The Media Affects of Political Performance: Unmasking the Real and the Now

William Lewis

Texas State University

Considering media as “middles,” that is, as mediating environments that actively perform relations that in turn create complex social connections rather than solely as vehicles of information, means conceiving mediation as the complex of activities and forces through which the elements composing the media environment, be they social, technical, or spatial, find common actualization.

— Frederica Timeto

This is America as a mediatized society. A man enters the stage, picks up a guitar, and begins to strum a lyrical refrain facing toward the east or the coming future. The lyrics read, “We just want to party, party just for you. We just want the money, money just for you.” Who is this “you” the singer seems to be speaking to? Is it the spectator, is it America? In the next lyric, the artist calls himself out by highlighting the very medium he delivers the messages from within: a form of metatheatricality hidden within the aesthetic confines of verse matched to rhythm, rhythm matched to image. The music video is an example of a performance medium capturing a reality but also creating a reality for its viewer. This reality is broken very early on when Donald Glover, performing in the role of Childish Gambino, playing the role of all Black Men in America, figuratively “shakes the frame” through his self-conscious gyrations and historical ghosting of past stereotypes. Here, he calls out the process of blurring the background by media’s shaking influence, by shaking it himself, exposing the frame as an influencer to the viewer’s myopia. Instead of simply shaking within the frame to keep the spectator entertained and enthralled within the medium, this triply-multiplied character alienates the viewer through movement and sound until he gut-punches them out of passive spectatorship with the first gunshot to the head. The shot marks a rupture in the otherwise banal piece of glossy contemporary media. This is America, a political and social construct where the frame has encouraged us to become passive onlookers to the dangerous and chaotic underpinnings that our society is built upon. These media-influenced underpinnings are also potentially tearing us apart. In this article, I argue that by highlighting the shaking of the frame, shining a light on the affects of media while using those very same media, we may find a way to activate political agency.

In Frederica Timeto’s quote above and the very brief analysis of Glover/Gambino’s music video, I highlight an issue that confronts those of us who consider media as part of the continuum of performance. In media studies, the focus is often limited to various media (usually of screen or digital disposition) as objects of study that produce effects through their use as tools for information transfer. These objects are analyzed as a container or delivery system for content or message. In performance studies, performative/performance objects are often approached as subjects with agency to affect those with whom they come into contact. The medium these subjects are contained within are often taken as givens. To look at the actual medium as performance versus simply tool or container requires a shift in perspective that understands how all media require a spectator who will act upon both the affective resonances of the individual medium and the content contained within. This shift in perspective allows us to consider how revolutionary potential is activated and/or neutralized through mediated performance.

Both the container and the content of media impact those that interact with it through a process of affect. This follows the definition of affect offered by Gregory Seigworth and Mellissa Gregg, where affect refers to the “forces that can serve to drive us toward movement, toward thought and extension, that can likewise suspend us (as if neutral) across a barely registering accretion of force-relations, or that can even leave us overwhelmed by the world’s apparent intractability” (1). These media forces can drive but also suspend action in the moment of their relation with human spectators. In an era of deep mediatization, or what Matthew Causey (2016) refers to the “post-digital,” digital media become integral to the construction of all social realities. In these mediatized societies, it becomes impossible to define the social absent of media; all media have the capacity to be both subjects and objects, and therefore have the agency to both affect and produce effects.

Famously, Marshall McLuhan argued that the medium is the message (1964), therefore opening up the possibility for media to have a twofold potential as both subject and object. Through the examples of political performance introduced in this article, I approach media as the various domains of performance used to both communicate a political message and operate as the political message. Under this definition, theatre, film, digital recordings, the Internet and social media, and even artificial intelligence platforms run by algorithms are all mediums for and as political activity. To consider media as performance vs. simply tools allows me to consider each format’s capacity to affect spectators instead of simply analyzing the effects or outcomes materialized by their use. When analyzing media through this both/and approach, affect is read as the material process that helps to shape social worlds and a spectator’s agency to act in these shaping processes. Media affects are therefore the forces that shape mediatized human actions, communication, and social worlds.[1] The social worlds we engage with and in through exposure to media affects represent the Real through which we experience the real.

I question the ways these media affects impact a spectator’s potential to enact political protest during cycles of revolt. I do this by analyzing how spectators engage with these cycles through the mediums of theatre, film, and online social media. My analysis is informed by Nick Couldry and Andreas Hepp’s (2017) social theory of mediatization and Peter Turchin’s (2007) model for predicting revolutions in empirical societies. These theories are read alongside the critique of political efficacy offered through Jean Baudrillard’s media-influenced concepts of events and non-events and Alan Badiou’s political event in an effort to connect the affective quality of politically motivated media to the concepts of the Real, the real, and the Now. Respectively, these philosophical terms refer to the metaphysical condition of reality as presented in performance and media, the actual reality that is often masked by the metaphysical conditions, and the moment of rupture that offers potential to transcend the mask to impact change in the actual. The above authors discuss the future and reality in terms of what is possible based on the material constructs of the social, the political, and the historical. Using examples of political performance, I argue that the revolutionary potential of future realties becomes difficult to attain in contemporary social spheres due to the nature of politics in a deeply mediatized society. The Real, which is translated through various media, subsumes the real, masking the possibility for revolution. Revolution only becomes possible by acting through a true event, or what I refer to as a moment of the Now.

