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The Media Against Democracy
By Thomas Field
John Hunt Publishing Ltd.Copyright © 2014 Thomas Field
All rights reserved.
The End of the Media
What do we mean when we talk about "The Media"? Why did we start talking about it? Will we talk about it in a 100 years time? It is presently extremely difficult to stop using this term. (We could say that it may be easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of the media.) But we will have to stop at some point if, as I will argue, the media – both as a concept and as we seem to know it – is against democracy, and democracy is at the heart of any emancipatory politics. And if we want to live, other than as pigs, then freedom and equality – democratic living, in short – is essential.
Some things don't seem to have beginnings, and the media is one of them. Some histories of the media use the term as if it existed at least since antiquity. Saturated as we are by what is called the media, it is no surprise that we find it difficult to think properly about its history. Once we do think through the history of the media properly then we can know both that "the media" can end, and why democratic politics will end it.
The relationship between media and politics is one of perennial outcry and protest from both the powerful and the apparent powerless. Beyond the totting up of political party screen time with a stopwatch how can this relationship be properly understood? We can start by asking: what does it actually mean to mediate? What is apparently being mediated? Then we can ask what could effectively mediate or represent democracy?
Where might we find answers to such questions? What resources are available for a critical study of the relationship between media and democracy? Some would suggest "Media Studies"; however Media Studies has become (has always been?) a type of one-dimensional thinking that has produced and sustained a number of myths and misapprehensions often built around false dichotomies (which I discuss shortly) about the relationship between images and power and democracy, and which has had little effect on the object it critically studies. Media practitioners have looked upon Media Studies with a sense of bafflement, and in one way they are right to. They think they are mediating and so does Media Studies – so what's the fuss about if the two sides agree upon that? However my argument is that it would be better for us all if we just jettisoned the term "media" completely in relation to the production of audio-visual cultures; it is a term of fairly recent application and we should consider alternative ways of discussing these cultures, without this term.
So to return to the initial question, what do we mean when we refer to "the media"? And what is mediation? Meanings usually attributed to the word, apart from the ones associated with communication, are likely to reference something about occupying some middle position or being regarded as intermediate. But then we should ask: "intermediate" between exactly what and what? As a verb, mediate could be said to mean to settle some dispute as an intermediary between parties, or to act between parties to effect an agreement, compromise or reconciliation. It is my contention that this concept and the practices that accompany it are profoundly anti-political and therefore anti-democratic. What I mean by "the political" derives from some of Chantal Mouffe's thinking about it. Using her work it is possible to see how the media has an anti-democratic effect and how it occults the reality of the political, which is that in any society there is and there always will be a dimension of political antagonism that cannot be eradicated. For me this is linked to the notion of ontological chaos which I develop later in the book.
So the first reason I am giving for the conclusion that the media is against democracy is that the media as mediator would deny what Mouffe has called "the nature of the political" and "the dimension of radical negativity that manifests itself in the ever-present possibility of antagonism." A true account of political-social relations would have to require a "coming to terms with the lack of a final ground and the undecidability that pervades every order." The lack of any final ground is therefore a radically negative ontological non-state. I will conceptualise this as political chaos (not a term that Mouffe uses). But for now we can say, with Mouffe, that any settlement that would have to be the result of some kind of mediation would deny that the settlement is always characterised by a particular set of power relations and so also an attempt to cover over the future possibility of antagonism. So mediation and the proposed settlement that goes with it must always to some extent try to mask the "sedimented hegemonic practices" that brought it about. Therefore the concept of "mediation" is opposed to counter-hegemonic practices which are democratic by nature and so the concept of the media is opposed to the idea of democracy.
My second reason for the conclusion that the media is against democracy is that it pretends to mediate something but it is unable to mediate anything. This is because if what is is chaos then what is there for the media to mediate? I am going to suggest that if we privilege a thinking of being as chaos or hyper-chaos then this may provide us with a means to live more democratically. If it is true that what is is chaos then the producers of new images and sounds would have to accept that nothing is given (which is emphatically not to say that nothing exists). The producers of sounds and images would have to accept that mediation of a given as a real is impossible, or at best illusory. To the extent that they deny chaos then they also deny the conditions of democratic thinking and action.
For these two reasons we must accept that the media is against democracy and so we should welcome the end of the media.
It is possible to analyse our current cultural-political situation once we take on board this critical account of the media and mediation. So to start off here are eight truths about our audio-visual culture that indicate problems with the concept of mediation.
