Society for Sick Societies: Media Itineraries

Society for Sick Societies is a diagnostic project. Built as a series of episodes, each one of its vignettes sets out to analyze an expressed symptom of a sick society–a practice, pattern, gesture, proverb, or technique that seems to encapsulate social malaise in pseudo or post-democratic societies. The triple S is critical theory’s first aid to a state of crisis, probing sickness as both real and symbolic, affecting the biological body, the social body, and the body politics. This series is edited by Laliv Melamed. 

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Itinerary, patient no. 18: “24/2/2020: flew to Madrid on flight no UX1304 that left Ben Gurion Airport at 8:00 and arrived in Madrid at 12:00. 27/2/2020: Return on flight no IB3316, leaving Madrid at 17:00, landing at 22:15. 28/2/2020: 10:00-9:00 stayed in café Lauren in Ramat Hasharon; 15:00-17:00 ate at FISH restaurant in Rishon LeZion 29/2/2020: Ate at FISH restaurant in Rishon Lezion, 13:00-15:00. 2/3/2020: Visit to Café Lauren, Ramat Hasharon, 9:00-10:00. Maccabi urgent medical aid center, Ha-Netsakh st, Ramat Hasharon.” Haaretz, 4/3/2020 (updated on 6/3/2020).

Itinerary, patient no. 184: “Man in his 50s, living in the center. March 6th came back from a trip to Bulgaria. Returned in ELAL flight from Sofia to Ben Gurion Airport, LY552 that took off at 11:50. March 10 visit Electric Warehouse, Yigal Alon st. 127, Tel Aviv, from 11:30 to 13:00. March 11, between 17:00-18:00 was at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, Theatre 4. Everyone who were sitting in lines 4-8, in seats 1-12 at this time need to go into self-quarantine.” Ynet, 15/3/2020.

Itinerary, patient no. 74: “A woman in her 30s from Tel Aviv, came back from a trip to Spain. Flew from Tel Aviv to Madrid on an Air Europa flight no. UX1302 that left at 16:00 and returned on 1/3/2020 from Madrid to Tel Aviv on flight no. UX1303 that took off from Madrid at 23:45 and landed in Ben Gurion Airport at 5:35. On 2/3/2020 visit Beit Ariella, a bar in Harakevet st. 2, Tel Aviv between 18:00-21:00 and on 3/3/2020 visit Michelangelo Café on Ben Teradion st. 2 in Jaffa between 10:30-12:30. As of 4/3/2020 is in self-quarantine.” Maariv, 11/3/2020.

In early March, Israeli mainstream news platforms started publishing the whereabouts of people with COVID-19 up to the point at which they were diagnosed. The minutes of individuals’ movements articulated a prosaic list, a collective rhythm made of low-cost weekend getaways, supermarkets, highway restaurants, small cafes, retail stores, and shopping centers—the chronicles of everyday consumerist petit-bourgeois society. What an odd media item! So non-eventful, so mundane! What a strange representation for the unfolding crisis–an accumulation of individuated scenarios of infected non-spaces and the sick’s micro-transactions, from a discount chain store, to IKEA (not including the food court), to a celebration in a suburbia reception hall (patient no. 78). While I’m writing these lines the micro-itineraries seem naïve in their attempt to contain the pandemic via singular routes, the antonym of the interactive world maps with its spreading red stains of contagion. Nevertheless, as mediated temporalities, representations of crisis, they offer us a way to think about the political motions and social collapse of the moment.

Our contemporary concept of crisis is so much embedded in our conception of media—its technological affordances, its narrative structures, its genres and the way these correspond or reproduce our political imagination. Television news during the 1990s and early 2000s was described as a sort of crisis machine (see, for example, the work of Mary Ann Doane). Liveness contributed to a sense of urgency, immediacy, and “realness” that shaped the perception of historical events. This spatio-temporal design—articulating the sequence of events as they unfold, incorporating gaps and uncertainty into a narrative structure, bridging the various scenes of a disaster through the consistency of the news broadcast—introduced order and continuity to what would otherwise be abrupt, arbitrary, and chaotic. Mainstream media representation framed crisis as a singular episode in space and time, a punctual occurrence, with its sum of experts’ opinions, its cacophony of eyewitnesses accounts, its aftermaths as well as its preceding undercurrents, all arranged around an eventful crescendo. Those operations linked scenes of disasters, the media’s “situation room,” and our banal spaces of everyday life. For Mimi White the predictable temporality of crisis is part of television’s “attraction,” one of the medium’s defining point of reference. Indeed, by the turn of the century, crises and their mediated representations were inseparable.

