The Political Crisis: The Media and Ideological Debate in the Network Society

The current literacy crisis narrative holds that a decline in literacy has recently been brought about by the rise of digital technology; most specifically, the Internet (especially social media) and mobile communication devices are to blame. Further, so the recent story goes, a diminishing knowledge and respect for “Culture” (note the capital “C”), with its attendant values and artistic manifestations, has contributed to this decline in the ability of our young people to express themselves in a correct and “civilized” manner. An examination, however, of the nature of ideological debate as represented within the current mediascape, suggests that the way political rhetoric occurs in our network society may have much more to do with the tendency of college students to send emails that lack civil manners, and draft argumentative papers that come off as one-sided rants, than this supposed literacy crisis.

In Network Culture: Politics for the Information Age (2004), Tiziana Terranova’s theorization of communication in the network society can help us make the connection between public, political rhetoric, and the communication practices of our students. Her communication theory framework describes how the combination of affective rhetoric and increasing media segmentation in network culture leads to a crisis of what should be called understanding—rather than civility—in public and private discourse. This crisis of understanding is connected to the actual crisis of literacy; in both cases, emerging technology plays a central role.

Tea Party protestors holding sign with swastika equating Obamacare to Nazi beliefs

Photo by David. Used under CC BY 2.0 license.

Terranova, in attempting to describe the current conditions of communication in the network culture, offers the proposition “Information is what stands out from noise,” with the corollary that, “The cultural politics of information involves a return to the minimum conditions of communication” (p. 10). That is, a society as saturated with information as ours “spells the drowning of meaningful experience in a sea of random noise” (p. 14). All of this noise creates a condition in which we must return to the original problem of communications: how to get a signal clearly from point A to point B. Communication is thus reduced to the attempt to “clear out” a channel so that information can be transmitted between two points separated by space (p. 15).

This proposition is one way for us to understand the success of particular kinds of political rhetoric and the hand-wringing over civility that results; it may also be helpful in understanding the seemingly uncivil nature of students’ current hyperliterate practices. To establish how this works in the civic arena before applying it to individual acts of communication in an academic environment, let us briefly consider an example from the current political landscape: the rhetoric of the Tea Party. The Tea Party has gained much of its success through the repetition of simple, affectively-charged messages. Consider some of the group’s most repeated claims:

Despite repeated attempts to demonstrate the objectively false nature of these claims, these ideas took hold. As George Lakoff (2008) argues, the Left generally responds to these kinds of political attacks with arguments based on an Enlightenment view of reason (as devoid of emotion), but as Terranova (2004) notes, success in political debate is no longer dependent upon “dialectical argument” (pp. 16-17). For example, the simple but affective concept that the Obama health reform plan would give the government the power to decide who lived and died (and that Grandma would be the first to go) cut through all of the competing messages surrounding health care and played a central role in the atmosphere of rage and barely contained violence surrounding the emerging Tea Party movement.

Terranova explains that while standard communication theory assumes that interlocutors stand in opposition to one another, some communicative dynamics operate on the assumption that the interlocutors are all on the same side. I argue that this explains the success of this message (and the others mentioned above) in making contact with its audience. That is, the message sender assumes that he or she is speaking to an audience that always already agrees with the message sent because the target audience is on the same ideological side. Many, such as Jamieson and Cappella (2010), have described what results as an “echo chamber”: the new media landscape allows for the segmentation and targeting of specific audiences, and individuals pick only those media that reinforce already held viewpoints. And while much has been written about the role of affect in political and private decision making, less attention has been paid to how, and what happens when affect is transmitted within an echo chamber; it is important to consider this issue in relation to the network and mobile media culture.

Theresa Brennan’s (2004) discussion of the role of affect in how groups become “of one mind” is useful here. She argues in such cases that, at the “level of physical and biological exchange… the energetic affects of others enter the person, and the person’s affects, in turn, are transmitted to the environment” (p. 8). While Brennan focuses on the way that energetic affects physically spread within an embodied crowd, it may be that energetic affects spread and gain intensity within exclusionary digital spaces wherein particular passions or affects are allowed to echo. Affectively charged messages are produced and transmitted via new media to targeted, highly ideological audiences who define themselves and coalesce, both virtually and corporeally, around the passionate rejection of the “other(s)” (and any number of possible issues this other represents) and thus we see the actual crisis in understanding: a public discourse that demarcates and divides along lines of race, culture and class. This should not be understood as a crisis of civility, as the notion of civilization from which civility is derived is a concept that, by definition, establishes difference and perpetuates hierarchy.

It should not come as any great surprise, then, when our students send us messages that lack context or a polite acknowledgement of the receiver, or when beginning college writers fail to consider audience when composing an argument about a political issue. If they follow the example set in our media, the intended audience of any message is already on the same side as the sender—why take the time to provide explanation or niceties? And if the receiver isn’t already on the same side as the sender? In the current political arena, this rhetorical situation calls for a direct insult.

The Question ...