Are social media, social? (Part six)

The previous sections of Are social media, social? have examined a variety of sometimes complex and often simple elements within the world of social media. Let me now turn to one of the most important issues in this growing phenomenon.

What do we mean by social? Social is one of those words that is used in so many different ways and in so many different contexts that its meaning is now as variable as the individuals who make use of it. Of course, the literal meaning of social seems to be obvious, that is people associating with each other to form groups, alliances or associations. A secondary assumption in the use of social is descriptive and it is about people who ally with each other and have enough in common to identify themselves with a particular group.

Social as a term is about relationships and relationships are inevitably about boundaries. Think of it this way. Groups for better or worse mark out their identities through language and their activities. Specific groups will have specific identities, other groups will be a bit more vague in order to attract lurkers and those on the margins. All groups end up defining themselves in one way or another. Those definitions can be as simple as a name or as complex as a broad-based activity with many layers and many sub-groups.

Identity is the key here. Any number of different identities can be expressed through social media, but a number of core assumptions remain. First, I will not be part of a group that I disagree with and second, I will not want to identify myself with a group that has beliefs that are diametrically opposed to my own. So, in this instance social comes to mean commonality.

Commonality of thought, ideology and interests which is linked to communal, a blending of interests, concerns and outlooks. So, social as a term is about blending differences into ways of thinking and living, and blending shared concerns into language so that people in groups can understand each other. The best current example of this is the Tea Party movement in the US. The driving energy in posts and blogs among the people who share the ideology of the Tea Party is based on solidifying shared assumptions, defining the enemy and consolidating dissent within the group.

In this process, a great deal has to be glossed over. The social space of conversation is dominated by a variety of metaphors that don't change. Keep in mind that commonality is based on a negation, that is, containing differences of opinion. And so, we see in formation, the development of ideology — a set of constraints with solid boundaries that adherents cannot diverge from, or put another way, why follow a group if you disagree with everything that they say? Of course, Tea Party has its own resonances which are symbolic and steeped in American history.

The danger in the simple uses of the word social should be obvious. Why, you may ask should we deconstruct such a 'common' word? Well, that may become more obvious when I make some suggestions about the use of media in social media. Stay tuned.

Part Seven 



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History's Folds

The brilliant French philosopher, Michel Serres proposes in recent publications that one of the best ways of understanding history is to think about human events as a series of interconnected folds, a networks of networks in which events that may have taken place thousands of years ago are still connected to the present through human memory and human artifacts.

The folds of which Serres speaks can be visualized as a series of pleated pages in which different points touch, sometimes arbitrarily and other times by design. The metaphor that Serres has developed has another purpose. In order to understand the technologies, social movements and cultural phenomena that humans have created, each point of contact among all these pleats needs to be drawn out in a detailed and narrative manner. Although Serres does not describe this method as stream of consciousness that is sometimes how it reads, to the point where the simplest of objects becomes the premise for an expansive narrative.

For example, (adapting Serres’s method) the notion of networks needs to be understood not only as a function of technology and communications systems, but also through the efforts by nearly every culture and every generation to develop a variety of bonds using any number of different means from language to art to music to political, religious and economic institutions. This suggests that the Internet, for example, is merely a modern extension of already existing forms of communication between people. And, while that may seem obvious, many of the claims about the Internet suggest that it is a revolutionary tool with implications for the ways in which people see themselves and their surroundings. More often than not, its revolutionary character is related to obvious characteristics like speed of communications, which may in fact be no more than a supplement to profoundly traditional modes of information exchange. The intersection of the revolutionary with the traditional is essential to the success of any new and innovative technology and may be at the heart of how quickly any individual innovation is actually taken up by individuals or by society as a whole.

One of these mornings

A beautiful film about the most important election day in American History in 2008. Filmmaker, Valery Lyman describes her goals in making the film in the text below. Click the link here to view the film. It is well worth it.

"I knew the feeling would be big as people went to vote for Obama, and wanted to make a real time recording of it. So I set up a phone line and asked people all over the country to call in right after they voted, saying whatever was on their minds. The idea worked. Some friends but mostly strangers, young and old, people called in from all over the country and while it all still hung in the balance, before results were tallied or anyone had the luxury of speaking in the past tense.