I juxtapose the theoretical spectator of Peter Weiss’ Marat/Sade in the mediums of theatre and film against my own participation with the Occupy Wall Street movement in the digital domain of social media to discuss the efficacy of each medium when used as tools to activate revolutionary agency during a socio-historical moment of rupture. The primary questions I attempt to answer are: How do these differing mediums offer a possibility for changing one’s conception of the real in a particular historical moment, and how does this possibility impact the agency one feels and acts upon when exposed to political performance? I argue that each medium has unique capacity (potential) to activate spectator agency, but that in the interaction with each medium at the moment of the Now there remains a possibility and often probability that political revolution will remain untapped due to the affective capacity of each medium acting as site of political performance. The medium allows the spectator to experience political protest in the Real versus in the real, sucking away the revolutionary potential promised. It is only through agency taken during a truly “real event” that spectators might enact the potential to make change thereby altering the real.

Part One: Unending Cycles Of Unrest

It’s easy to get mass movements going

movements that move in vicious circles

— Peter Weiss

Using the study of population dynamics and mathematical analysis, evolutionary biologist Peter Turchin introduces a model for studying the social dynamics of empirical societies. He defines an empire as “a large multiethnic territorial state with a complex power structure” (War and Peace 339). Under this definition, the contemporary United States is constructed upon an empirical social system. His model helps to detect, dissect, explain, and predict cycles of social and political instability in these systems. The model takes as a central focus the nature of cooperation and communication dynamics between people within social structures over historical time periods. Use of the lens helps explain how revolution and cultural change in empirical societies are enacted through multiple nested cyclical frameworks. Turchin’s largest cyclical frame is the “secular cycle,” which typically spans over a roughly three-century time period and explains the formation, expansion, and dissolution of political empires and nation states (War and Peace 10). Due to the large temporal expanse of secular cycles, examining a smaller cycle becomes necessary to understand the political potential of a specific event in any historical moment. Nested inside of his larger cycle are continuous repeating progressions of unrest that Turchin names “fathers-and-sons” cycles (War and Peace 11). These cycles oscillate into full potential roughly every other generation. During each father and son cycle, events emerge that act as moments of rupture that can be read as instances of the Now. Following Turchin, social and political unrest appear and reappear attached to the father-and-son cycles and gain revolutionary potential until a full moment of rupture brings down the entire social framework. This potential gains its power as the threads of cooperation breakdown in the social fabric. This leads to a dissolve of an empire during the apex of its secular cycle. Turchin argues that American society may be about to encounter one such apex, bringing about one of the most momentous revolutionary periods in its history. He (Political Instability, Quantitative Prediction) states that the year 2020 could erupt into full-blown revolutionary potential — a final Now — where a new social reality will form and change the way American’s experience daily life in profound ways. This forthcoming Now might bring with it the entire collapse of the American democratic experiment.

 Turchin’s models for predicting social unrest are based on four primary symbolic markers explaining breakdowns in cooperation: political, economic, racial/ethnic, and religious. In all previous U.S. cycles described in his work (The U.S. Civil War, The Economic Collapse of the 1920s, The Civil Rights Movements of the 1960s/70s), a maximum of only three markers contributed to political and social unrest. 2020 has the potential to be the first apex of cyclical unrest fueled by all four. This is important to consider when discussing the ways in which political performance connects to social activism, social moments, and political unrest. By looking at the affects and effects of specific media and their relationship to the Now during the most recent father-and-son cycles of political unrest (1960s and 2010s), one can see how media/performance contributes to the trajectory of revolutionary potential and also negates that potential when the framing structure of the individual medium remains invisible at the moment of the Now.

The Now is referred to as the event by Alan Badiou in his various philosophical works. In Philosophy and the Event, Badiou offers the definition of event as “something that brings to light a possibility that was invisible or even unthinkable. An event is not by itself the creation of a reality; it is the creation of a possibility, it opens up a possibility” (9). Like the message delivered by the juxtaposition of lyrical content, embodied performance, and mediated staging in This is America, Badiou argues that media — and all the individual mediums that make up that social and political construct the media — operate as a form of “propaganda apparatus,” which becomes the “organ of consensus” (8). For Badiou, consensus is the force that keeps us locked in a destructive political system with binaries such as left versus right, as opposed to offering an ability to break forth and create new possibilities. That force of consensus is replicated in the Real that most media both perform and deliver. The real only becomes accessible when the rupture that is offered by an event “is grasped, elaborated, incorporated and set out in the world” (10). The event operates as a source of possibility but is often masked and subdued by the Real presented through mediatization. Both terms event and the Now offer rhetorical possibilities for understanding the rupture that happens at the apex of each cycle where multiple potentialities for political futures become possible. In deeply mediatized social realities, this rupture is a moment of the Now that becomes accessible and paradoxically masked through specific media affects.

