Media Politics/Mediating Politics and the Urban

Architects’ sketches from Medianeras (Taretto, 2011)
[Ed. note: this post is part of a Q&A session on a new edited volume, Global Cinematic Cities. For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here. All contributor responses in this series have been lightly edited for length and clarity. Click on the contributors’ names for more information about their work.]

We asked the contributors to our edited volume, Global Cinematic Cities, five questions about their own chapters in the book in the larger context of their thoughts about the cinematic city, its role in scholarship, its impact on urban living, and its future. Our second and third questions were: “What are some of the advantages – and limitations – of the (global) city as an organizing category or conceptual frame for (your) film and media studies research?” and “What kinds of political questions are mobilized by thinking about the global city and contemporary screen media?” Our contributors’ responses are below.

Question 2

Joanna Page: As many scholars have shown, the cinema and mass urban culture emerge together, and, perhaps as a result, film is an extraordinarily sensitive tool for witnessing changes in the city. Cities invite comparison: the superficial resemblance of their infrastructure can throw up important differences in the way they operate and in the lived experiences of their inhabitants. One of the major disadvantages of the city as a framework for research is that the bright lights and speed of change in the city are as attractive to researchers as they are to new migrants. This can […] potentially reinforce a division between technology and nature that is being usefully challenged in the kind of new materialist, posthuman, and media ecology approaches that interest me a great deal at the moment.

Christian Long: I was reading the indices for a bunch of earlier city-on-film edited collections, and for every one of them, a small group of major cities – New York, London, Paris, Berlin, Los Angeles – have the greatest number of entries. While I understand that those are all important cities – it’s a list of imperial centres – there are more cities in the world. Maybe because I have lived most of my adult life in smaller cities – Nashville, Tennessee; Christchurch, New Zealand; Brisbane, Australia – I’m much more interested in how provincial cities contrast with “Important Cities.” To look at a Hollywood/American example, a number of Coen Brothers films, for all their irony, show the importance of an identity tied to provincial cities. The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) links Norville Barnes to the never-shown Muncie, Indiana to position him as a rube; Muncie was also Middletown, USA, which also makes Norville Barnes the Average American finding himself in New York, amongst the power elite. Comedy ensues, but so too does Norville’s success born of genuine goodness.

Igor Krstić: The city offers, as a conceptual frame, the advantage of looking beyond the category of the nation – a category which has dominated film studies for too long. I have emphasised this in my book Slums on Screen, which uses a “polycentric” approach to world cinema’s “planet of slums,” borrowed from Robert Stam and Ella Shohat’s groundbreaking study on Eurocentrism in media and theory1Shohat, Ella & Robert Stam. Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media. London, New York: Routledge, 1994., even though the term really originates in geographical discourses on the “polycentric city.” Today, the city, and particularly the global city, has become a kind of polycentric crossroads where many different discourses and representations overlap, all of them “sprawling,” so to speak, in many possible directions and manifestations. One can conceive this – its sprawling, unruly character – as the category’s major strength and weakness, because, if we consider this, the city can serve as both looking glass and distorting mirror, according to which perspective one applies: as a looking glass for polycentric globalization processes, for instance, or as a distorting mirror, because near to 50% of today’s global population still lives in non-urban areas – something that film and media scholars tend to ignore.

Malini Guha: I have found it productive to situate the films that I have worked on within and against global city paradigms found across urban studies and cultural geography. Engaging in this type of work is indicative of some of complexities of interdisciplinary scholarly approaches more broadly. On the one hand, these terms have originated in disciplines other than film and media studies but have offered scholars like us ways of thinking about spatiality and globalization as it relates to our field.  But on the other, one is always reminded of the specificity of film and media objects, which themselves have something to tell us about the global city that might complement or part ways with the way global cities have been discussed and theorized in urban or geographical studies.

