann sought to contribute diverse voices into a single, national, or American public sphere. Does it exist? No. Fraser is right. There are overlapping fields of public spheres. But the hegemonic public sphere is a type of emic model or frame, non-existent on the level of day-to-day discourse, that these media reform broadcasters draw from. More abstract and less polemical, yet comparable with the concept of the “mainstream media,” the hegemonic public sphere is a goal or target for the progressive cultural interventions of these media reform broadcasters.
Foucault provides a cogent definition of neoliberal governmentality in his exquisitely readable lectures at the College de France in 1978-1979. “What is at issue” said Foucault, “is whether a market economy can in fact serve as the principle, form, and model for a state” (Foucault 2008: 117). The result is market statism, or corporatism, which, in an extreme version, is fascism. This is diametrically opposed to the social liberalism advocated by Olbermann and MAP in which the state is focused on non-market social projects. It isn’t corporate liberalism either where the government in public discourse supports social liberalism but that practice is performed by subsidized corporations (Streeter 1996). An example of corporate liberalism comes from the presumed GOP candidate for the 2012 presidential election. Governor Mitt Romney addressed a crowd at a primary campaign stop in Iowa in November. At this event Romney says he won’t gut the Corporation for Public Broadcasting but he will require it to “have advertisments.” Romney doesn’t want to “Kill Big Bird” he just wants it to be on life-support from American corporations. Rather, the Ryan Plan is neoliberal governmentality where social liberal projects are negated and replaced by market fundamentalism. It is this reduction of government functions to market logic that Olbermann and MAP once raged against.
So with the departure of Olbermann and MAP the monolithic American public sphere is less diverse and less capable of engineering the conditions for access for diverse voices. Nick Couldry’s Why Voice Matters: Culture and Politics after Neoliberalism (2010) directly addresses how neoliberal governmentality dampens voice through looking at US and UK television. He defines voice as referring to the process of individuals or communities using media to build reflexive and historical stories. Voice, for Couldry, is socially grounded, provides for reflexive agency and is an embodied force. Voice can be injured or denied by rationalities that perceive voice as an externality of market logic. Thus “valuing voice means valuing something that neoliberal rationality fails to count; it can therefore contribute to a counter-rationality against neoliberalism” (Couldry 2010: 12-13). Without Olbermann’s voice and MAP protecting the legal and political conditions for voicing, how will the American public sphere survive this assault by the flexible tactics of neoliberal governmentality?
Now, dear Reader, to reward you making it this far here are some hilarious videos that illustrate my points from the comic geniuses of Mitt Romney, President Obama, Cenk Uygur! Cue the laugh track after each video. Continue reading
Stop being an anthropologist.
Some of my mentors, none of which are in anthropology departments, prefer to say “trained as an anthropologist, so and so, investigates…” as opposed to “so and so is an anthropologist.” If you are on the job market this may be hard to do as you are likely to have just become a PhD wielding anthropologist for the first time in your life and quite proud of the moniker and achievement but the shift in self-definition is important for you and your future academic home, I would argue.
I just went through the whole job-hunting process before signing a contract on Monday to become a Lecturer in media and cultural studies in the Sociology Department at Lancaster University. I was able to apply for a silly amount of jobs, get a bunch of interviews and campus visit requests, and have some choices and grounds on which to do some humble negotiating. I think my trick was post-disciplinary research and (a considerable amount of) cross-disciplinary publishing. I could apply to communications, media studies, anthropology, information studies, STS, sociology, television studies, American studies, and internet studies. If I were desperate I could apply for archaeology and film production positions. Postdoctoral positions, particularly those financed by the Mellon, are all about interdisciplinarity as are jobs looking for digital humanities scholars.
So I’d encourage my fellow freshly minted ABDs and PhDs to begin seeing their research and their teaching across at least 4-5 large disciplines. Be able to realistically apply to 4-5 departments. One can put this together variously by publishing in different journals, collaborating with colleagues from different fields, or simply working the boundaries of one’s discipline in necessarily interdisciplinary ways. (All I can say is that I hope this is not my internalization of the precarity of neoliberal governmentality in the education sector.)
And there is something said for responding (in non-trendy and timeless ways!) to emergent patterns in industry, politics, and social movements. The departments recognize that what is in the news is what the students want to study. In my case this amounted to a recursive loop from the hype surrounding new media –Arab Spring, Anonymous, Wikileaks, SOPA, PIPA, and Occupy– to departments requesting applicants with expertise in social media and political movements. Oddly enough, if the academic job thing doesn’t work out this type of preparation in the now prepares oneself better for a post-academic profession. In academia the joy of investigating emergent practices is that there is no syllabus. You get to design your own. And in the classroom you are not pulling teeth, the issues are on students’ minds. It is relevant.
