Notes on first reflection
When reading Keenan’s discussion about social activism and media, I had to think of 9/11 and Slavoj Zizek’s article “Welcome to the Desert of the Real.” In the article, Zizek discusses how of authenticity and immediacy are closely linked with affect and empathy and how 9/11 confronted us with a choice of what to feel and how to react. Let me start by focusing shortly on the first part of this thought. Empathy towards people close to us is paradoxically actually quite easy to explain through evolutionary theory or more specifically by considering the concept of evolutionary altruism. Altruism based on empathy towards our kin and community members helps the people close to us, so people with similar DNA, survive, and thus is something that although not necessarily being good for the individual is good for the community. Also, reciprocal altruism, that is altruism that relies on the fact that the selfless favor will be returned in the future, makes sense for individuals as well as communities. As such, we can observe altruism and other acts that we would interpret as being motivated by selflessness, not only in humans but also in many species of animals. This might seem like a relatively simple and easy way to approach this subject, but why I think it is interesting is in its shortcomings. This approach to the subject fails to provide a reason for altruistic acts to people far away from us, especially people that we cannot and will never see and who could never reciprocate our kind acts. There is an aspect of empathy that biology cannot explain. To elaborate on this, let me get back to 9/11.
Even with our televised wars and access to intimate images of catastrophes in far away places, we can still not experience the Real that Zizek talks about in these ways. When the US was attacked on September 11th, 2001, the reaction was very different from anything that preceded it. The isolation the US had retreated to “like hermits,” was shaken and the fantastic world we had constructed with advertisements and movies was shaken. Linguist Geoffrey Nunberg in an article aptly called “When Words Fail” mentions that in the days immediately following the attack, people were unable to find words to describe the event, meaning that we somehow could not fit it into a category. Although we had seen pictures of terrorist attacks before, this stood apart from the things that preceded it and needed to be processes before we could talk about it. Interestingly it elicited an intensely nationalistic response. In 9/11, Zizek saw a chance for the US to come out of its isolation and acknowledge its location in a variety of global networks. Nonetheless, the actual response was almost the complete opposite. In a way, this brings to mind the flattening of the world that Jameson describes. In postmodernism, everything seems to be more accessible and connected. For Zizek, the fact that the US was attacked could allow it to have something in common with the rest of the world, to finally have an authentic feeling of empathy, not just an artificially constructed feeling elicited by pictures and movies. However, the nationalistic response seems to challenge this, as instead of empathy towards other victims world wide, we only felt empathy for our nation. The elicited response of “This should not happen HERE!,” which Zizek contrasts to the response of “This should not happen ANYWHERE,” is a good way to show this. Additionally, the feeling we had for people outside of the US was either hate or an intense feeling of disconnectedness as we were unable to comprehend what made people do this. In this way, we actually felt what we could term “negative empathy.” Instead of forward and into a more connected world, we took a step back and into our own community.
This raises some interesting questions. What is at stake in the nationalistic response to 9/11? What are the limits of affect and on the flip side of global responsibility? Who do people feel more connected to in a postmodern world? Is there a scale of affect that potentially is linked to evolutionary biology? What role does mediation, which we must remember was also at work in our consumption of 9/11, an event many Americans only followed on TV, play and is there also a way in which mediation is hierarchical?
Jonah Brucker-Cohen made an interesting observation about cell phones. He explained that to him the cell phone seems more individualistic than communal, since if you are in a group and you receive a phone call, you have to leave if you want to accept it. It is also limited, since we mostly only speak to one person at a time. In this way, it connects, but only in limited fashion. Brucker-Cohen used some of his projects to question and subvert this character. He tried hailing cell phones in NYC using their Bluetooth to identify them and then asking the owner questions, creating a new community of cell phone owners in a small space. In another project, he asked the audience to text words and sentences to a computer, which then created pictures and sounds out of the words and what he emphasized is that this actually encouraged people to talk amongst themselves about the messages they sent, making testing communal and not personal. This initial way of thinking of cell phones is a different conception of the cell phone than the one shown by generation TXT. For them, the cell phone is, although not exclusively so, a way to access the crowd and a way to connect with many people at once.
