We think that we live in democracies: in fact, we live in mediarchies. Our political regimes are based less on nations or citizens than on audiences shaped by the media. We assume that our social and political destinies are shaped by the will of the people without realizing that 'the people' are always produced, both as individuals and as aggregates, by the media: we are all embedded in mediated publics, 'intra-structured' by the apparatuses of communication that govern our interactions. In this major book, Yves Citton maps out the new regime of experience, media and power that he designates by the term 'Mediarchy'. To understand Mediarchy, we need to look both at the effects that the media have on us and also at the new forms of being and experience that they induce in us. We can never entirely escape from the effects of the mediarchies that operate through us but by becoming more aware of their conditioning, we can develop the new forms of political analysis and practice which are essential if we are to rise to the unprecedented challenges of our time. This comprehensive and far-reaching book will be essential reading for students and scholars in media and communications, politics and sociology, and it will be of great interest to anyone concerned about the multiple and complex ways that the media - from newspapers and TV to social media and the internet - shape our social, political and personal lives today.
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Prelude: Democracy or Mediarchy
Part I: Media
1 Naming Mediarchy
The Critique of the Mass Media
A Layer of Strangeness
Three Registers of Mediality
How (Not) to Define Media?
Mediarchy: The Power of the Milieu
Interlude One: Heterarchy
2 Approaching Mediarchy
From Infrastructures to Intrastructures
Recursive Circularity (Feedback)
Interlude Two: Informational Pharmacology
3 Unfolding Mediarchy
Eight Attributes of Mediality
Modulations of Presences
The Multiplication of Intermediate Worlds
Interlude Three: Affective Meteorologies
4 Equipping Mediarchy
The Power of Apparatuses
Connection and Separation
Formal Causalities, Recursive Causalities
Part II: Mass Media
5 Massifying Mediarchy
Making Sense, Mattering
Interlude Four: Populisms
6 Systematizing Mediarchy
Synchronizing and Aligning
Irritating and Schematizing
Homogenizing and Individuating
Globalizing, Balkanizing, Creolizing
Interlude Five: Media Powers
7 Decolonizing Mediarchy
Post-Media or Post-Adverts?
Part III: Medium
8 Archaeologizing Mediarchy
Four Pillars of Media Archaeology
The Exhumation of Imaginaries
The Excavation of Machines and the Opening of Black Boxes
Interlude Six: Accelerationism
9 Stratifying Mediarchy
The Deep Time of the Media
Interlude Seven: The Politics of Low Frequencies
10 Magnetizing Mediarchy
The Polysemics of the Spirit
Electric Communications and the Universal Fluid
The Reign of the Magnetizers
The Phantasmagoria of Spectacles
Interlude Eight: Formative Milieus
11 Zombifying Mediarchy
The Excommunication of Dark Media
The Magnetization of Nations
The Transmutation of Flows
The Invasion of Ghosts
The Litany of Phantasms
Occupy Zombie Street
Part IV: Meta-Media
12 Digitizing Mediarchy
The Cultural Logics of Digitality
Interlude Nine: Data Commons
13 Inhabiting Mediarchy
The Alienating Emancipation of Software
The Scrambling of Sovereignties
Hardware Revolutions and Counterrevolutions
The Stacking of Intrastructures
Short-circuiting and Intermediation
Interlude Ten: Mediarchic Metamorphoses
14 Surprising Mediarchy
The Hackers: Surprises and Surprenances [‘overtakings’]
The Triumph of Actuality
The Anarchism of Virtualization
Caring for Mediations
End User License Agreement
: Kaleidoscomania, c.1820.
: The superimposition of the medial layer, the media layer and the mediumistic lay…
: The medium at work.
: Milan Mikuláštík, 3D reproduction of the Makapansgat pebble (2016).
: The conception of the Medium as a perceptual milieu.
: Bureau d’études, ‘Economy of the Self – Where Am I?’ (detail).
: Shannon and Weaver’s communication model.
: Feedback loops.
Figures 2.4 and 2.5
: The electrical accident and the electricity current getting out of control, in A…
: Marshall T. Poe, Table summarizing the attributes of the media and their effects…
: Hypermediacy: the multiplicity of open windows on our screens.
: Ruppert & Mulot, Bow and Rifle.
: Two apparatuses: the solar microscope and a magic lantern capable of projecting …
: The Young slits experiment.
: Praxiteles (?), Venus of Arles, Paris, Louvre Museum Paris, Louvre Museum.
: The polemoscope, an apparatus for bending the gaze.
: Forming a mass: giving meaning to particles oriented by a magnetic field.
: The architecture of resonances and their enthralling effects.
: The self-referentiality of the media.
: Box office takings in the United States (1997–2016).
: Testerian catechism (Mexico, 16th century).
: Amounts collected by a 10 per cent tax on advertising expenses.
: James Tilly Matthews, ‘The Air Loom’ (1810).
: Rod Dickinson, Air Loom (2002).
: The Pythagorean Organ.
: Andrew McConnell, Rubbish Dump 2.0, report from Agbogbloshie, Ghana.
: The four medio-anthropological folds inspired by Vilém Flusser.
: Echotectonic magic.
: Nicolas Maigret, Art of Failure, Internet Encephalography (2011).
: The electric couple, experimental demonstrations inspired by Stephen Gray and Ch…
: The ubiquitous influence of electricity. In Luigi Galvani, De viribus electricit…
: The first electric telegraph, invented by Georges Lesage in Geneva, in 1774.
: A phantasmagoria.
