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Digital Media and Democracy: Tactics in Hard Times

Editor: Megan Boler
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008
Review Published: November 2009

 REVIEW 1: J. Patrick Biddix
 REVIEW 2: Mary K. Bryson
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Megan Boler

The future is already here -- it's just not evenly distributed.
William Gibson, quoted in The Economist, December 4, 2003, p. 127.
It has been interesting to (re)read Megan Boler's fabulous edited collection, Digital Media and Democracy: Tactics in Hard Times, juxtaposed with the daily spectacle of the ubiquitously co-mingled presence of both social media and quotidian violence and political oppression in Iran (June, 2009). Stories abound concerning the key role played by bloggers, hacks, Twitter, and other networked media events in the mobilization of attention, or what the Washington Times called, "Iran's Twitter Revolution." Those of us who have been somewhat ambivalent about positing any uniformly positive relation between democratization and media might seriously consider whether here we have the definitive test case. Protests are being organized with the assistance of blogs and tweets, cell phone videos of oppressive military interventions to quash opposition are being widely circulated, and citizen-based DIY journalism is surpassing commercial outlets in timeliness and accuracy. There is also hard evidence concerning the particular vulnerability of social media to surveillance and therefore, to premature foreclosure of transformative effects. Clearly, what media scholars require in order to make sense of the vexed questions concerning the impact and role of social media within what we might call practices and contexts of democratization is a really precise and comprehensive theoretical toolkit. Digital Media and Democracy gives us a great deal of conceptual mileage and takes us some distance towards the articulation of a broad set of related constructs and theoretical models.

My comments here are, of course, and it is important to note, constrained by my major theoretical preoccupations -- democratization, difference, public media, and, in particular, the critical project of unthinking neoliberal stories of a progressive modernity. I hope that my comments point to emergent edges of scholarship, places of persistent stuckness, massive disagreement, and sometimes awkward silences and gaps -- all of which are likely good to think with as we make our way into the present of the future imperfect of media studies.

Digital Media and Democracy is an ambitious collection of essays that takes on the role of social media in the remediation of a participatory culture wherein a greater range of voices can partake in the shaping of public meaning and of a public sphere. Boler's collection addresses itself primarily but not exclusively to what we might call journalistic media rather than to the role of social networks more broadly. The book is divided into three sections, with the first third dedicated to cultural and political analyses of media publics within the various spaces of global capitalism.

Alessandra Renzi's chapter, "The Space of Tactical Media," for example, takes seriously the problems associated with the very act itself of calling into visibility, and therefore into precise definitional articulation, the transient and shapeshifting entity commonly referred to as "tactical media." Renzi draws on a the Deleuzian notion of "minor knowledge production" and on Michael Warner's powerful construct of "counterpublics" to theorize what she calls, enigmatically, "spaces where tactical things happen" (75). Renzi's analysis of the uses by artists and activists of DIY media within "contact zones" or what we might call re/mediated agency, is relational, locative, and non-identitarian. And so Renzi concludes that the spaces of tactical media provide locations and relations for the enactment of temporally constrained modes of critique and subjectivity.

Jodi Dean's prescient analysis ("Communicative Capitalism") of the key distinctions between "politics as the circulation of content" and "politics as the activity of officials" zeroes in on a key question that has enormous implications for any consideration of social media as a mode of democratic engagement. Dean's argument concerning the key distinction between "publicity" and a "public" undermines any simple (Habermasian) association between opportunities for communication and expression and opportunities for meaningful engagement in political action. With her by-now classic trenchant style, Dean concludes that the proliferation of communication made possible by social media "far from enhancing democratic governance of resistance, results in precisely the opposite, the postpolitical formation of communicative capitalism" (102). For Dean, networked media prove to be a significant element in the intensification of wealth within globalization and so, "communicative capitalism ... take(s) material form in networked communications" (104). Dean's observations about what she terms, aptly, the fetishistic function of networked technologies emphasize the displacement of actual political action by technologically mediated virtual actions -- participatory actions that, she argues, permit the disavowal of the very real political problems and that foreclose the arena of politics itself.

Ronald Deibert's chapter on the architecture of the Internet ("Black Code Redux") deals with the myriad ways in which "the communications environment cannot be taken for granted" (139). Deibert's major concerns are censorship, surveillance, and the intensification of pressures following widespread digitization of networked content to regulate intellectual property and copyright. Deibert's discussion of the steady erosion of Net neutrality by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (US/1998) and by Internet censorship filtering practices, focuses on the deleterious impact of regulatory activity on the architecture of the Internet itself. Diebert's careful and nuanced discussion of the complexities both of net architecture itself, and of Internet governance, embodies precisely the depth of treatment that this critical subject entails. Although not a subject of the chapter, it is Diebert and the Citizen Lab he directs, at the University of Toronto, that has created the Psiphon tool that allows Internet communication to bypass and evade surveillance practices, and that has been recently cited as a major contributor to the ability of Iranian citizens to communicate online under increasingly oppressive regulatory conditions and practices.

