Paris Report

by Jonathan Sterne on November 17, 2015

Greetings from Paris.

Here is your fucked up Paris update for a fucked up world (pardon my French). My experience of Paris at this point has completely diverged from my social media feed. For those of you not here, here is what I have experienced.

In my social media feed, and reading the news, France is locked down, in a state of emergency, under martial law, and curfew. People are struggling to figure out what to feel and say. And people far from the events are freaking out. “Grief-shaming?” Wow. But that’s how terrorism works: it exists as a media phenomenon. It depends on the press and now social media.

In my privileged bourgeois leftist-intellectual intellectual bubble (related to but different from my social media bubble), Paris is going on about its business.

Friday night my plane took off right after I got a New York Times update that said “PARIS CLOSES BORDERS.”  I thought I might be taking two flights. But I landed, and passport-control was predictably insane.  The wait was somewhere between 2 and 3 hours–I didn’t exactly keep track.  They turned off the electronic passport machines, so all the locals had to go through a person. But the people might as well have been machines. They were stamping passports as fast as they could. The only people who seemed to take any time to get clearance had darker skin than me. Draw your own conclusions.

Saturday WAS weird, and people weren’t out in as much force. My dinner companion that night saw empty busses going by on a Saturday night, which is more or less unheard-of. It was kind of spooky, though our restaurant was full.

Sunday started to be more normal. There was brunch, drinks, dinner at a friend’s place. There was a lot of talk of the attacks but people were out and about. Dinner party conversation quickly turned to other matters.

I awoke yesterday to the sounds of construction (AirBNB classic!). When I went outside the city, or at least the 2nd arrondissement, was in full force. Yesterday evening, the roundtable event went off at the Centre George Pompidou without a hitch, except that now people empty their pockets and go through a metal detector like at the Library of Congress (my hosts tell me that’s new but that the Centre has been increasingly securitized over the last 10 years). It was classic security theatre, like at airports and elsewhere, perhaps designed more to make it look like something is being done than actually doing anything. I expect to be searched tomorrow at the Philharmonie, as well.

After the event, which was still about the subject of a special issue on the politics of sound, we went out to dinner. There has been talk of course about what happened, but everyone is circumspect, trying to figure out what the right thing is to think and do, and concerned about the kinds of violence and police state the French government will now put in place.

They have good reason. I am pretty sure French airstrikes in Syria will kill more civilians than the ISIS attacks, especially if they are as “pitiless” as Hollande says they will be.

Smart things local friends have said (paraphrased from memory):

“Stop and frisk was already a way of life here; we are way ahead of the US on the police state front.”

“Left intellectuals need to organize and get out in the press to get another perspective heard.”

“I don’t like the talk of France’s 9/11. Charlie Hebdo was already ‘France’s 9/11.’ People in other parts of the world deal with this all the time.”

I have no brilliant solutions or insights to offer. Just a request to consider: journalistic and social media accounts of a place are not the place. They are their own place.

That is my report.

Canada: Where the 4th Best Election Outcome is Kind of OK

by Jonathan Sterne on October 20, 2015

Possible 2015 Canadian Election Results, Ranked

  1. NDP Majority
  2. NDP Minority, propped up by liberals
  3. Liberal Minority, propped up by NDP
  4. Liberal Majority
  5. Liberal Minority, propped up by conservatives.
  6. Conservative minority, propped up by liberals.
  7. Conservative Majority.

By my count, a liberal majority was the fourth best outcome I could have hoped for from last night’s election.  As Trudeau’s speech last night signifies, we will get our nice, friendly-sounding Canada back.  Whether we will get back all those social programs, funding for the CBC, the census, or many of the other things Harper cut, remains to be seen.  Whether we will see the end of C-51 (probably not) or Canada’s new muscular and imperial foreign policy (one can hope), we don’t know. And if those things are fixed, whether they will be properly fixed is also an open question. For instance, I learned (at a NDP fundraiser a couple weeks ago) that even waiting awhile on restoring the census will do incalculable damage to our abilities to know things about the country, since there will be a 10-year gap in our national statistics. I am sure there are similar issues with every single one of the programs cut by the Harper administration.

The Liberal platform had lots of good promises, but this is a party with a reputation for run-to-the-left, govern to the right.  So we will have to see where this all goes.



An Open Letter in Support of Divestment

by Jonathan Sterne on October 14, 2015

For the past few years, Divest McGill has been working to get McGill’s endowment and retirement funds out of the business of supporting fossil fuels. They now have a petition they want to take to the Board of Governors. Divest McGill is organized and run by students. There is a group of faculty and librarians who have formed in support, but this is a student-led campaign.

I just sent the following letter to McGill’s Committee to Advise on Matters of Social Responsibility, which advises the Board of Governors. You might consider writing them as well:

Dear Colleagues,

I am writing you as a faculty member with 11 years’ service to McGill and a member of McGill Faculty and Librarians for Divestment. I am asking you to recommend acceptance of Divest McGill’s petition to the Board of Governors and an immediate freeze on new fossil fuel investments.

There are many reasons to divest now. The most important reasons are moral. McGill is a university. Our mission statement talks about the advancement of learning and the creation and dissemination of knowledge. Research and teaching exist not just for the present but for the future. Thinking 50 years down the line, what kind of world do we want to leave for the U0 undergraduates who began this fall? As scholars, we must respect that the scientific consensus on global warming is clear and overwhelming. By investing in fossil fuels, we are actively working to undermine the futures for which our researchers and undergraduates are working. If we continued our fossil fuel investments, we would be knowingly and actively contributing to the destruction of the planet. If universities, institutions who are charged with producing the future, won’t lead on this matter, who will?

