A few weeks ago, Time magazine revealed its Person of the Year (a trope that has gained a lot of self-aggrandizing authority over the years as a touchstone of the state of the world and America and all that) to much mass-mediated fanfare. It was The Protester. A masked one. The image was a little sinister. To scare the white “normal” American public that reads Time and takes it seriously.
Who is the “protester” for Time, anyway? The cover is confusing and exploitative, simultaneously raising up and trivializing and making a public menace actual protesters…and differently for different audiences. How to even think about this?
Now, to be fair, the story that goes along with the cover is a little more nuanced and gives good space to the revolutions of the Arab Spring, but the protester on the cover image seems to be more of a young American anarchist.*** And readers should fear this anonymous being with its dark eyebrows and hand-knit cap and bandana-hidden face standing in front of a red back-drop, ready to charge at your magazine-reading self. That protester is going to set fire to your lawn and ask about social justice. RUN!!!
The cover of “Time” magazine for the week of December 26th 2011/January 2nd 2012
Time‘s “Person of the Year” (the protester) was being reported by local and national news websites, TV stations and radio stations as if this yearly revelation were news, but Time magazine itself purports to be news. How incestuously layered, congratulatory, and self-promoting. Its own advertisement. Making itself an event by framing itself as such and getting other news outlets to do the same. Saying it makes it true: yay, performativity! We (some of the “normal” public and the mass media it listens to) wait with bated breath to find out who Time thinks is the person of the year, thus giving it the authority to say with definity who it is.
Not news at all, but another way to sell more magazines. Capitalizing on the major mass-mediated news stories of 2011 (the revolutions big and small, international and local) by turning it into another mass-mediated message. And the “normal” public eats it up. Or at least is exposed to it over and over.
The “revolution” has been televised. And thus, the real revolution has been largely silenced in terms of how many “normal” ears its message falls upon. Its message, its narrative, was co-opted almost immediately by those in power, those of the establishment, those of the mass-media. The mass media, after all, is where most “normal” Americans go for their answers, for their news. What “normal” person has time for much else than those neat little soundpicturebites? They trust the familiarity of the mass media–not the chaotic voices of those in the trenches.
It is difficult to say with any certainty how these mass-mediated messages are received by the “normals.” But since many of them seem to fill their conversations with regurgitated sentences and viewpoints heard and read from mass-mediated news sources, I feel it safe to say that they take up much of the repeated narratives without a lot of questioning. They believe the mass-mediated narratives of what’s going on around the world. Their opinions are not their own. (And in a society that is ostensibly all about the unique and sovereign individual, that would seem to be a problem, wouldn’t it?)
And in this mess that is the ownership of narrative, who speaks for the actual protesters? The varied ones that the image on the cover of Time is supposed to represent. The “normal” public certainly does not let them speak for themselves. Not for long. (It could be argued that at first, the Occupy movement really did change the conversation, or at least brought more attention to the massive dissatisfaction Americans were feeling about the state of the nation and their own lives. The mass media even seemed sympathetic with the movement at first. But then it went on too long. It got bored and started reporting it from the perspective of the 1 percent that owns the news outlets. The conversation went back to the status quo, and the movement lost its ability to speak for itself to the “normal” public, at least through the mass mediated outlets that many of the “normals” turn to for guidance. Turn to to make sense out of what’s going on. Turn to to find out what’s going on, even if it isn’t. Even if they leave a lot out.)
No, the “normals” prefer the mass media to wrap up the complicated messages in easily digestible sound-bites of recognizable size and flavor: Crazy hippies. Bored rich kids. Rioting poor people. Naive college students. Uppity and inarticulate African-Americans. Dangerous and dirty transients. Entitled Native Americans. Basically, everyone who’s not falling into line. Not playing by the white, upper-middle-class rules.
The Occupy movement is doomed (assuming they want to affect change on a scale larger than themselves) if the “normals” keep listening to the mass-mediated take on what’s going on and investing these sources with the authority to speak for the movement. If the “normals” keep tuning out what the people on the ground, the actual protesters/members of the movement, are saying. If they keep letting the media speak for the many complicated and different individuals on the ground trying to call attention to the many issues our large society has. It’s easier to think that these issues don’t exist, or that they can be solved by placing even more stock in the status quo. It’s easier to listen to the mass media.
