Following this, I suggest ethnography of ‘getting spun’ as an affective mode of adding the sonic to the written – one that is temporal, ephemeral and of modernity. In writing the act of getting spun we can produce resonant writing, text that listens and continues to change with the reader. By chronicling our own emotional vicissitudes under the influence of persuasion without the urge to transcend them, we produce documents that listen. Spin, humorously defined as letting someone else have it your way, is a ubiquitous element of contemporary life. If we are to include advertising, PR, and certain cynical news and information spaces, we are surrounded by attempts to mold and influence our thinking and control collective discourse. Spin in its most effective articulation is (at least partially) sonic: eloquent rhetoric, tear-jerking and laughter-inducing commercials, slickly produced personal interest stories, and seductive appeals. Commodity fetishism has found an essential partner in sonic accompaniment, as have political campaigns and films. A musical score and sonic branding are essential to modern marketability.
If we take the role of emotion in our cognitive, social and personal lives as a serious field of inquiry that can – cautiously – be used as a tool for understanding social behavior and expressive culture, spin’s affect on our beings is a crucial point. In listening to spin, we are performing Stephen Connor’s notion of listening in modernity. For Connor (Connor 1997), we as modern subjects are membranes through which sound moves. We are vibrated and in turn we resonate with the power, influence and efficacy of the sounds that we come into contact with. We then transfer that kinetic resonance to the beings that we are with, influencing our surroundings. In the act of listening, sound moves through us and is subject to our own individual and cultural filters before proceeding forward in meaningful ways. In getting spun, we recognize the penetrability and vulnerability of the auditor, that no intellectual feat or activity is immune to the influence of the outside. By writing through getting spun, we are representing the contemporary listening subject.
For ethnographers of the contemporary, understanding the modern pied piper through sound is essential. Without sonic analysis, neurology, cultural theory and statistical data are abstract representations. In evaluating sonic persuasion, an honest accounting of the effects of spin is imperative. This can be done ethnographically through affective accounts of getting spun. Unlike examples of affective writing which also painstakingly attempt to represent the multifaceted experience of sound and are written with breathtaking textual skill, ethnography of getting spun is about being honest in depicting the feelings, reactions and opinions that are experienced in their immediacy. Writing must be done without filtering reactions to fit theory, analysis and narrative, and without crafting them to conform to emotional narrative convention (the obvious caveat is that there are writing conventions that must be met to be intelligible and not completely solipsistic). Ethnography of spin openly excludes any claim of verity and factuality beyond the honesty and openness of the author in their reaction to persuasion.
As the insightful Adorno quote that begins this essay implies, there are definite ethics involved in this method of writing. To adopt a transcendent stance in relation to social and cultural critique is potentially dangerous because it implies that the writer-observer-critic is superior in some fashion to those who they write about. Taking Adorno’s critique seriously means that ethnography of spin does not lay spin bare, but adopts an explicitly non-transcendent stance and admits the corporeal human-ness of the writer. If the writer does not stand aloof, then his ideologies are free to be deployed by anyone without prejudice or exclusion in a play and exchange. While there is definitely space for openly deconstructing and laying bare the historical linkages between charged discourses, sounds, and images and their social affects, there is also a fundamental place for subjective portrayal of and by the influenced. As is the case with qualitative analysis of advertising, evidence of efficacy is realized in the form of significant cultural shifts. These manifest in further perpetuation of successful advertising techniques, repetitions of image and sound, and the dissemination and proliferation of the ideas and ideals into other facets of cultural life. Of course, financial success is the major rubric by which these triumphs and failures are measured. These analyses in longitudinal studies are of great importance, but there is a space where the uneven impacts of these forces can be displayed unapologetically, honestly and candidly. In capturing the small moments of spin, times when opinions are altered and new ideas are introduced, readers have the possibility of using writings for their own interpretations of selves, communities, and historical moments. Instead of attempting to portray thought that has reached a point of finiteness and arrival, readers are left with raw materials with which to assemble their own ideas. In this openness writing can listen in the sense that it can resonate with readers and remain dynamic as it, its readers, and referents age. Social life is a long-duration process of accrual and change, and diversions into the micro-ethos of distinct moments help to locate the point at which the waves of cultural change begin. When we capture and transmit interesting and meaningful thought, rather than definitive theories, we forgo the status of authority and become part of a conversation with the future rather than a discourse with the past.
