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Solidarity, and the Rise and Fall of the Public Sphere

A Review of Daniel Dayan and Elihu Katz’s Media Events

Twenty-five years after its publication, Dayan and Katz’s classic study of ceremonial television, Media Events, has continued relevance for understanding the politics of media. With the proliferation of cable television and digital media explosion, television is no longer the hegemonic media form it once was, and the media events they studied exist no more in the form that they studied them. Nonetheless, in my judgment, their sociological findings about the role of media in the making of social solidarity are still very important. Further, because Dayan and Katz’s analysis was so powerful, the significance of their work for understanding the role of media in constituting public life is even more important today than when they published their classic text.

Media Events and Solidarity

Media Events demonstrated an interesting solution to the major puzzle in Durkheimian sociology: how is it possible for modern society to cohere? Emile Durkheim himself actually presented two solutions, both compelling, but each alone, and together, still wanting. The solutions provide an intriguing tension in his first major work, The Division of Labor in Society. In the opening of his book, he presents his famous answer. He maintains that while in simple societies solidarity is constituted through similarities, in complex societies, solidarity is based on difference. People in their differences, do different things, at different times, becoming and recognizing their mutual dependence. In simple societies, solidarity is maintained because its members share a common identity, while in complex societies they identify their shared mutual interdependence. Thus, the division of labor in society positively supports a coherent social order.

Yet, as his investigation progresses in The Division of Labor, and then through his later works, Durkheim returns to a search for some common collective conscience, some central value system, shared by all members of a society, when he considers the “abnormal” tensions that emerge from complexity. He introduces his idea of moral individualism, a position picked up and brilliantly developed by Erving Goffman in his study of deference and demeanor, further developed by Randal Collins in his study, Interaction Ritual Chains. Modern society coheres because of its members’ commitment to the sacredness of the individual.

This is interesting as far as it goes, but its high level of generality leaves a lot wanting. Unclear is how mutual interdependence and individualism work in interaction with each other in any one society or another, or in anything short of a global social order. The way to approach this is to examine common practices and shared moments when the society sees itself together and affirms its commitments: thus, Durkheim’s study of religion.

Enter Media Events, demonstrating how collective televisual rituals support social orders. In a very interesting irony in the history of ideas, the book demonstrates that Durkheim’s contemporary rival, Gabriel Tarde, in his turn to the role of journalism (we would say the media), as a key dimension of modern life, provided the means to address Durkheim’s problem in a compelling way. Media provide a way to find and express solidarity in complex society.

In the televisual age, there are periodic ritual moments when the members of a society, or group of societies, come together, engage in common practices and see themselves as part of a larger whole. Dayan and Katz focus on a specific kind of television and show how this kind of television works to support social order (and significantly also counter orders). The members of a society experience the media event together: not routine, with the interruption of the normal broadcasting flow, across networks, live, organized outside the media, organized by centers of power, preplanned, presented with reverence and ceremony, electrifying large audiences. In the television form that Dayan and Katz delineate as “media events,” the society sees itself and acts as one.

For those more disposed to think of social life as a set of ongoing conflicts, class or otherwise, Dayan and Katz’s account is problematic. The authors of Media Events even maintain that when conflicts are present in this special television form, their resolution is part of the script, as if they were intentionally provoking more agonistic theorists

Yet, returning to the book twenty-five years after its publication, the limitations of such criticism are evident. We should understand how important the media event form was, now that it is history, as a form of the past. Media events, as out of the ordinary productions of televisual society, along with the ordinary rhythms of television scheduling and flow, contributed to the centering of society, its coherence, its minimum degree of solidarity, the solidarity within which conflict short of violence existed, Dayan and Katz demonstrate. Now that such centering no longer exists, we face profound social and political crises.

I am not asserting that it is the absence of network television, and the ritualistic practices associated with it, that is the cause of the crises of our times: the rise of a new populism, the equation of “truthiness” with truth and the loss of the authority of science, the polarization of politics, and of public discussion and association. Yet, clearly in media times of the recent past, there were practices that helped to contain such tendencies. That media events, as understood and illuminated by Dayan and Katz, no longer operate, clearly is a problem, contributing to what sometimes appears as the end of liberal democracy as we have known it.

From this perspective, from the perspective of the sociology of media of Dayan and Katz, the issue is not the rise or fall of one set of powers or another, but the Durkheim problem of incoherence, of disorder, and, crucially, the disintegration of the public sphere and scattering of public attention. In the televisual age, these problems were addressed in and through media events. Centered public attention is more difficult to establish in the present media environment. To understand the nature of the problem consider how Media Events addressed one of the major problems in Jürgen Habermas’s analysis of the public sphere.

The Public Sphere, Media Events and Beyond

Jürgen Habermas’s great achievement in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere was to account for the development of a systematic structural feature of modernity as a sphere of societal life situated between the economy and the state, where free discussion about the problems of the day was an ongoing process. The conceptualization of a distinct institutional sector, a sphere, of modern society, alongside of the development of the modern state and the modern economy, revealed how the liberal freedoms of association and speech contributed to the running of the state and market, as the sphere was relatively independent of both, potentially critical of both. His was an account of a significant structural support of modern democracy. His analysis has been path breaking, as it has been subjected to important criticism.

His account of the male bourgeois public sphere didn’t take into account publics of other groups: the spheres of proletarians and women, among others. His is a hyper-rational account focused too closely on spoken and written reasoned debate, and further his account of rational debate is more an imagined utopia than an historical reality. And crucially, with Media Events in mind, his unitary account of the public sphere overlooks the existence of multiple publics.

Media Events suggests that between the very sound notion of systemic liberal public life and the crucial critical insight that there are multiple publics; there are multiple publics that are centered by the collective televisual rituals of media events. There are multiple publics that are centered into a Sphere of Publics, which attract various degrees of attention significantly broadened by ceremonial television. The media events that Dayan and Katz consider demonstrate this: the conquests of Sadat in Jerusalem, and Pope John Paul II in Poland, the contests in sports and politics, from the Olympics to the Senate Watergate Committee to the events of democratic political rituals of nominations and elections, and the coronations of Queen Elizabeth II, the homecoming of General Douglas MacArthur (the first such televised event) and democratic inaugurations. Those who observe, talk about, and act in response to such events make up the broadest of publics. They take part in many other publics, but these media events create broad central publics to which they all have a connection. It is that connection that we are now missing, it would seem.

This suggests a crisis in solidarity, along with a destructive transformation of the spheres of publics. It leads me to wonder whether there is a digital equivalent of televisual media events to be found somewhere in the universe of twitter or Facebook where acts of solidarity can be found. Are there networked ceremonial acts beyond the algorithms of marketing?

But before we sink into despair, we should take note. Habermas developed a critical perspective that highlighted how the mass media, along with the development of the welfare state, undermined the great historical achievement of a liberal public sphere. He came to understand that he was wrong in this critique, that a public sphere could be sustained both with an extensive welfare state and with the mass media, with television at its center. He came to understand that a democratic public life required television, though much of it had problematic features. Dayan and Katz analyzed a social dimension Habermas never understood. While he recognized the empirical reality that television played a significant role in liberal democracy, he did not give a theoretical account for this. Media Events did.

Jeffrey Goldfarb

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