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The University of Edinburgh School of Arts, Culture and Environment Master of Science in Digital Media and Culture Dissertation August 2009, Edinburgh

This work was possible thanks to The University of Edinburgh International Masters Scholarship, Secretaría de Educación Pública (Becas), and student support provided by the Fund for Human Resource Development of Banco de México.

B.O.’s Bow: fetching for audiences in the digital age

Pablo Martinez-Zarate

Published Online by Menuma Media [http://menumamedia.net]


B[arack]. O[bama].’s Bow: fetching for audiences in the digital age * Contents * Introduction: Media and the Public Space * Chapter 1: The chiselling of a Political Star * Chapter 2: Cartographies of the Theatre of Power * Chapter 3: Post-Theatre Meal: Reflexiveness, mediation, and political reality * CODA: Modulating Media, Information Literacy

* Quoted References

* 2


Introduction: Media and the Public Space Western democracies depend on political representation. The Latin expression persona non vera sed repraesentata (not the person itself but a represented person), is a tenet of contemporary governments, inherited from early years of political thought. When we talk about representation, we are bound to refer to those mediums of expression that connect citizens and governments, the symbolic bridges between represented and representatives, or those communication channels available for debating “public affairs”. Therefore, the concept of a republic, or res publica (literally the ‘public object-thing’ or ‘public affairs’), conveys a communications infrastructure or media-sphere, which suggests it impossible to imagine a mute, disconnected society, governed beyond transactional interaction. “The question of the public is inseparable from that of the media. It is in the media – commonly understood as television, film, newspapers, radio, film, books, and the like – that the public is made public. From this point of view, the question then becomes that of the mechanisms of media representation, the means by which the media ‘construct’ their audiences even as they construct the world those audiences are perceiving” (Koch, 2005: 747).

It follows that the media, from oral to digital communication technologies, are indispensable tools for the imagining and realisation of a common society. This implies that artificial overpasses must be built between governors and governed, and that “the natural plane and the artificial plane of optical and political order had to be seen as one, simultaneously, without glass or distortion” (Schaffer, 2005: 202). The republic, then, implies an artificial shaping of a ‘common’ environment, a social imaginary based on a consensual plane of common existence, a sometimes implicit pact between the members of a society. “The republic is a redoubling of the public, a constitution of the public in the public. On the one hand, then, the public is given as both as the empirical expression of past acts, past arrangements; on the other, it functions as a sign, a model constructed in order to be able to gauge the future consequences of our present acts. The public embodies in this way a double instability, for it is at once the expression of a civil order that it first makes possible and of a disorder stemming from a future that is constantly impinging on it. This instability is the reason why the notion of constitution should be carefully separated from that of construction, which implies a linear causality and the institution of autonomy” (Koch, 2005: 749-750).

This reflexive nature of the res publica is indispensable for the present discussion. Firstly, because it implies a historical background shading most of our actions within a public environment, something analogous to the ‘athmosphere of the already spoken’ proposed by Bakhtin when analysing conversational encounters (see Bakhtin, 1981). The dialogical nature of the construction of ‘public affairs’ poses an agonistic arena as the stage for social relationships, which brings us to the next point, that is, the instability referred by Koch in the previous quote. We could say, following Deleuze and Guattari, that legitimate social strata are constantly challenged by a rhizomatic impetus for social reformation (see Deleuze, 1980). 3


As Latour declares, “it’s because we ourselves are so divided by so many contradictory attachments that we have to assemble” (Latour, 2005: 24). Consequently, the public sphere emerges from this perpetual strive between legitimate structures and social unconformity, between official discourses and subversive voices, between stagnation and revolution. If we accept that “to assemble is one thing; to represent to the eyes and ears of those assembled what is at stake is another” (Latour, 2005: 18), the battlegrounds for this symbolic wars are the media. But, what is the configuration of this contention field? We might declare that the question of the public, its social configuration, rises issues of collective organisation under specific time-space frameworks, and that media play a fundamental role in the construction of this imaginary realm (see Gitelman, 2006). The “essence of the written and representational media is that they allow users to manipulate the temporal axis thanks to which diachronic sequences can be transformed into synchronic images” (Sloterdijk, 2005: 949). Media, for example slowing language down in the case of the written word, are therefore a matter of time, transforming the spatial connections occurring within the frontiers of their domain. The Greek agora depended on the immediate presence of an audience for the communication and debating of civic matters, and the resonance of these assemblies were diachronic, that is, not simultaneous to the initial source containing the message. The boundaries of the agora have suffered transformations as technological innovations enhanced the means of expression. Media, from the written word on to its invasion of other technological domains concluding today in digital technologies, were therefore cornerstones for the consolidation of the res publica as a political model of social organisation. “One must accept the idea that the art of writing (that is, of creating a reservoir or pool of language) is the cultural technique that has contributed the most to the emergence of democracy. By giving the spoken word a spatial presence, it forces even the most fleeting thing in the world to tarry with us a while longer than would be possible in the purely oral world. The recorded or petrified world can then be repeated, and in this way new mental objects can be brought to life – of particular significance among them are, on the one hand, scholarly theorems and, on the other, political opinion. I would now claim that the art of the polis building rests on expansions of this media factor. If the polis was the first historical answer to the question of how to make things public, then the key means to render political objects public is surely the citizens’ ability to capture the ‘things’ for posterity. The res publica arises from this act of capturing objects” (Sloterdijk, 2005: 949).

According to Ray Kurzweil, humans are characterised by the ability to apply accumulated knowledge to the confection of tools (Kurzweil, 1999). For example, what differences a beaver’s dam and those human constructions of the sort is the human’s ability to base further fabrications on previous experiences, and therefore sophisticate their infrastructure. This is why the author states that technology is ‘evolution by other means’, or an ‘evolution above evolution’. When talking about the polis, or the political assemblies, we have to recognise that our ability to register culture, what Attali when talking about the emergence of the music records calls ‘the stockpiling of culture’ (Attali, 1977), is at least partly responsible for reshaping political behaviour over the 4


decades. Sloterdijk’s suggestion that manipulating the public objects, rendering them public, and if as mentioned above the public cannot be understood without media, directs us then towards issues of appropriation, and therefore, media literacy. So far, as an introductory note we have tried to establish the relationship between communication media and public affairs. This dissertation is concerned with that ‘mediated’ dialogic relationship held between citizens and governments, taking Barack Obama’s campaign and first months in administration as a main case study. The first chapter comprises an analysis of the carving of the public image of the ‘political star’, and attempts to portray Obama’s image based on some imagery surrounding the politician. The objective of this first trail is to delineate the diverse forces that play a role in contemporary shaping of political reputation. The second chapter encompasses an analysis of ‘the theatre of power’, construing a metaphorical juxtaposition of theatrical notions with political ones, in order to map a thorough cartography of the contemporary layout of public space. Finally, the third chapter incurs into the opportunities and perils of ‘digital democracies’, tracing utopian and dystopian reverberations surrounding coeval technoculture. A conclusory note is also included, exploring possible paths towards a fertile relationship with technological media for ‘making things public’, or more specifically, a brief commentary towards a possible media literacy programme. Today, “living in a world in which the computer is considered the key medium means accepting that digital codes have become the ineluctable condition for how we experience ourselves and the world” (Fürstner, 2005: 898). This involvement with technologically mediated interaction has affected the way we live our daily lives. “Strangely enough, we have changed time so completely that we have shifted from the time of Time to the time of Simultaneity. Nothing, it seems, accepts to simply reside in the past, and no one feels intimidated any more by the adjectives ‘irrational’, ‘backward’ or ‘archaic’. Time, the bygone time of cataclysmic substitution, has suddenly become something that neither the Left nor the Right seems to have been fully prepared to encounter: a monstrous time, the time of cohabitation. Everything has become contemporary” (Latour, 2005: 40).

The web represents time (Gitelman, 2006). Transformations in our experience of time and space, this ‘pan-contemporariness’, our perpetual surveillance of worldwide events, the transposition of public and private spheres, cannot be understood without an incursion into the mechanisms for ‘making things public’, and the private appropriation of the ‘matters’ of the res publica. In a world where life can hardly be appraised autonomously from communication devices, where both love and war are endowed with technological dependency, how are our desires and fears affected by our inter-plugged, cyborgian, existence?

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Chapter 1: The chiselling of a Political Star

Figure 1. Obama “Got Hope?” and Fairey’s famous ‘Hope Poster’ printouts in a Brooklyn window. February 2009.

An hypothetic morning in Barack Obama’s routine. Imagine him shaving in front of a mirror. He is one of the most famous human beings on the planet, his words resonate beyond the frontiers of his own imagination, and his decisions affect the lives of millions of people, including those who escape his governance. What comes to his mind when, once the shaving foam has disappeared, his face glistens in the crystal replica? Is he aware of the echo that his own image has in the world? Can a person project itself in such a manner, as to imagine its presence multiplying mechanically, electronically, and digitally along the acres of public representation?