1. Cultural power does exist
By cultural power I mean the capacity of the nexus of global multi-media conglomerates and state-directed public service broadcasting systems (the oligopoly that is the global media industry) to shape our ideas about what there is and what it means, and such activity is wrongly described as mediation. The revelations at the British Leveson Enquiry indicate the use of such power by, for example: News Corporation to attempt to blackmail John Major's Conservative UK government into changing policy on the EU; its efforts to try to get Blair's Labour government, as well as Chirac's French government, to join the Iraq War coalition; and the placement of one of their men (Andy Coulson – later found guilty, in July 2014, of illegal journalistic practices) at the heart of Cameron's 2010 onwards Conservative government.
2. There is no such thing as the media
If we consider the institutions that produce the images and sounds and broadcast them to a public then in what sense can this global oligopoly convincingly situate itself as a mediator? Somewhere in between, on neutral ground? A settling presence? It appears not. Even if it seems to have been ever-present in its ever-presence, the media and the concept "the media" were born at a particular moment – in the 1920s. This was just after the world-historical communist event in Russia and around the time of the socialism of The General Strike in the UK, which the BBC played such an important part in by "siding with the government" against the strikers. Around this time of public social class conflict the term "the media" was coined by those on the side of the powerful – the advertisers. That radical activists and thinkers have pretty much totally taken up this term "the media," a term coined by their adversaries, may well one day be considered as one of the ironies of history.
If we simply ask the ontological question "what is it there to mediate?" then something starts to unravel. Francois Julliendescribes a scene we are all probably familiar with. The tourist alights with camera in hand, takes a photograph and returns relieved to their seat. What is it that they are relieved about?
It's clear: they are relieved to have avoided coming face to face – coming face to face with that which presents itself to them, engulfing their attention, and which overwhelms them.
There is of course a whole set of implicit practices involved in the taking of a tourist snap resulting in the "realisation" of a set of "acquired codifications." Now imagine this use of a set of acquired codifications multiplied a hundredfold, and you will perhaps be able to understand what is happening in this, another familiar scene: a journalist, a camera and a sound recorder in front of the site of some kind of event. It seems to be claimed that being there guarantees that we (their audience) get to what there is, that this can simply be transmitted to an audience. Such practices are an attempt to try to bolster an imaginary media role as guardian of "the knowledge," by being present at the ostensible site of the event. The producers imagine and hope that the audience also imagines that mere presence provides some cognitive connection – "here is our correspondent outside number 10, at the factory, at the police station" etc. The news team return to their car relieved they have their footage.
In relation to the lone photographer example, Jullien quotes (and translates) Heraclitus: "without intelligence, having listened, to the deaf they resemble; this saying bears witness to them: present they are absent." As Jullien emphasises, they don't encounter. "They are there, physically present, in flesh and bone, but have, as they say, the mind elsewhere, that is to say in fact nowhere: dispersed, dissipated, unproductive: not awakened." Present, they are absent – they do not encounter.
The film maker Michelangelo Frammartino affirms this Jullienesque anti-mediationalism but also suggests an alternative way of thinking the relationship between camera and what there is. The camera "is not simply a tool for reproducing reality, but I feel it is a tool with the ability to perceive, to capture, to film the bond between man and nature, that invisible thing that is in between ... the thing that binds man to these other elements. It somehow manages to point this out to us and make it come alive." His film, Le Quattro Volte, is set in Calabria, Italy, but his project in the film is not to represent Calabria. Rather Calabria is "present" in his work. "It's something that happens without me actually aiming to tell its whole story." So his film is an exercise in "the humility of the eye." The French film maker Robert Bresson, in his Notes on the cinematographer, seems to agree with Frammartino. "A mechanism gives rise to the unknown and not because one has found this unknown in advance." And Frammartino is not hesitant in pointing out the political consequences of his film and his use of images – it is because Silvio Berlusconi came to power partly through the control of images that Frammartino wanted to produce images "that gave the audience freedom."
If we to start to develop ontological questions about what there is, then it becomes possible to recognise that what gets elided in notions of mediation are the following prospects: in the words of Castoriadis the idea "that what is is chaos"; in the words of Meillassoux that there is ontological hyper-chaos and radical contingency; in the words of Badiou that beyond what is presented there could be something of the evental; and finally in the words of Jullien that what there is could facilitate what he calls l'essor – meaning "the flight" – in the most positive senses of the word. Media practice and Media Studies' absolutely key concept of mediation occults these chaotic, evental and ontological possibilities.
