Watching The Watchers

Mass Observation returns for the Obama inauguration.

Brian Cook

On Jan. 20, about 2 mil­lion peo­ple gath­ered at the Nation­al Mall in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., to wit­ness Barack Oba­ma become the 44th pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States. Near­ly 40 mil­lion more Amer­i­cans watched the event on tele­vi­sion, as did mil­lions more around the world. 

‘We tried to consciously have people do more dispassionate, third-person observations, and by focusing on very small things, we were going to take them out of the ruling rhetoric of the day.’

Most of these peo­ple were intense­ly focused on the Capi­tol daïs, par­tic­u­lar­ly from noon to 12:30 p.m., when Oba­ma gave his inau­gur­al address. But for a select few in D.C., across the nation and around the world, the object of fas­ci­na­tion was not Oba­ma, nor his words, nor the exact moment of his inau­gu­ra­tion, but rather the mil­lions watch­ing him, and what they said and did through­out all of Inau­gu­ra­tion Day.

These observers were par­tic­i­pat­ing in a project called Januarythe20th, a mod­ern-day update of the 1930s Mass Obser­va­tion move­ment, which enlist­ed England’s work­ing- and mid­dle-class peo­ple to observe and doc­u­ment, as objec­tive­ly as pos­si­ble, the hap­pen­ings of the world around them. 

Ulti­mate­ly, Januarythe20th received sub­mis­sions from more than 100 observers, some embed­ded with­in the Mall’s mas­sive throng, oth­ers fil­ing from far-flung loca­tions like Argenti­na, New Zealand, U.S. Army Camp Spe­ich­er (out­side Tikrit, Iraq), and Kisumu, a port city on Lake Vic­to­ria in west­ern Kenya, where one observ­er wrote: 

First peo­ple real­ly feast­ed even though there is an out­break of hunger, a big screen was set up in Keny­at­ta Sports Ground Kisumu to show the event live from Koge­lo and Wash­ing­ton, D.C. One had to buy a dai­ly metro news­pa­per to access the screen. Busi­ness was boom­ing in Keny­at­ta Sports ground and even those who did not [know] how to read were forced to buy papers just to see the pic­tures. T‑shirts with Obama’s por­trait were in hot demand with one going at ksh500 [rough­ly $6.64].

When Oba­ma recog­nised a small vil­lage [Kisumu] where his father was born, there was loud cheer­ing as they view Oba­ma as their own.

The orig­i­nal Mass Obser­va­tion move­ment was cre­at­ed in 1937, the brain­child of a quirky, bril­liant and oft-bick­er­ing trio: Charles Madge, an estab­lished poet and proud mem­ber of the Com­mu­nist Par­ty; Humphrey Jen­nings, a painter, silk design­er and doc­u­men­tary film­mak­er; and Tom Har­ri­son, described by the Oxford Dic­tio­nary of Nation­al Biog­ra­phy as a flam­boy­ant­ly unaca­d­e­m­ic” anthro­pol­o­gist who liked to claim that, while liv­ing on a South Pacif­ic island in the mid-’30s, he had par­tak­en in can­ni­bal­ism. (His biog­ra­ph­er casts doubt on the boast’s veracity.) 

Through the use of month­ly day-sur­veys” (diaries tak­ing note of a sin­gle day), Madge, Jen­nings and Har­ri­son charged their observers to col­lect a mass of data with­out any selec­tive prin­ci­ple.” The goal, in the words of the first of Mass Observation’s fre­quent man­i­festos, was to cre­ate an anthro­pol­o­gy of our­selves” that would describe dai­ly real­i­ty in sim­ple terms to all observers, so that their envi­ron­ment may be under­stood, and thus con­stant­ly transformed.”

That much, at least, they could agree on. But where Madge and Jen­nings want­ed Mass Obser­va­tion to cre­ate a poet­ry of the peo­ple,” Har­ri­son had larg­er, more polit­i­cal goals. He hoped Mass Obser­va­tion could forge a new syn­the­sis,” light­ing the way for­ward from the present mis­er­able con­flicts of dog­mat­ic faiths.” In fact, Harrison’s dis­putes with Madge and Jen­nings caused him to sit out one of the projects for which Mass Obser­va­tion is best remem­bered: its doc­u­men­ta­tion of the coro­na­tion of King George VI on May 121937

Five months ear­li­er, King Edward VIII decid­ed to abdi­cate his throne rather than for­go his mar­riage to Wal­lis Simp­son, an Amer­i­can socialite whose pre­vi­ous divorces made her an unac­cept­able Queen, accord­ing to the Church of Eng­land. The result­ing furor and much-bal­ly­hooed cer­e­mo­ny of George VI’s coro­na­tion were per­fect­ly suit­ed for Mass Obser­va­tion, Madge and Jen­nings wrote in anoth­er man­i­festo, as they offered mil­lions of peo­ple who passed their lives as obe­di­ent automa­ta of a sys­tem” the chance to make sense of this fun­da­men­tal break from the past.