I may sound heretical to some of you by suggesting that post-anthropological disciplinary affiliations are necessary. But one gains much less than one loses by fundamentally aligning oneself with the orthodoxy of a specific discipline. One one hand, the qualitative and critical social sciences are converging. Critical theory and ethnographic or textual methods run across all the disciplines above. On the other hand, replicating the discourses specific to a discipline is important for the survival of that discipline and I am glad some people are monogamously “physical anthropologists” or whatnot. But my argument is that this practice of disciplinary orthodoxy is dangerously myopic for a discipline and puts the job hunter in a situation with few options. I preferred to bring scholarship from other disciplines to anthropology, and though it proved difficult to buck anthropological tradition by studying contemporary technoculture in America, it provided me a wider repertoire of skills that apparently translate into numerous disciplines and a blessed job offer.
Good luck! Tell us how it goes for you.
Nicholas Negroponte famously insisted that the dotcom boomers, “Move bits, not atoms.” Ignorant of the atom heavy human bodies, neuron dense brains, and physical hardware needed to make and move those little bits, Negroponte’s ideal did become real in the industrial sectors dependent upon communication and economic transaction. In the communication sector, atomic newspapers have been replaced by bitly news stories. In the transactional sector, coins are a nuisance, few carry dollars, and I just paid for a haircut with a credit card adaptor on the scissor-wielder’s Droid phone.
The human consequences of the bitification of atoms go far beyond my bourgeois consumption. This shift, or what is could simply be called digitalization, when paired with their very material transportation systems or networked communication technologies, combines to form a powerful force that impacts local and global democracies and economies.
What are the local and political economics of granularity in the space shared between the fiduciary and the communicative? To understand the emergent political economy of the practices and discourses unifying around mobile media and digital money we need a shared language around the issue of granularity. Continue reading
I had the pleasure of hanging out with Dutch anthropologist Dorien Zandbergen (PhD, Anthropology, Leiden University) in Sweden in October at an ESF Research Conference and learning about her fascinating research into the convergence of new age spirituality and new media discourses in and around Silicon Valley. I loved the idea of a Dutch anthropologist studying me and my friends in the eco-chic Burning Man hipster scene so I asked her to riff off of a few questions for this blog. Zandbergen talked about liminality, technoscience, the California ideology, ‘multiplicit style,’ secularization, studying sideways, liberalism, internet culture, ‘pronoia’, open-endedness, emergence, the neoliberal ideal of the autonomous self, the confluence of hackers and hippies in San Francisco, the usual…
(AF) What is New Edge and how did you conduct your fieldwork?
(DZ) The term New Edge fuses the notions ‘New Age’ and ‘edgy’, as in ‘edgy technologies’. In the late 1980s, founder of the ‘cyberpunk’ magazine Mondo 2000, Ken Goffman, used the term to refer both to the overlaps and the incompatibilities between the spiritual worldview of ‘New Agers’ and the ‘geeky’ worldview of the scientists and hackers of the San Francisco Bay Area. Such interactions were articulated in the overlapping scenes of Virtual Reality development, electronic dance, computer hacking and cyberpunk fiction. I borrowed the term New Edge to study the genealogy of cultural cross-overs between – simply put – the ‘hippies’ and the ‘hackers’ of the Bay Area, beginning with the 1960s and tracing it to the current (2008) moment. Continue reading
Many scholars, activists, pundits, and even a few politicians agree that American democracy is in trouble. Many reasons are given–the raw punch of money in elections, a distracted, apathetic, or misinformed population, the absence of civic education, the specter of blind patriotism, the penal threat and painful reality of police brutality. The signs of collapsing democracy are obvious: the debt ceiling debacle, the recent Supercommittee failure, Citizen United v Federal Elections Commission, a US Congress with 9% approval ratings. Our Occupy mobilizations, and our “deeply democratic” (Appadurai 2001) methodology of the General Assembly inspired as it is by the anthropological knowledge translated through our colleague David Graeber, are reactions to the failure of the present incarnation of American democracy while exclaiming our desire, voice to voice, for a more humane social democracy.
