The Urban as Emergent Key Concept for Media Theory: An Introduction

In this roundtable introduction , guest editor Scott Rodgers introduces the main thematic issues and questions to be addressed.
[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.]

If the recent flurry of conferences, symposia, books and journal articles are any indication, “the urban” has achieved real prominence in some corners of media and cultural studies. Research into everyday media practices, for example, have increasingly been concerned with urban experience. To consider, in other words, how the specificities of urban life it may entail certain daily demands – such as commuting, waiting, leisure, negotiating differences, “workstyles” – that compel particular sorts of media exposure, uses, needs and desires. An emphasis on the urban also seems to invite an “environmental” view of media, as an ensemble of technologies and forms literally “built-into” the city: from street art, outdoor advertising and screen surfaces to locational data, software automation and concealed mediatic infrastructures. And those exploring the emergent political dynamics of mediated life now often do so through urban spaces: for example, by considering how social media might choreograph and even accelerate urban protest cultures; or by thinking through how urbanized difference is formed and contested through various media.

Clearly, such interests in cities or the urban have been fruitful, bringing media and cultural studies into new cross-disciplinary conversations. It is increasingly common to hear new conjunctive terms such as “the mediated city”, “media cities” or even “urban media studies”. Yet it is also the case that the urban, as adjective or noun, is often left unpacked. While terms such as “urban” and “city” clearly imply some kind of conceptual provocation or framing, they often seem to be simply deployed as descriptors in media and cultural studies. They are little more than a way to situate research at a geographical scale, or to gesture toward a certain way of living. This is not necessarily surprising. It is arguably also the case that, in urban studies, “media” is just as often unpacked. Nor is it necessarily a problem. Not all writing ought to entail deep dives into the intended meaning of every invoked concept.

This roundtable has been organized on the premise, however, that the time has come to take seriously the ways in which the urban – and related concepts such as the city, urbanism and urban space – have travelled in and through media theory and research. It brings together five contributors (Zlatan Krajina, André Jansson, Myria Georgiou, Giorgia Aiello and Scott Rodgers), who have each brought together media and urban theory in their own research and writing. Two guiding sets of questions will inform the roundtable. First, how do media theorists and researchers define the urban? Is it simply places above a certain density or population threshold? Places that are not rural? Or might cities and urbanism be defined in more relational terms, for example as networked, globalized assemblages? Second, what might be at stake for media theory in invoking the urban? Is it just another fashionable academic concept for theorizing media, soon to be superseded? Or, does it offer a genuinely new way of thinking about the mediated worlds we inhabit?

In emphasizing such conceptual questions, it might be claimed that this roundtable is taking the gestaltist notion of figure-ground (famously used by Marshall McLuhan in Understanding Media) and severing it, placing the former above the latter. The most honest answer to this is the affirmative: yes, there is an emphasis here on the conceptual over the empirical. However, an important caveat is that such an emphasis is just that; an emphasis, neither a permanent nor an absolute prioritization of one over the other. The aim is so doing is to slow down, think through and most importantly debate the meaning, uses and mobilities of an emergent key concept for media theory. And in turn, to consider the possibility that the urban might offer something conceptually richer, not just to media theory, but to media research and practice on-the-ground.

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