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Understanding Media in Dark Times

The extensions of men and women

The authoritarian threat in the United States and its resistance are actively being constituted through media, and the whole world is not only watching: it is actively participating.

The Presidency of Donald Trump is not imaginable without Twitter. But also Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and, this week, the nation wide walk out of students against gun violence are not imaginable without social media. And all of this is carefully reported on television, radio and newspapers.

This, of course, is not a case of American exceptionalism. It is happening everywhere, with important variations on authoritarian and resistance themes. These are radically mediated dark times, with mediated resistance.

“Media and journalism shape publics for good and (often) for ill,” as Chris Anderson, Shannon Mattern and Julia Sonnevend, the new editors of Public Seminar’s Media/Publics vertical put it. We have re-dedicated ourselves to systematically explore the two sides of the Media/Publics coin, from a variety of different perspectives, elegantly made clear in posts published in recent weeks.

Anderson is thinking about the problems of public life and the media now, reflecting on the challenges confronted by critical analysts of the twentieth century, and also recalling the optimism that he and many others had concerning the liberating potential of digital media not so long ago. He reminds us that facts alone will not set us free, that art and culture, and not only politics, are domains of struggle, that the question of the transformation of capitalism and the pursuit of social justice come in both reformist and revolutionary forms (at least theoretically), and that the defense of democracy has a problematic relationship with the actually existing “democracy” in America.

Mattern is exploring the ever expanding capacities of media and critically appraising them with her students. She understands that she is working with colleagues in a “myriad of programs and practitioners demonstrat[ing] that there’s much behind the screen, much beneath that flattened pool of ‘content’ — and that, in order to understand our contemporary media landscape, to navigate within today’s information environment, we have to practice methodological pluralism and situate ourselves within an expanded field.” I am particularly intrigued by her interest in how “media constitute geographies, infrastructures, and publics.”

While Anderson invites us to join him in exploring the continuities of cultural and political challenges, Mattern invites us to understand that along with these continuities, there are radical discontinuities, observable in the new configurations of media.

It is in this context that I appreciate Julia Sonnevend’s appreciation of the essay as a cultural form. She declares: “Conversation may or may not be the soul of democracy — but the essay is. Essays are about gray-zones, multi-layered meanings, ambiguity.” Music to the ears of this Gray Friday essayist, of course. But more than that she speaks to her co-editors’ interests and our general problem of dealing with media publics in dark times.

There is a sense that plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (the more things change the more they stay the same). The struggle against tyranny and for democracy has many continuities, especially I believe concerning the relationships between truth and politics (more on that next week). But there are new things under the sun, as Mattern underscores. Media are transforming the way we meet each other, come to know the world and actually constitute the world: not as we have known it, but in the way it is coming to be. It’s all multilayered, filled with ambiguities and ambivalences, and given that the stakes are quite often very high, with profound challenges, some of it clearly visible in everyday life, some of it hidden in code.

Those challenges are at the center of a course Sonnevend and I are teaching, a continuation of a course Daniel Dayan and I have taught, Media and Micropolitics. Posts from the course are coming very soon (the first is scheduled for next week), including ones responding to Dayan’s work, which we are now studying. Sonnevend and I are learning a great deal from the participants of the seminar and are looking forward to sharing their work here.

The challenges also are addressed in Barbie Zelizer’s essay “Putting Journalistic Ideals Back in the Service of Practice.” Originally the plenary keynote for the International Federation of Journalists and the Human Rights Commission of Qatar, Doha, July 2017, the piece highlights the struggles journalists have in trying to be journalists, facing harsh obstacles, using the case of Al Jazeera and Qatar as her starting point.

Actually practiced journalism, she underscores, is not as it is imagined in a textbook or in a theoretical debate about its ideals in J – School seminars, largely informed by Western experience as it is idealized. Rather, journalism as a vocation is practiced facing hard realities. In my terms, I would say a free and critical press, which supports democratic developments and a relatively free public life, is always a gray accomplishment, involving compromises and struggle. The struggle is to maintain a relatively independent press that develops on its own principled terms, independent of political and economic constraints. I described how this works comparatively long ago in my book On Cultural Freedom. I think it is quite exciting that Zelizer is leading a new Center for Media at Risk at the Annenberg School of Communication and the University of Pennsylvania concerned with the issues she raised here. I hope her post is just the first of our collaborations.

The title of this post is a variation on the title of the media studies classic Understanding Media; The Extensions of Man by Marshal McLuhan. Of course, if the book were written today the title would have been differently formulated, to include women, but further, even that presents problems for the people left out, who don’t fit into easy gender categories. That said, there is the central point: media continue to extend our capacities, our senses, but also our capacities to do good and evil, and they are the changing platforms upon which we engage in enduring human struggles, opening new opportunities for social change, social justice and democracy, but also closing them, and making matters worse.

My gray conclusion for this sunny Friday on understanding media: even black and white television was made up of grays. With this in mind, I promise that next week I will push the normative argument further, addressing the issue of the relationship between black and white, and gray, in ways I have been suggesting these past few months. I will state my position as clearly as I can, arguing for the intellectual and political need for a radical center, informed by my critical reflections on our experiences at Public Seminar.

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Jeffrey C. Goldfarb

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