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

(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. 

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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)?

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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?

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2015-2016: Art, Media and the Public Sphere

In The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (first published in 1962 and translated into English in 1989), Jürgen Habermas defined the modern public sphere as a realm of social life where public opinion takes shape. This realm constitutes around rational-critical deliberations between individuals who “come together as a public” as they debate on matters of general interest and common concern. Its ideal type is the 18th-century public sphere whose efficiency lay in its capacity to act as a normative principle of democratic legitimacy, producing public opinion that influenced political action against the domination of the state. In subsequent revisions, Habermas emphasized the role of deliberative language and communicative rationality in the consolidation of the public sphere, which he redefined as “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.”[i]

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 rational-critical discourse. Nancy Fraser has shown that the bourgeois public sphere was constituted through a considerable number of exclusions—those of women and other social groups, who in fact constituted counterpublics where members could formulate oppositional understandings of their identities and interests.[ii] Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge have disclosed the interdependency between the bourgeois public sphere and the proletarian counterpublic sphere.[iii] Chantal Mouffe has contested Habermas’s rationalistic model of argumentation, to propose instead an agonistic model where antagonism is the necessary passion of politics.[iv] Media scholars have shown that the interpersonal relationships composing the public sphere were much more actively mediated than Habermas initially presumed and that the development of mass media does not necessarily lead to the degeneration of the public sphere.[v] Other critics have highlighted the surveillance capacities of media, together with the increased privatization and commercialization of the internet, as well as the neoliberal depolitization of publicness. They maintain that these operations have contributed to the weakening of the public sphere as a democratic space.[vi] Habermas himself has postulated that the public sphere has been in decline since the 19th century.

In light of these critiques, what remains of the public sphere, and what is to be saved from it? Much more multiple, porous, passionate, mediated and mutable than initially formulated, can the public sphere nevertheless function as a motivating ideal? More importantly: how can and how does art participate in this impetus? In The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere Habermas locates the origins of the public sphere in 17th– and 18th– century cultural spheres, which progressively developed into a politically-oriented public sphere. Institutionalized by the coffeehouse, the journal of opinion and the art and literary salons, the cultural public sphere was composed of readers, spectators, listeners and critics engaged in deliberations (analyses of meaning, judgments of taste and moral discussions) around artistic, literary, theatrical and musical works. These deliberations unfolded through processes of identification and disidentification, as well as judgments on a variety of subjects aesthetically represented and performed (private life, the humanness of the family described in sentimental literature, beauty, the imagined life of others). The cultural sphere—the subjective themes and empathic author-reader relationships it introduced; the meeting places and critical arguments by which it unfolded—both prepared for and enriched the deliberations of the political sphere.

While it is difficult today to maintain the universal and rationalistic presuppositions of these two spheres, and although the cultural sphere is increasingly privatized, the role of culture in the shaping of the public sphere is worth reexamining. Some components of the public sphere—critical publicness; the aesthetics of its deliberations on matters of general and common interest; a public body’s capacity to reconfigure common sense—are worth defending. 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. While some models of the cultural public sphere have failed, others have been reinvented and must be assessed. These models have been historically and are still today critical for the development and reconsideration of democracy, justice, commonality, relationality, ecology, vitality and publics, as well as for the evolution of the museum as one of the privileged institutions of the public sphere.

Our investigation of the role of the cultural public sphere in contemporary reformulations of the public sphere will revolve around six questions. First, what is the general state of publicness in the world today, especially the state of its related ideals: democracy, justice, commonality and emancipation? Second, what is the relationship between art, politics and media in the making of public spheres? Third, 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,”[vii] how can the public sphere be aesthetically defined as a “sensibility” and not simply as a mode of rational-critical deliberation or decision-making process? Fourth, to paraphrase Nelson Goodman, when (more than what) is the cultural public sphere? The cultural public sphere has a history and a genealogy that still need to be traced by art historians, museum thinkers, curators, media scholars and social scientists. Fifth, 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 Bruno Latour’s Inquiry into Modes of Existence’s terminology, when and how does art deploy spacious in-common worlds, which make room for a diversity of beings in conversation, new and old ways of relating through sensibilities, perception, thought, affects, movement, circulation, media, speech and body acts?[viii] Worlds that redefine what it is to be human. And sixth, how are cultural public spheres spatialized and temporalized in different geographies, in relation to globalization?


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

[ii] 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.

[iii] 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).

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

[v] John B. Thompson, The Media and 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.

[vi] 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 2015).

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

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

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2016-2017: Media and the Environment

In the shadow of anthropogenic climate change, questions and contests over ecological responsibility, environmental justice and the transformation of unsustainable economies have moved to the centre of cultural, political and intellectual attention globally. Media are deeply implicated in these questions, and this implication has a long history, extending back at least to the role of communication and transportation media in the establishment, representation and operation of imperial and colonial extractive economies and networks. Our conceptions and experiences of nature, environment and ecology are bound inextricably to mediation, to the technologies, practices and aesthetics of communication by which we inhabit relationships with human and non-human others. Contested practices of discourse and representation frame and carry the politics of the environment. Media technologies and the industries and practices they support are resource and energy-intensive, and leave massive environmental footprints. The question of media and the environment is thus simultaneously symbolic and material. It is also political: the unequal burdens of environmental degradation are indexed to geographic location, class, racialization and gender, and both this inequality and struggles against it are mediated culturally. Emerging themes in the arts, humanities and social sciences – new and vital materialisms, extractivism, indigeneity, infrastructure, anthropocene, post-humanism, mobilities, infrastructure, energy humanities, elemental media – challenge and enlarge established critical vocabularies for thinking with and through the couplet “media and the environment.” In naming its theme for 2016-2017 in this way, Media@McGill intends to take up these challenges and contribute to this enlargement.

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