Know This: Media dieback, Manning's bad dream, Girly Lego, art violations, NYE Melancholia.In a tight article for Arena, Melbourne author Justin Clemens draws some convincing lines between recent events in and around the media: Andrew Bolt's court case, Assange's defence of free speech, Robert Manne's critical essay on the Australian newspaper, changes in the way information is circulated online. One of his leading arguments is that new media doesn't offer the "diversity of opinion" we are so often told about, but, instead, offers increasingly narrow ranges of discussion. "Criticise as much as you like—it’s just more fodder for the fibres," he writes. "New media no longer inform, but confirm: they are global, real-time, online, high-tech filtering devices that reduce all complexity to intense polarisation (good/evil, true/false, wrong/right, etc.), and all discussion to the immediacy of enraged blog posts."
And, Clemens adds, "above all, the fact of systemic concentration of media ownership is in itself a wrong in a democracy, perhaps one of the worst of all possible wrongs. For under such conditions, even if every single person seemed to be discussing public events with enthusiasm and energy, democracy has been neutered—for control of the means of discussion themselves have now literally been taken from their hands and mouths. The media war required by democracy will have morphed into a media monopology (if you’ll pardon the neologism)."
In the end, Clemens uses a resonant metaphor from biology to explain what he sees happening in the media and politics today. "It is Assange who...provides us with an emblem and a key. His method is not, despite appearances, one of democratic debate, of revelations of embarrassing secrets, of truth against corruption. Rather, it involves a systematic flooding of the system itself. It seems to me that Assange has understood the political conditions of the network society better than anybody: to use the torrents of classified information to exacerbate the same routines of classification to the point of breakdown. Recursive escalation, not revelation, is the key to Assange’s program, or what could be called, using a botanical metaphor, ‘dieback’. Dieback occurs when a part of a plant is affected by disease, parasites or other environmental factors, and the branches or shoots begin to die from the tip inward. In certain cases, although the infection may only be minor, the plant expends so many resources on expunging the infection that it essentially kills itself. Accelerate the barrage of information, accelerate the resources needed to deal with it—dieback as a non-linear informational tactic in the current war of humanity against the corporate state. The odds are that Manne’s classical model of critical debate [in his Quarterly Essay] won’t prove determining for our world, but Assange’s informational practice of dieback will." It's good. Read it.
On the topic of Assange and Wikileaks: the US army private accused of leaking files to Assange, Bradley Manning, is still awaiting trial in the US. In a piece for the ABC, foreign correspondant Jane Cowan quotes Manning, who wrote that his "entire life feels like a bad dream without end." Also overseas, there have been disturbing reports of a government-backed massacre of workers in Kazakstan. It is the massacre ignored by everyone. And in the Guardian this week, we saw the apparently leaked diary of an Egyptian army officer -- which confirms the way the army was used during the revolution of early 2011 and how they continue to be used by the new powers into 2012.
In the US, a court case has exposed the complexities of making visual art in 2012. Artist Richard Prince is being sued by a photographer whose work Prince has used extensively in his collage work -- without attribution or payment. This is familiar ground from disputes in music, reaching back to the classic case from the early 90s of Two Live Crew's legal rights to use Roy Orbison's "Oh Pretty Woman." But the context is different now. That's what makes this piece so interesting. "Today's flow of creative expression, riding a tide of billions of instantly accessible digital images and clips, is rapidly becoming so free and recycling so reflexive that it is hard to imagine it being slowed, much less stanched, whatever happens in court." One possibility not really considered in the NYT article is that the concept of private, intellectual property is now outdated; the new battles are over the ability to control those images and other information as bits of data -- the control of "the cloud".
A few interesting film reviews of forthcoming and recent releases. In The Atlantic, New Year's Eve is put in its place as the worst example of the cynical, cash-grab genre of the ensemble/smorgasbord rom-com. In Australian journal Senses of Cinema, Lars von Trier's Melancholia is argued to be, despite its title, a film that is not depressing or as savage as the same director's Antichrist. Instead, Melancholia is about the way illusions and reality come apart. And coming to us in Australia soon is the screen adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer's novel Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. In the New York Times, the final paragraph of an otherwise benign review jabs the knife in -- hard. The film is 9/11 as kitsch, "an impossible movie that has no reason for being other than as another pop-culture palliative for a trauma it can't bear to face... yes, you may cry, but when tears are milked as they are here, the truer response should be rage."
A few pieces appeared in different places this week about the role of gender in the lives of young girls. The above video was posted to Jezebel, causing a red herring debate in the comments about the authenticity of the girl's comments. (The appeal to "authenticity" -- the interminable debate you have when you don't want to have a debate.) In The Age, researcher Michelle Smith drew on the example of the "pinking" of a new range of Lego to show the increasingly narrow version of gender on offer to young girls and boys. There's something more than mere moralising to this, I think. And in a tangentially -- but ultimately -- related piece in the NYT titled "Imperfect Little Girls," Pamela Paul reviews some recent picture story books for girls.
Speaking of toys and picture story books, Adam Kotsko has some incisive things to say about what he sees as the emerging "holiday-industrial complex" in the US. The last third of the year, he notices, is now taken up with apparently important family and national rituals that take the form of shopping. That includes that new innovation in shopping, "Black Friday" -- something I hadn't heard of until this year. Thanks, Apple. "Getting into the spirit of Christmas means nothing more than not resisting. The happiness and joy you’re supposed to feel is nothing but the joy of conforming. It’s pretty sinister, and I think it’s become more sinister within my lifetime as the one thing that religion traditionally brings to the table has become increasingly eclipsed: caring for the poor."
And, on the first day of the new year, you might like to look back at 2011 with some topical overviews from The Conversation. The Australian website, launched last year, publishes research and analysis by academics, often free of the shallow barracking you get in newspaper opinion pieces. They have summaries of the year in energy & environment, politics & society, science & technology, business & economy, health & medicine.
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