As an example of theatrical media, Peter Weiss’ politically-motivated and Wagnerian drama Marat/Sade offers its spectators a binary distinction inside a performative cycle based in consensus: on one side discontent/unrest, and on the other side peace/prosperity. This cycle’s beginning/end is understood when the Now to which the inmates at Charenton Asylum continually refer is read as a moment of rupture placed upon that cycle’s temporal trajectory. The inmates say, “We want our rights and we don’t care how/We want our revolution NOW” (Weiss 15). The text has an interesting slippage with the concept of the Now, occurring between the multiple realities in which the action exists. These realities are three-fold: the real social world in which the play and subsequently the Peter Brook film adaptation is presented or produced (1964/67); the performed social world in which the play (the assassination of Marat at the hands of the inmates of Charenton Asylum) is seen (1808); and the historical social world created via the play within the play (the political struggle engaged during the “Reign of Terror”) the inmates reify by enacting the turmoil leading up to Marat’s murder (1793). When the exclamation for rights is demanded Now, there is equal weight in all three social realities. How that weight is enacted upon is the question. The weight is equal due to the nature of the continuous cycle of unrest that is self-sustaining and replicated in each temporal frame. Even so, this declaration of a pending action, required through a spontaneous revolt, becomes problematic for the inmates, and potentially, the play’s spectators who were “imprisoned” in a broken political system, due to the way in which the Now becomes ephemeral and intangible the instance it is spoken on the mediated stages of performance.

When the play was directed by Peter Brook for the stage in 1963 and adapted to film in 1967, it performed as a mode of media intended to activate a form of affect that gives its spectators the potential to enact political revolt in the real world of the 1960s cultural revolution. When Brook includes a “staged” audience in the film, and stages the live audience as part of the theatrical spectacle, using bars to separate the Real of the play and the real of society, he helps to negate linear historicity in the play and highlights the frame through which revolution is depicted and encouraged. Through the media affects of a “participatory” theatrical spectacle and the metatheatricality of “self-conscious” film staging, Brook allows the spectators potential to see how the multiple realities fold in on each other becoming indistinguishable in terms of agency and political meaning making. The efficacy of the performance, as a piece for political activation, is dependent on how the audience sees and grasps the potential offered by the utterance Now.

In Brook’s 1967 film of the play, this spoken Now is repeated three times. In the first two enunciations, it is distorted through a cacophony of disjointed guttural utterances out of unison. Brook is touching on the uneasy and indistinguishable nature of the utterance’s performative political effect. Weiss includes this line as a pronouncement to the audience: “Understand your agency to take up this call,” but understanding one’s agency is only useful when it is acted upon in the Now. Watching the play or film, as mediated cultural events, opens up an increased probability that the instantaneous action necessary and implored by the performative declaration onstage goes ignored, even though it might attempt to enact this potential. The spectators get caught up in the act of watching and therefore ingest their own revolutionary agency versus acting upon it. The media affect of performance negates its own potential through its performative utterance of a revolutionary Now inside a fiction representing a political event.

Considering the relationship of spectacle and politics, Guy Debord compounded and extrapolated the brain in the jar metaphor in his 1967 treatise on politics and media, Society of the Spectacle, declaring, “everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation” (1). A continued slippage occurs with the concept of the Real in contemporary post-digital society. Revolutionary action becomes something primarily accessible through various forms of media, encouraging a form of simulated political agency. By simulating the agential potential of the Now through various media affects, spectators become pacified onlookers versus engaged revolutionaries. In direct response to what may have been seen as a failure for true revolutionary activation promised in the 1960s, Jean Baudrillard further developed his own theoretical relationship between simulation and reality by explaining how the society of the spectacle had fully engulfed the perceptual apparatus of spectators. The turn toward simulation transformed actuality into a less authentic reality or a Real that was not quite real. Even worse, this new and pervasive Real propped up by media affects became more engaging than the real.

Baudrillard argues that no event is real any longer because of our constant bombardment by the image relayed through the screen-based media. The pervasive presence of electronic and digital based media in deeply mediatized societies turns all events into non-events. These non-events become artefacts representing real experience (Baudrillard, The Consumer Society 125). Explaining Baudrillard’s theory of non-events, media studies scholar William Merrin states, “the media, therefore, industrially process the ‘raw’ event into a consumable product, eclipsing reality in favour of that realized simulacral model given material force by the medium” (65). The event occurring in actual time and space is altered in a manner where reality can only be understood symbolically as an “implosion of […] medium and the real” (65). Events that previously may have had potential to produce the Now are masked by the conflation of reality and performance. When mediatized, all events of political potential become non-events due to their inability to allow access to the moments of rupture promised by the Now.

