Tag Archives: media studies

Interview: An Anthropologist on Tiger Woods

I had the pleasure of pitching a few questions to Orin Starn, Chair and Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University, about “popular anthropology,” golf, Ishi’s brain, and the right PC sports to play if you’re an anthropologist (its not golf!).

AF: I really liked your book The Passion of Tiger Woods: An Anthropologist Reports on Golf, Race, and Celebrity Scandal. As a golfer and media producer I found the book impossible to put down but as an anthropologist it made me wonder about the future of the discipline.

It might just be my hang-up having just earned my PhD badge but a key concern is the absence of data derived from ethnographic field research. You make passing reference to playing golf with other players and taking notes about the experience on the links but none of that information seemed to explicitly inform your reading of Tiger Woods. The book is primarily an analysis of representation–how race is discussed online, on TV, in tabloids. Again, this makes me think that some form of offline ethnographic research in these cultural industries might have afforded you and your readers access to forms of information not easily accessible. This brings up for me a bunch of questions:

How important is ethnographic field research for the future of the discipline?

OS: For all the many changes over the decades, I think that intense, engaged fieldwork remains the single most distinctive thing about anthropology. I I think and hope it’ll remain just that. I like very much the idea that understanding another way of doing things shouldn’t be a fly-by proposal, but deserves the kind of deep, sustained engagement that only fieldwork can provide. I’m not sure that the actual ethnographies we write – which aren’t always very interesting — do justice to the great time and energy we give to our research, and yet I’m still a believer in the Boasian credo that fieldwork matters. Continue reading

Who Built the Internet? The State! (Part 3)

Despite Crovitz’s best wishes, Taylor’s Xerox PARC Ethernet didn’t become the internet as Slate’s Farhad Manjoo and Time’s Harry McCracken explain. Two days later, Manjoo rebutted Crovitz’s “almost hysterically false” argument. Aligning with given wisdom, Manjoo stated that the internet was financed and created by the US government. Despite being more historically accurate than Crovitz’s argument this statement is also political. In reminding the residents of Roanoke of the government’s role in the founding of the internet, President Obama, according to Manjoo, “argued that wealthy business people owe some of their success to the government’s investment in education and basic infrastructure.” This argument is progressive, social democratic, or socially liberal–advocating for responsible taxation and the shared burden of national identification, and is therefore a political narrative opposed to the Darwinism of technolibertarianism expounded by the Technology Liberation Front. Continue reading

Who Built the Internet? Corporations! (Part 2)

Obama may have gaffed, neoliberal assistant editors at Fox News and the Republican National Committee, exploitatively edited, repurposed, and exaggerated the speech, but it was Wall Street Journal writer L. Gordon Crovitz who mistook the misedits as evidence for US executive branch internet revisionism. Crovitz, ex-publisher of the Journal, ex-executive at Dow Jones, and social media start-up entrepreneur, attacked President Obama’s statement that the internet was funded and engineered by the federal government. “It’s an urban legend that the government launched the Internet,” he idiosyncratically declared. The crux of Crovitz’s argument was focused on Robert Taylor, who ran the ARPAnet, a US DAPRA project that connected computer networks to computer networks. Taylor, according to Crovitz, stated that this proto-internet, “was not an Internet.” And therefore, most importantly for Crovitz, this meant that President Obama was dead wrong, Taylor, a federal employee at this time did not help to invent the internet. The internet was not made by engineers paid by public but private hands. Crovitz’s twist on the accepted story is that Taylor later made a different internet, ethernet, at Xerox PARC where we worked after DARPA. And it was Ethernet that became the internet. Continue reading

The Internet: Who Built That?! (Part 1)

[This is a part of a six part blog on four debates about the origins of the internet. Please see all six posts here.]

