Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Having watched the long six hour exchange that seemed like an interrogation of the scholar PJ Thum, I felt a sense of sadness. Academics are often called upon as experts to offer their knowledge in policy making processes. However, I had not personally witnessed anything like this in any other part of the developed world. Here we had a politician, a representative of the state, performing what appeared to be an interrogation of an academic under the framework of a select committee, carrying out a performance that begun and ended with the scholar's integrity and academic credibility being brought under scrutiny.

The performance, I worry, if not interrogated for its quality and tenor, will send out a chilling message to academics in Singapore and elsewhere working on Singapore-related issues, especially when the findings of their work don't align with or even interrogate the state-sponsored line.

[Now even writing about this, while sitting here in Singapore, I have to overcome my anxieties. I have been told multiple times to toe the line. I have been told that, as a foreigner, I ought not to criticise Singapore society.]

The worth of a scholar and the value of her/his scholarship is not determined by politicians, elected state representatives, or the public. While indeed scholarly work may be engaged with, supported, refuted by politicians, the judgment of the value of that work (based on markers of quality, such as reliability, validity etc.) and the terms of the debate lies precisely within the scholarly community, the community of scholars that participate in the peer review process to evaluate a piece of work, make recommendations to the editor/program planner/program chair, and the editor/program planner/program chair makes decisions after in-depth consideration of the merits of the work.

In other words, the assessment of the quality of a scholar's work, and even more importantly of the scholar (whether one is objective, rigorous etc. etc.) can only take place within the academic community. Academic legitimacy rests on academic freedom, held to account only within a qualified community of expert academics trained in the methods of the community.

Now indeed a scholar's argument may be limited. The evidence considered may need further consideration. Alternative facets of the same body of evidence might need to be considered. The conclusions might not match with the evidence presented. However, for any and all of these questions to be considered, the sphere of engagement lies within academia. Scholars regularly publish refutations and rejoinders to published pieces, often in the same scholarly space where the original work was published. This engagement is typically subjected to peer review before it is published. This healthy climate of debate in academia is critical to the progression and integrity of academic knowledge.

Certainly members of the public (including politicians) are welcome to agree, disagree, partially agree/disagree, with the arguments being made by a scholar, based on their considerations of other evidence. This agreement or disagreement is targeted at the wider public. In democracies, the arguments and counter-arguments are presented in the court of public opinion for the public to consider.

Arguments about the quality of the scholarship and the author's rigor, however, are limited to the scholarly spaces where they can be debated on.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Faux radicalism and career academics: Embodied risks



A critical component of the social justice work of CARE is the work of communication in imagining and working toward structural transformation.

Structural transformation in political, economic, social, and cultural formations is explicitly intertwined with the work of co-creating communicative spaces in working with the margins.

To work toward co-creating these communicative spaces is to perform "embodied risk." The formation of communicative structures at/with the margins embodies risks to the material and symbolic formations of CARE work.

These risks, expressed in the form of various strategies of repression directed at the work of culture-centered approach, are indicators of the very transformative nature of culture-centered projects. Because and when the work of CARE co-creates infrastructures of participation at the margins, various forms of power and control are directed at the work.

These risks, experienced on the body as the corpus of social justice work, test the faux radicalism of career academics for whom social justice is a branding strategy, a strategy for drawing in grant monies and building CVs. For the career academic, the performance of faux radicalism is expressed in various forms of claims in academic jargons about their radical nature, all the while collaborating with the authoritarian structures of capital accumulation.

A wide range of local, cultural, particular terms are invented as alibi for this faux radicalism, all the while keeping the structures of oppression and capital accumulation intact.

The career academic will wax eloquent about the Umbrella movement while her students put their bodies on the line. A career academic will build a long CV out of pretending to be on the side of social justice, all the while not contributing materially to the calls for justice.

The career academic makes her career writing about change processes, all the while maintaining a safe distance from the everyday contingencies and vulnerabilities of change work. She will go even further to justify her absence from the struggles of justice or even worse, her collaborations with positions of power as a strategy for change.

