Monthly Archives: October 2011

Network Cosmology

When I read the articles by David Grewal and Amelia H. Arsenault, I could not help but think about what a great advance 20th century thinkers in terms of the social. If 19th century theorists provided us with the image of the atomized “economic man,” self-contained classes or institutions (like church), sovereign nation-states, or even different civilizations, now, at the beginning of the 21st century, we suspect that the relations among these units also matter, and that they are not neutral.

It seems to me that network theory is a powerful tool in the analysis of our present, as well as of our past and future (as ungrateful of a task as predicting the future can be). For example, given the idea that networks wield structural power over insiders and outsiders, we can trace and uncover the internal dynamics of the inception and growth of empires, the rise of powerful social movements (like the Bolsheviks in the Russian Empire), as well as the effectiveness of multilateral agreements. How did the growth of the Christian Church and the increase in the number of its followers predetermine its split and ultimate loss of power? Was the structural power of the Catholic Church too much to tolerate so that its individual members (like Henry the VIII or Martin Looter) instituted their own Churches-networks? How were the 20 people who gathered in a British pub, and called themselves Bolsheviks, first able to appeal to so many Russian people? As soon as the revolution progressed, so did the Bolsheviks’ perceived need for brutal suppression of the opponents, and the Bolsheviks experienced the wave of dissent from their party-network. In the long run how did this predetermine the collapse of the Soviet Empire?

Of course it would be too simplistic to approach these large-scale historic processes solely from the prospective of network analysis. However, it seems that human institutions do operate more like networks than like self-contained isolated units (even when they deliberately search to be quite isolated and exclusive, like freemasons for example). A latter given to one mason would definitely travel to another mason even if he lived in a different country, just like a secret message from one Bolshevik to another would find its addressee within the network. This internal connectedness facilitated the effective functioning and guaranteed the survival of networks throughout history. In this sense networks definitely are not a discovery of modernity or post modernity, but it has been in the computer age that their social significance grew dramatically.

In the conclusion of her chapter, Amelia H. Arsenault calls for greater integration in field of network theory, and this call seems to me very timely given the new scientific insights into network power. First of all, relations within networks—the subject of ANT theory—seem to be as important as the ones outside network (Castells). For example, modern-day civil society is defined as “the realm of autonomous group action distinct from both corporate power and the state,” (Robert W. Cox, “Civil society at the turn of millennium”)—thus civil society is a multiplicity of networks which are excluded from corporate or state networks. Given the expectations vested in civil society in democratic theory (and practice), the quality and quantity of networks within civil society as well as the fact that they have been excluded from certain over networks are equally important.

Second, network theory seems to capture the core nature of multiple processes in the realms of social as well as physical worlds. Just like in cosmos all stars, galaxies, and even universes are held together by the force of gravity and exist in the eternal condition of mobility, in the same way social entities spring from the eternal movement of social forces, mature, and (most importantly) dissolve only to form new networks with new qualities on the basis of new means of communication. In this regard, it would be interesting to analyze the internal dynamics within growing networks to trace their life cycle. In his article, Grewal only hints at the fact that networks “decline over time,” but never develops this idea. In the meantime a better understanding of network dynamics would help us to shed light on many social processes. For example, why after the dissolution of the bipolar world, did connections between allied anticommunist countries weakene considerably giving rise to the multiple local alliances (like NAFTA) and more parochial policies (R. Gilpin, The Challenge of Global Capitalism) in all parts of the world? Was this outcome a pure accident, or maybe it was a predictable consequence of the dissolution of two powerful networks?  Or along the same lines, is the growing power of the “imperialistic” forces of globalization the beginning of the globalization’s end? For as history demonstrates, none of the empires was able to last forever, and the rise to dominance of one force is usually at the same time the beginning of its decline.

Sorry for the long post. For a diversion, here are two images: one of space, and the other a diagram of social network. These look kind of similar to me.

Friend Me.

I have a problem. I am not disciplined enough to use social media. I know, ironic, considering I am blogging as we speak, but honestly, I have no idea how to really use it. Sure, I look at my friends engagement photos and new babies. I post a funny lyric or quote from time to time. But when it comes to productively, consistently and well, straight up remembering, Facebook and I just aren’t great friends.

 It’s funny, because me being not as good friends with Facebook makes me less good friends with hundreds of people I don’t really know and otherwise would probably not even say hello to on the street. I feel excluded from this ever growing network society.

