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Remixing, blogging and authorship

There is at the moment a high-profile murder trial involving Abdul Razak Baginda, a close (ex?) political advisor of the Deputy Prime Minister (and assumed next PM) Najib Tun Razak, and two Special Branch policemen who are accused of murdering the ex-mistress, a Mongolian translator called Altantuya Shaaribuu, on behalf of the advisor. It's amply covered by the media and Google News will give you details; you could also check Susan Loone's blog or Screenshots, or many other blogs for coverage.

One hot issue is whether the DPM ever met the lady: he has said not, but there is said to be a photo with Altantuya, Baginda and the DPM at a dinner table. This was talked about before, and was brought up in court when Altantuya's cousin stated that she had seen it and was told by Altantuya that Najib Razak was one of the people in the photo.

The blogosphere became part of the politically charged trial when Tian Chua, the Information Chief for opposition party Keadilan, posted a doctored photo representing the alleged photograph ("French dinner for 3") and discussed the DPM's denial of ever having met Altantuya. This was denounced in Parliament by Government politicians, and via the MSM. Many people also visited the page, and 217 comments were left (as of 13 July). Many of the comments criticise Tian Chua for disseminating false information - e.g. "This is so sick, your credibility by posting this fake pic has gone down to the drain." (Comment no. 28, frankie), while others say that it is so obviously faked that it is clearly meant to be fake - e.g. "No need to over react on this picture . For anyone with a sense of humour, after seeing the picture knows that this picture is created by a rather creative artist." (Comment no. 41, Niuku)

THIS IS A FAKE! The image is Photoshopped, and in no way is intended to represent an actual meeting between the people on the photo.


(The caption is my own, the original was "Najib doesn't want to be reminded with this romantic event" (Tian_a). Also to be noted is that the face of the lady is not Altantuya, but a Korean actress)

Others make a finer point, that he should have made the doctoring explicit - e.g. "May I recommend that, if you want to put up a picture as a PARODY, you must make it extremely overblown so as to avoid people actually assuming you are serious." (Comment no. 42, oster); and yet others question his political judgement, suggesting that this 'real fake' may possibly be used to cast a media smokescreen over the supposed real photo, allowing a confusion between the two, or that it can be used to discredit the opposition in general.
The comments space in the blog again proves itself to be a valuable space for public debate, but the debate has gone beyond the blogosphere. Photoshopping images is common in the blogosphere, and most regular bloggers/readers would recognise it for what it is, a parodic message: however, the reports in the MSM do not convey the subtlety of the context (i.e. that it's obviously Photoshopped and therefore hardly an attempt to 'prove' the DPM met Altantuya), and political capital is also being made out of it.

Understanding this phenomenon from an academic point of view, we can make use of a concept discussed by Danah Boyd. In this rough summary of a talk she gave in Cannes, she mentions how youth 'remix' media products (videos, music, etc.), saying that it is "a new form of consumption, a very active form of consumption. People are consuming cultural artifacts like film and regurgitating identity expression." (Boyd) An example of this in the Malaysian blogosphere would be Kickdafella, who manipulates film posters such as the one below

pic

Photoshopping can also be done ironically, as in this post by Kenny Sia , or this one. In this kind of picture, it is preferable that the doctoring of the picture is obvious :





Photoshopping can also be done to enhance pictures - in this case it should not be obvious, and commentors may discuss how well it is done. Xiaxue self-avowedly Photoshops her own photos, and in "Dear Miss Furong" discusses how best to enhance a women's bodily representation. The results are displayed in 'Before and after' comparison:



In this Advertorial post, commenters discuss whether or not she doctored the image to make her legs appear slimmer and longer:

"wow, your photoshopping skills are amazing. i've seen you in orchard road before, and your legs are definitely short and fatter than they appear in the photos. can you do a blog teaching your blogders how to photoshop... because you look AMAZING in the photos." (alexia waterman qtd. in Xiaxue)

"I think you need a stylist. The earrings and cheap hair clip totally don't go with each other. Also need to photoshop the eyes because they're doing the same thing that Furong Jie Jie's eyes do. Other than that, it should be all ok!" (KP qtd. in Xiaxue)

"hey xx. you look really great in all the pics. dun really care whether you photoshop them or not. lots of girls photoshop their pics. it's just that they don't admit it. i'd photoshop my pics too if i have the skill :P" (meowluvwoof qtd. in Xiaxue)

"photoshopped or not, your legs look nice there." (JUDY qtd. in Xiaxue)


In another example, here more related to the original purpose of Photoshop, Shaolintiger has recently started posting photos a lot, and readers discuss their quality. In one post a commenter asks "Was there any Photoshopping involved or is the lighting as is? (Cause it's brilliant)." (Chris Chong qtd. in Shaolintiger_a), to which the host responds "Yes there was Photoshopping involved, the light is natural though from a reflector." (Shaolintiger_a); in another photography post a commenter says ""Give me back my BISCUIT.." [the title of a particular photo] photoshop effect appeared a bit deliberate, other shots are pretty nice, esp. the "Hyper Son"" (KY qtd. in Shaolintiger_b), to which he responds "Thanks! Yeah that one was purposely supposed to look Photoshopped, was just an experiment." (Shaolintiger_b) In another post he gives advice on how to Photoshop for a particular effect: It's amazing what Photoshop can do in skilled hands.