We really do have an impressively strong hegemony here. We think we’re free, that our society is free, but the minute someone questions the status quo, the citizen police are out in force, squelching the questions with blindly accepted structure. This is the way things are; get a job. Stop ruining city hall’s lawn. We’ve decided it’s time for you to stop questioning the status quo: stop protesting and go home.
Because it’s not 99 vs. 1. The 1 may have all the money, but most of the 99 are helping to keep the structures that allow for the rich 1 to exist strong. Many of the 99 believe so deeply in those structures that they cannot see them–these structures have become naturalized: it’s just the way things are. And we must all operate within this system if we are to keep on keeping on, never mind get ahead. And this deep-seated belief in the invisible structures is one of the reasons the Occupy movement is in so much trouble. They aren’t speaking for the 99; most of the 99 are unwittingly in cahoots with the 1.
The Occupy movement can’t gain traction without the “normals” who are (now half-heartedly if at all) gazing in on them either listening seriously or joining. And the “normals” won’t do either when the messages of the movement have been co-opted by the mass media. As a closeted radical on the outside of the movements that are happening around the country, I feel (ashamedly) more in touch with the perspective of the “normals” than I do with the movement that I politically and socially identify with. So allow me to speak a little for them (they have no problem at all speaking for you, after all, and you won’t like what they say).
The normals hear what the media says about the movement and lets the media speak for it. The movement is too “radical”, too “disorganized” for them. “What do they want? If they just had an agenda…/Why are they wasting time holding up signs when they could be out looking for jobs? Why do they hate America?” etc. For the movement itself, I think it’s great that it’s somewhat lacking in clear leadership, instead thriving on some disorganization, anarchism. It seems invested in listening to everyone’s concerns. But for things to change–or for the national conversation to permanently change in any meaningful way–the movement needs the “normals” on board, and the “normals” like the very structure that the movement is trying to question.
Which leaves us at a stalemate. What kind of strategy can overcome this divide? Can we look to the relative successes of the revolutions of the Arab Spring for any tactics and strategies that can be adopted for our own cultural context? How can the movement get the “normal” public to join them in a conversation that isn’t mediated by the mass media? Is that even possible?
Where do we go from here?
***A Tardy Update: a link and a digression into self-critique***
Over at Al Jazeera, Larbi Sadiki has a different interpretation of the Time image as he deconstructs its many meanings. The various issues and details he points out are interesting and I think the piece is worth a read. He also pays attention to the fact that the image on the cover “veiled” the protester, and what implications that visual choice has, given the climate we live in and the many conflicting associations veiling has in the Western world (not to mention the cultures that actually wear variations of a veil).
Perhaps I’m implicitly guilty of demonizing the veil in my own interpretation when I talk about the image as a “scary” one of the hipster-anarchist…for which I apologize. That was not my intent, but it nonetheless points to the negative associations our culture has when it comes to images of people with their faces partially or fully obscured. Veils, burqas, bandanas and the like shouldn’t be signs that incite fear, because then this fear is displaced onto the person wearing these pieces of fabric and can often, as Yoda taught us, lead to hate. But for many Americans they are signs that incite fear. And when I interpreted the visual cues of the Time cover in this way, I was tapping into that negative stereotype that has been harmful to particular populations, especially post-9/11. Even though the dark red cover is also a menacing sign, I do believe I was wrong to not see that the image, as Sadiki points out, is also one that indexes Americans’ fear of cultures and populations who wear variations of a veil. I apologize for my insensitivity.
All of which goes to prove that meaning is located in the one who does the interpretation, not necessarily the one who produces. Intention has little weight. Uptake! Use! How can we determine what the producers of this image intended it to mean when there can be such radically different interpretations of it? Obviously, the producers of the image operate within the same systems of symbols that allowed for both Sadiki and my interpretations of it…but it is difficult to critique them without knowing which (or both?) the producers meant to “speak” to their readership. Either way, both of our interpretations find it problematic that the image contains overwhelmingly negative signs that cause the (white?) American viewer to call up culturally negative associations.
And I’m going to stop before this discussion spirals out of control in a vortex of fractally circular argumentation.