Suddenly in the wake of President Barack Obama’s untimely but ultimately non-fatal but non-optimal grammar, the question of who made what when and how much the government had or had not to do with it was up for debate. Resisting the attacks on all things federal at the tail end of the 2012 US presidential election, President Obama said to a crowd in Roanoke, Virginia on July 13, 2012:

“The internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the internet so that all companies could make money off the internet.” Continue reading

After Oak Creek: A Roundup

“On August 5, 2012, a mass shooting took place at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, with a single gunman killing six people and wounding four others. The gunman, Wade Michael Page, a white supremacist, shot several people at the temple, including a responding police officer. After being shot in the stomach by another officer, Page fatally shot himself in the head.” [via Wikipedia]

Below I’ve gathered together some of the reactions to the tragic Oak Creek shooting, presented without comment. Feel free to add your own links, or leave comments below. (Respecting our comments policy, of course!)

An American Tragedy, by Naunihal Singh:

The media has treated the shootings in Oak Creek very differently from those that happened just two weeks earlier in Aurora… Sadly, the media has ignored the universal elements of this story, distracted perhaps by the unfamiliar names and thick accents of the victims’ families. They present a narrative more reassuring to their viewers, one which rarely uses the word terrorism and which makes it clear that you have little to worry about if you’re not Sikh or Muslim.

Top Ten differences between White Terrorists and Others, by Juan Cole:

2. White terrorists are “troubled loners.” Other terrorists are always suspected of being part of a global plot, even when they are obviously troubled loners.

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Attention Deficit Ethnography

[The post below was contributed by guest blogger Lane DeNicola, and is part of a series on the relationship between academic precarity and the production of ethnography, introduced here. Read Lane’s previous posts: post 1 -- post 2 -- post 3]

Our final prompt in this series asks about the possible virtues that emerge from the necessities of marginality or academic precarity, the effects on ethnography of such “new intellectual possibilities.”  On the whole I’ve so far stuck with the trajectory I laid out for these posts, engaging with precarity and ethnography first via my experience of living in a London suburb in over the last several years and then on the subway I used to get aroundwhile living there.  In both cases I focused on my own ethnographic practice and experience and particularly on observational practice.  For this final post though I want to shift the focus to the effects on ethnography not “as practiced” but “as taught or learned,” not as observational technique but as representational technique.  The post-millennial relevance of this seems clear, with a number of the conversational threads on SM proceeding from the observation that information technology and digital media are having an expanding range of effects not just in the field of anthropology but in education (that other domain inhabited by so many practicing anthropologists).

My earlier posts also (I note in looking back over them) relied pretty heavily on metaphor and pop culture/sci-fi references, but I can’t think of a good reason to change that now, so: for better and for worse, one of my last opportunities to be social before leaving the UK last month was spent in front of the IMAX screen at the British Film Institute (“the largest film screen in the UK”).  The BFI’s performative apparatus is matched only by the fantastic quality and diversity of films routinely screened there, but this particular outing (with several participating students and other friends) was centered around a pop-culture event with a dash of speculative pseudo-archaeology: Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s prequel to the 1979 film Alien.  Overall the film is pretty awful in largely predictable ways (did I mention this was a 3D screening?), but it serves to illustrate my point here, particularly in a fleeting reference the film makes to Lawrence of Arabia (a quite different film about a quite different type of alien). Continue reading

Paul Ryan’s Neoliberal Fantasy and Keith Olbermann’s Demise

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?

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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

Mediating the Real I

Whenever I mention that one of my primary areas of anthropological research is media, the question I come across on a recurring basis is the following: How will you be able to pursue that through ethnographic fieldwork of everyday activities? My sense is that such a response comes from the view that media are disembodied and deterritorialized objects or processes, or that they operate at a pace that is difficult to engage through participant-observation. In response to such concerns much work in anthropology has sought to “ground” media by focusing on production or reception practices, or occasionally both. However, I consider this kind of question crucial to think through during my exploratory fieldwork and research design phase.

A similar issue has arisen in anthropological research on Muslims in North America. In the conclusion to Katherine Pratt Ewing’s edited volume, Being and Belonging (2008), Andrew Shryock called for greater attention to “the immediate and mediated worlds…articulated in everyday life” (206). So, how should one strike a balance between studying media and the everyday? One could study the everyday dimensions of production practices, or how the reception of media is incorporated into people’s everyday lives, or how and why media producers construct the everyday in certain ways. Continue reading

Digital Money, Mobile Media, and the Consequences of Granularity

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

Hackers, Hippies, and the Techno-Spiritualities of Silicon Valley

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

American Democracy?

