JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Alan Sekula's photo-essay Fish Story (1995) focuses on containerization to make visible global flows of capital and....

...the social misery they cause.

Networks and globalization now exceed older metaphors used to describe digital media, such as virtuality and immersion.

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Leonardo's Vitruvian Man places the human at the center of a geometrical, perfect world.
[See larger image]

Apollo images of Earth shape social and political ideas about the unity of peoples and the requisites of ecology.
[See larger image]

 

The Peters map emphasizes the equitorial regions to indicate a political orientation towards the underdeveloped world.

John Speed's map suggests the inadequacy of thinking in terms of hemispheres.

TV news titles
Picturing the planet

by Sean Cubitt

The structures of globalization are insanely complex. The world's news media must at least try to make some sense of these structures visible. That is, the news must gratify the needs of an audience which requires an understanding of what causal systems are responsible for such felt effects as oil prices, currency fluctuations, and the migration of employment. Media professionals' ethics, peer pressure and pride in their craft impel them to make some effort towards educating the citizenry in the terms and conditions of participation in the global economy. And, in light of popular movements like the Live8 concerts in support of Bob Geldoff's "Make Poverty History" campaign, the news touches on the possibilities and challenges of global governance.

It has long been a truism of media analysis that certain abstractions are difficult if not impossible to photograph. Concepts like Labor or Class Struggle are not easily imaged. Classical and modernist cinemas tried to achieve this kind of representation through such techniques as narrative distillations of individual experience, allegorical forms, montage and direct address (the latter for example in Godard). In their attempts to picture and explain global relations, popular media tend more towards individualist and allegorical narrative, and many news reports revert to individualized "typical" narratives, which offer the additional coloration of human interest stories. Many such news stories and current affairs documentaries narrativize the navigations of a specific migrant or cosmopolitan to stitch together disparate geopolitical entities.

Other strategies include the narrativization of trade, as undertaken in Amos Gitai's Pineapple, or of specific sectors of the global distribution industries, as in Alan Sekula's photo-essay Fish Story (1995). Such efforts to render concrete otherwise invisible and ostensibly immaterial global flows are greatly to be praised. The materiality of globalization is indeed experienced viscerally among the rubbish-pickers of Manila, in the impact of containerization on dockworker communities, or in the misery of High Andean tin mining after the collapse of the London Metals Exchange. Cultural and even commercial depictions of these ways of life are rare enough to be extremely valuable in any attempt to understand what globalization means. Moreover, narrative has the high virtue of incorporating time into the analysis of globalization — which otherwise, as the word suggests, is largely a spatial and spatializing discourse.

The spatial description of globalization among writers as diverse as Ohmae (1990), Cooper (2004) and Beck (2000) is not without ideological and discursive import. Decreasing temporality is synonymous with diminishing historicity, and thence tends to minimize the understanding of change as anything other than a territorial advance. Consider for example the recommendations of the UN's 2005 Millennium Development Goals advisory body, which international relations focus on

  • improved market access and terms of trade for the poor countries.
  • improved supply-side competitiveness for low-income country exports, through increased investments in infrastructure (roads, electricity, ports) and trade facilitation (Millennium Project 2005: 46).

These recommendations – for legislative, governmental and infrastructural change — are exclusively concerned with geographical phenomena, and not at all with such time-based features as local and regional histories, cultural traditions, or histories of conflict. This spatializing tendency in the literatures of globalization scholars and development agencies is discursive (in Foucault's sense of the word) to the extent that it emphasizes power, and the field of its influence is a geography. It is also ideological insofar as the emphasis on space implies a marginalization of time, and with it a de-emphasizing of difference and contradiction. Such is the impact of Peter Singer's ethical arguments for "one law" and "one economy," and in particular his justification of UN mandated peace-keeping on behalf of wealthy nations in poor ones (Singer 2002). One symptomatic practice of this spatializing and de-historicizing, anti-dialectical understanding of the world is the visualization of the globe as the arena of news and current affairs.