Using the constant televisual mediation of Operation Desert Storm on news programing as an example, Bauldrillard argues that war is only made real in its intricately manipulated filmic editing and televisual re-broadcast as a form of mediatized affect (The Gulf War Did Not Take Place; Screened Out; The Spirit of Terrorism). His theorization is later reified by the onslaught of televisual media in the 1990s and early 2000s that includes the rise of reality narratives where the carefully crafted and edited antics of “real” people were displayed as a way of heightening and theatricalizing the mundane. Baudrillard intones this phenomenon as the beginning of the end of the spectator, where “there is no separation any longer, no empty space, no absence: you enter the screen and the visual image unhindered. You enter your own life as you would walk on to a screen” (Screened Out 193). Simulation and virtuality becomes the cultural way of life as depicted by the televisual and through digitality. When performing replaces simply being, the Real engulfs the real, immersing us all in the social condition of the spectacle as constantly performing mediatized spectators. Our daily actions become part of the ongoing media narrative and potentially lose an ability to impact the nature of the real because they have been engulfed by the hyper-real affects of the mediatized spectacle (Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation). Under these affects, revolution becomes difficult to activate because actual political events become ensnared within a mediatized frame in which the Now becomes a “simulation where all the energy of the real is effectively swallowed” (Simulacra and Simulation 35)

If Baudrillard’s concept of non-events accurately defines the condition of politics under advanced stages of mediatization, then it is possible that there is no accessible real and thus there can be no Now. The only possible Now becomes an eternally and ephemerally fleeting Now performed but not actualized. Politics and the political simply become some form of performance replacing reality. The Real operates as a performative plane that appears through the actions we hope to make in the Now but are never truly able to because action ensues outside of the real world. This reality, as performance, becomes a simulation of actuality; and this simulation becomes the believed Real as perceived by those who live in it. The Real overtakes and becomes real because we believe it to be so, or because we are told it is true through our access to the affective capacity of our media, by the media’s shaking of the frame instead of either the event or the artist highlighting that the frame exists. Even with Brook’s direction, Marat/Sade acts as a theatrical example of this situation. The actors (the real world) perform as automata controlled via the author and director. They demand revolution Now as a future possibility through the voices of psychologically-impaired inmates (characters in the mediated Real world). Likewise, these mediated personas demand revolution Now by performing as characters in the re-enactment of Sade’s play (the “historical” world). Those doubly-mediated personas represent the historically demanded Now uttered in the past; a demand that was fulfilled and subsequently forgotten when the cycles continued. The three worlds colliding in one performative moment is an excellent example of the complicated and slippery dynamics of the Now inside the cycles we currently live inside. Brook explains that witnessing “these crisscrossing planes thicken the reference at each moment and compel an activity from each member of the public” (74). But how compelled are they truly? Examining these dynamics, what is at stake for political efficacy expected in the performative event as media?

For political performance to deliver the most prominent affect and/or political effect, the Now also needs contextual resonance the moment it is accessed. There must be some social context to allow its political agency to transcend the space of the fictive universe. For resonance to occur, the spectator must perceive, as Alan Badiou asserts, the “gap between the play and the real” (The Century 49). In Brook’s theatrical production, this gap was highlighted by the literal bars separating the audience (performed and real) from the inmates (figurative and literal). When presented in the mediums of film or video, the gap exists at the level of the media container that is highlighted in the same manner shown in This is America. Badiou explains that the perception of this gap is the distancing effect Brecht is so infamous for exploring. Both This is America and Marat/Sade offer examples of this distancing effect by highlighting the Now on multiple planes. As Badiou points out, “the real, conceived in its contingent absoluteness, is never real enough not to be suspected of semblance” (52). The Now becomes Real when the frame in which it is presented is allowed to remain invisible therefore relying on the media affects of simulation.

When watching Marat/Sade in the form of theatrical media, the impact of the Now appears in the Real not made real enough onstage to be suspected of attempting to take the place of the real outside the performance. It is this perceived falseness that emerges as both true potential but also negation for those watching. Approaching the demand for rights Now inside a fictive and mediated construct allows it to resonate with the audience in a politically affective though indirect way. By demanding Now through voices inside of voices, frame inside of frame, the author subverts the illusory, allowing the spectator to see action taken with the expectation that they will attempt to mimic that action in the actual world. Essentially, the Now is realized effectively in the present moment it is watched but then it is acted upon mentally in that moment of watching because of the media frame. Conventions of the medium keep the spectator from getting up and storming out of the theatre and into the streets. For the Now to have the greatest effect, it may be preferable and possibly necessary that the spectator realize it during a time of unrest or dissent in an actual event versus a non-event of performance. The necessity comes about through the need to see the event through the lens of one’s own tumult. This is where political agency has the greatest potential, potential often sucked dry by mediatization.            

