The Governmentality of Kony 2012: Situation-Less Events in the Age of the Meme

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The Kony 2012 viral video campaign, which in case you didn’t know is a thirty minute video on Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army, explaining the group’s motives, movement, and ability to carry out 25 years of atrocities in Central Africa, has raised all sorts of hullabaloo. I’m most interested in this issue from the standpoint of ethics and the demand that it puts on the viewer, not so much from the perspective of the flawed approach that Invisible Children took in producing it.

Invisible Children is one of the most active NGO’s in Uganda based in the U.S. They have come under all sorts of fire for their dramatizing of the facts on the ground, their secretive Evangelical Christian mission, the questionable management of their funds as an NGO, and most importantly, for their avid support for military intervention in Uganda. The purpose of Invisible Children’s mission is to raise awareness in the west about Uganda and the ongoing war crimes and abuse of children.

What Invisible Children and their Kony 2012 campaign have shown with resounding clarity is that civil society and the so called “Facebook generation” do indeed have a heavy role to play in generating social movements. We’ve known that Facebook plays a role in social movements on the ground, from the Green movement in Iran, to the Arab uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, but this role was more as a tool and a strategy, and not as an initiator of an issue that was completely off the Global North’s radar.

What Kony 2012 reveals is that digital tools and social media can indeed direct and initiate causes, ergo the strange timing of the emergence and popularity of this cause, and the mind-numbing rapidity by which this cause and others like it comes and goes. How many days, not weeks, will the cause stay in the news? What happens of the cause after its moment under Twitter’s sun? Let’s be honest, there are an infinite number of causes that exist which compel us on a global scale, but particularly in developed neoliberal countries, on a daily basis.

In this blog, I want to delve into the question of ethics in the age of the digital meme, and our commitment to these causes; asking how, and which ethical models might guide us in navigating these demands as well as how we ought to respond to them.

The Ethics of Kony 2012

The film starts with a sort of anti-communitarian universalism rooted in the respect for life. The entire story — note that merely a humanizing story can now change the world — is based on the relationship of the filmmaker to a young boy who is presented as no different than his own son. The significance of this implicit ethical positioning of the meme is that it is pre-egoisitc. It does not appeal to any idenitarian basis other than the fragility of humanity, and so it is most definitely a post nation-state claim. The other’s claim on me precedes my own claims on him, and form the basis for our mutual sociality – this is in essence echoing the philosopher and ethicist of the 20th century Emmanuel Levinas, who talked about how the ehtical demand is pre-discursive and throws the self into relation to the world and being around it.

Hannah Arendt also referred to this sort of ethical commitment outside of communitarian allegiances as the idea of an “unchosen” basis to human autonomy that develops a new sort of social contract, what she called an “unchosen cohabitation.” Judith Butler also points out important observations about both Levinas’ and Arendt’s ethics in the era of digital and global interconnectedness. In the age of the meme, we do not merely receive information from the media passively, but are affronted by something beyond our will and this presents us with an ethical demand. Ethical demands that stem from the meme (or the image of the suffering other) do not require our consent – nor are they rooted in social contracts. There is something unchosen in the image of suffering that articulates something on us without our consent, which makes all responsibility implicated in the realm of the nonconsensual.

All ethical demands depend on a limited reversibility of proximity and distance – Mohammed Bouazizi set himself ablaze in Tunisia and his image became the face of a revolution. The image of his face, a simple headshot, figured him outside of the same horrific and direct image of the Buddhists in flames during Vietnam. Yet it was this image that transported a proximate ethical action which set the dominoes in movement from Tunisia to Egypt and so on.

Faced as we are with an infinite number of demands on a daily basis to “do something” we face a certain a pressure to retreat into what philosopher Alain Badiou refers to as our overarching politico-subjective deadlock in today’s world, that between democracy and nihilism. The question arises, to what extent do social media causes to do something for the cause of relieving distant suffering and the urgency for which this is pitched enable a reinforcement of this deadlock, or an escape from it?

These digital social media memes and videos that communicate the urgency of a cause or a global crisis of injustice show that we have a “situation-less” predicament that defies the following ethical frameworks that used to provide compelling directions and ways forward, namely: utilitarian, social contract, and communitarian. In the digital appeal to our demands to act in an atemporal space (largely caused by the internet’s relation to time, but also to the whims of internet trends, i.e. there is no telling what will happen, so we often wait in anticipation) we find a call to a sort of universalism that is rooted in a pre-egoistic commitment and responsibility to the other that goes beyond identitarian, nationalistic, or communitarian concerns.

The Latent Governmentality of Kony 2012 and All Digital Activism

At the same time that the ethical demand is put forward in this manner, a Foucauldian examination of the discourses and regimes of power and domination that originate this form of universal ethics must be examined. I invoke Foucault not out of a desire to perform a hermeneutic of suspicion on Kony 2012, but to simply invoke the idea of governmentality, which looks at the ways in which the state administers public life, specifically how that administration is externally linked to the knowledge’s and discourses that govern subjects/citizens outside the rubric and purview of the state.

