Media @ McGill

2012-2017 Program: Media and Democracy


Strictly speaking, democracy [from the Greek word δημοκρατία (dēmokratía) “rule of the people”] is a political regime founded on the principle of popular sovereignty in which all citizens of a nation are equal before the law, have equal access to political institutions, and have an equal opportunity to express their opinion. It is, however, much more than a system of rule. In the contemporary context, democracy refers to any set of practices committed to the principles of freedom, equality, political pluralism and human rights. Democracy also presupposes an embrace of diversity—of subjects, situations, experiences, priorities and viewpoints—even if it does not always make good on this presupposition. 

Beyond these basic principles, democracy is not at all a stable signifier. There is no singular configuration of democracy but different kinds of democracies (e.g., representative, direct, participatory, consensus, and deliberative democracies); and it has been democracy’s fate to be simultaneously celebrated for its ideals and criticized for its failure to realize them, a failure that has often been attributed to the operation of something called “the media.” Such criticisms have ranged from concerns over democracy’s inability to effectively include various marginalized and disenfranchised groups fully in the rights and benefits of citizenship,* to disappointment over democracy’s inability to consistently produce the sort of informed, engaged and open-minded citizenry upon which its promise as a political system is based, to cynicism over the absorption of democratic principles by market criteria of efficiency, marketing and profitability.*

Media@McGill is particularly interested in these challenges and points of contention, which have been at the forefront of contemporary media practices and materialities since the 1990s, an era in which the notion of democracy has increasingly gained in global popularity but also in ambiguity, polysemy, and perception of value.* It is concerned with the informational, representational, performing, communicative, circulating, networking, collocational, connecting/disconnecting, social, spatial, cultural, ethical and aesthetic properties of media—all of which are critical to the development of democratic processes. Elements considered essential to contemporary democracy—freedom of expression, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of association; political pluralism and equality of all before the law—rely significantly on media practices and materialities. Some of these principles have been highly challenged in new-media uses that have blurred the private and the public spheres, questioned the respect of privacy in relation to the fluctuating notion of public interest, and trivialized the ubiquity of surveillance devices in media technologies. Simultaneously, however, democratic principles also seem to have been reinforced in social uses of new media as tools of democratization, as forms of citizen journalism, and as means of connection between users.

Media and Democracy addresses these questions following a five-year program structured around specific themes. The themes are addressed in yearly programs composed of public lectures, public panels, the Media@McGill Beaverbrook Annual Lecture, specialized workshops and seminars, a visiting professor’s program, conferences organized by graduate and postdoctoral students, art events, various publications and website documentation. Each theme is examined from different perspectives stemming from a range of disciplines in natural sciences, computing sciences, social sciences, the humanities and the arts. The 2012-2017 program tentatively unfolds as follows: 

(2012-2013) Media, War and Conflict

(2013-2014) Participatory Media

(2014-2015) Media, Senses and Sensibilities

(2015-2016) Art, Media and the Public Sphere(s)

(2016-2017) Media and the Environment

These themes might change in light of new-media research and development, but they remain indicative of what Media@McGill aims to investigate in the years to come.


2012-2013: Media, War and Conflict

How do mass-media and media practices represent war, terrorism and conflict? How do they condition our perception of war and conflict? How do they materialize war? What are the politics, aesthetics and ethics of media practices in relation to war? How are new media today the very sites of war? Media practices—be it print, painting, radio, film, photography, television, netlocalization or social networking—play a significant role in the coverage, representation, making, performance and reenactment of wars and conflicts. Media, War and Conflict is particularly interested in the ways in which these media practices about/around/of/on war have changed throughout history—content-wise, formally, structurally, materially and aesthetically. It also examines the ways in which media at war has (have) evolved into media of war, as made manifest in the development of cyberwarfare—an information warfare in which a nation-state hacks into an enemy nation’s computer systems to conduct sabotage and espionage. 

