Populism and the question of political time

Dr Jason Edwards, Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck, comments on the quickening pace of politics in the context of a resurgent populist movement.populismoriginalThe many remarkable political developments of the last year – most notably the vote in favour of Brexit and Donald Trump’s election as President – are less extraordinary than they may seem at first sight if we regard them as recent moments in a longer-term acceleration of political time. It was Harold Wilson who (supposedly) said that ‘a week is a long time in politics’, but fifty years later this seems like an understatement. The pace and rate of political change today seems unprecedented.

One way in which we might view the current success of ‘populist’ political parties and movements is that they are a response to this acceleration of political time. Populists often berate politicos obsessed with the minutiae of political intercourse, hooked on Twitter and the 24-hour news cycle. But of course, there is a paradox here: populists have come to prominence and to power precisely by the use of those media that most readily lend themselves to the acceleration of political time. Donald Trump’s victory would not have been possible thirty or even twenty-years ago: not just because of the direct line he had in the election campaign to his followers on Twitter, but by the saturation coverage he received in the ‘mainstream’ media.

Populists have thrived on the permanent election campaign that has come to characterise the politics of democracies. It was not their invention. Nor was it a simply technologically-driven process, made possible by innovations in broadcasting and digital communications. Rather, the permanent election campaign is a central feature of neo-liberal governance. The logic of neo-liberalism transforms citizens into consumers, and political knowledge into a marketable commodity. Political knowledge was once tough to digest and even tougher to produce; but today it has been broken down into eminently digestible, often tasteless nuggets, and virtually anyone can add to the stock of knowledge through a tweet or by posting in the comments section on the website of a national newspaper.

Populism seems like a reaction against neo-liberalism. But, in fact, in its most prominent contemporary form – that is, the populism of the authoritarian nationalist right – it follows the same relentless logic of commercialisation and de-politicisation. A politics that promotes dissent, or even that calls for careful deliberation of important matters is routinely dismissed by populists. It promises instead to outdo the technocrats by providing quick and ‘simple’ solutions to what are deeply complex, and often intractable problems. Most obviously in the shape of Donald Trump, it offers the prospect of an effective politics by adopting the ruthless efficiency of the modern corporation (or at least what is supposed to be its ruthless efficiency, which in reality often masks inefficiency, inertia, and corruption).

By appealing to an idealised past of social harmony and effective authority, populists may seem to venerate a simpler and more authentic world, where politics was not driven by the permanent election campaign. But this is a veneer – populism in its contemporary forms is very much a product of a (hyper-) modern world of accelerating political time and diminishing public space. It is driven along by these transformations rather than presenting a challenge to them.

Populism might prompt us to think more seriously about the question of political time, because it may frame certain central problems about how we are governed in the present. Despite its avowals, populism does not slow down political time but accelerates it to the point of permanent crisis and reaction. We are seeing the manifestation of this ever-greater acceleration in the multiple crises of politics. How we slow down political time is a question now worth asking.

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Twitterfiction can work, but David Mitchell’s story is a bit of a flop

BiancaLeggettThis post was contributed by Bianca Leggett, a research student in the Department of English and Humanities. It was originally published on The Conversation.

When an author who insists he is “not really a social media animal” writes a Twitter story, we should at least raise an eyebrow. When that same author goes on to say he wrote the story at his publisher’s instigation, we might question what the point is in reading on. You wouldn’t catch a novelist promoting his new book of poems by announcing that he never really liked poetry but, you know, he thought he’d give it a go.

But then, David Mitchell is an author who can afford to take risks. Since the publication of Ghostwritten in 1999, Mitchell has won, not only a succession of awards and a huge and ardent readership both within and far beyond academic circles. I can think of no other author who has won a Richard & Judy Book Award and also been the subject of two academic conferences and an essay collection.

Mitchell’s novels are typically of a genre which Douglas Coupland termed “translit”, made up of a vast number of narrative threads which are interlaced across space and time, sometimes extending into the realm of supernatural or futuristic. The reader is challenged to “join the dots”, not only revealing a skillful patterning at work in Mitchell’s writing, but also an ethical message about the interconnection — and interdependence — of all life. Twitter, itself a vast dot-to-dot playing out across time and space, ought to hold some promise for an author of Mitchell’s inventiveness.

The Right Sort, which began on July 14 and just culminated, is one such dot. Tweeted in a succession of twice-daily bursts for a week which leaves the reader hanging, it is itself a kind of teaser. The story is apparently set in the “same universe” as Mitchell’s upcoming novel The Bone Clocks, but until readers get a look at the novel when it comes out in September, we won’t know quite where in that universe it fits.