: Suzanne Treister, HEXEN 2.0 / CyberneticSeance 01 (New York City, 1947).
: Image of a bit on the surface of a hard disk (15 x 15 microns).
: Nuances of standardization of racial diversity in the emoticons proposed by Appl…
: Screenshots of Douglas Engelbart’s demo, 9 December 1968.
: Diagram of the accidental megastructure of the Stack by Metahaven and Benjamin B…
: Examples of book covers put out for sale on Amazon by Traumawien and Bernhard Ba…
: Marc-Antoine Mathieu, Sens.
: Graffiti of The Sheepest
: Charles Fey, Liberty Bell, a slot machine from 1899.
Table of Contents
To Daniel Bougnoux, Maryvonne Arnaud, Philippe Mouillon, Henry Torgue, François Deck, Élisabeth Sénégas, Édith Heurgon and my colleagues at LITT & ARTS who, from Cerisy to Grenoble, so generously provide hospitality for experiments in thought and sociality.
To my doctoral students, whose intelligence and generosity reinvigorate my hopes.
And to my friends at the magazine Multitudes, who do not despair of transforming this medium into media.
Translated by Andrew Brown
First published in French as Médiarchie © Editions du Seuil, 2017. All rights reserved.This English edition © Polity Press, 2019
This work received the French Voices Award for excellence in publication and translation. French Voices is a program created and funded by the French Embassy in the United States and FACE Foundation (French American Cultural Exchange).
French Voices Logo designed by Serge Bloch
This work received support from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in the United States through their publishing assistance program.
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Names: Citton, Yves, author.Title: Mediarchy / Yves Citton.Other titles: Médiarchie. EnglishDescription: Cambridge, UK ; Medford, MA : Polity Press, 2019. | Includes bibliographical references and index. | Summary: “We think that we live in democracies: in fact, we live in mediarchies. In this major book, Yves Citton maps out the new regime of experience, media and power that he designates by the term ‘mediarchy’. This comprehensive and far-reaching book examines the multiple complex ways that the media shape our social, political and personal lives today” – Provided by publisher.Identifiers: LCCN 2019001664 (print) | LCCN 2019980854 (ebook) | ISBN 9781509533381 (hardback) | ISBN 9781509533398 (paperback) | ISBN 9781509533411 (epub)Subjects: LCSH: Mass media – Influence. | Mass media and public opinion. | Mass media – Political aspects.Classification: LCC P94 .C5513 2019 (print) | LCC P94 (ebook) | DDC 324.7/3 – dc23LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2019001664LC ebook record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2019980854
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In Mediarchy, Yves Citton has produced a really magnificent work of synthesis. Not many people have really tried to bring the separate worlds of German, English and French media theory into dialog. I don’t want to underplay Citton’s own distinctive contributions to media theory – well exemplified by his first book in translation, on the Ecology of Attention – but one of the most impressive things about Mediarchy is its generosity toward the field as a whole and its ambitious attempt to see a common project in media theory.
Let me start by orienting the reader with a condensed account of Citton’s position within media theory: Given the popularity of political theory and its omnivorous claims to explain the world, I think it is worth beginning with media theory’s critique of it. Political theory assumes an immediacy of the political to itself. Democracy just sort of happens, like a magic spell, as if time and space did not present so many material frictions. To media theory, all political spaces are media spaces. The thing to pay attention to is the mediation that intervenes before there can be any ‘general will’.
Of course the absence of a magic spell to harmonize the people’s individual wills is not unknown to political theory. In Hobbes it takes a sovereign, a central point, to keep the people from becoming a rabble. But even here political theory pays little attention to how the sovereign’s will is mediated, or what the marks of that mediation might be.
One way of approaching this is to think about what publics are like when they are mediated. When they are mediated, they are synchronized. A people acts in a way that coordinates its actions, and indeed even its thoughts and feelings. They don’t have to act, think and feel the same thing. They just have to act, think and feel in the same rhythm. That might be the hallmark of a mediarchy. And once we perceive its hallmark, we might then ask about who or what does the mediating to make it so. Our attention shifts from sovereign power on the one hand and people, publics or crowds on the other, to the material and informational means of connecting and coordinating them.
The next step is to realize that power and people do not pre-exist this mediation, but are constituted in and by it. Then we might start to think about how different historical and technical forms of mediation might shape different powers and peoples. Not in a deterministic way, but rather by offering a range of affordances. The synchronizing effects of mediation make ever more vast and complex forms of social coordination possible. Our actions seem to become more and more immediate in their relation to others. But there is always a bit of delay. Immediacy is a kind of illusion. Delay results in echoes and resonances. Mediation is noisy. Attempts to overcome these problems usually just displace them.
Power – that standby concept of political theory – might be more a matter of surfing waves of resonance than of command and control. The paradox of power in mediation is that it cannot really command attention, but has to seduce it. Power is a holding of attention in a resonant and noisy media environment. Power has, among other things, to be rhetorical and persuasive. How does power enchant attention?
What then might be a form of counter-power in our prevailing and even accelerating mediarchy? The key metaphor here is delay. Our (almost, seemingly) immediate responses are habitual ones. What one needs is an art in refusing the habitual response. In that refusal, I have time to pay attention not just to the enchanting information but to the form in which it is mediated to me.
Is a media anarchy to counter mediarchy possible? When I pay attention to the form of mediation itself, I can start to see the hierarchies and protocols built into it, the synchronizing procedure by which it solicits me, and I can then also pause to consider my options. I might opt to respond with noise rather than the habitual response. I might produce variations, elaborations – I might improvise. Mediarchy is so complex that it cannot coordinate everyone to the same marching tune. If it is to work, it has to allow for variation. That provides the wiggle room for a media politics.
