When Big Media Aren’t the Biggest

Light on the Louvre, by Flickr user Photophilde, is just one fragmentary and incomplete image of the place that is Paris.

Every tweet, newspaper article, television program, speech, presentation, app and street sign has some sort of assumed audience. In political discourse, “The Public” reigns supreme as the target of all of these media types and yet, I wonder, does it really exist?

Might it not make more sense to recognise the public as a media object? As something created, maintained, produced and acted upon within and by other media objects. As temporary, fragmentary and imagined.

The same goes for place itself. Whereas space is a medium through which we experience being, place is something we create through habit and endeavour. Place is born from emotion and attachment, from affectation and growth.

Both public and place are born from representation in media. Ah, but what are media? Media theorist Clay Shirky says media “the connective tissue of society… how you know about anything more than ten yards away”. This is a capable definition, just enough to give some essential characteristic of this thing we call media but broad enough to be almost unchallengeable and therefore just about useless.

The definition needs more. I’ve hinted, I think, at further definitions of media above. They are incomplete and fragmentary representations of the world. They give us some slanted perspective on whatever is represented — always full of inferred values and politics of its own. That is why we must understand places as something we create through habitation, something we produce through experience.

The philosopher Martin Heidegger put it like this:

The human’s relation to places, and through places to spaces, inheres in his dwelling. The relationship between the human and space is none other than the dwelling

Since I’ve claimed places are something created both through habitation and in media, there must be some link between these two things. Habitation is, in a big way, shaped by media use and by the experiences and traces media enact upon us. This is not to say that we are incapable of contesting or misunderstanding messages in any given media, but that they nonetheless exert some influence upon us.

The idea of the public forces itself upon us too. By being construed as a members of a public, we are assumed to be similar in some way to other members of the public. It might be because we are from a particular location, or have a particular personal history, or a particular genealogical history, or access a particular service. Whether any of these things is true about any individual is largely irrelevant if, for whatever reason, they are interred into this public.

The public might not be represented in media in the same way places are (or it might be!) but it is always present, always an implicit or even explicit assumption. For both places and publics, the representation can never be complete. It can never be whole.

On various representations of Paris, Bruno Latour and Emilie Hermant say we need to move away from unattainable attempts to capture:

the entire Paris set in one view to the multiple Parises within Paris, which together comprise all Paris and which nothing ever resembles — Latour and Hermant, Paris ville invisible (Paris: Invisible City)

It is time to move beyond assuming places and publics can ever be really represented and accept their fragmentary, incomplete nature. The dislocative, elusive and illusory nature of one coherent imagining of any place or public calls out to a need to understand multiplicity, complexity, construction and assumption.