Placing the Mediascape in the Transnational Cultural Flow:
Learning to Theorize an Emerging Global Grassroots Infrastructure
A lecture for the International Communication Association
Center for Technocultural Studies
This three part paper posits the need the develop midrange assessments between traditional mass media and interpersonal divisions, suggesting that a multiply mediated, decentralizing, increasingly globalized realm of computer conferencing and hand to hand distribution networks may be developing new organizational and social arrangements under-theorized by traditional analysis. The paper then posits that the global mediascape thus defined needs to be refracted in three fundamental dimensions with relatively distinctive freedoms and limitations: a grassroots practice oriented realm of shared affinities, a public sphere of collective debate and action over physical bodies; and a transnational level using advanced communications to develop massive economies of scale: grassroots, nation-state, and trans-national corporations. each disjunctive yet acting as parameters to one another. Grassroots does not necessarily mean empowered. The papers concludes using the case of VCR's to clarify the complex relationship.
Placing the Mediascape in the Transnational Cultural Flow:
Learning to Theorize an Emerging Global Grassroots Infrastructure
The ongoing integration of media systems world wide provides an essential component to the emerging disciplines and theories of globalization. And yet a persistent and institutionalized theorizing of media systems into either 'mass' or 'interpersonal' realms obscures many of the complex, even revolutionary changes presently occurring. These traditional approaches continue to solve the kinds of questions they were designed to solve, but seem to leave their practitioners with the profound sense that something of this 'mediascape' is being left unremarked and under-theorized. If that is so, then where and how might we begin to develop more midrange theories and investigations, investigations that allow us to shift our foci from, on the one hand large scale considerations of the impact of the integration of media systems on cultural identity, economic and cultural power and influences, or on the other hand highly specific instances of local resistance, empowerment, or creativity issuing out from a changing media environment? In the following essay, I intend to suggest that this global mediascape, a notion which will be examined more closely shortly, needs to be refracted into three further dimensions: a 'grassroots,' practice oriented, more interpersonal realm; a public sphere of collective debate and collective action; and a transnational, deterritorialized, global realm. I will argue that each of these levels should be conceived in a quasi-independence from each other, characterizable by relatively distinctive media use. While each level might be seen as independent, disjunctive from one another, involved in their own pursuit of identity and coherent practice, unpredicted by the happenings of another level, unable to be summarized into a single, cohesive 'infrastructure,' they each act as restraints, parameters, and motivating forces on one another. In order to clarify this complex relationship, I will conclude by examining the case of video cassette recorders and tapes more closely.
The Space of Global Culture
It is hard to say when this 'globalization' really began. Earlier histories and outlooks on global society, drawing undoubtedly on the tradition of Herbert Spenser (who in turn influences Marx, Toynbee, etc.) still sought to gather together the individual histories of different 'societies,' 'cultures' and 'civilizations,' variously located somewhere on the earth, and then sought to suggest universal proposals about them. 'Societies either rise to a challenge or they will be overwhelmed' (Toynbee). While evidence of long distant trade, epidemiological connections, as well as the diffusion of cultural motifs, technological approaches, and social practices appeared at the margins of the unitary concepts of nationality, society, and civilization, there was still little evidence of what a global economy, whether of materials or culture might mean or consist.
Beneath the terms, images, practices, and motifs of the nation, culture, and society, were people actively engaged in using these and other motifs to define who they were, what they were to become, and the nature and identity of those and their environment around them. More recent investigations into the concept of the nation-state, of that boundary oriented, spatially extended, culturally uniform, self-organized and organizing society relate it to the rise of print-capitalism, for example (Anderson 1991). Nations come to be organized explicitly around shared 'imagined communities' and implicitly in terms of patterns of production and reproduction. Other writers have more recently begun to question even our concepts of 'culture' as something 'over there' that can be studied, such as in terms of an integral, self-sustaining functionality (Wagner 1981). Put another way, culture, conceived as something that brings people together, as what they can share, can be seen as the way people make sense of diversity, how they imagine and explain and handle the discontinuities between one generation and the next, between one society and another, between one way of being and another (cf. Ward Goodenough 1978; Theodore Schwartz 1978). Cultures elided these difference with the icons and language of continuity, and made use of media systems and their meaning to accomplish that sleight of mind (cf. Bateson 1975).
To what extent can we ground these slippages between generations, between people, between meanings in a place, a neighborhood, a space any more? A number of prominent social geographers in particular, have suggested that our sense of place is not only constructed (Gupta and Ferguson 1992; Rodman 1992), but is deeply related to our uses of media. As we change and add to our media, so we extend and transform the space of our interaction, and the identities and meanings of the people who use those spaces. The influential geographer, Yi-Fu Tuan has been arguing, for example, that we need to include speech and writing to both place-making and geographical inquiry (Tuan 1991:695).