One can then think of what is commonly taken as the political sphere as a media sphere, and as one that repeatedly returns to the problem of synchronization and variation. The difficulty of improvising in a complex temporality fuels a desire for strong synchronization, which right-wing demagogues are only too happy to provide. Indeed, there is a lot one can learn about right-wing populisms by thinking of them in media theory as well as in political theory terms. Not the least reason to read Citton is to find a powerful way of tackling this problem.
The main argument of this book can be stated in a single sentence: our shared imaginary leads us to believe that we live in ‘democracies’, while a more nuanced view of the reality of our regimes of power suggests that we live in ‘mediarchies’. The overall aim of my book is to give a precise conceptual and analytical content to the neologism mediarchy, and to convince the reader that an analysis of mediarchy can provide a much more realistic approach to a whole series of troubling problems in which today’s democracies have become mired.
Thus there are two voices in dialogue throughout the book: a political essay and a theory of the media. There are chapters that are more conceptual, more systematic and more voluminous, drawing on recent contributions from media theory: they build up a coherent structure, aimed at providing an overview of the nature of mediarchy. They alternate with briefer interventions, more explicitly political interludes, which at once illustrate and test out the application of theoretical concepts to the analysis of more concrete problems.
The ideas I am putting forward acknowledge the inability of our current political words and deeds to grasp our social, economic and ecological realities – especially in the case of those forces identified with the ‘left’. This inability stems from a twofold illusion inherent in our ideology of democracy. Sometimes we behave as if what governed our sociopolitical destinies were the free will of the sum of individuals composing the demos (the people, or just ‘people’). Sometimes we seem to believe that the alternative to this (neo)liberal individualism would involve recognizing – either to endorse it or to subjugate it – a power inherent in a demos conceived as a supra-individual entity (‘society’, the ‘Republic’, the ‘working class’, the ‘West’, the ‘nation’, the ‘people as Volk’).
The resulting positions cover the entirety of the political spectrum, from a far left intoxicated with the idea of the ‘common’ to a far right propped up by the notion of ‘homeland’, via those who sing the praises of individual freedom, those who are nostalgic for sovereignty, and the objective allies of Uberization. All share the same blindness to one fundamental principle: after more than a century of development in the mass media, and after a few decades of emergence of digital cultures, ‘people’ (and all of us are ‘people’) are always produced simultaneously (and always differently) as individuals and as aggregates, depending on the types of audiences structured by the apparatuses of communication that govern their interactions. In plain and much too simple terms: the media create their public and, for several decades, it has been not different peoples but different publics who have been the bedrock of politics. Is it not curious that while everyone harps on about the way ‘politics’ has now dissolved into the ‘com’,1 there are very few political programmes (on the left) that put the media – the very infrastructure of the said ‘com’ – at the heart of their demands? Our age dreams of feverishly reforming everything (without ever changing anything much) – everything, that is, except the very thing that nourishes the fever for reform. Perhaps our eyes are not sharp enough to recognize what moves us (in every sense of the word).
In all this, there is of course no question of rejecting the very idea of democracy, which, on the contrary, should come out of it all the stronger, having been made more specific, adapted to its own scale, a scale that must be local and convivial. As Rousseau foresaw, an association, an apartment block, a neighbourhood or a city can (and must) respond to the ideals of democracy. Above a certain size, however, the media needed by information, perceptions, affects and meanings to circulate between us play such a central role that we inevitably enter the regime of mediarchy, which it is illusory to imagine as a democracy.
Such is the premise of this book: we will be condemned to political impotence as long as we overcome this blindness to the media, which, on the level of current interactions, structure our collaborations as well as our conflicts, our individualizations and our aggregations. A better understanding of these media (plural, differentiated, superimposed), as well as the mediarchy formed from their interweaving, is a precondition for giving a fresh impetus to new forms of political analysis and practice, which are essential if we are to rise to the challenges posed by the Anthropocene. No one can know what the kind of policy needed to meet these challenges will look like – will it be the end of ‘politics’ as we know it, or the (re)birth of something else? But it is by seeking to find out that we will have a better chance of getting out of our current rut.
Simply stating the need to analyse the present in terms of mediarchy will not get our ideas much further forward. The most important resource – and it will take up most of this book – involves providing ourselves with the conceptual and imaginary tools to learn to see, to understand and to question what this mediarchy consists of.
There is something faintly comic about such a project, for very good reasons. For half a century, hundreds of books, thousands of specialized articles and countless debates have focused on the ‘mass media’. Usually, they have criticized the media. Sometimes they have tried to understand their function and their impact. We all think we know, at least vaguely, what we are talking about when we talk about the ‘mass media’. And yet the empirical studies of mediametricians, the sometimes abstruse formulations of theoreticians, the frustrated denunciations of militants and the constant lamentations about ‘weapons of mass distraction’ all seem to swoosh round and round in watertight silos, without being able to really communicate.
What we need is an overall vision, nuanced and, if possible, all-inclusive, of all these clouds of discourse. A vision that tries to distinguish, and then connect, the different areas of reality and the different levels of meaning referred to when we talk about the ‘mass media’. A vision that is at once philosophical, political, sociological, anthropological and aesthetic, showing why the ‘mass media’ are not only means of information or communication, but forms of experience and, at the same time, multipliers of power.
