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Review Essay: Symbolic Politics: The Chiaroscuro World of Media and Democratic Participation

Laura Iannelli. Hybrid Politics. Media and Participation. London: Sage, 2016.

Dan Mercea. Civic Participation in Contentious Politics: The Digital Foreshadowing of Protest. London: Macmillan, 2016

Laura Iannelli’s review of research literature on media and democratic participation is a worthy reference book, yet one offering sophisticated analysis and asking important questions. She argues that “newer” media (social media internet sites, interactive internet news) are not superseding “older” media (broadcast news, newspapers) but rather are interacting with them in important and tricky ways. “Older” media remain powerful and often determinative of the frameworks and possibilities for resistance. Hybridity, as used here, attends to the way fields and frameworks become constructed, as evidenced in the internet typically being treated as a separate site of politics. The study of these media in isolation, as she indicates, clearly risks “analytical fallacies.” So hybridity studies caution us against one-dimensionality and assert that dialogue between frameworks produces more accurate and insightful social scientific observations, and better serve democratic participation.

Hybridity studies freely cross levels and categories as, for example, when elites and non-elites form hybrid content across media via ‘dual screening’ (e.g. using mobile devices to watch broadcast media) that can be used to check facts or to comment critically on, say, Fox or MSNBC broadcasts. Today online discussions of politics on mainstream television often occur simultaneously with broadcasts. Indeed her focus on the case study research on the use of Twitter throws into question usual top-down and bottom-up constructs in media. To the contrary, these constructs combine as when content from ‘bottom’ bloggers, fans, and ‘activists’ is picked up and spread by parties, think tanks, and major media. The key thesis here is that social media platforms add to, rather than substitute for, existing power relationships. Hybridity of this kind nonetheless can form a preliminary stage for a synthetic or total conception of new logics of participation.

Mercea and Iannelli, like chiaroscuro artists, use dark areas to illuminate their complex subjects. The hybridity literature rejects the notion that “old media” participation necessarily is false and ineffective. Audiences can “poach” media texts, that is, “participate both in the symbolic struggles over the dominant meanings of the cultural media texts, and in the production, curation, and circulation of new media texts.”[i] The questions then are why democratic agents must resort to this subterfuge, and how successful they are at it. Henry Jenkins acknowledges deep skepticism about the possibility of real change occurring via interpretive guerrilla tactics.[ii] Iannelli responds by citing the example of poaching by the Spanish party Podemos’s Pablo Iglesias, who analyzed the Spanish scene through ‘Game of Thrones’, using the media’s own deceptive entertainment to elucidate political reality.

The multidisciplinarity within a general template symbolic interactionism is difficult to grasp, and Iannelli does a fine job of discussing ways in which disciplines should inform each other, attenuate demarcations, and how interactions might generate fruitful areas of study. The intellectual heritage of “structuralism” strongly runs throughout Ianelli’s overview. From symbolic interactionism through Bourdieu’s “social capital”, Saussurian and Tel Quel-inspired semiotics to symbol-based analysis and the adaptation of Marxian language to media as “the ownership of the means of production of symbolic forms,” this language of the symbolic, in this case, is infused, unlike many other studies, with a sober awareness of structuralist critique so as to bring it down to earth.

Ianneli and Dan Mercea are concerned with the decline of modern democracy and with recent anti-Enlightenment trends, but the use of the language of the symbolic to answer questions of how media promote democratic participation, act against it, or both, must beweighed critically, since symbolic politics has been defined as “a publicly displayed deception that is used to detract from actual political reality.”[iii] The symbolic approach though tries to maintain an Enlightenment aspect in its search for democracy and in its belief in the value of social scientific research in furthering this aim, while the research acknowledges a “darker” side to everyday life in liberal democracies. Acknowledging this “dark” side helps us to identify mechanisms by which anti-democracy forces operate, and uses this awareness to refine critical research and tactics.

Hybrid Politics, however, tacitly favors liberal reformism over revolutionary ideas. The hopefulness of symbolic politics is to be found in what amounts to spotting ‘flecks of light,’ each instance having emancipatory potential. Hence, this approach equivocates between dark and light – an image, Mercea states, that “evades the bombast of either downhearted despondency or unbridled optimism.”[iv] Iannelli’s highly conceptual work focuses on the relations between media and sites of action. The domain of what she terms communication ecologies is social movements, which run parallel to but often are inconsequential regarding real configurations of political power.[v] While one may hope that communication ecologies produce a new participatory culture, while avoiding a McLuhanesque fetishization of technology, their contribution looks to be just that – a hope.

