At Obama’s Inauguration, Millions of Bodies that Matter

In the days leading up to today’s historic Inauguration, my
friends debated (via Facebook) the potential costs and rewards of schlepping to
the Mall or just watching from the comfort and safety of their sofas. On the
one hand we have hoards of people, 20 degree weather, foregoing a chance to
sleep in, the shameless merchandise (Obama puppets… really?!?!).  On the other, one cannot deny the desire to be
as close as possible to the History that was made this week.  Will the crowds and cold be worth the ‘authentic’
experience of saying “I was there!”  Are historic events felt more keenly with
physical proximity? Does it matter if I am present in body?  

This debate reminded me of a story in Anna Munster’s book “Materializing
New Media: Embodiment in Information Aesthetics
”. Munster writes of the proverbial
‘throw-down’ at an American Computer Machinery Conference. The tension arose between
the pro-Carteasian computer geeks sporting ‘I heart Descartes’ shirts  and anti-Cartesian cultural theorist and
artists. The point of contention: the duality of the mind/body split. Munster’s
concern in this argument is the ‘insolvent place of the body in relation to new
media technology’ (3).

Similarly, these questions  resonate with Katherine Hayles’ book “How we
Became Posthuman
”.  Hayles’ concern is
the trend, in scientific and fantasy writing, to treat the body as
insignificant.

She argues we are beyond the point of defending the role of
the body in subjectivity. “I view the present moment as a critical juncture
when interventions might be made to keep disembodiment from being rewritten,
once again, into prevailing concepts of subjectivity.” (5)

Hayles and Munster’s arguments involve much more then simply
to watch on TV or to go in person, but at the heart of the matter is whether we
privilege the mind and information over the body and corporality. Do we agree
with the Cartesian maxim “Cogito Ergo Sum” – I think therefore I am.  Munster and Hayles are writing to find a place
for the body in our culture of information and new media and by extension – our
understanding of subjectivity.

Compare their concerns with the events of the past days: Monday’s
headline of USA Today read “JUST THE FEELING OF BEING THERE”. I left my house
shortly before dawn to walk miles this morning, along with millions of others,
to greet our new First Family. Nearly 400,000 people flocked to the Mall on
Sunday to attend a star studded concert with no small amount of randomness (Jack
Black was serious and Garth Brooks got three songs?).

Hayles and Munster
seem to be arguing to protect something that may never have been in danger.
Corporal presence certainly made a strong showing today. Millions of Americans
(and others) held today’s inauguration in such high honor that we felt it was necessary
to experience the event with both body and mind.

The irony of this situation lay in the fact that, for the greater
majority, we did not witness the inaugural events in person. We stood in the
cold to watch the event on gigantic screens. This was still a mediated
experience replete with cinematic touches: perfect volume, wide pans of the
setting, and close ups on our favorite political stars. (although some pop stars
made cameos on the inauguration coverage.) Why was corporal presence necessary
to watch an event on an oversized TV screen? 
I welcome other suggestions but I offer 2 to begin with:

1 – The whole is greater then the sum of its parts.  The energy of sharing the event with millions
of people in one place augmented the quality of the event.

2 – Unique cred of ‘having been there.’ I didn’t really see
any more of the ceremony then my friends in South Carolina, but I was
there.  Can I claim a more ‘historic’ ‘authentic’
or ‘American’ experience then those watching the same content on a smaller
screen at home?  Perhaps, this event can
be worn as a badge of our dedication to America and our new President.

The irony to desire physical presence to watch a large
screen was not lost on me as I shivered this morning in our Nation’s capital.
Would I do it again? Absolutely!