So I will not so much be describing, analysing or criticizing the ‘mass media’ as trying to map out the regime of experience and power designated by the term mediarchy. This term already has a short history that goes back at least three decades. We find it from time to time in blogs or denunciations of the ‘power of the media’.2 To date (early 2017), a search on Google brings up 540 results, mostly to articles that I myself have published with this term in their title over the last few years.3 Here I will give it a more specific and complex conceptual existence.
The Greek word arche (ἀρχή) has the suggestive property of referring both to a beginning and a command, an origin and a power – whatever occupies the place of both principle and prince. Hence my general argument: the different realms of reality to which we refer when speaking of the ‘mass media’ must be considered as concealing the original principles of our structures of power. Striving to understand mediarchy means trying to unravel what the ‘mass media’ are by reflecting on what they do to us and what they make of us, for we will be looking at both the effects that the ‘mass media’ have on us, but also the becomings that they induce in us. One first intuitive idea is that, even when we denounce the ‘power of the mass media’, we blind ourselves to the mediarchy – and we barely get a glimpse of how much the ‘media’ not only govern us, but also constitute us, individually and collectively.
The presumption of publishing a book (yet another one …) that will (finally) explain what the ‘mass media’ really are would be difficult to justify if it did not result from the sense of political urgency mentioned in the previous section. The hope behind my ambition to develop a substantial concept of mediarchy rests on the intuition that forms of knowledge, tools, theories, imaginaries, stories, DIY jobs and practices really do exist – albeit elsewhere – and can help us identify what, between us and within us, is nowadays preventing us from reorienting our collective destinies, though tomorrow it might make this possible.
The journey into mediarchy proposed by this book attempts to map out this elsewhere that is both unknown and familiar. It often requires us to speak different languages (English, French, Italian and German will mingle together), which we hope to make as comprehensible as possible, without losing the charm of a certain exoticism. My book traces a trajectory across four continents, each of which defines a little more precisely what is generally blurred by the common reference to the ‘mass media’. Each of these continents is given a different graphic form, helping to distinguish between different registers of reality that are often confused.
The first of these continents – media – refers to the various basic properties of whatever helps human beings to record, transmit and process information, discourses, stories, pictures and sounds. The second – mass media – provides us with an opportunity to look at the particular case of the mass media as they have emerged in human history over about two centuries. The third – mediums – invites us to visit the dark and sometimes disturbing corners that have haunted our relationship with the apparatuses of recording and communication ever since the beginning of time, but to which the different ‘communication sciences’ have usually turned a blind eye. The fourth continent – meta-media – is just beginning to emerge along with our ‘digital cultures’, but it is already repackaging everything that can be said about the other three. By digitizing and algorithmizing everything that flows between us and in us, what is known as ‘information and communications technology’ (ICT) pursues, intensifies, diversifies and sometimes splits in two those trends identified on the other three continents. After all, these continents are not simply juxtaposed: they are superimposed on one another, in a terrible tangle – which justifies both the fact that we tend to confuse them and the fact that we need to make the effort to disentangle them.
It is hoped that this transcontinental journey will provide readers with an opportunity to make many discoveries. Not, however, in the sense that it claims to invent anything truly new in the way we describe or analyse the ‘mass media’. The aim here is more modestly that of helping the reader to discover a number of already existing thoughts that are confined to an elsewhere that makes them inaccessible to those of us who are used to thinking from within disciplinary boundaries. From ecofeminism to literary studies, from the sociology of networks to the algorithms of deep learning, from speculative philosophy to the archaeology of infrastructures, from demonology to engineering design, the proposed route defies any claim to disciplinary control, even if it strives to respect the need for disciplined argument.
I claim to be less of an expert in mediology and more of a translatorinterpreter and tourist guide. I hope to know just enough to be able to share with others my desire to go and take a closer look. Is political urgency compatible with tourist curiosity? Such is the wager of this book, presenting mediarchy both as the new frontier of a world that still lies outside – thanks to its anthropological novelty, barely a few centuries old and undergoing a process of constant reconfiguration since its emergence – and as the inner limit that prevents us from becoming what we could be.
Before we embark on this journey, let’s look at an image (Figure 0.1). In it, we see three men completely absorbed in new media; a child sitting on the floor, distracted by his hi-tech camera; three young couples, in each of which one partner seems to be more attentive to his or her new gadget than to his or her lover; and even a monkey who has lost interest in human beings and is gazing entranced at some virtual reality. We have all seen such satirical images proliferating around us, denouncing the abuses of the smartphone, the tablet or Pokémon Go. This particular image, however, is nearly two centuries old, dating from about 1820 and bearing as its title La Kaloïdoscomanie, où les amateurs de bijoux anglais [Kaleidoscomania, or the lovers of English jewels]. The Finnish researcher Erkki Huhtamo dug it up and discussed it in one of the earliest articles on media archaeology, which he named and defined as ‘a way of studying such recurring cyclical phenomena which (re)appear and disappear and reappear over and over again in media history and somehow seem to transcend specific historical contexts’.4
Figure 0.1 Kaleidoscomania, c.1820.
Going beyond the eternal return of the same and the recurrent plaints over the distractions caused by the new media, the most interesting response would be to play on these contrasts so as to reframe our daily preoccupations and examine them from unusual perspectives. The simplicity of kaleidoscopes has little in common with the ‘smartness’ of our smartphones. The former isolate us in an idle, brightly-coloured illusion, while the latter connect us to networks of agents. Many of the technical innovations that came after David Brewster’s invention of the kaleidoscope in 1816 have helped us to know, hear and see reality better (from further away, more quickly, more precisely, more fully). All those innovations have been accused of distracting us from that reality.