In 1903, the great social thinker W.E.B DuBois wrote that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line.” While race remains one of the great issues of our time, it may well turn out that, as my colleague Stefan Helmreich argues, that the problem of the twenty-first century is the problem of the water line.

Future generations—our undergraduates’ children—will judge us on the actions we take today. But so will current generations. We have an opportunity to do the right thing, and to stand up as a global leader at a time when it really matters. Thus, I urge you to support Divest McGill’s petition to the Board of Governors, and help bring us into the 21st century.


Jonathan Sterne
Professor and James McGill Chair in Culture and Technology
Department of Art History and Communication Studies
McGill University

Thanks for the franchise!

by Jonathan Sterne on October 12, 2015

It’s thanksgiving 2015 and this is my first federal election as a Canadian citizen. I am grateful to finally be able to vote in a federal election here.  We just missed the 2011 election by a little bit.  I am not thankful for some kind of cold-like bug, but I am voting today, since the polling place is at the corner.

“But wait,” I hear the foreigners say, “I thought the election was October 19th?” (Okay, foreigners wouldn’t say that. They’d be surprised to learn there was an election here, but whatever.)

Over the past few weeks we’ve been seeing ads on TV telling us where and how to vote. As registered voters, we receive cards in the mail with information on our polling place on October 19th–and a number of alternative options in case we can’t vote on the 19th. As someone who grew up in the American system, with its long history of institutionalized voter suppression, this is a really striking difference.

I am also grateful to have a party to vote for who represent, more or less, my political worldview and interests. The New Democrats have historically been a party for social democracy. Among other things, they originated Canada’s healthcare system. Their platform includes measures for Indigenous rights, gender equity, workers’ rights, childcare, and undoing a lot of the bad work of the Harper administration. This NDP is certainly a mixed bag, as any party would be. I am not a huge fan of the leader, Thomas Mulcair, who is without a doubt very intelligent, but also historically more of a centrist. I miss Jack Layton.  A lot. With a chance to actually govern, and leading the polls at the beginning of this election, the NDP decided to run a more centrist campaign. I think it’s safe to say now that didn’t work in terms of attracting additional voters. And balanced budgets–one of the NDP’s more surprising planks–certainly didn’t energize the left wing base. Indeed, I don’t know why you’d be so concerned about balancing budgets in a recession, when interest rates are at historic lows. Still, their corporate tax proposal would bring in (according to their estimates) about a billion more dollars per year than the Liberals proposal to raise taxes on the top 1% of Canadian earners, who make more than $200,000 a year (according to the Liberal plan). Frankly, I don’t know why you wouldn’t do both and then spend more money on education, infrastructure, Indigenous programs, retirement, employment insurance, immigration, and all the other things Harper has gutted since he took office.

I do know, however, a thing or two about history. Leaders campaign on personality and the press helps them do it, but we vote for parties, not individuals. And the liberals have a history: run to the left, govern to the right. Paul Martin, the last liberal prime minister, made his name running the country’s finances, and he balanced budgets on the backs of the poor, not the rich.  If Trudeau is elected prime minister, I am certain a large swath of the old liberal functionaries will be back in power. If we elect the NDP, a new group of people will be in power. It is possible, even likely, that they will disappoint, but at least they will have a chance to govern differently.

I spent part of yesterday reading both parties’ platforms. They are both grab bags of promises, and the liberals are “not so bad,” but the NDP’s commitment to proportional representation, workers’ rights, the environment, disability rights and Indigenous rights is definitely clearer and stronger. They are also the only party (of the big three) willing to talk about forming a coalition to ensure that Harper doesn’t get another mandate. The Liberals, meanwhile, have a little dog-whistle militarism buried in there, and are only going to “study” changes to government, which means they don’t want to do anything. There are plenty of studies already.

The liberals now lead in the polls and if current patterns hold–a big “if” with a week left before the election when the polls are this close–they will form a minority government. I will be happy to see the end of the Harper conservatives, who never received a majority of Canadian votes, out of office.

But I have a chance to vote my conscience* in an election where the party I am voting for has a chance to win.**

That is why I am voting NDP.

* I did vote for Paul Wellstone in 1990, a liberal democrat who rarely disappointed me. That was the only other “enthusiastic” ballot I can recall casting in a federal election.
** Okay, maybe not in my riding. Our MP (member of parliament) is Justin Trudeau. I will be supporting the NDP candidate, Anne Lagacé-Dowson.

August 3rd, 1980: Mezzotints

August 3, 2015

Today is the 35th anniversary of the French government issuing a stamp in honour of my uncle, Mario Avati. Mario was one of a few artists who reinvigorated the mezzotint in the 20th century. We have some framed first day covers hanging at home. Pardon my crap photography. More details on Mario here: and […]

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More Suspended Attention

August 2, 2015

Since last fall, I’ve been on an every three months regime of getting scanned. Two have been chest and abdomen, other was just my lungs. They are tracking the speed of spots in my lungs, looking for anything to get bigger. The last scan, done at the end of June, showed my largest lesion at […]

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On Charleston

June 18, 2015

I don’t normally post on social media about horrific events as they happen, simply because I never have anything profound to say. Expressing my outrage here simply does nothing for the people who are actually suffering, and it doesn’t make me feel any better. But I’ll say this about Charleston, coming on top of all […]

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