Monday, May 11, 2009

Liveblogging the Apocalypse

Florence, 1348. Despatches from the Black Death:
It was the common practice of most of the neighbours, moved no less by fear of contamination by the putrefying bodies than by charity towards the deceased, to drag the corpses out of the houses with their own hands, aided, perhaps, by a porter, if a porter was to be had, and to lay them in front of the doors, where any one who made the round might have seen, especially in the morning, more of them than he could count; afterwards they would have biers brought up or in default, planks, whereon they laid them. Nor was it once twice only that one and the same bier carried two or three corpses at once; but quite a considerable number of such cases occurred, one bier sufficing for husband and wife, two or three brothers, father and son, and so forth. And times without number it happened, that as two priests, bearing the cross, were on their way to perform the last office for some one, three or four biers were brought up by the porters in rear of them, so that, whereas the priests supposed that they had but one corpse to bury, they discovered that there were six or eight, or sometimes more. Nor, for all their number, were their obsequies honoured by either tears or lights or crowds of mourners rather, it was come to this, that a dead man was then of no more account than a dead goat would be today.
Whilst the plague rages through the city, ten young people from well to do families repair to a country estate and decide to pass the time by telling each other stories. That in a nutshell is Giovanni Boccaccio's The Decameron, considered by some the first novel, and a historical one at that. The stories themselves are, of course, pure joy to read: funny, dirty, ingenious, they drew on the already lively tradition of the novellieri, were enormously influential amongst European writers for centuries to come and remain the greatest single prose work in Italian literature. But it's always striking to reread that introduction, which undercuts from the outset the genteel escapism of the rest of the book, setting it against the sober description of the death of a city, with the attendant breakdown of the rules of society, of compassion, even of familial love.
Tedious were it to recount, how citizen avoided citizen, how among neighbours was scarce found any that showed fellow-feeling for another, how kinsfolk held aloof, and never met, or but rarely; enough that this sore affliction entered so deep into the minds of men and women, that in the horror thereof brother was forsaken by brother nephew by uncle, brother by sister, and oftentimes husband by wife: nay, what is more, and scarcely to be believed, fathers and mothers were found to abandon their own children, untended, unvisited, to their fate, as if they had been strangers.
According to some accounts, the Black Death wiped out as much as half of the population of Europe at the time. It made landfall in 1347, in Sicily, where it travelled on board Genoese merchant ships arriving from Crimea, and in less than three years it reached the frozen northern extremities of the continent, bringing about what many saw as the end of days. Another witness, Agnolo da Tura from Siena, writes:
I […] buried my five children with my own hands. And there were also those who were so sparsely covered with earth that the dogs dragged them forth and devoured many bodies throughout the city. There was no one who wept for any death, for all awaited death. And so many died that all believed that it was the end of the world.
Siena, until then a power on a par with Florence, would in fact never recover. The pestilence marked the beginning of its decline, and its population nowadays is a fraction of what it was in its late medieval heyday. It wasn’t the apocalypse, but it came pretty close.


Regular readers will know that I’m not fussed about being topical. 1348 is as good a year to discuss as any, as far as I’m concerned. But I am nonetheless struck about how distant in time, how staggeringly old news the swine flu outbreak already appears. Two weeks ago at eight o'clock on a Sunday morning I learned that such a thing existed from the radio bulletin. By eight o'clock that evening, the New Zealand Minister of Health was giving a press conference about the first all-but-confirmed cases in the country. This thing seemed to travel almost faster than news! There was little time to digest, understand, prepare, know what to think.

Initially I thought that the local media - bearing in mind we don’t watch much television - provided useful, measured coverage, heavy on the expert advice. A picture began to form, along the lines of: this may not be a pandemic, but it’s best to be prepared for the worst. Outside of Mexico, the strain seemed mild and responded to treatment. It was a matter of setting the appropriate systems in place and waiting to see how it would all pan out.

Waiting is not something that our media are very good at, as it turns out. Newscasters abhor a vacuum, and they quickly lost their nerve. Ben Goldacre started having to turn down offers to appear on shows to claim that the whole thing was a media beat-up. Somebody had to get the blame for the world not coming to an end, dammit! Or at least not coming to an end in orderly fashion, at the pace of the news cycle and in time for the six o’clock bulletin.