Despite its archaism – or perhaps because of it – the kaleidoscope is a powerful conceptual model for illuminating what the media at the origins of power in a regime of mediarchy can be and can do, now as before. Like kaleidoscopes, these media distract us from our immediate environment: their primary function is to free us from the limits of the here and now. Before informing us about reality, they inform our perception of the world by filtering, restructuring, diffracting and multiplying what can be seen in it. Despite the horrors they sometimes show, despite the way their realism has increased over the decades, they remain above all apparatuses made to provide ‘beautiful idea-forms to see’ (kalos-eidos-skopein). Above all, whether they isolate us or connect us, the media sweep us up into the world of fashion and its effects, in waves of imitation and counter-imitation which, seen from a distance, always look rather like a collective mimetic madness, as symbolized by the monkey in the 1820 engraving: any mediarchy draws on mediamania and is part of what Siegfried Zielinski has called a psychopathia medialis.5
This quick portrait of the media as an array of kaleidoscopes, and of the mediarchy as a kaleidoscomanic piece of monkey business, is not intended as a criticism of their defaults: quite the opposite – it is an attempt to depict the source of their true power. This is a power that we are still just discovering, with a constant mixture of wonder and worry; but it is also a power that we absolutely must get to know better, since it is responsible for sweeping us along collectively in a movement that we are still simply tagging along with. And, in its current course, this movement is not necessarily taking us towards our greatest common good.
But this power of the media cannot be gazed at directly, face to face, as it dazzles us and immerses us in its monkey business. It can only be apprehended by means of detours, diffractions, reflections and abstractions. This book hopes to work like a kaleidoscope, as an instrument that enables us to ‘see beautiful idea-forms’, averting our gaze as far as possible from the effects of fascination to which we fall prey when we lock eyeballs with our screens. The archaeological approach provides us with one of these detours, allowing us to revisit the contemporary scene with a gaze refreshed by archaic exoticism. The other approach that will help our ideas take off, since it can overcome the fascination of our gaze for the false obviousness of the present, draws on the virtues of abstraction.
In contrast to sociological generalizations and the semiological categorizations favoured by the sciences of communication, the chapters of this book propose sensory abstractions (folds, strata, cuts, modulations, vibrations, resonances, zombies) that aim to help us imagine what we find so difficult to understand. By overreacting towards a certain platitude inherent in any positivist approach, the route sometimes takes the form of a rollercoaster, alternating in quick succession the panoramas glimpsed from very high up with dives deep down into the singular, in the hope that the new vocabulary mobilized for the occasion (mediarchy, intrastructure, immediality, agential cut, surprenance or ‘overtaking’) will produce more a sense of exotic vertigo than attacks of nausea. A bit of theoretical madness is perhaps the best antidote to the disoriented realism of our common mediamania.
Despite its indigestible size – or perhaps because of it – this long kaleidoscope lays claim to the specificity of that beautiful idea-form, the medium of the book. This one is so designed that you can immerse yourself patiently in it or dip into it rapidly and selectively. Its fourteen chapters offer a steady, systematic progression that attempts to lay the foundations of an overall panorama of the power of the media – because the book as a medium remains the main and still unsurpassed instrument whereby we can be absorbed in a thought experiment that may permanently reconfigure our vision of the world. Like the child sitting on the floor at the bottom right of the 1820 engraving, readers are invited to let themselves be distracted from their immediate environment in order to explore the interplay of shapes, structures, colours and concepts generated by the book-as-medium to imagine the general power of the media. The ten interludes, meanwhile, propose brief returns to the political real, albeit a real reinvigorated by transformative proposals aiming to open up new possibilities within it. Without claiming to reveal a political reality as dazzling as the media that inform it, these interludes will direct the reader’s eyes towards another kaleidoscope, where it will be our political institutions rather than our media landscapes that are given a new shape.
But this big book is also designed so that those of our contemporaries with less free time at their disposal can more quickly draw from it something to tickle their curiosity. Around its many images, it deploys a typography highlighting a few KEY WORDS signalling what is going on as the reader turns the pages. This immodest kaleidoscopic coquetry, which impels it to put forward a few prominent idea-forms, hopes to help each and every reader to identify specific perspectives corresponding more closely to his or her current interests, while a detailed table of contents and an index will help them find their way around. Instead of following the course marked out by the rollercoaster tracks, the book thus also encourages more acrobatic readings, a sort of parkour where the reader can jump from one salience to the next.
Can a medium give us the truth of mediarchy? Of course not, insofar as this truth is eminently multiple, demanding a plurality of perspectives as different as possible from one another. Can a kaleidoscope help us to imagine our kaleidoscomania more adequately? Such is the challenge taken up by this book – which is also something of a kaleidoscope in that it sparkles with the reflection of hundreds of multicoloured remarks, references and suggestions kindly provided by friends of long standing or met with occasionally, and by students and colleagues far too many to mention by name. My thanks, and apologies, to them.6
As in company, community, communication, etc. (Translator’s note.)
José Argüelles set out his theory of mediarchy, inspired by the Mayan calendar, at a ‘World Harmonic Convergence Day’ on 16 and 17 August 1987. The journalist François-Henri de Virieu described ‘mediacracy or mediarchy’ in his book
(Paris: Flammarion, 1990), p. 25, while Kent Asp published an article entitled ‘Medialization, Media Logic and Mediarchy’ in
Nordicom. Review of Nordic Mass Communication Research
, no. 2, 1990, pp. 47–50, before Dan Nimmo published ‘Politics and the mass media: From political rule to postpolitical mediarchy’, in
Current World Leaders
, vol. 36, no. 2, 1993, pp. 303–320. Some columnists have used the term periodically in their blogs: search engines lead us, for example, to Bernard Dugué (2005), Karim Amellal (2006) and François-Bernard Huyghe (2007).
