Wednesday, December 3, 2008
It's hard to get a soundbite out of Douglas Kellner. A preeminent scholar of social theory, media spectacle, and postmodernism, the man is all about nuance.
Kellner is the George Kneller Chair in the Philosophy of Education at UCLA, and his work is ubiquitous in the University of Iowa mass communication department, and others I'm sure.
Along with scores of journal articles, book chapters, and other titles, Kellner's penned The Postmodern Adventure, Media Spectacle and the Crisis of Democracy, and this year's Guys and Guns Amok: Domestic Terrorism and School Shootings from the Oklahoma City Bombing to the Virginia Tech Massacre.
I spoke with Kellner over the phone yesterday about Barack Obama's new media campaign, a subject he recently wrote about for Mediascape. We discussed the death of newspapers, the 2008 media/election circus, Obama's skills as a television performer, and Neil Postman's seminal indictment of television, Amusing Ourselves to Death.
Me: How much attention did you pay in this election cycle to Barack Obama’s new media campaign?
Douglas Kellner: I have an article on this UCLA site Mediascape, and I just wrote it up for another book. It was about the election and the media spectacle: first the Obama spectacle versus the Hillary spectacle and then the Obama spectacle versus the McCain/Palin spectacle. I have a long, detailed study of it.
Me: What did you think of Obama’s campaign specifically? Do you see his election as a victory for Internet activism?
DK: I would say that that is a component of it. You’ll see in my article that I have some paragraphs on Obama and the Internet spectacle, but also there was artwork for Obama. There were the campaign events; his appearances were media spectacles. I would say it’s a combination of Internet and television.
Me: Since 2000 we’ve seen a societal shift, particularly generational, away from old media like TV and toward new media like the Internet. Is this a positive thing?
DK: These things are so big that the terms "positive" or "negative," "good" or "bad," don’t really apply. It’s a massive shift. I think definitely young people are much more into the Internet, text messaging, and cell phones, while older generations are into television. I think you can get more and better sources of news and information from the Internet. On the other hand, you can get a lot of crap on the Internet. So it’s a complex thing, it’s not one-good, one-bad. Both of them are mixed bags and big bags.
Me: But in terms of political news coverage, would you say the Internet has been a generally positive force?
DK: Oh, absolutely. I’ve written a lot on this. Things I’ve written with Richard Kahn, for instance, on Internet politics, and in my book The Postmodern Adventure with Steve Best on technopolitics. Blogs, wikis — I have some articles on. Definitely I see a whole lot of positive things on the Internet that open politics up to progressive voices and young people. It’s really a democratization.
Me: In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman talks about the Age of Typography becoming the Age of Television. Are we now in the Age of the Internet? What are the traits of this age you see in play?
DK: I would say, generally, yes, we are in the Age of the Internet. The positive thing with the Internet vis-a-vis television is that the Internet is more participatory and it’s more bottom-up, or at least it has that potential. Television is a more passive, consumer thing. It’s corporate-controlled, more top-down, etc. But, television is still the major force for news, information, and politics. The big events happen on television.
Me: As the Internet surpasses a medium, it tends to swallow its traits. Given the rise of YouTube and online video in general, can there be an argument made for the Internet as a cultural extension of the Age of Television?
DK: There’s always some continuity between media, McLuhan argues, but I think here there’s also a big discontinuity as well. I mentioned some of the features of what’s new about the Internet — it’s more participatory, more democratic, more open, more active.
Me: I ask that question because, to me, the Internet is hurting typography and print in incredible ways financially. Do you see the Internet as being harmful to print in a similar way that Neil Postman saw television as being harmful to print?
DK: I see this differently here. I agree with those points, but I would make contrasting points. The Internet, to some extent, is a return to typography. We type. Literacy, reading, and writing are more important than ever before with the Internet. You have more to read and you have to read faster; you need to respond faster with email and blogging. But there’s also a downside to this. See, everything is dialectical. There are positives and negatives, continuities and discontinuities — the negative being that it’s a debased form of writing. You know, ‘How RU?’ with the ‘RU.’ Writing loses some of its richness and complexity, particularly with text messaging.
