At the starting post this week, a dandy review-essay from Dissent Magazine that manages in short order to countenance a pair of important books that consider feeling and affect in relation to politics, all the while also examining the way that feelings and economic ambition intersect in ways that harm our political interests and require careful deconstruction that appropriate narratives are capable of providing, an initial take-off that melds nicely with a trio of items that look at contemporary journalism in a way that the Dissent account would recognize as congruent with its analysis, in the first place a partial presentation of the speech about news now that the director of British Broadcasting Corporation gave upon her resignation, in the second place an overview from Columbia Journalism Review of the present pass that reader commentary faces in a time of desperately needed engagement and dangerously ubiquitous trolls, in the third place a piece from Poynter about how the Amazon outlet in Washington is insisting that its reporters write shorter material; all of which as a jumping off juncture fits in as well with such analyses as one from Nieman Reports about crowdfunding the news, another Columbia Journalism Review briefing about the declining job prospects for intrepid gumshoes who would work in the realm of digital reportage, and a final bit, again from Poynter, about the pending arrival of censorious ‘right-to-be-forgotten’ moves, primarily by corporate thugs who would remove documentation of predation from the web–the sum total of which then leads to a New York Times “Room for Debate” portal that looks for ways to conduct useful and respectful conversations about some of the insane controversies that bedevil humankind, as well as causing readers to ponder a recent Benton.org gateway to a bizarre data-retrieval triumvirate, in the form of the World Bank, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and Facebook; or to consider another Benton set of citations about how librarians are fighting FBI overreach, a weekly aggregation that is possible to cap sweetly with the Gutenberg citation that leads to Herman Melville’s story about the prototypically modern man, “Bartleby the Scrivener,” and a ‘nerdy’ grammarians entry about “indirect construction” that Contributoria made available before it came to pieces, the complete total of which will provide food for thought and potential guidelines for action for scrappy scribes and stalwart citizens alike in the days to come: “The primacy of feelings in our economy has given rise to a new field of scholarly inquiry. ‘Affect studies’ refers to humanistic and social-scientific investigations of the ways that feelings are generated, experienced, and interpreted. An affect is a particular kind of feeling, one distinct from an emotion. For academics in the field, affects are feelings that reside not in individual people but in social groups, institutions, or physical spaces. They’re not personal property; rather, they belong to a social body or to a collective experience. Individuals who participate in social life are always responding to these affects, sometimes by sharing a dominant affect, sometimes by rejecting it. If you work in academia, for example, you may feel anxious because the corporate university is pervaded by free-floating anxiety—you imbibe the affect that the institution generates. Drawing on queer theory and feminist theory, scholars interested in affect ask us to probe the negative feelings we experience on a daily basis—depressed, anxious, fearful—to see how they might reveal something about our political and economic circumstances.
Two new books examine the relationship between affect and politics. Lee Konstantinou’s Cool Characters: Irony and American Fiction investigates the cultural connection between disaffection and political subversion. He focuses on irony, which, he argues, is always a political feeling. His book demonstrates how, from the midcentury to the present, American literature and culture moved away from irony and embraced a form of sincerity. We now live in a ‘postironic’ moment, a time when irony is no longer cool. Instead, it’s cool—even radical—to love, believe, and hope. Rachel Greenwald Smith’s Affect and American Literature in the Age of Neoliberalism approaches affect and politics from a different angle. Her study focuses on the way readers respond affectively to literature. Discouraging readers from identifying too much with literary characters, she draws attention to what she calls ‘impersonal feelings:’ feelings that exist not in people, or in characters, but in books themselves. Untethered from individuals, such feelings thwart the market logic of neoliberalism and, perhaps, make collective action possible.
Likewise, the Chicago-based Feel Tank—an institution founded by activists, academics, and artists—has offered the following slogan: ‘Depressed? It Might be Political!’ Liberation will come, these thinkers suggest, when we look away from feeling individuals and towards social feelings. Greenwald Smith, too, wants us to stop privileging the feelings of specific individuals. Her book is, fundamentally, an argument against empathy—more specifically, the empathy readers feel for literary characters. She advises readers to stop seeking out books that move them, or searching for characters to whom they can relate. Instead, she encourages readers to pick up books that seem cold, cerebral, or impersonal. These are the books that will generate productive discomfort; they’ll force readers to reflect and, maybe, to make change.
But there’s a problem with the way Greenwald Smith describes American life under neoliberalism. For her, contemporary life is defined by increased freedom as well as increased privatization. The neoliberal individual is an ‘entrepreneurial actor,’ someone whose daily life is defined by increased, dizzying freedom and an ever-proliferating bevy of consumption choices: ‘we can choose among three different private insurers; six different charter schools; eighteen different espresso drinks; four different student loan providers; organic bananas or free trade; natural gas or oil; twelve blockbuster films.’ But these experiences only pertain to one segment of American society—those who are insured, employed, and empowered with disposable income. For many, neoliberalism is about the constriction of choice and the diminishment of freedoms. It’s not about espresso drinks or free trade bananas but about prison cells, falling wages, occupying armies, and poisoned water. These problems won’t be solved by reading cerebral books.