That’s how the media see the world, as a stopwatch. But the time of information is hardly linear: it skips and jumps, demands instantaneous, real-time access to what is current and at the same time is obsessed with forecasting what will happen tomorrow and the next day, be it in the stock market, on the weather front or inside your blood. It works forward as much as backwards, as Richard Grusin has been busy arguing for a while with his work on premediation. Recently he had this to say:
[M]edialogically we are already experiencing the pandemic. Our media experience in the run-up to a pandemic that might never occur is very much of a piece with, and in many cases identical to, the media experience we will have if a pandemic does occur. The effect of this virtual pandemic is at least twofold: to prepare us affectively for a pandemic if it were to happen, so that the public could deal more effectively with the shock of the disaster; and to provide us with the affective, medialogical experience of a pandemic whether or not it ever materializes.
That’s all very true, but I think there is another aspect to it: namely, that the virtual isn’t yet real, and the more the media insists on staking a virtual claim on how the future will unfold - often borrowing explicitly from the modes of cinematic narrative - the more these representations will strike us as fictional. You carry on in this fashion for long enough, and soon every human event on a global scale, no matter how legitimate a story, becomes an object of systemic scepticism bordering on the paranoiac.

I’m not an expert on conspiracy theories (unlike, say, Mr Dentith), but it seems to me that one could trace their confounding relationship with electronic mediation back to the uncanny film of JFK's assassination, so revealing and yet so inconclusive, a seemingly direct apprehension of the real yet without the means to get to the truth; and later most especially with the Moon landing, the very unlikelihood of that live link with outer space, and an astronaut turned chronicler of his own deeds. It all defied belief, as if scripted. And scripted it was: a camera was waiting, already deployed on the ground, to film Armstrong as he stepped off the ladder. The American flag was rigged up so that it would appear to wave, as it would have on our planet.

By the time we got to 9/11 this level of ultra-sophisticated, self-reflexive mediation was already built into the event, and Manhattan became quite literally a soundstage for murderers. Radical doubters were quick to seize the opportunity and in time came up with a whole new word to describe themselves: truthers. The Internet is their breeding ground, and fittingly so, since after all a healthy and sometimes unhealthy distrust of the mainstream is what keeps so many of us going here in cyberspace, is what motivates us to look for alternative voices and find and measure our own.

In the meantime, the real gets lost in the time shuffle and the news makes truthers of us all. It is all already a nefarious machination, from the exhilarating moment when the graphic announces that there is breaking news. By familiar paradox, it's the multiplication and constant enhancement of how our means to describe the real that makes mediated events appear simulated. Take the swine flu virus. Within days, it had been photographed

Represented as 3D graphical art

Turned into street performance

And had its amino acids sequence translated into a piece of ambient music.

The slow pace and sparse language of analysis, sober reflection and bearing of witness cannot compete with that level of time compression, the sense of being instantly there, in the event, critically involved, able to pass judgment and even decry the media spectacle itself or the advice of the WHO. When the pandemic shall come, as many virologists believe it will, we might refuse to recognise it, and die sceptical, stoic, invincible, like the towering aliens of HG Wells, cursing a common, unseasonable cold.


The last word this week goes to another witness. You had to dig pretty deep in the days after the outbreak to get the news from the epicentre, hear the voices of the Mexicans themselves. One such voice, recorded by Massimo Calandri for La Repubblica, belongs to writer Paco Ignacio Taibo II, and urges us to reflect on the slow, quotidian apocalypse of a society in decay, a disease immune to the news cycles, but no less virulent or deadly:
Take note, my friend. In Mexico City beat in unison the hearts of the first and of the third world. The cruel paradox is that in this city there are more university students than in New York, more clochards than in Paris, more poor than in New Delhi, more murder victims than in the England of Jack the Ripper, a police force more corrupt than Thailand's. […]

I live in a bubble, holed up in a burrow, and I wait. […] I spend my time at home, I read, I take some notes. And I reflect on the misinformation, on the efforts of those who tell you that this is a plague-stricken city. We obsess about the disease, and forget the permanent political crisis of this country, the shameful inefficiency of the federal government, the frightful economic crisis that eats us alive, the arrogance of the criminal organisations and the politicians, the daily massacres perpetrated by the drug traffickers. […] [Instead] they tell us - and tell you - another story, that of a metropolis and a country in the grip of the plague.


Make Tea Not War said...

I was thinking about swine flu and the story of the boy who cried wolf the other day. I was skeptical about it from the outset. In fact I am skeptical about every apocalyptic narrative particularly when it comes with quasi religious overtones about how it is only the true believers who will be saved- but I guess one day there could be a major pandemic or other disaster which I will be conditioned to refuse to believe in till the bitter end. So be it. I don't know how anyone could take every media manufactured crisis seriously and still stay sane. We will know if and when the black plague really walks among us and till then I'll just keep calm and carry on.

HORansome said...

Since you mention JFK... The History Channel, on occasion, makes interesting documentaries (they also seem to make an awful lot of junk about WWII), one of which was taking every available photo and piece of film of JFK's journey through the plaza from the day in question and making one continuous movie from it. That, in itself, was fascinating because it showed just how much of the event was recorded. The other thing they did was to take each and every shot of the grassy knoll from that document and recreate them both with and without someone standing where the other assassin is often thought to have been. It's a fairly good bit of detective work that pours doubt on the Conspiracy Theory that says Oswald didn't do it.

