Doubly Displacing Media and the City

[Ed. note: this post is part of a roundtable discussion on “The Urban as Emergent Key Concept for Media Theory.” For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

The interesting and insightful contributions made to this roundtable seem to have arrived at a consensus. One which, on first blush, may seem rather counterintuitive. We all seem to agree, if through differently-tinted lenses, that the intersection of media and the urban should be approached by displacing both of these key concepts. Now, some might reasonably expect that, if you are going to have a roundtable on the urban as a key concept for media theory, then its participants should surely be spending much of their time trying to pin things down. Some might have anticipated, for instance, that we would be laying out definitional parameters for “the urban,” not to mention for “media” and then in turn, for conjunctive assemblages like “media city”. We have not, and for important reasons.

The most important of these reasons, from my point of view, is that we have all begun from a broadly environmental view of media. This is something I discuss in a recent paper 1Scott Rodgers, Clive Barnett and Allan Cochrane, “Media Practices and Urban Politics: Conceptualizing the Powers of the Media-Urban Nexus” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 32: 6 (2014), 1054-1070.  written with Clive Barnett and Allan Cochrane (you can get the gist listening to this podcast on the paper). As we outlined there, thinking about media environmentally in relation to the mediated city is probably crystallized most explicitly in Scott McQuire’s now-landmark book The Media City.2Scott McQuire, The Media City: Media, Architecture and Urban Space (London: Sage, 2008). For McQuire, the “media-architecture complex” (as he calls it) speaks to the inherent and historically long-established interweaving of media in urban life, in which media must be conceived of as environments rather than discrete things. His illustrative example is urban illumination, of course taking his cue from McLuhan’s famous observation in Understanding Media that electronic light is a medium without content.3Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (Abingdon: Routledge, 1964), 8. For McQuire, illumination is a form of urban media since it redefines the nature and temporalities of urban living. And this is an environmental view of media because it challenges the taken-for-granted common assumption that ‘media’ means identifiable institutions, texts or technologies. The media city, as Zlatan Krajina argued in his first essay, rests not on the idea of media as a representational or symbolic add on to the ‘real’ city. Rather, the urban is always-already mediated: it is a locus of mediations ranging from the nonrepresentational to the symbolic.

It will be obvious for some readers that there is an overlap here with the recent rise of a so-called non-media-centric approach to media studies, invoked most directly in this roundtable by Zlatan Krajina and Giorgia Aiello in their opening essays. Non-media-centrism might seem like a contradiction in terms for a discipline that names itself media studies.4Zlatan Krajina, Shaun Moores and David Morley (2014) “Non-Media-Centric Media Studies: A Cross-Generational Conversation” European Journal of Cultural Studies. 17: 6 (2014), 682-700. But as David Morley suggests,5David Morley, “For a Materialist, Non-Media-Centric Media Studies” Television and New Media. 10: 1 (2009), 114-116. what such a perspective offers is a return to the attention once placed on the material and experiential conditions of media and communication. Non-media-centrism, then, combats the naturalized vision of media studies as the discipline that focuses on, for instance, specific kinds of texts, technologies or forms in deliberate isolation. It is probably no accident that non-media-centric ideas have taken hold in our contemporary moment, when we are presented on an almost daily basis with a torrent of anxieties and ambitions about the ‘impacts’ of emergent media. As André Jansson put it in his response, a non-media-centric point of view suggests that we “problematize … celebratory discourses surrounding the “newness” of media, and … recognize the deeply sedimented and socially stratified character” of mediation in our everyday existence.

Yet there is another side to this equation in the emergent literature on media and cities. This is that, at least in some senses, there has also been the rise of a kind of non-urban-centric urban studies, even if it has not been named as such. Henri Lefebvre’s ‘urban society’ – mentioned in my own opening essay – was an attempt to imagine the urban at a juncture when the spatial dispersal and diversification of cities was beginning to put into question discrete notions such as “the city” or dichotomies such as urban/rural. And this kind of critical questioning is nearly axiomatic for contemporary urban studies, particularly for research conducted under the banners of “relational”6Ash Amin and Nigel Thrift, Cities: Reimagining the Urban (Cambridge: Polity, 2002). 7Doreen Massey World City (Cambridge: Polity, 2007). and “assemblage” 8Manuel DeLanda A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity (New York: Continuum, 2006). 9Ignacio Farías and Thomas Bender, Urban Assemblages: How Actor-Network Theory Changes Urban Studies (London: Routledge, 2010). 10Colin McFarlane “Assemblage and Critical Urbanism” City. 15: 2 (2011), 204­-224. thinking. While such literatures usually describe their phenomena as ‘urban’, they do so via ontologies and epistemologies fundamentally opposed to legislating or finding a discrete definition of what is or is not urban. Here too, it is no accident that such an apparently non-urban-centric urban studies has arrived at the contemporary moment. While (as I suggested in my opening essay) I have serious reservations about a master-concept like ‘planetary urbanization’, I do agree with Brenner and Schmidt’s11Neil Brenner and Christian Schmid, “Towards a New Epistemology of the Urban?” City 19: 2-3 (2015), 151-182. critique of the naturalization of contemporary celebratory discourses valorising “the city” and urban places (e.g. urban creativity, smart cities, urban sustainability). Not just because such discrete spatial categories are philosophically or conceptually untenable from an academic point of view, but also because they are simply too exclusionary; they imply a very particular sense of ‘urban’ (a point André Jansson highlights as well in his response).