For Eric Ben­son and Justin Nobel, two free­lance jour­nal­ists and the cre­ators of Januarythe20th, Obama’s inau­gu­ra­tion offered a sim­i­lar oppor­tu­ni­ty to exam­ine what hap­pens when peo­ple take part in a rad­i­cal transition. 

This is a time of change. Ideas are chang­ing, old ideas are being reject­ed and peo­ple are try­ing to move for­ward with new ones,” says Nobel, 27. And who bet­ter to learn it from than the people?”

Fear­ing that the event’s mean­ing would be cheap­ened by what Ben­son, 24, terms the pre-pack­aged polit­i­cal lan­guage” of the mass media, the two saw Mass Obser­va­tion as a need­ed remedy. 

A lot of peo­ple were hap­py – includ­ing both of us – about Oba­ma being inau­gu­rat­ed,” says Ben­son. But if we were to just ask peo­ple for their thoughts on Inau­gu­ra­tion Day, prob­a­bly all we would get would be, It’s so won­der­ful that Obama’s tak­ing the office, it says so much about our country’s abil­i­ty to remake itself, and I’m so inspired, and isn’t it great?’ So we tried to con­scious­ly have peo­ple do more dis­pas­sion­ate, third-per­son obser­va­tions, and by focus­ing on very, very small things, we were going to take them out of the rul­ing rhetoric of the day.”

Upon under­tak­ing the project, they quick­ly real­ized that Mass Obser­va­tion was in many ways a pre­cur­sor to New Media. 

This idea,” Ben­son says, of 200 anony­mous observers, cit­i­zen jour­nal­ists, record­ing lit­tle things has a par­al­lel with some of the bet­ter aspects of the blogosphere.” 

It also dove­tailed neat­ly with the new tech­nolo­gies. Through the use of e‑mail, Twit­ter and social-net­work­ing sites, Nobel and Ben­son were not only able to spread word of the project – we had no idea kinder­gart­ners were going to con­tribute,” Nobel says – but to instant­ly receive and post obser­va­tions, giv­ing a pal­pa­ble imme­di­a­cy to their project.

The hun­dreds of obser­va­tions are now archived at Jan​u​ary​the20th​.com, where they can be searched via nation­al or inter­na­tion­al region. Yet diverse as the geo­graph­i­cal cor­re­spon­dents were, the obser­va­tions them­selves are even more so. They range from over­heard snip­pets of dia­logues, to diary entries, to full-fledged nar­ra­tive reportage, while con­tent-wise, some focus specif­i­cal­ly on the inau­gur­al and oth­ers seem whol­ly unin­ter­est­ed in it. 

It was impor­tant, Nobel says, to observe things that had noth­ing to do with the inau­gu­ra­tion, but were hap­pen­ing on that day just because they’re always hap­pen­ing: birds eat­ing at a feed­er, a line of taxi­cabs, peo­ple in a room not talk­ing about the inau­gu­ra­tion. Our fan­ta­sy with this was that if you real­ly have this col­lec­tion of things that were going on through­out the day, it cre­ates this pic­ture which is far more pow­er­ful than a cou­ple reporters going out and inter­view­ing a cou­ple people.” 

The final result is a mosa­ic of com­plex human­i­ty, in which Obama’s inau­gu­ra­tion can simul­ta­ne­ous­ly be invest­ed with pro­found mean­ing and none what­so­ev­er. It’s a sense per­haps best con­veyed in the fol­low­ing obser­va­tion, sub­mit­ted from Sal­vador, Brazil:

A moth­er of three grown chil­dren cooks meat stew in her apart­ment on the coast of north­east Brazil. Live cov­er­age of the pre-inau­gu­ra­tion buzz has just come onto one of the three broad­cast chan­nels she bare­ly receives on her huge flatscreen TV.

Do you like Oba­ma?” she asks me in terse Por­tuguese, with­out wait­ing for an answer. I think he’s great. He has love; you can see it in his face. And when a per­son has love, they can help peo­ple change. It’s a spir­i­tu­al virtue.”

She looks at the broc­coli and tofu stir-fry I’m mak­ing. That looks gross,” she says, and gets back to pound­ing her meat. 

Bri­an Cook was an edi­tor at In These Times from 2003 to 2009. He now works on the edi­to­r­i­al staff of Play­boy magazine.
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