Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Culinary Diplomacy: A Taste of Thanksgiving

In light of last week’s holiday (and a great example of this week’s discussion on public diplomacy), I spent a majority of November organizing an event as part of the State Department’s culinary diplomacy initiative.  The “Diplomatic Culinary Partnership” was launched in order to “elevate the role of culinary engagement in America’s formal and public diplomacy efforts” (source: Press release). Entitled Taste of Thanksgiving, the event was filmed at the Blair House, the President’s guest house, and available for live streaming. Members of the American Chef Corps, a network of the nation’s distinguished chefs, worked with other locally renowned chefs to prepare traditional Thanksgiving meals. An audience from over 75 countries watched the chefs cook, collected recipes, and participated in Q&A’s. Embassies abroad expressed great interest in the event, and requested translated versions of the event to broadcast later. The success of the event was heavily dependent on the social media used to promote it; State is making a big effort to integrate technology in its diplomatic efforts, as the Comenetz article in the Washington Diplomat explains.

Aside from my general passion for food, I was personally interested because, having lived abroad and spent multiple Thanksgivings with foreigners, I am always impressed by their genuine interest in the significance of Thanksgiving. Sharing a Thanksgiving dinner, or any meal for that matter, with my friends abroad fostered cultural exchanges over the dining table. Sounds cheesy, I know, but it’s true! Similarly, the Thanksgiving event served as a tool to improve the nation’s relationships with foreign audiences.

And the Answer, Alex, is Noopolitik

The other day I was watching an episode of Jeopardy (when I know I should have been working on my blog posts). When the contestant chose the answer clue along the lines of “This is the theory of hard power diplomacy termed by 19th Century German politician Ludwig von Rochau”, I was at once reminded that I should get back to my IC homework, but also very excited to know that the answer was realpolitik!
It was a very fitting episode of Jeopardy, since we had just completed our in class review of some basic IR theory which included a discussion of realpolitik and its opponent, noopolitik. Often the two are differentiated by realpolitik’s association with ‘hard power’ and noopolitik’s association with ‘soft power’. However, it seems that the each encompasses more than just those two notions, and the distinction is made clearer for me when looking at the answer to another question we raised in class: what is the power of NGO’s?
While realpolitik is characterized by the notion of hierarchical organizational power, noopolitik is the notion that power and influence lie with knowledge and ideas. Anne-Marie Slaughter coined the term collaborative power, which is an illustration of the power in working with organizations and diverse groups of people to mobilize action or to achieve a common goal. Collaborative power, while related to the of noopolitik and the power that lies within the ability to collaborate on ideas and knowledge to mobilize populations (as opposed to the realpolitik notion of commanding action), is a characteristic of the system as opposed to soft power which is some possessed by nation-states. No one individual or organization possesses collaborative power; rather it is a function of the networked society in which collaboration is more effective in getting goals accomplished.  In her article A New Theory for the Foreign Policy Frontier: Collaborative Power, Slaughter describes what distinguishes collaborative power: “One familiar distinction is "power with" versus "power over." The power that interests Nye is the power that a person, group, or institution exercises over other people, groups, or institutions, getting them to do something they would not have done on their own. "Power with," on the other hand, is the power of multiple actors to get something done collaboratively.”
Therefore, it appears the power of NGO’s comes from the ability to mobilize populations, connect organizations and people to each other and resources, and adapt to various and changing needs, all of which are characteristics of Slaughter’s notion of collaborative power. Although the forces of realpolitik are still at play in conflicts around the world, it seems that noopolitik has more influence to mobilize and inspire action and positive change in the current globalized, interdependent and interconnected world.