The second section is entitled The Changing Face of New Media and provides various accounts of tactical media, media activism, participatory forms of citizen journalism, and the like, and includes several excellent and very interesting interviews with tactical media producers. In an interview with Amy Goodman, host and producer of Democracy Now, Megan Boler takes up key questions that animate the entire book pertaining to the impact of the Internet on democratization. For Goodman, the particular power of the media democracy movement is "authentic voices," or put another way, "humanity responding to humanity" (204). When Boler asks Goodman about how it is that she envisages a possible contradiction between politicization, self-expressions, and "fairness and accuracy" the argument about objectivity and "having a political stake" doesn't go very far, and collapses under the exigencies of the rhetorical force of something like the power of pluralism. An effective critique of a "celebratory approach to alternative media" is provided by Chris Atton ("Alternative Media Theory and Journalism Practice"). Atton's chapter outlines how it is that a critical media studies approach can provide a rigorous analysis of the actual practices of alternative media production. The interviews with Hassan Ibrahim (of Al Jazeera English) and with Shaina Anand (of ChitraKarKhana, a DIY, independent media unit based in Mumbai), provide extensive discussion of both the norms and the practices that undergird locations of media activism and of news circulation that contest Western-dominated commercial journalism and provide important alternate voices and local narratives.

The third section of the book, Tactics in Action, focuses on actual contexts where tactical media are employed to great effect. Boler and Turpin's chapter, "The Daily Show and Crossfire," for example, provides an analysis and fascinating discussion of the political efficacy and force of irony where an ironic relation to the "society of the spectacle" allows our own complicity to take on a critical edge and in so doing, "offers the potential for thinking new possible relations within the social and political registers" (387). For Boler and Turpin, Jon Stewart's The Daily Show "speaks truth to power" and in so doing, provides a rhetorical address that situates itself as complicitous with spectacular society and its media excesses. For Boler and Turpin, Stewart's use of political satire opens up an affective space that provides a new politics for engaged and critical forms of journalism.

At the end of Precarious Life, Judith Butler proposed to "reinvigorate the intellectual projects of critique" and "create a sense of the public in which oppositional voices are not feared, degraded or dismissed" (151). She asserts that cultural criticism's task is to "return us to the human where we do not expect to find it" (151). Media occasion new theories of the possible. And one of the places where we need to rethink some of the key constructs we work with is around impassioned uses of two axiomatic terms -- publics and participation -- to frame arguments about social change and civic media.

Frequently, the invocations of publics and participation by the various chapter authors in Digital Media and Democracy seem a little too close to an uncritical deployment of what political theorists refer to as populism -- that self expression is the engine that brings about political change for the embattled. Lest we forget, a very good example of populist politics mobilized by then new media was the pre-Weimar Nazi party and on the current front, it is populism, publics, and Facebook that gave us Proposition 8 in California. The various discussions of democratization in Digital Media and Democracy are primarily oriented to uses of language, and to the variety of forms of expression facilitated by social media. We might here be less discursively focused altogether following Karen Barad's (2003) lead. Barad's emphasis on non-linguistic modes of narrating the posthuman shift the explanatory focus in talking about relations between people and objects away from an excessive reliance on linguistic signs -- language or more specifically, discourse as the primary remediation zone -- the stairway to agency -- and towards the multitude of things and their relationalities and organizing practices.

The exciting work assembled in Digital Media and Democracy indicates lines of flight for thinking very carefully about the complexities of media within the transitive spheres of globalization. This book would be an excellent selection for an advanced undergraduate or graduate course in the humanities and social sciences, especially those courses with a particular emphasis on new media, communication, and the complex politics of democratization.

Barad, K. (2003). Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 28, no. 3.

Butler, J. (2004). Precarious Life. New York, NY: Verso.

Mary K. Bryson:
Mary Bryson (Professor, Education, UBC) is a theorist of cultural studies of gender and sexuality, networked technologies and their role in the mobilization of knowledge, and the production of accessible public spaces. Mary Bryson is also the Director of the Center for Cross Faculty Inquiry in Education.   <mary.bryson@ubc.ca>

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