Yves Citton, ‘Contre-fictions en médiarchie’, available at
, 2015 (originally published in 2013 in the journal
as ‘Contre-fictions en médiocratie’,
); ‘Vivons-nous en démocratie ou en médiarchie?’, in
, no. 2, 2014, pp. 81–88; ‘Dispositifs populistes et régimes médiarchiques: neuf
, no. 61, 2015, pp. 88–94. A chapter in my
(Paris: Seuil, 2012) was devoted to ‘mediocracy’.
Erkki Huhtamo, ‘From Kaleidoscomaniac to Cybernerd: Notes Toward an Archeology of Media’, in Timothy Druckrey (ed.),
(New York: Aperture, 1996), pp. 296–303 (p. 298). See also ‘“All the world’s a kaleidoscope”. A media archaeological perspective to the incubation era of media culture’,
Rivista di Estetica
, vol. LIV, no. 55, 2014, pp. 139–153.
Audiovisions: Cinema and Television as Entr’actes in History
(Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1999 ), pp. 273 et seq.
However, it is impossible not to thank Bruno Auerbach, whose attentive re-reading has allowed me to greatly improve my manuscript. I also thank Thierry Bardini, Estelle Doudet, Larisa Dryansky, Jeff Guess, Emmanuel Guez, Isabelle Krzywkowski, Marie Lechner, Martial Poirson, Xavier de La Porte, Marc Saint-Upéry, Antonio Somaini and Gwenola Wagon for suggesting ideas for me to pursue. My deepest gratitude to Andrew Brown for his outstanding job of translation, to Paul Young and to the Polity team for publishing this book.
We have trouble seeing the media for the very good reason that they have been made so as not to be seen. ‘Our media call for critique or systematic analysis insofar as they function effectively only by being forgotten.’1 When we sit in front of a page in a book or at a computer screen, we do not look at the page or the screen themselves, but at the words or images represented on them. In the normal mode of communication, we do not pay attention to small defects in the paper or little bits of dirt sticking to the surface of the screen: we read a text or watch a video – directing our attention to the meaning to be drawn from them rather than to the observation of the medium.
However, in today’s French culture, this deeply entrenched habit of not seeing the medium is compounded by a certain confusion due to the vague and restrictive use of reference to the ‘mass media’. In addition to the effects of transparency inherent in our use of the media, we must begin by questioning and readjusting the vocabulary we use to designate what is happening by means of them. A comparative detour via various neighbouring cultures and languages will give us the necessary distance for this terminological readjustment.
In our common consciousness, the first associations aroused by the reference to ‘mass media’ are the television news, the major daily newspapers, the work of journalists, the fabrication of celebrities – in short, the channels through which our societies project a public representation of themselves that is more or less shared by the majority of their population. But a certain largely justified discredit attaches to the usual discourse on the ‘media’. As illustrated by a famous Banksy graffiti, TV sets seem designed to be thrown out the window, since intellectuals seem to hold TV in such low esteem. The opinions of intellectuals about TV do not, however, seem to be worth much more.
In the first case, we indistinctly merge all media together in a critique that is also partially justified, but lacks nuance and does not have any effective purchase on reality. For example, emphasis is laid on the various collusions between the ‘press’ and the financial world (which buys up that press and keeps it afloat), between television and advertising (which provides it with a large part of its revenue) and between journalists and politicians (who often sleep in the same bed). But all that this creates is a vague feeling of a general MANIPULATION to which we are all subjected by special interests that abuse their power so as to prevent us from seeing reality as it is. This suspicion certainly has a basis in truth, aptly highlighted by associations with a critical agenda, such as ACRIMED in France or FAIR in the United States.2 The general denunciation of manipulation or bias in the media remains largely futile, however, unless we take the trouble – as these associations do – to analyse more precisely and concretely how, to what degree and under what pressure an individual press organ, programme or media format produces a certain type of distortion in relation to what we might consider a more adequate representation of this or that aspect of our realities. In the enormous mass of discourse about the ‘mass media’, cases where the opinions expressed are based on such an effort of analysis are relatively few and far between.
One effect of this indiscriminate denunciation of the ‘mass media’ is to contribute to a fairly widespread discredit of them, frequently documented in various opinion polls. But paradoxically, such denunciation can at the same time encourage a form of self-congratulation on the part of the people or institutions that seem perfectly ready and willing to face directly the suspicion of which they are the object. The MEDIA CRITICISM OF THE‘MASS MEDIA’ is indeed the best way of strengthening the grip of those same media: it gives those who practise such a critique boundless material for creating a sense of the goodwill of those who work in this field, and of the external constraints they sometimes manage to identify quite lucidly; but in particular, it points to the remarkable stability of a system that everyone knows will see the same people continuing to do the same job in the same place tomorrow, whatever the difficulties or distortions they recognize exist today.
In the second case, other discourses on the ‘mass media’, this time academic in nature, take the trouble to perform the labour of empirical analysis mentioned above. They rely on collections of statistics and robust surveys which sometimes document how the ‘mass media’ affect our lives and our thoughts. For several decades, the SCIENCES OF INFORMATION AND COMMUNICATION have accumulated data and analyses, giving a much more nuanced and differentiated view of the important but limited influence that various types of ‘mass media’ have on various types of audience. What comprises the virtue of this kind of research – its empirical humility, its ‘applied’ character and its ‘measured’ conclusions – does, however, often make it rather frustrating for those who wish to understand more generally what the media are and what they do as specific modes of human interaction.