The Social Media Effect

“Here it is, the nexus of media power and foreign policy, where television's instantly transmitted images fire public opinion, demanding instant responses from government officials, shaping and reshaping foreign policy at the whim of electrons. It's known as the CNN Effect.”
                                                                      - Warren P. Strobel, American Journalism Review

When thinking about the CNN effect theory, I can’t help but think that it is transforming from its original notion, and morphing into a more contemporarily appropriate social media effect. The phenomenon dubbed the CNN effect came about around the 1990’s during the time of the Gulf War and the Somalia famine when CNN had a live 24-hour coverage presence of the war activities and images of the atrocities that were occurring. Due to the real-time reporting, it created the illusion that foreign policy decisions were being made in response to or at the instigation of news reporting. It seems that this theory arose because of the speed at which news was being transmitted to the public - where it was not being reported at that speed and frequency previously. As humans, we like to find correlation and order to explain what looks like phenomena, and the case of the CNN effect is no different. It was a way to explain the apparent connection between the influence of media and of foreign policy actions. In other words it seems that we are trying to answer the question, what came first, the news media chicken or the foreign policy egg?
Some call the CNN effect a myth, citing that, among other things, in actuality “The images of strife and horror abroad that are displayed on CNN and other television outlets also help foreign policy officials explain the need for U.S. intervention.”(Strobel). This position holds that news media actually in some cases help to justify or reinforce foreign policy actions to the public. Others hold that in fact 24 hour coverage from news media such as CNN does effect government action and also public opinion.
When this phenomenon was originally termed the CNN effect, it was a reflection of the illusion of influence created by the speed and frequency of live coverage of news via television media. If speed is a factor in determining the validity of the CNN effect, it seems that, with the instantaneous spread of news and information through social media and internet communication technology that exists now, the CNN effect is transforming to something more appropriately called the social media effect. This has been seen through the protest movements during the Arab Spring, so is the fact that there is power to influence public action through social media networks indicative that it also has more power than television reporting to influence government action and even policy? Not only is news covered live and reported in real-time, it is spread through the network almost instantaneously to a greater number of information consumers. If the CNN effect phenomenon is a myth, is the social media effect more of a reality?

Monday, November 26, 2012

Tuning in to the Boy Band Formula

For the last month, I have been re-exploring Asian pop music, and have stumbled upon one of the most entertaining -- and addictive -- genres: Korean boy bands. Yes, even Korea has a legacy of boy band idols who have come and gone with each generation of tween girls since the 1990s. Such groups as SS501 (music video below), Super Junior, and SHINee can be placed in the same category with groups like One Direction, Backstreet Boys, and N*Sync.

SS501 - "Love Like This" (2009)

Now, for those of you who watched the video and got past the sometimes absurd dance moves and gravity-defying hair, you will notice that it doesn't seem too terribly different from the music videos of the American boy bands we love to hate. There are five guys, all singing in harmony about love, and dancing seemingly non-stop for 3 minutes. To get a visual comparison, let's look at an oldie but a goody -- N*Sync's "I Want You Back" (below). 

N*Sync - "I Want You Back"(1998)

It's a little disconcerting when you realize how similar the format is of the video, the group, even the style of the song. How does this resemblance occur between two boy bands separated by and ocean, differences in cultural context, and the height of their popularity being nearly ten years apart?

Format, or "formula" is the operative word to answer the question. During our week on convergence culture, we read the article by Jade Miller on the formula export of the telenovela ("Ugly Betty Goes Global: Global networks of localized content in the telenovela industry", Global Media and Communication, 6,2 9 (2010): 198-217). Miller focused on the localization of a globally transmitted TV show formula, explaining that certain elements that make the show a telenovela are still identifiable, but that the specific details are adaptable to different cultural contexts. Other articles we have read even mentioned game shows like "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" as participating in this global export of formula entertainment. And from just the two music videos above, can't we argue that music should be included in this phenomenon?

Yes, we can. As Miller stated, "Betty la Fea serves as an example of the way in which a seemingly-domestic product is inherently a global product." Every aspect of popular entertainment -- film, music, television -- can no longer be seen as just produced for domestic audiences. These entertainment media are part of the globalizing world, and to be economically successful, they have had to find ways to be exportable to a wide variety of cultures. What appears to be the most effective method for accomplishing this is finding a formula that is adaptable instead of trying to create content that has wide appeal. Instead, let the localization process take care of it. And this is what popular music formulas, like boy bands, have done.

