On ‘mediacracy’ and intellectuals

Print edition : February 08, 2013

Edward Said in 2003. A file photo. Photo: AFP

Noam Chomsky Photo: The Hindu Photo Archives

Jacques Derrida in 2004. A file photo. Photo: Pierre Verdy/AFP

Jose Marti

Antonio Gramsci

While the broadcast media often arrogates to itself the right to speak in the name of the nation, catering to their “customers” in the process, intellectuals have a duty to question such practices and resist being co-opted by the channels.

IT may not be far-fetched to speak in terms of a new “mediacracy” riding the airwaves. The movers and shakers perched on the prime time news shows on television seem, with their growing vociferation, to be setting the gold standard of a new order of discourse where assumptions and decisions made before the show began are earnestly discussed during it to give it the appearance of democratic debate. The whole effect is of something at once perfunctory and passionate, often of inanities discussed with profundity. At a time when journalism is wading into the social media and diluting its own identity and agency, we have this emerging spectacle of a praetorian club engaged in defending the notion of a “nation” against the state. Functionaries of the state, at least the credulous ones who fall for it, are hauled up before its nightly durbar and asked to explain to the nation, no less, the sins of omission and commission levelled, then and there, against them. “Tell the nation on this [or that] channel”, “the nation wants to know…”, “the nation will not wait…” are the kinds of grandiloquent goads that drive the sound bites.

This conflation of the nation and the channel is at its bellicose acutest when, as now, something happens along the border with Pakistan. There is a recurring pattern of Track Two diplomacy between the two countries being brought to naught by the news media on either side second-guessing, blow by blow, the efforts at rapprochement so that the diplomatic corps and the political class take one step forward and, the moment the media swings into the act, two steps back, lest it be projected as a sell-out. If only the media could wage peace with as deadly effect as it mongers war! Whether the media are themselves being played by one or the other section of the establishment—in the instant case to pave the way for higher defence allocation in the Union Budget that comes up before Parliament in February—also cannot be dismissed as just conspiracy theory.

It does not, however, require the prospect of war for the channel to masquerade as the nation. The war-like emergency conjured up in daily domestic affairs demands that all and sundry be routinely called to account before the channel as nation. Politicians, lawyers, NGOs, public relations types, ex-bureaucrats, actors and socialites who have become co-opted fixtures in this charade flit, in the space of the same half or one hour, from show to show, so that there is no escaping them even when you switch channels. This is television’s known proclivity to give you “more of the same” carried to a new level, where you get more of the same faces saying more of the same things on channels which seem different from one another only because the logos say so. If any of them, or more likely any enthusiastic newcomer, strays from the script or challenges the assumptions of the debate, she is quickly put in her place—the place being one of the frames of the multiple-spilt screen where she is left to languish through the rest of the show without another chance to speak, and for all viewers and no doubt “the nation” to see. Why anyone would, again and again, volunteer for such shabby treatment is beyond comprehension. That apart, the whole effect is mentally saturating and intellectually stultifying.

It falls upon the intellectuals in society to combat and counter such distortion of discourse. But there can be serious confusion when the “mediacrat” himself pretends to be or passes off as the socially engaged intellectual. He easily fits the description of Antonio Gramsci’s “organic”, as against the traditional, intellectual. Edward Said, in his Representations of the Intellectual, says: “Today, everyone who works in any field connected either with the production or distribution of knowledge is an intellectual in Gramsci’s sense” and this includes the “advertising or public relations expert, who devises techniques for winning a detergent or airline company a larger share of the market… someone who in a democratic society tries to gain the consent of potential customers, win approval, marshal consumer and voter opinion”. “Gramsci believed,” Said goes on, “that organic intellectuals are actively involved in society, that is, they constantly struggle to change minds and expand markets; unlike teachers and priests, who seem more or less to remain in place, doing the same kind of work year in year out, organic intellectuals are always on the move, on the make.”

Autonomous function

Said’s own position is a step away and more carefully honed. The intellectual he envisions both includes and exceeds what the media (and mediacrats) do and yet enjoys autonomy of agency and action. The intellectual, in his definition, is “an individual endowed with a faculty for representing, embodying, articulating a message, a view, an attitude, philosophy or opinion to, as well as for, a public.

And this role has an edge to it, and cannot be played without a sense of being someone whose place it is publicly to raise embarrassing questions, to confront orthodoxy and dogma (rather than to produce them), to be someone who cannot easily be co-opted by governments or corporations, and whose raison d’etre is to represent all those people and issues that are routinely forgotten or swept under the rug.” For Said “… in the end it is the intellectual as a representative figure that matters—someone who visibly represents a standpoint of some kind, and someone who makes articulate representations to his or her public despite all sorts of barriers… intellectuals are individuals with a vocation for the art of representing, whether that is talking, writing, teaching, appearing on television.”