Unlike both affective and performative writing, ethnography of getting spun is written about the author’s vicissitudes, the reflective experience of being molded by myriad social forces both within and beyond their control. This also implies that the ethnographers impulse to transcend the immediacy of feeling and emotion for the sake of rational, reasoned reflection or critique is fully bracketed. The ethnographer no longer has the right, obligation or option to deconstruct, psychologize or interpret the other. We are products of our time, our scholarly, economic and consumptive milieus. We are as prone as any other individual of being manipulated, swayed, convinced, interpellated, and capable of occupying subject positions that are not of our own construction (often through the stylized consumption that spin promotes). This project is not so much a submission to the forces of private interests, but a candid admission of spin as a crucial element of everyday existence and its importance to the representation and study of social life.
Ethnography of spin would recount everyday life in the contemporary moment and tackle the myriad forces of persuasion in the present as we taste, hear, touch, speak, see, and feel the world around us. It examines the social forces outside of our control – industry, capital, advertising, tradition and regimes of epistemology and information – that affect our actions, thoughts, internal and external lives. How are we changed – even if only momentarily – by the social forces around us? How do we transform that affect into counter-energies? How are we compromised, fortified, comforted and disquieted by these sensations traversing our bodies? To record these in conjunction with our field experiences is to shape our writing from a grounded, earthly, non-transcendent position. It is from this position – one that does not enforce quietude onto ideas, or freeze them in absolution, but records them at their most charismatic – that we can write text that listens. In recording the micro-articulations of affect in a thick, realistic and honest way, our own texts can listen: they vibrate and move our readers, take on the shape of those we spend time with, diverge, echo and morph in our subjectivity, and allow those who come after us to re-mix and re-experience them.
In a post-modernity that is lacking in capital-T truth, a universal center, master narratives and definitive epistemological hierarchy, perhaps all there is to hang legitimacy on is the honesty with which we offer our thoughts. This indeed refers back to Barthes and Derrida as we come to a point where subjects are created through writing, but the metaphysics of presence and the supplementarity of writing conspire to relegate that formation to ironic imitation and mimesis at best, and simulacra or outright lie at worst. Again, if we turn writing into a process done through listening, composing with sound [in] mind/ear/skin, we are turned in a new direction, one that is open to spin and other influential manifestations of public culture. By changing the writer from authority, by dint of presence, rights and autobiography, to a de-centered subject, created in the most typical of contemporary moments of being spun, new possibilities are opened. Not the least of these is the potential for an epistemology that speaks across disciplines. The pressure of honesty rather than authority, also enables our writing to be transdisciplinary, because it is relieved of the gravitas that weighs down thought and encourages stasis and conclusiveness rather than dynamism, dialogue, heteroglossia, and openness.
To revisit Nancy’s scholarship, how do we write ethnography in a way that listens (despite the fact that while we as ethnographers inevitably are engaged in listening, our writing often is not)? How do we do the rigorous analysis required of philosophy while judiciously avoiding the constraints of understanding? Here is where spin offers one solution. To be spun is not to be subjected to one voice, image or discourse, but to have them reinforced through repetitive articulations and variations. In candidly writing these compounding affects, we must write in a way that cannot be cleanly fit into linear or temporal narrative, must be unabashedly open to immediate ridicule and critique, and to be fearlessly grounded in the contemporary. In an era where revolutions are hatched, executed and crushed in mere moments, we are often mistaken in our observations, but that does not mean that they are wrong. They are simply caught in the spin cycle which creates, distills and disseminates ideas indiscriminately, mixes them, passes them on, dismembers and discards them. Ethnography of spin, as a philosophy that listens, is one which does not necessarily speak with the authority of transcendence, but as a self-reflective witness to the impact of cultural practices on society. While treading the slippery slope of solipsism, without the bolster of authoritative language, and possessed of the self-consciousness of Barthes’ ideal writer, who introspectively realizes the benefits of being able to be, we can write experience in a way that listens and passes on the sensation of auditing the present in a way that listens and resonates according to both the author and the reader.