 Though I feel excluded from this society, I feel that not being as active makes me more included to many “real” friends. I actually have to call them to see what’s going on, get together to see pictures from their honeymoon, and even send an e-mail to catch up. Yes, scary thoughts, I know.

 More concisely I am saying that Facebook makes you feel included if you use it well, but excluded if you don’t. The reverse is that Facebook can exclude you from your “real friends” because you no longer need to work as hard to keep the relationship, and they may notice.

 Interestingly however, my international friends and I have much better relationships when they join Facebook. Perhaps this is because the alternative is not necessarily a visit or even a phone call. You can start where you left off with slight knowledge of what has been going on in their lives, and for some reason, in this case, it’s less creepy.

I find the idea of how social media sets an inclusive and exclusive environment fascinating. It is not a straight answer and can change by culture, by context and by medium. I bet I’ll notice this more often and maybe, just maybe, I’ll be better with Facebook.

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A Case of Hybridity in Tunisia

This news article about the animated film, “Persepolis,” being aired in Tunisia is from a few weeks ago, but I hadn’t had the chance to blog about it yet. It is especially interesting now that we know the Ennahda party has won a majority of seats in the Tunisian constitutional assembly.

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Broadcast of an Animated Film Roils Tunisia Before Elections
TUNIS — In the final week of the first election campaign of the Arab Spring, political discourse here in Tunisia has been all but consumed by contention over the television broadcast of an animated film, “Persepolis,” which touched off accusations of heresy and censorship. In a campaign that people here often describe in terms of a choice between East and West, the debate has come closer than any poll to identifying the political center, underscoring why so many expect a victory for Tunisia’smainstream Islamist party, Ennahda.

The episode began when a relatively small group of ultraconservative Islamists attacked the television station that had broadcast the 2007 film, about a Muslim girl growing up in post-revolutionary Iran, because of a scene in which she rails at God. He is depicted as she imagines him, violating an Islamic injunction against personifying him.

But it soon became clear that ultraconservatives were hardly the only ones offended. The broadcast has touched a nerve among a far broader section of Tunisia’s Muslims, even in the coastal regions where many pride themselves on their cosmopolitanism.

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The film is originally French and portrays many different issues including sex, drugs and Muslim identity. It also shows the main character’s imaginary personification of God, which is against the religion’s traditions. The movie is meant to be a critic of post-revolutionary Iran and focuses on a sort of Westernization of the main character who leaves Iran to live in Europe.

This is an interesting case through which we can talk about hybridity. In class, we decided that hybridity is more about a practice than it is a black and white definition. Therefore, we have to talk about it in terms of how it is made and understood as a reflection of its hybridity.

Persepolis juxtaposes the two supposed sides- the Middle East and the West, and its showing in post-revolutionary Tunisia became controversial because there is a similar debate going on in Tunisian society. It involves speculation over whether the new Tunisian government will be Islamic or secular.

The article mentions that the film was shown in colloquial Tunisian Arabic, instead of its original French, which is one main reason why it was so controversial. It quotes a Tunisia student: “If it was in French, it would be O.K., maybe because it would seem foreign to you,” said Eya Trabelsi, 21, a sociology student who said she supported Ennahda. “But for people who speak Arabic, that is not O.K.”

This is an instance of an attempt at hybridity that did not work. It is fascinating because the outside perspective would assume this film would be a popular point of discussion since the themes are prevalent in Tunisian culture, but instead it was appalling to the culture because it is 1) such as hot topic and 2) an insult to the most prevalent religion in society.

Whatever you call it…

Having worked in the advertising industry, I have trouble applying words like “culture” or “art” to the marketing industry, including advertising and commercialized TV. When I read scientific articles that employ mind-bending jargon and engage in extensive and sophisticated explanations of the possible “significance” of commercial products—actually, much more sophisticated than the content they discuss—I feel like they are all part of a very much self-content commercial  industry.

For me, the word “art” signifies some product that was made by a skilful master for the purpose of expressing meanings and ideas that are at the same time universal and reflective of the artist’s worldview. Usually, the closer the artist is to what we call a “genius,” the more universal and far-reaching are his creative discoveries. Thus, Plato’s Republic, Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, the anonymous architects of Notre Dame de Paris, and Raphael’s Sistine Madonna are all works of human creative genius that speak to us through the centuries. In more recent times, the photos of Henri Cartier-Bresson, the movies of Federico Fellini, and the performances of Martha Graham are examples of breathtaking and multi-layered art, which requires a certain level of training and sophistication on the part of the observer, and actively engages his imagination. In a way, art is an interactive process of dialogue between the artist and the observer about the universal themes of our life. Similarly, “Culture” is that nourishing soil, that symbolical context, which gave life to these works of art and without which they would probably never have been created.

