This post grows out of an ethnographic study of media production at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. Two graduate students (Ph.D. student Laura Meadows and M.A. student John Remensperger) and I explicitly set out to re-create the sort of field observations of the production of media events that Kurt Lang and Gladys Engel Lang conducted so brilliantly half a century ago. I recently shared some of our initial findings about journalistic fields and cultural performance at the convention on the OrgTheory blog, and here I wanted to make an argument about the types of networked public practices that take shape around media events.
In conceptualizing the convention, we proceeded from Dayan and Katz’s classic work on media events, which are shared rituals that interrupt daily life, are broadcast live, follow pre-planned scripts that both reveal and reify social order, and ultimately build social solidarity. In this formulation, conventions are integrative events that legitimate institutional democratic contests. The dark side of ritual is the potential for social control. Nick Couldry, for instance, argues that mass media create and propagate a “myth of the mediated center” of legitimate authority. In other words, mass media exercise power in sanctioning official actors to consecrate the body politic.
And yet, there are limits to social control in that no one actor controls the conditions for publicity. Dayan and Katz point out that media events such as conventions are premised upon the co-production of organizers, broadcasters, and audiences. Organizers produce the basic script, storyline, and stage for the performance, and then must convince broadcasters to adopt their understandings of the event. Journalists are guided by their sense of news values, professional self-understandings, commitment to serving a generalized public, and routines of media production. Finally, audiences must tune in and embrace their interpellation as citizens of a legitimate social order. By no means is this alignment assured. Journalists can reject the staging of the media event entirely in refusing to cover it, or can provide their own gloss onto its significance. Citizens can refuse to watch or re-interpret the dominant message of the mediated event.
Importantly, a recent body of work by cultural sociologist Jeffrey Alexander has focused on how political performances – including those that take shape on convention stages – are aimed at fusing candidates, cultural values, and audiences in ways that enable politicians to become “collective representations,” or vessels for civic hopes and desire. Performances are attempts by social actors to convince others of the meanings of situations and the legitimacy of their actions within them. In Alexander’s formulation, politicians and journalists, as well as their respective audiences, are embedded within a larger “civil sphere” governed by a distinct cultural logic. The civil is but one of a number of distinct spheres in a pluralistic society which constitute its boundaries and which its actors must be attuned to, such as religious, market, and family spheres, etc. The civil is distinct from these other domains in that it encompasses the cultural logic of democracy, organized around the values of equality, liberty, and justice.
These values and their attendant ideal expressive practices (such as rational debate, deliberative and truthful expression, and rule-bound impersonal governance) are premised upon deep cultural backgrounds that shape what is legitimate in public life and the scripts that candidates can perform. Successful political performance means fusion between what particular actors do and these background representations. Candidates strive to become the vessels for the civic hopes and desires of citizen audiences through symbolically achieving identification with civic qualities. For example, candidates craft performances in the hopes that audiences will consider them honorable, rationale, and inclusive. Conversely, candidates seek to pollute opponents by linking them to anti-civil qualities, for example portraying opponents as self-interested, irrational, and parochial. Elections are about the symbolic clash of actors who derive scripts from the civil background and vie to become a collective representation of the body politic.
Journalists, in turn, channel performances to wider publics. In this way, journalists, and their political counterparts, enact the “performance of politics” that secures legitimate rule on the basis of the meaning and morality of the civil sphere. Importantly, journalists also insert themselves as intermediaries between candidates and the public. Journalists critique the performances of candidates, which checks the ability of political actors to manipulate the public and the power of these representations (unchecked cultural power would slide into fascism.)
One guiding question for us was what happens when the convention, as a media event, takes shape in a radically different technological context than at the time of Dayan and Katz’s writing? Indeed, in the years since this formative work, a number of scholars have detailed how technological change has shaped the production and experience of media events. For example, Liebes and Katz argue that shifts in media technologies have resulted in audience fragmentation; the proliferation of channels has made collusion between journalists and organizers less likely; and, the rise of cheap, mobile video technologies has made non-routine disruption more common. As a result, they argue there is a widespread, society-wide decline in trust of institutions and “cynicism, disenchantment, and segmentation.”