Non-fiction information, knowledge, and “the news” are essential for citizens to make wise decisions regarding the future of a democratic state. The right to media is a human right and a public resource for democratic communication. But the media is a finite resource, limited in radio, television, and the internet and limited by the amount of subjective mental bandwidth we can personally process. In the United States this media resource was allocated by the state to corporations. These America corporations were given the right and responsibility to use the “airwaves.” Part of the bargain the government struck with these companies was that they could make massive profits if they worked in the public interest by informing and educating the citizens. This responsibility they have slowly neglected and we are today left with fiction parading as fact on television news. Citizen involvement in this corporately consolidated public sphere was promised but subtly ignored. The abused or misused power of corporate media is a significant reason why democracy is failing.
I keep returning to the public sphere as Habermas originally described it as I think about progressive political movements of today: Occupy Wall Street and its global dimensions, Anonymous and its more theatrical and political wing LulzSec, and progressive and independent cable television news network Current. Internet activism, television news punditry, and street-based social movements each work together implicitly or explicitly to constitute a larger public sphere. As scholars we need to resist the temptation of excluding one form of resistance as being inconsequential to social justice or to analysis and instead see all three as working together in a media ecology.
What type of cultural training are you given? What are you told about Iraqi culture? Where would you go if you needed a translator?
We were given very basic cultural training before my last deployment. This deployment I don’t remember any classes or anything being said much. I do remember that I was told at JRTC (month training exercise in Louisiana) that I should take it upon myself to learn some basic Arabic words. Arabic is a tough language. I’ve learned and forgotten many words and phrases. The truth is we don’t need to learn the language, we have an interpreter with us at all times outside the wire and we never use them anyhow. Anything a soldier learns about the culture here is on there own accord. I could go on for quite some time about the varying lifestyles of Iraqis from the illiterate rural farmers to the college educated inner city modern Iraqis. The people here in eastern Baghdad are mostly Shiite and … are strictly religious and are concerned mostly with the world as it applies to Shiites. The last big uproar these zealots had with the US was the fact that we weren’t doing enough to help there Shia bretheren in Bahrain. Anyhow most of what I learn about the Iraqis is through our Iraqi interpreters. They live with us on base and live the life of secret agents. They keep it a secret from even their families that they work with the US and have many times told me that they’d be dead if word got out. Our interpreters work with us for three years for their US citizenship. Our current two interpreters with our platoon have been on more route clearance missions than any American soldier that I know. Perhaps 4 to 5 hundred.
You are asked to go out and be friendly with the locals but then you are told not to. What is up with that? This is really interesting, why the mix messages?
The suggestions to mingle with the locals is coming from one echelon, while our missions are being commanded by another. The two echelons obviously have a different idea of how things should be done. I’m not sure what the right decision is. I know it’s a risk to walk around in the neighborhoods of eastern Baghdad, but it’s not like driving through them is any safer. I think if it were up to me we would stop at a different local market every time we went on mission and simply ask random Iraqis what were in for that day. I would as well stop and talk to the Sons of Iraq and ask them what is up. The SOI or Sons of Iraq are like volunteer police. They used to be paid by the government but now I believe they are free agents so to speak. Sometimes the locals pay them and sometimes they are burned alive by the local insurgents. They are the brave son of a bitches who stand on the streets with their AK 47’s everyday so they are in the know. Why we don’t interact with them more is beyond me. I think anyway you slice it we are in for a bad day, so my view is we should be doing as much as possible to figure out when and where it is coming from. If we get shot at or blown up while doing so, at least were dictating where and when.
What is the going consensus around the base regarding Bradley Manning? Are your fellow soldiers into discussing politics, watching news? What issues do you guys talk about alot? Are the majority of your soldier friend cynical or optimistic about what we are doing there?
The only military people optimistic about what we are doing are the ones who’s job it is to be optimistic. Every conversation about Iraq amongst soldiers is the same. We are wasting our lives in this shithole and I don’t care what any general on up has to say, we are accomplishing nothing. Of course you can’t say that at a soldiers memorial or funeral. But we all say the same thing. Its a fucking waste of time.
Bradley Manning is a traitor. He sold himself out to make a name for himself. Anyone in the military will tell you the same thing. No matter what the situation is, if you are in the military you take an oath and give up certain rights. It’s one of the few things soldiers can take pride in. Loyalty to your fellow man. You turn your back on your peers in the Army by leaking classified information, well good riddance and good luck. He won’t see the light of day for some time. The Universal Code of Military Justice is pretty black and white. You don’t play by the rules and you go away for a long time.
