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Nico Carpentier: Media and Participation: A Site of Ideological-Democratic Struggle


This text was published in in . The topic is and the genre .

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This is a theoretical monograph about ordinary people’s participation in the media. Carpentier is concerned with the different levels of participation from ordinary people in political decision-making, and the hegemonic role of mass media in this power relationship. He is deeply inspired by the post-structuralist discourse analysis of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, and especially by their Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (1985).

The book begins with a long introductory chapter (124 pages) where five fields are discussed: democracy, spatial planning, development, arts and museums, and communication. In the five remaining chapters (on average 40 pages) Carpentier discusses the five ‘structuring elements’: power, identity, organization, technology and quality. Again he is highly systematic, treating them all first with a conceptual introduction and two case studies (except for chapter 5, which has one case study).

Carpentier’s case studies address the five eternally contested concepts of power, identity, organization, technology and quality. Carpentier deals for example with the audience discussion programme Jan Publiek on North-Belgian television and Video Nation on the BBC, as well as the websites of several radio and television stations and the Belgian video-blogging service 16plus. All the cases are historically situated in the late 1990s and early 2000s. It could be said that later developments like the everyday uptake of social media and the hegemonic position of American businesses like Google, Facebook and Twitter should also have been studied. This book was published in 2011, after all. However, Carpentier’s book certainly doesn’t feel outdated, mainly because the theoretical chapters deal with the more than hundred-year period from the 1900s to the 2000s.

Carpentier’s original theoretical position is his most valuable contribution to the field of new media research, but it is well hidden among the many literature reviews of this massive volume. His main theoretical tool is the continuum from minimalist to maximalist participation. The former is characterized by strong power imbalances between the actors, while the latter has a more egalitarian relationship between the actors. Carpentier uses the continuum to estimate and score various media broadcast formats. For example, participation in broadcasting works mainly in the corporate interest, and is of the minimalist type. It ‘often mainly [serves] the needs and interests of the mainstream media system itself, instrumentalizing and incorporating the activities of participating non-professionals’ (p. 69).

This hegemonic distortion towards minimalist participation is a democratic problem, according to Carpentier. He believes that maximalist participation in the media is the better solution. Researchers should ‘continue to deepen democracy and to include all societal fields (including the media) in this democratization process’ (p. 131). But Carpentier fears that participation is being successfully harnessed by market powers, and we should work to expose ‘the false assumption that participation is always beneficial’ (p. 22). He argues that ‘[p]articipation should remain an invitation – permanently on offer and embedded in balanced power relations – to those who want to have their voices heard’ (p. 359). In this respect Carpentier’s book carries a distinctive and valuable message.

The question prompted by this approach is simple to divine: how can this maximalist participation be inspired? The answer is that it has to be constructed as an affordance in the given medium technology, as part of a struggle to counteract the technological arrangement of minimalist participation, which is still hegemonic in Western societies, despite the growth of the internet. Carpentier discusses the method called ‘joint media technology production’, and describes a very interesting example of it. The Czechoslovak interactive film Kinautomat (1967) was an experimental design where spectators could influence the narrative by voting for one of two storylines by pushing a button in the armchair, with a basic computer processing the votes. After each round of voting the decision was announced and the film continued with the relevant narrative (p. 276). Carpentier explains how the difficulty of using 1960s film projectors for interactive purposes works to suppress the radical potential of the design, and he also describes the social resistance against this new set-up among film professionals and movie theatre workers. This is a lucid analysis that will make Laclau and Mouffe proud.

However, the book has several noticeable weaknesses. The theoretical rigour of Carpentier’s approach makes him strangely insensitive to the real behaviours of persons. The experiential dimension is oddly absent, and compared to writers such as Paddy Scannell or Sherry Turkle, Carpentier writes a distanced prose where maximum argumentative efficiency is the goal. For example he refers to user-generated content in new media with the abbreviation UGC, which is not only ugly, but removes the reader very far away from the social behaviour in question. In chapter 1, Carpentier first presents five political traditions, among them Marxism, anarchism and deliberative theory, and subsequently deploys them in four separate analyses of media participation. The reader has to relate to the same tradition twice, adding the media layer in the second round, and this feels rigid regardless of the author’s intention to be precise. The over-systematic writing style of Carpentier’s monograph is a mixed blessing. What the readers gain in efficiency of learning we lose in personal engagement and perseverance.

A more serious problem is the volume of paraphrases and quotes. Although Carpentier’s many literature reviews are lucid and relevant, they make me lose track of Carpentier’s own voice. He indulges in long quotes from authorities like Marx, Habermas and Foucault, and despite the fact that the quotes are extremely rich in implications, they are dealt with in only a few words, or they stand uncommented upon in the text. Carpentier simply hastens to the next position. This is problematic not just because of the resulting lack of readability, but also because it is often unclear whether Carpentier endorses the positions of these quotes, or merely shows their existence.

For the reader who likes a sharp, concise argument, Media and Participation is a frustrating read. It deals with so many positions that it reads more like an encyclopaedia of theoretical positions than a sustained theoretical argument. It seems that Carpentier has been subconsciously aware of the danger of such breadth, because he quotes a warning issued by his theoretical mentors Laclau and Mouffe: ‘a discourse incapable of generating any fixity of meaning is the discourse of the psychotic’ (page 351).

A final remark relates to the material quality of the book. Intellect churns out dozens of low-budget publications in the ECREA series (where I have also contributed), and there are noticeable sacrifices to be made for any lover of books. The binding and typographic quality is low. The figures have low resolution, and some are almost too blurry to be read comfortably. Worst of all: there is no index, even though this book in particular would benefit from the possibility of making cross-references.

Reference

Laclau E and Mouffe C (1985) Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics. New York: Verso.