On topic: Dafoe's 'A Journal of the Plague Year' (and Pepys diaries) also make for harrowing reading of that time.

Taramoc said...

Media and hype seem to go together no matter the gravity of the news these days.

Not long ago, I landed on CNN during my surfing (I make a point non to watch it normally) and they had a breaking news whose title roughly was:

"Airplane over Connecticut may have an outside door not completely closed!"

and they had lined up all sort of experts explaining how frightful that really was.

In ten minutes or so, the announcement was completely defused as a false alarm, but the faces of the journalists trying to convince the viewers (and themselves I'd say) of the supposed gravity of the situation was priceless.

Giovanni said...

To clarify my position on this, though, I never meant to imply that the story was all hype, at least not initially. What worries me in fact is the scepticism that some expressed or felt from the outset, and I think it needs to be seriously looked at, because arguably all the media were doing at that stage was articulating the concerns of the WHO, which I would say is part of their core responsabilities to the public. I don't recall any religious overtones in those initial reports but even if they had been there I'm not sure they would authorise the conclusion that it was all a "media manufactured crisis". And the fact that the pandemic didn't eventuate doesn't authorise that conclusion either, insofar as at the time of the outbreak it could have gone either way, in the opinion of the people we put in charge of warning us about precisely these events.

Unless you happen to be a virologist, it seems to me that the disbelief on day one can be chalked up as yet another symptom of the dysfunctional relationship between the public and the media: We don't trust them, they don't serve us (see under "Iraq, war in"). But reflexive, uninformed scepticism on the eve of a possible pandemic can be deadly, and that deserves some reflection.

@HORansome - that sounds like a great doco, I'll see if I can locate a copy. It reminds me of Coppola's The Conversation, which no doubt has come under your radar during the course of your research.

stephen said...

If we assume that the news media's purpose is to entertain, and that "entertain" means "stimulate an emotional response in the audience" then it all makes sense. Some news providers are more coy about this than others, of course.

But reflexive, uninformed scepticism on the eve of a possible pandemic can be deadlyTo be informed, as opposed to inflamed, we have to do our own research. It takes considerable effort to be an informed skeptic (and even more to be a _correctly_-informed skeptic).

I reckon this is where public broadcasting should have a role, and it could if it weren't caught in the contradictions of not competing with commercial networks, and yet justifying its existence through audience share.

Giovanni said...

If we assume that the news media's purpose is to entertain, and that "entertain" means "stimulate an emotional response in the audience" then it all makes sense.

Surely that's the purpose of the entertainment industry, whereas the news media are supposed to inform us.

Cue laugh track)

But seriously, that's why I think that what Grusin writes about "preparing us affectively" for the pandemic is so relevant. And it may well be that my appreciation of the initial media response comes in no small measure for having relied mostly on public service radio (RNZ and BBC). But the herald and the stuff websites responded well at first too.

James said...

..a healthy and sometimes unhealthy distrust of the mainstream is what keeps so many of us going here in cyberspace, is what motivates us to look for alternative voices and find and measure our own.

I worry that alternative viewpoints are only different views of the same thing.

George said...

Not only a stopwatch, but one with only four cities outside New Zealand; Los Angeles, New York, London, Sydney. These are the places where important things happen.

Giovanni said...

Anglo-centrism in the media? Never!

I worry that alternative viewpoints are only different views of the same thing.

I'm struck by the uniformity (of rhetoric, primarily) that emerges in online communities - Twitter is really quite staggering in that respect, at times one gets the impression that everybody talks with exactly the same voice. And when it becomes a cultural dominant scepticism can also be a form of conformity of course. I only have half-formed thoughts at best on this, however.

James said...

I'd like to add a quarter formed thought to that: some of us who might have been dissidents who made real changes have been declawed and become (erudite, morally and artistically impeccable) commentators on commentary. Probably as a result of the deluge of information that makes change seem impossible, like rowing a canoe up the Niagara Falls.

Giovanni said...

I tentatively began to comment on this back in March, and will have more to say, but I am not terribly impressed with the argument that the world has become too complicated for us to act politically, sometimes with the implication that the blame goes to 'culture' (and postmodernism and postmodernists in particular) for ruining the old fun that some of us had of always knowing how to tell the good guys apart from the bad guys, and define ourselves and the world in terms of, say, the class struggle and little else. I remain a socialist, but I think socialism needs to adapt its instruments of perception and persuasion, of organisation and action, to changes that are material and not just representational. And it will be the better for it.

To the extent that 'we' have been declawed, I think it's been largely self-inflicted. There's still as much scope and motive for dissent as there has ever been, not to mention opportunities and areas in which one can act.

