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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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Monday, December 12, 2011

Rumi-nating - Of Mystics and Media

    The poetry of the Sufi Rumi often lends itself to mysticism and serene slippages of the tongue. Rumi represents the tremendous hermeneutic depth inherent in the incessant reinterpretation of Islam and the Quran. As a scholar and headmaster of schools in the Middle East Rumi was exposed to the most modern advances in science and philosophy of his time, which is evident in the topos of his writing He was a firm believer that if you speak a new language you shall have a new world before your eyes; which points to the very modern concept that language is constitutive of our shared reality.  

Confused and distraught
Again I am raging, I am in such a state by your soul that every bond you bind, I break, by your soul. I am like heaven, like the moon, like a candle by your glow; I am all reason, all love, all soul, by your soul. My joy is of your doing, my hangover of your thorn; whatever  side you turn your face, I turn mine, by your soul. I spoke in error; it is not surprising to speak in error in this  state, for this moment I cannot tell cup from wine, by your soul. I am that madman in bonds who binds the "divs"; I, the madman, am a Solomon with the "divs", by your soul. Whatever form other than love raises up its head from my  heart, forthwith I drive it out of the court of my heart, by your soul. Come, you who have departed, for the thing that departs comes back; neither you are that, by my soul, nor I am that, by your soul. Disbeliever, do not conceal disbelief in your soul, for I will recite the secret of your destiny, by your soul. Out of love of Sham-e Tabrizi, through wakefulness or  nightrising, like a spinning mote I am distraught, by your soul.
"Mystical Poems of Rumi 2" A. J. Arberry
The University of Chicago Press, 1991

There are some who try and abstract Rumi out of his historical and cultural context in order to harness the eternal essence of his writing, his poetry has been translated into contemporary American idioms as well. There is an undeniable benefit to making the language of his works more accessible to larger audiences, however its clear there is little value in completely ignoring the origins and influences of his work; i.e. the theological environment from whence it arose.

Rumi’s work has the feel less of a sermon than a dialogue or discourse, a song or a conversation. In the above poem he writes “I, the madman, am a Solomon.” There is an uncanny similarity between his poetry and the Songs of Solomon, odes of love to the divine rather than Jeremiads.
While there is a stark similarity in styles between Solomon and Rumi in their mode of presentation, there are much more poignant cleavages running through the content of the messages themselves. One major difference between the belief systems erected by the different theological traditions is in the understanding of the origin of evil. While Christianity tells a narrative of the Fall of Man and Original Sin, for the Sufi’s it is a question of ‘vic’ or remembrance of a forgotten divine. Humanity is impregnated with a spirit that is both beyond and every bit a part of itself, one gets a glimpse of or tastes a bit of this ethereal yet immanent essence through finite yet particular experiences of love.

For Rumi, the task of living righteously in the world is not a prohibitionist warding off of evil, but rather a hopeful stylistics of existence that seeks to affirm the divine in one’s working on and understanding of the world. It is a mode of being that begins with an ethos of generosity, in its interpretation of Islamic code, in its disposition toward others, and in its cultivation of habits in the daily regimen of life. To live justly is less so the protection of a body from harmful pathogens, than is it a joyful journey in search for the lost ruins of the spirit.

This interpretation of Islam, one that is more commonplace for many Iranians, is one radically opposed to that in the lamestream media. It seems to strike at and shatter the certainty of the American conception of radical Muslims. Moreover, it is an ethos that embraces and actively advocates for a cosmopolitanism in global affairs. Perhaps there are overlooked wooden grains in the carpentry of religion. 

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