A signed statement on the failure of language

I’ve stayed away from commenting publicly on the new US administration. There’s so much fodder, so much grist, that it could easily overwhelm. It does overwhelm. Daily news feeds are prefaced and filled with coverage of Trump, his family, his appointments, his interests. My instinct is to stay completely away from it, for at least three reasons:

  • First, there is paranoia: we have yet to fully understand and appreciate the consequences of speaking ill or in any way that might be construed negatively. Trump is self-admittedly and famously vindictive, so paranoia in this case is more  a matter of healthy circumspection.
  • Second, there is the usual historian’s caution about offering premature commentary: let’s wait and witness the full unfolding of events, and allow the time needed for all the primary source materials about them to be made available, before crafting an account of events that might help make sense of it all.
  • Third, there are other things going on in the world, which is one of the larger points of the current D.C. diorama – in which it should be apparent to anyone with their peripherals fully engaged and calibrated: every spectacularly dissonant media event  obscures or distracts from an equally disturbing series of events elsewhere in the world.

But today’s meme, which focuses on Donald Trump’s handshake, is full of  the sort of communicative content that will delight symbolic interactionists, frame theorists, specialists in broadcast and rhetorical dominance, and anyone else who thinks about such things. Trump’s physical presence and its role in his political theatre has come up before. One prominent example arose during his campaign debates with Hilary Clinton. There have been others, including Trump’s 19 second long handshake with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his awkward handholding with British Prime Minister Theresa May.

It is precisely Trump’s violent handshake style that has caught the media eye over the last 24 hours, after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, apparely very well prepared  for the event, visibly countered Trump’s grasp. The ensuing commentary has been full of snapshot hilarity. One of the more literary pieces I’ve seen is Vice’s semi-satirical analysis  of the meaning of Trump’s handshake:

This is a handshake buried under the weight of its own meaninglessness, a black hole of metacommentary in a world where sense sloshes chaotically across a flat surface of signifiers unmoored from any attachment to truth or reason or even an orderly presentation of images. Donald Trump’s handshake is a signed statement on the failure of language here at the end of the world.

The Vice piece is worth reading in full.

A brief foray into distraction’s history

This looks interesting:

A Crisis of Short Attention Spans, 250 Years Ago

By Natalie M. Phillips | January 01, 2017

When most people think of distraction, they think of flooded inboxes, cellphone beeps, Twitter feeds. An ever-present and unavoidable consequence of our fast-paced contemporary world, distraction is cast as a — if not the — mental state of modernity. Whatever came before — childhood, our parents’ generation, the Enlightenment — must have been, it seems, a more attentive age.

Yet even a brief foray into distraction’s history discourages nostalgia about an idyllic past of easy attention, particularly when we consider the history of reading. Rather than a quiet environment in which audiences were always found absorbed, or “lost in a book,” 18th-century poets and artists describe reading as occurring amid high cacophony: chamber pots sloshing and street hubbub. John Gay’s poem “Trivia” offers us this soundscape of London street life: “Now industry awakes her busy sons, / Full charg’d with news the breathless hawker runs: / Shops open, coaches roll, carts shake the ground, / And all the streets with passing cries resound.” If we complain today of media, and social-media, oversaturation, writers then worried about industrial, vocal, and literary tumult.

Many people both presumed and complained of novels’ unusual ability to capture attention, but fiction competed with a flood of essays, poems, sermons, and histories. The expansion of the book trade inspired a further flourishing of reviews, anthologies, and summaries that were meant to manage this literary surplus but only added to it.

But if inattention was a worry for writers, it also became a literary theme.

Read the rest at the Chronicle of Higher Education, here.

What “post-factual news” means for researchers

Some semi-random thoughts, as headlines continue to focus on “post-factual” news:

There is a lot in common between what we’re seeing now in Britain and the US, and  researchable “news” in fragile and conflict affected states. The recent Brexit referendum and US Presidential campaigns are just the two, latest and possibly most prominent cases that come to mind wherein the tone and content of open media forces a radical rethink of how researchers can use it.

Fact-free politicians (and their allegedly fact-free constituencies) are just part of an emerging landscape. Analysts are barely able to make sense of the political framing of reality in their attempts to decipher what parties and politicians actually stand for, what they actually think and believe, or how much damage or disruption they actually intend to cause in future. It won’t be any easier for future historians of US and British politics who will have to contend with the morass of today’s media output as they attempt to reconstruct our present reality.

Guerrilla archiving efforts –  undertaken by climate scientists who fear political interence in the US in the form of mass deletions of decades of scientific research –  suggest that the stakes are substantially higher and that the problems associated with it are likely to become much more acute. Wilfully created gaps in current understanding are consequential, with more or less immediate resource, budgetary and policy  implications. By comparison, gaps in the future historical record are a problem for historians, and deciphering and validating the details of past events and developments that can be found in archived yellow press doesn’t seem like such a big deal.

There are some basic reasons why researchers should pay close attention to this. They revolve around the fundamental importance of context, precision and analytical judgement.  The lessons here are a bit more subtle, but they’re worth noting, especially among knowledge workers who rely heavily on “open source intelligence” and among the legions of people whose understanding of research process doesn’t get much more sophisticated than Google or Wikipedia.

It’s a challenge I’ve dealt with in the research and consulting projects I’ve done on guerrilla vernacular communications in West Africa, Afghanistan and elsewhere. I had the pleasure and privilege of working for a short time with the late and eminent Africanist, Stephen Ellis, before he left us in 2015. He expressed it best, in his books and in his work. In West Africa, oral culture prevailed and information was more often than not broadcast through cultural filters and images. Stephen always held that sense could still be made of documentary evidence (like local newsprint). These were sources that on the surface of it only transmitted utterly sensational and fantastic details. To use them effectively required a particular sensitivity to meaning – to the truth of a matter – that could only really develop when well supported by deep knowledge and additional, supplementary forms of inquiry.

Media outlets come in all shapes and sizes.  Some are loud and boisterous, while others are more stoic. “Newspapers of record” are a recognized form of the latter.  Some try to report what happened, while others try to convince readers why and how they happened. Media output, in other words, can serve more than one purpose, and only one of them is to provide researchers and analysts with a source of evidence needed to  determine the factual basis of past events: what happened, when it happened, who was involved, what they said about what happened and so on.  Reconstructing past events is a tricky business, and some media environments are so highly politicized – the rhetoric so overheated and contentious – that verifiable facts are almost impossible to discern from the collection of color and misdirection in which they’re embedded. Propaganda in wartime and in crisis environments is especially difficult to parse for verifiable details – here, the “facts” have less to do with manifest content  –  explicitly used words and text – than with the latent meaning that can be teased out of the wider contextual landscape and from more technical meta-data.