These emerging lines of inquiry must provoke us to the realization that whatever the global mediascape might mean, it is deeply related to what I would call the politics of identity and difference. The notion of the mediascape, formulated by Prof. Arjun Appadurai, along with the notions of the ethnoscape, the technoscape, the finanscape, and the ideoscape were developed to help to summarize a developing feature of the global cultural economy:
Mediascapes refer both to the distribution of the electronic capabilities to produce and disseminate information (newspapers, magazines, television stations and film production studios), which are now available to a growing number of private and public interest throughout the world, and to the images of the world created by these media. These images of the world involve many complicated inflections, depending on their mode (documentary or entertainment); their hardware (electronic or pre-electronic) their audiences (local, national or transnational) and the interests of those who own and control them. What is most important about these mediascapes is that they provide (especially in their television film and cassette forms) large and complex repertoires of images, narratives and ethnoscapes to viewers throughout the world, in which the world of commodities and the world of news and politics are profoundly mixed. What this means is that many audiences throughout the world experiences themselves as a complicated and interconnected repertoire of print, celluloid, electronic screens and billboards. (Appadurai 1990:9)
In terms of the politics of identity and difference, media scholars might emphasize that the communities and identities which media help establish need not be simply 'face-to-face' communities. Communities are being brought into being which are completely dependent on mediation (such as in virtual communities on computer networks). Older groups and communities are being reformulated because the media on which they depend are changing, whether this is on an 'interpersonal' level, or at more complex levels. Joshua Meyrowitz has given some thought to the fact that communities are in fact created not just by sharing of intimate information, but by exclusion, by setting rules and guidelines on who and why initiation into the group might occur. With the introduction of audience insensitive media like television, cultures which depended on the exclusion of designated groups, whether children, people of another political party or school suddenly find them huddled in front of scenes of what had previously been excluded material. Meyrowitz reminds us that the very identification of many of these groups was established precisely by the patterned access to information (1985).
Appadurai's ethnoscape, refers to
the movement of people throughout the world, whether as guest workers,
migrants, tourists, etc. Put in a
global perspective along with the notion of the mediascape, we become acutely
aware of the increasing presence of translocal communities, of groups of
people who are bound not by some kind of spatial proximity, but by some form of
shared, although mediated culture. As
part of the global Diaspora of workers and migrants, Indian immigrants in
In saying that this emerging global mediascape can disrupt old identities and create new translocal ones, we both say too much and not enough. If we too quickly follow Appadurai in essentializing these images of Madonna and Mickey Mouse, of McDonald's and the IBM logo as discrete flotsam in the global cultural flow, we can lose sight of the fact that as carriers of meaning, the meaning of these 'images' can very widely from one place to another, and that they can, in fact be used as part of more traditional practices, such as in the Mickey Mouse kachina dolls wryly found among the Hopi native Americans, or the bottle caps found in African effigies, or in the hand made African suitcase made out of important tin cans.
My first point about the mediascape is that we should be careful that we know how we are locating the practices and devices necessary to decipher or impart meanings. Places and images come into being not just through narratives but through praxis, through the leading of the eye, through the finding of a job, the pragmatic and situated making of a meaning. The current debate on the extent to which globalization implies cultural homogenization or indigenization, the placing of 'new' objects and practices within the pre-existing patterns of the meaning construction demands that we discover how these objects are used. In a similar fashion, literacy is increasingly being understood not as a way of discovering the intrinsic meaning within books, but as something one does *with* books. Presumably, there can then be different kinds of literacies associated with the same book. So the mediascape can be seen as a fund of materials out of which different continuities and change can be formulated and acted out.
But how then does this relate to the
politics of identity? The next point about the mediascape that we need to
consider is the importance of scale.
Powerful though this mediascape designation and its description is, and
influential as it is bound to be, it still needs considerably more detail, some
of which will undoubtedly be forthcoming in Prof. Appadurai's own
writings. It is one thing to say that we
can draw whatever meanings we might want from media products, production and
practices that might find their way to the video shelf of our local Hindi
grocer, quite another to be in a situation to actually *make* that video, to
distribute, or to decide that this video has cultural consequences that we both
important enough and ambiguous enough to suggest that it might be taught in
school! Consider the flow of Arabic
language products into
What is problematical about this
exercise is not where the funding for this satellite came from, but the kinds
of identities and genres it promotes. In
particular, what does it mean to be Arab?
What does it mean to be an Arab in
This last statement needs to be considered more closely. In examining the role of capital in the production, distribution, and even in the understanding and framing of media products, we draw closer to the topography within the 'mediascape' which will have to be more than a blank space between production and reception. It will have its peaks where the movement of products and skill are slower and prominent, and valleys, where, hidden among the flights of birds, movement is swift but minor, touching only a few people at a time. With a dualistic equation like this, with high capital input assumed to make the kind of products necessary to reach a large audience (the peaks) and lower amounts of capital needed for limited grassroots distribution networks (the valleys), one can imagine the hegemonic potency that the peaks might have in presenting the best produced, best funded programs with the best equipment.
Edward Said suggests a true defining
horizon of our concepts of otherness and difference are still the facts of
empire, of the traditions and realities of exploitation within
exploitation. Consider the case of the
Irish poet William Butler Yeats. Said points out that while Yeats might be
considered in the context of high modernism, complexly, he need also be
considered Irish as well.