Part Two: The Now Effect Of Contemporary Digitalization

The revolution came and went

and unrest was replaced by discontent

— Peter Weiss

Scholars of media sociology Nick Couldry and Andreas Hepp describe mediatization as a process whereby social and cultural relationships are shaped by a techno-social paradigm in which social worlds form and transform with changes in media (17). The affective capacities of media are integral in shaping how one understands the Real because of their materiality. They shape the real by producing a Real in the moment of interaction with their spectators. This Real is configurable and in flux based on the inputs of the various mediatized and human agents adding to the fabric of the social. The social is built upon human interactions developed out of the affective response to media and the effects of media that comes with mediated communication. Media therefore have agency to change our interpretation of the very things we look at through their affective capacities.

Couldry and Hepp describe the recent history of humanity as one that can be divided into four distinct waves of mediatization. These include mechanization, electrification, digitalization, and datafication. They define each wave as a “fundamental qualitative change in media environments sufficiently decisive to constitute a distinct phase in the ongoing process of mediatization” (39, italics in original). Mechanization began with the printing press and includes all the technological adaptations that allow simple machines to replace human operated modes of communication. Electrification is defined as “the transformation of communications media into technologies and infrastructures based on electronic transmission” (44). Electrification is primarily identified with the telegraph, telephone, film, radio, television, and the complex networks created between each of these media. In digitalization, the primary mediator and interlocutor of human communication is the digital sphere and its many individualized sites contained within that sphere. Digitalization allows the formation of multiple domains of social media that act as multifaceted technologies that “comprise platforms which, for humans, literally are the spaces where, through communication, they enact the social” (2). Their argument means that, whereas media previously were used to convey performance, in a mediatized social configuration of digitalization, all life is mediated through our digital interactions, tools, and content.

Under digitalization, digital technologies mediatize all social systems and become more than just middles; they act to expand the concept of mediation to both frame communication and social reality as well as act as conduits of communication that form social realties. Digitalization further reinforces the capacity of a medium to act as a repressive force during the Now. This happens even though most digital platforms have been heralded as revolutionary in terms of allowing their users the capacity to participate versus simply spectate. There are multiple ways to interpret digital participation and the culture it predicates. Counter to the common interpretation that participation encourages democratic community building and political capacity, digitalization offers a paradigm where participation is “both a poison and a remedy, a benefit and a problem, a promise of emancipation as well as a form of subjection” (Barney et al. x). Even Turchin argues that digital media might usher forth a possibility for increased community and collaboration between peoples that could lead to an escape from the secular cycle dynamics (War and Peace 354-356). It is important to highlight that Turchin wrote this before the maturation of the digital platforms we use today. The interconnectivity of digital media brings with it both positive and negative impacts.

In the second decade of the twenty-first century, disconnecting from digital interfaces has become nearly impossible; therefore, it is necessary to also consider how digitalization impacts the agency of individuals as agents in the formation of the Real. In the 1960s, plays, film, and television acted as primary mediums for political action by announcing and performing the Now to increasingly passively-conditioned spectators. In the past twenty years, digital media have begun to supplant the dominance of analog media such as film and television, but still remediate their affects. By supplanting the dominance of the analog, America has entered a post-digital cycle where social media impacts the formation of the Real and the access available to the Now via digitally transmitted political events. These events began to find a larger audience with the advent of platforms such as Twitter and Facebook beginning in the early 2010s.            

2011 was a watershed year for politics and the political in America. The sentiment of a potentially lost generation brought about by the economic and social devastation of the Great Recession spurned an increased interest in narratives that explored the dynamics of the 99%. In an article describing the rising tide of plays with political sentiment and urgency concerning the American Dream, Ben Brantley states, “when the dialectic of the haves and the have-nots becomes that of the seen and the unseen, it translates naturally to live theatre, which is all about commanding and competing for attention.” The competition for attention and the effect of that competition is at the heart of the following retelling of my own “participation” with the political Now of the Occupy movement in the Fall 2011.

On November 15th, 2011 at approximately 1:00 AM, New York City police engulfed the physical center of the Occupy movement at Zuccotti Park in the financial district of New York. Immediately, a rush of tweets, messages on Facebook, and live video of the event created by protesters hit the Internet.[2] Each of these mediatized bits of information enabled a call to arms. Nearly 20,000 viewers participated in that event by watching the Livestream of the eviction. I was one of those viewers. I sat in front of my computer screen hopping back and forth between the multiple Livestream angles posted by protesters on the ground. I did this while following both Facebook posts and Tweets of the event on my smartphone. I was engaged in multiple domains at once, believing myself to be actively taking part in the event through the digital channels I was interacting. The media affect of these multiple channels gave me the impression of accessing the Now in a way that analog media could not achieve. I felt like I could add to the conversation rather than simply receive information.