Beyond seeking for an

answer, I am positive that he should be more conscious of his own image than most ordinary people. Not to mention that he has dozens of people working for him, from an image consultant and campaign manager, to a communications advisor, speech writer and fashion assistant. Media have always been related to the sculpting of the public image of individuals, specially those in power positions. For obvious reasons, especially in regimes based in representation, political figures are subject to the public eye. Their success or failure depends, at least partly, in the way they manage their public image. This is not exclusive of our times. Even before the consolidation of the printing press, which could be understood as the utmost mediatic contribution to the expansion of the public sphere, public presentation of individuals has been bonded to the administration of symbolic resources. In this line of thought it is not surprising to find that there exist etymological couplings between ‘person’ and ‘mask’, being that in latin “persona” stands for the role played by an actor on stage (see Goffman, 1967).


This theatrical significance of public presentation of individuals, or the quotidian disclosure of personality mediated through symbolic strategies, acquires a particular resonance when talking about political figures. The ancient Greek concept of fame (φαµε) can draw some insights on the matter. Firstly, because it suggests a theatrical aspect of political life, which will be developed in detail during the second chapter. Secondly, because it refers to the public shaping of an individual figure. In this sense, reputation emerges from the collective recreation of an individual figure. If we started with the hypothetical stance of Obama in front of the mirror, we could extend the image onto a metaphorical one. This means suggesting that the image of Obama is not only that reflected in the looking glass, but this specific looking glass is also conformed by all those symbolic burdens bestowed upon the figure of Obama by the public which has appropriated his image throughout his political career, his campaigning and also the brief period as Commander in Chief. “What makes it so difficult to stare straight at the Gorgonian face of politics is that we seem to delight in adding to it some even more distorting traits. Not happy with Frankenstein, we want to hybridize it with Quasimodo” (Latour, 2005: 29).

This suggestion by Latour is of crucial importance for our discussion. What the author might try to establish is that our politicians, and politics itself, is overcharged with interpretation and symbolic carving. Under his perspective, the rain of messages surrounding our digital environments overcharge the political realm, turning its protagonists into ctonic, underworld beasts, ready to bewilder those who have the courage of affronting them straight to the eyes. But this is also an interesting analogy, since while comparing it to Medusa, the encounter with the face of politics, even on a world overpopulated with communication channels, silences those knights and heroes who dare to face it. Furthermore, Latour suggests a hydra-like creature, a sort of ‘bric-a-brac’ creation encompassing a variety of sources of meaning. This understanding bonds the political image with Francis Galton’s composite photographs. His technique constituted in shooting several images over one single photographic plate, in order to generate a generalised image, or as he called it, a ‘type’ portrait. “[E]nables to obtain with mechanical precision a generalised picture; one that represents no man in particular, but portrays an imaginary figure possessing the average features of any given group of men. These ideas faces have a surprising air of reality. Nobody who glanced at one of them for the first time, would doubt its being the likeness of a living person, yet, as I have said, it is no such thing; it is the portrait of a type and not of an individual” (Galton, 1879: 132-133).

This types could easily be taken as an epitome of political representation. The ‘imaginary’ nature of this images suggest that, in the world of metaphor, when Obama stares at the mirror he is not looking exactly as himself, but also at the projections made by millions of Americans and people from around the world of his own self, even if it is impossible for him to realise the complexity of such phenomena. This hybridisation of political representation is not recent. One of the most known images of hybrid presentation of politicians is that of Hobbe’s Leviathan (see Figure 2). Following Gamboni, 7


“being unaccountable to those who have abdicated their wills in his favour once and for all, Hobbes’ sovereign is closer to representation of a controlled delegation of agency in the symbolical and visual sense that in the political one” (Gamboni, 2005: 165). What this means is that when talking about the res publica we do not imply an actual political distribution of responsibility, but mostly a figurative consensus, based mainly upon symbolical management of the political image.

Figure 2. Hobbes’ Leviathan. Image url:

Gamboni states that composite imagery, “by organizing the visual co-existence of individual elements and the unit subsuming them, it allows thematization of their reciprocal relationships” (Gamboni, 2005: 163). This issue poses composites, hence, as a strong metaphor for political representation. Let us quote other examples of composite depiction of political figures before returning to Obama’s case. This will allow a deeper understanding of the metonymical quality of political representation, and the philosophical implications of the persona non vera sed repraesentata. Artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s paintings are well known as examples of images whose subject is composed through the assemblage of smaller elements. This plethora of units gathered to give shape to a wider subject is well represented in his flora portrait of Rudolf II (see Figure 3). The 8


rendering of a politician in this manner is not only an aesthetic achievement, but also a symbolic token for what that figures stands for. In this case, the lordly representation alludes to the figure of Vertumnus, the Roman god of seasons. From these characteristics we could infer that Rudolf II is identified with fertility and abundance, as well as a godly figure towards whom the artist (either coercively or voluntarily) displayed some respect.

Figure 3. Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s portrait of Rudolf II as the Vertumnus, the Roman god of seasons.

The caricaturesque character of the painting also suggests a parody-like sentiment by the artist. In this case, composite imagining has also been used as a political weapon towards spurious, illegitimate or unjust regimes. The case of Arcimboldo’s contrast with further use of political caricature to denounce social unconformity, specially because of the aesthetic stature of painting in contrast with caricature. Normally, artists either contest or support the official system of production of meaning, but almost invariably, beyond the content of their expression, the production of form depends on the available technologies in order to coin and diffuse a message. That is why “under totalitarian regimes, art invariably stagnates or degenerates” (Berneri, 1950: 31), since instead of responding to the free will and creative impetus of the artist, the produced pieces depend entirely on the whimsical dictation of a ruler and the systematic control of the mediums of production. This situation is not exclusive from the Renaissance and Enlightenment, where the artist held a submissive relationship with their patrons. An interesting case of how artistic discourses can challenge a totalitarian regime is that of Cuba, especially during the 1980’s and 1990’s. Another example of beautiful aesthetic products of authoritarian regimes can be found in Olympia, Leni Riefenstahl’s Berlin Olympic Games film 9


commended by Hitler. This last case, beyond its artistic value, is only a snapshot of Hitler’s propaganda machine, and his use of media for architecting social space and his own public image, in which the figure of Goebbels is well known. An up-to-date version of Riefenstahl’s work is that of Chinese film-director Zhang Yimou’s, who was in charge of the visual part of Beijing 2008 Olympic Games inaugural transmission. It does not surprises us that media internationalisation in China has not freed from totalitarian impositions, and information control mechanisms designed by the state lie at the core of Chinese actual power system. Centuries before, with the advent of the printing press, and specifically the consolidation of newspapers at the end of the 18th century, the political cartoon entered the scene as one of the most effective dissident reactions towards the establishment. As stated by Gamboni, “the low cultural status of caricature allowed for a greater artistic and political freedom, so that it became one of the most inventive arenas of public discourse” (Gamboni, 2005: 173). In an interview held with game designer Gonzalo Frasca1 , he assured me that even if caricature may be considered ‘not serious’, it bears a powerful position for decrying political dissidence and might make a statement profound as a political article, since above the content itself, the format might aid building a solid identification with the audience through a humorous flaring of the topic in question. Similar effects may be traced in political satires and comedy approaches to politics, from Aristophanes to South Park. During the French Revolution, in tandem with the popularisation of political caricatures, the emergence of ‘tribune’ journalism supported the consolidation of newspapers as the arena where contention against the legitimate and oppressive discourses was to be presented (see Retat, 1995). It could be said, then, that the fame (φαµε) or reputation of the political figure is prone to be threatened by the use of existent media, and that the major boost of the horizons of political imagery came with the advent of the printing press, which was complemented with further technological developments that allowed the consolidation of electronic and digital media as fundamental vectors of the public imaging of politicians from the XX century onwards. The “printed image was always a public one” (Pon, 2005: 686). Pon analyses the popularity of Raphael in XVIth century art, attributing a fundamental importance to print when talking about his social stance. “The representative publicity surrounding the pope’s fresco, played out entirely within the confines of the papal palace and focuses on the figure of Julius II, gave way to a broader public, both within and beyond the court. That new public, brought together by print, established Raphael’s place in the history of sixteenth-century art” (Pon, 2005: 693).

As Gabriel Tarde states, the real birth of the ‘public’ came with print, and “as such began to assume a definite form under Louis XIV” (Tarde, 1901: 279). For the French author, the public is “a purely spiritual collectivity, a dispersion of individuals who are physically separated and whose cohesion is entirely mental” (Tarde, 1901: 277). The audience, which in the agora or the theatre or the coliseum is constrained to the physical location of the spectacle or social event, in the printing age brought a 1

http://www.ludology.org 10


diaspora of the readers throughout territories, reconfiguring the geography of public space into ‘populations of publics’ with a position bonded to the dispersion of production of human expression. The Ellis Island Museum, New York, holds a piece, proper of consolidated printed culture and prior to the electronic turning point in media, that is, created during the shift of the XIX and the XX centuries, that represents a perfect example of the printing facet of political imagery, which on top of this is presented as a composite image. Cover of Judge magazine on November 26th, 1898, Grant Hamilton’s depiction of Uncle Sam is a perfect example of the how the ‘face of politics’ can be understood as a complex of diverse and contrastive elements. With his Uncle Sam is a Man of Strong Features, Hamilton states an interbred origin of the American Nation, since his bust of Uncle Sam is composed by human figures from different nationalities, a direct statement towards American political identity. Additionally, it represents a caricaturesque, comedic approach towards delicate and important political issues.

Figure 4. Grant Hamilton, Uncle Sam is a Man of Strong Features, Ellis Island Museum, New York. cover of Judge, 35, 893, November 26, 1898.