"Nevertheless, and despite Yeats' obvious and, I would say, settled
Even as the MBC sky channel seeks to be 'Arab,' it also seeks to be as 'professional' as possible, and this includes state of the art editing and production equipment; the news is read off of autocue in a fast paced format with graphics, often by anchorwomen who do not cover their hair (which receives viewer criticism from traditionalists). And even as the Arabs might have their own satellites for their own cultural business, are these broadcasters simply unwitting cultural proxies, new stopping points from the center to the cultural periphery? This core/periphery perspective, developed particularly by Wallerstein has for some time provided the most widely used framework for assessing the asymmetric dynamics of globalization, and hence of the dynamics of global media flow. As Ulf Hannerz has recently summarized the situation:
Until the 1960s or so, acknowledgments of the fact that "we are all in the same world" were mostly pieties, with uncertain political and intellectual implications. Since then, in the social sciences, understandings of globalization have usually involved a view of asymmetry; key conceptual pairs have been center (or core) and periphery, metropolis and satellite.
Asymmetries are present in the global social organization of meaning as well. But what kind of asymmetries are they? How closely aligned are the asymmetries of culture with those of economy, politics, or military might. (Hannerz 1992:218-219)
Given the dualistic assumptions about this kind of theoretical framework, similarly stark research outlooks and policy formulations almost inevitably follow: just how powerful this core might be, and what steps should be taken to address these imbalances: Will the extension of global economic practices place a McDonald's hamburger franchise in most every major city in the world? What factors will encourage or discourage this, and what roles might policy makers take?
The answer is ambiguous. For one thing ‘culture’, as we noted above, can be considered as itself a product of these hybrid realities, of 'mismatched' relations between generations, between friends, between life and nature, between reality and expectations, and one that elicits strategies to tame these fissures and slippages (changing identities of things, changing the question, etc.). There is something deeply flawed about the notion of cultural homogeneity, where an image metonymically is seen to stand in the place of all the practices that make us the different people who we are (cf. Murphy 1971 who explores culture as an attempt to make sense of contradiction). As more and more research has gone into looking at identity not in terms of a pure self-same being but in terms of process, there has been a consequent gain in sensitivity to identity, including ethnicity as part of an ongoing process of exclusion and situating of things and concepts. In a seminal anthology on ethnicity, Barth drew together a number of field research accounts which examined how ethnic self-identity has changed over history, how ethnicity adjusts to the presence of other ethnic groups, how difficult it can be to maintain identifying boundaries, and what happens over time when a stigma is attached to ethnicity" (Barth 1969).
The cultural problem is that
ethnicity and other similar concepts of tradition will hide from themselves the
process of solving these contradictions and problems by positing an ideal
past. This is as they must, since the
very concepts are created to do away with the heterogeneity of origins and
identity. "That today's Vietnamese
proudly defend a Viet
The asymmetries in the availability of production equipment, distribution networks, theatrical venues seem to favor some producers over other, bringing to mind analogies to colonialism, in this case cultural colonialism (cf. Schiller 1992). Who controls the resources of the mediascape, whether monetary or symbolic? Speaking to the question of postmodern space, Edward Soja, recalling the work of Lefebvre and elements of Foucault, reminds us that space is one of the necessary conditions of power (Soja 1989; Lefebvre 1991, Foucault 1982). Power exists between what does not easily interact, what does not have an easy interface, between assertion and control of resources (including violence). It exists because of strategic discontinuities between communities. Some regions (of the world, of a 'community') are more advanced, perhaps make use of more resources. Collective action, finding a space where this collectivity can operate translates to power, and being able to generate this kind of spatial cohesiveness, through media, with the power of symbol and tradition yields power. One man might overpower of woman, but a collection of women can overpower any man. Similarly the economy might be seen as a network of the constrained flow of objects of/that resist desire (cf. Hannerz 1992, Ch.4; Appadurai 1986; cf. Hyde 1983), where transfers and exchanges are made according to uneven distribution of wealth and production (and this wealth might be symbolic or informational). The economy too exists in a kind of space, where markets, gift fests, and thievery, exist at the interstices, and where producers can not know the full consequence of their production to the overall economy of differences. To opt out of the pattern of power, or more accurately, to seek to find places to reconfigure relationships within it, leads to the founding of new kinds of communities whose position slips too often to be easily configured, whose space is fractally excavated in the pleasant landscapes of rules and powers. Some might speak of these liminal communities as temporary autonomous zones or enclaves (Bey 1985; Sakolsky 1993), where communities appear at the boundaries of official society, indulging in experimentation, until they are found out, and reterritoralized, becoming the new extension of the space of official culture/s.
With the accelerated development of
media, communities are increasingly being forms that do not need to be
answerable to their geophysical neighbors.