As the intensity of the event grew, so did the number of digital activists engaging with the event via their portable and stationary screens. While there were thousands of digitally active protesters and watchers online, there were only a fraction of that number in Zuccotti Park. This dichotomy reflects Couldry and Hepp’s argument about how Occupy used social media. They state, “Through the use of digital media platforms it became possible to construct two kinds of collectivities: first the collectivity of the group protesting in the streets and parks, and second, a collectivity that followed the events (a kind of imagined collectivity of supporters)” (181). A combined physical effort thwarted the ability of those belonging to the first collectivity to approach to the park. Subway lines were re-routed, police blockades were erected, and no one could approach the park, not even legitimate media representatives. A concerted effort led by the New York City police kept real on-the-ground protesters from approaching the park, but the digital streams were allowed to continue. The digital protesters vastly outnumbered the protesters on the ground. This was true for the movement in general, representing a largely de facto revolution taking place in the Real versus the real.

Unlike the earlier San Francisco BART Internet shutdown,[3] which forcibly impacted an ability to gather by blocking digital information transmission, the police allowed the call to arms via Internet supported devices but simply blocked the material ability to gather effectively using physical barriers. The police did not have to resort to the deletion of Internet capabilities like that used in the BART shutdown. By allowing the streams to continue, they contained interest and the political power of occupation within the digital channels. I, for one, was satiated by the ability to take part digitally, even though I could have easily attempted to make my way over to the financial district in less than fifteen minutes by train or taxi. The digital technologies allowed the message to go out, but what real impact did that message have in Now of the moment? In an ideological sense, the message’s intent was acted upon, as the message was received by thousands both locally and globally, but there was no immediately tangible effect of the digital transmission beyond the virtual social worlds of the Internet domains.

Without material and tangible action on the ground, Occupy’s followers’ acts of revolt via digital means simply became examples of “slacktivism.” The OED defines slacktivism as, “Actions performed via the Internet in support of a political or social cause (e.g. signing an online petition), characterized as requiring little time, effort, or commitment, or as providing more personal satisfaction than public impact.” As one of those participating as part of the digital collectivity, my actions were primarily felt in the safe confines of my home, as opposed to on the streets, where the necessity of being present, to occupy space, was imperative. The digital connection prompted my act of protest, but it had no tangible impact beyond a number count that continually fluctuated on the screen in front of me. My participation in the political Now was that simply of clicktivism, or digital interaction with a politically motivated event that became not real outside of my individually mediated connection to the screens. My protest actions were simply performed by my fingers and my eyes with no real recourse. Even with my attention digitally focused on what was happening on the ground, the occupiers were evicted from the park and never regained their physical foothold. The ideology of the occupied park simply became a symbol and a marker of a beginning but also of an end.

There is a plethora of research on the role social media plays in social moments and political activism.[4] There is no consensus regarding the efficacy of these tools when used to either support or act as platforms for activist activities. Malcom Gladwell made an argument in 2010 that, unlike previous generations, activists in the age of social media are “defined by their tools” where previous generations where “defined by their causes.” (New Yorker). Causes tend to be led by “strong ties” binding the activists together to actual people involved in the real event, where activism via digital social media tools are often made up of “weak ties” made available through networks of individuals who often don’t really know each other well. Just think, how many “friends” and “followers” do you have that you don’t even know? Weak ties tend to give us the impression or feeling of being part of a community similar to one we might find as spectators of a media or sport event (Couldry and Hepp 69). When these connections are utilized for activist means, they often lead to vast and viral interconnectivity, but they “seldom lead to high-risk activism,” as Gladwell explains. High-risk activism means one is required to actually take part in a manner that has personal stakes, like physically occupying a physical space and holding that space even when consequences such as jail time may occur. The tools Occupy used to spread its message and to build a significant fan-base or protest networks allowed low-risk activism for those who participated digitally. Those participating in the low-risk category were ultimately safe to protest without any consequences in the real. One of the problems with many forms of low-risk activism via social media is how they often feel so real and personal because to the affects of digital interaction.

Because we have grown accustomed to digital interaction in our everyday lives the affective quality of participating digitally encourages us to feel as though it has the same consequences as participating in the real. Sherry Turkle has made this argument as a central question regarding the future of social cohesion and personal relationship in her work Alone Together. She argues that our digital connections are weakening our ability to interact in the real, instead opting for digital connectivity. Pervasiveness of digital participation and interaction also rewires our cognitive and affective circuits (Carr 2010, Hayles 2012). I offer the personal experience above to both to show how the act of participating digitally can feel like an active engagement with a moment of the Now, and to warn how the visual engagement with the event on the screen and the affective capacity of the digital interactions with my smartphone are ultimately what led to my political passivity. That passivity allowed the potential of the Now to dissipate and diffuse through my digital interactions. By merely watching and interacting digitally, I could fulfill an act of protest neurologically and emotionally (affectively), satisfying my need for participation, but negating corporeal and potentially meaningful direct engagement in the real. Social media gave me the channel to watch and remotely embody the action of the event, but it also released me from having to participate materially. I reached the moment of the Now, but the Real created by my constant engagement with the digital sphere caused the revolutionary potential of that rupture to become unattainable in the real of the physical event.