Something has happened here in the years since Margaret Morse penned her chapter on "Television Graphics and the Virtual Body." Then Morse could argue that

"as a clocklike mechanism, the logo signals a temporal, linear shift between programs and program types in television flow; as the design of its motion underlines, the logo represents an exchange along the depth or z-axis between the viewer and the screen" (Morse 1998: 72).

In addition to the regulation of time, logos were at one point privileged moments in which viewers were enticed into the virtual world of television. As we will see, this function has changed in the decade or so since Morse advanced this thesis. True at the time, now networks and globalization have gone beyond virtuality and immersion as key metaphors for digital media. And as a result, the relations between time, space and their viewing subjects have changed, subtly but significantly.

Global television news stations like Sky TV, BBC World and CNN commonly use imagery based on global maps in their title sequences. These depictions of the planet are also ideological in the sense that the presentation of the globe as a coherent space of action and interpretation corresponds to a certain sense of dread. It was not only the Twin Towers that unsettled the explicability of the universe. Long before 9/11, a kind of Kierkegaardian and existential fear and trembling entered the soul of the West as the inevitable corollary of that freedom which was the goal and vehicle of modernity. Freedom from superstition became freedom to advance towards not only an understanding of the world, but the moral grounds for action in the world. But history has proved that there is no progress in moral ideas. We have no more viable basis for ethical action than our forebears, and in the absence of an authority, sublunary or divine, the abyss of uncertainty opens up before us. News title sequences on these three channels address the problem of a secular uncertainty concerning the structurelessness of a borderless world, which these media at once embody and yet against which they inveigh. The first ideological function of these news title sequences is not to interpret the world in a certain way, but to present the world as, in principle, interpretable.

In this sense, these representations reverse Althusser's theme (1971) concerning ideology's task of interpellation. And certainly soundtracks as well as graphics, not least in their fanfares and martial urgency, address viewers as subjects of news discourse. BBC World, for example, has a raft of variations on a musical theme based on a regular, metronomic, repeated note every second; news headlines introduced by a sustained growling bass note with plenty of attack and slow decay, underpinned by a percussive syncopation of the basic rhythm and a crescendo in the upper register culminating in a snare drum tap; and succeeded by a cymbal-like note at lower volume to facilitate the transition to the volume and timbre of the spoken word. (One of the most inspired and yet most typical uses of music is the British news organization ITN's use of Sibelius' Karelia Suite fanfare, with its stirring sense of a call to battle and high ideals). Such auditory cues are designed to attract the viewer's attention from other domestic activities, and to signal the urgency of news reporting as time-bound activity. News title-sequence music typically hails the global news viewer as a member of the cosmopolitan elite, whose fingers are always on the pulse, and whose interests are not restricted to the local. Equally significant to its constitution of the viewer as cosmopolitan, however, the news presents the world as object, not known necessarily, but knowable. The subject who is interpellated (called to and simultaneously constituted as subject of this discourse in particular) is then directed towards a god's-eye view of the undifferentiated flux of human activity, which news reporting will draw into an objectifiable unity that can be addressed as content: as stories, as graphics, as maps. Thus the achievement, in ideological terms, is not the centering of the viewer, who is in any case presumed to be dispersed, but the centering of the world as a single entity which can be described, spoken of or about, argued over. And yet, as a secondary ideological effect, the news discourse develops the "world," once constituted as knowable, as a medium through which the cosmopolitan viewer can be constructed as the missing point in the discourse. It is the viewer for whom all this is laid out, a position which actual viewers are then invited to occupy, and from which they can then act as ideological agents.

This is the explanation, I believe, for a particular quality of machine-drawn images: the externality of the videographic mode of presentation. The royal road of narrative analysis has so often led to the problematic of identification. This still drives, for example, the human interest story, the invitation to imagine oneself as a member of a bereaved family, as the grieving mother of a stricken child, as the shamed executive or the successful athlete. But the videographic proposes itself as non-human, and in the context of news titles, imagery of the world rarely uses the kind of humanist expression of icons like the Vitruvian man. Leonardo da Vinci's engraving, based on the principles of the ancient architectural author Vitruvius, places the ideal human body at the centre of an ideally geometrical and perfected universe. In the words of Kenneth Clark (from the book of his signature BBC TV series Civilisation), that engraving contains the idea that "through proportion we can reconcile the two parts of our being, the physical and the intellectual" (Clark 1969: 65). Unlike Leonardo's sketch, our representations of the Cosmic Man are neither cosmological nor expressions of a transcendent mathematical ideal.