Third world countries can exist within first world superpowers, ready to
be exploited and for their own cultural elaboration. And lest we think that this third world
within a first world is complete, so a first world might be developed within
some interstice of the first world. A
A Global Grassroots Infrastructure
Should we not look to how even in local domains, global messages, practices, and products are indigenized, put to use in ways which grow out of the history of local, situated practices and meanings (Hannerz 1992; Iyer 1988 as a narrative account)? Consider again Khaled's reaction again: "To Khaled [a pseudonym for this Palestinian] this policy narrows the difference between MBC's role in broadcasting popular culture in and the role of ordinary state-run television in the middle east." What is the nature of state-run television, and how is it being reproduced in the sky channel? The essay will next argue that to describe the topography of the mediascape, we need to go beyond dualistic juxtapositions. Dualistic phrasing is itself part of the project of identity, whether us and them, high and low: it seeks to essentialize, to render some things as outside, others as inside, and to take advantage of the rhetorical power that dualism engenders. I will propose that minimally we further refract the politics of identity and difference in the mediascape into the terms of the 1) grassroots, interpersonal dimension; 2) the dimension of the public sphere, dominated by the powers of the state; and 3) the dimension of the transnational corporations. If these levels seem almost too conventional, still I believe that they can quickly be used to indicate new research directions into the nature and consequences of changes of the mediascape, especially in shedding light on issues of not only the more general politics of identity, but of specific issues of fundamentalism and nationalism. While each of these 'levels' will be characterized in terms of relatively distinctive media uses and constraints, we need also to consider that one of the most important differences might be that of scale.
The notions of scale and the interrelated issue of the nature of complexity have quietly been emerging as key topics in wide range of theoretical studies recently, (e.g. Schwartz 1978b; Barth 1978; Allen & Starr 1982; Higashi & Burns 1991), especially with the realization that observation is scale dependent, and that scale is intimately related to theoretical questions of hierarchy and the organization of diversity. The 'identity' of an object depends on the scale by which it is observed. For example, seen through the microscope, the human body is a collection of organisms; seen by the naked eye, it is a corporal unity; seen from a distant point, it is part of a complex system of cultural and material exchange and movement. At one level of observation, skin is a boundary; at another level of observation, is a porous gate between worlds. None of these observations negate the other. Nor are the \different scales independent of one another either! Even as high levels of organization serve to constrain lower levels (that's what makes them 'higher'), still perturbations on a lower level can radically influence or disrupt higher levels, especially when there is some kind of systematic change. I suggest that this notion of the relationship of scale and observation is very important to the understanding and research done in connection with the mediascape.
I further suggest that each of these scales of observation of the mediascape can be characterized by relatively distinctive media use, although I certainly am not arguing that the spirit of the technology somehow mysteriously 'causes' social and cultural changes. The grassroots level of production and exchange is more personalized, with knowledge, identity, and material products being exchanged in the context of interpersonal power and trust. It is at this level that we might find the production or movement of videotapes of political messages or weddings, audio tapes of bands, small circulation newspapers and telephone conversations. It is of a scale making it marginal even to the public sphere.
I should note, however, that the very existence of this level is facilitated by the exchange of media products and contents. Video tapes, for example, circulate not just to satisfy personal interests, but also because their acquisition and exchange serves to situate people in relation to one another. "Broadcasting and VCRs seem ideally suited to the Arab world because Arab culture fosters extremely strong family ties; entertainment is group oriented; electronic gadgets are status symbols; leisure time is abundant; and media receiver hardware is shared" (Boyd, Straubhaar, & Lent 1989:49) That is, part of the importance of this level is not simply that individuals will consume 'significant' or 'entertaining' or 'useful' products, their consumption will help to facilitate interactions between people. Consuming certain media products and ideas is part of what people have in common on an interpersonal level, and media consumption, and the acquisition of its skills of interpretation brings people together as collectives.
Following suggestions of Habermas (1989(1962), I envision this domain of the public sphere as that 'visible' common involving institutionalized arena of discursive interaction, where purportedly private interests become public. It is at this level that the terms of group identity, responsibilities, and exigencies are forged and negotiated. Carol Breckenridge and Arjun Appadurai, in the opening pages of their journal, Public Culture, speak of the public sphere as "a zone of cultural debate," "an arena where other types, forms, and domains of culture are encountering, interrogating, and contesting each other in new and unexpected ways" (1988:6). It is at this level that the state as an integral entity emerges and operates, controlling or at least deeply involved with the possibilities and organization of mass communication and the 'imagined communities' that such media help establish. Benedict Anderson probably has made the most extended analysis of the relationship of the founding of the nation as state, and the establishment of print: "What, in a positive sense, made the new communities imaginable was a half-fortuitous, but explosive, interaction between a system of production and productive relations (capitalism), a technology of communication (print), and the fatality of linguistic diversity" (Anderson 1991:43). The primordial link between particular territories and particular languages was of course to be an important factor in the construction of nationalist and 'nationalizing' ideologies. The permanence associated with the technology and the products of print were seen to give rise to assumptions about the stability of the 'history' of any particular nation. The nation was to be the bounded, universal, collective.