And so in the 1990s, the boy band formula was able to be proven in the United States entertainment market, and exported around the world for billions of people to enjoy. But why should we even care that popular entertainment is being turned into a math problem with variables to be filled in by different cultures? It could give credit to the idea that globalization is creating "one culture". One culture that is based around a format driven by capitalist markets. Even if you don't prescribe to that theory, it is still undeniable that there are certain types of programming, music, and film that are being consumed the world over. And whether governments tap into this power or it stays within the business of cultural production, everyone in the world will continue to have shared cultural experiences that they don't even realize they are having.

So, when you listen to One Direction on the radio tomorrow, consider how they fit the formula. Think how they were manufactured on the X-Factor (another formula entertainment product) to create an economically viable musical group that be exported globally. And think of the millions of people around the world who hear that same song in one day, and how the formulas of popular entertainment are beginning to build cultural bridges through shared experience.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Danger of a Single Story: Postcolonialism and Communication

In “Postcolonial Approaches to Communication: Charting the Terrain, Engaging the Intersections,” Raka Shome and Radha Hegde outline the role scholars and students have in their study of postcolonialism and communication. The two argue that we must responsibly “question and map” the intertwined relationship between the histories, contexts, and geographies of people and nations. This is an interventionist point of view advocating for informed contextualization and action.

In their overview of the relationship that exists between communication studies and postcolonial studies, they warn colleagues to beware of how “the discrete positioning of cultures without any sense of their interconnected histories reproduces the violence of colonial modernities and fixes difference in a spectacle of otherness” (263). In other words, one must be conscientious and careful of arming oneself with the knowledge of many contexts, including historical, geopolitical, racial, and cultural context of one’s subject area. In acknowledging the specific context(s) of a topic, for example Vietnamese immigration to the United States between 1975 and 1995, one is less likely to make the mistake of falling into the essential binary traps that have long reduced the world to divisions between the global North/South, East/West.

The authors warn how “institutionalized knowledge is always subject to the forces of colonialism, nation, geopolitics, and history” (251). Therefore, we must question the phenomena, effects, and affects of postcolonialism. How do our observations relate to the communication of ideas, identity, or nationalism?

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the author of Half of a Yellow Sun, raises these types of questions in her writing. In her remarks for a TED talk, she points out the “danger of a single story” narrative. She emphasizes “how impressionable and vulnerable we are in the face of a story” and recounts her own experience growing up in eastern Nigeria reading British and American storybooks. Until she encountered Chinua Achebe and other African writers (who “saved” her), she did not know that girls like herself—with skin the color of chocolate and “kinky hair that cannot fit into pony tails” could actually “exist in literature.”

In the process of reading the Shome and Hegde article, I’ve become aware of what Homi Bhabha meant when he postulated how the “western metropole must [now] confront its postcolonial history, told by its influx of post-war migrants and refugees, as an indigenous or native narrative internal to its national identity” (254). Adichie’s excellent talk below builds on this struggle. 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

"Politics Translated"

