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'New Media and Blood' (on witnessing YouTube videos of Egypt and Tunisia). A guest blog by Christopher Smit

Today's post by Christopher Smit is his second offering as Intellect's latest guest blogger. Smit focuses on the relationship between 'new media' and the recent scenes of violence recorded on the streets of Egypt and Tunisia.

Words by Christopher Smit

I just watched Anderson Cooper from CNN and his crew get attacked by rioters in the streets of Cairo, Egypt. It was posted on the CNN website minutes after it happened. The footage, while shaky because of the surrounding chaos of the scene, is high-quality, HD. Like most CNN online videos, it smacks of a professional aesthetic even as its content mirrors that of the pedestrian motif.

In last week’s class, a 200 level course on New Media, I shared with my students a video from YouTube that showed striking scenes from another recent protest in Egypt. This too was posted almost immediately after it happened. And like the CNN video of Cooper getting attacked, this one is also high quality, HD footage sponsored by a news and media organization called RT.

However, it is the handheld, HD but low resolution, 22 second YouTube clip of recent street riots in Tunisia that has made me reflect the most about the relationship between revolution, new media, perspective, and blood.

I suppose it’s the eye looking through the cell phone, or small video recorder, that keeps me thinking about this very short glimpse of political upheaval, organized protest, and cultural chaos. The only description for the video, offered by its poster, is “Started to kick off, got some footage and got out of there.” Although the clip has been viewed a little more than 5000 times, there are very few comments on the website. Others, I suppose like myself, left  speechless by the profound snapshot. Or perhaps, more sinisterly, bored with yet another new media experience among thousands that day will bring.

The phrase “started to kick off” makes me think that the I/eye whose perspective we are sharing for that 22 seconds is young, unaccustomed to picturing the Other when it is suffering. MJBOY24 has only uploaded two other videos, both are equally short and frightening scenes from Tunisia. The perspective given in these clips is detached, normalized, and contextualized by the many online videos we have consumed over the last five years: short clips of someone falling off a picnic table, of some adolescent laughing so hard his Coca-Cola comes out his nose, of the object of someone’s desire, of a political candidate selling an ideology, of the  news show covering the shooting at the corner grocery store, of anything we deem important. We watch. We click. We move on.

And yet, the video from Tunisia sticks with us because it’s somehow more real than the other things we tend to watch on YouTube or Vimeo. Or is realness even the issue? Probably not. New media reality has unanchored those realities which we inhale and exhale through our daily experiences, so much so that our ways of presenting ourselves, talking to each other, and assigning value have completely been altered as of late. Put plainly, we are shaking perspective up, throwing it up in the air and seeing how it lands.

It usually lands in some sort of arena of entertainment. Using a location app on my iPhone, I can tell friends where I am, the movie theater for example. Hey, they are here too! We meet up, buy a ticket, take in a flick, post about it on Facebook, connect with other viewers of the film, make a plan. The next time we watch a film we do it on my Apple Computer.

Another usual landing spot, consumerism. I get a link on MySpace to listen to a new band. This week, it’s a band from Grand Rapids, Michigan called ghost heart. I follow the link, do some archaeological searching through my ISP, I introduce it to friends on Facebook, and then eventually make my way to iTunes to purchase the record. Point A to point B, introduction to consumption, in about 10 min. It has become a process that most of us are quite familiar with, as are 1 million other people trying to make a buck off of our repetitive behaviors.
http://www.ghostheart.com/

But in unexpected landing spots, like violence, we are jarred out of the repetition. Or we should be. We surf, surf, surf, and then… violence, reality, blood. Not fake blood, not gaming blood spewing out of a head of a Third World soldier from Call of Duty: Black Ops. Not even actual blood  spoiled on surface, but the blood rushing through the veins of instant experience, of un-mediated  (yet mediated still the same), living, breathing people who have more to do then add friends to Facebook, download a CD, or watch autotune the news. They are the news. And we are just watching.

Susan Sontag writes that these images, first photographs, now video, are meant for us, a privileged “we.” In her book Regarding the Pain of Others she says:

Who are the “we” at whom such shock-pictures are aimed? That “we” would include not just the sympathizers of a smallish nation or a stateless people fighting for its life, but–a far larger constituency–those only nominally concerned about some nasty war taking place in another country. The photographs are a means of making “real” (or “more real”) matters that the privileged and the merely safe might prefer to ignore (2003; 7).

And because of the new media, the “we” is getting so big that there is perhaps a paradox of this unfound community builder–our collective is fragmented. Ourselves are simply us, isolated, individual. Or are they? These are the types of questions that the Tunisia video brings up. Are we disinterested, privileged viewers of blood. Is that the only way to think about a YouTube video because of its context? Is our witnessing of Egypt, Tunisia, the Sudan, Tucson, and every other chaotic zone of experience, even witnessing at all? Or is it just spectacle? Because to truly witness something is to have it witness us back, to have it articulate meaning on top of us just as we do to it.

There is the possibility that as we continue to consume images and sounds off of the landscape of new media that we will begin to take closer note to the places our perspectives are falling. Picturing violence, sharing it, and looking at it will be fertile ground to test whether or not new media can become more than shopping, more than convenience, more than paper thin experiences of postmodern life.  Postmodernity need not be shallow.

The revolution was televised, now it is digitized. Watch it bleeding. Feel it. And only hit “like” if you are willing to let it “like” you back.

Next week: Naming a Book (on using Facebook to figure out Britney Spears)
 

Smit's innovative work includes Screening Disability and The Exile of Britney Spears:: A Tale of 21st Century Consumption.

Posted by Christopher Smit. Posted by James Campbell at 13:18 (0) comments
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