March Blog

Strange Intimacies : socialising the  media  or mediatising sociality?

For the  last six months I have been in almost daily contact with my editors  at Lawrence Wishart and Five Leaves about matters  arising from  books of mine they are publishing. The relationship  that has developed  between us has  been an intense, occasionally  stressful, but ultimately very rewarding  affair; it reminded me a bit of Helene  Hanff’s  transatlantic correspondence with Frank Doel, her bookseller at 84 Charing Cross Road. Helene and Frank  never get to meet, but over the years their mutual passion for  books sustains their relationship.  In my case,of course, the correspondence was about the mechanics of book   production not  their acquisition  and it was conducted not by monthly letters but through the instant address of email. I have not yet met with  my editors in the flesh, although  I am looking forward to doing so at the launch  in April. Yet we have exchanged jokes and gossip, discussed matters of life and death in the context of a family  bereavement, confided  anxieties and hopes about the future of publishing and left politics, and much else besides.  The experience has made me think about the nature of the intimacy  that can be shared between strangers who never get to meet face to face and the extent to which this is facilitated or inhibited by the advent of the new electronic media.

There seems to be two main schools of thought  on  this issue and the debate is pretty polarised. On one side  of the argument there are those who follow the Adorno line and see the new media as a  more intensified form of alienation and  manipulation, reproducing  social atomisation  while simulating intimacy and imposing the norms and values  of  global consumer capitalism. On the other, there are those who adopt a McLuhanite ‘global village’  perspective and  see the Internet, twitter, face book, and the blogosphere as  a new commons,  creating  democratic, open access  networks of public deliberation and debate . Seemingly  these viewpoints cannot both be right, but perhaps they have each got hold of one aspect of the truth, because these media are indeed contradictory  or doubled edged.

This is the point made by   Hans Magnus Enzensberger  in his pioneering study   ‘Constituents for a theory of media’. He castigates the Left for being mesmerised by the Orwellian fantasy of electronic  media  as an instrument of mass propaganda  and surveillance, being used as a means of covert monitoring or brainwashing. Perhaps, given the prevalent use of phone tapping  by totalitarian regimes, the omnipresence of CCTV cameras  for ‘security’ purposes,  that fact that mobile phones can be used to track people’s movements, and the unacknowledged  collection of data about on line transactions, there are some rational grounds  for  concern about the extent to which these media are invading our privacy.

Yet Enzensberger’s main argument is that the new media  are technologies of two way communication  in the hands of  the masses  and, as such,  cannot be easily regulated or supressed;  they   have opened up new strategies of political and social mobilisation  and undermined both the monopoly and legitimacy of  corporate and government news agencies. There are indeed many instances where  events  the state  would wish to cover up or ignore have been recorded  by  eye witnesses and broadcast around the world, and of political actions being co-ordinated on line.

However these usages  do not answer my central question about whether the new social media can and do bring about an enhancement or an impoverishment in the quality of everyday life. As a test case let’s consider You Tube,  and more specifically its use as a medium of communication by young people, especially those who may be socially isolated and suffering from  various kinds of discrimination. In the privacy of their bedrooms hundreds  of thousands of young people across the globe  talk to camera  and open their hearts about the emotional problems they are having with parents, friends, and lovers. The video webcam has become a mass confessional which both encourages disclosure and preserves anonymity. It can be  an open  invitation to exhibitionism/voyeurism as performer and viewer become locked in an addictive  folie a deux centred on a shared delusion of  mutual seduction. Yet what is interesting about the coming of age stories which young people tell to their web-camera is  how closely they conform to the narrative conventions of the genre  and yet how  spontaneous and unrehearsed their delivery is. For gay young people who are often subject to homophobic bullying  at school there is no doubt that You Tube has provided an important source of co-counselling and mutual support  which has   enabled many of them to come out to parents and ‘straight’ friends. The medium has provided   a platform for shared testifying and bearing witness in a way that furnishes  the props of a gay identity that might not otherwise be available.

Whatever criticisms can be made of  such ‘identity politics’,  it seems to me that  the kinds of intimacy between strangers which electronic media afford  in principle escape the instrumental rationality  and precautionary principles which dominate so much of our contemporary culture in favour of a imagined community where principles of social justice and equity prevail.   Of course, the possibility of their  perversion by practices  of  sexploitation and commercial commodification is always present in social network sites,  but it can at least be controlled through moderation. A more telling criticism of this medium is that it reinforces what has been called the ‘just in time production of  subjectivity’ – it  encourages   the drive  to continually re-invent the self, to become an ‘author of one’s own life’  that is such an important feature of the contemporary discourse of social aspirationalism  and its associated culture of public impression management.   Yet these on line performances  remain socially embedded – the You Tube stories are all about family and friends, even if their idiom is highly individualised. They inevitably lack   the perspectival depth that characterises  narratives belonging to oral traditions of long duration; these coming of age stories are not miniaturised versions of  the classical bildungsroman, they are little vignettes of adolescent angst. But what they lack in sophistication they often make up for in emotional intensity.  Not that I am about to re-launch myself in cyberspace via You Tube, facebook or twitter. I leave that to  those who have greater facility  in these media technologies, and also perhaps a greater need to communicate  the urgencies of their everyday lives. My own ambition  in this direction  is more than satisfied  by this monthly blog.