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Figure 5. Mole & Thomas, Woodrow Wilson (21, 000 officers and Men, Camp Sherman, Chillicothe, Ohio), 1938, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Further examples of this diversification and complexity of the political identity, not only through the imaginary figure of Uncle Sam, but through real figures, can be found in the work of American artists Mole & Thomas. Their image of President Woodrow Wilson, a photograph of a portrait of the statesman composed by 21, 000 individuals, is a perfect paragon of an inter-wars period version of Hobbes’ Leviathan (see Figure 5), specially since the people involved included officers, and it was taken within the grounds of a military camp. One of the most recent versions of composite imagery comes about with the innovative approach to digital processing of visual data developed in 1995 by Robert Silvers, when he was still a student at the MIT Media Lab. His “photomosaic” technology has become a common-place in digital imaging, and of course, there is more than one version of Obama (see Figure 6). Composite imagery curiously parallels one of Obama’s catchy phrases, “Out of many, we are one”. This idea summarises our argument on the representational characteristics of democracies and political identity. Photographer Anne Savage’s mosaic is composed with over 5000 portraits of people who attended Obama’s meetings around America. As the other examples quoted before, this composite of Obama conveys a strong symbolical relationship to the hybrid nature of representatives, who occupy a place in the government heralding the voice of thousands of invisible people who ‘speak through the tongue of the elected’.

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Figure 6. Anne Savage Obama photomosaic. Made by the photographers with portraits of individuals who attended the Obama rallies she covered.

Obama is one of the most popular political figures of the last decades, if not the utmost. As a New York Times journalist stated: “perhaps not since John F. Kennedy, whose dusty portraits can still be seen in kitchens and barbershops and alongside the antique beer cans at bars like Manuel’s Tavern in Atlanta, has a presidency so fanned the flames of painterly ardour among hobbyist and professional artists”2 . He has been subject of a wide variety of representations, from murals to nanoscale sculptures (see Figure 8), and the artistic inspiration bolstered by Obama’s figure is daunting. For our current discussion I will quote a couple of images before jumping to the paramount depiction of Obama, Shepard Fairey’s Hope poster (see Figure 9), which as this last one, also draw some importance on Obama’s discourse, and not only his image. First, Change, piece of sculptor Andy Magee consisting of a portrait of Barack Obama out of American coins with the faces of Lincoln, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Washington. The composition suggests not only a historical multiple-identity, but also a direct relationship to both the economic crisis and a language game involving Obama’s discourse on change (see Figure 7). The other image is that subtly carved by John Hart, Sameh Tawfick, Michael De Volder, and Will Walker, from Nanobliss3, an art collective which works with nanomaterials. During Obama’s campaign and the first days of the presidency they produced a series of nanoscale sculptures of Barack Obama. The

2

Kennedy, R. (May 30, 2009). “Obama’s Face (That’s Him?) Rules the Web”. The New York Times. Consulted online the 30th of May 2009, url: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/31/arts/design/31pain.html?_r=1&th&emc=th

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http://www.nanobliss.com/ 13


one quoted here symbolises an American flag that instead of stars has the faces of Barack Obama (see Figure 8)4.

Figure 7. Change, Andy Magee. Retrieved online, url: http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3189/3093749145_f6043fdcf7.jpg

Figure 8. Nanobama Flag, fragment. Nanobliss team. Retrieved online, url: http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3239/2991722777_e45aa76082.jpg?v=0

4 For a wide array of images on Barack Obama, one can visit http://obamaartreport.com, http://artofobama.com or http://badpaintingsofbarackobama.com. 14


The synechoque of the American Nation on one single face, that of their leader embodied in this last piece, contains a strong resonance of the nature of the political identity of contemporary statesmen. That is, today, not only holding an important position in the public sphere, the members of the political elite are raised to the position of a star (either praised or despised), and in the case of Obama, even an Idol – a true ‘American Idol’. This reverberations have to do with the visibility of their image, and the horizons of his own public representation. That mirror which served as a starting point for this chapter obtains a colossal dimension when located in a world where not only official or mainstream media play a role in transmitting and manipulating the public image of an individual, but also personalised media and empowered audiences, or users, have the abilities and technology to easily reuse and retransmit interfered versions of the original body of reflection, affecting as well the ‘anatomical’ characteristics of the individual facing the looking glass.

Figure 9. Shepard Fairey, ‘Obama Hope’ poster.

Obama’s campaign image was especially significant in this sense, and also expands the aforementioned ‘change’ element of his discourse. Shepard Fairey is a street artist who was key to the boosting of Obama’s popularity. Normally, street artists are identified as dissident or ‘out of cannon’ creators, who tend to show response towards official discourses, but in this case, Fairey paradoxically played a fundamental role in consolidating Obama’s figure as an image of hope. In his webpage, where the user reads “manufacturing quality dissent since 1989” as a sub-header, the navigator can find a wide array of work from the artist 5, including several essays. In one entitled, ‘Question: Education or Exploitation? Manufacturing Dissent’, written for Tokion Magazine, the artist states: “I make a very public body of art using stickers, posters, and stencils. I put these works on the street in order to send some static interference out into the world’s sea of images and messages. The images I use

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http://obeygiant.com/ 15


include historical propaganda, black power, parodies of authority, and tweaks of popular culture icons” (Fairey, n/d: n/p).

Notwithstanding this dissident attitude, Fairey openly supported President Obama (see Figure 9). This seems an epitome of how Obama heralded the voice of change, while turning an official activity – that of voting and supporting his campaign – into a ‘subversive’ one. Fairey’s stencil styled, pop-produced poster, heralds both an exhaustion of street-art as a source of dissidence and the death of hope for contention discourses. But there is more to extort from this image in relation to the political figure of Barack Obama. I will expand on two distinct aspects that I consider crucial before proceeding with the second

chapter, one of them intrinsic to the figure of Obama and the other extrinsic, but

nevertheless related. The first one is this image of hope manufactured through a piece of ‘popular’ art such as Fairey’s stencil. This closeness to sectors of the population which are considered as nontraditional in political activities, sometimes even condemned as vandalism, highlights the subversive character of Obama, as well as his facade as a ‘man of the people’. Firstly, his ethnic origin brings aloft a revolutionary character of his figure, something like a redeemer, which was supported by his career as a community worker in the Chicago area. Products as his autobiography and discursive challenges towards the establishment, made him a figure related with the ideals of transformation. His transformative discourse has been supported by his motto on ‘A New Foundation6’ for America, accompanying the concept of hope and change that characterised his campaign. This ‘ordinary’ character of the politician, which was supported by his role as a family man, holds an interesting relationship with comic heroes of Greek theatre. “The comic paradox of the ordinary man as the public hero is thus complementary to the democratic paradox of the public hero as a servant. The ultimate comic message was that the corporate demos was wiser and better than its elite, whose skills were phony, whose character was bad and whose advice was self-seeking, and who therefore had no right to be arrogant: indeed the polis would, ideally, be better off without them” (Henderson, 1993: 315).

His popular sovereignty and personal ordinariness made him an ideal candidate to herald the flag of change in relation with previous American presidents, which had trouble building an identification with the public. In this sense, his messiah like resonance suggests that his figure, for many Americans, represented a deletion of previous regimes. This has been a key tenet of his popularity with both the Congress and the American citizenry, and again, relates to the figure of the comic hero. “The comic hero’s paradoxical ordinariness is the key to his (or her) power to express the collective self-image and thus to help maintain and enforce the ideal of popular sovereignty. As a fifth-century icon the comic hero was unique, for only at the comic festivals could the mass of

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Baker, P. (March 15, 2009). “Familiar Obama Phrase Being Groomed as a Slogan”. The New York Times. Consulted online on the 16th of May 2009, url:http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/16/us/politics/16foundation.html? _r=1&th&emc=th 16


ordinary citizens see one of their own in the limelight, speaking their own language and voicing their own complaints and desires” (Henderson, 1993: 309).

This identification has been taken to the extreme, apart from the official communication strategies to be discussed in the next chapter, in the appropriation of Obama’s image beyond official attempts to bridge the government with the people. The comic character of his identification can be traced most remarkably with the launching of an ‘Obama avatar’ in the virtual world Second Life7 , which additionally poses issues regarding the empathic nature of theatrical performances. As mentioned before, the appropriation of Barack’s image ensued from the use of available technologies have encore redefined the position held by the politician under public scrutiny. Fairey’s poster has been reused in several occasions, being one of the most hilarious the ‘Dark Times’ episode of season 13th of Southpark (see Figure 10). In the chapter a local kid has to act as a hero since society seems in irreversible decay. This parallel of Obama as a public hero has been exploited even by Marvel Comics, who issued a Special Inauguration Day Edition of The Amazing Spider-man featuring a heroic couplet between President Elect and Spider-man, in which they had to fight against an ‘evil clone’ of the politician (see Figure 11).

Figure 10. Dark Times, The Coon. Southpark, Season 13. “As society breaks down and the economy worsens, South Park has one hope ... The Coon”.

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James Au, W. (May 21, 2009). “Animatronic Obama going to Disney World with High Tech Style”. The New York Times. Consulted online on the 23d of May 2009, url: http://nwn.blogs.com/nwn/2009/05/obama-avatar.html 17


Figure 11. The Amazing Spider-man Special Inauguration Day Edition. Marvel Comics.