It’s 1978 and Nathan Bland, a sensitive teen struggling with his parents’ divorce, is being dragged to a “soirée” by his mother. On reaching the strangely out-of-the-way house, he is abandoned to the company of Jonah, a boy with a strange confidence and peculiar turn of phrase. Nathan’s senses have been skewed by the valium he sneaked from his mother’s supply that morning. This gives some elasticity to our reading of his following narration as it turns more macabre and fantastical. If the story begins by recalling Mitchell’s most straightforward novel, Black Swan Green, it soon steers us into darker territory, a place in which time begins to behave in a thoroughly unsettling manner.

In interview, Mitchell has gamely suggested some of the literary possibilities of Twitterfiction which he has tried to harness in this story. He has spoken of the creative possibilities of the “straitjacket” form of 140 characters, citing the famously obscure Oulipo movement as a parallel. The “pulse-like” quality of each Tweet, meanwhile, allowed him to mimic Nathan’s valium saturated perceptions.

Fair enough, but none of this suggests that Mitchell has actually read any Twitterfiction, nor really begun to appreciate some of its unique possibilities. He’s been missing out.

Ideally, tweets should be able to stand alone or be read together with equal fluency: Teju Cole’s sharply satirical Seven short stories about drones or Jennifer Egan’s futuristic spy story Black Box achieved this.

Twitter’s rhythm best suits a description of the present or imagined future and can be turned in on itself, as Cole and Egan use it, to question the direction in which we are moving. Hurtling by in a fragmentary form, tweets remain potentially intimate and can accumulate power by being played out over time. Jonathan Gibbs’s beautifully written @365daystory was being told over the period of a year and described the story of one woman’s life from birth to death. The project has now been handed over to new authors, suggesting another of the possibilities which Twitterfiction has opened up: collaborative authorship.

The noise surrounding Mitchell’s story suggests it has been well received, but appreciated in the manner we gulp down a taster at an ice cream stand. We were going to buy the full-sized portion anyway, but a little free sample has generated our good will and whetted our appetite. The Right Sort is a rich short story in itself, but remains, in essence, a Twitter story for people who don’t like Twitter. Its multiple cliffhangers frustrate more than they delight and will surely have confirmed for many first time Twitterfiction readers what they already suspected: that they’d rather curl up with a book.

The Conversation

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Twitter trolls – it’s nothing personal…

This post was contributed by Dr Tim Markham, Reader in journalism and media in the Department of Media and Cultural Studies.

Twitter phoneTrolling has been all over the news this week, with lurid details of spiteful, sometimes threatening tweets targeting feminist campaigners like Caroline Criado-Perez and politicians such as Stella Creasy, combining with instant punditry and small-p political tribalism to create a media frenzy. The nature of the abuse is certainly eye-catching: at a time when a list of banned insults can be drawn up and distributed to fans of Liverpool FC, there’s something about seeing people being so rude that breaks through the seamlessness of our ambient, often amiable trawl through media.

Others have pointed out that it has the unmistakable whiff of a classic moral panic about it, amplified by the involvement of celebrities, half-recognised public figures and a technology still just new enough to provoke unease about how it’s wormed itself into the banalities of everyday life. This is part of a two-decade shift from the early days of the internet when fluid, un-pin-downable identity was something to play with, to today’s predominance of identity management coloured by perceived risk, actual or otherwise.

But why so nasty? For those already endowed with a particular flavour of public profile it’s a novel and often effective means of garnering attention: the mutual invective hurled by Lord Sugar and Piers Morgan can be fun to watch, though we know it’s no less confected than Gordon Ramsay’s vituperative televisual self. For others it’s a way of performing authenticity in a moment when that’s a scarce commodity and we’re open to recognising it in 140 characters or fewer on the screen of a smartphone. Irvine Welsh’s tweets are disarmingly filthy, and Caitlin Moran’s sometimes outré swagger seems unaffected, though her casual use of impolitic terms of derision has wearingly provoked accusations of hypocrisy in the current debate.

But trolling is different, right? It’s common at this juncture to evoke the driving metaphor: put a screen between yourself and the world and you experience a different kind of anonymity to what you feel on the high street or in a pub, a protective bubble that gives you licence to swear, sing, gesticulate and make (usually) hollow threats. If Twitter encourages similar disinhibition, then the solution might be to ban anonymity, Facebook-style.