When I initially read about generation TXT, I was struck exactly by this disparity between different conceptions of cell phones and messages. I have never forwarded a sms on my phone and the standard option offered by it when I read a message is respond, not forward. In this way, messages are similar to phone calls, since they are based on an interaction limited to two people. This of course intrigues the anthropologist in me, who would argue that what we can see here is how different cultures and the different needs they have makes them use the same object in different ways. As a college student, I might have access to facebook, twitter or even physical places on campus that enable me to feel a part of a larger group and to get lost in the crowd. I do not need the cell phone to work in this way, so I have not used it like this. Brucker-Cohen picks up on exactly this. His project in which he turns messages into pictures and sounds goes beyond the simple two-way exchange, making the act of transferring information a one-way interaction, between a group and a network of machines. What is emphasized is only the one side of the exchange and the message turns into a tool with which something new and communal can be constructed. The response, which is material and immediate, is generated by a programmed machine and can thus be anticipated and manipulated. This somewhat mirrors the way that generation TXT by forwarding messages can create an anonymous mob, in which there are no social distinctions. Communal messages have a physical manifestation. Both acts are essentially about a group achieving something through unity.
Again, this brings up interesting questions. What is the use of expanding our conceptions of cell phones? What are we trying to subvert with art installations like this and can they ever be successful? Are we challenging people to think about exchange and technology in new ways? Are we imitating what has already been done elsewhere and why is us doing it more useful than us showing how it has happened elsewhere? Is information easier to comprehend if it affects us immediately? Since generation TXT is so exclusive (the use of the word generation is limiting, the narrative of the group is very local and exclusive, etc), what parts of it are universal?
I want to think about is the issue of noise during the transmission of information touched on by Terranova. The reason I think this is an important point to think about is how it relates to the field of ethnography. This issue was first raised when I attended a screening of “Maharaja Burger” by Thomas Balmes presented by the anthropology dept., MCM depts. and the Watson institute. Not surprisingly the audience was quiet diverse. After the movie, some audience members critic sized it for a lack of focus and were of the opinion that the movie tried to do too much. Having seen much other visual ethnography, I understood what they had expected. Unlike those, this film was more open and as one audience member pointed out, was not so much a movie about India as about an issue located in the landscape of India. This was meant to criticize the film, but instead served to show the two ways to approach ethnography. One is the older concept of information being transmitted by repetition and being tied to an exchange of information between two people. The emphasis on “focusing” can be read as meaning the noise needed to be eliminated. The conception here was that there was some information about India that could be seen as small enough and separate enough to exist on its own. Regardless of how true this might be, for me and probably for Terranova, this misses the point. There is no information that is not changing, the same way that producers and receivers are always produced. This makes movies that intend to focus narrowly and not show noise much less useful than movies that show an issue as complexly as they can. The issue discussed in this movie, the place of the cow in traditional Indian society, clearly brought up many different responses. At the time this movie was made, there was the BSE crisis in the UK, which was read by many Indians shown as some sort of punishment and was not fully understood. This brought up issues of Indian identity and postcolonial, itself linked with capitalism and globalization, shown in the movie by the opening of McDonalds restaurants. Then there were issues of the rural urban divide, of different generations, of gender dynamics and lastly the importance of caste in defining a place in society. If a filmmaker sets out to discuss just one of these aspects and tries to filter out the others as unimportant noise, what is happening is the privileging of one reading of the situation over another and in a way a much more Orientalist gaze than the one in this movie. Eliminating noise is an inherently violent act, which destroys meaning and presents artificially created information and meaning. It is questionable if a movie with such an intense focus as some audience members requested can or should ever be made about any society.