Notwithstanding this elevation of Barack Obama’s figure, there are some dissident and mocking images portraying the Commander in Chief. On Facebook, for example, one can ‘throw Obamas’ to their friends as if it was a cream pie (see Figure 12). Other individuals have resignified the politician both as deceitful, avaricious, or megalomaniac, as shown in the following images depicting Obama as a ‘Hustler’ and as a distorted version of Saint Sebastian, representing his martyrdom in the midst of economical crisis (see Figure 13 and 14). These are examples of the exogenous transformations of his image, which refer mainly to the public’s appropriation and reinvention of the individual.

Figure 11. Facebook Hug Me Application. ‘Throw a Barack Obama at your friends”.

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Figure 12. Obama Hustler. Retrieved online on the 10th of March 2009, url: http://www.theodoresworld.net/pics/0908/ hustlerImage3.jpg

Figure 13. Obama San Sebastian. Created by Jaime Pablo Dominguez. 19


As a conclusion to the first chapter, it could be said that once a public figure faces a mirror, if he looks with care he can identify a high frequency of reverberations including official and out of cannon appropriations of his image. The political figures in 2009 are subject not only to public scrutiny and the internal judgement of the citizenry, but also to the retransmission of their image by the creative carvings made by all those media eager intellects, who with creativity redefine continuously the face of a government. The previous suggests that the multiple nature of the face of power is more difficult to control while the multiplication of information channels where that face is presented and its voice is heard reaches larger audiences, who not only receive but also retransmit the content transmuting an original message for an unaccountable number of times.

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Chapter 2: Cartographies of the Theatre of Power The theoretical starting point for this chapter is that “the argument about the relations between theatre and politics is as old as theatre and ... as politics” (Boal, 1979: 1). The staging of politics, or the techniques for managing public affairs, and today the public image of politicians, goes hand in hand with those communication technologies that are available for discussing the ‘matters of the commons’, for making public the ‘res publica’. Furthermore, theatre implies the ‘publication’ of an action, in this case a play, which involves the exposure of individuals and messages to public scrutiny. Even if the main axis of this chapter constitutes a metaphorical analogy between theatre and the public space, we should consider some warnings established by scholars on the subject. “The modern inclination to compare Old Comedy to the mass media of our own world has, I believe, contributed to the maintenance of a tradition of interpretation which stretches right back to antiquity, and whose central (largely unargued) assumption is that comedy was actively and potently involved not only in the reflection but also in the creation of publicity” (Halliwell, 1993: 322).

Of course, this hermeneutic tradition could contaminate our current effort to dissect the configuration of the ‘theatre of power’. What has to be established before continuing is that, even when the usefulness of such analogy would proof fruitful, we should not understand it as a direct and immaculate relationship. Following the same author, “topicality requires the existence of certain intensity of current publicity, but its parameters are relative to culturally variable possibilities and expectations” (Halliwell, 1993: 332). This being said, we can continue with our argument. The origins of the public space can be traced all the way back to the end of nomadism. With the consolidation of a common arena shared by a group of people, the ‘concerns of the commons’ involved organising interpersonal efforts to maintain order within the borders of that settlement. Then notions of order, followed by a production and social security systems, rose and hierarchies emerged. It is not a coincidence that classical notions of the public space are related to theatre, since it is as ‘actors’ that we develop within social environments (for a theatrical reading of social relations, see Goffman, 1967). The term ‘personae’, Latin word for person, means ‘mask’. This evinces that, following Goffman, individuals use ‘masks’, social roles or facades, to act within communal grounds. When referring to politicians, as suggested in the previous chapter, the carving of the public image prompts an intricate bond with the modelling of public masks. Furthermore, the Classical understanding of ‘public space’ shares notions with human expression and preservation. The relationship with poetry is irrefutable since it involves oratory and social leadership, power of sound and resonance, as well as the exposition and management of public narratives. For these reasons, following Paul Celan’s words (“la poesie ne s’impose pas, elle s’expose”), Peter Sloterdijk, in his Frankfurt Lessons, bonded poetry and social existence for 21


“exposing and maintaining are constitutive elements” of both humanity and poetry (Sloterdijk, 1988:14). In the age of digital media both the expression or exposition of individuals and their endurance depends on the diversification of communication media. It follows, as will be discussed in the next chapter, that society has expanded its communication potentials, and perils, at least under a classical, quantitative understanding of information. This, notwithstanding the infrastructure built over the last decades, does not include, of course, an immediate result in communication processes, for the apparatuses themselves are useless, meaningless things until inserted into human routines and institutions, adjusted to social norms and appropriated through iterative and purposeful usage. The relationship between poetics and politics can be stressed further, and hopefully it will provide insights on the mediated nature of the public space before returning to current political affairs. Tragedy, for example, was “the characteristic creation of Athenian democracy; in no form of art are the inner conflicts of its social structure so directly and clearly to be seen as in this. The externals of its presentation to the masses were democratic, but its content, the heroic sagas with their tragi-heroic outlook on life, was aristrocratic” (Hauser in Boal, 1979: 1). “Athenian public life was a confrontation between extraordinary individuals (the élite), and an ordinary collectivity (the demos) that had power to grant or deny them the power they appealed for” (Henderson, 1993: 309).

Under this perspective, the Aristotelian system of poetics, as described by Augusto Boal, is a coercive instrument that can be, and was (and still is, I’d say), directed towards the exercise of power. In order to develop a parallel between theatrical stage and political arena, we should consider at least two sensorial dimensions of dramatic experience, before jumping into the poetic quality of the scrutinised relationship. One is the visual and the other is the aural. Vitruvius, in his Ten Books on Architecture, developed a detailed structuring for Roman and Greek theatres. To limit our explanation, and to follow the Greek allusions, I will briefly mention the rules of construction and acoustics appertaining Greek theatres (Book V, Chapter VII & VIII). The clearest architectonical division in theatres is between the stalls and the scene. This supports the aforementioned confrontation between public and protagonists, but is complemented by intermediate artists and roles within the dramatic structure itself. The centre of dramatic performance happens in the ‘Scaena’, or stage, but the orchestra occupies the ‘Proscaenium’. If the heroes would be identified with politicians, the orchestration of their gesticulation and acting is tinged by the performance of the ‘proscaenium’ artists, or in this case, the team of communication and image consultants who advice leaders (who in an age where technological mediums allow a retransmission of political images, their job acquires a ‘noise reduction’ dimension if they want to maintain the original message as fixated as possible).

22


Acoustics is a fundamental element of theatre building for the “voice to have a gentle fall, and it is not driven back with a recoil so to as convey an indistinct meaning to the ear” (Vitruvius, circa 25 BC: 153). According to the Roman scholar, some places interfere with the voyage of the voice. These are the dissonant, circumsonant, resonant, and consonant (Vitruvius, circa 25 BC: 153). In compound, both visual and acoustic harmony result crucial for a full, vibrant and intense experience of theatre. In our debate, cabinet members and administration teams accompanying statesmen and stateswomen, work precisely on controlling the ambient for a clear and effective transmission of political messages. Their work, then, could be understood as a tuning of public opinion, or better, a harmonising of political dissonance. The eye of the public could be embodied by the chorus, which represents ‘viewers of the action’, and parallels the almost omnipresent observation of the audience. “The chorus is a possibility of the public, not simply its reflection. Because the lyrical work conserves the capacity to produce sense in the audience’s mind precisely by the presence of the collectivity of the chorus, the political stake can overflow the work and submerge the original poetic meaning” (Naudeix, 2005: 892).

But even if the chorus represents a possibility for the public to occupy a place in the scenae, the full coercion of an Aristotelian understanding of poetry, or theatre, functions through empathy. The previous means that the contraposition between actor and spectator is expanded with the goal of tragedy itself, that is, attaining empathy through catharsis, control through the spectator’s own appropriation of the character’s hamartia, or tragic flaw. For the tragedy to be complete, the mad cry of the hero should be incarnated by members of the audience, and not only the actor. The staging of tragedy, the relationships between participants, then happens not only on stage, but on the atmosphere surrounding the ‘terrible’ affair between actor-character-spectator. “Empathy must be understood as the terrible weapon it really is. Empathy is the most dangerous weapon in the entire arsenal of theatre and related arts (movies and TV8 ). Its mechanism (sometimes insidious) consists in the juxtaposition of two people (one fiction and another real), two universes, making one of those people (the real one, the spectator) surrender to the other (the fictitious one, the character) his power of making decisions. The man relinquishes his power of decision to the image” (Boal, 1979: 93).

The establishment of writing as means to reflection and personal expression, and afterwards communication of ideas, which concreted after the Post-Socratic period, allowed the Aristotelic system of poetics, his map of the stage, actors and audience, as well as his characterisation of the art of poetry, to be an anticipation of what the Roman Empire would adopt as a political model, and hundreds of years afterwards, mass media. The magnification of the spectacle in Roman times, the use of violence as a trigger of empathy, aversion or disgust, and eventually catharsis, takes the Aristotelian poetic system to its extreme without the need of poets and actors. 8

Soap operas are a mass culture example of tragic effectiveness. Mexican soap operas, country which holds a considerable share in the global market of such gender, are a prototypical example of every day and historic conflicts taken to TV drama. ‘La comedia’, as my mother refers to the soap opera ‘in season’ when she asks my grandmother if she saw the last episode. House owners and servants, employers and employees, find shelter in the tragic nature of soap operas. They take to the grotesque the aspirational, aristocratic, system of poetry. 23


It is not accurate, as warned before, to take a literal parallax between theatre in ancient Greece and mass media in contemporary society. “The main difference here is that the comic festivals were an arm of the polis religion and an inheritance from the sacrosanct ritual past, and so arguably had greater status, informative power and effect than do modern media and the press” (Henderson, 1993: 319).