Many argue that by using so-called participatory technologies we have the capacity to become the producers of our own realities (Jenkins 2006; Jenkins et al. 2013; Shirky 2008, 2010). What must happen, though, before we can take full advantage of this potential? Consider the Occupy Wall Street movement as an example of political performance that used the participatory condition of the Internet and social media to assume a persona similar to Guy Debord’s extrapolation of politics in the simulation experience found in the society of the spectacle. Debord argued that “in the midst of the popular tempest we must be the invisible pilots guiding the revolution, not through any kind of overt power but through the collective dictatorship of our Alliance — a dictatorship without any badges or titles or official status, yet all the more powerful because it will have none of the appearances of power” (27). This rhetoric was behind the way Occupy marketed and organized its global movement.

Occupy used the media affects of digital domains to gain mass appeal and raise social consciousness. It used this technology to create a hyper-proximity between geographically-disconnected people to impact the potential of direct participatory action during moments of the Now. It did so in a way inaccessible to earlier cycles of rebellion and revolution, but this use of media may have ultimately subsumed its own revolutionary potential. When the use of the media overtook the necessity of actually being there and taking part in the real event, the Now that drove so much of the rhetoric of the Occupy movement was drained of its potential. The political effectiveness of Occupy’s message dissipated when its tweet count and mass-media coverage dropped to near zero. This dissipation is directly related to its losing its physical attachment to Zuccotti Park. The activity in that real space was the site of a crucial Now because it marked a place where politics was something other than mediated performance. Many will continue to argue for the capacity of social media as a space for encouraging political activism, but it is important to consider the way in which the medium frames participation in the political process turning it into a form of impotent performance. Can using social Internet tools ultimately give us the agency to continue advancing the political potential of the Now or will they simply keep the cycle in perpetual motion? Is it possible to truly affect change using these new technological tools in the long run? Has the proliferation of user-produced media and meaning making become anything other than marketing as politics and/or an adherence to the structures of neoliberalism? Is it simply another example of performance without lasting effect? I don’t have the answer to these questions but I know they are crucial to ask.

Part Three: Revolutionary Potential Denied?

However hard we try to bring in the new

it comes in to being only

in the midst of clumsy deals

We’re all so clogged with dead ideals

passed from generation to generation

that even the best of us

don’t know the way out

— Peter Weiss

Similar to the revolutionary incidents of the 1960s, a new wave of multifaceted political unrest has surfaced through events such as the Arab Spring, the global Occupy movements, the rhetoric surrounding the 2016 American presidential election fueled by the echo chambers of social media, the very recent Brexit crisis in Europe, and the Post-truth era of the news media arrived with the election of Donald Trump. Each of these events were aided by the use of digital media. These media have become the conduits between the Real and the real through their affective capacities. They have allowed and, in many cases, encouraged an increasingly alarming level of polarization and political unrest. If we are approaching a new moment of the Now, as Turchin suggests, what might this mean for future of American society in a globalized world, and what will be the repercussions of rupturing the political status quo established during the long twentieth century? Even though his argument is compelling given the constant barrage of mini-crises played out daily in the media sphere, I argue little will become of any potential revolution due to the nature of the cycles that have now become unbreakable and inescapable due to the mechanics of contemporary mediatization. This echoes Guy Debord’s declaration in the 1960s when he stated, “once history becomes real, it no longer has an end” (23). Even in a moment of rupture, or the political Now of a contemporary moment, the way we interact with and create the social under digitalization keeps us from moving forward as true agents of our own change. We become trapped in a feedback loop with the medium.

Twitter, Facebook, Livestream, and YouTube are often described as democratic media that allow their users to partake in the politics of contemporary social worlds. I argue that these media have more potential than the analog media discussed earlier, but, as shown in the example of my own political participation with Occupy, their potential also can neuter one’s ability to access the Now because they effectively reduce the Real to a masked version of actuality created by the effects and affects of any given moment’s media. For Marat, in Weiss’ play, his constant written dictums were the social media of the day, but for the twenty-first century activist, the 280-character count allowed by Twitter becomes a manifesto with the supposed power to announce and lead revolutions. Due to geographical constraints, it was previously impossible to amass a rally of actual people in a time frame of less than thirty minutes. Social media platforms and the locative technologies that deliver them have unleashed the power to do just that. A tweet or an update has immediate agency and affect if interfaced with in purposeful ways instead of used as another form of passive spectatorship. But the potential can be subverted through the media affects of digital participation, when the medium is approached as the actual site of protest.