3. Media audiences do not "choose" their readings and media audiences are not "affected"
Either audiences simply choose meanings or they get an overpoweringly negative charge from the media, debilitating them in one way or another. Both sides of this false dichotomy occult the force or potentia of the image: one in denial, the other in puritanical disgust and paranoia. Rather than go with either side, could we not instead consider another possibility that what the media sometimes offers us is a never totally successful attempt to cleanse its images and sounds of the chaotic and the evental. The concept of mediation neutralises and eviscerates the chaotic and the evental. As do codes of media professionalism which are very tightly drawn around what is an acceptable image or sound, so excluding that which is in some way excessive of those codifications. At the same time political assumptions look right past those happenings which could be events (let's say for now in Badiou's sense of the term) but are somehow beyond or outside of their expectations, or conceptual schemes.
I sketch later just what a chaotic offer could be like, where the experience offered is one of the chaotic and the evental rather than that of the packaged media practice or an assumed choice of meaning. What is obliterated in the discourse of differential readings and of media effects is the potentia of the image, and the experience, however opaque, of its obscure, but real power to link to the chaotic.
4. The media is not democratic
How can quasi-state bodies like public service broadcasters, and profit-driven corporations which are in any case dominated by a fraction of the bourgeoisie, be counted as somehow representative of democracy? Or even neutral mediators between competing social groups?
5. The Media Industries are class institutions
Who works for the media institutions? Class, in the 2010s – the social variable that may finally be re-emerging after a period of occultation, when we were all bourgeois – is the most useful sociological concept for working towards an answer to this question. It particularly struck home to me as I watched the BBC's Newsnight flagship programme as a presumably democratic discussion was going on about Gideon Oliver Osborne's (also known as George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer of the British state) 2012 UK budget between Allegra and Jeremy (a Newsnight journalist and an anchorman respectively). Not only are the names significant but also the accents and the habitus. Why this concentration of the bourgeoisie in the age of apparent equal opportunities? Suffice to recall a very illuminating article in The Guardian a few years back about how graduates get employed in the British media. It is no longer enough to offer to work for free, there are far too many graduates offering to be slaves! Now you must go beyond slavery and actually pay the media company to work for them. The resultant media class could therefore, for the most part, only be the rich self-appointed mediators of the officially political, itself dominated by the rich. Showbiz kids making movies of themselves ...
6. The media is not autonomous
Either it is profit-driven so driven by the laws of the market, or it is in fear of whatever government fixes its funding mechanism therefore driven by the rules of the state. (And what if somebody suggested that the media was relatively autonomous? Can this conceptual monstrosity exist anyway?) So in what kind of position is the media to be neutral mediators?
The BBC's flagship presenters snarl like rottweilers at politicians whilst its DGs get sacked or called to ministerial offices for their instructions (Greg Dyke and Mark Thompson, respectively). This exposes the problem of the Paxman method – the creation of much heat and little light, fabricating the idea of a genuine BBC democratic interrogation. Did that infamous minister (Conservative Michael Howard) overrule his administrator? Did he even threaten to? We still don't even know. Years later both interviewer and interviewee appear on a self-congratulatory BBC self-assessment joking and laughing about the incident confirming a suspicion that all that snarling and respondent prevarication is part of an oligarchic game.
7. The media does not produce texts and
8. The media does not produce images that do not have power
If we go back to Barthesian basics and examine the concept of a text, which again is key to Media Studies thinking, then what do we find but that such concepts as text, meaning, representation, polysemy etc. downplay the force of the image. Better is the later Barthes of Camera Lucida who makes his confessions about his past misunderstandings when he tries to approach the force of the image with his concept of the punctum. I say he approaches it because he cannot quite adequately conceptualise it, finally sinking into an autobiographical subjective sacralisation of the disorder of the "prick" of the image. What he does emphasise is the disorderliness of certain experiences in front of images, which is valuable and I will develop some thinking on this disorderliness later. However for now suffice to say that the textual critic in Barthes cannot help but fetishise the text, in this case the photograph, cutting it off from the rest of what exists.
Excerpted from The Media Against Democracy by Thomas Field. Copyright © 2014 Thomas Field. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 The End of the Media 1
Chapter 2 The Impossibility of Media 13
Chapter 3 Emancipation after Media 25
Chapter 4 How to Live: The Existential Subject 35
Chapter 5 Democracy and Media 43
Chapter 6 Windows upon the Chaos 57