How do we engage with non-media centric media studies? Talk at FSMK conference

What: The Swedish Association for Media and Communication Research (FSMK) conference, panel ‘How do we engage with non-media centric media studies?”

Where: Department of Informatics and Media, Uppsala University

When: 4 May 2018

My doctoral project, in essence, deals with three larger areas: participation, media, and discourse theory. To be more precise, it explores participation – in media – through the lens of discourse theory.

Now, I would carefully assume that for those of us who study participation, it is its democratic and emancipatory ethos, not the field of its application, that matters in the first place. Almost a hundred years ago, George Douglas Howard Cole argued that the democratic principle  needs to be applied “not only or mainly to some special sphere of social action known as ‘politics’, but to any and every form of social action”. Indeed, media is one of the many spheres where power relations are at play. These tend to be unequal power relations, and they need to be studied and, if possible, remedied. But media is not the point of departure; the democratic principle is.

With this normative understanding in mind, let me say a couple of things on what the PhD project is about. I study participation in alternative media communities. By alternative media communities I mean groups of citizens that aim at bringing visibility to marginalized social and political groups as native reporters, relatively unconstrained by more rigid structures of traditional media. Given that many alternative media tend to strive for a more flat organizational structure, they become an important locus for participatory processes and power struggles, and that’s what obviously what catches the eye of a participation scholar.

My first case study is located in Russia, my home country. It is a radical left-wing community Avtonom that positions itself primarily as anarchist, but declares its commitment to a variety of other causes on the Left: antifascism, feminism, antimilitarism, and so on. They used to be a part of a broader libertarian communist community, but because the movement has been in decline in the past years, the media project has developed a significant degree of autonomy. The media project is keen on distributing news of the marginalized community whose voices are absent in mainstream state media, but also in mainstream liberal opposition media. But it is also their mode of operation that is noteworthy: the platform provides tools for anyone to upload their texts directly. No pre-moderation is needed. There are control mechanisms to take these materials down, which is when the participatory dynamics become especially visible. But the golden rule is that readers should be able to submit their texts directly. This is noteworthy because media communities, at least in Russia, don’t do this very often.

The study follows the discourse-theoretical tradition that privileges social contingency and conflict as ontological categories. So, it views participation as a floating signifier whose content and meaning depends on a variety of ongoing struggles between actors of participatory processes. So, rather than working with a well-defined meaning of participation in the first place, I explore the ongoing construction of meaning of participation through the complex interplay of discursivity and corporeality. I call this performance of participation: decisions taken by the community are enacted through and supported by material practices and affordances, such as space, technology and, importantly, the activists’ own bodies, but are also identifying with the variety of discourses flowing in the social field. Performances of these material and signifying practices enable activists to define their subject positions and legitimize particular participatory intensities. To be sure, these happen in the context of continuous discursive struggles in the field crisscrossed with antagonisms, to use Laclau and Mouffe’s expression. As an outcome of these struggles, a temporary discursive stability is achieved.

I could talk at an even greater length about my theoretical framework but there is only so much time I have, so let me go back to something more relevant for our discussion today: non-media-centrism. The reason I’m spending time sketching out my PhD project is to emphasize the multiplicity of struggles located in alternative media communities. These are struggles for roles to be defined, for political identities to be articulated, for voices to be heard… Media, once again, becomes the arena where these struggles take place, and perhaps nowhere are they as visible as in alternative media.

Yet, in order to understand the participatory affordances of alternative media, media per se is probably a wrong place to start. The subject of alternative media production often ends up split in two: it is, on the one hand, an activist subject that defines themselves through signifying practices on the level of the political: anarchist, feminist, ecologist, and so on. But it also is a media subject, deciding on procedures, roles, and responsibilities in the distribution of information.

The quote I used in this talk’s title belongs to one of my informants. He referred to the fact that the media project used to belong to a broader political movement, but has achieved more autonomy since the movement has declined. He, as well as others on his platform, rejects the distinction between media activists and political activists. Participatory subject positions of my informants are not defined solely in the process of co-decision-making. In order to understand participation on the platform, one has to look at broader political discourses where these positions get defined.

Another informant, one of the key contributors to the platform, said to me: “Ever since the foundation of our movement we have tried to propagate the idea that anarchism is not only a political utopia, but an extended chain of views: antimilitarism, antifascism, feminism, and so on.” Here, we see how the very conditions of inclusion – the key premise of participation – become dependent on discourses lying outside of media per se. On a very basic level, don’t only need to be an anarchist, you need to perform the ‘right’ version of anarchism. And that is to say that participatory subject positions within the community are performed through a variety of acts, many of which have nothing to do with media production per se.

In this sense, alternative media are certainly an arena where power relations are at play. But to approach them analytically, one needs to begin with the multitude of discursive struggles that both permeate and constrain decision-making processes. This is an analytic approach, but this also reminds us that media do not necessarily have any special privilege in the social analysis – but rather, in line with Cole, are one of many social fields where the democratic principle needs to be applied.

Thank you.

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