Jonathan Haynes: Lagos is unimaginably huge—21 million people—and dynamic. In Nigeria it’s where globalization touches down most spectacularly, creating (apparently) coherent new spaces. But the Nigerian video film industry has always been segmented along regional/linguistic lines, and the Igbo “marketers” who have always largely controlled the English-language industry keep one foot in their southeastern homeland. One of Nollywood’s profound legacies is to have given Nigerians (and Africans across the continent, for that matter) a sense that they have a natural right to a film industry that represents them, that’s close at hand, within reach. This puts a brake on tendencies towards domination by a Lagos-based industry incorporated into globalized media and Afropolitan styles. The tension between Lagos and the rest of the country is productive, in Nigerian reality and in theory. My Global Cinematic Cities essay is the second I’ve written about Lagos and Nollywood; in my big book on Nollywood I make amends for this apparent Lagoscentrism by stressing how many other parts of the country are in the picture.

Pei-Sze Chow: The biggest advantage I have drawn from using the city as a framework is my engagement with the idea of networks in relation to a nation’s screen industry, often emerging from and embedded within the conduits and intricate networks of a city. This is not forgetting also that one global city’s screen industry also functions as a node in a much larger, international network. This then invites further comparisons and an impetus to trace the flows of capital, ideas, people, and images across these networks. While all of this possibility and boundlessness sounds seductive, where does one stop? Just as a city’s limits are never quite delineated, so too is the theoretical category of the city in contemporary scholarship. Because I’ve lived and worked all my life in cities (Singapore, Munich, London), I often assume that any urban environment presents itself as a text that I can easily read, analyse, and manipulate. However, the rapid pace at which new cities emerge and existing ones grow and transform means that the category of “the global city” is itself continually changing, with different geopolitical and technological forces engendering new realities that we as scholars must deal with.

 

Question 3

Page: I think there is too much reckless talk about globalization today, which seems to take for granted that it is a global phenomenon that manifests itself everywhere in the same way. In my work, I want to show where those global “flows” are not really flowing at all: because of heavily policed national borders, deep social and economic inequalities within a particular society, or competing political or cultural discourses. This is not just about emphasizing how models originating in the global north lose explanatory power, or even misrepresent, processes taking place in the global south. And it is certainly not about reinforcing images of the south as impoverished or backward. It is about thinking about how different places imagine their place within a globalized world quite differently, and appreciating how the dynamics of globalization that characterize the south can actually allow us to better understand those dynamics in other places, too.

Long: I’ve written elsewhere that the vast majority of home-grown Australian hit movies are set not in Sydney or Melbourne, our two major (global) cities, but in the Outback. There are brief moments of Sydney in Priscilla Queen of the Desert, and Muriel’s Wedding, but homegrown hits very much take part in the equation of the Outback and Australia. And if Sydney appears in a Hollywood movie, it’s guaranteed to take the form of the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House. On a really obvious level, this equation of Sydney with its landmarks makes some sense. It’s immediately legible to a wide audience. John Woo, a director from Hong Kong, makes sure that his Hollywood movie gets the two landmarks in key shots. But landmarks miss out on the rest of Sydney, especially the western suburbs, which are some of the most diverse and interesting places in Australia. Thinking about cities on film makes the “data” of a national cinema or even a regional cinema more detailed (I’d rather not say “more granular”), which can lead to a very thorough engagement with one part of the city – think of how common Broadway in New York was as a location in the Studio era. But that would still leave out other parts of the city – you don’t see a lot of movies set in the Bronzeville section of Chicago, as important as it is to the city’s literary identity. This is a long way to get to another fairly obvious point: even though cities in the US are some of the most diverse places in the country, and here I’m talking about cities outside of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Francisco, you wouldn’t know that from Hollywood films.

