I do want to acknowledge the questions you raise in your comment, but it seems to me (this being a starting point) we need to actually answer them! And I actually don’t understand a few of your claims — that irony is “regressive,” or that there is a “tenuous” relationship between cynicism and civic engagement. I’m not familiar with Bennet’s discussion of contemporary citizenship.
My question is about the seemingly promising framework for democratic participation that is being presented in the post, when this particular example seems fairly unambiguously to be a *failure* of meaningful civic engagement (to the extent that this PR campaign merely created a smokescreen for a pertinent local issue rather than clarify or help the cause). So can we just call these things unambiguously problematic and a general threat to democratic participation, when that seems to be the case? Or do we have to keep invoking “potential” when reality doesn’t merely not reflect but actively refutes that potential? (I don’t see how KONY 2012 is categorically different in this regard.)
I’m not sure whether that’s being argued in the original post, and I wonder why it took a further comment to reveal some crucial context around the creation of this video and campaign that seem to be crucial to understanding this example. The campaign honestly seems to have very little connection to an “increasingly mediated, empowering, and community-driven” civic life. This feels like an actively disempowering, privately-driven example of activism that actually undermined the pertinent political action.
Thanks for joining the conversation David. I think you misunderstand the point that I’m making in my comment.
As I state in the sentence following the one you cite: “But more importantly this example reveals that critical media literacy is not just about effectively utilizing media technologies to forward political perspectives—even if it means saving libraries from closure.” Like you, I’m very much interested in the “how and why questions” that are key to practicing critical media literacy.
For example, I ask the questions: “…how do institutionally-coordinated—but still progressive and kind of radically performative—civic engagement efforts like this fit into Bennet’s discussion of contemporary citizenship?”
And “…what does the ironic appropriation of the book-burning discourse say about contemporary political discourse, and particularly the tenuous relationship between cynicism and critical citizenship (as Paul’s research has explored at length)?”
And “How can we be best prepared to critically engage with these political issues and media representations in ways that don’t reproduce regressive ideas (like de-funding libraries) OR perpetuate regressive discourse (like relying on irony) OR hand precious political battles over to PR agencies (like Leo Burnett Worldwide)?”
As I mentioned, the video—on the most basic level—demonstrates the power of social media in contemporary politics. But the most important readings of the video start (not end) there.
So, I agree—practicing critical media literacy requires us to question even the political perspectives we identify with when they’re voiced in ways that are contrived or limiting or undemocratic or exploitative. You’re right to say “It’s more mystification, and in this case it causes us to miss the fundamental disconnect between media and political reality on the ground.”
It’s exciting to see young people—especially coming from places and cultures that have been traditionally under- and misrepresented in mainstream media—use their critical analysis and creative skills to better their communities. The ability to recognize the inadequacies of and contradictions within media representations of issues and peoples and to produce alternative media in an effort to correct these issues are key characteristics of critical media literacy. And in this case, their efforts have some immediate, measurable effects—the students research, discuss and make something to address these problems; their classmates learn more about the issues; and together they contribute (in some small way) to a solution.
“While Renee correctly identifies the book-burning campaign as a public relations ploy and not a spontaneous community effort, it still demonstrates the potential to use digital media to advocate for and enact change in political matters, for good or for bad (or in this case, for both?).”
This seems like a strange thing to say. The “for good or for bad” matters — is in fact the most important question to be asking here. Otherwise the question is just, “does digital media have any impact on our policy or politics?” Well, sure — but critical thinking requires us to ask the how and the why questions. This example pretty obviously does NOT engage with genuine community activism — not because digital tools “can or can’t” engage communities in political or policy change (there are thousands of examples of successful or unsuccessful online community efforts) but because this particular example is not a good example of it.
To that end, I think it’s ironic that in promoting a vision of media literacy that is supposedly “critical” to (in part) foster democratic participation, we’re using a text that, when analyzed in any meaningfully critical way, reveals that “community engagement” and “democratic participation” are NOT the clear outcomes. The claim that “diverse networks of individuals can share opinions, advocate for causes, and advance ideas in unique and collaborative ways” is not supported by how this piece was actually created and used.
I worry that too often we let “critical thinking” become a stand-in for sets of (often ad hoc, occasionally more formal or ideological) attitudes and beliefs that we think will make the world a better place, rather than a more process-oriented view of critical thinking that demands asking hard questions *especially* of things that we are most instinctively sympathetic to. It’s part of why I recoil at slick media designed to simplify and exploit emotionally toward a political goal, even when I’m an activist for the cause. It’s more mystification, and in this case it causes us to miss the fundamental disconnect between media and political reality on the ground.
I’m not so sure this is an example of critical media literacy as much as it is a depiction of our culture’s inevitable focus on reacting to knee-jerk emotions and fear.
Make no mistake about it: the local community’s effort to support the library was unsuccessful. It was Leo Burnett Worldwide, an advertising agency, that developed this initiative, not Troy librarians or their community supporters. The video reflects the brilliant strategic thinking of PR professionals, not amateurs. Is it really an example of community empowerment? I think it can be seen as an example of how crafty message-makers can exploit people’s emotions (in this case, at least for a good cause).