There is a sort of hidden ideological assumption behind Invisible Children’s call to the government’s of the west, and the U.S. in particular. This call to act, does not care to critique the fundamental power imbalances that perpetuate the blatant ignorance of Africa and its conflicts, disease and so on.

As Foucault points out, governmentality not only governs subjects, but it shores up the legitimacy of the state, and in so doing, expands state power. The primary features of governmentality include the harnessing of individual, communal, and international civic forces that might otherwise be anarchic or self-destructive. Thus, governmentality is concerned with the “conduct of conduct.” Governmentality is a form of state power deployed when the state suffers a diminished capacity to embody universal representation.

I’m not making any normative critiques of how, or if Kony 2012 and the larger NGO infrastructure for which they come out of, are filing up the vacuum of the state’s inability to embody universal representation. The interesting question is the degree to which all Facebook movements consist of this governmentality — where the state still operates behind the scenes, directing things in an elusive way.

Kony 2012 and the Left

The radical left (God bless them) is largely devoid of substantive critiques of Kony 2012, outside of something that even they have a hard time admitting: the problems of Africa, unlike the problems going on in Greece, austerity measures in Europe, and the United States’ growing class wars are much worse and require action through the framework of the current state-based models, and yes, Kony is working through the current state-based models, albeit their work should be critically appraised.

Action in Africa through the framework of the existing power structures is broken and largely impotent and the sheer toll of human life lost by disease and wild violence is unimaginable. Thus, the very core of humanity’s ethical comittment demands us to act. It is perhaps Africa that presents the model par excellence to this new situation-less ethical framework. I am articulating it and not necessarily supporting it.

It is also worth mentioning that the neoliberal fascination with distant suffering and its reification of a sentimentalized embrace of otherness is a phenomenon that deserves criticism, and is also one that is not new by any means. This tendency presents an alterity of domination in disguise. It presupposes a certain western supremacism under the guise of “if not us, then who?!” This ethics, what I am calling “situation-less ethics” can perpetuate a wild sort of universalism that is actually quite dangerous to the future of all social movements.

Does Social Media Produce “Events”?

Social media movements occur in a temporal loop, where the proximity of the subject to the atrocity is disintegrated and made atemporal as a static image. Can we categorize these movements as events whose demands bring us into a situation? Simon Critchley in a recent book on ethics, called Infinitely Demanding points out the following components which he argues constitute an event:

1. The subject approves of a demand and decides to be faithful to that decision.

2. If the event is true then it is virtuously circular.

3. The truth of the event is not neccessarily universalizable.

4. The truth of the event should be replaced by justification, as the declaration of truth is rooted in normative claims.

Taking these points in mind, I argue that there are no true events that compel a subject to an ethical demand if they are events generated entirely from digital media space.

Rather, we experience a series of demands that we respond to based on the excessiveness of particular demands over us. But the notion of an autonomous ground where a singular demand rises above all others, brings us into an exercise of post politics similar to that of Invisible Children, a practicing of the art of the possible, a space where Badiou, Critchley and the radical left would encourage us to abandon.

Should we? How do we think an event outside of social media is actually quite easy and this emergence of a social media driven event is actually new.

Our global connectedness means that we must be unprepared for the next meme that overwhelms us and makes a demand upon us to negotiate the ethical in a global context.

At this point, it is a painful truism to note that we are compelled by distant suffering as a part of being on this earth. As such, we do not merely receive information from the media passively, but we are affronted by something beyond our will and this presents us with an ethical demand. As Judith Butler says,

“Ethical demands that stem from the image do not require our consent – nor are they rooted in social contracts. There is something unchosen in the image of suffering that articulates something on us without our consent, which makes all responsibility implicated in the realm of the nonconsensual.”

In closing, let me reiterate my argument: I am claiming that faced as we are with social media events and digital events and the demands they come with, that we are faced with a “situation-less” ethics that arises out of a series of demands that exceed our ability to adequately respond to them, and we have no propensity or autonomy to choose.

These demands are also guided by a latent governmentality that guides their direction towards universalism under the hidden power of the state, all the while they are not rooted in any sort of social contract based on identity, community, or the nation.

Opposed to this form of ethics might be an ethics that seeks to differentiate these cause celebre pseudo events in the digital space with a careful analysis of true events and the way in which true events transform subjects and tie subject’s to them in a fidelity that outlasts the whims of atemporal digital time and trends on Twitter.

One response

  1. JP Miller

    I likewise was drawn to a Foucauldian interpretation when I saw the Kony video – The movement just smells of pseudo-empowerment. I think your analysis gets the point I was trying to make, but more succinctly, in relation to the problematic relation between social media’s capacity to signify ethical commitment or political action.

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