Continuing with last week’s class discussion over technology and activism, the reading, “From Steamed Bun to Grass Mud Horse: E Gao as alternative political discourse on Chinese Internet”, by Bingchun Meng, discusses how Chinese net users are transforming the Chinese public sphere from a unified rational public space to a heterogeneous forum, where expressions are “constantly generated and circulated”. Meng, in his article, argues that the internet is more than an instrument or a space, that “it’s a medium that contributes to the formation of new discursive modes of communicative practices”. Meng focuses particularly on  E gao, “the two characters ‘e’ meaning ‘evil’ and ‘gao’ meaning ‘work’ combine to describe a subculture that is characterized by humor, revelry, subversion, grass-root spontaneity, defiance of authority, mass participation and multi-media high-tech”. 
Meng further states, “e gao becomes an alternative means of conducting political discussions using entertainment discourses”.  E gao has done this by creating an alternative public sphere for its “netizens”, outside of the traditional political discourse in currently in place throughout China, through its usage of news websites, online forums, chat rooms and blogs.   In post-communist China, where there remains a divergence between official and popular discourses, e gao mediates between those discourses and among average citizens.  This is important because, as Meng explains, “Politics is built on deep-seated cultural values and beliefs that are embedded in the seemingly non-political aspects of public and private life”.  E gao does this by mediating between the public and private by using entertainment media to providing important cultural resources that in turn stimulate social and political debate.
Meng advances that, “It is the communication context of the Chinese internet that renders the e gao practice politically significant in terms of challenging the dominant order at both structural and discursive levels”. Structurally, it provides a space where alternative discourse can be “smuggled in” past Chinese censors. This space over time has evolved into a type of imagined community, which does not follow official orders, and gives rise to new types of speech.  The participation in the community by sharing of e gao activities “cultivates decentralized grassroots communities where a sense of belonging is constructed through a common understanding”. A community that has developed, a diversified political discourse,  that previously did not exist, in modern China.  Defined by Meng as,” A discursive style that combines humor, satire, vulgarity and a-rationality effectively providing a channel for transgression and subversion for those are at the lower end of the power structure”.  
Meng concludes stating, “The phenomena of e gao is deeply embedded in the specific social-political context of China”.  E gao is an example of how innovative activities such as those by Chinese netizens can be revolutionary in changing modes of communication. It is important to remain vigilant of new modes of communication that arise in order to continue our understanding of new media. 

After reading this article I began to think about political discourse in America and how despite having fairly reasonable censorship laws our own form of e gao has emerged. Shows like The Daily Show, Colbert Report and Comedy Central's "Obama Translated" are testament to this.

(2:20).  President Obama himself speaking about Key and Peele parody.  

Friday, November 9, 2012

Middle Earth Takes Flight: Rethinking Convergence Culture

To preface this blog, I am an avid fan of anything Tolkein. So when a friend sent me a link to a YouTube Video by Air New Zealand entitled "An Unexpected Briefing", my interest was peaked. So yes, I did spend a little over four minutes enthralled by an in-flight safety video that is Lord of the Rings (LOTR) themed. And yes, I did find a way to tie this to some of our class' previous discussions.

The video is yet another way New Zealand is trying to cash-in on the popularity of Peter Jackson's films, including the soon-to-be-released "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey". But this is not simply unique in its format (New Zealand has most recently put LOTR characters on its currency). The video was posted on YouTube, and in just one week, it has reached over 8 million views and counting. I never would have thought that an airline safety video would be a new media phenomenon, let alone use a hobbit to show me how to put on my oxygen mask in case of emergencies.

In class we mostly discussed the idea of "prosumers", localization of content, and convergence of creative media formats when we spoke of "convergence culture". But what if this video shows that more than just industries are converging in our age of global information circulation? What if industries, governments and pop culture are all converging? This video would seem to suggest this, as you have the airline industry utilizing media and pop culture to promote both the country, the film, and the airline itself. The lines between all of these are very fuzzy, and it is hard to tell where one promotion begins and another ends.

Though other countries may not want to take such links to pop culture to this extreme, they may want to consider take a page our of New Zealand's playbook. In a previous post, I discussed the Internet's clash with Chinese national sovereignty. Would it be possible for China to take a globally-known, Chinese-made pop culture reference (say Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan), use it to promote its media industry (or "open" information), its economic objectives, and its party line and culture? It would be interesting to find out, and even more interesting to see how this could be utilized to promote the US abroad.

In short, the convergence culture I see is the whole picture, not just in one aspect of media usage or production. At the very least, such appropriation of mass media and pop culture to communicate information in various industries is am amusing one-hit-wonder. At most, it could potentially be a a public diplomacy strategy that not only promotes economies, but also tourism, and national brands through the new media technologies.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

After the U.S. elections: Do we live in the same country?