We still see the enchantment of the political. Our ethnographic data suggests that conventions still serve as ritualistic media events that anchor political processes and focus the attention of political and journalistic actors as well as the broader mass-mediated and networked public. And yet, networked media have also enabled new forms of what we call “active spectatorship.” This concept combines the integrative framework of media events with the trials of legitimation and authenticity that are central to performance theory. Given that conventions are important ways that democratic politics is symbolically organized and contests institutionalized, networked publics convene around these ritual events, yet engage in critical practices of active spectatorship. In calling these practices active spectatorship, the public is ‘active’ is voicing critique or endorsement, but also remains in a spectator role.
First, the centering of public discourse. Conventions structure political time and provide shared points of reference that actors and the public convene around. Conventions are still integrative, in Dayan and Katz’s sense, in that they focus the attention of a pluralistic society and produce a collective public. In addition to giving shape to political processes and fostering social solidarity, it is the particular civic values that political actors give voice to during convention performances that are important. Conventions are one-way, mass mediated performances that are firmly rooted in the civil sphere. As such, they are sites for both the dissemination and continual reinterpretation of civic values by actors and audiences.
The nuance of Dayan and Katz’s argument provides a useful guide here. Conventions are not spectacles that provoke quiescence, although that is a danger that scholars of media rituals are well aware of. Conventions, as embodied and mediated events, provide occasions and sites for political actors to engage in ritualized forms of combat to win the consent of journalistic and public spectators. Conventions provide parties with organized ways to critique the performances and values of their competition. All of these performances are organized forms of contestation and debate to secure the legitimacy to govern. Journalists demand that political performers live up to their civic expectations. In this sense, journalists stand in judgment of the ceremonial tendencies of the political center at conventions and are called upon to provide the authentication of the ritual, in essence setting bounds on collusion between actors and providing standards for public evaluation.
Conventions are not just organized ways for journalists to critique performance and power, providing a check on the capacity for political spectacle. They play the same role for the democratic public. The public audience remains in a spectator role – but the twist is that we can value this on democratic grounds. As political theorist Jeffrey Green argues (and Alexander embraces) in his attempt to reclaim the democratic value of spectatorship, political actors do not control the means of their own publicity, which makes conditions for public accountability possible.
Even more, however, Twitter and other social media platforms provide means for networked publics to engage in more active forms of spectatorship. While Green and Alexander do not address social media, conventions provide a diverse array of networked media users with a common occasion for media production and an anchoring in the democratic values of civil society. Practices of active spectatorship emerge around these occasions. The context of production is oriented to established institutional politics and processes, but it does not simply work to reify the existing order. Conventions provide opportunities for the public airing of partisan conflict, dissensus, and questioning of the prevailing social order, but it does so in deeply civic ways. These practices of active spectatorship take shape through social media and are generally free from the strictures of professionalism and economic structures. Active spectators utilize these events and their networked instantiations such as hashtags on Twitter as forums for dissensus, the clash of competing moral values and political programs. There is a marked range of debate that plays out over social media, as civil society and movement actors, rival party factions, and citizens convene around hashtags such as #DNC2012 to contest the performances of political actors, journalists, and one another. In turn, these actors variously reject reverent narration, contest political values, and refuse to accept conciliatory broadcast narratives.
At the same time, the public remains in a spectator role. Citizens are not participants in these media events except in superficial ways, such as being rhetorically invoked by political actors, or parties’ display of scrolling tweets on jumbotrons inside arenas. Active spectatorship is premised upon a pluralistic media sector where the public has control over at least one means of publicity and form of symbolic accountability over the powerful, including those who collude to produce media events. Social media offer opportunities for public critique and accountability over both political and journalistic actors. Active spectating has de-centered journalistic authority and control over images and narratives from scripted political rituals. However, this power is not all encompassing in being bounded by the institutional political sphere and discrete performative contexts, which differentiates our notion of active spectatorship from other recent re-conceptualizations of media events that both place too much emphasis on non-institutional actors and lose the tethering to the material sites of performance that Dayan and Katz captured with the focus on pageantry.