Thus we can see that bloggers take for granted the possibility of manipulating images, and it is done in a variety of ways, and for different purposes. To enhance photographs in an artistic manner, to enhance pictures to conform to standards of beauty, or to create parody.

I just read a chapter by Mark Poster, "Authors Analogue and Digital" in What's the Matter with the Internet?/. He mentions how when books were first being printed, it was not the author but the "Guild masters" or "Stationer" (88) - i.e. the person who created the template for the printing - who was seen as the guarantor of the authenticity of the text. This developed until the "author [displaced] the guild master. For this latter to happen, individuals had to be defined as interior consciousness." (ibid. 89). Then with the development of the mass market, the medium itself started to take over from the author, and now "the author function of the analogue period of textual reproduction cannot endure the change to the technology of the power of bits." (ibid. 93). This is based on the way in which the digital text, as opposed to analogue which is still contained in a material form (i.e. on paper), is completely changeable - "Pages of digital text have the stability of liquid." (ibid. 92), because they exist 'everywhere' in the form of binary ones and zeroes.

So basically he's saying that anyone can manipulate and change texts, and so the original author becomes irrelevant, and what's relevant is the immediate context of the (re)presentation of the material: this could be on a blog, in an iPod, etc. Some of the willingness to accept a multiplicity of representations not bound by realist interpretations may be seen in the above comments about the ubiquity of Photoshopping to 'look better', and in general one can often see people (especially young women) adopting particular poses adapted to the gaze of the camera: in this post a commenter notes how the blogger has the same pose in all the pictures, and she responds by saying that it's because it's her "best angle" (Chan). The Photoshopping examples above, and the remixing that Boyd speaks of, are examples of this - the original author's intentions are irrelevant to the recasting of the image, the new image being given meaning by the 'new' author. On the other hand, I don't see the author becoming irrelevant in the way Poster suggests, as what we have with blogs are multiple authors, all becoming significant to particular people (their readers) who trust the blogger to cast him/her own particular light on their own world, and to make the readers' worlds more significant in turn.

Tian Chua attempts to reclaim that meaning of the picture he posted, refusing to apologise for it, and explaining his motivations... Pointing out here that "No sane person will view this piece of "Monty Python" style artwork as a real photo." (Tian), and also discusses the difference between 'truth' and 'authenticity', apparently arguing that although the photo was not an 'authentic' one, it expressed a 'truth' all the same. So in a way he is arguing for the irrelevance of the image itself, and highlighting the intention of the author as true meaning of the image.

Anyway, enough on this for now. A basic conclusion here being that bloggers operate in a certain context that is not understood by others - to wit the typical obvious Photoshopping being misinterpreted by others. Also, the fact that Tian Chua is a politician, gives the whole issue so much more resonant power: his blog is an articulation point for the on and offline world, and thus links further into Malaysian society.

P.S. In another (maybe) related episode, showing the significance of online activities, an employee of the Keadilan party was arrested, apparently because of activities related to the internet: some (assumedly biased) information here.



Works Cited.

boyd, danah. "Film and the Audience of Tomorrow." Cannes Film Festival Opening Forum: "Cinema: The Audiences of Tomorrow", Cannes, France, 16 May 2007. 14 July 2007 http://www.danah.org/papers/talks/Cannes2007.html
chan i min. "Part 2 [Last Part]". www.rainbowmin.blogspot.com. 24 June 2007. 14 July 2007 http://rainbowmin.blogspot.com/2007/06/part-2-last-part_24.html
Poster, Mark. What's the Matter with the Internet? London & Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001.
Shaolintiger_a. "Freedom". Shaolintiger - Kung-Fu Geekery. 7 Mar 2007. 14 July 2007 http://www.shaolintiger.com/2007/03/07/freedom/
Shaolintiger_b. "Family Portraits - So Kuit!". Shaolintiger - Kung-Fu Geekery. 28 Feb 2007. 14 July 2007 http://www.shaolintiger.com/2007/02/28/family-portraits-so-kuit/
Tian_a. "French dinner for 3". E contrario. 3 July 2007. 14 July 2007 http://www.tianchua.net/en/2007/07/02/french-dinner-for-3/
Tian_b. "Humour". E contrario. 2 July 2007. 14 July 2007 http://www.tianchua.net/en/2007/07/03/humour/
Xiaxue. "New season!". Xiaxue. 14 Sep 2005. 14 July 2007 http://xiaxue.blogspot.com/2005/09/new-season.html

Images.
"Bollehwood". Kickdefella. Jan 2007. 13 July 2007 http://kickdefella.files.wordpress.com/2007/01/bollehwood.jpg
"[Clubbing]" Kenny Sia. 1 April 2006. 13 July 2007 http://www.kennysia.com/archives/2006/04/kenny_sia_attem.php
"[Furong Photoshopped]" Xiaxue. 12 Aug 2005. 13 July 2007 http://xiaxue.blogspot.com/2005/08/dear-miss-furong.html
"Meet our future daughter, Wenny Sia." Kenny Sia. 24 May 2005. 13 July 2007 http://www.kennysia.com/archives/2005/05/xiaxue_and_i_ar.php
"Najib doesn't want to be reminded with this romantic event". e contrario. 2 July 2007. 13 July 2007 http://www.tianchua.net/en/2007/07/02/french-dinner-for-3/

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julianhopkins.net on : Anthroblogology – Commercialisation in the Malaysian Blogosphere

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Hi and thanks for dropping by – this post is to explain (a bit) the anthropological research I’m doing on Malaysian blogs and bloggers for a PhD in Social Anthropology at Monash University. If you’re a Malaysian blogger, or a blogger living in Malaysia

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Hwei Cheng on :

what tian chuan expressed really reminds me of philosophy. i guess the interpretation is really up to an individual. one can just add some additional words of explanation and the whole meaning would be different. anyway, looking at Nat's case, it actually worries me about the magnitude of corruption in back in h.o.m.e.l.a.n.d.

julian on :

Yes it is very philosophical what he wrote, but the difficulty for him - I guess - is that he is also a representative of a political party and, pace Plato, 'real-life' politics and abstract philosophy don't mix so well.
Re. corruption, nothing is proven and the Deputy Minister was officially cleared. Seems to me that the Nathanial Tan case highlights the need for transparency in police procedure, more than anything.

sebastian on :

Julian,

I think someone should get Tian Chua a copy of Roland Barthes' "The Death of the Author". Barthes' idea was that the author and his/her intentions are irrelevant to the interpretation of the text. What's important is the audience -- people are inevitably going to read their own interpretations (ie. project their mental selves) into the text anyway.

Also, I find it quite amusing, and I hope you don't mind me saying so, that you have rigorously formal citations for your blog posts. Are they really necessary? This is a blog, not an academic paper.

To be sure, there should be referencing of some sort -- perhaps embedded links to the stuff you're quoting from or discussing -- I've noticed that's how most U.S. political bloggers, some of which are academic professors, do it. Having the full bibliography and everything, however, just reeks of overkill.

julian on :

Hi Sebastian,

Actually I think that the author is not completely irrelevant - in this case, if it had been Joe Ordinary Blogger who had posted the picture, people would have interpreted it differently. However, ultimately I guess Barthes is right - the causal impact of a text depends on the reader's interpretation, and that's what matters more in an empirical sense.

A good author can anticipate and manipulate audiences: the phrase 'axis of evil', for example, is a launch of meaning that can ensnare three generations of Americans - those who hark back to how America saved the world from the fascist Axis, those who remember Reagan's "Empire of Evil" reference to the Cold War USSR, and the millennial Christian Right, who believe in the presence of embodied evil in this world.

But then again, that's just my interpretation, innit? :-)

Re the citations, you have a point. I guess habit is the main reason, but also because it's a way of storing them for future use - for example to use them in a 'real' academic context. I suppose, in terms of 'impression management' (re. Goffman), it's also a way of painting a veneer of academic respectability to my blog posts; though it may concurrently reduce my blogger credibility...

I do sometimes wonder why I bother though :-|

Anonymous on :

Julian,

True. But the burden of interpretation, so to speak, is still on the audience. Readers have certain mental schemas on how politicians should or should not act, the acceptable limits of parody, etc. Ideology, for example, plays a very strong role here. An opposition supporter would invariably interpret Tian Chua's actions more favorably than a government supporter.

Of course, at some point, it becomes a chicken-and-egg thing -- where do the readers acquire their mental schemas from? From other "authors" of social "text"?

Re citations: I suppose you have a point about saving it for later use -- merely embedding links would incur the risks of dead links in the future. As for academic respectability, as I've said before, I've read quite a few blogs run by academics who merely embed links to stuff they're quoting/discussing -- I don't think that lessens their credibility or respectability in any way.

But oh well, whatever rocks your boat. :-)

julian on :

It is a chicken and egg thing. I guess the standard answer would lie with Bourdieu approach: i.e. certain collections of social markers/inculcated habits predispose us to interpret and act in certain ways, but ultimately as individuals we have the agency to act on our own accord.

OK OK you've just about convinced me regarding the citations etc. It does look kind of overkill... :-|

Magdalene Sophie on :

Julian,
I like the fact you have several topics rolling in a single post, that you discuss the debatables.

Certainly entertaining, especially when they're mostly facts.

:-)

Julian on :

Thanks Magdalene, in spite of being a subjective science, anthropology the way I see it has to depend as much as possible on an empirical method.
You write some nice poetry, by the way :-)

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julian on :

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