Once established, the state claims, as did the dynastic regime prior to it, to act on behalf of the many communities of interest, establishing the single standards where single standards appear to be needed. They do this, implicitly, based on the possibility of the exercise of force over the individuals and groups. As Max Weber has said, 'the state is a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory..." (Weber 1948:78)
From the perspective of the mediascape, the State can be conceived as a function of the use of media, and one that, symbiotically attempts to control the use of media. Philip Schlesinger captures this, pointing out that similar to Weber:
Norbert Elias has referred to the 'pacified social spaces' that the monopoly of force confers within a given territory. In the modern world such social spaces are also communicative spaces: the permitted range of communicative practices within the territory of a state, and the extent to which official linguistic and cultural norms may be exclusively imposed and resisted, are precisely the kinds of questions with which we are concerned. It is obvious too that there are global and other supranational communicative spaces which impact variously upon those of given states... (Schlesinger 1992b:299)
It is of course at this 'supranational' level that so much conceptualization and research is now occurring, in part because so much of it is unknown. As was suggested in my introduction, the notion of strategic and tactical uses of communication are bound to become more and more part of our conceptions of this 'transnational' level where resources, whether of images, demographics, materials, etc. are constantly being shifted according to abstract, essentially capitalist rules and assumptions in a deterritorialized calculus. If it is the work of the public domain to relate cultural politics to a material and ecological settings, to the limited resources of spatial extent, ecology, and presumed histories, so the transnational level appears to foreground issues of change, movement, and calculus based on change, or else, as in the case of Buddhism, Islam, or Christianity, etc., supranational ideologies and histories.
This three-fold perspective is not unlike the famous one of economist and historian, Fernand Braudel who spoke of the structures of everyday life, where the *practices* of the production and reproduction of life occur within bounded histories and material circumstances; the level of the 'wheels of commerce' which services to constrain and optimize the workings of the everyday; and finally the more global capitalist perspective which gradually emerges to deal with both the contingencies of production and distribution (serving to minimize risk), and serving to integrate ultimately world scale economies. One of the points of this paper is to insist that we keep in mind what I have been calling the 'grassroots level,' the level (or scale) of the structures of everyday life, and the way it both strategically uses and becomes identified and identifiable in and through media use.
By grassroots here I am indicating something more than the highly politicized and resistant forms of cultural struggles (cf. Pan 1991; Downing 1987; Kahn & Neumaier 1985) within the mediascape, a grassroots bubbling up from the everyday with strategies of intervention, appropriation, and resistance, including locally produced videos, communal song, pirate radio, indigenous theater, graffiti, computer networking, VCR and audio tape exchange, small circulation magazines, etc. Even this notion of grassroots activism needs to be more thoroughly theorized, especially in terms of the 'reappropriation' of the activist venture. Here, however, I want to draw attention to the need to research, understand, and develop policy for each of these levels or domains in terms of their interdependencies.
Consider the case of the well known
Japanese minority, the Ainu, as presented in Jonathan Friedman's research. Prior to the 1960s, he states that the Ainu
who are of Indo-European extraction and were in the
Tourist production and display has become a central process in the conscious reconstruction of Ainu identity. It emphasized the distinctive content of Ainu ethnicity for Japanese tourists in a context which such specificity is officially interpreted as a mere variation of Japanese culture and not a separate identity. The presentation of Ainu selfhood is a political instrument in the constitution of that selfhood. (Friedman 1990:321)
Through the implicit use of telephones, satellites, computers, etc., and the other devices on which both international and domestic tourism depend, the Ainu have been able to somewhat go over the heads, or at least circumvent the designs and assumptions of the national whole. What this obviously does is to give new power to marginalized 'groups' who can figure out how to organize in terms of these non-national level media. And of course, in so far as the Ainu do become (self)organized, they begin to appear and have leverage within the national media, and in the national cultural media as well.
This undermining of viability of the spatially bound, public sphere, administered with a strong element of State control has all kinds of long term consequences. What, after all, *is* to become of this shared commonality, and the principles of collective action? Daniel Dayan and Elihu Katz have recently written about the need for what Durkheim called organic solidarity, a solidarity based on membership, similarity, equality, and familiarity, and how, by way of extension of the anthropological work of ceremony and performance of Victor Turner, this solidarity can be formulated in terms of the dominant media which converge on the national whole. In their revisionist account of media events, certain shared media experiences are construed as helping to foster democracy, even plurality such that "the electronic media... enfranchises the citizen viewer." (Dayan and Katz 1992). And if the public sphere as nation becomes a sham, will not the more intimate grassroots levels be open to the depredations of transnational forces without some kind of collective resource? Framed in articles with titles such as 'Cosmopolitanism without Enlightenment' (Rorty) and 'The disappearance of Meaning' (Burger) a host of citizens are becoming more and more worried about their collectives in terms of the possible necessity for collective decisions and collective action (Lasch & Friedman 1992).
