EssaysMedia/Publics

Three Reflections on Media Responsibility: Discussing Issues of Monstration

How do you show people’s words?

One of the most interesting problems posed by centralized media and journalism is the problem of authorship. Any news item bears traces of the organizational processes it went through. These processes involve various interventions, by different actors. In a sense they are no less collective than those processes that add up to scientific discoveries. In both cases the notion of “authorship” is misleadingly individualistic.

Take the extreme case of op-eds. Op-eds come with an identifiable author’s signature. They are supposedly characterized by the existence of a simple, indictable origin. Does it mean they were not co-produced by the publishing organization? Does it mean they were not edited by the organization either politely through an exchange of letters and suggestions, or forcibly, through cuts, re-phrasings, and imposed titles? This may be done in the name of clarity. Yet many op-ed authors are extremely lucid writers and need no help in achieving clarity.

The issue is rather one of producing a more “acceptable” text, a “publishable” text, a text that deserves to be entered in the public sphere. An annals historian of Russia wrote her dissertation on the role of censorship in co-producing Russian cinema. The very fact of editing an “op-ed,” in other terms, is a blatant example of public opinion being shaped before being displayed.

To me, this is an immensely important issue. It is akin to the issue of reported speech. But it is less a grammatical issue than a political one. I would call it the issue of “showing speech.” How do the media show speech?

News, performatives, and “political semiotics”

The processing of news, of any piece of news, is characterized by performatives that construct the relation between readers/spectators and the narrated item. These performatives can be executives (such as showing/ not showing/ deciding how much to show); veridictives (such as indicting, condemning, acquitting); behabitives (such as displaying deference, respect, indifference, or contempt).

One could enlarge this descriptive palette, by showing with Robin Wagner-Pacifici that the whole range of “political semiotics” is at work here. For Pacifici, political semiosis combines the performatives I just mentioned with representations (narratives, images). It also includes “demonstrations” a notion which, for her, corresponds to the whole domain of “deictics,” to that dimension of language that the linguist Emile Benveniste used to call, “discours.” Deitics include forms such as, “here and there, then and now,” and but not least, the use of personal pronouns including the most dangerous of them all, “we.”

In other terms, while the realm of news presents itself as devoted to “representation,” what it does in fact exceeds by far this domain. As I have put it elsewhere, what news do, in regard to any event or situation, is: (1) uttering performatives, often a “behabitive sort,” that construct attitudes towards what is shown, and (2) delineating the contours of a responding community by reliance on deictics, that is by contrasting a “we” a “here” and a “now” to find a “they,” a “there” and a “then.” The delineated responding community could be defined as a public. It may actually exist, but in fact it is less “represented” than pronounced or conjured. No less that the event responded to, the responding public is modeled through performative statements.

The Butler example

To give an idea of the way central media go about their task of delineating the community they address (and of defining by addressing it) let me borrow a description from Judith Butler, cited by Lilie Chouliaraki:

“Butler,” writes Chouliaraki:

… shows how mediated suffering operates as a bio-political power by instituting a metaphysical distinction, between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ which demonizes non-western others and justifies the imperialist logics of ‘new humanitarian wars’ against others.

Chouliarkai then quotes Butler (2006) as saying:

It is not… just that some humans are treated as humans and others are dehumanized; it is rather dehumanization becomes the condition for the production of human, to the extent that a ‘western’ civilization defines itself over and against a population understood as definitional illegitimate if not dubiously human…

I do not agree with the thrust of a description in which I cannot but hear a casuistry of excusing the inexcusable; a rhetoric meant at overlooking some of the atrocities evoked through the euphemism of “mediated suffering.” Yet, Butler’s text powerfully illustrates my point by showing that the representation of atrocities combines deictics (we/them; here/there), and performatives (decreeing humanity or inhumanity) in order to produce a “we” defined as western and human.

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Daniel Dayan

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