In my work I have often sought to describe an historical moment through the faces and voices of regular people who are experiencing it. I take to the streets, recording with my camera and genuinely seeking the thoughts and feelings of these ordinary folks, and then distill this documentary material into a poetic expression of that particular historical moment. This film is such an endeavor.

This film is not about Obama. Certainly it's not an advocacy or even a political film. It's about us. This film is a portrait of the feeling in the country on November 4, 2008. Regardless of what follows - whether Obama's Presidency is a failure, disappointment, or tremendous success - that day was a singular moment in American history. It is this spirit, as it was, that I have attempted to capture and preserve."

Life After the End of History

For most of the last century, the West faced real enemies: totalitarian, aggressive, armed to the teeth. Between 1918 and 1989, it was possible to believe that liberal democracy was a parenthesis in history, destined to be undone by revolution, ground under by jackboots, or burned like chaff in the fire of the atom bomb. Read more at the New York Times

1989 was a very good year by Timothy Garton Ash

It was the biggest year in world history since 1945. In international politics, 1989 changed everything.

It led to the end of communism in Europe, of the Soviet Union, the Cold War and the short 20th century. It opened the door to German reunification, a historically unprecedented European Union stretching from Lisbon to Tallinn, the enlargement of NATO, two decades of American supremacy, globalization and the rise of Asia. The one thing it did not change was human nature. Read more from the LA Times

Obama and Canada

As I was watching the "We are One" concert in celebration of the inauguration of Barack Obama, I felt an intense wave of nostalgia as if for the first time in years, the combination of music, hope and intelligence might produce a different sense of history's movement. Many of the artists who performed over the course of two hours, from Bruce Springsteen to Bono, are baby boomers and they were saluting the passing of a generation and the advent of something new.

All of the songs spoke to the possibility and the potential of community. I realized how deep the yearning for connection is and how profoundly we feel the need to connect to each other through shared experiences.

This is Obama's brilliance, to have translated the very essence of social networking into metaphors of change and to have recognized the degree to which communications is as much about what we say as how we say it. As I watched the show, I asked myself why a Canadian would identify so strongly with this extraordinary man? In part the answer to this question can be found in the obvious way in which Canada has maintained itself as a construct rather than as a nation.

Some may take offense at this comment. But, as a nation we have, for reasons that are both historical and sometimes justifiable, chosen to be ten parts and not a whole. We are still arguing about trade barriers between provinces and still have no national plan for education, for culture or for health care. Three of the most important elements of what constitutes us as a nation lack even the minimal national coordination needed to facilitate their care, their growth and their purpose.

Some will say that the competition for dollars between the provinces is healthy, that the lack of a national policy in so many areas that need it, like the environment means that more attention is placed on priorities closer to 'home'. This is a vague notion of community. Presumably, because we live in cities, our councillors and Mayors should know more about what we need. More often than not local doesn't equate to greater sensitivity or even connectedness. And largely, that is because there is no sense of national purpose around urban development and urban life, and no goals that transcend the often petty perspectives held by local politicians.

This is finally about vision, about the need to see the horizon beyond the immediate street on which we live, or the city we have grown up in or the province we inhabit. When Obama speaks about national purpose the cadence of his voice rises to the occasion as if the vista that he is looking at reaches beyond the immediate constraints of space, language or ideology.

This looking beyond the boundaries of the self, this deep regard and profound respect for the ability of everyone to meaningfully join together irrespective of background or position, this belief that joining together actually may lead to change and transformation, is hardly possible in Canada.

Part of the reason that Quebec hungers to be a nation on its own is precisely because Quebeckers cannot feel the presence of rest of the country within themselves. Yes, for one brief moment in 1995 when the country was on the brink of dissolution, for one brief moment Canadians rallied. But, so little happened afterwards, so little was solidified and nothing was done to convert that energy into national purpose.

From time to time, surveys are completed on what Canadians know about their history and the results are always the same, very little. The educational system is blamed and for a time more effort is put into classes and courses.

