Why should we care about our media?
Attempt at understanding the experience of nothingness in media
Luhmann (2000 ) argues that social systems or institutions such as the political, economic and scientific system within society have increasingly taken seriously the way media depict them. Hjarvard takes up this paramount media orientation as evidence of an ongoing mediatization of society – a process “whereby society to an increasing degree is submitted to, or becomes dependent on, the media and their logic. This process is characterized by a duality in that the media have become integrated into the operations of other social institutions, while they also have acquired the status of social institutions in their own right. As a consequence, social interactions – within the respective institutions, between institutions, and in society at large – take place via the media” (2008: 113).
All institutions are dependent on societal representation and media have in the last decades become increasingly indispensable as platforms for the publication of private affairs and the co-creative interpretation of reality. This means that an institution’s success in the media becomes necessary for exertion of influence in other areas of society. As a result, all functional areas within society have learned to look at themselves through media glasses. Society’s institutions – which for our argument here include the family, the church (including the mosque, synagogue, and so on), the state, and the workplace – have due to the expansion of the media system undergone a shift towards self-reflective commentary and positioning vis-à-vis the media (Jameson, 1991). The media system has in this sense taken over the role of former authorities by leading our attention away from power (im-) balances toward the development of self-identity as a life project; a lifestyle management (Giddens, 1991).
Friedrich Kittler notes: “[m]ore than any other theorists, philosophers forgot to ask which media support their very practice” (2009: 23). From a media life point of view, this makes sense – as the power of media in our everyday lives lies exactly in what Bolter and Grusin would call their logic of immediacy, which erases or automates their operations (and the opposite would be true for media studies handbooks, following the parallel logic of hypermediacy). In the history of media, this immediacy becomes more prevalent with each stepping-stone – from writing and printing via telegraphy and analog media to digital media. In his discussion of the history of communication media, Kittler (1996) in fact predicts that ultimately media technologies will overhaul each other to evolve beyond the essential intervention of humans. Thus, the fact that people (users and philosophers alike) tend to take media for granted signifies their significance.
This is not necessarily another way of restating the famous 1993 cartoon by Peter Steiner in The New Yorker, stating “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog” – it is also its exact opposite: due to the lack of anonymity as for example captured by one’s digital shadow, everyone can know you’re a dog. Individualization in the context of a media life thus signifies a hyperindividualization process, where people are connected with the world without necessarily physically engaging with it (Deuze, 2006: 68). And these connections are primarily with large numbers of other people, through online networks. According to the March 2009 Nielsen report Global Faces and Networked Places, “[t]wo-thirds of the world’s Internet population visit social networking or blogging sites, accounting for almost 10% of all internet time”.
As research on the generally restrained behavior of people in crowds online (for example on discussion forums, mailing lists, and social networks) suggests, deindividuation today is best conceptualized as a shift from a personal identity to a social identity, shared by members of the crowd (Postmes and Spears, 1998). This social identity model of deindividuation effects (SIDE), found particularly in computer-mediated communication contexts, lends credence to Žižek’s implicit suggestion that media today may function as a substitute for the small other. Paraphrasing Žižek, media provide the intersubjective cues needed to fill the void of the empty self.
Reporting on values surveys in 43 countries, Ronald Inglehart (1997) observes a global shift of people in their perspectives as citizens away from traditional social institutions towards a distinctly skeptical, globally interconnected yet deeply personal type of self-determined civic engagement. Žižek, however, warns against the fallacy of explaining these interconnected phenomena as evident of a progressive disintegration of social bonds. For Žižek the key to understanding the solipsism, skepticism and reflexive engagement of our times is not so much the often suggested absence of a “big Other”: a universal symbolic institution such as God or Kant’s categorical imperative that provides people common ground and a way out of themselves. What is missing, according to Žižek, is “a small other which would embody, stand in for, the big Other – a person […] who directly embodies authority” (2008: 35). This lived experience of a life without universal, let alone some kind of consensual experts and authorities – whether these are priests, parents, professors or presidents – offering guidance does indeed not necessarily mean society is falling apart.
For Žižek, self-identity is impossible, as our multiple identities (especially in cyberspace) are always in motion, as they are intersubjectively constructed. The liquid modern “art of life” (Bauman, 2009) as confined to the lifelong project of identity thus becomes a way of managing being part of an individualized society where “how one lives becomes the biographical solution of systemic contradictions” (Beck, 1992: 137).
A recognition of such significant invisibility in everyday life, may be found in André Marchand’s observation, after Klee, that when he was in a forest, he felt it wasn’t him looking at the forest but rather the trees looking at him. The modern citizen may have a similar experience to that of the painter. Following Merleau-Ponty (1961:128), the painter’s gaze asks what media such as light, lightning, shadows, reflections and colors do to “suddenly cause something to be and to be this thing, what they do to compose this talisman of a world, to make us see the visible. The hand pointing toward us in The Nightwatch is truly there only when we see that its shadow on the captain’s body presents it simultaneously in profile.” Note how media in this paper are defined in terms of artifacts, activities and arrangements for the reason that media such as the ones mentioned above simply cannot be observed, have to remain invisible.