Nevertheless, the coeval use of digital media have reshaped traditional divisions between audience and protagonists, between heroes and ordinary men, which, I propose, suggests a dramatic transformation of the architectonical or cartographical character of the public space. During the 2008 US electoral process Obama reflected, and continues to do so now with his media strategies as Commander in Chief, the pulverising of old boundaries corresponding to those arenas where governments and citizens express themselves, where both official and subversive voices transmit their messages. It seems that digital technologies have concreted the dreams dreamt for theatre by people like Antonin Artaud, Bertolt Brecht or Boal himself. In his poem ‘On the Everyday Theatre’, Brecht wrote: “If you declare: He is no artist, He may reply: You are not men. A worse reproach by far. Declare instead: He is an artist because a man” (Brecht in Boal, 1879: 90).

What can be inferred in these verses is the destruction of the Aristotelian dichotomy between actor and audience. Transposing this to the digital scenario, the structural similarity of Brecht’s ‘manartist’ with concepts such as Tapscott’s ‘prosumer’, the producer-consumer of digital economy, ‘emitter-receiver’ of digital convergence9 , is a good starting point for the analysis of the Inaugural Ceremony (see Tapscott, 2006). For explaining this inversion of Aristotelian theatre, we should start with those features that still prevail on our commencing scene, the inaugural address of Barack Obama. On the steps of the Capitol, we have a centre of the main action and its protagonists, a stage dividing them from the audience. But, as opposed to Athenian theatre, or the Greek agora, the audience is not limited to the concrete presence of hundreds of thousands of people who gathered that day in Washington. The audibility and visibility of the discourse is not limited to the media broadcast of the ceremony and the massification of its performance (complemented on site by hundreds of screens). The boundaries between traditional territorial and spacial distinctions separating an information corpus, a locus of representation of this corpus, and a locus of consumption of its objects and products, become more permeable as a variety of inputs complement the content of a specific historic event 9

“The Internet is an innovation both in interpersonal, that is point-to-point, communication and in broadcasting and publishing using point-to-multipoint communication. As a broadcast medium the Internet has the unique character that it can accumulate content form its users. It is hte first medium with broadcast capabilities that is able to provide a tight 'feedback-loop' between users and producers of information” (Mansell and Steinmueller, 2000: 66). 24


such as Obama’s address. This suggests that the original message is subject to a wider interference, as mentioned previously, that accompanies the empowerment that contemporary media bestow on the members of the public. For starters, the presence of the audience is not limited to Capitol Hill and its historical forces as physical location. ‘Tweets’ and photos were published from the spot (see Figure 14) and the event was commented life on digital platforms. As never before, published Technology Review through Associated Press, the inaugural words of the United States President were followed through online TV services. The major shift was the partnership between CNN and Facebook, the ‘common’ witnessing of the event, allowing the users not only to watch the broadcast but to interact with their friends at the same time. Other merge was provided by Current TV and Tweeter, and the messages of the users were displayed at the bottom of both the webcast and the broadcast of Current TV10 .

Figure 14. Screenshot of Obama’s Inauguration Photobucket Photo Album. Url: http://photobucket.com/obamaphotobook.

The further resonance of this event cannot be understood without its immediate antecedents and historical context, at least in terms of media and public space. Obama’s candidacy followed the latest trends set by American campaigns such as that of Howard Dean. “The eye-popping online success of Barack Obama in the first half of 2007 – surpassing Howard Dean’s total number of campaign donors by the end of the third quarter and registering hundreds of thousands of ‘friends’ on the social networking site Facebook – seemed to indicate that the netroots11 movement continued to grow rapidly” (Feld and Wilcox, 2008: 167).

Howard Dean’s campaign not only recurred to Web 2.0 technologies but to casual gaming as strategy for engaging voters, using the web as the general ground where all strategies converged. “The emergence of the Web and the expansion of Web campaigning have fundamentally altered the ways in which campaigns are organised and the ways in which campaign organisations perceive themselves and their roles. Similarly, the tendency of campaigns to engage in Web campaigning has coincided with

10 AP (2009, January 21). “Like never before, inauguration experienced online”. Technology Review. Retrieved online on the 21st of January 2009, url: http://www.technologyreview.com/wire/21989/?nlid=1706&a=f 11

The grassroots nature of web campaigning and governance is explored by Feld and Wilcox (see Feld and Wilcox, 2008). 25


significant shifts in the ways that citizens and other political actors perceive themselves, and their roles, in the political process” (Foot and Schneider, 2006 :194).

Similar trends have been followed in different countries, and show how subversive narratives such as web and flash games are appropriated by official institutions as complementary communication tools following political purposes. The ‘Digital Britain’ Project and European IT Initiative highlight digitisation as a priority in contemporary governance. Web videos and content used by Barack Obama and Gordon Brown (http://number10.gov.uk) are examples of netroot strategies (Feld and Wilcox 2008), and show how digital media are used for communicating and administering public affairs. So we have intimate stories, cultural objects, and political discourses constantly recorded and reproduced in a single medium through a network of dependent devices such as mobile phones and digital cameras; a single medium interfering with both public and private spheres, allowing remote interaction between its users. “Interactivity is the end of spectacle. It all began with the abolition of the stage and the immersing of the spectator in the spectacle: The Living Theatre. When everybody becomes an actor, there is no action any longer, there is no stage. Only with the strict separation of stage and auditorium is the audience fully an actor” (Baudrillard, 1995: 92).

This is perhaps why the ‘terrible’ character of tragedy described in the previous section suffered an implosion, condensing register and transmission of objects, performance of human expression and tokens of exchange, into pure information. Empathy is not exercised by the aspiration of the audience to the hero, for digital day heroes need to lower their level to that of ‘common man’. “My fellow citizens”, started President Obama his inaugural address, “I stand here humbled, by the task before us, grateful for the trust you’ve bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors”12. This ‘humbleness’ and identification with the voters was a defining feature of Obama as presidential candidate, as already developed in the first chapter13, epitomised through the Barack Avatar in Second Life.

12

Obama, B. (2009). “President Barack Obama Inaugural Address”. The Briefing Room, White House Blog, url: http:// www.whitehouse.gov 13 On an email received by David Plouffe, Obama’s campaign manager, I received some videos that represent this appropriation of the voices of the public as inspirers of governments. In the email several cases of American citizens were quoted as examples of the challenges faced by Obama’s administration. Other examples can be quoted. American Solutions (http://www.americansolutions.com/), founded by Newt Gingrich, former Republican House Speaker, plans to launch a wiki-media style site intended to be a grassroots data-base of local U.S. officials. Already existing projects tune with this initiative, as Congresspedia (http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Congresspedia), and OpenCongress (http://www.opencongress.org/), and all follow the current tendency of the American Government towards openness and transparency. On the portal, David Weinberger, Internet advisor for the Howard Dean campaign, commented that if it is not used for partitian ends, the portal could be useful for citizens, ”because it’s impossible to predict all the different sorts of information that might be relevant, a wiki is a good choice. A wiki is also a good choice because it distributes the chore of building and maintaining a site with ambitions that stretch from the national to the hyperlocal.” (See Talbot, D. (2009, January 28). “Wiki Your Town Council”. Technology Review. Retrieved online on the 30th of January 2009, url: http://www.technologyreview.com/web/22025/ ). 26


Figure 15. “Stand with the President”. my.barackobama.com.

Barack Obama and his team used the web as a central axis for their presidential campaign. His digital omnipresence was referred to in the page as “Obama Everywhere” (see Figure 16). The scope

of

his

campaign

included

a

social

networking

site

for

citizen

organisation

(my.barackobama.com), and other digital technologies and platforms such as mobile phones, youtube, and facebook (where he attained around 3,500, 000 supporters compared to the 600,000 gathered by John McCain). It must be said that McCain’s nomination was also supported by a web campaign. The use of participatory media became a central element of Obama’s strategy, building a close identification with voters (change.gov). His e-mail and volunteer list was the largest in political history, suggesting a further usage of these media for the time he’s in charge (I am subscribed to that list, and I receive at least one message a week inviting me to support the president in different affairs). This has also allowed Obama’s team to collect data on the voters, making it a new weapon of surveillance. Overall, last year’s elections insinuate the increasing importance of the web in political campaigns14. “From the moment you hit the Obama campaign website you knew it was your campaign, you were invited to participate not just in a sort of superficial way, I mean, you were asked to own it. And I think that what we as the Democratic party have done, and a real advantage that we saw this election and will see in elections to come, is the ability to marry the best technology, the best tools out there (…) with an organisation that empowers people to take action, and gives them a reason to use these tools, gives them the information, gives them the structure, all the necessary things to actually take that and make something happen with it”15

14

Talbot, D (2008, December 30). “The Year in Web Politics”. Technology Review. Retrieved Online on the 3rd of January 2009, url: http://www.technologyreview.com/web/21899/?nlid=1619&a=f 15

Talbot, D. (2008, November 5). “Obama’s Web Future”. Technology Review. Retrieved online on the 22nd of January 2009, url: http://www.technologyreview.com/blog/editors/22172/?a=f 27


Digital mediation of public participation has the potential for building data bases with voters information16. Specially when the voters, and now governed, are being called upon constantly to support the president in different causes. During the campaign, they could convoke and organise events in favour of Obama. Calling possible voters allows the creation of a database, permitting also a follow-up on individual’s interests. Now, through e-mails redirecting users to Obama’s site, the constituents are invited to support the President in delicate issues (se Figure 15). Databases allow cross-matching of information in order to build niche-specific strategies, and provide a more precise approach with citizens.