Knowledge of history cannot be imposed. The desire to understand history must come from passion, an intense feeling of purpose and conversations that link people together irrespective of differences. For a brief moment, Obama's election has pointed us in a new direction. For a brief moment, the struggle for equality which is really a struggle for the soul of a nation, has given way to opportunity and optimism. We in Canada cannot imitate this moment, not should we. But, at a minimum we need to learn from it.

Dear Ron

Your referring to Canada maintaining itself as a "construct" reminded me of CBC's competition in the 1970's to invent Canada's equivalent of "As American as apple pie" by completing the phrase "As Canadian as . . . ." The winning entry, as you perhaps know, was: "As Canadian as possible under the circumstances." In fact, this Canadian equivalent puts a bigger smile on my face than "As American as apple pie." It's a more ecologically sound way of defining one's national identity in relation to what surrounds one. For the author of the phrase it may have meant that the surrounding is fixed and that Canada simply has to adapt. However, one can also interpret it differently, namely that a country, Canada or any other country for that matter, assumes an identity that is fluid. It changes over time, taking into account the changes that take place elsewhere on this tiny planet on which we live closer and closer together. What we see from our respective national perspectives is not just a given that we must merely adjust to; it’s also a playing field in which all countries have a contributing role to play. It’s a global environment that we shape together.

I missed the "We are One" concert, but did watch yesterday via CNN@Facebook most of the ceremony of Obama's investiture (the technology happened to work better than's equivalent attempt, which I had initially chosen as my preferred access channel). Here, definitely, the medium was itself a powerful message of community as one felt the coincident presence of so many other people connected via the same medium: those, who shared hope and the conviction that, finally, change will happen; those who shared critical views of the disproportionate hold of the US on world affairs, whoever is in charge; and those who shared concerns, despite a sliver of hope, about the difficult roads ahead for us all.

I feel that we must revisit, in Canada and elsewhere, our ideas about national identity. We must supplement our feelings of belonging to our own particular culture and history with an overriding sense of planetary identity. We are rushing towards populating planet Earth with more than nine billion humans by 2050, sharing very limited resources, and just can't afford anymore to see our national interests before we see those of humanity as a whole. Indeed, one must have an identity, including a national identity (as you rightly posit), before one can effectively develop the broader sense of belonging to a single species and the wider ecology of life as it evolved on this particular ‘spec of dust’ in the universe. The inconvenience of too strongly felt provincial identities in comparison with national identity in Canada can be taken to the next higher level, that of the inconvenience of too strongly felt national identity that stands in the way of our ability and disposition to develop our planetary consciousness and a sense of belonging to the universe and its evolutionary history.


Beauty and Democracy

It has been quite a week. I watched the American election results overnight in London, England and felt a deep sense of joy and hopefulness amidst all of the gloom. Then on Friday, Emily Carr University of Art and Design installed its first Chancellor. Some photographs from the event can be found on the main Emily Carr website.

The election of Barack Obama, his acceptance speech and the extraordinary sense of relief visible among all of the faces in Chicago and elsewhere in America and the world say as much about the strength and resiliency of democracy as they do about the event itself. The feeling that one's vote counts is not a cliche, rather and more importantly, it brings forth all of the sensations that come from empowerment. These are visceral feelings and they are almost impossible to reduce down to words. Everyday life is often overwhelmed by an endless procession of small events, some benign, others bewildering, and moments that are sometimes hurtful.

Obama's victory erased all of that in one intense jump from an age dominated by fear and the marketing of bankrupt ideas to an age where at a minimum the most powerful man in the world will speak with honesty about the challenges we all face. For better or worse, America remains the most powerful symbol of nationhood in the world. Its icons, its images, the inflection and content of its discourse affect everyone. The very manner in which the country has been constructed is replete with nearly every possible contradiction one could ever imagine, and this brings an intensity to its position and to its postures that few nations can match. Its idealism so often a cause for worry, now stands out as a foundation for one of those mythic stories our parents often told us. To imagine the future may well be to create it.

Dawson College Shootings

Today, the violence of our times hit home quite personally with a terrible shooting at Dawson College. The link in the previous sentence summarizes a personal view of this tragedy.

I know the college very well having started my teaching career at another similar college in Montreal. Many things will be written about this event. Nothing can explain the sense of loss that many of us feel, not only for the lives of those who were victimized, but also for the problems that the shooting reveals about our society. This is not a time for generalizations, but for contemplation and thoughtfulness.

Those of us who have dedicated our lives to teaching, learning and building the educational system in Canada can only strive to do our jobs even better in the hope that rationality and optimism will overcome the pain of moments like this.

Marcel Mauss + Terry Eagleton


Hegel thought it a mark of the modern age that philosophy had taken over from art and religion as the custodian of truth. The World Spirit had come to self-consciousness in his own head, rendering any less rational form of knowledge outmoded. Yet religion has retained its capacity to spark riots and launch civil wars, while art has survived as a refined version of religion for the intelligentsia: most aesthetic concepts are displaced theology. (Terry Eagleton, “Eat It, A review of Marcel Mauss: A Biography by Marcel Fournier, translated by Jane Marie Todd in London Review of Books, Volume 28, Number 11, June 8 2006 pg. 29.)

Geographies of Dissent (2)

There is another term that I would like to introduce into this discussion and that is, counter-publics. Daniel Brouwer in a recent issue of Critical Studies in Media Communications uses the term to describe the impact of two “zines"? on public discussion of HIV-AIDS. The term resonates for me because it has the potential to bring micro and macro into a relationship that could best be defined as a continuum and suggests that one needs to identify how various publics can contain within themselves a continuing and often conflicted and sometimes very varied set of analysis and discourses about central issues of concern to everyone. It was the availability of copy machines beginning in 1974 that really made ‘zines’ possible. There had been earlier versions, most of which were copied by hand or by using typewriters, but copy machines made it easy to produce 200 or 300 copies of a zine at very low cost. In the process, a mico-community of readers was established for an infinite number of zines. In fact, the first zine convention in Chicago in the 1970’s attracted thousands of participants. The zines that Brouwer discusses that were small to begin with grew over time to five and ten thousand subscribers. This is viral publishing at its best, but it also suggests something about how various common sets of interests manifest themselves and how communities form in response.

“One estimate reckons that these "Xeroxed, hand-written, desktop-published, sometimes printed, and even electronic" documents (as the 1995 zine convention in Hawaii puts it) have produced some 20,000 titles in the past couple of decades. And this "cottage" industry is thought to be still growing at twenty percent per year. Consequently, as never before, scattered groups of people unknown to one another, rarely living in contiguous areas, and sometimes never seeing another member, have nonetheless been able to form robust social worlds? John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid in The Social Life of Documents. Clearly, zines represent counter-publics that are political and are inheritors of 19th century forms of poster communications and the use of public speakers to bring countervailing ideas to large groups. Another way of thinking about this area is to look at the language used by many zines. Generally, their mode of address is direct. The language tends to be both declarative and personal. The result is that the zines feel like they are part of the community they are talking to and become an open ‘place’ of exchange with unpredictable results. I will return to this part of the discussion in a moment, but it should be obvious that zines were the precursors to Blogs.

As I said, the overall aggregation of various forms of protest using a variety of different media in a large number of varied contexts generates outcomes that are not necessarily the product of any centralized planning. This means that it is also difficult to gage the results. Did the active use of cell phones during the demonstrations in Seattle against the WTO contribute to greater levels of organization and preparedness on the part of the protestors and therefore on the message they were communicating? Mobile technologies were also used to “broadcast? back to a central source that then sent out news releases to counter the mainstream media and their depiction of the protests and protestors. This proved to be minimally effective in the broader social sense, but very effective when it came to maintaining and sustaining the communities that had developed in opposition to the WTO and globalization. Inadvertently, the mainstream media allowed the images of protest to appear in any form because they were hungry for information and needed to make sense of what was going on. As with many other protests in public spaces, it is not always possible for the mainstream media to control what they depict. Ultimately, the most important outcome of the demonstrations was symbolic, which in our society added real value to the message of the protestors.

To be continued...


Geographies of Dissent (1)

I like the phrase, “Geographies of Dissent? It suggests a great deal to me not only about the space within which dissent takes place, but the potential to map the many different types of activities that come under the heading of “dissent?

My orientation to dealing with this issue is from a technology and communications point of view and is governed by what I will call an aggregative approach. That is, there are a large number of activities of dissent taking place within advanced societies that make use of various forms of media and new media. It is often difficult to see how all of these varied engagements are connected or whether they lead to genuine change. Nonetheless, what I would like to explore is how the sum of all these parts adds up to something very important that is not as visible as one might like, but nevertheless may have an impact on mapping the process of dissent in Western countries.

Depending on the vantage point that one takes, and therefore depending on how broadly or narrowly one looks, claims can be made about levels and extent of dissent. The issue of vantage point is crucial. If the perspective I take is governed by a concern for the nature and quality of the public sphere, then my overview will of necessity be broad. If the approach I take is oriented towards communities and more specifically to micro-communities("A microcommunity is a self-organizing collective of individuals who wish to learn about and contribute to a particular research domain, and aspire to enable and enrich each other’s research in this domain."), then I will need to combine a broad understanding, let us say, of the zeitgeist and a more particular and specific understanding of grassroots forms of dissent.

The challenge is to combine a macro-view with a micro-view in a manner that does justice to both sides and at the same time elucidates the importance of both strategies. Of course, all of this is also dependent on the definitions and expectations that one has for dissent and for its impact. A macro-view can make many different claims, among the most important being that social change will not happen unless large numbers of people are involved and unless the changes have a transformative effect on the social whole. This is the democratic paradigm and is why our society continues to believe in a 19th century model of political parties. Inevitably, the macro-view runs into problems when the outcomes to an election for example, point toward a highly fragmented set of constituencies, more lack of knowledge than actual erudition in the choices that are made, and a clear lack of respect by the political parties for the kind of public discourse that would actually lead to new ideas and some measured growth in the learning process.

To be continued.....

The Euston Manifesto (2)


As I mentioned in a previous post, the importance of the Euston Manifesto for liberal thinkers cannot be underestimated. The authors attempt to reach out to people of all political persuasions and to recreate the political centre. Their commitment is to democracy and to democratic thinking.

"The present initiative has its roots in and has found a constituency through the Internet, especially the "blogosphere". It is our perception, however, that this constituency is under-represented elsewhere in much of the media and the other forums of contemporary political life." (From the preamble)

They provide a clear explanation of their orientation:

For democracy

"We are committed to democratic norms, procedures and structures — freedom of opinion and assembly, free elections, the separation of legislative, executive and judicial powers, and the separation of state and religion. We value the traditions and institutions, the legacy of good governance, of those countries in which liberal, pluralist democracies have taken hold."

One of the most important elements of their argument is the separation of church and state. This appears often and is a founding principle for their manifesto. The fact that the manifesto reaches out to people of all political persuasions is very important. The time has come to carefully rethink how people who support the principles of enlightenment thinking can take part in national and international debates about the many challenges which face us from the deterioration of the environment to unstable governments.

The key to solving some of these issues is the learning process. Ironically, although there is some mention of the educational system in the manifesto, not enough is said and more stress needs to be placed on how education can play a positive role in developing world views that are connected to optimistic and utopian social and community models.

Euston Manifesto


After years of accepting and even supporting an unclear and often unthoughtout ideology rooted in an old style and often reactionary worldview, a group of intellectuals went to work to try and rethink the direction, orientation and discourse of progressive politics. The Euston Manifesto is the product of this effort and although there are many elements of it that are controversial, for the most part, it tries to reinvigorate the humanist and liberal outlook on the world.

On June 9th, the Little Atoms website will host a discussion with the creators of the manifesto.

You can read the comments of Christopher Hitchens here and as acerbic as he has become, Hitchens is important because he is very worried about the direction of so-called modern day progressive politics.

More detail on how the manifesto came to be can be found on the New Statesman web site.

I will comment in greater detail on the manifesto during the coming week.

The frontiers of our dreams are no longer the same (2)


Aquin wanted a total ‘national revolution’. He wanted to rebuild Quebec society from the bottom up. He wanted to start anew and this led him to analyse both the strengths and weaknesses of his own culture. He saw himself as a representative of the collective will of his people with all of the contradictions which that entails. This is an attractive formulation, a somewhat religious one in fact. It may explain the dark paradox of Aquin's suicide. He offered himself to the Quebec people as myth and this is inevitably the site of a death. No one individual can ever be the nation just as the nation can never be understood or experienced through one person, although we have witnessed many efforts to create and sustain the possibility of that myth (from Lenin and Stalin through to Mao, Thatcher, Reagan, and so forth). In death all of these ambiguities are frozen. In life they undergo neverending change which alters the myth, perhaps fundamentally and even leads to its unmasking.

Aquin experienced this gap in a very personal way. He grew frustrated with the slowness of change, with the time it takes for any community to alter its norms and values. His death was premature and a profound loss but its ambiguity may be at the heart of the dilemma which many people face and have faced in Quebec for the last fifty years. The simple terms within which national identity have been laid out means that any considerations about the future have to be deferred. It will suffice, the modern nationalist argument goes, to regain what has been lost, to live in our own country.

In a time when the very concept of the nation is undergoing complete change, when the ideals of the market economy have triumphed over all other ideologies, when Quebeckers voted for a trans-national system of free trade, no border is secure, no identity untouched. Nationalism in Quebec will prosper if its discourse remains frozen and resistent to the shifts of history, if it engages with the myths of its own ideology as if they have become real. As Eduardo Galeano has so brillantly argued: “What it all comes down is that we are the sum of our efforts to change who we are. Identity is no museum piece sitting stock-still in a display case, but rather the endlessly astonishing synthesis of the contradictions of everyday life? Eduardo Galeano, “Celebration of Contradictions? in The Book of Embraces , (New York: Norton, 1991), p.125.

To me the history of Quebec is full of extraordinary ambiguity, ranging from a long tradition of social justice to crass anti-semitism, from democratic practices to extreme forms of authoritarianism, from an exemplary openess to other cultures to narrowness and intolerance. This is not the place to examine all of these shifts, suffice to say that nationalists are rewriting this past in order to imagine a radically diffferent future. Yet there is something troubling about the strategy of post-referendum (1980 and 1995) nationalists, something which Aquin anticipated in the 1970's. There is a desire to downplay the heterogeneity of identity, to eliminate the contradictions of historical change, to freeze perceptions of Quebec's situation as if it has not evolved or undergone some fundamental shifts over the past five decades.

It is one of the errors of the nationalist movement to presume that all of this complexity can be magically excised through the political process. On the other hand, I would also say that the national imaginary cannot be rejected as irrational. The desire to find some coherence in the maelstrom of activities, thoughts and hopes which any community experiences at an individual and collective level must not be dismissed. To do so would be to deny the role of the community in building an image for itself — to deny the necessity of identity as a cultural, social and political process. Yet even as I say this, I am aware that the terms themselves (the social, for example) have been depleted in meaning by the very activities which should be enriching them. The polarities at work here, most fully symbolised by the terror which was unleashed in the former Yugoslavia, cannot be resolved within the framework of nationalist ideologies. The nation then, must be seen as a contingent formation and this inevitably creates serious problems for those beholden to its mythic underpinnings.

The frontiers of our dreams are no longer the same*

Quebec Nationalism from an Anglophone Perspective

Ron Burnett

*(From Refus Global — quoted by Hubert Aquin in his essay entitled, Literature and Alienation)


It was an overcast day in 1977 when the great writer and Quebec nationalist, Hubert Aquin, committed suicide. I felt the pain of Aquin's death very deeply having followed his career and his writing for many years. While there was a profoundly personal side to Aquin's death, it was also a metaphoric and symbolic gesture. As he once said: “I am the broken symbol of revolution in Quebec, a reflection of its chaos and its suicidal tendencies? (Gordon Sheppard and André Yanacopoulo, Signé Hubert Aquin: Enquête sur le suicide d'un écrivain, Montréal: Boréal Express, 1985 p.15)

On the 19th of October, 1976, a few weeks before the Parti Québecois election victory, Andrée Yanacopoulo, Aquin's wife, wrote him a letter in which she implored him to change his mind about suicide.

In Quebec we don't live a normal life like people do elsewhere. In more ‘stable’ countries like France, England, or the United States each individual can, in an untroubled way, feel at home… but not here, not in Quebec. For many Québecois you represent the ideals of independence, the invincibility of a nationalist spirit. This only increases the meaning of your work as a writer. Your writing is, at one and the same time, authentically Québecois and universal. It is an act of escapism to commit suicide. It is an admission of failure. You have a responsibility to the Quebec community. If you commit suicide you will be killing a little bit of Quebec. You will be cutting of its future.

(Sheppard and Yanacopoulo, p. 41)

She went on to say that his suicide would reenforce defeatist attitudes in Quebec which he himself had openly critiqued. She did not want to bring up their son in a country which wasn't capable of instilling national pride in its citizens. She equated his projected suicide (about which they had argued for many years) with the destruction of a collective identity still in formation.

There is an attractive romanticism to Yanacopoulo's equation of Aquin and Quebec. It is also a potentially dangerous juxtaposition, for while it might be desirable to conceive of revolution through the eyes of one individual, it is a rather different thing to transform a community of six million people. At the level of myth, however, transformations can be imagined, even thought of as real without having a direct impact on daily life.

Aquin wanted a total ‘national revolution’. He wanted to rebuild Quebec society from the bottom up. He wanted to start anew and this led him to analyse both the strengths and weaknesses of his own culture. He saw himself as a representative of the collective will of his people with all of the contradictions which that entails.

This is an attractive formulation, a somewhat religious one in fact. It may explain the dark paradox of Aquin's suicide. He offered himself to the Quebec people as myth and this is inevitably the site of a death. No one individual can ever be the nation just as the nation can never be understood or experienced through one person, although we have witnessed many efforts to create and sustain the power of that myth (from Lenin and Stalin through to Mao, Thatcher, Reagan, and so forth). In death all of these ambiguities are frozen. In life they undergo neverending change which alters the myth, perhaps fundamentally and even leads to its unmasking. (TO BE CONTINUED.......)

Bad News, Richard Posner and New Media (2)

One of the ironies of modern mainstream media is their belief, loudly trumpeted, that they have a major influence on the opinions and outlook of readers. Clearly, there is some influence. But, overall, if the media are all liberal (another myth), then one would assume that everyone watching would also be liberal. In general, if processes of communication were as direct as the media themselves suggest, we as a society would be buffetted by an endless storm of changing opinions and beliefs.
Rather, as is evident in the US., the reverse is true with conservative values firmly dominant in the society as a whole. This suggest that the influence of the media is more diffuse and that in order to understand that influence new models of critical analysis are needed.
These models would make no claims on the effect of the media and would instead examine the plethora of influences that impact on the daily lives of everyone in Western societies. This would include the now complex and multi-layered infuences of the Blogosphere.
[Ze Frank]( at has created a site that amplifies the effects of the blogosphere and provides us with some insight into what he calls the AUTHORSHIP society. With a new Blog being created every second, traditional notions of authorship do not apply. In fact, the spread of authors across many realms means that the vast majority of Blogs are, as I mentioned in the previous entry, small and for a specific community. This extension of the bulletin board in your local community hall provides those who are interested with an insight into the everyday life of a large number of communities.
The questin is, is that a usful and productive outcome of the creation of the Blogosphere.

Bad News, Richard Posner and New Media

Richard Posner, who is a Federal Appeals court Judge as well as Senior Lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School and an active Blogger, is one of the most prolific writers in the United States. He has a lengthy article in the New York Times Book Review, Sunday, July 31, 2005.

It is a superb piece of writing and a profound analysis of the role that the media play in the everyday lives of the American people. He makes a series of points that I would like to comment on: the proliferation of Blogs means that audiences have more power; that the traditional press has lost a significant percentage of its readership, especially among the generation of twenty to forty-year olds; that the media have become more sensational and polarized along traditional political fault lines of right and left. There is a great deal more in the article, but these three points are central to the Posner’s direction and orientation.

It is interesting the Posner has the stated aim of reviving and enriching public discourse and that he has on numerous occasions commented on the weakening of the role of the public intellectual in American life.


The vast majority of Blogs are directed towards a very small readership. They are really more like old style bulletin boards, written sometimes for the pleasure of writing and other times to proclaim allegiance to one or another of the many ideologies that surround us. In general, however, the vast majority of Blogs are private and confessional in orientation. They testify to the everyday experiences that people have, but more importantly Blogs are a sign of the extraordinary importance that Bloggers place on the activities of writing. Ironically, it is the news media, which has highlighted a relatively small number of Blogs and made them the reference point for what is happening in the Blogosphere as a whole. Clearly, publicity is a good thing for those Blogs that receive it. But, for the most part, Blogs are private affairs, diaries that have the potential to be read by a large number of people, but generally are read by family and friends. Are they important? Absolutely. Are they a significant shift in the way the public (which is an amorphous term anyway) sees itself and its neighbors? Yes. Is news being disseminated in a different way because there are now so many people commenting on nearly every aspect of American life? Yes, but here I depart from Posner’s analysis, because my own feeling is that that it is almost impossible to summarize what is being said with the kind of accuracy that is needed to explain and comment upon most Blogs.

Blogs, in my opinion are not about the creation of large communities of interest. They are about communities dividing into smaller and smaller groups with people sharing their interests and concerns through the written word and sometimes through the use of visuals. Blogs reflect and represent something akin to what happens among people when they use the telephone to talk to friends and family. They are about telling stories and more often than not, the stories aren’t that interesting to anyone outside the group. Posner makes a common error in media analysis. He uses the mainstream media themselves as the source for commentary on Blogs. What we need, I believe, is a more historical overview, which links Blogs to nineteenth and twentieth century reading clubs and other organized community based clubs and groups.


Hypochondriac Culture (6)

Imagine the following. There is a sudden change in your body temperature. Your heart starts to beat more quickly. You begin to sweat. You have read about the symptoms of a heart attack. You beging to think that you are having a heart attack. Your anxiety rises. The combination of fear, fantasy and a catalogue of symptoms that you have heard about through our culture pushes you closer and closer to a panic attack.

Hypochondria is rarely a personal or private expression of symptoms and behviour. It is a private pain that has its roots inside image-worlds that are packed with information. In this case, information about symptoms may produce them.

Hypochondriac Culture (3)

What if the hyponchondriac body is an aesthetic projection?

Lets for a moment assume that our daily experiences are continuously in a kind of flux between awareness and loss of awareness. We engage with the world around us without being fully aware of our intentions, often without understanding what motivates us to do certain things or react in specific ways to people and to objects.

When someone looks at us we take that look and project it onto our bodies and into our minds. This is not a mechanical process and has no particular sequence to it. Nevertheless, a particular look can lead to any number of thoughts and from those any number of different projections.

Now, lets reverse what I just said. What happens when the feelings you are expressing towards a friend for example, don't play out in the way that you anticipated? How does your body deal with the impact of that experience?

Another way of thinking about this is to reflect on the fact that our bodies represent and express our histories, both personal and public. Pain becomes an interface between the internal and external images that we have of our biological selves. Irrespective of whether that pain is real or not, our bodies express and represent our thoughts—the internal becomes visible.

If the pain is a fiction, the only way to make it real is to rescuplt the body, remake it in the light of the artifice, mark it with evidence, in other words, transform it into an aesthetic object.

Part Four



Hypochondriac Culture (2)

Hypochondria is an insidious disease because it is a silent and often invisible part of the suffering of so many people. It is centred on fear and misinterpretation. Hypochondriacs are constantly worried about a variety of symptoms that they read into their bodies. A minor pain is scripted into a major illness and leads to thoughts of death. Yet, to describe this process as a disease is perhaps a grave error. The psychology of fear is not easy to pin down. Since so much of medicine is concerned with cause and effect, the idea that someone could imagine an illness seems to be outside of the pragmatic medical context of searching for cures. Imagination is the key here as is a process called projection. It is easy to imagine any number of problems in the complex biology of the human body. It is easy (but the consequences can be dire) to project an external problem into an internal space. At one point in some "jottings" that were found among Sigmund Freud's papers, he made the comment that "space is a projection of the psyche". What if the hyponchondriac body is an aesthetic projection? I will respond to this question in greater detail tomorrow.

Part Three