The career academic will even go as far as to tell you resistance is meaningless or dead.

Having written off resistance, she will continue to build a CV that lays claims to the symbols of radicalism.

The career academic is fundamentally antithetical to the everyday work of communication for social change, co-opting the language of social change to serve her agenda.

For a culture-centered project to take root in the ethos of social justice, an explicit commitment to structural transformation is fundamental. The co-creation of communicative infrastructures is the first step toward building resources for social justice.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

When culture reproduces state-market control



The turn to "culture" as a legitimate tool for measurement, evaluation, prescription, and implementation is intertwined with the incorporation of culture into sites of state-market control.

Culture, as the handmaiden of the neoliberal transformation of societies, is incorporated into the logics imposed by the state toward the transformation of human lives under the overarching logic of the market.

The cultural subject is an individualized self-interested consumer, participating through the state-controlled techniques of hyper-engagement to generate revenues for the market.

The authoritarian techniques deployed by the state mechanize the terms, textures, techniques, and possibilities for cultural participation.

The message, "the market rules," is incorporated into a wide range of cultural artefacts that consistently sings the song of the market. Cultural consumption, mediated through the market logics, is turned into points of profiteering, simultaneously "place branding" cultural spaces as destinations for transnational capital. 

Narrowly and monotonously captured into metrics of cultural capital, culture is turned into an instrument of accounting. Heritage sites, trails, museums, art houses, performances, theaters are accounted for by the overarching rules of cultural capital, incorporated into the techniques of the state for drawing foreign direct investments and positioning itself as an investment hub.

As an instrument of accounting, culture is assigned an economic value, and commoditized into the overarching logics of the global free market.

Cultural value is the economic value, circulated in the exchange logics of the free market.

Cultural products and artifacts, thus constituted in the logics of the market, are strictly controlled within the authoritarian techniques of the state, stripped of the dynamism, fluidity and resistive possibilities.

What will attract capital investments is culture. What will enable the branding of the state as a hub for global financial investments is culture. What will narrowly contribute to the neoliberal logics of market fundamentalism is culture.

Simultaneously, the authoritarian state deploys a wide range of techniques of control to erase the critical, contested, and tensile sites of culture.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

How the "fake news" hype is a new tool of power and control



The circulation of the "fake news" discourse reinvents the Cold War narrative of geoinsecurity to reinforce the power and control of hegemonic power structures globally.

In the hands of the global elite, "fake news" is the new instrument for reproducing elite power and control, recycled as the weapon for silencing difference, working through the role of the state in carrying out techniques of social media governmentality.

The manufacturing of threats serve the strategic purpose of introducing greater and newer methods of repression.

Similar to the strategic manufacturing of the "Red threat" as a basis for authoritarian control and repression during the Cold War, the manufacturing of the "fake news" agenda serves as the pretext for the reproduction of draconian laws that fundamentally threaten free speech and freedom of expression. As in the instance of the "Red threat," the paradox of the "fake news" trope is its reproduction of the false perception of "threat" to shape public opinion in support for techniques of repression.

Authoritarian states find the premise of "fake news" as the perfect alibi for introducing new measures of authoritarian control, albeit through the performance of engagement.

Even as these measures of repression are being introduced to curtail diversity of public opinion on online spaces, nation states continue to be one of the key sites of production of fake news through their instruments of propaganda. Obfuscated in this conversation is the fact that some of the greatest sources of falsehoods are nation states, in instances working in collusion with transnational corporations, to reproduce elite power.

Although the fear of foreign governments and interests influencing local politics is the new discursive trope on the horizon, this "fear of foreign influence" has long been deployed as a strategic device for introducing laws that silence free speech and enable the reproduction of hegemonic power.

Moreover, even as the trope of "foreign influence" is introduced as a new threat on the horizon of the social media sphere, techniques of influencing and subverting democratic processes have been tried-and-tested tool of the power elite in global geopolitics.

The U.S. for instance, since the 1950s, systematically deployed overt and covert operations to destabilize democratically elected governments across the globe, and especially in the global South. The instruments of the deep state, more specifically instruments such as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) have been the key actors in carrying out these forms of repression, albeit paradoxically in the name of promoting global geosecurity.