The live broadcast and the temporalities of disaster: on 8:52 a.m., the morning of September 11th, CBS news anchor Bryant Gumbel interviews eyewitnesses of a plane hitting the North Tower. The layering of titles on top of the image of the smoking tower attempts to contain the event in a narrative frame, while a flame erupts from the lower left corner of the screen, marking the hit of the second plane.

However, this sense of rupture is also baffling, because inasmuch as media technology is a crisis machine, it is also an everyday pacemaker device. Thinking of pre-internet, pre-streaming TV this was quintessentially manifested in the television programming schedule, a temporal formation that arranged our private time according to more general tempos and shifts, a vector of synchronization. New media introduced new constellations of immediacy, magnitude and reciprocity, yet its instrumentality in pacing the historical event is, as Wendy Chun reminds us, very much constituted by its habitual use. Urgency and emergency are built into media temporality and its scalability from the global to the local, the site of disaster and the intimacy of the home. These acts of synchronization have an affinitive role; like a magnet, the media sphere affects our movements and schedules. The built-in dialectics between the disastrous (or generally the eventful, though catastrophes always seem to score more ratings) and the quotidian is essential for media temporality and its demarcation of scenes of publicness.

Israel’s pedestrian tracking system is itself a media crisis device, pacing social rhythms. As always, media temporality is a tool of social formation and control; the schedule is, once again, a means to cohere and to tune individual cycles into a well-orchestrated movement.

Patient no. 47: “In her 40s, living in the center, had contact with a confirmed sick. She is a care-giver at a nursery for children age 1-3 in Moshav Einav and was at the nursery every day between 7:30-15:30. [. . .] On 2/3, 12:00-15:00, she visited Renanim mall in the following stores: Zara, Castro, Tamnon, Kai Sushi-Bar Restaurant. 16:00-17:00 – MaxStock in Kfar Saba. 3/3, 11:00-12:20 Neve Ora Home for the Elderly, Jerusalem, Department for the mentally fatigue, 12:20-13:30 Rav Shefa (Multi-Plenty) mall in Jerusalem, upper floor, costume store and a pretzel store. 5/3, 20:30-21:00, Bar Mitzva, Up Town reception hall in Petach Tikva, 22:00-22:15, Purim party, Moshav Einav. 8/3, 14:30-15:30, Free Plus Supermarket, Tnuvot junction. 19:00-20:00 Bilinson hospital, isolation room, visiting patient no. 29.” Maariv, 13/3/2020 (my emphasis).

These micro itineraries are like a map of social contact, an extract of social institutions, from places of care to spaces of consumption. Unlike the crisis that unfolds in real time on television, there is no demarcated zone and no singular event. Nothing happens in these places, nothing unusual at least. A woman visits the mall, moving between stores, browsing through items, maybe making a purchase, eating in one of the mall’s restaurants, and that’s it. And still, in these non-spaces the crisis formulates. The interactive map is the archetypical medium for its expansion, a timely match between technology, visualization, and genre. The itinerary, quite differently from the map and its spectacle of contamination, incorporates arbitrariness while remaining fixated on the individual subject. Its very quotidianness makes it applicable to everyone, at least those who tend to visit malls, or parties, or family members–social beings. Patient 47 seems particularly irresponsible in this time of social distancing–in her course of infection, a walking danger, she visits two malls, two parties, a day care, a home for the elderly, a hospital, and a supermarket. We read it and we node our heads in disapproval. The public exposure of this crusade of intimate whims, as well as obligations, works to shame, reinforcing a disciplinary role for the media.

Patient no. 29, an employee of the national emergency medical services, spent the week between February 29th to March 7th in two malls, a discount supermarket, and a sushi restaurant; he visited a synagogue three times, and had one visit at Neve Ora, the elderly home in Jerusalem. On March 2nd he visited the ballot center in Moshav Einav. (Taken from Israel Hayom.)