Krstić: There is a rising need to critically scrutinize what Andreas Huyssen has called the new, twenty-first century centres of cultural globalization, the rapidly expanding mega, world, or global cities that are located in the “global South.”2Huyssen, Andreas. “Introduction: World Cultures, World Cities.” In Andreas Huyssen ed. Other Cities, Other Worlds: Urban Imaginaries in a Globalizing Age. Durham: Duke University Press, 2008: 1-26. Serious socio-political issues are at stake when we look at the massive urbanization of African, Asian and South American countries in the last three or four decades: from the social effects of global capitalism and the political and economic causes of rural-urban migration to the mass production of “human waste” and neglected (or “informal”) urban places like slums. My book chapter closes with the plea that film and media scholars need to engage with places like slums not only in terms of (social, urban, political) “problems,” as some kind of collateral damage of neoliberal global capitalism, but as truly central socio-political and-cultural sites – given the undeniable fact that slums are the fastest growing human habitat on this planet. These new urban realities shouldn’t be ignored when we talk about (global) cities, politics and the media. I do not see an adequate engagement with these topics in film, media, or cultural studies today.

Guha: For me, political questions related to the nature of globalization, particularly in relationship to mobility and stasis, power relations, the continued significance of space and place are raised when thinking through the relationship between global cities and contemporary screen media.  In my chapter in Global Cinematic Cities I come to the conclusion that the declaration of Kolkata as place across the films I have chosen to work with does not in fact constitute a challenge to the homogenizing imperatives of globalization, but rather falls directly in line with it through their recurring presentation of a cityscape tailored towards the desires of the middle classes. For me, this example suggests that contemporary screen media can offer us unexpected and historically specific variations upon the key political issues that I have identified as germane to the intersection between global city scholarship and film and media objects.

Haynes: I’ve always framed Nollywood as an African popular art, in the sense given the term by Karen Barber, Biodun Jeyifo, and others: a grassroots form of culture, expressing the (frequently critical) point of view of the broad masses. It is not mass culture manufactured by corporations and designed to integrate consumers into a capitalist system. This character of Nollywood is what’s at stake as transnational corporations begin producing their own films and television serials in Lagos and dominate the non-physical (internet and broadcast) distribution of films. Both those pushing to formalize Nollywood so that it can be articulated with capitalist institutions, and those who operate the business of distributing films on discs according to opaque “informal” principles, clearly understand that they are struggling over the future (and ownership) of the industry. Then there’s the question of the effects of this struggle and its potential outcomes on the ways Nigerian film culture represents Lagos. The relationship of city and village has always been one of Nollywood’s central themes, and it’s understood to be a political relationship among other things. Nothing about this has ever been simple and it’s not apt to become simpler. But old-fashioned arguments about base and superstructure and the ideological effects of ownership of the means of production are a place to start.

Chow: In my view, screen media has the power to critically challenge the “global” in global cities by showing how the right to the city is not quite evenly shared amongst all inhabitants. Who are the privileged and who are the marginalized? In the screen texts that I have studied, walls, borders, and boundaries emerge frequently in the built environments that appear as agents within the text. Sometimes I’m surprised by how prescient screen fictions can be in terms of foreshadowing real events. Reel becomes real. For instance, just as I was finalizing my chapter on the Danish-Swedish TV drama Bron/Broen (The Bridge) for Global Cinematic Cities, border controls were introduced on the Øresund bridge — the first time in 50 years — in an effort to stem the flow of asylum seekers from Denmark to Sweden, materialising in the form of mandatory ID checks and increased patrolling on trains and stations. What was once a conduit for exchange and openness has become a site for surveillance and control in the face of global migration. As is often the case in many other global cities, there is a clear line drawn between those who can move freely and those who can’t. What responsibilities do public service broadcasters and state-funded screen initiatives have in telling stories about these tensions and injustices, not just domestically, but internationally as well?

 

 

 

 

Notes   [ + ]

1. Shohat, Ella & Robert Stam. Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media. London, New York: Routledge, 1994.
2. Huyssen, Andreas. “Introduction: World Cultures, World Cities.” In Andreas Huyssen ed. Other Cities, Other Worlds: Urban Imaginaries in a Globalizing Age. Durham: Duke University Press, 2008: 1-26.

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