The Just Do It Riots: A Critical Interpretation of the Media's Violence

By Taylor, Paul Anthony | Capital & Class, October 2012 | Go to article overview

The Just Do It Riots: A Critical Interpretation of the Media's Violence


Taylor, Paul Anthony, Capital & Class


Introduction

Despite the fact that news reporting is nominally part of a 'discourse of sobriety' (Nichols, 1991), the media's visually dominated and entertainment-oriented grammar means that an innate tendency for depicting context-free images of destruction routinely displaces underlying political issues. Substantive protests ranging from student fees protests to anti-war marches are filtered to produce metonymic images of violence, which are used to distract from their underlying causal factors. The 2011 summer riots provided a different challenge for the ideological processing mechanisms of the contemporary mediascape. These disturbances saved the media the bother of politically decaffeinating the events on screen, since one of their most commented-upon features was a lack of obvious political motivation. Many column inches and much airtime was devoted to this paradox, whereby explosive levels of violence took place merely in order to liberate consumer goods.

Traditional Marxist analysis would suggest that the politically unfocused riots were the act of an alienated lumpenproletariat lacking in class consciousness. Whilst this may be true, political analysis of these events can be further supplemented by revisiting contemporary critical theory (in particular Baudrillard and Zizek) that often tends to be prematurely dismissed due to its misrepresentation as a vacuous form of postmodern relativism. This articles argues that, properly understood, such theory in fact enables a distinctly non-relativist understanding of the otherwise confusing nature of the riots: their ultimate meaning is to be found in their apparent meaninglessness. Representing more than just tautological word play, this claim goes straight to contemporary critical media theory's role as a countervailing force to the media's standard operating procedure. Such theory draws out the under-acknowledged political significance of the overarching paradox that provides much of the media's ideological power: its obfuscatory use of explicit images to hide implicit causes.

The following arguments are made for the political value of critical media theory:

* Supposedly abstract and out-of-touch, critical media theory is actually able to explain such current events like the 2011 summer riots more effectively than the media's own purportedly more practical and down-to-earth analyses.

* It enables us to see more clearly a particular form of under-acknowledged media violence whose ideological subtlety is inversely proportional to the clarity of the dramatic violence that constitutes the media's normal stock-in-trade.

* It bolsters traditional political critique by providing tools with which to understand contemporary developments in the media system's rational administration of irrational modes of discourse--the way in which the media processes violent events into sublime/desublimated objects of ideology.

Do polar bears eat people in the woods? Understanding the media's violent misunderstanding of violence

In the illustrated magazines, people see the very world that the illustrated magazines prevent them from perceiving ... Never before has a period known so little about itself. In the hands of the ruling society, the invention of illustrated magazines is one of the most powerful means of organising a strike against understanding ... the flood of photos sweeps away the dams of memory. (Kracauer, 1995 [1927]: 58)

Although Kracauer's above assessment of a media-sponsored cognitive deficit was originally delivered in the 1920s, it remains highly pertinent to today's mediascape. The advent of digital communications has exponentially intensified the paradoxical process he describes, whereby our mediated mode of seeing ironically perpetuates barriers to perception. Kracauer's notion that 'never before has a period known so little about itself' thus only needs updating due to its now anachronistic level of understatement. …

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