Media, War and Conflict is also interested in the role of new-media practices in recent revolutionary movements of democratization. In “New Media and the Arab Spring” (2012), Michael Teague argues that the protests in the wake of the 2009 Iranian presidential elections were supported by a unique and innovative use of new (mainly Internet-based) social networking services, including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, blogs, and cellular phones: “Since then, debate about these new communications technologies has rightly had a ubiquitous presence in the overall discourse, especially with the more recent events in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Algeria, Bahrain, Libya, Syria and so on.”* In these different uprisings, Internet activism and artistic interventions were successful, but only in a limited way: protesters used social networking sites to build online communities that served to mobilize the population, but social media did not introduce democracy in repressive regimes. Considering that these regimes were quick to use the Internet to track activists, shut down communications and spread their own propaganda, can it not be argued instead that Internet activism must be developed in conjunction with traditional grassroots activism and political structures?  Media, War and Conflict considers these hypotheses but also wants to investigate how democracy is being rethought in such social processes. 


2013-2014: Participatory Media

The relationship between media and participation raises the overarching question of the role of media in the development of democracy in different historical periods and socio-political contexts. It highlights the participatory dimension of media, especially the citizen’s participation in the creation, processing and transmission of informational structure, content and form; the artistic reshaping of spectatorial participation; and the user’s participation in the (re)configuration of public spheres, public spaces and communities. It emphasizes the possibility of developing direct forms of democracy through specific uses of media-user interactivity.

Participatory Media examines these relationships; it addresses them critically, questioning the very notion of participation. It examines the striving for community formation and connectivity underlying the contemporary practices of participatory media. It asks: what do participatory media entail with regards to the politics of inclusion and exclusion intrinsic to any community formation?; and is participation a progressive or regressive set of media operations? It particularly investigates recent developments in social media (Internet-based applications “that build on the ideological and technological foundations of Web 2.0, and that allow the creation and exchange of user-generated content”*) and media interactivity. These developments—typified by Facebook, Twitter, blogs, viral videos, and YouTube—are unique insofar as they require participation from its users. They have generated innovative forms of media art, aesthetics, collocation and activism. In these social- and interactive-media environments, participation entails the user’s active intervention in media content, form and structure (as in video gaming; chatting, texting and tweeting; and interactive art in which an artwork will only be finalized by the participation of users); it also entails the formation of communities of participants (the gamer’s participation in a community of gamers; the exchange of information between chatters and tweeters; the constitution of virtual communities).

Any user with the right technology can now produce his or her online media; any gamer can interact with a user interface to generate feedback on a video device; any spectator can be asked to respond to an intelligent (spatial or architectural) environment set up in an art gallery, a museum or a public space. But is this really the case? Who participates, who doesn’t, who can’t? What are the similarities, overlaps and differences between traditional media and new-media participation and interactivity? Participatory Media thus seeks to address the history, problems and possibilities of participatory media. It examines how the practices of the Internet have or have not changed the practices of citizenship—the citizen’s participation in public life, citizen deliberation, knowledge and mobilization. It investigates how participatory media negotiate with surveillance, data-collecting and control devices embedded in the very media that enable participation. Overall, it asks: why this growing contemporary concern for participation across design, art, social sciences and computing sciences (leading to participatory design, participatory arts, and community informatics)?


2014-2015: Media, Senses and Sensibilities

In Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964), Marshall McLuhan proposed that media affect society not because of the content they carry but because of the characteristics of the medium itself. A key manifestation of this state of affairs is provided in his discussion of the relationship between media and senses: each media, argues McLuhan, “adds itself on to what we already are,” acting as “amputation” and “extension” of our senses and bodies, reshaping them into new technical forms and reshaping the ways in which individuals perceive the world.* Although McLuhan has been criticized for his lack of attention to questions of power, practice, uses and social context, his understanding of media as extensions of the senses remains crucial. It introduces the contemporary comprehension of media in their relationship to the senses.