Iannelli and like-minded scholars want to be objective yet also champion participatory democracy, so they accordingly must question their own enterprise. Does ‘symbolic’ discourse exacerbate the very problems it describes? How much radicalism is permissible, and at what cost to objectivity? Are hybrid forms of power the same as power itself, or exist only as concepts? Social scientific research evidences a certain liberal tepidity with regard to justice and to real democracy. Can research within liberal state idioms aid meaningful participation? Is it possible to study the presidential campaign of Barack Obama in 2008, as Andrew Chadwick does,[vi], without endorsing establishment power? One risks studying only the epiphenomena of power.

Iannelli begins with Chantal Mouffe’s ‘agonistic’ politics, while Mercea ends with Mouffe but is critical of her attempt to radicalize liberalism via agonism. For Mouffe ‘politics is the continuation of war by other means lite’,[vii] while Iannelli describes ‘the political’ as “consigning conflict to the sphere of symbolic exchanges.” But Mouffe, Ianelli and Mercea all want to have it both ways, that is, to ‘radicalize pluralist democracy’ while brushing away revolutionary thought. To perform this sleight of hand, revolutionary snippets are deployed (‘the means of production of symbolic forms’). So research then sounds friendly to radical ideas while actually casting them into the shadows.. Even more problematic is an unwitting adoption of counterrevolutionary discourse. Mouffe buys into some conservative propaganda, such as “the death of communism” (i.e. the end of all radical alternatives). Mouffe and Iannelli insist they want radical action but do not want an organized left (not even revisionism, thank you), and instead want to replace it with mediated symbolic forms.

An example of mediated forms is “jamming,” which is the subversive use of advertising, media symbols and narratives, turning meanings upside down or inside out – except that not only dissenters employ it. When the Democratic Party passes as “left”, when the pre-Corbyn Labour Party virtually scorns laborers, and when the Parti Socialiste in France ceases to be a socialist party while still bearing the name, ‘jamming’ then supports discourses of counter-democracy. Observational research unaccompanied by revolutionary intent or action risks reifying its own categories, and thus becoming an agent of the foe, especially when tried and true organizing tactics have been deemed obsolete. Here Mouffe unhelpfully urges a search for forms of democratic participation which do not require formation of a revolutionary class.[viii]

Iannelli stresses that subversive media effects possess liberatory potential. Yet one must ask whether studying media’s sites of resistance is a distraction from an exploitative historical situation which cannot be changed by reformism, and further ask whether cultivating “sites of resistance” within a “mediatized” political machine is a panacea. One can expend great effort seeking incremental gains in media sites of symbolic resistance, which themselves are indelible parts of an anti-democratic power structure. Yet many of the champions of this approach want to depict media-manufactured meanings as subjective and without prior constraints, in contrast to, for example, ideology theory[ix] The problem then is that symbolic resistance of this pallid kind actually aids enemies of democracy, and a focus on the media without examining other key elements of anti-democratic ideology, such as religion and the education system, risks leaving us with irrelevant or incomplete analyses.

Mercea analyzes the relationship between digital media networks and manifestations of democratic participation. His case studies are Occupy Den Haag (Netherlands), Stop A.C.T.A.[x] (worldwide), Save Rosia Montana (Romania), and the Camp for Climate Action (U.K). The preceding work of W. Lance Bennett and Alexandra Segerberg[xi] is central, auguring a transformation in collective action. Mercea is hopeful about communication ecologies, which are forms of participation more individuated and less dependent on political organizations; methods of doing politics that are less “brokered.” Mercea, like Iannelli, is attempting to find out how “the networked communication of contention may help reassess and revitalize democracy.” What he turns up isn’t all that promising.

Mercea argues that protest is becoming more ‘casual’ and personalized, in contrast to familiar forms which are the province of established organizations. The book proceeds to examine participatory coordination and “informal civic learning”, decision-making in protest organizations using social media, and use of networked communication to create new modalities of participation, such as Facebook and Twitter, Mercea questions Bennett and Segerberg’s proposition that the informal transient organizations erected on social media mirror and match the coordination capacities of traditional protest organizations Mercea ultimately is critical of interpreting this research approach as portending a “counterdemocracy.”

