Reflecting on the Media City’s Stranger

[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.]

In this brief note, I return to a key question set to this roundtable as a starting point. The question (somewhat paraphrased) is: Does invoking the urban in media theory offer a genuinely new way of thinking about the mediated world we inhabit? Colleagues participating in this roundtable offered fascinating and thoughtful responses, from thinking about the place-ness and place-making of the mediated city, to the mediation of urban imaginaries through ordinary, alternative, and official narrations of the city. Thinking through our contributions, I feel compelled to return to the question by asking if invoking the urban in media theory offers any new ways of thinking about power in the mediated world we inhabit. And to focus on a configuration of power, which we haven’t addressed in our exchanges so far: how the media city articulates and sets norms of ethnic and racial hierarchies with consequences that expand beyond urban particularity (though I have to acknowledge that I write from a Global North metropolitan position addressing phenomena associated with this kind of urbanity). I speak to the problem through Simmel’s “Stranger” and argue that the media city constructions of the stranger legitimize ethnic and racial minorities as rightful inhabitants but not as rightful owners of the urban world.1Georg Simmel, “The Stranger,” in The Sociology of Georg Simmel, trans. Kurt Wolff (New York: Free Press, 1950), 402-408.

In the media city, Simmel’s stranger has been reconfigured as an ambivalent mediated figure of late modernity. The stranger, as the ethnic and racial minority subject, represents the city’s difference and difference is what makes the modern city itself. But the stranger is not just an urban subject, she is also a representation, as seen on screens, heard on MP3 players, and spoken about in hashtag activism. Minorities in the media city are more visible than ever before, yet this visibility also affirms a contained and limited representational space of freedom. Simmel talks about the stranger as a figure that is interior to the city. Being here today and not leaving tomorrow, the stranger, is accepted by the urban subjects – the citizens, the majority.

In the figure of the mediated stranger, representations of the urban become believable and interesting, marketable and desired. What would the story of the marketable city be without its urban music and its different histories? How would action films and serials from the underbelly of the city become believable without the tough non-white characters? And, furthermore, would (urban) democracy have any legitimacy without minority activists’ voices? In the media city, the stranger is agentive and legitimately present. As such, the media city lets the subaltern speak.2Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in Marxism and the Intepretation of Culture, ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (London: Macmillan, 1988), 271-313.

At the same time, the stranger remains an Other, who might be interior to the city, but who, in the limited spaces and repertoires of her representations, carries exterior, and often inferior, identities.3Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1969). More often than not, the deployment of the stranger in the media city is one of a reduced and contained insider in the media city – the rapper, the cop who can only be imagined as part of the city’s seedy underbelly, even the campaigner who only speaks about race and ethnicity. As such, the representation of the “agentive” and “ordinary” stranger represents an ambivalent rearticulation of racial and ethnic order. On the one hand, the legitimization of this order in and beyond the city becomes possible through the media city. The commodification, normalization, and reaffirmation of the stranger’s ordinariness as Other acts as a performative form of power.4Judith Butler, Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015). As certain forms of recognition become extended, others become unrecognizable and not worth recognition, argues Butler: in a narrow set of representations of the stranger, she is left with membership without inclusion.5Butler, Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly On the other hand, it is the media city that opens up spaces for subjectivities of difference to be seen and to be heard, perhaps more than anywhere else. A condition that still begs the question: Can the mediation of the ordinary go beyond the rearticulation of existing order? And even, can the media city open up spaces of thinking of the stranger beyond a mere category of Otherness?

Notes   [ + ]

1. Georg Simmel, “The Stranger,” in The Sociology of Georg Simmel, trans. Kurt Wolff (New York: Free Press, 1950), 402-408.
2. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in Marxism and the Intepretation of Culture, ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (London: Macmillan, 1988), 271-313.
3. Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1969).
4. Judith Butler, Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015).
5. Butler, Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly

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