Media, Senses and Sensibilities addresses different debates about the impact of media practices and materialities on the changing nature and definition of the senses, as well as on the sensorial experiences of media and the organization of the senses. It addresses the political, cultural and artistic media interventions that explore the changing nature and definition of the senses. How do specific practices of media engage and affect our senses? What are the sensorial and polysensorial experiences solicited but never simply determined by media? What is the relationship between media, sense experiences, culture and society? How do new practices of mobile, locative and location-aware media organize our perception of time and space?

Media, Senses and Sensibilities is equally invested in the exploration of the emotional and affective dimensions of media experiences. It examines not only the role of emotions in the representational, connective and collocational practices of media and the embeddedness of emotionality in the materiality of media, but also the more recent development of affective computing. The emotionality and affectivity of media and mass-media interventions require that we address the following questions: how can an interdisciplinary approach to the study of the relationship between (mass)media and emotions help us address media information, media entertainment, media psychology, media participation and connection, political communication, and persuasion? How can it address emotion-related issues such as: the evolutionary functions of mediated emotions, media violence, media sexuality, media pleasure, fear-evoking media? How are new media (such as movement-based games) designed to promote specific affective experience (engagement, pleasure and meaning construction) in the user?


2015-2016: Art, Media and the Public Sphere(s)

Jürgen Habermas’ famous definition of the public sphere (which is not a trans-historical definition insofar as it refers to the bourgeois public sphere in the eighteenth century as an ideal type) can be summarized as follows: it is a public place of communication in which people meet and deliberate over matters of common concern. Evolving since the fourteenth century, it crystallized in the eighteenth century in face-to-face meetings in coffee houses and public squares as well as in the media and cultural spaces. The public sphere essentially unfolded as a counterweight to political authority—a means to influence political decision-making. As Jostein Gripsrud et al. have pointed out, the public sphere is thus not simply a network of institutions but a normative principle of democratic legitimacy according to which the state must reflect “the power of a deliberating public of free and equal citizens.”[1] First formulated in 1962 and translated into English in 1989 in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, this definition was later revised by Habermas, to emphasize the role of deliberative language, communicative rationality and law in the consolidation of the public sphere. He specified that it consists in “a network for communicating information and points of view” where “participants enter into interpersonal relationships by taking positions of mutual speech-act offers and assuming illocutionary obligations.”[2] These interpersonal relationships are based on rational debate and discussion, and have been qualified by Habermas as inclusive.

The Habermasian formulation of the public sphere has been contested from the start. Critics have questioned its presumed universalism and unity, as well as its rationalistic mode of deliberation. Nancy Fraser has convincingly shown that its presumption of inclusiveness is wrong: the bourgeois public sphere was constituted by a “number of significant exclusions,” namely the exclusion of women and lower social classes.[3] Fraser’s analysis (as well as Michael Warner’s conclusion that participation in a universal public sphere must reach some form of disembodiment because of its lack of pluralism[4]) discloses the important problem of accessibility to the public sphere and the related disregard for counterpublics (public spheres formed by marginalized or subaltern publics). Insisting on the necessity to redefine the public sphere as consisting of multiple publics, Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge have criticized Habermas’s distinction between the public and the private by showing how the bourgeois public sphere and the proletarian public sphere are reciprocally defined.[5] More recently, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have prolonged the questioning of the separation of the public and the private as a fundamental trait of the public sphere by arguing that it is based on a traditional capitalist account of property—an account that is changing in post-Fordist informational societies where new modes of collaboration (as manifest in open source approaches, for example) tend to blur the private/public separation.[6] Habermas’s rationalistic discursive model of the public sphere has also been disputed, namely by Chantal Mouffe who has elaborated the model of the agonistic public sphere in which antagonism is the necessary passion of politics.[7] Media scholars who have shown that the interpersonal relationships composing the public sphere are much more mediated than Habermas initially presumed have likewise significantly redefined the notion. John Thompson has coined the term “mediated publicness” and Manuel Castells the term “global network state” to make that point.[8] Others have highlighted that the surveillance capacities of media, together with the increased privatization, commercialization of the Internet, as well as the neoliberal depolitization of public spaces, have contributed to the weakening or disappearance of the public sphere as a democratic space.[9]