Whether that is really an option depends on what sort of space we want Twitter to be, and while thousands of academic and commentators are gleefully holding forth on this question at the moment, there are four basic answers. The first comes from the network society evangelists who claim that by placing as few restrictions on social media as possible, new self-organising cultures will emerge and the best ideas will float to the surface. Well, no. Sure, Twitter is capable of making innovations and insights better known, but no more than it provides a platform for trolls – there is nothing about its architecture that naturally gears it towards democratic ends.

Next, others argue that with the right kind of restrictions on communication, including the responsibility that comes with being known to others, social media can furnish us with a new kind of public sphere where we can be more engaged, better citizens. But this expects media to solve what is essentially a problem of politics – disengagement – and while there’s no shortage of debate on Twitter, and not all of it vapid, it lends itself towards the kneejerk exchange of opinion, often entertainingly, sometimes uncomfortable, that should not be mistaken for the hard, usually boring work of public deliberation.

In the past week or so we’ve seen another vision of Twitter rear its head: a means of self-expression, a voice.  There is a real fear that trolling could lead to women writing about rape or domestic violence being silenced, and underlying this is the notion that Twitter users should above all treat each other with respect. There’s plenty of evidence of this on the platform, with some corners dripping in unctuousness rather than venom – a deluge of praise that makes some, like commentator Charlie Brooker, squirm. But this raises the difficult question of what relation tweeters actually have to one another, and what they are capable of doing to each other social media, for good or for ill. Is Twitter really a viable medium for a relationship of mutual respect between individuals with no other connection? It should go without saying that credible threats of violence should be taken seriously, and there are laws in place to make this so. Intentionality, though, is tricky, as you’ll know if you’ve joked about blowing up an airport. But what if the intention is to offend, not in the sense of being generically offensive, a cause with many supporters, but to inflict personal torment?

This is trickier still. The argument you often hear is that intention is irrelevant: if someone feels offended, then offence has been caused. But while this makes sense in the workplace, it’s not self-evident that Twitter is that kind of space of interaction. True, it’s different from being offended by a TV programme, because it feels personal, but just how personal is it? This is not to say that being trolled isn’t upsetting, nor that the internet is just a virtual space where nothing really matters. And severing the link between an author’s intention and the meanings their texts engender certainly gels with the spirit of postmodernism. But we know that people feel some kind of relation to disembodied others on social media, though it is different from interactions with people we know, or could identify if we wanted to. It can feel intimate, too intimate, to be thrown into a hostile flurry of tweets aimed at you, but it can also be put into perspective, distanced. Cambridge prof Mary Beard is adept at this, responding to tweets speculating about her genitalia by pointing out that such insults are ubiquitous in history and as such mundane, as is the sort of trolling that imagines out loud the various tortures and humiliations they’d like to see meted out on someone. It’s still uncomfortable, but not an attack on her because – to use the sociological lingo, interactions online between individuals who don’t personally know each other are not interactions of authentic selves.

Ah, the authentic self. The other cry of despair heard across the media this week has been about what trolling reveals about what people are really like when the niceties of normal social interaction are foregone. Suddenly exposed is a hard-wired culture of misogyny and violence, or, on the other side of the argument, a crisis of masculinity, an incoherent, badly spelled howl of rage from those men – working class, presumably – society has left behind as it has become more enlightened, respectful, tolerant. But to be a bit methodological about things, this implies that a twitter stream reveals the soul, the true identity of the tweeter. And this brings us to the fourth way of thinking about Twitter – as a communicative, rather than existential, space. Years ago Erving Goffman examined in great detail the rituals of interaction that people have to learn in order to participate in all manner of communication, whether through media or face-to-face. He was particularly interested in the difference between the ‘backstage’ work we do in order to present a coherent, competent self to others in social situations, and his ideas work well in the context of social media. But when asked what he felt this revealed about the true self underlying our everyday performances, he replied that he just wasn’t interested in the true self. I like to think that I am interested in other selves, but I take his point about not looking for them in the wrong places. Our selves are not manifest in our social media interactions with unknown others, and the cheering corollary is that we are not as fragile on Twitter as some have been suggesting.  Making no excuses for trolling, it can at least be put into context as a form of communication: narcissistic, certainly, and expressing alienation and animosity, but in a way that is generational rather than endemic to the social media age. It would be counterproductive at this point to diagnose a new form of evil in trolling. It may be hateful, but it’s usually nothing personal – even if it looks like it is.

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