And what is to become of the state
in its more coercive sense. State power
has often justified itself in enlightenment or protection (cf. Toulmin
1990). Social control was to be
exercised on behalf of the development or protection of the culture as a
whole. Now in so far as the state apparatus
is less and less effective in controlling the cultural lives, to its cultural
legitimacy, this can lead to an increasing reliance on the crucial power that
remains: terror, whether implicit or explicit (cf. Schlesinger 1991a). Terror and its threats can keep the national
apparatus intact, but will of course undermine cultural legitimacy even more,
leading all the more to reliance on grassroots and transnational media flows,
as well as the development of critical stances permissible within the state
conception of 'public interest.' James
Lull speaks of the currently split public sphere of the People's Republic of
National or at least collective unity, however, makes sense. These are products of sense making operations emerging from the politics of identity in the mediascape. Without this collective identity, how are we to interpret the world, and develop strategies to change it? (Bauman 1990; 1992; Giddens 1991). In their divisive phase, such identifications appear connected to strategies of fundamentalism, ethnic identity and cleansing can make sense. Without a more elaborate sense of the postmodernist strategies involving an elaboration of the processes of collaboration, exclusionary logics can result in a loss of mooring. The choice, as one defender of the project of modernity puts it is between 'ontological security and existential anxiety' (Giddens 1991). As this culture making and remaking goes on, it increasingly has at its command communicational tools which lie beyond territorialized command.
Videotapes and VCRs: Hand-to-Hand Networks
The importance, then, of this grassroots level of global communication cannot be underestimated, and yet most globalization research has tended to explore more explicitly the transnational levels, or else the politics and history of the concept of the 'nation' and the state. The more disorganized cultural flows connected with VCRs, computer networking, and so on, need more research in this context. With these questions in mind, and given the increasing amount of research given over to the issues of transborder data flows, computer networks, and other electronically sustained, yet almost unlocateable cultural and political economies, I would like to conclude, by way of an example, taking instead a closer look at the role of the VCR in the global cultural economy. I will first refer the reader to several useful summaries and anthologies of the current state of the global VCR penetration and use (Ganley&Ganley 1987; Boyd, Straubhaar, & Lent 1989; Levy 1989; Dobrow 1990 by way of summary, and articles in Variety, the Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, etc. by way of update). Several general suggestions about the position of the VCR in the mediascape in terms of its three-fold aspect need to be considered: While the production of videocassette tapes is more and more done with international markets as part of de-territoralized investments, the tapes and hardware can be redistributed by grassroots distribution systems, and seen as threatening by the proxies of the public sphere.
One African government official has
described video as the "enemy in our backyard" (Boyd, Straubhaar,
Lent 1989:x). The enemy is a world
beyond the reach of government cultural engineering. The mass media, the media controlled
implicitly or explicitly by this second level, serve to facilitate national
unity. Consider the case of
In fact, all the studies on VCRs
noted above point out that when television broadcasting is strongly limited,
either because of limitations in funding and development of the infrastructure
or by governmental fiat, VCR use quickly increases, even in societies with less
disposable individual income, other factors being equal. Ogan postulated, "that as VCR ownership
in many countries increases, there are increased opportunities to avoid
centrally distributed broadcast and increased opportunities to view
individualized content." (Dobrow 1989:199)
Further, with the ongoing innovation in 'sky channels' spatially bound
nations are increasingly fighting simply to maintain something of their role as
cultural arbiter. Conceding that they
are losing their battle to enforce homogeneity in terms of nationalist
ideologies, and are simply trying to control something of the mediascapes real
At the level of videotape
distribution, governmental and 'moral' controls were often actively
subverted. Several authors told of
humorous accounts to sidetrack videotape censors. In the
All the same, we should at least consider two crucial propositions made by David Waterman: First that "All other things equal (notably the programme's country of origin), larger amounts of production investment attract larger audiences" and "All other things equal (notably production investment), audiences prefer programmes produced within their own country." (Waterman 1988:144) Where 'local' content is produced, Waterman suggest that it will at least have an advantage over 'foreign' productions. Essentially, in so far as the more locally produced program will have more resonance with local problems and humor, and will deal with local cultural and social contradictions more identifiably, we would expect that such programming would have an advantage in reaching its audience, even if the locally produced program were of somewhat 'inferior' production quality. For example, in Brazil, where there were alternative broadcast channels available, VCR penetration was much slower than in Columbia which had much more strict content controls.
Together, the transnational level,
which helps to fund and organize high production standards, and the grassroots
level which helps to mobilize interpersonal networks to rapidly diffuse media
products around governmental boundaries.
For example, "Japanese television shows have been taped off the air
One of the ironic points of this
continual slippage of control is the fact that groups that make use of media in
revolutionary ways, such as the grassroots use of audio cassette and video
tapes, Xeroxes, broadsides, and small newspapers to gain power, find these very
same media tools can later undermine their power. Prior to the Iranian revolution, such grassroots
oriented media were used to circumvent the Shah's control of most public media,
such as mainstream printing, television, radio, and, to some extent, the
movies, while afterwards they themselves became the object of revolutionary
concern (Kho'i 1992; Fischer & Abdedi 1990:335-382; Akrami 1987). While the late Dr. Ali Shari'ati allegedly
proclaimed, "Give me the national television (of
Two final points need to made in
connection with understanding the nature of video flows within the tri-fold
conception of the mediascape. First, we
must bear in mind that new media come to be used, defined, rejected, and
reinvented in terms of the already existing motifs, histories, and needs. These needs and contexts, and the politics of
identity into which they feed, serve to define and situate new media; they do
not come with the technology itself.
