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Friday, December 16, 2011

Person(a) of the Year

Although the selection of a persona or group based identification rather than a specific individual is not a new development for TIME; this year's selection of "The Protester" points toward intriguing new developments in the dynamics of global publics. TIME Magazine’s selection criterion is rather simple; the award goes to that person, group, or concept which most influenced the news, for better or for worse.

Why “The Protester”? Why not the singular Tunisian fruit vendor; the spark that spurred a fire that would rapidly proceed to engulf the globe; from the favelas of the south to the arctic blasted Russian metropolises, and the most developed countries in the world? Why not choose even a specific group of protesters, “The Arab Spring” or the #OWS movements?
Here’s portion of TIME Magazine’s defense of their selection: 
Everywhere this year, people have complained about the failure of traditional leadership and the fecklessness of institutions. Politicians cannot look beyond the next election, and they refuse to make hard choices. That's one reason we did not select an individual this year. But leadership has come from the bottom of the pyramid, not the top. For capturing and highlighting a global sense of restless promise, for upending   governments and conventional wisdom,  for combining the oldest of techniques with the newest of technologies to shine a light on human dignity and, finally, for steering the planet on a more democratic though sometimes more dangerous path for the 21st century, the Protester is TIME's 2011 Person of the Year.

News by definition is generated from controversy. News is a form of protest against the status quo; it pokes holes in the previously seamless fabric of the present. In re-presenting the facts of what has occurred the news defies expectations of what we thought was occurring. But news is also analysis, opinion, and commentary on how we should relate ourselves to new developments; as they emerge in real-time. News even offers analysis on the news. And other media offer analysis on the analysis of the analysis. Entertainment, factual presentation, commentary and opinion become ever blurred in the era of Meta-news. Yet the news has also donned the mask of the figure of the “The Protester” in response to the “The Protester” itself, in its myriad forms.

The Person of the Year is not decided based on extracting data from algorithms or trends from complex metrics. TIME’s award is an analysis by the media of the media, but while it claims to be simply representing the facts of the case, should this award not be the most obvious of decisions? Shouldn’t the answer be staring us straight in the face? TIME doesn’t seem to even feign some sort of claim to objectivity or very rigorously stress the differences between the runner-up’s and the winner. The selection process is based on perceptions, and like all perceptions, from the very beginning it is an act of valuation.
Developments in Cognitive Psychology and Neurophilosophy have demonstrably proven the inability to maintain a distinction between fact and value. At the most basic level of the visual cortex (V1), before one is even conscious of a visual sense perception, feedback loops of higher order thinking processes have already influenced the act of perception. Sober, rational deliberation that’s freed from all extraneous influence vanishes, always trailing in the wake of precognitive, emotional valences.

And in a sense, TIME Magazine is all too aware of this phenomenon. In the penultimate statement defending their decision, TIME reflects on the affective capacities that “The Protester” generated:

For capturing and highlighting a global sense of restless promise

The criterion for selection is fundamentally based on the influence a person/group/concept has had on the media. The reason “The Protester” was so influential was because it fostered the conditions of possibility that connected, created and fed unpredictable desires. There was something else at work in the figure of “The Protester” this year. The figure itself always already was a figure that embodied influence. In a sense every TIME Magazine Person of the Year recipient embodies the figure of “The Protester” in one-way or another.
In the immediate wake of the revolts experts, theorists and scholars scrambled to try and explain why predictive models and theoretical frames failed so miserably to foresee such a drastic upheaval. The events that we are witnessing can only be traced to one sort of cause, the final cause, in an Aristotelian sense. The TIME article relates the figure of “The Protester” to the etymological origin of democracy or demos. All of these movements are ‘caused’ in the sense that they fulfill the meaning and strive to satisfy the end of the demos.

But there are also very specific figures that are emblematic of “The Protester.” There is the Tunisian Fruit Vendor, the romanticized figure of self-sacrifice and ineffable defiance of conventional wisdom. There are the #OWS protesters, the leaderless and organic network of protesters, but a more contentious figure, admired, mockupied and demonized all at once. Within the Occupy Wall ST. Movement the most famous representatives are the victims; the NW Grandma and UC Students Pepper-sprayed, the Iraqi War Veteran whose skull was fractured by Oakland Policy with a tear gas canister, or countless others who were subjected to police brutality.
I posted during the first few months of the #OWS protests about the statistical connection between acts of police repression and media coverage of the protests. There was a significant positive correlation between instances of state violence and the amount of media traffic consumed by global publics; thus its no surprise that the most well known figures are the victims.
    Yet TIME Magazine repeatedly insists on the fact that this revolution was not linearly caused by advances in technology:

Technology mattered, but this was not a technological revolution. Social networks did not cause these movements, but they kept them alive and connected. Technology allowed us to watch, and it spread the virus of protest, but this was not a wired revolution; it was a human one, of hearts and minds, the oldest technology of all.

But perhaps the human heart itself has changed. What if our affective sensibilities have grown drastically? The article explicitly asks the question:

Is there a global tipping point for frustration?

To me the more interesting question is not whether there is a tipping point or brink in terms of the numbers of people that have to be frustrated before general sentiment translates into action; or whether there is a brink in terms of how pissed people have to get before an emotion becomes an occupation.  Instead, what if technological prosthesis expands our collective affective horizon of possibility? Or if there were a brink, what if it were not fixed or timeless? What if we could actively work on finding ways to lower or raise its threshold? Or return to a more ancient education of the sense? In so many ways (that need not be repeated here) the sources and levels of frustration within the varying contexts (from #OWS to the Arab Spring, to Russia and Greece) differed dramatically, yet tactics by the different groups were remarkably similar. This movement emerged from and continues to generate a social imaginary; an envisioning that feeds forwards and backwards through the public , other movements and the prefigured present; like an electric charge. The bonds of solidarity sedimented through millions of bytes in the bucket spurred passionate attachments to the trajectories of other protesters and movements. The interconnectedness of the movements provided an infrastructural base that would outpace its wildest dreams.

The movements combine:

the oldest of techniques with the newest of technologies to shine a light on human dignity

What if the newest of technologies is really just as ancient of principle? Are the technologies, as they disclose themselves in their many-sided mystery not the tools enabling one to take to the task of generating an ethos? Can we not think of ethos as a technique as well as a technology?

A technique of the self;
A prosthetically enhanced capacity to respond;
An augmented duty to own up to one’s ownmost potentiality for respons(e)ibility. 

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