On the one hand, therefore, denunciatory discourse tends towards becoming an abstract condemnation of the ‘mass media’, citing the potential for manipulation to which their undeniable influence subjects us. On the other hand, a collection of particular investigations documents certain specific mechanisms, but their authors often limit themselves to cautiously measuring their observable effects, even if these effects are hardly surprising in themselves and even if their measurements ultimately merely confirm what might have been expected before the survey was made. In both cases, whether we stay on the level of generalities or immerse ourselves in particularities, it is difficult to take a step back from the obvious characteristics and provide ourselves with tools for understanding that will enable us to overcome our common impressions of the ‘mass media’. In spite of their differences, these two types of discourse sometimes give the impression of going round in circles, limited to truths that are difficult to argue with but ultimately tell us little.
It would of course be terribly arrogant and utterly absurd to reject en bloc all that can be said in these fields of study and debate. Criticism of the cultural industries is necessary, often invigorating and sometimes inspired. Their analysis by people producing academic research in the social sciences is absolutely essential, often illuminating and sometimes exciting. This book, devoted to the mediarchy, will absolutely not claim to do any better than the discourses I just mentioned. However, it will try to do something else – drawing its inspiration and its quotations from elsewhere than the discourses on the ‘mass media’ produced in France.
For almost half a century, another type of discourse on our apparatuses and practices of communication has been developing in the Anglo-Saxon and German-speaking worlds. Under the name of Media Studies or Medienstudien, this work – which includes both a critical dimension and an endeavour to produce quantified surveys – has placed an effort of THEORIZATION at the heart of its dynamics. The notion of theory is not to be understood simply as a set of hypotheses subjected to empirical verifications. In accordance with its Greek etymology (where θεωρία designates contemplation), theory consists of an attempt to develop a counterintuitive vision that will help us perceive (as well as conceive) an unusual dimension of our realities. Since the emergence of one of the founding fathers of this field of research, Marshall McLuhan, this work of theorization has striven to deconstruct our habits, firing off paradoxical assertions or enigmatic formulas which, in the best of cases, only begin to make sense if we submit to a systematic displacement of our customary landmarks. This work does not consist of describing, in a precisely and objectively quantified way, reality as it can be observed around us. Nor does it provide us with little boxes into which its various component elements can be analysed and classified. Its ambition is, rather, as Christophe Hanna has clearly shown in a quite different field, to propose layers, as the term is used in Photoshop, that bring out unsuspected forms as well as surprising virtues.3 The aim of such theorizations is not to anatomize reality but to show its several superimposed levels. Rather than categorizations, classifications or measurements, this activity generates visions – with all the disturbing aspects these visions may entail for our dominant conventions of rationality.
When, for example, McLuhan included the lightbulb as an example of the media, serious-minded folk rightly pointed out that such a classification could well lead to the category of medium expanding so dramatically as to eventually include everything and anything, thereby emptying this concept of any content of its own. By treating media as a form of layer, however, the question is not whether, yes or no, a lightbulb is a medium: it is, rather, an invitation to ask ourselves what a lightbulb would look like if we considered it as a medium, or what a medium would look like if we considered it as a lightbulb. Most of the theorists cited in the present book – though not all – will tend to play with such layers so as to help us look differently at what is passing and happening between us when we communicate across time and space. They will speak to us from a foreign language, not only because their texts will be translated from other languages (such as German or Italian), but mostly because they will have made an effort to shift our gaze: to make us look at our familiar realities through a layer that shows, lurking within them, forms foreign to our habits of categorization and explanation.
It is this detour through foreign sources that will also mark the difference between the project pursued in my book’s exploration of mediarchy and the research project on mediaspheres that has been conducted in France for more than twenty years by the SCHOOL OF MEDIOLOGY led by Daniel Bougnoux, Régis Debray and Louise Merzeau.4 These two projects are obviously very close, and on the same wavelength as each other. Apart from a difference in generation, what distinguishes them is above all a certain French insularity, which has led French mediologists mostly to talk to each other, while in the following chapters I will be seeking – by overcompensation – to introduce the reader to what is being written and thought elsewhere. Although quotations referring explicitly to the work of French mediologists and thinkers could have easily filled long footnotes, they are actually somewhat rare, because priority is given to the importing of voices from abroad that have been given less of a hearing in France.5
The first form of layer on which I will call in order to facilitate our exploration of mediarchy will be a graphic distinction. A first form of estrangement may already have caused the reader some confusion in the previous paragraphs, due to the instability of the different ways of spelling the terms we use to refer to apparatuses and processes of communication. This apparent instability is the result of a differentiation proposed recently by Thierry Bardini in order to better bring out the superimposition of three realms of reality that the usual discourses on the ‘mass media’ tend to confuse.6
The first domain, designated in graphic terms as a MEDIUM, as MEDIA and by the adjective MEDIAL, includes everything that is used to record, transmit and/or process information, discourses, images and sounds. The charcoal and hematite used by our early ancestors to trace figures on cave walls, the manuscripts on vellum produced by mediaeval monks, sermons, homing pigeons, printed books, the paintings of the Renaissance, the periodicals of the eighteenth century, the telegraph, the telephone, the radio, videos and Twitter, as well as the actor’s voice or the gestures of sign language: these are all media that human beings have used over the centuries. All involve, in various ways, both material objects (‘organized matter’, as the mediologists call it) and the effects of networks, institutions, codes and conventions (‘material organization’).