For me, it was the classic media literacy question: “Who created this message?” that opened the door to the inquiry process and made me curious about WHY the ad agency got involved. To get another perspective, read Laura Miller’s great piece in Salon.com”
This quote, from that piece, represents another example of media literacy, as the author asserts: “In truth, the stunt’s greatest audacity lies in its cynicism. It’s founded on the assumption that Troy’s voters aren’t using the library enough to be alarmed at the simple prospect of its closing. Instead, the library had to be transformed in their minds from a real-world resource into a symbol, a token in a bitter culture war in which whoever casts his opponent as the biggest barbarian wins.”
Ouch. Ouch. Ouch. But if critical media literacy wants to explore power relationships in how people use messages to maintain or challenge the status quo, then we must cast a cold eye on “what works and why” and wonder about what kind of democracy we have when this kind of political theater is required to manipulate the public into taking action.
The example Paul has chosen is particularly interesting and definitely substantiates the idea that as media consumers and democratic citizens in contemporary society, we need to be able to critically read and respond to media messages and the social issues they attempt to address.
While Renee correctly identifies the book-burning campaign as a public relations ploy and not a spontaneous community effort, it still demonstrates the potential to use digital media to advocate for and enact change in political matters, for good or for bad (or in this case, for both?).
But more importantly this example reveals that critical media literacy is not just about effectively utilizing media technologies to forward political perspectives—even if it means saving libraries from closure. As Paul notes, critical media literacy involves collaborative efforts of citizens to critically engage with the issues their communities face—and the role of media in those issues. And like Renee mentions, this particular example also prompts us as critical readers to consider the sources and motivations behind and the implications of such an effort. For example, how do institutionally-coordinated—but still progressive and kind of radically performative—civic engagement efforts like this fit into Bennet’s discussion of contemporary citizenship? I’m thinking of Kony 2012 and any number of trending-today-gone-tomorrow Astroturf efforts. And what does the ironic appropriation of the book-burning discourse say about contemporary political discourse, and particularly the tenuous relationship between cynicism and critical citizenship (as Paul’s research has explored at length)?
How can we be best prepared to critically engage with these political issues and media representations in ways that don’t reproduce regressive ideas (like de-funding libraries) OR perpetuate regressive discourse (like relying on irony) OR hand precious political battles over to PR agencies (like Leo Burnett Worldwide)? Good questions. And this is just Day 1!
I love the video and story about how people were able to use media & irony to push back against the dominant framing of the Tea Party. This is an excellent example of how critical media literacy can be a tool for unveiling the absurdity of a dominant discourse (all taxes are bad) and provide alternative avenues for people to take action to challenge those myths and improve society. This type of actualizing citizenship is more critically aware and empowered than the dutiful citizenship, it is culture jamming at its best.
“Nothing holds these twenty beliefs together except that someone at some point has ridiculed them.”
In addition to marking the similarities between discourse about conspiracy theories and the discourse of conspiracy theorists, as Felix astutely points out, Jack’s posts suggests there can be no conspiracy theories without anti-conspiracy theory smugness. In other words: http://www.quickmeme.com/meme/3tw9x5/ (yeah, I just made that).
This reminded me of one of my favorite theoretical pieces on the conspiracy theory label, “Conspiracy theories and their truth trajectories” by Mathijs Pelkmans and Rhys Machold, which maps the concept of conspiracy theory along a truth/power axis. I would love to hear more thoughts on this.
Thank you so much for your comment! I realize this stuff is weird; I think its foreignness to Westerners is both fascinating and telling in terms of how much the West/Islam binary has structured American and European political thought.
Let me answer the easiest question first: this theory is so popular in Turkey that the former U.S. Consul de General in Istanbul ended up publishing a piece condemning it: http://www.turkishpolicy.com/images/stories/2008-01-turkey/DavidArnett.pdf. His exasperated tone really says it all. You see this theory on facebook, you see it on book stands, and you have 4-star generals and MPs propagating it on TV.
As for the context, it has to do with Turkey’s history of very strict laicite, the belief that foreign forces are always out to divide the country (what some have called the Sevres syndrome) and the fact that AKP rule has combined Islamization with a neoliberal privatization frenzy. In this case, AKP’s “moderate Islam” is seen not in opposition to radical Islam but to Turkish secularism and nationalism. It is well-known that the United States courted Islam for its Cold War projects against communism; the mythology of the founding of the Turkish republic after WWI also notes that many religious figures were okay with the imperialist division of the country. For many Turks, the current plot is simply a continuation of these earlier histories.
It would take too, too long to explain the discursive and affective complexities of the theory, which i hope to do in an essay in the coming year or two. I am, however, very grateful to you for asking the brave and proper question of wtf. ;-)
Perin, thanks for a great contribution to the week (& an awesome use of the slide-show format)! Also, thanks for introducing us the iconography of Turkish conspiracy theory, which I didn’t know about at all before. Aside from the similarities you mentioned, I found the convergence of anti-muslim, anti-American & anti-Israeli motifs in the Turkish examples you chose quite striking —mostly because such a connection would probably make little sense to the mainstream of American conspiracy theorists (and this connection would probably also not occur to their their German counterparts — perhaps because the mainstream of German media seems to frame Erdogan as a culturally conservative modernizer with mixed feelings about westernization). I wondered if you could elaborate a bit on the background of these Turkish examples, since I am totally unfamiliar with these and their contexts: what kind of political projects and agendas do these theories align with and how prominent is this idea of a combined US/Israel/Islamist plot to weaken Turkey?