Mediatization and Urban Struggle

In the second essay, André Jansson connects the ambiguity of “the urban” with that of “mediatization,” considering their relationships through the example of urban exploration.
[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 short roundtable contribution I want to connect the ambiguous notion of the “urban” to another ambiguous concept, namely, “mediatization.” I will argue that contemporary struggles over urban space, and ultimately over the very meaning of “the urban,” evoke a heightened sensitivity to how urban developments are entangled with various forms of mediation. They can thus help us illuminate the complexity of mediatization. I will illustrate this through a case study of urban exploration.

Mediatization is a concept that has been much debated during the last decade and there are still controversies regarding its analytical value and theoretical demarcations. In my own work,1André Jansson, “Using Bourdieu in critical mediatization research: Communicational doxa and osmotic pressures in the field of UN organizations,” MedieKultur: Journal of Media and Communication Research 58 (2015): 13-29. 2André Jansson, “Interveillance: A new culture of recognition and mediatization,” Media and Communication, 3(2015): 81-90. I have come think of mediatization as a critical concept that points not just to the quantitative spread of new media forms and their intertwining with social activities, but more specifically to the social and material dependencies and restraints that follow from media appropriation.

My understanding of mediatization is influenced by the cultural materialist thinking of Raymond Williams, especially his notion of cultural form.3Raymond Williams, Television: Technology and Cultural Form. (London: Fontana, 1974). 4Raymond Williams, Problems in Materialism and Culture: Selected Essays. (London: New Left Books, 1980). Cultural forms emerge when media, and particular ways of using media, become incorporated as normalized parts of everyday life. This is also when we can start speaking of mediatization; when certain media practices and the access to certain media in certain socio-material settings are taken for granted. Mediatization thus implies that these settings are gradually changed, while at the same time shaping the functions and meanings of media. Accordingly, we should not think about mediatization as a homogeneous development. Rather, we should analyze mediatization through cultural forms, and try to understand how they emerge and are maintained in different parts of society.

The urban constitutes a particularly important framework for generating situated and contextualized understandings of mediatization. One reason is of course that the urban demarcates highly mediatized life forms and life environments. Media are part of shaping both “the urban” in general, and particular urban places and practices in a variety of ways: materially, socially and mythologically. There are many historical examples of this, including the penny press of the mid-19th century and the emerging cinema culture of early 20th century. Today, new media such as mobile smartphone applications are quickly appropriated inasmuch as they are able to reinforce the possibility to lead urban lifestyles and maximize the availability of various urban resources. We might even say that they hold an “urban bias” in the sense that they easily amalgamate with pre-existing urban textures of mobility and social connectedness. They are part of defining the very urbanism of urban social phenomena, ranging from geo-mediated games and dating services to the coordination of street protests.5 Paolo Gerbaudo, Tweets and the Streets: Social Media and Contemporary Activism. (London: Pluto Press, 2012). 6Christian Licoppe and Yoriko Inada, “When urban public places become ‘hybrid ecologies’: proximity-based game encounters in Dragon Quest 9 in France and Japan”, in Mobile Technology and Place, eds. Rowan Wilken and Gerard Goggin. (London: Routledge, 2012). 7Christian Licoppe, Julien Morel and Carole Anne Rivière, “Grindr casual hook-ups as interactional achievements,” Media, Culture & Society, Published ahead of print, September 9th 2015.

What I would like to point out, however, is that the urban not only helps us understand the intensification of mediatization, showing how the urban works as a fertile soil for growing new cultural forms of media. The fact that many groups become more and more dependent on media in their day-to-day urban lives also provides a lens through which we can analyze the many ambiguities and frictions of mediatization. This is particularly obvious if we look at groups that explicitly problematize the construction and control of urban spaces.

In an on-going project we have studied urban explorers in Sweden, investigating the nature of their spatial and communicative practices. 8The research project Cosmopolitanism from the Margins: Mediations of Expressivity, Social Space and Cultural Citizenship is funded by the Swedish Research Council (2012-2016) and led by Miyase Christensen, Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm.  To put it simply, the ethos of urban exploration can be summarized in five key elements: (1) there is a thrill of accessing forbidden or marginal places; (2) there is a fascination with authentic, non-exploited and non-mediated, places; (3) there is a felt need to document abandoned or hidden places; (4) there is a drive to create and share original stories and alternative aesthetic representations of place; and (5) there is a place-political ambition to problematize the control over places and cultural heritage.

Media technologies are used both for finding sites (via Google Earth, Google Maps and other geomedia services), documenting and experiencing sites (through photography), and sharing and discussing sites (through social media and other online platforms). One might say that urban exploration entails a rather distinct ensemble of media that together constitute a cultural form. At the same time, one must highlight the internal contradictions and tensions of such a form. Notably, the five elements just mentioned are accentuated to a varying degree among different explorers, which means that these actors play slightly different roles in relation to the mediatization of the city.

There is a particularly important tension between the desire to preserve authenticity and the obedience to dominant social media logics. 9José Van Dijck, J. The Culture of Connectivity: A Critical History of Social Media. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013). 10José Van Dijck, J. and Thomas Poell, “Understanding Social Media Logic,” Media and Communication, 1(2013): 2-14. On the one hand, there are urban explorers who actively try to achieve maximum spreadability of their images, positioning and branding themselves as urban entrepreneurs.11Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford and Joshua Green, Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture. (New York: New York University Press, 2013). They are thus in the business of aestheticizing and commoditizing new parts of the city. On the other hand, there are urban explorers who actively resist the synergies of mediatization and urban exploitation. Instead of using dominant social media like Facebook, they keep their own websites. They apply more documentary photographic techniques and they rarely spread information about which locations they have depicted (in order to preserve their authentic state).

In most cases, however, urban explorers are thrown in-between these positions. They cannot avoid reflecting upon how their media practices contribute to further mediatization, which by extension may lead to a type of urban transformation of which they are actually not in favour. Such phenomena go under labels like “ruin tourism” and “ruin porn”. We can find similar mechanisms at play if we look, for instance, at gentrification processes, through which run-down areas are gradually transformed into desirable symbols of urbanism.

I call the phenomenon I have identified among urban explorers reflexive hesitation, which basically revolves around the question of whether to mediate or not, and also how to mediate. How does mediation affect the city at large? How does it affect certain urban places? How does it affect one’s own (urban) self-identity? Reflexive hesitation shows how the questioning of urban space, that is, people’s active engagement in the production of a city, may evoke an accentuated sensitivity to the role of media within these processes. Reflexive hesitation is thus not specifically tied to urban exploration (or any other movement) but represents a broader, and potentially expanding, structure of feeling characteristic of much urban life in an era of (trans)mediatization. What I suggest here, following Williams, is that analyses of expressive and place-political groups can help us identifying the “pre-emergence” of cultural elements that may anticipate changes in the more general mediatized culture of cities.12Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977).


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