Television and video can be seen as a threat to traditional ritual
theater worldwide which depends on public space, lengthy timing, etc. Still, these forms appear to be adapting to
new circumstances. The Ta'ziyeh, Iranian
ritual theater according to one description (Chelkowsky 1991) continues to evolve to its situation in
relation to other media, and still serves as a collective forum where people
act out their notions of the present in terms of ancient motifs, primarily the
passion of Ali. In
Finally, we must be attentive to the extent to which theorizing about this changed mediascape and its impact on the nature of identity and the continuity of cultures is occurring outside traditional 'western' academies. One of the main intellectual debates prior to the Iranian revolution within Islamic circles had to do with the nature of new media and their relation to traditional concepts such as 'nation' 'culture' and 'religion.' Mullah Mutaharri, arguing for a form of universalist Islam under 'Iranian' leadership felt the need to overcome the imperialist subjugation which had formulated itself in terms of local 'nationalist' ideologies, control, and media:
Mutahhari superbly displays the
discourse structure of a vision of Islam that appeals powerfully to Shi'ite
Iranians. It is a discursive system that
The public sphere, this suggests, must be reformulated in a globalizing era with universalist and universalizing formulas that do away with 'nations' and their systematic subordination through sophisticated means of communication. Hence the Iranian revolution.
In fact the most pointed critique of this position came from within Iranian intellectual and revolutionary circles themselves from the complex, perhaps post-modernist thinker, Dr. Ali Shari'ati. Recognizing the exclusionary, yet still secretly nationalist nature of this position, Shari'ati argued for a much fuller understanding of the increasingly integrated global media system, what we have been calling the mediascape:
Shari'ati dismisses Mutahhari's understanding of the threats of imperialism as archaic. The challenges of modern global technological and information-based society, powered by market capitalism that uses advertising and manipulation of psychological desire, are on a scale and of a subtlety that require a major rethinking of Iranian cultural resources so as to respond creatively to the new civilization and become an active participant and not a self-isolating enclave. (Fisher & Abedi 1990:202-203)
Shari'ati still also dismissed the isolationist, fundamentalist streak in universalist regimens for the public sphere. He held onto a form of explicit nationalism, perhaps as the Dalai Lama has held onto a Tibetan 'nationalism,' or more accurately, 'nationhood' while at the same time trying to take into account the heterogeneous origins of culture itself:
What is needed, on the other hand is a return [Shari'ati argues] to authentic nationalism, not a la Mutahhari in the sense of racial or ethnocentric chauvinism [such as is happening in Serbia, in Central Asia, etc.], but in the sense of an evolving, synthesizing, integrative culture. (Fischer & Abedi 1990:206)
leads us to understand that while the means for creating collective identities
has been increasing with the development of new media forms, the consequences
of enforcing these identities in the public sphere can be devastating. It is devastating not only in the tragic
consequences of seeing a plurality of identities fighting for a single spatial
region, but also devastating in that the identity as a practice can now become
fused with the practice and identity of the fight. This is a difficult point to make clear. When Tibetan freedom fighters came to the
Dalai Lama, their spiritual and
temporal leader and asked to be given permission to fight to liberate Tibet
from Chinese occupation, the Dalai Lama pointed out that even if the Tibetans
were able to regain their 'homeland' by force, they would lose what it was to
be Tibetan and Tibetan Buddhist. What
they had most to offer the world was their sense of
From the policy perspective, a number of things become clearer. The grassroots level is becoming ever more resilient to regimentation from the level of public polity, even when backed that polity by the force of the state apparatus. If the sentiment of the grassroots is not behind a policy so that associated popular, grassroots behaviors can be modified repeatedly on interpersonal level, then there are too many alternative avenues of collectivity and identification by which subgroups can mobilize and elude that public domination. The identifiable collectivities such as nations and states have the greatest possibility of surviving in the movement of global integration and disjuncture by emphasizing processes of federation and integration, not identity, as well as in making arguments in terms of their physical resources and environment. In so far as the public polity is spatially located, it will have a responsibility to care for, to speak on behalf of its physical presence, of cultural strategies that might use that physical level, and ecological stewardship arguments and practices which all too often will not be part of global strategies.
The mediascape as worked out between the local and the global becomes on these terms a resource by which to create the public sphere again and again, a public sphere which is to be redefined from its grassroots level, and in terms of its global situatedness. Indeed, the public sphere is itself in part a creation of the mediascape, a symbol by which to situate the continuities of culture, and which is situated by these cultures. It is too late for cultures to be considered in isolation, but not too late to formulate collective strategies, resistances, and affirmations, to reformulate identities in a world that can not be conceived as simply local, as simply national, as simply global.
Janet. 1989. Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250‑1350.
Akrami, Jamsheed. 1987. "The Blighted Spring: Iranian Political Cinema in the 1970s." in Downing.
Aksoy, Asu and Nabi Avci. 1992. "Spreading Turkish Identity." Intermedia 20:4‑5. (Aug/Sept.)
