On the Outpacing of Reality and the Uses of Representation

Protest of the Muslim Ban at Battery Park, 1/29/17. Photo Credit: Noelle Griffis
[Ed. note: this post is part of an editorial discussion on “Media and the City in Light of Trump, Brexit, and the Global Far Right.” For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

Erica Stein: We’ve published these posts on a tight schedule in part because one of the hallmarks of the geo-political shifts we’re talking about has been how quickly they’ve occurred, to the extent that the rapid displacement of events by new ones has been one of the traits anti-fascists, journalists, and historians have pointed to as indicators of the situation’s gravity. In the ten days since we published our first entry, executive orders, state legislators, and high courts have all directly impacted every one of our first series of posts.

  • In our intro post, which was published on the morning of Saturday, January 21, I closed by asking how we might represent or image the city differently as it increasingly became a locus for mass mobilization and protest. And what seemed like about five minutes later, we had the global women’s marches, a Trumpian melt down over crowd size at the inauguration, and then the introduction of the “alternate fact,” capable of contesting even the mechanical witness of photography.
  • Sabine’s post, which was published Saturday, January 21, discussed a complex map of “points of warmth” that included, yet extended past, the sanctuary city. On Wednesday, January 25, Trump threatened to withhold federal funding from those cities.
  • On Sunday, January 22, Johan invoked Sigfried Kracauer’s analysis of fascist aesthetics to understand the management of class consciousness in recent pre-Trump American cinema. That day, and every day since, Trump and his administration have engaged those aesthetics and that rhetoric.
  • On Tuesday, January 24, Caitlin discussed the history of anti-urbanist representation in cinema, and that same day Trump mobilized the “populations, not people” rhetoric she identified in order to suggest sending “the Feds” into Chicago to fix its “horrible carnage.”
  • On Wednesday, January 25, Stan explored how the neoliberalization of media made it complicit in the success of Trump’s campaign and the necessity of looking past old modes of media consensus-building to resist. Seemingly in response to the press conferences and interviews given by Trump administration officials since January 20, print media has seemingly changed some of their coverage tactics, naming falsehoods and contraventions of facts as such in headlines and in content.
  • On Friday, January 27, Mark suggested that our research and pedagogy must be changed in order to address the current situation …which will probably have deteriorated again by the time this post goes live.

Which brings me to our first, and perhaps only question: how can effective responses be marshalled against the incredibly rapid pace of transgressions against civil liberties and norms? What role can and do media and the city play?

Brendan Kredell: I agree that the pace at which things are moving challenges any attempt at reflective and productive criticism. I’ve thought frequently about this scene since the election, when Michael goes to Cuba and sees the first skirmishes.

I think the suggestion is self-evident: the rest of us are standing around like Hyman Roth watching as the revolutionaries storm the gates. The thing is, what’s perverse about our historical moment is the role reversal, of course. Because now it’s the Hyman Roths and Fulgencio Batistas of the world leading the revolution! And rather than our cities being the sites of revolt, they are – in the mind of the would-be “revolutionaries” – zones of “carnage.”

ES: Perverse has “turn” or a sense of reversal as its base, and how often does the Left, and especially in film studies, treat the revolutions of the ‘60s/’70s as exceptional – a potential but squandered point of rupture opening onto a new history? Trump isn’t perverse. It’s just course correction to where we’ve been going for a long time, at least since the southern strategy.

BK: More than just a course correction, I think you can draw a straight line from 1968 to today. If the utopic vision of 1968 is of a moment of true solidarity, its legacy is of coalitions fractured. I don’t mean to discount the catharsis or genuine sense of hope that came – for both of us, I think – in taking to the streets and marching the past two weekends. There’s a palpable sense of solidarity that emerges from mass action, but I think there’s also a real danger in the way that those fractures are occluded in the way such action is represented, a danger that parallels the one we fall into when we make the blunt equation cities = progressive. Even if someone like Stephen Bannon is comfortable using San Francisco as a shorthand for a left, liberal bastion, we shouldn’t be: it’s nothing if not a neoliberal city, and it’s also a rich one. How many of its progressive policies would survive a financial crisis? Meanwhile, we’ve watched the emergence of what Greg Ferenstein calls the “Silicon Valley Democrat1It’s important to note that Ferenstein sees this as part of a broader phenomenon: for him, the “Silicon Valley Democrat” is a synecdoche for the “broader demographic of urbanized, professional liberals.”:

The Silicon Valley ideology thinks about government as an investor rather than as a protector, arguing that the government’s role is to invest in making people as awesome as possible.

The progressive coalition ran ashore on the shoals of (urban) neoliberalism: for those who require government’s protection, the assurance that it’s working hard to make everything more “awesome” rings hollow.