In the current environment, it is critical for media scholars to carefully attend to how the "fake news" agenda is being deployed as a repressive strategy for silencing difference and critique.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Metric mania and threats to academic integrity: Rent-seeking, power plays, and collaboration


Universities, as modern capitalist organizations, reproduce practices of exploitation that are often obfuscated by the gloss of projected images.

Metric mania, the drive toward simply counting in the game toward rankings, is reflected in the blind allegiance in such Universities globally to measuring dollar values of grants and numbers of publications in varieties of tiered journals (tiering itself is a form of categorization that reproduces exploitative practices).

One of the effects of this neoliberal obsession with metrics is its role in (re)producing cultures of academic practices that threaten the very nature of academic work.

Academic integrity is sacrificed to the accelerated quest for numbers.

One such threat to academic integrity is reflected in rent-seeking behaviors of senior academics. What is projected as the academic culture of collaboration driven by faculty in senior ranks within institutions is often driven by practices of exploitation (Of course, there are many forms of collaboration that are generative and nurturing, more on these in a later blog entry).

Driven to claim credits on these metrics established by managers, these senior faculty develop practices of collaborating with junior colleagues, which often turn into exercises of exploitation, creating "use-and-throw systems" where junior scholars become expendable labor in circuits of exploitation.

For instance, Professor X running such-and-such lab expects any junior colleague using an equipment in his lab to include him as a co-author. Without doing any intellectual or material work, Professor X simply adds numbers to his CV by virtue of securing a grant that funds an expensive equipment or an entire laboratory.

In other instances, such exploitation can take grotesque forms such as Professor X asking a first year Assistant Professor Dr. A to list him as the Principal Investigator (PI) on a grant written by Dr. A based on an idea Dr. A has developed.

Professor X might even simply then take the idea and write a number of manuscripts based on the idea, taking Dr. A out of the picture.

Professor X might convince Dr. A, already occupied with anxieties about navigating a metric-heavy system that listing Professor X as the Principal Investigator (PI) on the grant would get Dr. A funded.

Such unethical practices in academe are reproduced by the inequalities in distribution of power within academic institutions and the anxieties that are tied to these inequities in power. The Dr. As in academe, often the expendable labor in circuits of academic reproduction, are simply "thrown out" for not having produced original work. Institutional processes, ensconced within circuits of power, are unavailable to junior colleagues to file complaints and to secure access to justice.

In the meanwhile, Professor X goes on to develop patents, win awards, secure additional funding based on ideas that were developed by Dr. A.

Rent-seeking culture among corrupt senior academics is typically rewarded and reproduced through the structures of metrics, whose obsession with metrics does little to actually consider questions of ethics, integrity, and misconduct.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Culturally centering participatory spaces, radical democracy, and holding elites accountable




In the many culture-centered projects implemented across the globe, the development of habits of participatory communication in local cultural logics and in ongoing relationships with structures is integral to the co-construction of social change interventions.

Communication as advocacy emerges from within the infrastructures of participatory communication grounded in community life. For instance, the understanding of racism as a chronic determinant of cardiovascular disease among African Americans emerges as a site for participatory politics that seeks to transform the unhealthy structures of racism. In doing so, advocacy directed at transforming racist structures is fundamentally grounded in local participatory logics of community life.

Movements such as the #BlackLivesMatter movement emerge as grassroots-driven, community participatory spaces directed at transforming the structures. The understanding that health is constituted in the organizing of local-global structures is an anchor for participatory communication processes directed at transforming these structures.

Therefore, culture-centered participatory spaces, grounded in the rhythms of community life, and negotiated through the everyday struggles of community members, catalyze the cultivation of radical democracies. Radical democracies foster democratic practices in everyday habits of decision-making over development pathways to be taken, resources to be developed and cultivated, and trajectories to be pursued. The spaces of decision-making are (re)turned into the hands of communities. The work of academics, activists, and civil society organizations becomes one of participatory capacity building. For instance, in culture-centered collaborations with African American communities in the inner city U.S., building the evidence base on the linkage between racism and health outcomes builds community capacity for transformative advocacy, pushing toward changes in policy formations and organizing of structures that resist racism.