Instead we give ourselves new maps of our own lack of both position and proportion. The element of the circle persists from Leonardo's ideal, but stripped of its perfection, its humanity and its universalism. The sphere that remains is uncentered, admitting the plurality of subjects, the endless number of individual consciousnesses at work in the world, and which in aggregate are the world. As image, the contemporary globe stands in for the foment of individuals, and for their paradoxical unity as the mass of humanity. At the same time the globe stands for the givenness of the global as the dimension in which events occur. These sequences show our planet as if it were seen from space, from a vantage outside the world. Yet this kind of image lacks the accretion of ecological belief that colors the Apollo images of Earth from orbit, or even the less iconic earth observation by satellite pictures that deck the pages of National Geographic.

The discursive task of the digital globe that runs through these sequences is then to produce the world as a unity. To do so, they draw on icons like the Vitruvian Man and the Apollo picture. Sky News Australia's idiosyncratic self-presentation as a nation-continent is explicable in terms of the station's strapline, "Australia's News Channel," in a terrestrial market dominated by city-based channels and a satellite market where it competes with global players like CNN and BBC World. Yet it shares with its peers the use of a map projection that barely challenges the eurocentrism of global maps. While 3D graphics do not need to enact the same distortions as 2D projections of the planetary sphere, they nonetheless replicate the distortions we expect from paper maps and atlases. The reason is not entirely ideological – the desire to emphasize the metropolitan nations. Neither is it merely a matter of reiterating the most familiar mapping conventions, nor of de-emphasizing the largely news-free zones of the open oceans.

The ideological issues in mapmaking can be summed up crudely by presenting some examples. The Peters projection, as the spacing of the grid indicates, emphasizes the equatorial regions where the more familiar Mercator projection emphasizes Northern and Southern latitudes. Peters is widely used – by the United Nations Development Agency and by the journal Third Text among many others – to indicate an allegiance or an orientation towards the underdeveloped world, the choice marking a differentiation from orientations grounded in the metropoles. The upside-down map serves a similar task for inhabitants of the Southern hemisphere, playing on the etymology of the word orientation, which derives from the now discarded practice in pre-Baroque mapping of placing East at the top of the map in honor of the Holy Land and the scene of Creation in the Garden of Eden. The Surrealist map, with its elimination of England and the USA in favor of Easter Island and Labrador is perhaps the most famous parody of the principle that scale equates to significance. The Pacific-centered map is a favorite of scholars and policymakers interested in the often-noted phenomenon of "westward drift" in U.S. capital and the rise of the Asian super-economies, a map emphasizing the Asia-Pacific Rim as the new powerhouse of globalization. John Speed's world map of 1627 represents another vision of the world as hemispheres, a phenomenon so deeply associated with the Cold War but which has now fallen largely out of use. The very redundancy of the hemispheric map is itself intensely suggestive of the normative powers of cartographic convention.

It's my belief that cartography is at least as significant to the visual regimes of the contemporary world as illusionistic depiction is. Illusion (perspectival illusion, for example) has therefore a more radical role to play, precisely because, in its association with leisure media, it is marginal to government and management. News, which sits between leisure and workplace media and to some extent marks their border, unsurprisingly seeks ways to reconcile the graphic and photographic modes of documentation. Beyond the title sequence, news (even more than current affairs) deploys other non-figurative media apart from maps, notably the visual display of numerical data (stock trading graphs, charts of election poll shares). These graphical formats belong to a third regime of modernity, the spreadsheet. Digital graphics are the heirs of baroque systems of empire – cartography, bureaucracy and double-entry bookkeeping. Yet empire no longer functions as it did in the counter-reformation, and the signs of its changing nature can be read off from its self-presentation in graphic and cartographic form.

(Continued on next page)


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