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On Media Monstration and the Politics of Small Things

An ongoing discussion with Jeffrey Goldfarb

This post is the first of two making a series of points: Here I answer Jeff Goldfarb’s points in the post he devoted to our common classes. In the second, I will stress a couple of issues that have to do with my central concern: the role of media as “showing.”

On media power and resistance

Goldfarb writes:

Dayan thinks the media set the agenda more thoroughly than I think actually happens. I see not only the possibility, but also the reality of resistance, even when it doesn’t prevail… The power of big media is great, but it is something else completely if it faces persistent resistance.

In answer to these two points, let me answer that I am less interested in quantifying power than qualifying power.

In my view, the power of the media lies not only in the consequences of what they show, but in the very fact of showing it. Showing, multiplied by Reach, transforms the ecology of our perceived world.

As to resistance, I also see not only the possibility but the reality of resistance. But I ask the following questions, Who resists? How often and when? And why? Why would you resist if you do not feel concerned? And is there anyone who can be concerned by everything that appears on the news?

People resist when they care to resist. This is not always the case. This is not often the case. Resistance tends to coincide with areas about which those who choose to resist have a direct experience or knowledge of the issues at hand. This means that on any given subject, there may exist concerned audiences that resist, and unconcerned audiences that do not.

For the latter, what is shown on the media is indifferent. They acknowledge it, without focused attention, the way you acknowledge the existence of a landscape around your car, or that of clouds in the sky, or that of architecture, according to Benjamin resisting sharpens your gaze. It helps you discover that what is shown on the media can be neither accurate nor consensual. Yet how many people resist? How many audiences decide to focus their gaze?

In a word, I agree on the possibility of defeating central media definitions of reality, but I also believe — like David Morley — that media dissidence is not the rule but an exception. I am quite willing to grant that such exceptions exist, but in the majority of cases media definitions that are not challenged, or visibly challenged, seem consensual.

A political field of big media and small: media enhanced groups

Jeff Goldfarb speaks of a:

…dynamic political sociology of media: big media received by individuals and groups, yielding expected and unexpected results. Groups enhanced by small media, not only responding but often setting the agenda for big media, or not being able to accomplish this.

I certainly agree since this is what I often wrote. I also believe that, in as much as the central media enact a certain version of the public sphere, there is an ongoing contest between various groups to have their issues selected, and their framings privileged. Thus if I see central media as powerful entities (by the “reach” they have at their disposal) I also see them as battlefields. Any medium, on any subject is a battlefield between different publics. This battlefield is very easy to observe. Just look at what happens to a given rubric when a given editor leaves (or is fired) and another replaces him.

Are media institutions to be seen as machines or interactive groups?

Jeff Goldfarb writes:

Media institutions are not just machines. As in all institutions, they are constituted through organized social interactions… between producers, directors, editors, reporters, actors, videographers, investors, marketing agents, etc.

Once again, I agree. Media not only results in a public sphere of monstration, but we individually and sometimes collectively function as publics debating the “monstrandum” when is it necessary to show something? How show it? Decisions must be made about what I would call the “Monstranda Setting,” and the relationship of what is to be shown to the common good. Such decisions need to be discussed. Here again I see the media as a battlefield between various publics, even though in a given channel or newspaper, the range of publics that enter the fray is relatively small. For example, the publics that confront each other at Le Monde are, of course, diverse. Yet all of them are center left. Other publics are hardly invited into the discussion.

The issue of discursive regularities

On any given subject, it is interesting to look at how discursive regularities emerge. Why is it that, despite internal media struggles, “that are both cooperative and conflictual,” certain discursive outcomes are nevertheless predictable? What it is it that explains that, on certain subjects all discussion and debates seem to yield the same results?

For Goldfarb, “there are rules and norms, enforced by various kinds of controls, that make certain results likely.” Of course. But there are other reasons for the homogenization of results. For example, the homogeneity in the recruitment of journalists. This homogeneity exists and it is measurable. French journalists increasingly attend certain schools. Once they graduate, they go through internships, depend on certain processes of cooptation. With the enforcement of certain norms and protocols and the existence of processes of imitation in the media world, their homogeneity often explains why debates occur within a narrow range of positions, and end up involving relatively similar positions. But there is another type of explanation to discursive regularities. It is semiotic.

A semiotic explanation: paradigms, narratives, and templates

It has to do with the seductive power of certain narratives, with the ease with which they can be applied, with their seductive power. The authority enjoyed by such narratives is sometimes backed by rational arguments, (with the risk of rejecting all counter arguments as “irrational”). It is sometimes backed by tradition (this is how we have always addressed this issue, in this newspaper). It can finally be backed by charisma (this is how so and so would put it).

A news event always consists in the encounter of a happening and of a Topos. Happenings are infinite in number. Topoi are not, and this offers the beginning of an answer to the question of homogenization. The capture of a given situation by an established “Topos” happens everyday. You can see it happening by comparing the content of an article or interview, with the title it receives. Often you note a discrepancy. This discrepancy exemplifies the dynamics of media production. An interview usually makes many points. The title it receives, at best, chooses among these points. At worse, it makes another point. No matter how nuanced the interview has been captured by a given Topos.

But titles are not only issues at hand. Let me rely on the vocabulary of “Media Templates” introduced by Jenny Kitzinger. Kitzinger wrote that:

[T]emplates help to shape news narratives and guide thinking not only about the past, but also about the present and the future… templates… are established and maintained by source strategies, social power relations, and journalistic/audience reception processes. (Kitzinger; Media Culture and Society, Jan. 2000)

Templates are not only useful, they are almost unavoidable. They are an example of “savage thought,” of this type of thought, which, according to Claude Levi-Strauss, offers an alternative route to abstract thinking, by allowing us to think any concrete domain by means of another concrete domain. Templates thus serve a cognitive function: they allow making sense of ongoing situations by framing them in ways that are comprehensible to audiences. (In fact, a template is a form of metaphor.) But templates also serve an ideological function: the choice of template for a given situation serves to legitimize or delegitimize certain courses of action.

Events that appear on news are caught, capture by one or the other template and rendered (monstrated) in the form imposed on them by such a template. They are template-framed. One of my main points is that, in the process of monstration, the choice of a template not only harbors “perlocutionary” consequence but is a public action in itself. Not only do the available templates belong in different discourses but these discourses are mobilized by different publics. They are political rallying signs.

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Daniel Dayan

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