T.F.H. and Thomas B. Starr. 1982. Hierarchy:
Perspectives in Ecological Complexity.
Benedict. 1991. Imagined Communities:
Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. (Rev., 2nd Ed.)
Arjun, ed. 1986. The Social Life of
Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. NY:
Appadurai, Arjun. 1990. "Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy." Public Culture 2(2):1‑24
Frederik, ed. 1969. Ethnic Groups and Boundaries.
Frederik, ed. 1978. Scale and Social Organization.
Gregory. 1976. "Intelligence, Experience, Evolution." Re-Visions
Bauman, Zygmunt. 1990. "Modernity and Ambivalence." in Featherstone.
Zygmunt. 1992. Intimations of
Hakim. 1985. T.A.Z., The Temporary
Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism.
Douglas A., Joseph D. Staubhaar, and
John A. Lent. 1989. Videocassette recorders in the
Breckenridge, Carol and Arjun Appadurai. 1988. Why Public Culture? Public Culture (Bulletin for the Project for Transnational Cultural Studies. 1(1):5-9
Chelkowsky, Peter J. 1992. "Ta'ziyeh: Indigenous Avant‑Garde Theatre in Iran." in Marranca and Dasgupta
Daniel and Elihu Katz. 1992. Media
Events: The Live Broadcasting of History.
Julia R., ed. 1990. Social and Cultural Aspects of VCR Use.
John D. 1987. Film and Politics in the
Terry, Frederic Jameson, and Edward Said. 1991 Nationalism, Colonialism, and Literature.
Mike, ed. 1990. Global Culture:
Nationalism, Globalization, and Modernity.
Fischer, Michael and Mehdi Abedi. 1990. Debating Muslims: Cultural Dialogues in Postmodernity and Tradition. Madison, Wisc.: Univ of Wisc. Press.
Foucault, Michel. 1982. Power/Knowledge. NY: Pantheon.
Friedman, Johnathan. 1990. "Being in the World: Globalization and Localization." in Featherstone.
Gladys & Oswald Ganley. 1987. Global Political Fallout: The VCR's First
Anthony. 1991. Modernity and Self‑Identity:
Self and Society in the Late Modern Age.
Gupta, Akhil & James Ferguson. 1992. "Beyond 'Culture': Space, Politics and the Politics of Difference." Cultural Anthropology 7(1):6‑23.
Ward. 1978. Multi‑culturalism as the normal Human Experience. In
Elizabeth Eddy and William Partridge, eds. Applied
J. 1989 (1962). The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere.
Cees. 1983. Cultural Autonomy in Global
Ulf. 1992. Cultural Complexity: Studies
in the Social Organization of Meaning.
M and T.P. Burns. 1991. Theoretical Studies of Ecosystems: The
E.F. and T. Ranger, eds. 1982. The Invention of Tradition.
Hyde, Lewis. 1983. The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property. NY: Vintage.
Pico. 1988. Video Nights in
Douglas and Diane Neumaier, Eds. 1985. Cultures
Susannah. 1992. "Satellites and the Arab Community in
Kho'i, Esmail. 1992. "The Earthly Monarch and the Heavenly Ruler: Iranian Television." Intermedia 20:4‑5 (Aug/Sept.)
Scott & Johnathan Friedman, eds. 1992. Modernity
Henri. 1991. The Production of Space. (tr. Donald Nicholson-Smith).
Mark, ed. 1989. The VCR Age: Home Video
and Mass Communication.
Marcus, George. 1992. "Past, present and emergent identities: requirements for ethnographies of late twentieth‑century modernity worldwide." in Lash & Friedman 1992:309‑330.
Joshua. 1985. No Sense of Place: The
Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior.
Robert. 1971. The Dialectics of Social Life.
Ogan, Christine 1989. "The World Wide Cultural and Economic Impact of Video." in Levy 1989.
Diane Tse‑i. 1991. Videotape
technology and alternative communication: the case of popular movements in
Said, Edward W. 1990. "Yeats and Decolonization." in Terry Eagleton, Frederic Jameson, and Edward W. Said, Nationalism, Colonialism, and Literature.
& James Koehnline, eds. 1993. Gone to Croaton: Origins of North American
Theodore. 1978a. "Where is culture?
Personality and the Distributive Locus of Culture." in George D.
Spindler, ed., The Making of
Schwartz, Theodore. 1978b. "The Size and Shape of a Culture." In Barth 1978.
Herbert 1992. Mass Communications and
American Empire. 2nd ed.,
Herbert 1989. "The Privatization and Transnationalization of
Culture." In Ian Angus and Sut Jhally, eds., Cultural Politics in Contemporary
Philip. 1991a. Media, State and Nation:
Political Violence and Collective Identities.
Philip. 1991b. "Media, the Political Order and National Identity." Media, Culture and Society.
Edward. 1989. Postmodern Geographies: The
Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory.
Stephen. 1990. Cosmopolis: The Hidden
Agenda of Modernity.
Waterman, David. 1988. "World Television Trade: The economic effects of privatization and new technology."
Max. 1948. From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology.