Unfortunate Signs 5: the post-modernist meeting

The OECD Forum last week was an example of a growing phenomenon, in which we are encouraged to see things through others’ eyes rather than for ourselves. I’ve long been annoyed by some TV programmes – art or history documentaries, for example – in which we have to see everything through the eyes of the presenter. If there is a document to read or a picture to see, we see the presenter looking at it, and often we scarcely get a chance to see it ourselves. If there is an exotic view we see the presenter standing in front of it, telling us how much he or she is enjoying it. We are watching a ‘personality’ acting out what we ought to think and feel, just in case we are too stupid to do these things for ourselves.

This is of course in line with Barthes‘s arguments in ‘The Death of the Author‘ – “The essential meaning of a work depends on the impressions of the reader, rather than the ‘passions’ or ‘tastes’ of the writer; ‘a text’s unity lies not in its origins’, or its creator, ‘but in its destination’, or its audience.” However the OECD last week went beyond Barthes in attempting to create not only the work, but also its audience, and present them to us as a package, even whilst the work was being created.

The OECD has its pressures to cope with. (Its 2015 budget was EU 363 millionoecd_photographer, provided by the member countries. It has approximately 2,500 staff.) Just as presenters try to make themselves into TV superstars by being bright and attractive so we don’t have to, so organisations have to convince their sponsors that they are doing intelligent and meaningful things with their money. Consequently, not only were the sessions filmed, but the audience was filmed enjoying them. Some of the photographers seemed to spend just as long taking candid shots of concentrating audience members as they did of the speakers. In another context, this would be called surveillance.

The OECD puts a lot of money into digital media presentation. At the back of one (quite small) lecture theatre were six seats, each with multiple screens. These six people seem to have controlled the PA system, the multiple TV cameras, and also interfaced with Twitter and Facebook accounts to which the audience-in-being (ie those of us actually there) were encouraged to post. From time to time selected posts were sent to the chairman’s IPad. He would then read them out and invite comment from the panel. So selected views or comments of the audience-in-being were brought in to the spectacle itself. The audience-to-come (ie those watching the spectacle later on social media) could then see how we reacted to our own reactions. There were several still photographers aoecd_technologyround at any time to capture these. Many of the photographs seem to have ended up on OECD Facebook sites.

The OECD Youtube ‘flyer’ for the 2015 meeting is a good example. It’s as much about bright attractive people listening, as it is about what anyone said. Notice how young and fresh we, the audience-in-being, look. Lacan‘s concept of gaze suggests that we all look at things from our own viewpoint – so you have the male gaze, the postcolonialist gaze, and so on. The gaze of the OECD experience, this package suggests, is that of bright, young attractive, progressive people – but not hippies, these people are all CEOs or academics or (respectable) activists, and all wearing suits.

In its own publicity, the conference is doing its best to become what Barthes called a ‘readerly text‘, that is, it “makes no requirement of the reader to ‘write’ or ‘produce’ their own meanings”.

Just to redress the balance, here is a photo, taken by one of the many photographers, of me speaking to an ‘Idea Factory’ forum on the Digitalisation of Society. Not everyone was bright, young, progressive, etc…du_in_OECD1. The man in front of me looking rather bored is a Professor at a US university, though.

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