“Critical Pessimism” Revisted: An Open Letter to Adam Fish

A few weeks ago, Adam Fish called me out through his blog, Savage Minds, for what he saw as a harsh and unfair representation of the Media Reform movement in the final paragraphs of my book, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. He did so for the most part by simply reprinting my own words to frame a story he wrote about the recent Media Reform conference.

I was a bit surprised to find myself singled out as an enemy of the Media Reform movement. If I am the biggest obstacle to your success, you are much closer to victory than I had previously imagined. :-)

The experience was uncomfortable for me, but in a very constructive way, in that it has forced me to revisit my own words and reflect on how much my thinking has changed since I wrote them. It also hit at the end of the term so I am only now able to share some of these reflections with you.

Much of this change has been provoked through conversations with Eric Klinenberg, who I have gotten to know through several summers together at the Aspen Policy Institute, and through my participation in the Verklin Media Policy and Ethics Conference at the University of Virginia shortly before I left MIT. I have since written in my blog about some of these shifts in my thinking, making the argument that there is such urgency in the need for media reform right now that there is no longer any room for the usual infighting between critical and cultural studies perspectives.

Through these experiences, I have had a chance to get to know some of the young leaders who are pushing the Media Reform movement in significant new directions, including a deeper embrace of the potentials of digital media and networked communication and a willingness to partner with fan activist groups in ways which moves them away from a history of dismissing popular culture and scolding those of us who are engaged by it. When I wrote the passages for Convergence Culture which critiqued some aspects of the media reform movement, I was speaking about a very different generation of leaders and a very different set of rhetorics and practices. Even so, my caricature was inadequate and inaccurate, but perhaps even more so now.

Given these shifts in my thinking, I had very much hoped to attend and participate at the media reform conference this year, but was unable to do so because of a personal commitment. When I read Fish’s post, I felt a need to speak out less my absence be misinterpreted. It still remains to be seen to what degree someone who comes with my theoretical and political commitments will be welcomed into the ranks of the media reform movement, all the more so because I am clearly going to be forced to eat my words. But I remain eager to revise even more my picture of the reform movement.

There remain, as there have been, very real differences in emphasis and perspective. Many of those academics featured at the Media Reform conference come from critical studies and political economies backgrounds which have often dismissed the cultural studies traditions that inform my work. These traditions bring different things to the table, to be sure, and look at the world through very different lens, but what the world needs now is an approach to media reform which combines critical studies’ focus on structural inequality and cultural studies’ focus on agency and empowerment. We need to embrace the potentials of participatory culture even as we critique the exploitative practices of web 2.0. We need to understand the ways that digital media does and does not transform the terrain upon which debates about media policy are occurring.

At the heart of Fish’s account of Free Press’s gathering was a question which has haunted my own recent work as well: “Is the open, decentralized, accessible and diverse internet – by which media production, citizen journalism and community collaboration have been recently democratized – becoming closed, centralized and homogenous as it begins to look and feel more like the elite-controlled cable television system?” And there is in this piece a celebration for “ancient movement of ordinary people taking back power from entrenched elites,” which for him is embodied through the work of Free Speech TV. For the record, this “open, decentralized, accessible and diverse internet — by which media production, citizen journalism and community collaboration have been recently democratized” is what I mean by participatory culture and Free Speech TV is participatory culture.

We share common goals in providing the American public with the resources needed to sustain democratic citizenship, with a commitment to insuring diversity of perspectives, with a desire to expand the ranges of voices which can be heard, with a push to put the potential for media production in the hands of those who have historically been excluded and marginalized.

My own way forwards towards these goals has been to promote what I call participatory culture, to expand opportunities for people of all backgrounds to produce and share media with each other. I work to promote media reform through advancing the cause of media literacy and defending opportunities to participate through new media channels. My initial frustration with the media reform movement stemmed in part from my disappointment that some of its leadership have historically dismissed media literacy and new media practices as meaningful contributions to the media reform movement, which is why shifts in the movement rhetoric starting with the “Save Our Internet” campaign and the struggles over Net Neutrality represented a significant improvement from my point of view over earlier media reform formulations.

For many in the media reform movement, their strategy starts with a focus on concentration of media ownership. I certainly care about concentration issues, but see them as part of a much larger context of struggles over the nature of our communication and information capacities. The decline in journalism can only partially be understood as a byproduct of media concentration and has to also be understood as a product of other economic and technological shifts. I would, in any case, be as concerned if media was concentrated in the hands of governments, nonprofits, educational institutions, or the media reform movement itself as I am with the fact that it is corporately controlled. The goal should be to insure a world where media power is spread as widely across the culture as possible.