For this reason, to me, the advertising industry has nothing to do with art. Everybody who has worked in the advertising industry knows what kind of cynical atmosphere that dominates there, especially with regard to the consumers. For a very realistic description of that environment I would recommend a book (and now a movie) by a former French advertising executive—now turned writer, Frédéric Beigbeder.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sF4EL5G7qhQ

None of the so-called “creators” in the advertising industry does what he really would want to do.  Writers don’t reflect their thoughts and ideas; designers do not produce visual art they would themselves love. Every decision is geared toward the sole goal of hawking “the product” (vodka, cookies, candy, deodorant) to the customer. The choice of slogans and visuals more often reflects the individual tastes of brand managers and marketing directors, as well as the financial capabilities of their corporations. The customer is left no choice but to passively consume this totally commercial “product” accompanied for “smooth swallowing” with images of ideally Photoshopped life. Even if this product—and I mean not only advertising, but cheap movies like telenovellas as well—engages the viewer, it is only to distract him from the gray reality of his everyday life and to provide a simulation of experience. Or now it is very popular to engage in a “game” with the consumer, make the process interactive—again to give a false feeling of participation and “empowerment.”   “Go on our cite and paint your own Nike shoes,” or “Go and order the Subversive Chicken around” —with the lowest common denominator possible in mind, just enough to sell you the product.

With time this passive observation effect, or simple undemanding rules of the “game,” accumulate to produce a certain kind of personality and mainly, as both Marwan Kraidy and Robert McChesney point out, reinforce the status quo of the market ideology and consumerism. As Ivy Lee, the founder of modern public relations noted, “Since crowds do not reason, they can only be organized and stimulated through symbols and phrases.” For this reason I am not working anymore in the advertising industry and don’t watch TV. At all.

Where did you get your cape?

Three years ago, I was walking in Woodley Park looking for a restaurant. I walked into a Thai place and the hostess said, “I’m sorry there’s a 30-minute wait.” I then looked around, and realized that I, dressed in jeans and a blouse, was way under dressed. Everyone in the restaurant was wearing a costume. There were antennas, neon colors, tails, wings, fake muscles – you name it, it was in this restaurant. Not wanting to wait, we left to go to another restaurant. We quickly learned that Connecticut Avenue was filled with people dressed up. I wondered if it was Halloween, but no – no it was only September. We finally asked someone and learned, that the costumed individuals were in DC staying at the Omni for the comic book convention.

It wasn’t the costumes or cult-like behavior that ultimately got my interest; I’ve been to many a Phish show, it was that these people were staying at the Omni.  I spoke with two women, identically dressed up, as they giggled about where they bought their wigs. I didn’t admit that I didn’t know who they were supposed to be, but I struck up conversation and learned that one was a student and the other an attorney in Missouri.

I guess the reason why this struck my interest was because the women were ‘normal’, they had conformed to society’s “go to school and get a job,” but were dressed in neon green wigs, a cape and a red mask. This to me is the epitome of what Henry Jenkin’s describes as fan culture. These women took a media that they enjoyed so thoroughly that they created it in reality.  But, only for the weekend. After the weekend they went back to studying and lawyering. This just showed me how easy it is to produce a fan culture. You don’t need to be predisposed to cultish behavior – you just need to be REALLLY interested, and in this case, have the means to stay at the Omni.

Perhaps this is a form of hybridity. Combining reality and fantasy without driving your life into the ground due to confusion. Perhaps this kind of culture can help people who would most likely not relate to one another, have something in common. After all, culture is the glue that keeps a society together  – and makes you relate to one another. How many times do you meet someone you see on a normal basis and realize that they have a similar ancestry, or live in the same apartment building and understand the wacky 4th floor tenant, or like similar cuisines, or absolutely love comic books. These are all cultures that bring people together in a way that is not traditionally seen. Perhaps fan culture can bridge a gap that otherwise would be left untouched.