Figure 15. Obama Everywhere. my.barackobama.com.

For the hundredth day in office, to keep on with examples of this identification strategies, the Foundation for Change at My.BarackObama.com (http://my.barackobama.com/page/content/ foundationforchange), designed a map in which the user could explore the advancements per American State, the stories of Americans in diverse topics and locations of the country, and a topical display of information including issues such as jobs, tax cuts, healthcare, education, and the war in Irak, to quote a couple of examples (see Figure 16). This initiative is one example of how digital technologies endow the organisations with new ways to visualise data, as well as inform citizens of the progress made by a government in different areas. A similar case based on the use geographical web tools to trace and build identification with Americans in terms of the economic turmoil that has encumbered the United States and the World is the map with the stories of Americans and their impressions on how to recover from economic crisis (http://my.barackobama.com/yourstories) (see Figure 17). These examples support the 16

Talbot, D. (2008, November 4). “It’s the Web, Stupid”. Technology Review. Retrieved online on the 22nd of January 2009, url: http://www.technologyreview.com/blog/editors/22171/?a=f 28


eradication of the spectacle supposed by interactivity. As it will be argued at the end of this chapter and stressed in the following and final chapter, when the division between an audience and an actor is performed to the point of bestowing policy making to citizens (some web applications of Obama’s site encourage users’ opinion in several topics from health care to international affairs), there is no longer place for empathic coercion, the responsibilities of a ‘representative’ system blur completely, and a more subtle and intimate subjugation of the user’s individuality emerges; for he is not recognised as a citizen anymore in the digital stage – when the voices of the government and the citizens share the same level of resonance and visibility, the private and the public spheres mutate into one monstrous compound, a chimera of ordinariness and grandeur takes the stage.

Figure 16. Foundation For Change. my.barackobama.com.

Figure 17. Economic Crisis: Your Stories. my.barackobama.com.

It seems concurrent that Obama’s discourse on transparency and information access is steered by the TIGR (Technology Innovation and Government Reform) Team. In a video published 29


two days before officially becoming Commander in Chief of the United States of America 17, Beth Noveck, member of TIGR and of New York University Law School, asserted that the TIGR team “is attempting to make government institutions more effective”, and of course, the question is how. An interesting feature of the TIGR is the array of members, encompassing ICT’s industry specialists working both in public and private sectors. Another member, Dan Chenok, Vice President of Pragmatics, Inc., suggested that “technology can make the delivery of services much more effective and efficient, in terms of providing benefits, in terms of tracking progress, in terms of providing transparency to the public about the performance”. Another proposal, as quoted by another TIGR member in the same video, Andrew Maclaughlin, who is s Head of Global Public Policy and Government Affairs for Google Inc. and emeritus member of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, says that one of the most “obvious ways of making the government more open is to take data that the taxpayers have payed for, and get it up on the web so that they can downloaded it, look at it, and do something to it which in Internet terminology is called mashing it up. In other words, you take data, like let’s say crime statistics, or home values or election returns, and you put it onto a web-platform like let’s say Maps, and so with the benefit of the map plus a lot of government data, you can actually help citizens understand their world better. You can even drive economic activity and allow people to build businesses”. He continues saying that one of the major shifts will be the turn of the government towards clowd-computing, “treating computing storage and processing it like a commodity, like water, or electricity, and allowing people to build applications on-top of the infrastructure in a very flexible, very open, very powerful way. This is an important change for the federal government because it is dramatically cheaper than the old-fashioned way of doing computing infrastructure”. The impacts of these innovations go from an operative domain, affecting the work flows and interaction among governmental actors, and also civic use of information, to an ethical question regarding privacy.

17

Albright-Hanna, K. (2009, January 19). “Inside the Transition: Technology, Innovation, and Government Reform”. Change.gov. Retrieved online on the 22nd of January 2009, url: http://change.gov/newsroom/entry/ inside_the_transition_technology_innovation_and_government_reform/ 30


Figure 18. Snapshots from The White House’s Facebook site.

This more sophisticated techniques are accompanied by the already mentioned social technologies exerted by Obama’s team. For example, the protheses of the agora located in social networking sites as Facebook, provides more hints on the undergoing transformations affecting the configuration of the public space. Before being elected, Obama had a profile in Facebook, as commented, but now as a Commander in Chief his team posses a powerful presence in similar platforms. For example, through The White House profile in Facebook the team publishes notes on the daily activities of Obama’s administration (see Figure 18). The potentials of transmitting official messages through participatory media lie in the open-ended nature of these channels. As one can see from the snapshots, constituents may use the features of the platform (comment, share, or like), and provide immediate feedback to the administration, which allows them to test their policies and the response that their actions have within the citizens.

Figure 19. Obama’s Weekly Address 19 June 2009. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gdm-pZm8hoA

Other examples of similar strategies could be quoted from the ‘Weekly Address’ established by Obama’s team even before he became President, since the day he was announced winner of the 31


2008 elections (see Figure 19). This comprises a You Tube video of Obama addressing the main topics of the week, and also quoting his major activities for the period. Additionally, The White House Channel on You Tube (http://www.youtube.com/user/whitehouse) includes a plethora of videos from Obama and his cabinet, containing their public appearances and political activities. As with other platforms, in You Tube the user can provide feedback to the content, and express its opinions in the comments section. These technologies have, as mentioned before, suppressed the spectacular quality of politics, or at least metamorphosed it. Apart from the absorption of dissident practices quoted in the first chapter, the transformation of the agora into a polifaced chimera makes us wonder what will the outcome of this emergent cartography will turn out to be. The potentials and perils of the digitalisation of politics will be stressed in the following chapter, but to conclude this section it could be said that the Theatre of Power is suffering mutations which spam not only the way we as citizens experience politics, but also the field of action of politicians themselves, and therefore the resonance of both official and dissident discourses.

32


Chapter 3: Post-Theatre Meal: Reflexiveness, mediation, and political reality Peter Sloterdijk, in an essay entitled Atmosphere Politics, claims that the architectural structure of the glasshouse, popularised within the United Kingdom in the nineteenth century, represented a “caesura in the history of building” and could be understood as an paradigmatic example of the imperial spirit reigning over Britain during the time (Sloterdijk, 2005: 944). Edinburgh’s Royal Botanical Gardens contain one of the tallest palm houses in the world, with over 20 meters of height (see Figure 20). When its doors were opened to the visitors in 1858, they were not only bedazzled by the architectural magnificence of the glass, steel and sandstone hybrid, and an exuberant, worldwide vegetation alien to the region, but greeted by a ‘gentleman of African origin’18.

Figure 20. Edinburgh Royal Botanical Gardens Palm House.

According to the German philosopher, the impetus of transporting elements of foreign ecosystems to a land where those species do not grow originally, represents a round example of the desire for building an artificial sphere where life can develop as if it was planted in their native environment. But furthermore, he asserts that classical political thought was grounded on a similar principle, that of building an artificial ambience for individuals to interact (of course, history of political philosophy is full of similar examples, Hobbes being the almost hackneyed case). “In actual fact, the birth of ancient Greek political theory implied for them a doctrine of living in an artificial construct. What the early philosophers termed polis is in essence nothing other than an artificial construct ruled by nomos and amounts to the practical answer to the challenge posed by the improbability of bringing numerous strangers together to coexist behind shared 18

Hay, S. (n/d). “Edinburgh’s Iconic Glasshouse”. Scottish Field. Consulted online on the 20th of June 2009, url: http:// www.scottishfield.co.uk/article/102-Edinburghs_iconic_Palm_House.html 33


walls (...) The Greek city was a greenhouse for people who agreed to be uprooted from the modus vivendi of living in separation and instead be planted in the disarming modus vivendi of living together” (Sloterdijk, 2005: 946).

This passage highlights a couple of points worth noting. Firstly, the ‘artificial’, intellectual or ideological nature of the ‘construct’ of society. Secondly, the normative dimension (nomos) required to implement such construct, to make a collective imaginary effective. His final insinuation, that the polis was a ‘greenhouse’, suggests that the factual reality surrounding our everyday actions depends on an artificial, mental ecosystem.