One of the claims I made in the introduction to this roundtable was that there can be merits to emphasizing the conceptual over the empirical. I was, admittedly, a little defensive about this move. As I explained somewhat pre-emptively, the intent of this roundtable is “neither a permanent nor an absolute prioritization” of the conceptual over the empirical. Rather, its intent is simply to take a moment to “slow down” and think a little more carefully about the “meaning, uses and mobilities of an emergent key concept for media theory.” Having collectively taken that moment, I feel confident we can now “cash in”. As I’ve outlined here, we have come to a certain consensus in response to the first roundtable question – around how media theorists and researchers define the urban – by displacing both media and the city as discrete objects or entities within our investigations. But the real cash in, as it were, is how we have responded to second question: what is at stake for media theory in invoking the urban?

One stake, as Zlatan Krajina suggests in his opening essay,  is that thinking of the urban has the potential to reinvigorate media studies. It is part of a broader return in the study of media to a perhaps less “disciplinary” moment, when communication was more rooted in questions of materiality. This leads however to more than just more sophisticated academic knowledge production, seen narrowly. As Zlatan Krajina argues in his response piece, it provides the kinds of orientations through which media studies might intervene in the forms mediatized urban place-making likely to emerge in the future.

Giorgia Aiello’s opening essay makes clear that contemporary urbanism is already entangled by such mediatized place-making processes. Her detailed research on the European Capital of Culture illuminates the well-developed ways in which urban spaces are almost taken-for-granted as visual-material platforms for the transnational appearance and promotion of cities. Indeed, this illustrates why it is so important to think about the overlap between processes of mediatization and urbanization. As Andre Jansson points out in his first essay, invoking ‘mediatization’ is more than just pointing to the proliferation of new media forms and practices; it is calls for analytical attention to the “material dependencies and restraints that follow from media appropriation.” A very similar justification could be made for attending to ‘urbanization’ instead of the urban. Bringing processes of mediatization and urbanization together arguably points to a more holistic lens for thinking about the naturalization of media forms in the shaping and reshaping of our everyday environments.

This in turn prompts us to ask some critical questions about the politics of urban living, questions posed most directly by the opening essay and later response of Myria Georgiou. What happens when urban living and media connectivity become increasingly interconnected, not just as an empirical fact, but as a normative vision of good urban life? How, in such circumstances, do we think about Henri Lefebvre’s well-known notion of ‘the right to the city’? If the right to the city is about reshaping urban life, rather than just questions of access to that which exists, then we need to imagine an urban politics that can also attend to the reshaping of media practices, media infrastructures and media representations.

And here I would end on an important point about political agency and reflexivity, also touched on by Giorgia Aiello in her response piece. In contemporary media and urban theory alike, much of our present attention and concern centres on the uncertain implications of computational and networked media. New ‘connective’ platforms such as Google, Facebook and Apple,12José van Dijck, The Culture of Connectivity: A Critical History of Social Media (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013). and more generally the nonhuman agency associated with algorithms13Dave Beer “The Social Power of Algorithms” Information, Communication and Society. 20:1 (2017), 1-13. seem to present an often hidden, unavoidable and unchangeable background, or world. Thinking of media through the urban, or more generally through environments, invites us to radically contextualize our analyses of such technical backdrops. It suggests we pay more attention to the ways in which such media and technical systems emerge through environments of action. Action which might involve new forms of reflexivity and knowledge about the increasingly dispersed, complex and layered media worlds we inhabit.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Scott Rodgers, Clive Barnett and Allan Cochrane, “Media Practices and Urban Politics: Conceptualizing the Powers of the Media-Urban Nexus” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 32: 6 (2014), 1054-1070. 
2. Scott McQuire, The Media City: Media, Architecture and Urban Space (London: Sage, 2008).
3. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (Abingdon: Routledge, 1964), 8.
4. Zlatan Krajina, Shaun Moores and David Morley (2014) “Non-Media-Centric Media Studies: A Cross-Generational Conversation” European Journal of Cultural Studies. 17: 6 (2014), 682-700.
5. David Morley, “For a Materialist, Non-Media-Centric Media Studies” Television and New Media. 10: 1 (2009), 114-116.
6. Ash Amin and Nigel Thrift, Cities: Reimagining the Urban (Cambridge: Polity, 2002).
7. Doreen Massey World City (Cambridge: Polity, 2007).
8. Manuel DeLanda A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity (New York: Continuum, 2006).
9. Ignacio Farías and Thomas Bender, Urban Assemblages: How Actor-Network Theory Changes Urban Studies (London: Routledge, 2010).
10. Colin McFarlane “Assemblage and Critical Urbanism” City. 15: 2 (2011), 204­-224.
11. Neil Brenner and Christian Schmid, “Towards a New Epistemology of the Urban?” City 19: 2-3 (2015), 151-182.
12. José van Dijck, The Culture of Connectivity: A Critical History of Social Media (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).
13. Dave Beer “The Social Power of Algorithms” Information, Communication and Society. 20:1 (2017), 1-13.

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