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I hope this is what’s happening here

Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Thomas Friedman recently wrote a commentary about the global protest movement we’ve seen emerge in the past year or so. It’s called There’s Something Happening Here and it points to two different theories of why this is happening globally. The first is called “The Great Disruption,” in which “Paul Gilding, the Australian environmentalist and author of the book “The Great Disruption,” argues that these demonstrations are a sign that the current growth-obsessed capitalist system is reaching its financial and ecological limits,” according to the commentary. This argument states that the system is broken. People who have worked hard are still unemployed and the environment is getting worse and worse.

But John Hagel III, who is the co-chairman of the Center for the Edge at Deloitte, and John Seely Brown write in their recent book, “The Power of Pull,” that we’re in the early stages of a “Big Shift,” brought on by the merging of globalization and the Information Technology Revolution.

I like this theory better than the first. It states that the continues attempts to work in this dysfunctional system have caused the influx of protests. This is the point where change starts to happen.

Friedman writes that “the Big Shift also unleashes a huge global flow of ideas, innovations, new collaborative possibilities and new market opportunities. This flow is constantly getting richer and faster. Today, they argue, tapping the global flow becomes the key to productivity, growth and prosperity. But to tap this flow effectively, every country, company and individual needs to be constantly growing their talents.”

They write that this flow is unstoppable. It crosses barriers of distance and bridges poverty gaps. “We have more big problems than ever and more problem-solvers than ever.” The protest movement is the manifestation of those problem-solvers emerging.

I am an optimist, like Hagel, and I believe in the ability of people to collaborate and innovate using new information technologies to create change.

But then again, if this isn’t what’s happening, I’d be worried we won’t have jobs as international communications and media professionals, so of couse I believe in “The Big Shift.”

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Foreign factor: diasporic media as a source of alternative coverage of politically charged events

We talked in class about the power of diasporic media to sustain supranational imagined communities and to keep various dispersed-in-space enclaves immersed in the culture of their home countries, regardless of their actual geographic location. Recent events in New York made me look at diasporic media from a slightly different prospective, as well as reflect on the notion of media literacy and what it entails.

Russia Today (RT) is a Russian English language channel which was originally aimed at informing the world about events in Russia. Now it has a studio in Washington DC and bureaus in Miami, Los Angeles, London, and Paris, and supposedly is the second-most watched foreign news channel in the United States (after the BBC). So maybe Russia Today is not strictly a diasporic media channel, but it is definitely not main-stream here in the US. Regardless of its status, several of my American friends told me that if you want to actually know something about any country, don’t follow the domestic media, but instead watch channels like RT—high quality foreign-based media—because they tend to offer much more objective and thorough coverage of events happening in the United States.

Recent events in New York illustrate this perfectly. The American mainstream media had been ignoring Occupy Wall Street for about a week. After it became almost impossible to preserve the silence, virtually all of the media outlets, including the liberal ones like the New York Times (and these events are taking place in New York) came up with some articles and news reports that portrayed the whole thing as a gathering of a bunch of youngsters dressed up for Halloween. “Look at them, they don’t even know what they want!” – with the camera trying to catch the weirdest people in the crowd:

http://www.youtube.com/user/TheYoungTurks?feature=chclk#p/u/1/1x4ly3Gr3kw

At the same time, from the very first day of Occupy Wall Street, RT offered meaningful and interesting interviews with people on the streets, who were far from celebrating Halloween. They were talking quite openly about what exactly they were protesting, while the camera captured the other side of this supposed “Halloween parade”:

Here is another good example that RT is being heard, and is spoiling somebody’s game from time to time:

I am writing all this not to promote Russia Today. Just like I mentioned earlier, almost every country’s media are biased to some extent. But this particular coverage of the heavily charged political events offered by the US mainstream media (both the left and right) clearly illustrates an ideological “affiliation” with their corporate owners, as well as the importance of the alternative media’s disinterested (or interested to reveal as much truth as possible) voice, which can only be heard if people actually want to hear.

This takes us to the question of media literacy that was briefly discussed in the last class. I think at a minimum, media literacy should involve the realization that none of the media outlets, especially those belonging to huge media monopolies, are in any sense neutral, or “objective,” but rather bear some degree of bias which usually favors whatever side is in control of the particular media outlet. This realization is important because it urges us to search for possible alternative sources of information, especially if we want to learn more about politically charged issues, and the diasporic media can offer a very fruitful source of alternative opinion.