The production of the Real by our current media allow for a direct connection to the Now, which feels accessible via contemporary simulation. Internet-driven social media used politically can alter realities, but primarily in their ability to work as signposts towards something intangible and unreachable. They act simply as directions to a Real or rather a simulated version of a real. Through the example of the Livestream views and social media engagement above, I argue that many people were less motivated to actually engage in the eviction event because they could participate in the event digitally from their computers and smartphones. Their Now was realized beyond the boundaries of the physical event, where actual agency could be seen and tangibly measured. The physical site was where the real event took place, and it was through the digital media that the Real event became accessible. These by-proxy protestors (myself included) felt connected without any danger of being directly involved. This is the same experience one may have had through passively watching Marat/Sade. Unfortunately, these are examples of media affects subverting their own potential. These media create realities that become so Real that actual engagement becomes unnecessary. A pressing concern is how contemporary media affects are changing the possibility for engaging at all.

In Peter Brook’s stage and film versions of Marat/Sade, the relevance of the Now was felt with so much force and considered groundbreaking because of the political era it was experienced but remained untapped. The sixth decade of the twentieth century was politically charged around the world. In the United States, the rise of the 1960s Civil Rights movement as well as the beginnings of the anti-war movements propelled forward at breakneck speed. Student uprisings in both the U.S. and in France echoed the Workers movements of the past century announcing that the moment of rupture in the cycle had begun anew. Just as the Herald says in the play, “The revolution came and went and unrest was replaced by discontent” (Weiss 16). The 1960s began a new period of awakening where there was a surfacing realization that life had become immersed in the spectacle. Society was trapped in it by a seeming acceptance to be part of the machine and so artists used media affects to prompt a Now that gave spectators the agency to break free. But how free did they become? Even though great political and social strides were accomplished, the cycle continued by resurfacing in an even worse iteration in the beginning of the 2010s.

Today, there exists a similar feeling of discontent. A feeling that is not only visible in the fervent attachment to political mouthpieces such as Donald Trump but also through the constant media barrage that both informs and masks our daily unrest. Like Childish Gambino states in This is America, mediatized cultures are predicated by a “shaking of the frame,” where a concerted conglomeration of platformized individual media work to make blurry the truth behind the spectacle. That truth is that the unrest exists but is persuasively masked by a new Real delivered through aspects of digitalization. The unrest being played across the political spectrum here in the United States and across the Western world makes Marat/Sade’s message politically relevant again. Unfortunately, the multitude of media influences keep spectators hyper-engaged in the simulation via a rhetoric of participation, making the Now largely unapproachable when accessed via media and performance. Brook’s direction can be appreciated today for how it reflects a need for revolution via a political Now. Even so, is it possible that we have become so distracted, separated, and isolated due to our lack of attention and constant engagement with social and mass media that we can no longer organize effectively enough to bring about any real change? Have we become the inmates in the asylum?

Through media affects there exists a potential to guide spectators towards revolutionary change, but is it possible any longer to introduce permanent change on their own accord using the same media? To break free of the constant cycles, is it necessary to subvert the various media affects in order to activate the potential of the Now, or are we as a society simply too far down the mediatized rabbit hole? If the Now has become an ephemeral universal, it may no longer be useful as a site of political activation because the Now is no longer accessed in the real. I fear the only Now that can still be recognized as a true site of rupture reflects the way Marat/Sade ends, in complete anarchy. This may be the coming future that Turchin predicts. On the opposite side of anarchy might be a reversal whose likely outcome will be that of the continuous cycle. Repeating Debord, “once history becomes real, it no longer has an end” (23). In a deeply mediatized world, it might be necessary to contemplate a way to disconnect and rethink what it means to participate. Doing so might help us reclaim politics from performance in order to regain agency and bring about non-cyclical social change. Becoming aware of the frame and utilizing that awareness might be one way to activate the potential inherent in the Now.

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[1] There are many disparate approaches to the intersection of affect, media, and performance. While this list is not exhaustive, please refer to these theorists exploring the social impacts of mediatization and digital technologies on humans and human culture (Braidiotti 2013; Couldry and Hepp 2017; Hepp 2015; Farman 2012; Garde-Hansen and Gorton 2013, Hansen 2003, 2015; Hayles 2017; Karatzogianni and Kuntsman 2012; Massumi 2002; Stiegler 1998, Thrift 2008, Zarzycka and Olivieri 2017).

[2] While the full Livestream is no longer available, included are two blog-based news posts that explain the timeline of the raid with accompanying social media aggregates (Brooklyn Ink Staff;

[3] This refers to the Bay Area Rapid Transit system wide disabling of cell phone service on its trains in 2011 used as a way of intentionally disrupting social protest (Kravets 2011).

[4] For a sampling of recent scholarship and statistics concerning the efficacy of online activism after the advent of social media see (Esser and Strömbäck 2014; Gladwell 2010; Hepp and Krotz 2014, Neilsen 2013; Pew 2018; Shirky 2011; Vromen 2017).