Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Jamming the Democratic

Perhaps the best place to begin stitching together Rancière's "Does Democracy Mean Something?" and our discussion on Middle Eastern contemporary politics this Tuesday is exactly where Rancière begins, with the idea of "bringing democracy" to the Middle East. Rancière uses the idea of a democratizing force to point out the contradictions inherent in a democratic system. The creation of democracy seems to open up a series of questions about its very nature for Rancière. He posits that perhaps democracy  stirs "only if utopian views of it as the ‘power of the people’ are dismissed and it is looked at pragmatically" and that it necessitates "bringing democracy means not simply bringing the rule of law, free elections and so on. Above all, it means introducing the mess, the chaos of democratic life." (46) These are both points which clash with the core of democracy as a popular, rational system. Most importantly, Rancière introduces the idea that the very structure of democracy is what makes it impossible to actualize in its ideal form. There is an inherent "mess" or "chaos" in democracy, or as Rancière describes, it "democracy as a form of government is threatened by democracy as a form of social and political life and so the former must repress the latter." (47) While Rancière is of course directly addressing the political establishment of democracy, it is useful to talk about attempts at the democratization not just of the political system in the Middle East, but of the media. With the increasing accessibility of the internet, the media has become, like democracy, more of an open system. Yet, as we saw illustrated in lecture, the same issues of confusion and control resurface in media platforms, a divide surfaces between the formal and the actual, the theoretical and the pragmatic, the universal and the particular.

An open network such as the internet allows anyone access and the potential to influence public opinion. However, it is the very democratic structure which often undermines the information and clarity that digital media attempt to provide. In such an open system, confusion can result from a sheer overwhelming amount of information or participants. Or, confusion can be introduced intentionally, as we saw in the contradicting videos posted regarding the recent uprisings in Syria. The transparency that the internet offers becomes overwhelming. In the political environments we discussed in Lebanon and Syria, it becomes nearly impossible to understand what is being fabricated or misrepresented and what is "true" as a result of the multiplicity of messages being sent through the channel. All we receive is noise since we can no longer know what information to trust, to suspect. By creating a medium in which anyone can transmit a message, the end result is quite simply that anyone can transmit a message, whether or not it is true. Thus, this a form of communication which idealizes its openness, democratic nature, and potential for transparency also allows for the creation of confusion. As Racière argues, the formal and the actual conception being to diverge.

In an open network there is the constant potential for chaos, whether it be a a political system, a virtual network such as the internet, or even a public space. Our own flash mobs on Monday night create a similar type of confusion in a public space. A flash mob can be seen as an overload of an open system in its own right. By transforming a public space with a large gathering such as a flash mob, you introduce chaos into the system. The unexplainable nature of flash mobs, like lulz which motivate the mass actions of anonymous online communities such as 4chan, jam the traditional channels of understanding. It becomes difficult for onlookers to find an explanation for a flash mob, and importantly, as one of our mobs showed, separate a political demonstration from entertainment. While any public gathering of people seems to be inherently political to observers, the flash mob plays with that perception and as a result confuses the public space, even accidentally. Thus we sometimes find that it is hard for us to figure out not only what is true versus what is fabricated but also what is political and what is merely for fun.

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