These two sides are clearly described in the canonical definition of the media by Lisa Gitelman, who sees them as ‘socially realized structures of communication, where structures include both technological forms and their associated protocols, and where communication is a cultural practice, a ritualized collocation of different people on the same mental map, sharing or engaged with popular ontologies of representation’ – something that turns media into ‘unique and complicated historical subjects’.7 Some of these media serve only for recording: they preserve memory as a matter of communication through time, as in a notebook where I note my appointments. Others are intended to travel through space, to transmit messages beyond the reach of the human voice and gaze, as in an SMS that I send to my partner or a tweet that I re-tweet to my followers. They all form part of certain patterns and involve a certain formatting or processing of what circulates by means of them: by limiting the number of characters you can send, a tweet imposes a concise style; the first photographic portraits obliged the model to remain immobile.
Among all these media, with their huge variety, only a few have the function of broadcasting towards an open multiplicity of recipients scattered across space. A second domain, more restricted than the first and designated as MASS MEDIA, thus includes everything that broadcasts information, speeches, images or sounds to an audience. It was the sociologist Gabriel Tarde who, at the dawn of the twentieth century, drew a distinction between a ‘crowd’, composed of individuals gathered at the same time within the same space, and were thus able to perceive their mutual reactions, and an ‘audience’ or ‘public’ composed of individuals receiving information in a relatively synchronous way, but separated from each other, so that people were unaware of their neighbour’s reaction while imagining that this neighbour was probably reacting to the same signals. While there have always been media and crowds, there have been mass media only for as long as it has been possible for signals to be reproduced and transmitted quickly enough to generate audiences. The few thousand Renaissance humanists who, in the course of a few months, received the books being turned out by the printing presses were an embryonic public, reinforced by the periodicals that emerged during the eighteenth century, then the daily papers, which spread increasingly thanks to the progress of literacy during the nineteenth century, followed by radio and television in the last century, which marked the peak of the reign of mass audiences and the mass media.
Figure 1.1 The superimposition of the medial layer, the media layer and the mediumistic layers.
If we try to imagine a visual representation of the relations between the media and the mass media (Figure 1.1), we must of course restrict the scope of this latter term, since all mass media are media, but not all media are mass media. Indeed, for many media it is a crucial requirement that they be addressed to only one recipient, as with a phone call, an email or a diplomatic cable – and we are very aggrieved when we realize these are being monitored by the NSA or published by Wikileaks. It would be unsatisfactory, however, to see the concept of the mass media as just a subclass of the larger set of media. In fact, what characterized the intensely media-dominated societies that arose in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in Western countries was the inclusion of all private conversations under the capacious umbrella of media resonances. Even the contents that are transmitted in our private exchanges are powerfully conditioned by the echoes across our public mass media. Hence the need to represent a zone of media resonance (represented by the dotted line) hanging over all that is recorded, transmitted and processed through the variety of media used at every given moment of modern history.
The third area that Thierry Bardini identifies is at first view much more surprising. It is based on the assumption – which will be developed in the third part of this book – that the recordings, transmissions and signal processing that humans have deployed through the different apparatuses invented for this purpose over the centuries tend to appear to these humans as the products of supernatural and superhuman forces, beyond their comprehension and control. In other words, mediality seems inevitably to generate mediumship. Above – or, more appropriately, ‘beyond’ – the media resonances that imbue our day-to-day perceptions and exchanges in the regime of modernity, we need to depict an additional area where the media (as well as those who manipulate them) appear in the form of a (psychic) MEDIUM (or several MEDIUMS), designated by the adjective MEDIUMISTIC, thus expressing the anxiety and the impression of magic perceived by human subjects when faced with the excesses of power generated by mediality. A vague aura of menace or, on the contrary, a certain exaltation when we are brought in contact with something marvellous seems to float above the pragmatic uses that we tend to make of our media. In our societies, so strongly structured by the echoes of the mass media, the black magic of the mediumistic creates an impression of manipulation, and gives rise to the conspiracy theories that we are all led to entertain at one moment or another; white magic, on the other hand, gives its aura of an almost divine presence to media stars filled with all the allure of celebrity. In the digital cultures that have emerged over the past two decades, the wonders of the immaterial and virtual spheres so characteristic of the utopian dreams of the 1990s seem, since 2008, to have turned into anxieties about widespread surveillance and the unstoppable invasion of our most intimate private spaces.
In any case, there is much we would fail to understand if we simply rejected as irrational these occasions for wonder and disquiet. Something happens between us in our experiences of mediality – something like the magnetic fluid in the late eighteenth-century theories of Franz Anton Mesmer and his associates, theories on which the nineteenth century would draw to nourish its imaginary of hypnotist mediums controlling the thoughts and actions of their patients/victims (Figure 1.2). Through this folklore (which has now lost its power), the function of the mediumistic domain is to explore the perfectly real causes and effects expressed by the hauntings or raptures produced in contact with the media. This is because these media are truly carriers of ‘supernatural’ powers, in the sense that (nonhuman) ‘nature’ does not create the effects proper to mediality. These effects often appear to us as ‘superhuman’ insofar as it is the power of supra-individual communities that is mobilized as such through the media, and this power cannot fail to transcend our thoroughly individualistic conception of what a human being can do.
It is the entanglement of the three registers identified through these three graphic forms that circumscribes the field of study of this book – a field that recent American theorists have referred to under the general term of mediation,8 while Éric Méchoulan defines it as the domain of intermediality9 and the German debates of the 1990s called it MEDIALITY
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