Media Representation and the Global Imagination

How the Media Invite Us to Think and Feel About the World

Click here to view the panel discussion

On 18th February 2013, Dr. Shani Orgad, Senior Lecturer at the Department of Media and Communications at LSE, gave a public lecture to mark the publication of her new book, Media Representation and the Global Imagination, published by Polity. Professor Saskia Sassen, from Columbia University, and Laurie Taylor, sociologist and BBC Radio 4 presenter, joined Dr. Orgad in a panel discussion chaired by Charlie Beckett, head of the Department of Media and Communications at LSE to discuss the book.

‘My book originated from a broad question that interests me’, explained Shani, ‘about how we imagine the world we live in, our own place in the world, others and our relations to them, and ultimately, how this imagining shapes private lives and public life’.

Orgad started the discussion by observing how imagination, commonly understood as a private act, is nourished by external sources that invite individuals to imagine the world in certain ways. The media, she argued, is one of these main sources. ‘I look at the images, narratives, voices and information that circulate in the media today, and how these images and information invite us to think and feel about a world that is characterized by rapid processes of globalisation’, she said.

In her book, Orgad examines five sites of imagination:

Distant Others, and how their mediated representations have changed historically. More specifically, she analyses representations of victims of the 2010 Haiti Earthquake, the 1985 famine in Africa and the 1755 Lisbon earthquake.

The Nation, and how its imaginary is changing and is being challenged today, in what sociologist John Thompson calls the age of ‘new visibility’. She analyses how citizens of stable societies are not only gazing at distant others, but have also increasingly become the object of the world’s scrutiny.

Possible Lives, in regards to how the global media portray migration as a site in which one can pursue alternative lives.

The World, with a particular emphasis on the more banal representations of it, such as broadcast reports of New Year’s Eve celebrations across the globe.

Finally, Orgad examines how all these sites converge, through the prism of the self, arguing that while the focus on the individual may encourage better understanding and recognition of others, it simultaneously fosters self-centred views and lack of interest in the other.

According to Orgad, there are two central dialectic tensions running through these sites of imagination. The first one is the notion that viewers can and should become intimate with faraway others. ‘This is particularly striking in the comparison of contemporary representations of distant others and the 18th century ones’, she observed.

‘When we compare accounts [of the 1775 Lisbon earthquake] and contemporary ones, like the 1985 “We are the World” and its 2010 adaptation for the Haiti earthquake, we note a radical transformation in how the other is imagined and shown as individuals in close ups making us, if you remember the lyrics [of the We are the World song], “God’s great big family”’. Personalisation has become the central way to connect with distant others, encouraging the viewer to develop mediated intimacy with far away people, places and events.

Although Orgad acknowledged the potential value of this intimacy, she also warned about its limits and dangers, since it can reduce the complexity and context of the other. However, she stressed that in her view, this mediated intimacy should not necessarily be lamented as inauthentic or as a mere expression of narcissism: ‘Rather than abandoning it, I consider its pitfalls and how we might eschew some of them. For instance, the fact that this intimacy is very fleeting, since we are momentarily called upon to become intimate with the other, and then it’s gone, because of the way the media environment is constructed’.

The second tension she discussed is the fact that contemporary media representations are not necessarily characterised by coherence and closure. As Orgad explained, representations have historically been a source of certainty and assurance, as they contributed to the perpetuation of a certain account of the world, giving viewers the impression they have to simply ‘move’ into a pre-existing polished construction of the world. The narrative form that characterises representations establishes causality and supresses randomness, but it also imposes moral judgements, inviting viewers to identify with specific moral authorities, such as capitalism, humanitarianism, cosmopolitanism or self-help culture.

However, Orgad argued that the current global media space, particularly the online space, encourages the production and visibility of representations that refuse narrativity, and in doing so, they also refuse classification, completeness and closure.

She exemplified this point by using the case of the blog Riverbend written by an anonymous Iraqi woman, whose abrupt ending in 2007 leaves the reader wondering about the uncertain fate of its author: ‘This non-ending, which goes against the fundamental principle of narratives, which is closure, forces the imagination to accept incompleteness. We are unable to conclude or classify Riverbend or her experience with complete certainty and coherence’.

While Orgad pointed out that narratives are important and helpful for coping with the uncertainties, fragility and lack of coherence that characterise current times, she argued that individuals also need symbolic spaces capable of addressing the ambivalences of modern life in a global world. ‘Media representations often oust ambivalence from the imagination. At the same time, transformations in the current media environment, however dangerous and worrying, open up spaces that may allow the re-admittance of ambivalence into the imagination, accepting that not knowing, and not fully understanding are inevitable features of life today’, she argued.  

‘The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman describes ambivalence as the waste of modernity. I think we should seek and demand that our media give us more of this waste’, she concluded.