Sunday, July 18, 2010

Leadership, Persona and Self-effacement

We are now entering a new election campaign in Australia. and the world is a-twitter with conjectures and interpretations of what the future holds. Because the campaign is a brief five weeks, and because media need to focus their energies, a contemporary Australian election campaign is incredibly leader-focussed. Of course, this is only marginally different than the extended campaigns of American politics, or the slightly shorter British version or even the in-between Canadian campaign. What all of these democracies share is a simplification of politics on leadership and election campaigns both highlight this structure and concentrate its delivery.

In the Australian campaign, we have the newly acknowledged Labor leader and Prime Minister, Julia Gillard jockeying with the Leader of the Opposition and the Coalition of the Liberal and National parties, Tony Abbott. There are many interesting dimensions to explore related to the political persona and elections permit a microscopic study and analysis of this form of presentation and representation; but perhaps one of the most interesting phenomena of the last 15 years is how the political leader has to demonstrate their capacity to be ridiculed, to be the object and subject of humour and its sometime companion, humiliation - and the leader has to do this with a jocularity that they can take it and they enjoy the process. In a more general sense, political leaders have had to cross the divide between entertainment and politics and permit their "personalities" to become part of popular culture as they campaign for their political lives. We might remember the pantheon of key images of the cross between the popular and the political engaged in by politicians: Bill Clinton with his saxophone on the Arsenio Hall back in June 1992; Paul Keating and John Hewson both appearing on the Australian comedy/sports program Live and Sweaty; Barack Obama with his iconic appearance on Oprah; a myriad of successful and unsuccessful New York and national politicians hosting Saturday Night Live. In the American context, there is now the regular crossover moment occurring with Comedy Central's The Daily Show and The Colbert Report and Showtime's Real Time with Bill Maher.

We can expect that in the current Australian campaign this "playing" of politics with comedy to continue. In fact, Australia demands this quality in their politicians may be more than other parts of the world because a self-deprecating humour is such a quintessential Australian characteristic.

So Julia Gillard's recent interview (14 July) on the comedy drive-home nationally networked radio program Hamish and Andy began to establish her credentials of self-effacement. In the at-times nonsensical interview, Gillard had to answer questions about what she had to do with the leftover stationary from Kevin Rudd's prime ministership and whether she needed to cross out his name and write her own to save both money and the environment. And in looking for appropriate rhymes with her name, Hamish riffed on the idea of "Jule's Rules". Julia laughed appropriately and improvised as best she could in the interview. She acknowledged that she was the clumsiest person in the world and would perhaps win a knitting contest with Tony Abbott, but not any sporting contest.

All of this points to a breaking down of gravitas around political leadership and may identify some other developments that have been accumulating over the last 20 years. Certainly the intercommunicative dimension of contemporary life and politics demands a personalisation of politics. One has to maintain a connection to a political audience through tweets, facebook sites, media appearances, youtube re-presentations, which are added to by consumer/political junkie-generated blogs, videos and commentaries. All of these are circulating and informing the flow and significance of television programs and newspaper reports and interviews. Gillard's interview on Hamish and Andy could be seen simply as a way to attach to a more youthful audience demographic to ensure her future election; but it also could be seen as part of a wider trend that breaks down the distinctions between politics and popular culture and where politicians have to reveal greater aspects of their personal life. Within that revelatory culture, one has to acknowledge that these moments reveal but they are also further constructions of identity and persona. Self-effacing flattens the politician to make them part of their audience and not some distant representation.

Self-effacement of the political persona is an interesting contemporary development which may also point to a more dramatic change in our forms of legitimation of politics. Are these signs of how our system of representation - and specifically political representation - is breaking down in their capacity to represent the populace? Are our political leaders losing that capacity to embody? Are we seeing signals of how the representational regime of both politics and media is being eroded by a system of presentation and personalisation?


Gillard image - Reuters, Andrew Taylor 17 July 2010

Abbott Gillard photo - ABC News online 17 July 2010

Monday, March 8, 2010

Intercommunication - does it pre-exist the new media era?

As some may know, I have been developing this term and concept intercommunication. I have presented at a few conferences and public lectures in the last six months and I have linked the meaning of intercommunication to the emergence of presentational media - yet another term that I have been developing in various fora and publications. Essentially, intercommunication is the complex layering of communication registers where an interpersonal discussion is interpersed with the exchange of perhaps a highly produced video between and among a variety of users. Intercommunication implies two elements. First it acknowledges that interpersonal communication is now much more foregrounded; and second, it indicates that we need to understand contemporary media as simultaneously about media and communication. What I also was developing through intercommunication was that our tools of analysis that we have taken to the texts of television and film and media more generally are grossly inadequate to investigate these quite elaborate layers of communication that are so routinely employed by so many social media and social network users. We need new tools and a new lexicon to investigate this shifted world. Intercommunication was my contribution to develop this new communication and cultural theory.

The way that I have employed intercommunication is that it is fundamentally part of the development of new media. As I am thinking this through and thinking of the value of the term, I thought it might be useful to ruminate on whether intercommunication can be thought of as existing prior to new media.

I was watching a program on the Australian ABC called the The First Tuesday Book Club and they were discussing as a panel the value of Tim Winton's Cloudstreet. All concurred it was an incredible book and important to read - and in this case, to revisit and reread. This, on its own, wasn't very exciting to me, but it did get me thinking about how a form of layering of communication is connected to our media forms. In fact, books depend on an intercommunication to occur so that there is an expansion of the particular market for a particular book. In book publishing, the book itself is a form of communication: it tells a particular story from a particular or perhaps peculiar perspective. It may be written in the first person or third person and its 'speaks' through the currency of reading, but disconnected from the flows of everyday life and is thus has an attenuated connection to other forms of communication. Nonetheless, the publishing industry in its efforts to make it connected to these other forms of communication - in other words, to make the book have relevance to a potential audience of readers - tries to focus our attention on it. Book reviews are sought in newspapers and magazines. A moment on a televised book show or a radio equivalent would no doubt be very powerful at producing the flows of interpersonal communication that I have described occurring with intercommunication. Best seller lists or endorsements by figures such as Oprah can produce a focussing of a culture/community on a particular book. Word of mouth through libraries and personal friends can move the book into an awareness for a potential reader. In other words, representational media forms such as books have always attempted to build intercommunication patterns so that the book is promoted and favourably hierarchized in a particular society.
So, on a promotional level, intercommunication predates new media. It is an essential ingredient in making a cultural form salient. What is different is that under new and social media there is a proliferation of sites that allow intercommunication and exchange to occur. Also, there is a breakdown in the hierarchy of production, where in new and social media we see the development of exchanges that are both interpersonal and potentially also very produced in a variety of media and/or communication registers. This blending and blurring of the lines of production and exhibition, of audience and producer, of public and private communication registers is what makes the term intercommunication much more descriptive of the current media moment.
No doubt I will return to these issues and ideas around the idea of Intercommunication....