In building participatory spaces grounded in local cultural logics, the culture-centered approach thus inverts the logics of power that reproduce elite control. Elites are held accountable to the voices of community members at the margins of societies. The habits of elite decision-making, oblivious to community voices and struggles, are disrupted through the presence of community voices. The monolithic power of elite control is disrupted by evidence-based community participation in everyday decision-making processes.

Grassroots driven radical democracies enable the ownership of the various political, economic, social, and cultural decision-making platforms in the hands of communities, with the roles of elite actors transformed toward serving community needs. In turning toward community participatory spaces as sites of decision-making, culture-centered processes offer frameworks for local communities to participate in power sharing, examining the claims made by elites, evaluating the evidence available, and making decisions based on the emerging understanding.

The very logic of episodic stakeholder engagement campaigns and community dialogues driven by elite agendas is interrogated, instead transforming participation toward an everyday habit of community life. In this sense, in culture-centered processes, community participation is driven by communities as contested sites of decision-making rather than by the agendas of elite actors who seek to deploy community engagement toward a variety of strategic purposes. 


Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Strategies of authoritarian control: The culture of forwarding private Facebook screen captures to authorities


One of the well-rehearsed strategies of authoritarian control is surveillance.

While technologies enable new modes of surveillance, the power and control of surveillance is reproduced through human participation.

Mechanisms of surveillance are perfected and reproduced by willing subjects that participate in the reproduction of surveillance (Andrejevic, 2002, 2007; Dubrofsky, 2011; Fuchs, 2017; Owen & Imre, 2013). Those that participate in these mechanisms are led to believe that they will somehow be rewarded by the structures.

With each new technology, authoritarian powers invent new mechanisms of control.

The power of authoritarianism lies precisely in the threat that one will be found out if they did or said anything that challenges the control of the structure. Surveillance works toward silencing critique through the culture of fear it reproduces.

Inherent in the reproduction of this culture of fear is the prevalence of mechanisms of surveillance. Everyday interactions are turned into sites of surveillance. Modes of participation are brought under the purview of surveillance.

And everyone around you is potentially an accomplice to the strategies of surveillance. Your neighbor, colleague, friend, partner-the possibility that anyone can potentially be an instrument of surveillance feeds a sense of paranoia that is antithetical to critical thought.

The global emergence of Facebook as a platform for social change, albeit within the logics of dominant capitalist structures, has also brought on new modalities of Facebook surveillance.

One such modality of surveillance is the monitoring of Facebook.

Facebook posts shared with the intent of communicating with friends (set to "friends only" settings) can be forwarded to authoritarian structures of power and control. Screen captures then can be used as tools of control.

The culture of forwarding screen captures in this sense is an extension of the overarching culture of authoritarian control. Participants in the elaborate networks of control are somehow led to believe that they will be incentivized and rewarded for passing on information, ironically themselves being under surveillance by somebody else. The paranoia enables the authoritarian system to reproduce itself, silencing critical thought and interrogation.

One of the key sites for communication advocacy in this backdrop is to hold global corporate structures such as Facebook to account. Facebook privacy settings are rendered meaningless if private Facebook posts can be treated as public.

References

Andrejevic, Mark. (2002). "The work of watching one another: Lateral surveillance, risk, and governance." Surveillance & Society 2.4.

Andrejevic, M. (2007). iSpy: Surveillance and power in the interactive era (p. 182). Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.

Dubrofsky, R. E. (2011). Surveillance on reality television and Facebook: From authenticity to flowing data. Communication Theory, 21(2), 111-129.

Fuchs, C. (2017). Social media: A critical introduction. Sage.

Owen, S., & Imre, R. (2013). Little mermaids and pro-sumers: The dilemma of authenticity and surveillance in hybrid public spaces. International Communication Gazette, 75(5-6), 470-483.