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In between this sequence of transactions there hides an important civic gesture–voting for the Israeli legislative elections that took place on March 2, 2020. Concatenated into the sequence of everyday movements, the ballot center is a site where the social is realized through voting, a quintessential act of democracy embodied by the individual. Yet, in this case voting is a bit of an anticlimax, and not so much a singular act. The March 2nd elections were the third elections to take place in Israel in the past eleven months (the first elections took place on April 9, 2019, the second on September 17, 2019). In this third iteration, like the two before, results were ambiguous. In the first two neither of the leading parties managed to secure majority and another elective round was called. In this last cycle, despite the majority support of the transition of power, facing an aloof political opponent, Benjamin Netanyahu, the current prime minister who is indicted of criminal charges of bribery and fraud, will get to keep his place. The recurrent elections in Israel demonstrate nothing but the complete failure of installing a system of democratic governance—inconclusive results, frenetic zigzagging of politicians across the political map, a government that does not reflect the public mandate, and a prime minister suspected of breaching the public trust that did not gain the majority of votes nevertheless taking the lead. When elections lead to no results, or results that do not reflect the will of the people, the act of voting becomes an empty gesture. The election is merely a façade, a well-rehearsed performance of democracy as justice and fairness, while in fact there is a malfunctioning of elective-based politics. The failure of democratic politics is echoed in, or at list cross paths with the micro-itineraries’ implication of self-governing.

Screenshot from video made by the Central Elections Committee. Posted by Chanel 10, 3/3/2020.

When the crisis erupted, the Israeli authorities’ response seemed at first quick and resourceful. Patients were tracked, investigations took place, and a growing chain of sites were deemed infected while thousands were sent for self-quarantine. Accustomed to states of emergencies, the Israeli media turned to a direct tool of governing impromptu. As we know well by now, the coronavirus crisis is not only the crisis of viral pandemic but a crisis of political regimes and the continuous neglect, not to say drying up of social infrastructures and services. In light of the collapse of social services caring for oneself becomes a citizenry duty as a way to ensure social immunity. In other contexts, self-quarantine and self-care were rightfully deemed an act of social solidarity. Yet here I want to point at the aspect of individuation and atomization (the singularity of the self) as orchestrated by a regime that thrives on social divide. The placing of crisis in individuals’ routine contributes to the dark façade of Israeli democracy, and the atomization cannot but recall a willful blindness of Israeli society to its ongoing political crimes. Now it is the banal that becomes disastrous. Media tempo-spatial features of crisis and routine traverse. The crime scene is so pervasive that it practically does not exist, and collective rhythms crumble, cut into numerous individuated transactions, displacing questions of governance into the private domain, covering the failure of democracy with its empty gestures. The collapse of the ideologically constructed patterns of crisis and routine exposes that there was no normal to begin with, only crisis.

Self-quarantine, certainly a necessary step in fighting the spread of the virus, echoed the growing alienation of Israeli citizens from the state (I was surprised by how few of the patients’ itineraries mention a visit to a ballot center or the act of voting with its implied social space on March 2). Informing the public on the whereabouts of coronavirus carriers, the micro-itineraries function as a form of surveillance while also offering a new media grammar of the everyday, articulating the quotidian. Their implicit command of self-care and self-quarantine exposes the civic code of self-governance as the modus operandi of Israeli politics. Social ethics or democratic citizenship are evacuated for technocratic efficiency and self-regulation, while closure is already a habitual strategy on behalf of the Israeli regime. Note how quickly the Israeli government, operating under a state of emergency, approves the tracking of people with coronavirus using data from their cellphones. The media ordering of collective conduct, orchestrating social temporality through the accumulation of individuated schedules, relies on the hegemony that the crisis yields and reaffirms. Fraught as it is, it operates ideologically, assuming that there is still a social order at work, unlike the brute means of surveillance and control that the cellphones track entails. As a means of synchronization and the infliction of social decorum through shame, the mediated micro-itineraries are, like the elections, an empty gesture of democracy.

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Laliv Melamed

Laliv Melamed is a research fellow at the graduate research program Configurations of Film at the Goethe University, Frankfurt. Her forthcoming manuscript is titled "Sovereign Intimacy: Israeli Homemade Memorial Videos and the Politics of Care." Currently she works on a research tentatively titled "Politics of the Secret: The Cultural Life of the Operative Image." In addition to her academic work, Melamed is a film curator and has worked with Oberhausen Film Festival, Docaviv film Festival, the activist organization Zochrot, and the Left Bank Cinema Club in Tel Aviv.