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.

Deep Democracy or Digital Democracy?
Deep Democracy or Digital Democracy? Dr. West arrested on October 21, 2011.

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Television for the 99% & Reverse Media Imperialism

It is no surprise that American television news networks that consistently cover the Occupy Movement in detail tend to be liberal or progressive in political persuasion. Current TV’s Countdown with Keith Olbermann, Free Speech TV’s Democracy Now!, Russia Today’s The Big Picture with Thom Hartmann, and Al Jazeera English all spend considerable amounts of their valuable time bringing the voices of Occupy to televisions in America. Similar funding strategies and political intentions unify these four networks. Each receives cultural, political, or economic support from various national governments. With this communication power, these networks proceed to critique American capitalism and imperialism through direct discursive confrontation or through emphasizing resistance movements such as Occupy. I run the risk of sounding a little conservative by posing it but my question is: what is the cultural meaning of the presence of state-based, anti-capitalism television and internet video? From the successes in Wisconsin, to Wikileaks, Anonymous, and Occupy Wall Street we are living in a golden era for progressive television and internet video.

Valuing Life, Death, and Disability: Sorting People in the New York Times

[This post is a departure from my usual topics related to war, but since thinking about injured soldiers (as I do) means thinking about moral categories of embodied personhood, I hope the connection will be clear.]

I want to begin by applauding the New York Times and Danny Hakim for devoting considerable energies to their Abused and Used series exposing the deadly peril within NY state’s system of care for people with developmental disabilities. It’s not exactly a hot topic for an exposè.

But I was angry that in their contribution to the series this weekend, Hakim and co-author Russ Beuttner fed into ideas about people with disabilities that are part of the same deadly system their work has the potential to undermine.

Their focus on broken rules and poor regulation presents people with developmental disabilities as troublesome things to be managed and “dealt with.” Even their retelling of the story of James Taylor’s death conveys his life through burdens felt by others. Despite the candor and care of his mother and sister, visible in this accompanying video, Mr. Taylor’s life is primarily depicted as dead weight.

To be fair, the coverage reflects a double bind: these lives are not valued, so the series focuses on death and abuse in order to get attention. But in focusing on death and abuse, the series suggests it is deaths rather than lives that are worth attention, intervention, and resources.

So why do we care more about how some people die than how they live? As Mr. Taylor’s sister puts it: “these sorts of people are not valued in society”. This is true, but unsatisfying. We need also to ask what makes some people, but not others, people of “these sorts”.

The Used and Abused series confirms a common sense answer: These people are sorted by the biological facts of impairment; the neck that doesn’t support the head any better than a newborn, the brain that is ‘developmentally equivalent’ to a three-month-old’s. Those are facts of Mr. Taylor’s impairment due to cerebral palsy as described by Hakim and Buettner.

But this common sense is nonsense. Mr. Taylor was a 41-year-old man, not a baby. Comparing him to an infant is an (evocative, ubiquitous, offensive) analogy, not a statement of biological fact. And the strength of his neck does not explain why he was made to live in conditions that killed him.

I did fieldwork with injured U.S. soldiers rehabilitating at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. As the NYT, Washington Post, and others have reported, soldiers often sustain brain injuries with major cognitive consequences. But we don’t evaluate injured soldiers the same way as Mr. Taylor—even when their brains are injured or literally missing.

Yet there may be no quantifiable difference between how someone with cerebral palsy can think and how a brain injured soldier can think. Nonetheless, we actively support the life of an injured soldier but merely try to prevent the death of people like Mr. Taylor.

The difference between these two “sorts of people” (or kinds of people, as Ian Hacking might put it) is one we make. It is rooted in morally weighted social facts, not biological ones. It is about the lives we value as a society and those we do not to. This is a basic human inequity for which we bear collective responsibility. Luckily, it is one all of us can work to change.

The Public Sphere of Occupy Wall Street

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.

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