Most soldiers political conversations are very uneducated and uninteresting. Occasionally I’ll have a good argument with an officer or one of the few intelligent soldiers. You’ve gotta look hard but there are a few smart grunts out there. Perhaps you should have asked me this question before I’d spent 7 months in this shithole. Most of our conversations have been reduced to laughing at things that would make most people shutter. 8 or 9 nine months into a deployment is when the mind starts to turn to mush. Speaking for myself I don’t give a shit about much of anything other than going home. I don’t care people about dying that I don’t know and have never met. I don’t care about 80 civilians being killed by a car bomb at a funeral. I don’t care about Al Qaeda taking 30 government officials hostage and blowing themselves and their hostages up. Perhaps I should care but I think I’ve soaked up as much as I can take and really at some point you have to put up your defenses. All that matters to me is getting myself and my friends home alive. Everyone else is on there own. That is as much as I can do for myself or anyone else.
Anthropologist Chris Kelty, influenced by Taylor, carried the imaginaire into the world of technology with his notion of the “moral-technical imaginaire” which is a cultural situated and persuasive moral philosophy attached to the use of both open and proprietary systems. Patrice Flichy in his book Internet Imaginaire uses the work of Paul Ricœur to show how utopian and ideological discourse are two poles of a technological imaginaire. The original euphoria of a technology is utopian, as that fades, the imaginaire is mobilized to hide or mask the ideological and dominating potential of the technological assemblage. More recently, sociologist Thomas Streeter, discusses how “romantic” imaginaires of ruggedly individual hackers, inventors, countercultural tramps, and psychedelic engineers helped to encourage the federal funding and venture capital that built the infrastructure of the internet. Finally, the most accessible of these accounts of internet imaginaires is the work of Vincent Mosco who simply refers to the myth of technological transcendence with the idea of the “digital sublime.” The transhumanist movement is ripe for such an analysis.
Ramesh Srinivasan, UCLA professor, and media activist/scholar polymath, spent a few weeks in Cairo last month to test the wildly divergent theories of internet activism and revolution. He is going to be on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition tomorrow, August 10, 2011, at various times throughout the day. I asked him three questions.
Where did you go, for how long, and what did do there?
Having done work in the past exploring how technologies impact and interact with cultures and communities, I became interested (with you!) in looking at how the deregulated internet shaped citizen journalism and dissident blogging in the Central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan. I was energized and sent into something of a frenzy by the overstated binaries of Malcolm Gladwell’s beautifully written and painfully wrong New Yorker Article and the wonderful black and white Soviet world painted by Evgeny Morozov in his Net Delusion. Why would these brilliant thinkers privilege technology in their explanations over social and cultural context? So given the ‘Facebook Revolution’ of the Arab Spring and specifically in Egypt, I spent nearly one month this last June-July in and around Egypt speaking with scholars, politicians, journalists, activists, and others about how political networks form and function from the January revolution onward. I also spoke with laborers and taxi drivers about their perspectives and unsurprisingly found that they were not actively connected to networked technologies but still impacted by the ways in which these shaped journalism that they were exposed to.
I noticed you are doing NPR and Al Jazeera English. Why are you branching out of typical academic scenes?
I care, like all of us on Savage Minds, about the importance of taking our tools of critically analyzing, distilling, narrating, and in my case designing, to the public. We’re all dismayed by how mainstream media is fraught with soundbytes, lack of deliberative discourse, and lack of bridging. This pattern has replicated itself with internet activity, unfortunately, as Ethan Zuckerman has pointed out. How can we take a step together past this? To me, there’s a place for stories to be told that are critical, that deeply respect cultural context, yet also present what we see as patterns, in captivating language. My recent appearances on Al Jazeera English, and upcoming National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, and Washington Post are all attempts for me to find common ground between soundbyte cultures that speak to publics and stories that are reflective and critical.
Why is technoutopianism so prevalent?
It’s interesting because almost anyone you speak to after some reflection concludes that technologies rarely cause or create anything in and of themselves. But I feel we’re still in a stage of infancy where we marvel so easily at the incredible pace of innovation around new media, and particularly can only dream when trying to comprehend what that might mean in a village without electricity, or a mass mobilization in a part of the world like the Middle East that many claim to know little of. So it’s easy to think that technologies in and of themselves radically shape these global locations because they have worked with organizations, cultures, and institutions to shape our own. When I was a graduate student at the MIT Media Laboratory, we developed, for example, wonderful technologies for rural poverty eradication that we thought we could easily export to India, especially in the hands of Indian graduate students like myself. But we realized immediately that the tools were at best bizarre and at worst alienating to the people we met in villages when we arrived. So I believe it’s important to remember is that unevenness of access, literacy, infrastructure, and power over these networks is the other common pattern without the West and the rest of the world. That thought may complicate but it presents opportunities to develop greater insight and respect of the power of culture.
