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Review of Megan Boler, Digital Media and Democracy: Tactics in Hard Times

 

Do digital media technologies present the potential for the shaping of political discourse that differs from traditional forms of media, like newsprint?  Digital media is examined in Boler’s volume as a political force that shapes our perceptions. Digital Media and Democracy contextualizes the force of digital media and offers a relevant survey of the topic for both the novice and the expert.  Sources of political discourses are copious, from bourgeois philosophy to civil society to state-centered information dispensers. Institutionalized mass media, however, stands out as the most salient source. Technologies like newsprint, radio, and television have long been forces that transmit discourses between those in power and the general public (Anderson 1984: Hall 1977). The book contextualizes the political dynamics, structures, and modalities of digital media.

Covering a vast range of topics, like The Daily Show, white supremacy, and the militarization of cyberspace, Digital Media and Democracy applies expert scholarly analysis to understancd “the rapidly changing face of media use, production, and practices” (31). Oscillating between pessimism and optimism this volume is concerned foremost with the intersection of media and democracy.  Editor Megan Boler, professor at the University of Toronto, demonstrates that media cannot be described simply with adjectives like “honest, “; “exploitative”; “public”; or “commercial”. New forms of media operate in a very murky area between liberation and subjugation. This book provides a valuable critique of modern media institutions and their effects on political realities.

Alessandra Renzi’s opening chapter analyzes “Tactical Media”(TM) as an alternative form. TM “are expressions of dissent that rely on artistic practices and ‘do it yourself’ (DIY) media created from readily available, relatively cheap technology”(71). Renzi’s focus is how new media can get produced outside of the conventional axis of institutionalized power. One example is a Sao Paulo group of activists, called Mídia Táctica, who demonstrate the “centerless” nature of TM. They developed their own form of TM described as “Digitofagia”. based on the Brazilian artistic tradition of anthropophagy, where software and media technology are recuperated, consumed, and repurposed for local uses. What resulted are media forms freely accessible to marginalized communities (82). Mídia Táctica, like other TM projects, uses language and mediums in order to subvert the legitimacy of established mainstream media sources. Renzi, thinking in terms of Arjun Appaduri (1996), constructs a theoretical “mediascape” where everyday political relationships can be studied in terms of a constantly and sometimes confusingly redefined semiotic space of alternative political action.

Digital Media and Democracy does not focus only on the beneficial and agentive possibilities of new media. A discussion of capitalism, politics and the media by Jodi Dean provides examples of this book’s extensive analytic reach. Utilizing Žižek’s concept of “post-politics”(1999), Dean examines a “fantasy of participation” (109) that arises with Web 2.0 technologies. Dean notes that media is fetishized as inherently democratic, inclusionary, and participatory. Yet the plethora of media content being produced actually creates something more akin to a riot of information and opinion than a productive and accessible stream of news. Introducing “communicative capitalism”, Dean states “the use value of a message is less important than its exchange value, its contribution to a larger pool, flow, or circulation of content. A contribution need not be understood; it needs only be repeated, reproduced, forwarded” (108). In the age of digital media the relentless flow of content and reiteration of ideas creates a semblance of participation that, in reality, causes the individual user and consumer to disengage with real world political practices. Digital media pacifies the public with an abundance of information, denying any practical and agentive political action.

As Dean’s and Renzi’s chapters suggest, this book offers both pessimistic and optimistic takes on digital media. Hassan Ibrahim, a journalist for Al Jazeera English, highlights how some journalists and media institutions are attempting to negotiate an obstructive and politicized media climate so as to maintain ethical relevancy. Ibrahim admits upfront  that Al Jazeera “is not free of agendas and free of special interests” (304). Ibrahim and his colleagues use their privileged positions within it to fend off innuendo, rumor, and political interference. Ibrahim finds most institutions are structured like “news machines”(304) more than centers of journalism. Mainstream outlets like CNN, BBC, and Fox News cater to political interests and lowest common denominator rather than to the production of ethical and valuable media. In contrast, you have what Ibrahim considers “multi-cultural platforms” like Al Jazeera. These media sources examine issues and opinions that are often subordinated or ignored by other media sources. Although Al Jazeera’s institutional framework, one out of reach of Western corporate influence, is neither ideal nor unique, it nonetheless provides a good counter-example.

Sophie Statzel examination of white-supremacist websites provides an excellent example of ethnography online. Statzel describes online hate communities discussing race, nationalism, and subjectivity. Anthropology usually has a paradigmatic focus oriented towards smaller communities, marginalized individuals, and non-western contexts. There is a decisively Western, or “northern”, tone throughout Digital Media and Democracy. Only three chapters of nineteen deal with non-Northern sites.  The contributors to this collection might argue, and rightly so, that many of the issues outlined in this book are global issues and remain relevant because of their wide-reaching nature. However, as the Renzi article concerning TM points out, examining how forms of media are articulated on the ground and away from powerful media institutions offers a productive insight into the agentive and “alternative” processes of clever marginalized producers.

Moreover, while examining The Daily Show and Democracy Now! afford a compelling perspective on how people seek alternative commentary on burning issues, these cases are limited to English-language, US-oriented audiences. I am aware of formats similar to The Daily Show in countries like Argentina and Iran. The analytical value of these programs is the challenging re-contextualization of their media and political environments. This is not to say that I find limited value in studies concerning a global “Northern” context. Rather, future media studies would be well served by a greater consideration for the global South.

Tom Boellstorff’s discussion of gay and lesbian subjectivities does show us how to address issues of ethnographic perspective, western bias, and the situated consumption of media. Boellstorff demonstrates that the consumption of globalized media takes on new meanings for gay and lesbian communities in Indonesia. Globalized media have helped to create a politicized and alternative subjectivity through an agentive consumption and not through production. À la a derridian “signature even context” (1977), these communities have given new meaning to discourse through rearticulation and reinterpretation, and not through repurposing or blind consumption.

Digital Media and Democracy analyzes the institutional locations where knowledge is created, circulated, and embedded. Before anyone can describe the creation of individual subjectivity, they must contextualize the individual within a broader field of practice. This volume provides a fantastic introduction for those beginning to examine digital media. As Digital Media and Democracy reminds us, no one ought to feel immune to the authority that intersects and transcends institutional technologies. We must always examine how our own biases and political positions are molded by digital media.

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