Figure 21. Depiction of Sloterdijk’s Pneumatic Parliament. http://www.thelifeanddeathofdemocracy.org/images/history/ Fig%20130%20top.jpg

In terms of Peter Sloterdijk, political artificiality could be read as what in contemporary art is understood as ‘installation’. “The public sphere is not just the effect of people assembling but in fact goes back to the construction of a space to contain them and in which the assembled persons are first able to assemble. The agora is the manifest urban form thereof, but we can only gain an adequate notion of its function if we construe the coming together of persons in this space as an installation. Installations such as those with we are familiar from contemporary art have the task of developing compromises between observation and participation. Their meaning is to transform the position of juxtaposed observation into an immersive relationship to the milieu that surrounds the erstwhile beholder. By means of installations, modern artists endeavor to strengthen the position of the work vis-a-vis the observer (...) Thus, the opportunity to experience art shifts from the pole of the beholder to that of the participant” (Sloterdijk, 2005: 948).

This inversion parallels the shift detected in the previous chapter. The artificial nature of democracy is summarised in a conceptual art piece, a sort of installation, imagined by Sloterdijk and some of his colleagues, called the Pneumatic Parliament (see Figure 21). 34


“The Pneumatic Parliament is a parliament building that is quick to install, transparent, and inflatable; it can be dropped in any grounds and then unfolds itself. In a mere one and a half hours, a protective shell for parliamentary meetings is ready, and within the space of twentyfour hours, the interior ambience for these proceedings can be made as comfortable as an agora” (Sloterdijk et al., 2005: 952).

This idea stretches both the synthetic aspects of democracy and the promethean spirit behind the Western impetus of imposing democratic governments in nations with different political customs. It could be said, following Sloterdijk’s analogy between glasshouses and political regimes, that the imperialistic sentiments represented in these buildings are embedded today in the creation of ‘parliaments’ or democratic institutions throughout ‘underdeveloped’ countries, trying to build political ‘ecosystems’ in order to tame conflict with existing governmental forms different from democracy. Ironically, the suppression of the audience-actor dichotomy follows this same impetus of eradicating political regimes which threaten the stability of democratic ideals, both echoing homogenisation as a political strategy towards the concealment of difference. If we etymologically parse the term ‘ecosystem’, we get interesting relationships prompting imagery proper of science fiction narratives when transposing it to democratic ecosystems. The prefix ‘eco’ derives from the Greek oikos, or household. Then, a housing system sheltering human interaction is necessary for the edification of political regimes, a sort of ideological ‘matrix’ upon which human activity is organised. Moreover, this implies a specific role to be played by the occupiers. “We could in like manner say that the atmospheric premises of democracy must be formed from a parallelogram of observer’s virtues and participant’s virtues. The citizen as a highly improbable artificial figure of political anthropology would thus first become possible by a combination of actor and spectator in a single person, and that said the entire public domain would have to consist of this type of agent” (Sloterdijk, 2005: 948).

This coincides with the model proposed for the citizen in the previous chapter, and if the accomplishment of this prototypic citizenship was attained before the advent of digital technologies, it would apparently contradict the argument that with interactivity and digital prosthetics of democracy the distinction between actor and spectator diffuses. I will try to stress my argument in order to conclude this dissertation with a more comprehensible cartography of the distribution of power in contemporary societies. As stated from the beginning of the present text, the nature of a representative government, be it a republic or even tyrannical regimes where the population is contained in the figure of the monarch as in the Leviathan, is inexorably manacled with those media available for both political and civic expression. Consequently, political ecosystems, both their factual and consensual realities, including dissidence and public manifestation, are supported by the communication channels at the population’s disposal. This is why, even if the agora was extended through the evolution of communication media, it hardly endowed ordinary citizens the opportunity for casting their opinions into the public sphere with the same strength as those settled in political elites. With the popularisation of open-end channels as digital ones, including pervasive technologies, both 35


protagonists and ordinary men, politicians and constituents, share an arena for expressing their intimate and public issues. Apparently, even if democratic societies were conceived thousands of years ago, digital technologies bring to the table the opportunities for the fulfilment of democracy. Nevertheless, it seems that traditional models will not suffice. The tenets of democracy should be rethought under a digital scenario. It is important to say that the public sphere is not longer composed exclusively by topics appertaining public life, but digital channels are flooded with episodes from both the public and personal, intimate affairs of both politicians and constituents, of both famous and common individuals. For example, a platform such as Twitter provides the cybernaut with both public, serious information of ordinary citizens as it is happening right now with the revolts in Iran19 , simultaneous to the daily commentaries of celebrities and artists, and those quotidian thoughts and activities of millions of users around the world. An illustrative video synthesising this ambivalence between public and private space was just published in The White House’s You Tube channel on the ‘vital role’ of parental figures for the American nation (see Figure 22)20, where the viewer can witness Obama and other guest’s speeches as well as scenes from their familiar environments, including a kiss between Barack and Michelle (Obama and the First Lady are renowned from their public display of affection, which in tandem with Michelle Obama’s charisma21 and their ‘happy family’ were fundamental for the consolidation of Obama’s popularity).

Figure 19. Obama’s Father’s Day Video. 20th June 2009. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vVJXrJhzrcQ

19

Corley, AM (June 20, 2009). “The Web vs. The Republic of Iran”. Technology Review. Consulted online on the 20th of June 2009, url: http://www.technologyreview.com/web/22893/ 20 The symbolic weight of this video goes as far as ‘the founding fathers’ of the American Nation, underlining the importance of history and political tradition for the country. 21 The only Michelle which is more popular than the first lady in Google suggestions is Michelle Jenner, actress acclaimed by her beauty. 36


But, which are the repercussions of this reshaping of the public sphere, its opportunities and perils? It is certainly hard to say that the Internet expands democratic possibilities and openness, or, on the contrary, tightens or fortifies coercive mechanisms. It has the potential for both. “Digital technologies do not have a nature. They are what we make them. For those who care about human rights and the spread of democracy, alarm bells should be going off right now. The Internet may not be the universally positive influence we’ve been hoping for.”22

This declaration by John Palfrey, Henry N. Ess III Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and a faculty codirector of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, poses the responsibility not on technologies themselves, but on the use we exert from them. This implies that technologies are meaningless objects when situated outside human institutions and axiomatic paradigms. Now, we should ask whether the use we are imposing to these emergent technologies is favourable for human justice or not. John Palfrey continues, “It is not altogether clear, from the data we have, whether the Internet is a boon to the spread of democracy or its bane. The answer depends greatly on whether you are asking the question from an advanced democracy, from a state in transition, or from a country firmly under authoritarian control”

Clearly, a country like China exploits the coercive capabilities of digital technologies, foreseen by the father of cybernetics, Norbert Wiener and contemporary scholars such as Lawrence Lessig. Additionally, in countries with faulty regimes, digital technologies have served as means for public denouncement of totalitarian actions. Some resources in this matter are Digital Democracy (http:// www.dtwo.org/), DigiActive (http://www.digiactive.org/), Citizen Tube (http://www.youtube.com/ citizentube), or Mobile Active (http://mobileactive.org/), to mention just a few. Nevertheless, I would say that even in democratic societies as the United States of America there are latent perils threatening the well being of citizens germinating from the use of digital media (of course, technologies always pose these debates, and have been used for both emancipatory and repressive purposes throughout the centuries). For example, being that Obama’s campaign was grounded in digital organising of citizens, including fund raising, that allowed his IT team to garner a gargantuan database which threatens individuals’ privacy. In the age of digital governments and economies, information, particularly digitised data, ‘is King’, as Google Inc. executive Douglas Bowman declared: “data eventually becomes a crutch for every decision, paralyzing the company and preventing it from making any daring design decisions”23. And this could be extended to governments, specially when their digital approach towards citizenry seems to be reinforced as time goes by. Therefore, it is not anomalous to find that with the popularisation of digital media and their increasing penetration throughout population sectors around the world governments are setting 22 Palfrey, J (2009, May/June). “Internet Arms Race”. Technology Review. consulted online on the 22nd of April 2009, url: http://www.technologyreview.com/web/22475/?nlid=1967&a=f 23 Helft, M. (May 9, 2009). “Data, Not Design, is the King in the Age of Google”. The New York Times. Consulted online on the 9th of May 2009, url: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/10/business/10ping.html?th&emc=th 37


priorities in data security strategies. Information networks are becoming the treasury of nations and the safeguard for most of the secrets. “I worry when I see that important information is taken from our networks”, declared Air Force General Kevin Chilton, head of the U.S. Strategic Command24 . This sets ‘cyberforensics’ as a fundamental branch of national security. “Cyberforensics presents immense technical challenges that are complicated by the fact that the Internet effortlessly spans both local and national government boundaries. It is possible for a criminal, for example, to conceal his or her activities by connecting to a target computer through a string of innocent computers, each connected to the Internet on different continents, making law enforcement investigations time consuming or even impossible” 25

This interconnectivity does not only constitutes a challenging environment for governments and security departments, but also presents a redefinition of jurisdictions, and consequently an emergent ‘world order’. The cartographical reading of the public space presented throughout this text urges a paradigm shift, for starters, in our educational system. As established by writer Douglas Rushkoff, “It's time for an academic revolution as profound as the one motivated by the Sputnik launch. If the false threat of the Soviets painting a sickle on the moon was enough to get calculus taught in a majority of American high schools, the real threat of a communications infrastructure meltdown should be enough to get us teaching Basic to Boy Scouts”26

But this implies that each kid is a potential hacker, which also parallels our understanding of the citizen as both part of the plot and the audience. In addition, we should recognise the contested nature of the political field, since when speaking about a collective imaginary, an imaginary nature of communities as suggested by Benedict Anderson, does not imply that the mental life of social congregations stands quiescent, immune to constant transformations. “To think politically it is necessary to abandon the dream of a final reconciliation and to discard the idea of the public as a space oriented toward consensus. What democratic politics requires is the fostering of a multiplicity of public spaces of agonistic confrontation” (Mouffe, 2005: 807).

