On the Media and the Crowd

A revolutionary age is an age of action; ours is the age of advertisement and publicity. Nothing ever happens but there is immediate publicity everywhere. In the present age a rebellion is, of all things, the most unthinkable. Such an expression of strength would seem ridiculous to the calculating intelligence of our times. On the other hand, a political virtuoso might bring off a feat almost as remarkable. He might write a manifesto suggesting a general assembly at which people should decide upon a rebellion, and it would be so carefully worded that even the censor would let it pass. At the meeting itself he would be able to create the impression that his audience had rebelled, after which they would all go quietly home – having spent a very pleasant evening.

– Søren Kierkegaard, The Present Age

To say that we live in a time of political upheaval does not remotely hint at the true nature of this moment. Both the political and economic exist in a symbiotic relationship, and they are in a state of crisis – one cannot fall apart without the other. The riot manifests in response to the opportunity that emerges in this state of crisis. And – hearing the call of a state of crisis – the United States media responds to the riot as a perceived exacerbation of the danger embedded in the state of crisis. We must, however, question this danger: What is the danger perceived in the riot?

At the surface, according to the narrative given by the mediatization of the riot, the danger first appears as simply what the state considers unacceptable violence. However, this is a falsification of the situation, one that denies the true potentiality of the riot. The unacceptable violence – for example, the destruction of buildings – is a violence that does little to disrupt the functioning of the state. There can always be another building. What is most at stake, rather than the violation of private property, is the discovery of the people as a people. The danger of the riot, then, is the crowd, a crowd that discovers itself, not as a population, but as an autonomous force.

Elias Canetti, in Crowds and Power, describes a variety of crowds and actions. However, early in the text, he extrapolates the precise moment where a crowd acknowledges its own power and comes into conflict with dominant power by physically tearing down its images or emblematic presence (statues, billboards, property, etc.):

The destruction of representational images is the destruction of a hierarchy which is no longer recognized. It is the violation of generally established and universally visible and valid distances. The solidity of the images was the expression of their permanence. They seem to have existed for ever, upright, and immovable; never before had it been possible to approach them with hostile intent. Now they are hauled down and broken to pieces. In this act the discharge accomplishes itself. (19)

It is no surprise that media is threatened by the destruction of these images. It is invested in the perpetuation of representational images, as the media itself is the mere representation of events. The instability of the image, uncovered in this act of destruction, is a mockery of power itself. When the permanence, or immovability, of these representations of power is revealed to be a farce, potentiality is revealed, new forms of life can be made evident. The U.S. Media cannot frame insurrection in its mode of control. It cannot be complicit in the breakdown of the system of global capitalism or empire. To implicate itself is to acknowledge the interstices in the system – sites of opportunity where one can imagine new forms of living.

The event must be neutralized to bury this evidence of impermanence. Media is deployed to enact this neutralization of potentiality that is manifest in the riot. The figure of the “outside agitator” is often conjured as the first neutralizing agent by the news media. It is made into image and given the role of the hostis, the invader, disrupting communities in protest. What does this outside agitator look like? It is anyone who cannot be known, unmasked, or put under surveillance. Or to simply say, the outside agitator is the projection of the state’s own paranoia towards its people. The outside agitator does not exist; it is only a trope used to create tension and distrust in a crowd. The outside agitator limits the growth of crowds, and this is the key to fragmentation of bodies. A germ is diagnosed by authority, and the social body must be quarantined before it infects the entire population. The unknown, masked, autonomous element must be revealed to power. Canetti, again, speaks of the despot’s obsession with unmasking the unknown:

There are always others who also desire power and who do not acknowledge his claims, but regard themselves as his rivals. Against these he is always on his guard, for they are a potential danger to him. He waits for the right moment ‘to tear the mask from their faces’; behind it he finds the malevolence he knows so well in himself. Once they are unmasked, he can render them harmless. (377-378)

It is important, therefore, that we rid ourselves of the idea of the outside agitator. By this, we mean to say that the allegiances between people, forged in the heat of the riot, must be protected and cultivated. We have already said that the outside agitator is a false representation; it is an image that does not represent the crowd as such, but the state’s own paranoia. The outside agitator is created to capture the crowd in a knowable image – a cynical gesture of one of the state’s leviathanic arms, the media. The agency of the crowd is undermined; the riot ceases to be an insurrection of people in community, but the working of an insidious outside force. Thus, again, this figure must be eradicated from our consciousness. Crowds are a phenomenon, and we must understand them mechanically rather than fearing them. Anyone can be the riot at anytime. The riot then becomes a movement of crowds and an expression of their agency. Again, therein lies the danger, spontaneous ungovernability.

The communication of the event itself is crucial for the growth or the termination of crowds. No matter the nation, there is no platform in mass media that will allow the power of the crowd to be positively revealed. It is always perceived as a threat to the peaceful or productive society. During the Ferguson uprisings (let us refer to these events as uprisings or insurrections and not mere protests), the media served its leviathanic function to neutralize the meaning of the event and to control the narrative of the event, starting first by turning the crowd against itself with the “outside agitator” trope.

