About Nick Couldry
Nick Couldry is Professor of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London and author (with Angela Phillips and Des Freedman) of ‘An Ethical Deficit? Accountability, Norms, and the Material Conditions of Contemporary Journalism’ in N. Fenton (ed) New Media Old News (Sage 2009).
Articles by Nick Couldry
The wealth of responses to the horrific events of 11 September in openDemocracy is only one index of their global impact. Among the contributors, Brendan O’Leary and Tom Nairn each underline the significance of the ‘silence’ that surrounded them, the absence of any expression of wider purpose from their perpetrators.
Brendan O’Leary suggests one explanation for this chilling silence. If those responsible considered their actions ‘self-evidently right’, the latter would be ‘value rational’ rather than ‘instrumentally rational’. A religious motive, rather than (for example) a political or territorial one, is a matter for true believers, beyond rational discussion; for them, it needs no wider justification.
But what if these acts were also instrumentally rational? This, I would suggest, is another, perhaps even more disturbing layer of meaning that might emerge from the wreckage. For in the awful collision between the actors and their targets (buildings, victims and ‘audience’) we can identify a world of relationships of power, both material and symbolic. After all, these were direct attacks on the most prominent symbols of American and Western supremacy, designed for the most powerful theatrical frame the world has ever known: the cameras of American and Western media, and through them a global and largely real-time community of spectators.
In this context, the actions of the attackers may also be understood as instrumentally rational from the perspective of those who see themselves as damaged by an unequal distribution of symbolic power (the power to define what the world is and where it is going). They can be seen as a direct challenge to a landscape of symbolic inequality.
And if this is so, an immediate priority must be to grasp the contours of the symbolic landscape within which these acts made such compelling sense. This cannot be separated from some analysis of the unevenness of the world’s media operations.
The global media landscape
There are two essential features of the world’s media landscape as it has developed over recent decades, and as it is likely to continue unless enormous efforts are made to change it.
First, it is so uneven (in terms of the distribution of staff, cameras, news clout, political connections) that any idea of the media presenting us with a neutral selection of the ‘world’s events’ is fanciful; things simply don’t work that way. How many wars or campaigns of systematic terror by states and others have we not seen, because no cameras were there? If America bombs Afghanistan, will we hear and read in such poignant detail the last words of those who die, or the rituals of those who mourn them? Have we seen the victims of America’s and Britain’s bombing raids in Iraq in recent years (and how many even know about these raids)?
The point is not a rhetorical one. For it is this unevenness in the global media landscape that gave the acts of 11 September much of their meaning; and that also makes it counter-productive to talk automatically as if those acts ‘changed the world’. They did not in one important respect; instead they just confirmed how uneven the world’s media landscape is, how high are the stakes it offers for those prepared to work with, rather than against, its gradients, and how unstable as a result the world’s politics are.
The unevenness of the global process through which events become ‘news’ for the rest of us is only one problematic aspect of this media landscape. Another aspect - whose long-term consequences are particularly difficult to assess – is the enormous inequality in which voices, and even which regions, contribute to the truly global flows of images and narratives. Decades of debate about cultural imperialism and the global media industry have run into stalemate on the details; but one point has rarely been challenged – that, as Armand and Michele Mattelart commented more than a decade ago, America remains the undisputed ‘horizon’ of the world.
Debates about globalisation (including the ‘free trade’ of cultural goods) often proceed as if the business flows underlying this unequal pattern had no cultural or political consequences. But, as Jeremy Rifkin recently pointed out in a very different context (Le Monde Diplomatique, July 2001), there is a serious question about whether ‘globalisation’ of cultural flows – that is, the entrenching of the West’s commercial dominance – is a process in equilibrium. Arguably, it is a process that is extremely unstable, indeed unsustainable, in the long term.
Yet in the West our privileged position in this process makes it hard for us to imagine it from other, less privileged positions. Perhaps this is why it has been difficult to see the acts of 11 September as the acts of communication that they surely were.
No exit from the endgame?
We do urgently need to move beyond immediate responses of shock and anger – from the rhetoric of anti-terrorism to different ceremonies of grief – and advance towards a deeper, more genuinely global understanding of what happened. And one way towards this is to see the events of 11 September as part of what I call the global endgame.
When such destruction is achievable and repeatable with limited financial and technical resources, its awful significance is apparent: it projects us into a global endgame with much lower entry costs than previous ones the world has contemplated, a game that is open to a potentially vast range of players. The stakes are already set close to maximum. And the reason the game is worth playing – for those who coordinated the acts of 11 September, and quite possibly for many others of different persuasions and origins – derives not from the low costs of major acts of destruction, but from the unremitting inequalities of the landscape in which those acts have resonance.
Where does this leave us? First, there is no possible victory for anyone from this endgame; and the surest way to advance to its later stages is to raise the symbolic stakes of playing. (Hence the folly not only of Silvio Berlusconi’s recent remarks about the inferiority of Islamic societies, but also of those in the US government who would like to raise the military stakes, in part for symbolic reasons.) Opening up an ‘American Jihad’, as Paul Gilroy called it here in openDemocracy, would be a sure way of encouraging retaliation – retaliation in a game where the most powerful weapons are on ‘the other side’, since the targets whose destruction is guaranteed the greatest media impact are on ‘our side’. Hence the absurdity, and danger, of treating this as a game of two sides. The endgame has begun, and what we need is a way out, not a move up to the next stage.
I see no way out of this endgame (that, for sure, will be televised) without a rather different view of the ends and means of global politics from that prevailing now. I will leave the immense issues of security to others more qualified, but on any view the solution will require the widest international cooperation. A similar breadth of cooperation, across borders, alliances and historical divisions, is needed if we are ever to change the dangerously uneven symbolic landscape.
Three ways forward
This clearly will involve creative thinking in how we move beyond the current impasse. At its minimum, a view of the West’s global role as sustaining some sort of cultural hegemony is no longer sustainable; it is part of the problem, as it only fuels the endgame. Instead, we need to ask what alternative, sustainable view of the world is imaginatively possible. In addition to the eloquent analysis of David Held and Mary Kaldor, I would add a few points on its media dimensions.
Firstly, a precondition for changing the political landscape is a shift in the agendas of the world’s most powerful media organisations and – by association as it were – governments. A different, wider range of voices desperately needs to be heard.
Secondly, this major task will require a serious increase in investment – in news operations outside the main centres of media attention, and in the cross-subsidies for news programmes and news outlets. But also a change of priorities on a day-to-day basis over which sources are allowed to contribute to the images and information flows we receive as tokens of the world’s events.
Thirdly, we must think carefully about the long-term consequences (ethical and practical) of today’s image-saturated political environment. In the week of the attacks, I was struck by the difference between (for example) the Guardian’s and Le Monde’s respective use of images. Much as I admired the Guardian’s effort to provide a range of opinion from the outset, I was worried by its foregrounding (along with the rest of the British papers) of images for their own sake, compared with Le Monde’s more careful quarantining, almost, of images within a framework of print and comment. I am far from sure that ‘the rhetoric of the image’ helps us much right now. Compassion and emotion is not in short supply, but what we may need more is the distance from which to reflect, to make different comparisons and connections.
We need in other words a media process with an effective and long-term investment in the intensification of dialogue. This will be a rather different media from the one we have: one that is not only fully aware of the dangers that accompany its power to construct the realities we are forced to live inside – but which acts on that awareness.