(In Cool Characters), Konstantinou has a more concrete idea about what it means to engage in politically revolutionary action. (A hint: it involves organizing.) But for him, the more interesting question is why, in the postwar United States, certain creative and literary communities understood displays of feelings or attitudes as political acts. Drawing on literary and cultural history, he focuses on the life and afterlife of irony. For him, irony is not just a feature of good literature but a disposition, an attitude, an ethos. Over the last fifty years, irony has migrated from the margins of American life to the center; as a result, writers and thinkers have been forced to adopt different attitudes in order to criticize the political and cultural mainstream. Showing us how we got from bohemia to the Believer, Konstantinou examines four character types who relate to irony in some way. The midcentury hipster and the 1970s punk were ironists: they belonged to bohemian subcultures that maintained a critical distance from the mainstream. Two contemporary figures are ‘postironic;’ they’ve moved beyond irony and embraced an ethic of sincerity. They are the ‘believer,’ which he describes as ‘a newly earnest countercultural figure’ modeled on David Foster Wallace, and the ‘coolhunter,’ a type of trend forecaster. In an epilogue, Konstantinou addresses the figure of the ‘occupier,’ a different kind of hipster from the hipster of the midcentury, who marries irony and sincerity in a new way.”—Dissent
How things have changed. The Cold War is a distant memory and some comfortable certainties have gone. Political consensus is hard to find. The public service broadcasters who once ruled the roost now have their backs to the wall as they face an onslaught of competition. And as journalists we live in the age of instant news and digital recording. Thanks to digital technology, we can report more, and more easily, from nearly every corner of the world.
To be frank, I worry about the direction in which we’re going. By ‘we,’ by the way, I mean my profession, our profession – the media generally – not the BBC in particular. It seems to me that the media can sometimes rush very fast in order to stand still. Some of this is inherent in a particular medium. Television news, for example, tends to see things in shards. It reports quickly and fluently but with limited time and space, before moving on to the next thing. The context it can give is necessarily foreshortened by these demands. The viewer, less obsessed by world events than we are, can understandably tune in and out of stories from time to time without catching up on intervening developments. Do we, the media, do enough today, to explain and explore? Or are we too busy moving on to the next thing, in thrall to the pace of news?
(Radio, as a ‘speech medium’ is less driven by speed and the ‘next thing.’) But however we distribute our journalism, it does not exist in a vacuum. All media outlets, whatever platform they are on, and whether they are public service or commercial, are fighting for attention in a new world order. On the internet, so-called ‘clickbait’ is often dangled to hook a reader in: broadly, that means content of a sensational or provocative nature, to draw visitors to a particular web page. The aim is to generate online advertising revenue, frequently at the expense of quality or accuracy.
(Problems like the refugee crisis are so huge, and with such deep roots, that media today barely scratch their surfaces). In our search for answers to a problem which appears if not intractable then complex, is the speed of the media’s technology – and the politicians’ willing participation in the 24/7 news cycle – obscuring rather than illuminating the issues? Are we simplifying the arguments if only by default, by not investigating them fully, or by appealing to an emotional response rather than an explanatory one? Let me go back in time. The man who shook up the BBC more than any other in my experience was John Birt who was Director General between 1992 and 2000. I was a rather challenging young editor when he took over and can tell you that he was at the time an enormously controversial figure – forcing radical change on an organisation which resisted him almost every step of the way.
He made us save 30 per cent of our budgets to fund his new digital strategy for TV and radio services and the BBC’s website. It did not make him popular. Yet today the BBC still benefits from his farsighted digital strategy and I am pleased to say that a new generation of eager young technologists and journalists in the BBC rightly revere him.”—The Independent
How did we get here (to a pass typified by vitriol and slander and threatened mayhem)? The site I started in 1999, Beliefnet, was one of the first to run reader comments attached to articles rather than in a separate ‘forum’ area, as many sites did then. When we first offered this feature, it was met with some concern from our staff and outside writers. How would we get people to write for us if the authors knew they’d be subjected to immediate, in-their-face criticism? Wouldn’t it dilute our authority to have people publicly declaring that our prose was shoddy or, since we were a religion site, an abomination unto the Lord?
But we also operated under the assumption that online community didn’t just happen; it had to be cultivated. I don’t just mean ‘policing.’ Our community staffers (as well as those at other quality websites) were part police, part social workers, and part cruise directors, guiding the conversation, suggesting topics, and encouraging productive behavior. It was fairly expensive and labor intensive. At one point, we had four paid staff and 80 volunteers just to moderate comments and encourage civil discussion. The results were spectacular: vivid, detailed personal testimonials and surprisingly reasoned polemics about religion. It was early proof that great content could be created by readers themselves.
Good community managers understand troll psychology. For instance, we found that if you banned a user, he’d just come back with a new name, angrier than ever. Our staff ingeniously decided that instead of ejecting them, we would send them to special message boards where they could yell at each other as much as they wanted. We called these areas ‘dialogue and debate’ boards. Sometimes they spurred fascinating discussions; at other times, they acted as rubber rooms for the unhinged. By segregating such users, we helped other areas of the site—such as our online support groups—feel safer. The fulminators became like pigs rolling around in their own vitriol.