Then, our public sphere is not one single construct, but a cluster of contradictory forms, colliding within the confines of mediated arenas. The notions appertaining digital convergence support this idea, since they imply the coexistence of media formats, and emitters, in common channels. Babel’s cacophony seems to arise within the frontiers of our digital, hypermediated world. But the shift towards digitally based mediation and genetic engineering goes beyond jurisdiction and education, penetrating to the core of human life. “In other words, the laws of nature have changed and now read as computable, mathematical text that can be construed in algorithms. Just as the Greeks had to learn who they were and how AP (May 7th, 2009). “Pentagon girds for cyber power”. Technology Review. Consulted online on the 12th of May 2009, url:http://www.technologyreview.com/wire/22631/?nlid=2018

24

Markoff, J. (May 11th, 2009).”Tracking Cyberspies through the web wilderness”. The New York Times. Consulted online on the 12th of May 2009, url:http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/12/science/12cyber.html?_r=1&th&emc=th

25

26 Rushkoff, D. (May 29, 2009). “Obama’s Internet Misfire”. The Daily Beast. Consulted online on the 30th of May 2009, url: http://www.thedailybeast.com/blogs-and-stories/2009-05-29/obamas-cyberwar-misfire/full/ 38


they determined their own lives, we today, faced by genetic research and the possibilities of genetic engineering, must now likewise ask ourselves who we are and how we with to design ourselves” (Weibel, 2005: 1035).

This implies that “the state as an artificial body, as an artificial being, will no longer be addressed in the formal language of anatomy, not as a body but as a mathematical text” (Weibel, 2005: 1037), what Weibel calls “object-oriented democracy”. Following Latour, “with the political period triggering such desperation, the time seems right to shift our attention to other ways of considering public matters. And ‘matters’ are precisely what might be put centre stage” (Latour, 2005: 12). What are these matters? Beyond the definition of political bodies, of this mathematical anatomy of social life, it seems crucial to develop educational programs not only in terms of programming skills, but also in media literacy and citizen empowerment based in the use of media. Communication media lay hanging bridges between members of society and social events, and it is us as information explorers that should define the effectiveness of such connections, and who have the last call in embedding the final links of meaning between the lands on both sides of the ravine of form.

39


CODA: Modulating Media, Information Literacy The last chapter ended with a reference to Latour in which he stated that we should take a look at the public “matters”. But, again, which are these matters? Independently of their form, public matters seem to be grounded in something similar to what Ezra Pound describes as ‘objects’ in his poem An Object: “This thing, that hath a code and note a core, Hath set acquaintance where might be affections, And nothing now Disturbeth his reflections” (Pound, 1928:76).

On the first place, they are ‘things’. We have images, frequencies, letters embedded in material casks whose reality or propriety is presented by their ‘code’ and not their material composition. In addition, it has a value, they are objects of consumption, and therefore with emotive effects on consumers. Their consolidation as part of reality, additionally, implied a ‘resonance’ or ‘reflection’, because objects mean nothing outside human use. This is why not the materiality but the codes of the material objects is what determines their value within a specific social environment. So, as a first step, we could say that public matters are composed of communication codes and the value of their conveyances. The birth of the ‘object’ as a public good, exchanged through tokens, implies also taking about information. Information, therefore, is a process involving the exchange of pre-existing ‘objects’. “Information carries the connotation of activity that is absent from mere form (...) refers to imposing, detecting or communicating a form (...) Information is the transfer of form from one medium to another (...) the communication of relationships” (von Baeyer, 2003: 25).

Then, information could be understood as a network of codes, a matrix of form. Under our current discussion, the public sphere, if we commenced this text establishing its inexorable relationship with media, seems to be the ultimate realm where information is defined, where the objects of their interchange acquire their final shape – that is, before they suffer another transformation through reevaluation. In a world overpopulated with communication devices and rhizomatically spliced with information networks, it seems an imperative to build educational programmes fostering individuals’ conscientious use of these apparatuses and the transmission of their messages. Specially when governments are adopting these channels and assembling digitally based regimes. “The continuing development of government IT systems and the vast array of relationships between government agencies and global corporation in providing them constitute the reality of modernization and rationalization in the modern world” (Dunleavy et al., 2006: 216-217).

The shibboleths of the contemporary world order, then, need to be read through these relationships between public and private institutions in terms of information technologies, and therefore the value of the objects we create are, on the one hand, determined by them. “Modern governments are armed with a new array of policy tools for solving social problems, the nature of which are heavily linked to technological development. In using them they are inextricably bound to IT corporations, now a permanent part of the government landscape. For 40


better or worse, richer or poorer, governments do not face the technological future alone” (Dunleavy et al., 2006: 259).

But on the other, they are constantly negotiated with the members of the public, the former audience, which today invades the public sphere using the same channels as the protagonists or political elite do. Then, if we said that controlling the public image of a candidate and administering the communication strategies of governments is something like steering the amount of noise affecting that information, information literacy involves also a sort of modulating process in which the user, the empowered user, is the one really in charge of the objects that he consumes, as well as the effect they have on its life. In other words, it is a reimagining of the world through a creative appropriation of technology, or a ‘tactics of technology’ (Penley, 1991), what Constance Painley calls technological ‘appropriation’. “The term appropriate technology refers to both everyday uses of technology that are appropriate to the job at hand and the way users decide how and what to appropriate. To avoid becoming dependent on sources that extract too high a price, or to ensure that the technology will be available to everyone, one appropriates only what is needed” (Penley, 1991: 141).

But of course, this rational perspective in which the user acts always under the dictates of his judgement is quite close to a naive and utopian appreciation of agents. The prompting of ‘game theory’ like dilemmas is unavoidable, and therefore we should be very careful while aiming to define a user and attributing him a set of abilities or capacities supporting his actions. Citizens are erratic, whimsical agents. Furthermore, I believe that the incorporation of new technological devices confuses us, specially when the political scenario surrounding our actions is getting more conflictive as time goes by, and it seems that, even if we are taking part of the ‘official’ arena and our voice is gradually resonating among that of protagonists, there is still much to be done to assure our participation and edify a solid society under this paradigms. But this does not mean we should lower our arms and cede to the forces of negligence or indifference. Conversely, we should build a comprehensive citizenry model apt for confronting the challenges presented by our contemporary world. “We could in like manner say that the atmospheric premises of democracy must be formed from a parallelogram of observer’s virtues and participant’s virtues. The citizen as a highly improbable artificial figure of political anthropology would thus first become possible by a combination of actor and spectator in a single person, and that said the entire public domain would have to consist of this type of agent” (Sloterdijk, 2005: 948).

Parting from the type of agent suggested by Sloterdijk, and the implications of this transformation already described in Chapter 2, the cultivation of an educational model seems feasible, even if its implementation implies a long battle with both governments and citizens themselves – for it is hard to believe that only politicians are defective, that is, as constituents we also cast derelict shadows of citizenry. Throughout the previous pages I have tried to provide examples of how recent technological transformations have affected traditional political forms, as well as the social implications of such 41


metamorphoses. As a by-product of this research a visual history of information, a sort of manual for surviving the death of the spectacle, is being planned as the following step towards an information literacy corpus aiding the engagement of new media forms. Even if we don’t have space to explore in detail the characteristics of such information literacy programme, it should be stated that the main axis should jump from a classical, mathematical understanding of information towards a model which recognises the observer – that is, a quantum perspective. This metaphorical not scientific approach towards quantic information should juxtapose the traditional view of the ‘bit’ as a given unit of meaning with the world of possibilities that is the qubit. Best represented through a sphere, where one pole stands for positive and the opposite for negative, and not a definite value is conveyed de facto by the chunk of information; on the contrary, the value upon the unit of information, or the bit itself, emerges from the observer’s action upon the sphere, that is, it is a specific perspective where meaning arouses. Of paramount importance, if we are to assume a position as actors and not only spectators, is to undertake the responsibility accompanying performing roles. If we are to demand social transformation, we have to assume sacrifices, and ponder the limits of our technological appropriation in terms of others’ freedom. But, are we ready to adopt the role of actors? Or, as it has been proven more than once throughout human history, we prefer to run aground in our shallow sofas and prevail on our comfortable position as audience? Well, it is hard to tell. But what is a fact is that our theatre has new rules, rules of performance as well as scenery, script writing and the rewards behind attending the theatre. If on what seems the dawn of the age of media-based political participation spectacle is casting its final nights as an arena with a strict distinction between protagonists and audience, will that also imply a transformation of political models? Which models will arise? Will we, as ordinary citizens, play an active role in the conception of such frameworks? Are we ready, are we brave enough?

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B.O.'s Bow: fetching for audiences in the digital age  

This work was possible thanks to The University of Edinburgh International Masters Scholarship, Secretaría de Educación Pública (Becas), and...

B.O.'s Bow: fetching for audiences in the digital age  

This work was possible thanks to The University of Edinburgh International Masters Scholarship, Secretaría de Educación Pública (Becas), and...

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