“Democracy in a nation of 300 million can be noisy and messy and complicated. We have our own opinions. Each of us has deeply held beliefs. And when we go through tough times, when we make big decisions as a country, it necessarily stirs passions, stirs up controversy.” – President Obama in his victory speech in Chicago, November 7, 2012

In the wee hours of this morning, following the results of the 2012 election in which 130 million U.S. citizens voted, President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney participated in a time-honored tradition of U.S. presidential politics: the deliverance of concession and the proclamation of victory.

In their respective speeches, both men spoke about bipartisanship and articulated their imaginings of a nation their particular notions of the nation—not the nation-state—of America.

Each man put forward his definition of the United States as a nation—his vision of America, American values, and what it means to be an American.

In his concession address in Boston after midnight on Wednesday morning, Governor Romney spoke about what motivates, renews, and compels this nation, expounding the indispensable role of social leaders and the stability of home life:

We look to our teachers and professors. We count on you not just to teach, but to inspire our children with a passion for learning and discovery. We look to our pastors and priests and rabbis and counselors of all kinds to testify of the enduring principles upon which our society is built: Honesty, charity, integrity, and family. We look to our parents. From the final analysis, everything depends on the success of our homes.”

Governor Romney describes America as a majestic country built on the values of honesty, charity, integrity, and family. However, his belief that America is great nation where “everything depends on the success of our homes” is seemingly rooted in a local mindset. 
In contrast, President Obama is not limited to the local example of the nuclear family unit. He says “we believe in a generous America, in a compassionate America, in a tolerant America, open to the dreams of an immigrant’s daughter who studies in our schools and pledges to our flag. To the young boy on the south side of Chicago who sees a life beyond the nearest street corner. To the furniture worker’s child in North Carolina who wants to become a doctor or a scientist, an engineer or an entrepreneur, a diplomat or even a president.” These are American dreams. These make up a sense of shared destiny.

Moreover, Governor Romney’s articulation of the America is utterly different compared to President Obama’s imagined nation and his belief that a shared destiny is what sets America apart from all other nations:
“What makes America exceptional are the bonds that hold together the most diverse nation on earth. The belief that our destiny is shared; that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations. The freedom which so many Americans have fought for and died for come with responsibilities as well as rights. And among those are love and charity and duty and patriotism. That’s what
makes America great.”

President Obama uses the word ‘share’ in three instances throughout his speech. The word ‘share’ does not make an appearance in the governor’s language.

President Obama chooses instead to emphasize the idea that America is united by a deeply felt sense of shared destiny.  In his rhetoric, he indicates that he is one of us by saying “we” more than 50 times in his speech (Governor Romney says “we” 11 times and his address is considerably shorter).

While Governor Romney does speak out against “partisan bickering and political posturing” and underscores how “our leaders have to reach across the aisle to do the people's work,” he remains partisan to the very end despite his best efforts—underlining the role of “Democrats and Republicans in government at all levels.”

President Obama’s address culminates with the following assertion, which omits any mention of political party and affiliation: “I believe we can seize this future together because we are not as divided as our politics suggests. We’re not as cynical as the pundits believe. We are greater than the sum of our individual ambitions, and we remain more than a collection of red states and blue states. We are and forever will be the United States of America.”

I share the President’s belief in our collective sense of destiny and his vision of our nation; who we are as a people.  The difference in their language and tone during the campaign and after raises the following question, however: Do they live in the same nation—the same imagined community? From a communication standpoint, is bipartisanship possible going forward? Is there a language for bipartisanship? Do we live in the same nation or do we circle in our own national orbits? How do we communicate across the aisle? Is there just an aisle or other entire countries within our domestic politics?

Transcripts: Governor Romney - http://www.netnebraska.org/node/824669
President Obama - http://blogs.wsj.com/washwire/2012/11/07/transcript-obamas-victory-speech/