(Fighting costs, management turned to technology and algorithms, believing that this would work ‘even better’). Except it didn’t. Instead of using the new tools and algorithms to better empower community managers, some news sites cut back on the number of moderators to save money. Perhaps they were susceptible to wishful thinking about the wisdom of crowds because it aligned with their desire to cut costs. Financially, message boards were considered low-revenue areas because they could not attract blue-chip advertisers (who were nervous about appearing amidst unregulated chatter). So it became hard to justify putting more staff resources into maintaining them. Such non-moderation also could be rationalized as being more in sync with the freedom-of-speech ethos of the internet. But too often, with the cops and cruise directors gone, the trolls have taken over.”—Columbia Journalism Review
(Now stateside), I became aware of the recent surge in such requests six weeks ago when Zach Ryall, digital managing editor of the Austin American-Statesman called Poynter asking if we knew of an ethics code providing guidance. ‘This is getting scary,’ Ryall told me. ‘We are responding to more and more of these…And when I checked with my colleagues at other Cox papers, I found they are too.’ Some of the callers are courteous, others belligerent, Ryall continued, but the concerns stick to several common themes.
Ryall and others alerted me to a compromise solution — a story can remain in the paper’s archives, but the link to Google broken. However Ryall agreed with me that in practical terms the effect may be three-quarters of the way to unpublishing. The matter of developing a new policy remains open at the Statesman, Ryall told me later. Meanwhile, stories are taken down only under unusual circumstances — ‘if we unknowingly endangered somebody or did not have permission to use information or received it improperly.’
The issue surfaced at the ASNE-APME convention earlier this month in a panel on Freedom Information issues. Nancy Barnes, editor of the Houston Chronicle, said that she and other editors are being ‘besieged’ by requests to delink. Her rule of thumb had been to say ‘we don’t do that,’ but now she is making decisions on a case-by-case basis.
(Closer to Poynter’s home base, the Tampa Tribune cut the tie to an article about a ‘naked maid’ service). Similarly, Barnes (in Houston) told me that she was sympathetic to a request from a young woman who had been reported as a teen runaway but now has turned things around and is going to college. ‘This is something editors are going to be dealing with more and more,’ Barnes said, and both editorial judgment and legal considerations need to factor in. (A hundred fifty miles West in Austin), Ryall said that though delinking ‘seems a naturally obliging thing to do,’ he remains reluctant. One persistent reader wants a story removed reporting that he stabbed someone at a party (who later died). The man was arrested but not convicted. Even so, Ryall said, ‘I can’t see it — that’s plenty serious.’ None of the editors I spoke with had a clear sense of what is behind the surge of requests. After all, the Internet and Google searches have been around for a while. The EU ruling could have raised awareness and privacy concerns seem to grow by the year. Also it is easy to find (with a Google search) advice or even a service for a fee to get an article removed.”—Poynter
Month after month on Contributoria, daily or even hourly at Guardian Media and other such denizens of ‘constant comment’ on the state of the world, reporters are offering views, facts, analyses, and other ways of wrapping experience. Writers do their work in ways that permit readers to unfold these textual packages so as to increase understanding, evoke reflection, or simply enjoy themselves as they play language games with a given scribe.
Even were this process to continue into an infinite future, in which countless new actors put their fingers on innumerable new keyboards, every article that appeared throughout this ongoing, never-ending festival of meaning would likely be unique. Nothing, except for random plagiarism, would necessarily ever repeat any past piece’s precise wording or intonation.
Nevertheless, every author’s particular approach to stringing words together will follow some pattern. A few wordsmiths quite consciously make such choices of style and tone. More commonly, perhaps, a writer’s methods are less reflective than reflexive. Looming deadlines, beckoning breadlines, and hoped-for headlines can make most thinking about usage and style seem to threaten a paralysis of analysis.
The Happy Union Grammar Nerd has launched this series with a triptych about turns of phrase that we know, technically, as passive voice. Sentences that express such usage are, to coin a phrase, as common as corn, though the G.N. asserts that they are altogether absent in his pages.
The next three installments will be considering something that quite likely appears at least as frequently as passive voice does in our compilations. T echnically, these represent instances of inverted sentences, in what many grammarians term expletive construction. The Grammar Nerd terms this specific iteration of inversion, or ‘expletion’ as indirect construction, and he avoids such wording as obsessively as he forswears, like the plague as it were, passive usage.
If anyone has perused each of these first H.U.G.N. episodes, he will have noticed or she will recall that the Grammar Nerd proffered a simple rubric to initiate this series. This template recommends a set of choices:#1—Death to the Passive Voice;
#2—Death to the Second Person;
#3—Death to Indirect Construction.
The balance of this fourth item, and the two essays that will follow in March and April, examine the third directive in this series, advancing the Grammar Nerd’s contention that ‘Death to Indirect Construction’ makes good sense.”—Contributoria