Finally, it is also the case that in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Habermas identified the coexistence of and interrelation between two public spheres: the political public sphere as described above and the cultural public sphere where discussions of novels, theatre and art would take place in visual arts and literary salons, from the late seventeenth century on. These discussions became a modality by which deliberations would unfold (through processes of identification and disidentification, as well as aesthetic judgment) about everyday life, subjectivity, the family and the community, morality and desire, beauty and the life of imagined others. The cultural public sphere prepared for and enriched the deliberative deployment of the political sphere.

During the 2015-2016 academic year, Media@McGill will dedicate most of its research and conference activities to the question of the cultural public sphere, examining its relation to the political sphere and its operativeness both as an analytical tool and an aesthetic category. Although many models of the public sphere fail, and although these models must continually be assessed and questioned, they have been historically and are still today critical for the development and reconsideration of democracy and art, as well as for the evolution of the museum as one of the privileged sites of the public sphere. Our commitment to the question of the cultural public sphere will revolve around five questions. First, if we adopt Gerard Hauser’s more flexible definition of the public sphere, as a sphere “in which individuals and groups congregate to discuss matters of mutual interest and, where possible, to reach a common judgment,”[10] how can the public sphere be aesthetically defined as a “sensibility” and not simply as a mode of deliberation or decision-making process? Second, what is the relationship between art, image and media in the making of public spheres? Third, to paraphrase Nelson Goodman, when (more than what) is the cultural public sphere? The cultural public sphere has a history and a genealogy which still need to be traced by art historians, museum thinkers, curators, media scholars and social scientists. Fourth, when and how does art (especially media art) succeed in actualizing inclusive public spheres—public spheres that are open to human and nonhuman relations? To use the terminology of Bruno Latour’s Inquiry into Modes of Existence, when and how does art deploy spacious worlds, which make room for a diversity of beings, new and old ways of relating through vision, perception, thought, affects, movement, circulation, media, speech and body acts?[11] And fifth, how is the cultural public sphere spatialized and temporalized by different collectivities in different geographies, in relation to globalizing worlds?

[1] Jostein Gripsrud, Hallvard Moe, Anders Molander, and Graham Murdock, eds., The Idea of the Public Sphere: A Reader (Plymouth, UK: Lexington Books, 2010), xv.

[2] Jürgen Habermas, Between Fact and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996), 361.

[3] Nancy Fraser, “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy,” in Habermas and the Public Sphere, ed. Craig Calhoun (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992), 109–142.

[4] Michael Warner, “The Mass Public and the Mass Subject,” in Habermas and the Public Sphere, ed. Craig Calhoun (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992), 377–401.

[5] Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge, Public Sphere and Experience: Toward an Analysis of the Bourgeois and Proletarian Public Sphere (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993).

[6] Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Commonwealth (Cambridge MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009).

[7] Chantal Mouffe, Agonistics: Thinking the World Politically (London and New York: Verso, 2013).

[8] John B. Thompson, The Media and the Modernity. A Social Theory of the Media (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1995), 125–134, and Manuel Castells, “The New Public Sphere: Global Civil Society, Communication Networks, and Global Governance,” ANNALS, AAPSS (616), March 2008, 78-93.

[9] Setha Low and Neil Smith, The Politics of Public Space (New York and London: Routledge, 2006) and Darin Barney, Gabriella Coleman, Christine Ross, Jonathan Sterne, and Tamar Tembeck, eds., The Participatory Condition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, forthcoming).

[10] Gerard Hauser, “Vernacular Dialogue and the Rhetoricality of Public Opinion,” Communication Monographs, vol. 65, no. 3, June 1998, 86.

[11] Bruno Latour, Inquiry into Modes of Existence, trans. Cathy Porter (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013), 245.



2016-2017: Media and the Environment

Description to come soon.