In the linked CNN article, “Some ‘Agitators’ arrested in Ferguson come from across U.S.,” Josh Levs distinguishes between those who engage in “peaceful protest” and the “outside agitator” who foment violence and commit “wrongdoing.” Further, Levs quotes the now retired Missouri State Highway Patrol Captain, Ron Johnson, who says, “Protesters are peaceful and respectful… Protesters don’t clash with police.” If we are using the term “outside agitation,” let us examine it fully. In the crowd, protesters do travel from outside communities and share skills and resources such as: remedies for teargas, how to conceal your identity, food, or clothes, etc. With this understanding of outside agitator, why are the national guard or even journalists excluded from the category? The national guard shares firepower, technology, and boots on the ground. Journalists become, in essence, a national camera, working to dominate the event with its narrative. The out-of-state protesters join the crowd to assist the people. The out-of-state national guard, journalists, police departments join the local police to assist the state. The event becomes the people against these institutions. The crowd becomes the rival against dominant power, and the narrative of the “outside agitator” is tactfully used to diminish the crowd’s numbers. There are no outside agitators; there are only partisans, and they exist between the two.

Embedded in Levs’ article, therefore, is a blueprint for how bodies are to properly organize, according to the state. Insurrection is made unnatural; protesters function in very specific ways, and anything else is a dangerous aberration. Peace, on the other hand, is naturalized. It is, as implied by the language of Levs and Johnson, the originary and proper state of things. This establishment of peace is another nefarious falsity. We argue, rather, that peace functions as an illusory state of being that protects the mechanisms that construct and perpetuate a dominant order, the dominant form of living. In Tiqqun’s Introduction to Civil War, biopower is described as governing “possibilities and conditions of possibility” (131). For our purposes, then, we may think of the media as performing a form of biopolitical governance. It creates the conditions of acceptable protest. The media is interested in creating the citizen, “anything that shows some degree of ethical neutralization, some attenuation that is compatible with Empire” (140), the peaceful protester. The citizen is a safe concept, it does not escape the lines of the ordinary and it does not reveal other forms of life that are made possible in the crowd.

Next, the media aims to neutralize the riot by controlling knowledge of the event. The media’s exhaustive coverage and the over emphasis on displays of “violence” negates any power made possible by ordinary people. The media peddles the same narrative as its authorities and the goal of mass media is to inflate the image of the nation. Former NYPD commissioner Raymond Kelly has made this state/media allegiance clear. At a Norwich University lecture Kelly said, “One of the basic rules in law enforcement when you have a controversial event, whatever it is, is to get out in front of that event tell people what you know, tell people what you don’t know.” That is to say, the police must control the narrative. Using the apparatus of the media, the state dominates “knowledge” of the event. In a Bloomberg video titled “Ferguson Riots: Ray Kelly on Preventing the Next Crisis,” Kelly restates this need to quickly take control of the narrative. He follows this idea with a discussion of the use of military equipment by the police, suggesting that such equipment should only be used as a last result. The implication, here, is that if the knowledge of the event can be dictated by the state by means of the media, physical repression will be unnecessary. The people will not organize, and the riot is neutralized before it takes place.

Let us turn to a different example of an uprising, the recent Hong Kong insurrections. The state media in China, of course, is weaponized against the protesters in much the same way the U.S. deploys its media against its population. But the U.S. media coverage of these riots suggests a different relationship between the media apparatus and riots in the Global South. There is a form of U.S. exceptionalism that purports that insurrections occur outside the U.S. because those countries are vying for Western-style democracy. In a Fox News broadcast, Ellison Barber discusses the protests, emphasizing the violence the government commits against its citizens (“police reportedly used teargas with little-to-no warning”), as well as exclusively referring to the insurrectionists as “protesters.” Furthermore, one of the protesters is given voice in a clip where he talks about the government’s refusal to meet their demands. One of these demands, Barber tells us, is “more democracy.” Clearly, the media did not frame the uprisings in Ferguson in this same way. The criminalized violence of that insurrection was foregrounded as the actions of opportunistic looters or mere agitators, not as the actions of people seeking “more democracy” or liberation. This exceptionalism is another way the media attempts to neutralize the riot against the state: Insurrections in Western states are perpetrated by bad-faith actors, as democracy has already been achieved in the West. Non-Western states, on the other hand, may have uprisings so long as the media can manipulate those uprisings to confirm the exceptional values of the West.

It is the media’s responsibility as a leviathanic arm of the state to create the singular meaning of the riot. It is an apparatus that totalizes narratives and dominates knowledge. It protects the state from the true potentiality of the riot, that is, from the populace that no longer recognizes itself as a governable population. Benjamin posits this concept in “On the Concept of History”: “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘emergency situation’ in which we live is the rule. We must arrive at a concept of history which corresponds to this. Then it will become clear that the task before us is the introduction of a real state of emergency” (4). We argue that it is the ungovernable crowd that is the state of emergency, the state when potentiality is limitless.

Works not otherwise linked:

Benjamin, Walter. “On the Concept of History.” 2009.

Canetti, Elias. Crowds and Power. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1984.

Tiqqun. Introduction to Civil War. Semiotext(e), 2010.

#media #riots #HongKong #Ferguson #spectacle #biopowerbiopolitics #stateofemergency #crisis #WalterBenjamin #EliasCanetti #politicaltheory

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