At the same time, and even as he distances himself from the construct of the intellectual as an ivory tower recluse and seems to concur with Michel Foucault that we are into the age where the “specific” intellectual has replaced the universal intellectual (like Jean Paul Sartre), Said is clear that the thrust innate in intellectualism to universalise counters narrow nationalism. He points out that “great intellectuals like Rabindranath Tagore in India and Jose Marti of Cuba were exemplary in this regard, never abating their criticism because of nationalism even though they remained nationalists themselves”.

Intellectuals (like the “mediacracy”, one might argue) have their audience and constituency. “The issue is whether that audience is there to be satisfied, and hence a client to be kept happy, or whether it is there to be challenged, and hence stirred into outright opposition or mobilised into greater democratic participation in society.”

In Gramsci and Said there is hope yet for the media and mediacracy to intellectual pretension or aspiration. It may yet be possible to co-opt the media into their definition and scheme of intellectual practice. But Noam Chomsky, Jacques Derrida and Pierre Bourdieu see it as a danger the other way round. In their view, the chances are that the media will co-opt and compromise intellectualism. The media do this in various subtle ways. They use intellectual consultation as the imprimatur to publicise and propagate narrow political agendas. As Chomsky puts it (in an interview given to James Peck): “The media… can turn to academic experts to provide the perspective that is required by the centres of power, and the university system is sufficiently obedient to external power so that appropriate experts will generally be available to lend the prestige of scholarship to the narrow range of opinion permitted broad expression.”

Derrida being caustic about “...the scholarly claims of newspapers that do not have the means to accommodate scholarship and do not want to acquire them…” may have something to do with his own row with The New York Review of Books over what he thought was an inept translation of, and interpretative spin given to, a work of his published in the magazine. But he zeroes in on the serious connotations of confusing simplistic with simple language in the media: “One must teach the reader… that the difficulty of discourse is not a sin—nor is it the effect of obscurantism or irrationalism. And that it is often the contrary that is true: obscurantism can invade a language of communication that is seemingly direct, simple, straightforward” (interview published as “The Work of Intellectuals and the Press”).

Temptation of the media

Derrida and Bourdieu see the media as a snare to trap intellectualism. Succumbing to the wiles of the media would, for Derrida, be tantamount to a betrayal of intellectual integrity. He warns academics against what he calls the “temptation of the media”.

“What I mean by this”, he explains, “is not the normal desire to address a wider public, because there can be in that desire an authentically democratic and legitimate political concern. On the contrary, I call temptation of the media the compulsion to misuse the privilege of public declaration in a social space that extends far beyond the normal circuits of intellectual discussion. Such misuse constitutes a breach of confidence, an abuse of authority—in a word, an abuse of power.”

Strong words these, and an unequivocal indictment of academia flirting with the media. Bourdieu is equally categorical about the corruptive role of the media on intellectuals and warns of the loss of “specific capital” in such engagement. Again, there is a sense of betrayal by those who seek media exposure over peer recognition; they constitute the “Trojan horse” through which the laws of the market which govern the media sector are brought into the academic field. Bourdieu deprecates intellectuals hankering after the media as nothing short of pathetic: “Journalists often take great satisfaction in noting how eagerly academics rush into the arms of the media, soliciting book reviews and begging for invitations to talk shows, all the while protesting against the oblivion to which they are relegated…” ( On Television and Journalism).

The intellectual response in our context to our information media may not have been articulated in such forthright and fastidious terms, but our best thinkers and intellectuals too are not, happily, available on tap on our television screens. Instead of the diverse and original insights they may have brought to the burning issues of our times, what we get on the tube is role play to fit the assigned parts in predetermined narratives by those who constitute the new mediacracy, a kind of home-grown hybrid B-team of discussants who are apparently experts at talking the talk. The really informed discussions, meanwhile, take place outside the TV studios, in different forums in the public sphere. This was true of the gang rape of the 23-year-old woman in Delhi, to which the dominant TV response was to work up the lynch mob mentality. This is true of the reaction to the provocation along the Line of Control with Pakistan which is, all too predictably, cast on “war is patriotism; peace, cowardice” lines.

In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, when his impassioned oration to avenge the assassination of Caesar has the mob instantly going beserk, Mark Antony savours the moment with what must have been a mix of malice and glee:

“Let it work: mischief thou art afoot,

Take thou what course thou wilt.”

One cannot help wondering whether some of our TV anchors feel much the same way when, after a nightly show of heady demagoguery, they say unto themselves, “A good job well done.”

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