Me: Does this relate at all to the decline of newspaper readership?
DK: I’d say it’s television and the Internet. Newspapers are more and more a thing of the past. I mean, I’m a newspaper junkie. When I was a kid, I delivered the Washington Post for about five years. I’d read the post cover to cover, everyday. Then I moved to
Me: When you read about a news staff getting cut back or another study showing that more and more people are going online, how do you react to that?
DK: Well, it’s too bad that newspapers are declining. The LA Times has been just decimated with corporate takeovers and cutbacks. I’ve seen it, month by month. It’s still a relatively good newspaper.
Me: That’s one of the worst in the country as far as cutbacks.
DK: But, I follow entertainment closely and their entertainment section is one of the best in the country still.
Me: In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman described John Marshall as the preeminent Typographic Man — someone who was "detached, analytical, devoted to logic." He also described Ronald Reagan as the prototypical
DK: I would say you cannot personalize an Internet Man. It’s a generation and it’s a multiplicity of voices. There’s no one person that embodies the Internet as a mode of communication. I would say that Obama’s genius was as a television performer. Obviously he himself doesn’t do much on the Internet. I think his supporters used the Internet in brilliant and original ways, but I don’t associate Obama himself with the Internet as a mode of communication. He’s clearly a TV guy.
Me: So you see the campaign as more Internet-oriented whereas he himself—
DK: I see the campaign having a very strong Internet component, but I would say equally if not more so — with Obama himself — it was a television campaign. Everyday he looked great on TV. He looked great in the debates. He was cool, calm, and collected during all the fights with Hillary, and then during the campaign with McCain and the global economic crisis. He always kept his cool. And that was Kennedy. Kennedy was totally cool, and I’m using that in the [Marshall] McLuhan sense, as a media and TV figure. He just always looked in control, sharp, and on top of things. I think Obama is also cool in the hipster sense. He’s like a cool guy. His favorite TV show is “The Wire.” Someone told me they once bumped into him in a gym in
Me: It seems to me that the notion of being "on message" has become more and more important in elections. Politicians have become fearful of Macaca-style moments, which can be repeated infinitely on YouTube.
DK: And Obama had none of those moments, which is fairly astonishing.
Me: McCain’s campaign stopped doing the Straight Talk Express because of the fear of cameras. Is that healthy, that because the Internet brings this 24/7 aspect to politics, politicians have become afraid to speak without a script?
DK: Yes and no. I think McCain and Palin totally self-destructed because they were such fools. They ran such a ludicrous campaign with all the media coverage everywhere they went and YouTube. YouTube was big on this. From the positives like Obama Girl, to the negatives like Paris Hilton mocking McCain. So I see this as not bad. It exposes the truth in a sense. Obviously there is a downside; [YouTube] sensationalizes and decontextualizes. It has a reductive aspect.
Me: I'm interested in your comparison to Kennedy. It seems like another way of saying a politician is cool and in control is to say a politician is "on message." So this need to be constantly on message hasn’t necessarily amplified with the Internet.
DK: Reagan was famous for it. They had a message of the day and never went off it.
Monday, December 1, 2008
At my sister's suggestion, I went to Saint Cupcake, a Portland sensation. One coconut cream cupcake and two cups of coffee later, impossible was nothing.
I went for a brutal, uphill walk into Washington Park. The clouds hung low, hovering just above the (mostly clipped or dead) roses in the Rose Garden. It was ghostly and beautiful.
And here are a few of the other sites from Portland. I'm typing this as my plane is about to board to Denver and then back to the Midwest. It has been a good time.
Saturday, November 29, 2008
Five and a half years is a long time.
I remember walking around Portland in spring 2003, Either/Or on my headphones, thinking I'd never make it past 19. I remember the future feeling like something alien, something that didn't concern me. Something that other people worried about and looked forward to. Now I'm 23, listening to "Alameda" on YouTube for the 8th straight time, thinking I'll never make it past 24.
There's nothing like a person or place from the past to remind you of how little you've changed. Five and a half years is a long time, but some things just won't quit.
Friday, November 28, 2008
I'm sitting in wet boxers. On a Comfort Suite loveseat. In Portland. It is our first night in town. We went to a Rogue bar, which was really quite something. I got the hat from there. We tried to attend a Trailblazers game tonight, only to find out that the cheapest tickets left were $100-plus. About a half-hour ago, Sean and I hit up the Comfort Suites pool and hot tub, just before closing. Hence the clingy boxers. We also went to a Burger King across the street, where, I leading the way, we ordered steakhouse mushroom 'n' swiss burgers with veggie patties. The Burger King was completely empty, so I don't think the cashier minded the special order. Tomorrow, we head to the famous Powell's Books, as well as a number of breweries. Photos of Portland will follow.
After dinner, Sean and I went to Rachel Getting Married. I thought it was quite good, despite the severe case of motion sickness that struck me after five minutes of jittery camerawork. The director, Jonathan Demme, shot Married in the Dogma 95 tradition, a movement I've always liked in theory more than in practice (look, we use cinematic artifice to make the film look like a documentary. so natural! so real!)
The camerawork aimed for a psychological effect (intimacy) but instead got a physiological one (nausea). Assuming that you might be less prone to this side-effect than I am, I'd highly recommend Married. I loved how the film was political at heart, yet never once made any of its themes explicit. The marriage in Married, both the actual ceremony and the interracial union in particular, represents a liberal wet dream of multiculturalism and collectivism (notice how Demme incorporates video his actors shot into the final movie). So, in short, it's fun, devastating, and always engaging to watch Anne Hathaway self-destruct amidst the blue state Utopia.
So here are the discs I've picked up -- all used, all under 10 bucks -- on this trip.
Sonic Youth: Sister
Pavement: Wowee Zowee
Patti Smith: Easter
Charles Mingus: The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady
Iggy and the Stooges: Raw Power
Wire: Pink Flag
Brian Eno: Here Come the Warm Jets
I think I could go a month only listening to these records, easy.
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
As we drove away, we spent several seconds theorizing on what that meant. Probably something homophobic, we decided.
Anyway, here are some more photos. These include our drive from Seattle, as well as one choice shot of Chris rocking "The M."
Monday, November 24, 2008
At about 6:15am, Chris and I woke up to Sean's stammering voice: "Guys, my car got broke into. They shattered the back window."
Vancouver has been an interesting time.
The bandits made off with a number of electronic appliances, totaling about $1000 worth of Sean's stuff.
As the sun rose, we killed time in a coffee shop until Broco, a window repair shop, opened at 8:30am. We drove for quite a while to find a coffee shop with parking directly in front of it, so we could keep an eye on the car.
At Broco, we met a very interesting attendant. He referred to our encounter as getting "Wang Chung'd"; suggested that we kill the immediate hours at an "exotic ballet" club featuring "the extreme team"; expressed his disappointment with American strip clubs because the strippers "always had their underwear on"; riffed on his disgust of clean needle programs and drug addicts; and derided Canada's social welfare programs in general, joking "Hell, I bet you guys could get some welfare right now, and you're not even citizens."
Right now we are killing the hours until we can pick up the repaired car. We're considering asking this man for his thoughts on immigrants when we return, to bait him into another diatribe. Something like, "Man, there're a lot of people who don't speak English here. We're not used to that in Iowa. What's the deal?"
I'll post developments as they, well, develop.
Sunday, November 23, 2008
Here's our view from the Super 8 in Missoula.
We got stuck in mountain traffic in a standstill for about 20 minutes. To pass the time, we got out and took pictures.
Saturday, November 22, 2008
I am two days deep in a delirious, 12-day bro road trip (or bro'd trip) with two great friends, Chris and Sean. I will be updating this blog throughout our fun-ventures with photos and the occasional pithy insight. But, mostly, it'll just be photos like this:
Below you'll see Sean (seen above), Chris, and the sights of a 14-hour drive from Denver to Missoula, Montana.
Next up: Sleep. Then Vancouver.
Monday, November 17, 2008
In the link above, you'll see a just-published Newsweek column on Barack Obama's similarities to the anti-Christ. Obama-as-anti-Christ, of course, is a sister talking point to the Obama-as-Hitler and Obama-as-cult-leader memes.
Saturday, November 15, 2008
Of all the "conceptual scoop" stories from this past election cycle, none offended me more than the Obama-as-cult-leader meme.
Does it ring a bell?
If you recall, this narrative reached its zenith in February, when a slew of conservative and pro-Hillary columnists scrambled to frame Obama's popularity in negative terms. Faced with a candidate adored by millions, a candidate who inspired apathetic young people to become politically engaged, a candidate surging in the national polls against Hillary Clinton, these writers attempted the seemingly impossible: to use Obama's popularity against him.
In a 20-day span, stories exploiting the "cult meme" appeared in:
New York Times (Krugman)
New York Sun (Skenazy)
Washington Post (Krauthammer)
Los Angeles Times (Stein)
Boston Herald (Fitzgerald)
ABC News (Tapper)
Washington Times (Pruden)
This post focuses on that final name, Wesley Pruden. He's the editor emeritus of the Washington Times, a conservative daily with a circulation of about 93,775. Pruden has written a twice-weekly column titled "Pruden on Politics" for the Times since 1993.
From the Iowa caucuses on January 3 to Election Day on November 4, 2008, Pruden published 86 columns in the Washington Times, 84 of which mentioned Barack Obama, according to my search on LexisNexis. I read every single one of these columns -- don't ask me why -- and I can safely say that Wesley Pruden was one of the most ardent advocates of the Obama-as-cult-leader meme.
Here are the numbers:
- Number of stories in which Obama supporters are described as members of a "cult": 7.
- Number of references to Obama as "the Anointed One": 7.
- Number of references to Obama supporters as "glassy-eyed": 10.
- Number of references to Obama as "the American Idol": 11.
- Number of references to Obama as a "messiah": 16.
In his very last column before Election Day, Pruden went all out with an extended comparison between Obama and the Pied Piper. The comparison, he wrote, lied in both men's ability "to identify with children." Obama, thus, sends us impressionable young people into a trance, like the mythical Pied Piper. He elsewhere referred condescendingly to Obama supporters as "robots" and "crazies" who're duped into submission by their "orator Prince."
So what was the harm in all of this? Why have I spent so much time detailing Pruden's attempts to frame Obama as a cult leader and his supporters as cultists?
I have two reasons.
First, I believe writers like Pruden created an environment for this line of attack:
Pruden even linked Obama to Paris Hilton and Brittany Spears a full six months before John McCain's campaign.
Second, and more importantly, I found the Obama-as-cult-leader meme shockingly offensive. I worked as a new media intern for Obama's campaign in Iowa. I met dozens of young Obama supporters, college kids who took semesters off to work for the senator. According to Pruden and other right-wing columnists, we were a group of Kool-Aid-drinking drones. We worshipped Obama as though he were "born in a stable in Bethlehem," as though we were an impressionable mass of Obama Youth.
I can understand wanting to tear down a political opponent, but this line of attack was downright socially irresponsible. We are a country marked by low voter turnout among young people, no one can deny that. My generation, prior to this election, was defined by its apathy. So it is inexcusible for Pruden and other conservatives to have framed young political activism as fanatical and cult-like; their words did nothing but make apathy more appealing to people my age. Plenty of kids I knew internalized the Obama-as-cult-leader meme during this election -- some even cited it to justify their political detachment.
Pruden, more so than any mainstream writer I've come across, pushed this message mercilessly, week after week. Along with every other writer who propelled this opportunistic, destructive attack, he ought to be ashamed of himself.