We argue that, on an everyday level, our sense-making has to take a self-reflective turn in a similar way as the painter does: by asking what media – given their invisibility – do to make us perceive reality as real, or normal. Constant societal gazes at us may become the cause for his insatiable hunger for self-exposure: society expects us to. The modern citizen thus is firstly compelled to become an artist of life, which means to focus on beauty in silence, mirroring the earlier silence of the fake – the absent yet present societal gaze. The gaze seems to have caused a hunch of captivity, not an actual realization of it, in line with Žižek’s pointing towards the hidden nature of media as a principal component of the uniquely mediated experience of being together alone in the world (or forest).
What constitutes the step towards fulfilling self-actualization in media is the recognition of our weightless life in media. This would separate us from a constant necessity to justify our behavior and attitudes in media life, Individuals ask themselves constantly what sense-making can do to make life seem ‘right’, ‘beautiful’, ‘loveable’, etc. We suggests asking what media do to make people ask such sense-making questions on a continual basis. We are only able to make such a realization, come back to it and integrate it to form a higher order realm of sense-making if the process of realization reveals itself in the form of a step outside of conventional thought.
Žižek engages most explicitly the link between the individualization of contemporary society – towards the point of hedonistic solipsism – and the omnipresence of networked computers and cyberspace. “[I]n order for an individual to immerse herself in the virtual space, the big Other has to be there, more powerful than ever in the guise of cyberspace itself, this directly universalized form of sociality which enables us to be connected with the entire world while sitting alone in front of a screen” (2008: 34; emphasis added). In such a way, media have not only themselves disappeared from our lives, but seem to have taken either self or other (one at the time) with them. Following this line of thought, it is perhaps not surprising that, generally speaking, people are reportedly more likely to trust each other rather than social institutions. The global PR firm Edelman conducts annual surveys (since 1999) on trust and credibility among college-educated, middle class, and media-savvy adults in eighteen countries.
What the firm finds is a gradual erosion of trust in governments, traditional institutions, and elites in favor of (especially in Brazil, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and the United States) “a person like me” as someone considered to be the most credible source of information. Instead of trusting the government or God, people trust each other as embodied in the end-to-end principle of the internet (as in its protocols and physical infrastructure) and its emerging peer-to-peer social arrangements (as in the online sharing of processing power, disk storage, network bandwidth, and content). Here, our analytical lines of media theory, sociological analyses of everyday life, and ontology of media and life intersect.
In becoming aware of our being in media, then, it is initially not about creating or becoming an artist. Or at least not about the choice to make or act, perform, etc. The individual solution must lie in an awareness of being media first, then about making sense of it through creation. Thus, in a dialectical sense of emptiness of self on the one hand, and realizing self on the other, one has gone beyond making sense of the current situation. In his late work, Heidegger realized that intrinsic existence could not be anything but an opening. A life lived in media may similarly need a certain focus on intrinsic existence of media, on the momentary or the “ecstatic of nothingness”, as Mersch (2002:30) argues, “the magic of retreating oneself and thereby observing the not-being-there of irreducible presences, that are lost under the increased digital ready-to-hand conditions”.
To give an example, what keeps an introvert from being extraverted is the realization that he or she may have said something inappropriate, something untactful that hurts someone else’s feelings, or having bored the audience. The constant referring to this potential breaking of social rules and norms, is hindering free expression. In terms of Williams’ (1958:16) ‘structure of feeling’, or organization of values and perceptions which act as mediating category between the psychological ‘set’ of a social formation and the conventions embodied in its artefacts”, has created a shy layer, built to protect. The same layer, however, invokes the feeling of entrapment. Such entrapment of the shy person first of all resembles a hunch rather than an actual realization of his option to cross boundaries into a different reality. When the shy person leaves the particular situation, the layer is slowly peeled off, often accompanied by imaginary ways of breaking out (‘I should have said/done…’). In this way, we suggest that a realization of mediated ontology may lead to liberation, as the feeling of entrapment is followed by the realization of inward submersion, of being buried, necessitating the act of breaking out into ’real’ media life.
Williams, R. (1983/1958). Culture and society 1780-1950. New York: Columbia University Press
Merleau-Ponty, M. (1961). Eye and Mind. In: Galen Johnson, A. (Ed.). The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader: Philosophy and Painting. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1993
Mersch, D. (2002). Ereignis und Aura. Untersuchungen zu einer Ästhetik des Performativen. Suhrkamp Verlag. Frankfurt am Main
Kittler, F. (2007). Ontologie der Medien. Public talk on 07/11/2007 in the context of Bochum Media Science colloquium. URL: http://vimeo.com/2160283 (50:20)
Nielsen Wire. URL: http://blog.nielsen.com/nielsenwire/global/social-networking-new-global-footprint/
Trustbarometer. URL: http://www.edelman.co.uk/trustbarometer
Wikipedia on Peter Steiner. URL: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/On_the_Internet,_nobody_knows_you’re_a_dog