In 1970 Carole Pateman called for attentiveness to the sociological evidence regarding democratic participation[xii]. Mercea’s argument, like Iannelli’s, is centered in sociological research but begins with the questionable assumption that protest has greatly increased in the last twenty years. This observation involves redefining protest. In tandem with this assumption is a shift of conceptual focus from social movements to what Mercea nebulously calls “contentious politics”. The obvious question is what “politics” is if it is not contentious? Mercea, unlike some radical feminists, does not address this inherent redundancy. Mercea also bypasses the question of the fraught relationship between theory and social and political research, even if he mentions in passing Hannah Arendt’s theorization of the necessity to the political of that which is new, that which has not yet been experienced.[xiii]

Mercea trusts in multidisciplinary social scientific research to best elucidate questions. Out of this research should come new logics of (networked, communicative) action. Mercea prefers to ignore the overarching world which determines the very possibility or impossibility of certain logics in favor of a focus on the scintillae of new knowledge that non-traditional democratic actors’ networked communication that lead to meaningful new trajectories and patterns of participation.

Revolutions and social movements are carried out by relatively few, in terms of actions which make a difference. A problem for the left, organized and otherwise, is how to attract new active participants. Contentious Politics proposes ‘protest camps’ as one means of making “claims,” one of many means in “action repertoires” of protest groups. Mercea asks for more research into promoting democratic form of claims-making, and this quest is a valuable one. “It is interesting to look at social media constituencies as a possibly disenfranchised area of movement organization called upon to enact decisions on collective action in whose making they will not participate.” The “casual protestors” then would respond to techniques of enfranchisement provided by networked communication. Mercea is interested in the ways protest camps “might mobilize audiences which are otherwise disconnected from the issue at hand…” Mercea, though, reports dispiriting results regarding the unaffiliated. He reports that networked communication was no lynchpin in the crystallizing a collective identity among FânFest participants, and, as for mobilization “the unaffiliated did not tend to use the internet to recruit others, as did the affiliated”.[xiv]

Authenticity and Effectiveness

Mercea’s ‘digital prefigurative protest’ research is interwoven with questions that are valid within the research’s own discourse, and yet one cannot help but discern the almost stubbornly symbolic nature of these questions. In chiaroscuro painting, artists vary the values of light and dark to bring their subjects into dramatic clarity. Most prominently, the technique uses the faces of figures. Faces, consistent with the discourse of the symbolic and its signification, are considered in human consciousness as a symbol, or outward presentation, and behind them is the less accessible mind or the brain, the locus of personhood. Mercea runs the risk of illuminating only faces in a narrative that eschews important questions. What is authentic in a person is not determined by the face, or an institution by its surface, no matter how much light is shone on it or at what angle.

Shouldn’t the question of authentic participation be central? We otherwise run the risk of overvaluing logics of action which are utterly irrelevant to power politics. In his treatment of prefigurative protest, Mercea elides the entire history and discourse of revolutionary politics in favor of the pure theorization of a symbolic order. Thus, the prefigurative jettisons moral action which aims to live as if true democracy already existed for a world of prefabricated political discourses. Mercea’s prefigurative is something which does not know where it is going, except in the wrong direction: “For many of the theoreticians of prefigurative politics, the problems presented by revolutionary politics can be avoided by simply redefining them out of existence.”[xv]

Authenticity is an important question. While it might it be argued that these book sidelines or ignore this question, both Mercea and Iannelli have compiled an enormous amount of research, and not every question can be asked. Researchers in the social sciences narrow their focus and choose their questions, with the idea that it is the research taken altogether that elucidates. And yet, two problems emerge here. The first is a practical problem of recent protest in Western countries. This protest, as a whole, has been a disaster as measured by effectiveness. Moreover, the extremist forces of anti-democracy, through false frameworks and other tactics, have made protest ineffective or rendered them in the service of an anti-democratic agenda. The second problem is the question of social science research contributing to the antidemocratic phenomena, as it in fact measures epiphenomena which the reification of (non-revolutionary) establishment ideologies and methods have produced in the first place. In terms of social science itself, the question is whether effectiveness is a suitable criterion, and my answer is that it can be. In Egypt in 2011 the protests inspired by Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution shifted the basis on which political science poses its questions, and the audience to which political science presents its research, from the state to the revolution.[xvi] Such a shift can discredit legitimization of the state or its apparatuses.