The defense of participatory culture and the critique of media ownership are two sides of the same coin — two flanks in a battle to democratize and diversify media in this country. One starts with a focus on agency (participatory culture), the other with a focus on structure (media concentration); one starts with an emphasis on the new world we are trying to build, while the other focuses on the system we are trying to dismantle; one is focused on what we are fighting for and the other what we are fighting against.

These are the differences I was trying to get at in making a distinction between critical utopianism and critical pessimism. “Critical pessimism” is at least as accurate a description of what I see as the limits of the critical studies perspective as phrases like “cultural populism” and “techno-utopianism” have been at describing the limits of a cultural studies perspective. Neither set of terms is totally fair, yet they also have descriptive value in helping us to understand where our approaches, taken to their logical extremes, may lead us.

For me, the term, “critical pessimism,” captures the distinction between cynicism and skepticism. My hope is that a viable media reform movement will embrace skepticism, asking hard questions of government policy, corporate actions, and, yes, its own assumptions and beliefs. We are not served, though, when skepticism becomes cynicism, when the rhetoric forecloses any meaningful change, when all corporate action, say, is treated as equally repressive and reprehensible. And we are not served, on the other side, by rhetoric which sees digital media as inevitably democratizing and thus does not feel the need to struggle for social justice and media reform, which sees grassroots media as somehow adequate in taking on the concentrated power of mass media. A naive celebration of contemporary digital culture denies the need for struggle and a cynical perspective on grassroots change denies the value of struggle. These are the blind spots which we need to work together to overcome in our work.

So, critical pessimism is not a bad term to describe certain forms of critical studies and political economy work at its worst, but I was wrong to imply that this is the only thing going on here, to conflate critical studies and the media reform movement, to simplify the media reform movement to a small number of highly visible figures, or to suggest we can dismiss the importance of the media reform efforts as a result of our disagreements in disposition and tactics. I have been struggling in some of my own recent work, much of it still not published, to try to work through a critique of Web 2.0 which combines the concerns for structural inequalities and the exploitation of free labor which comes from the critical studies camp with a defense of participatory culture (perhaps the best basis for such critiques) which reflects work from the cultural studies tradition.

I hope we can find ways to bring these two camps together through political activism as well, and my own current work is focused on understanding how the mechanisms of participatory culture can be deployed to foster greater political participation and civic engagement, work partially inspired by watching how the “Save Our Internet” movement was able to bridge between different sites of participatory culture and use grassroots media as the basis for critiquing corporately-controlled media.

Where my comments in Convergence Culture went too far was in my hyperbolic description of certain kinds of media reform advocates as seeking to “opt out of media altogether and live in the woods, eating acorns and lizards and reading only books published on recycled paper by small alternative presses”. This was frankly sophomoric and beneath the standards I set for myself. Fish writes, “This is a false exaggeration of a movement that is providing a necessary check on corporate power and mindfully working for greater civic, community, and citizen involvement in media production.” I agree.

So, let me now publicly apologize for stooping to this kind of stereotype. It was a really dumb thing to say. I am, I’m afraid, still a work in progress on these issues.

At the time I wrote this passage, I was frustrated by the recurring descriptions of popular culture as “weapons of mass distraction,” as “bread and circuses,” etc. I see popular culture as a much more complex terrain and respect those who would mobilize it for their own ends — whether in the form of fan culture or Free Speech TV. I have been delighted to see many images now emerging from the Media Reform movement which are not anti-media or anti-popular culture, but rather raise legitimate concerns about the distribution of media power and in particular the decline in substantive journalism, issues very close to my own heart.

I am sometimes struck that many critical studies writers are far more idealistic than critical utopianists insofar as their embrace of the ideal often does not allow them to recognize partial victories or contradictory advances. My own work talks often of “negotiations” between different forms of cultural power, of gains and losses, of progress made even if bigger battles remain to be fought, and for me, the recognition of the good, even when we can still imagine something better, is a necessarily fuel for media reform. To describe oneself as a “utopianist” is often to be accused of imagining that this is the “best of all possible worlds”, but in fact, as Stephen Duncombe has been reminding us in some of his recent writing, the construction of utopias has historically been a vital form of social critique, one which can both focus attention on the ways current conditions fall far short of ideal and allowing us to imagine alternative structures that might better meet human needs.

I have often heard critical studies writers accuse us of “not being at all critical,” and I agree that this is a charge worth examining, but I want to challenge critical studies writers to be equally concerned with the charge that they are “not at all celebratory.” There is something important at stake in our struggles to defend the Internet and if you can not recognize progress made, how can you realize what’s at risk? Again, it comes back to the idea that any reform movement needs to be as concerned with what it is fighting for as what it is fighting against. But either way, we should not be fighting with each other, whether in the form of my original critique or Fish’s more recent provocation.

So, let me end by celebrating the strong ongoing tradition of media reform in this country as represented by the recent conference and let me urge all of us to work across artificial divides which may get in the way of us working together towards shared goals.

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