Inside the walls of the Mountain View, CA. Googleplex, Google encourages the formation of Employee Resource Groups (ERGs). These are little or large affinity gangs for Google employees or Googlers. ERGs include Gayglers for GLBT employees and Greyglers or older employees. There are also employee groups for pilots, new mothers, and veterans. Camille James, a Noogler, or a new employee, said ERGs help “you to find your little micro community.” The article I am citing appeared in the Los Angeles Times (July 7th, B6, Business Section), a week or two after the beta roll-out of Google+, Google’s social media platform whose distinguishing feature is the capacity to create precise “micro communities” or Circles. I perceive a connection between corporate culture, social media, and the political economy of personalization—the for-profit pursuit of an individualized internet.
Both ERGs and Circles express logics internal to Google about the agency to make tribes based on taste affinities into smaller, select groups. While this movement towards greater agency, localization, personalization, and privacy appears as a corrective to the callous notion of Zuckerbergian transparency it does represent a reiteration of the filter bubble. The filter bubble is the tendency towards echo chambers and siloing online. Because filter bubbles isolate like minds and inhibit cross-cultural contact it may have an eroding impact on democracy and the efficacy of democratic services such as journalism.
That curious identity politic that mixes neo-primitive fashion, ecological coolness, spiritual openness, upper middle class ambition, multiculturalism, and conscious consumerism can be coalesced under the moniker eco-chic–an elite contradictory expression of social justice and neoliberalism. It will be explored in the conference Eco–Chic: Connecting Ethical, Sustainable and Elite Consumption, put on by the European Science Foundation in October. The conference organizers see this expressive culture accurately in its rich contradictions. Eco-chic “is both the product of and a move against globalization processes. It is a set of practices, an ideological frame and a marketing strategy.” If you’ve spent anytime in Shoreditch, Haight, Williamsburg, or Silverlake you’ve got some experience with these hip, trendy elites. Ramesh calls them “Burning Man Hipsters.” I’ve been studying new media producers in America and eco-chic describes an important cultural incarnation of these knowledge producer’s value set. As far as anthropology is concerned, meta-categories such as eco-chic, liberalism, or transhumanism that cross cultural boundaries while remaining bound by class, challenge our discipline to revisit totalizing notions such as “culture” and “tribe.”
Eco-chic, like many other socio-cultural manifestations of neoliberalism is rife with contradiction. The fundamental contradiction being that it is a social justice movement within consumer capitalism. The producers of eco-chic goods and experiences are structured by capitalism’s profit motive. Likewise consumers of eco-chic goods and experiences are motivated by ideals that try to transcend or correct the ecological or deleterious human impacts of capitalism. Thus both producer and consumer of eco-chic are caught in a contradiction between their social justice drives and their suspension in the logic of neoliberalism. Eco chic events such as Burning Man and television networks such as Al Gore’s Current TV also express the fundamental contradiction between the social and the entrepreneurial in social entrepreneurialism. How do the contradictions within eco-chic represent themselves in American West Coast’s cultural expressions such as Burning Man and Current TV? Continue reading
Honestly, I did not know what a “progressive” really was until working the videocamera for Free Speech TV at the 2011 Netroots Nation conference in Minneapolis lat month. I thought a progressive was just another name for a Democrat or a liberal. I was wrong.
It is corny to admit it but what I discovered was a worldview and mode of political action that aligned with my own belief system as a person and an anthropologist. The core concept of progressivism is progress–that culture changes through time because of the actions of vision-driven groups and individuals. Now, how much agency individuals actually have to enact cultural change is a hotly debated topic in both political and academic circles but few disagree that “a small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has” as it was that activist anthropologist, Margaret Mead, who said that most famous of hummus container quotes.
Progressive philosophy is aligned with the base theory of cultural anthropology, that is: culture is not a static or conservative thing that we need to stabilize at some nostalgic and unrealistic moment but rather a dynamic process. Progressives want to direct that process towards a more inclusive future. Progressives are not hung-up on retaining or reverting to an antique sense of ethnic, gendered, or national purity. They don’t romanticize some false sense of the securities of 1950s Americana. However, as I will describe below, The American Dream as a concept was a focal point for progressives at Netroots Nation this year. Continue reading