Closer to home, the Occupy ‘movement’ was a protest amped with heavy use of social media. Mercea examines new recruitment, finding that even “a loose activist collective identity did not appear to be absolutely central to participation” and that “mobilisation into activism and the formation of a collective identity, it would seem, have stubbornly remained the province of unmediated socialisation.” The research Mercea considers and undertakes wants to break barriers to civic engagement, but do new media forms really bring in newcomers? in the U.S. social media sites indeed are lighting up with troubled citizens’ concerns. So might one be hopeful that Mercea’s research foreshadows a networked movement for real change. Yet, on this score, Mercea and Iannelli both sometimes seem to insist on a forced and false optimism.. Indeed, any attempt to be optimistic looks like the generating of a secondary symbolic world, of a research discourse separating itself from reality and in love with its own irrelevant luminousness.

Adopting the discourse of ‘rights’, but mixing in revolutionary rhetoric, Occupy Den Haag members sang heartily about world peace, toying with a mélange of political lineages. I watched with dismay as a confused array of conservative, progressive, and revolutionary positions were smeared across Occupy’s palette. I also watched as, unbelievably, members of the 1% were ushered before cameras on Occupy’s livestream to address Occupy Wall Street. What was somewhat hopeful was that it was offsite neophytes participating via social media who asked, “But, aren’t these speakers the very persons against whom we are protesting?” Occupy was overwhelmed by spectacle over logic, by performance over result, which was an absence of real change. I also watched a young man from Occupy Edmonton in the bewildered center of the spotlight. It should have been easy to become enthralled with an image of an attractive fellow who symbolized a militant and progressive agenda, but he only sat there looking mesmerized by the camera, bewildered by his own mediatization, and yet elated by the sight of his own image. He symbolized what Occupy was, a “movement” that had fallen in love with itself,[xvii] and was an exemplar of ineffectiveness in a morass of internal contradictions. Internal contradictions? Is it possible that from the ashes of these ineffectual logics might emerge their active opposite? Mercea and Iannelli try to anticipate a desirable future, but moving our focus away from organizational action leaves us with a symbolic logic that obscures the nasty fact that an anti-Enlightenment, anti-democratic agenda is moving steadily forward, happy to encounter only symbolic challenges.



[i] Iannelli, 55.

[ii] See, for example, Iannelli, 56, and Jenkins, Henry, ‘Whatever Happened to Participatory Television. An Interview with Adam Fish, Part One,’ Confessions of an ACA Fan. The Official Weblog of Henry Jenkins , April 27, 2017;



[iii] Sarcinelli, Ulrich. ‘Symbolic Politics’. The International Encyclopedia of Communication. Blackwell, 2008 (Online):


[iv] Mercea, 6

[v] See Boggs, Carl. Social Movements and Political Power. Emerging Forms of Radicalism in the West. Philadelphia:

Temple University Press, 1989, 75.

[vi] Chadwick, Andrew. The Hybrid Media System. Politics and Power. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013, 113.

[vii] The reference is to Clausewitz, Carl Von. On War. Trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007,

  1. The translation here and elsewhere reads, contrary to the popularly repeated version, “War is merely the continuation of policy by other means”.

[viii] See Mouffe, Chantal. The Return of the Political. London: Verso, 2005, 6.

[ix] See Thompson, J.B. Media and Modernity. A Social Theory of the Media. Stanford: Stanford U. Press, 1995. Louis Althusser’s conception of ideology , in which ideology ‘interpellates’ subjects, is perhaps political theory’s homologue to the symbolic universe of sociologically comprehended subjects. See Althusser, Louis, ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses. Notes Toward an Investigation.’ Althusser, Louis. Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971. Transcribed to Marxists Internet Archive at


[x] A.C.T.A. stands for The Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement

[xi] See Bennett, W. Lance, and Segerberg, Alexandra. The Logic of Connective Action: Digital Media and the Personalization of Contentious Politics . Cambridge U. Press, 2013.

[xii] Pateman, Carole. Participation and Democratic Theory . Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge U. Press, 1970.

[xiii] Mercea, 9.

[xiv] Mercea, 69.

[xv] Farber, Samuel. “Reflections on ‘Prefigurative Politics'”. International Socialist Review. Issue 92, Spring 2014.


[xvi] “…[la science politique] ne s’adresse plus à l’état mais à la Révolution” Dina el Khawaga. “Science politique,science du pouvoir?” L’Atelier du Pouvoir. France Culture. June 21, 2015 Radio Program.


[xvii] Frank, Thomas. ‘Occuper Wall Street. Un mouvement tomber amoureux de soi-même’. Le Monde Diplomatique. January 2013, 4-5.


Craig Schamel is currently teaching a graduate seminar in political philosophy at the Free University of Berlin and has also recently been working on supporting the LGBT community in Russia (English to Russian translators needed!) and on an essay on Jacques-Nicolas Billaud-Varenne.