James said...

I'm not impressed by the 'world being too complicated' agrguement either because 'complicated' implies a problem of conceptual difficulty or confusion about real choice. Isn't the problem all about sensory overload (add punch drunk to declawed!)rather than postmodernism? If postmodern theory questions a grand theory like socialism, most socialists (a broad continuum) will either be unaware of that or use it to improve the model. That's all good. The opportunities for dissent are better than ever in the sense that you won't get beheaded for speaking your mind, but far worse than ever because ideas gets lost in the avalanche of junk information. So it's much more rewarding in all kinds of ways to critise the media and commentate on culture than be an activist. Is that a self-inflicted problem (does anything happen without a cause)?

Now I'm worried that I'm criticising the right to do whatever makes you happy and brings others happiness...

May said...

I enjoyed reading both the post and the comments, although I wouldn't be able to formulate an opinion. When medias are involved, I have a difficulty distinguishing true events from likely events.

harvestbird said...

Our coming death certificates
get written by others every day:

one thousand million choices
will cumulate, futilely, at our grave.

The world's a-flurry with augurs
who cast grand lots on the what-might-happen:

my money's on the safer bet
that what I'm now doing will one day kill me.

Giovanni said...

my money's on the safer bet
that what I'm now doing will one day kill me

Or not. I think part of the disquiet that a flu pandemic engenders has to do with its randomness, sort of like a viral cancer - a disease without causation, other perhaps than our collectively carcinogenic, pandemic-causing lifestyle, but at the end of the day it could leave you cursing 'why me?'. And naturally there is fright in the idea of a disease that might spread faster than our ability to cure it, as opposed to other contemporary scourges - like malaria, or the measles - that we know in fact how to cure and prevent, but choose not to based on a class and racially based cost-benefit analysis. Knowing that you might yet die because of something you've done, as opposed to having been born at the wrong latitude or in the wrong family, is a luxury of sorts.

The opportunities for dissent are better than ever in the sense that you won't get beheaded for speaking your mind, but far worse than ever because ideas gets lost in the avalanche of junk information.

It's not that I think that the information glut isn't a problem - and it speaks to May's point I think as well, in that being more informed is not the same thing as being better informed - but I don't see it primarily as a political problem. Militancy has always involved strong choices and affiliations, subscribing to a worldview and a set of critical and analytical tools, and those also happen to be instruments to combat the glut of information. Militants and activists are unlikely to feel that there is too much information out there, and I think in many ways it has become easier to connect and organise around common causes, circulate political ideas. By much the same token, postmodernism may have made us more critical of totalising narratives, that much is true, but the glut of information makes us feel a greater need for them, so no excuses there either. To the extent that socialism has fallen on hard times, I strongly believe it has everything to do with historical failures and very little to culture dominants conspiring against it.

(I'm also a strong believer in getting off the bloody mat already.)

James said...

I assume getting off the bloody mat already means getting going in the real world? :-)

I don't think the 'information age' is a political conspiracy to crush socialism. It's failed historically on its own already, as you say. The info glut is money and technology driven rather than a conspiracy of oppression, but the beffudling load of junk has huge effects on politics and behaviour.

I'd be very surprised if militant action hasn't occurred in small and discrete communities without the aid of a Manifesto, in other word a post-modern style of militancy.

harvestbird said...

Knowing that you might yet die because of something you've done, as opposed to having been born at the wrong latitude or in the wrong family, is a luxury of sorts.Indeed, and I think that goes to the heart of the way in which large-scale disasters of any kind hurt the poor in particular, since it's they who bear the brunt, more frequently, of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I wonder if the threat of pandemic is particularly frightening to the middle-classes for precisely that reason: the unpredictability of their spread makes us vulnerable in ways that we are typically not.

James said...

The poor are always the most vulnerable. Most of the (middle class)fasciination about swine flu in NZ is a kind of schadenfreude, isn't it?

I like the the fact that your poem has a clear subject. And I agree with it's sentiment: we're more likely to die of what we're doing -but only because we're privilged, as Giovanni says.However, (to step from content to form) I think your poem sets up the expectation of rhyme with the first two couplets(day/grave) so the conclusion falls a tad flat on the ear. Please feel fee to ignore this! It's gong out on a limb, I know, to comment on something other than the content in a posting.

harvestbird said...

James: not at all. I'm glad of all feedback on content and form. It's a privilege to have this soapbox and I do a variable job on it from week to week, so comment any time. (Assuming this suits Signor Tiso, of course!)

Giovanni said...

You're kidding me? I'm delighted, in a Cheshire-cat-like manner. Although if you two are not careful I might rope you into some sort of verse-off.

A post on the information glut is forthcoming and we can pick up and unpick that particular topic then.