ES: You’re entirely right that we need to think about urban space as essentially competing threads of power, money, and constituency rather than, well, strongholds. But this brings me to Sabine’s point: If we acknowledge that, then what’s the next step? What does a map that’s effective, that doesn’t only point out the weaknesses and complicity in urbanism, but identifies points of warmth throughout the country, look like? Because once we can identify and represent that, we have an oppositional narrative that is much more compelling, and more closely aligned with mobilization, than our current one.

BK: I worry that it’s insufficient to the threat we face. The president of the United States has turned the machinery of the state against facts… and we’re making small-budget films about marginalized narratives for the consumption of the few. But at the same time, we’re definitively beyond the idea of consensus-driven leadership. No president before has ever assumed office without at least paying lip service to the idea of being the president of “all people.” Trump clearly is the president of the people who voted for him, and he’s openly contemptuous of the people who did not. That suggests that politics has eclipsed media, at least momentarily, as there’s a lag in how media (and theories of media) built upon a mass model can work in the world we now live in.

ES: When we talk about effective media impact today, why are we still assuming a mass, consensus audience? If we stop assuming socially effective media is media that forms broad consensus, and look at more marginal forms as effective, what does effectiveness start to look like?

BK: Effectiveness looks like resistance, at first, and victory, at last. Victory wherein the forces of fascism are rebuffed.

ES: Right, so we know the ends. What are the means?

BK: If you ask me today, I think the model is Roger Ailes’s Fox News, a news organization that acts in the service of a defined political agenda with a clear long-term goal. As a theoretical problem, I do think that we need something like critical theory for social media. And it may be that since I’m not so well-read in that area, such a theory already exists and is widely in practice. But my sense is that most work I hear comes from a much more humanist tradition, and that seems insufficient to me as a means of combatting the threat at hand. On the one hand, how can we effectively incorporate non-mass media into a practicable media of resistance? On the other, what is the role of mass media in mediating resistance?

ES: I’ve got a third one: where does the urban come in? The first thing that comes to mind if you’re talking about non-mass media as direct action is still Third Cinema, and that had/has direct ties to urban environments – it originally depended on them to an extent that digital technologies and the Internet would no longer have to. But, as soon as you start talking about practicable media of resistance and the role of mass media in representing it, you actually need some form of, well, mediation between them. And I think that’s the city. If practicable non-mass media drives people into the streets, then the city produces those people as an image of resistance that can be enunciated and amplified by mass media.

BK: The most banal version of mass – specifically urban – media that I think of is local TV news. And everywhere that I’ve lived, the structure of TV news has been largely the same: the general reproduction of urban and suburban imaginaries on a daily, not-very-grand scale.

It hails the suburban viewer and asks her to be afraid of the city or in awe of its magnitude. What would be radical, what would be resistant, would be a local TV news broadcast that was pro-urban in its worldview.

ES: That would require inverting the form, content, and ideological function of TV news, but let’s say it’s possible. You’re looking for content and structure that are the opposite of the Breitbart/Nazi tactic the White House adopted where they list “Americans killed by aliens” every week, right? You’re talking about re-coding the national imaginary as pro-urban, pro-progressive, and radically inclusive.

BK: I’m saying that we should obliterate the idea of a national narrative.

ES: I’m struck by the temporal aspect of your model. So we have constant, rapid-response marginal, “practicable” media that drives direct, repeated action. Then we have coverage of that in national forums (your example is local news, but maybe also commercial cinema or fiction series? Might as well be extra optimistic if we’re already counting on local news) that consistently positively code the spaces, bodies, and communities in which those actions consist, which, over the long term, has the impact of creating the large-scale images and imaginaries that could assert a different reality. The assertion of this reality demands and helps effect national mass action to bring it into being. Arguably – and optimistically – we can see the flow of events from Trump’s Muslim Ban executive order on Friday the 27th as exemplifying this model. Diffuse social media, some of which (but not all) was tied to extant activist groups like CAIR or the ACLU decried the order and called for action; people responded in mass protests outside airports; their presence was amplified through urban representation; this resistance was positively imaged in national forums; the judiciary responded. Now of course we’re in a situation where agencies are not respecting a federal court order that should supersede an executive action, so we can perhaps see both the potential and the limits of this strategy.

BK: With that said, we have some questions and provocations for the contributors to consider for round two. First, what are some other effective models we might consider?

ES: Second, why does it seem so hard to keep media and the urban directly linked in this conversation, except when we’re talking in fairly direct representational terms? And last, as Brendan has suggested, we need to move outside of a national model – but we’ve just spent this entire post talking about the U.S. context, as have all the first round posts. Just as we might find alternative solutions by scaling down to the urban, what happens if we scale this conversation up to the regional and global and incorporate Brexit and the continent-spanning phenomenon of the rise of authoritarian nationalism and fascism?

Notes   [ + ]

1. It’s important to note that Ferenstein sees this as part of a broader phenomenon: for him, the “Silicon Valley Democrat” is a synecdoche for the “broader demographic of urbanized, professional liberals.”

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