Power, participation, discourse and communication
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Power, participation, discourse and communication

Nico Carpentier

Power is pervasive, all-encompassing, and ultimately ungraspable. At the same time, power generates difference through a logic of privilege. Even though a distinction between “the powerless” and “the powerful” is too simplistic, we can still see, throughout the world, assemblages of the privileged, articulating alliances of different elites, who can have their desires more easily fulfilled.

Cultural Studies authors, such as Stuart Hall and John Fiske, have used the Gramscian notion of the power-bloc to mark these dynamics. To use Fiske’s words:

“It is a poststructural opposition because its categories are not stable nor structurally set, but mobile, strategically and tactically formed and dissolved according to the perceived exigencies of the issue involved and its situating conditions. ‘The power-bloc’ and ‘the people’ are not social categories, but alliances of social interests formed strategically or tactically to advance the interests of those who form them.” (John Fiske, Power Plays, Power Works, 1993, p. 10)

This then brings us to empowerment, which is the redressal of the power imbalances between those who belong to the power-bloc and those who do not, and who Hall and Fiske call “the people”, in the context of the mobile and always somewhat changing power relations that they also describe. Of course, this is easier said than done, as the theoretical fluidity of power relations at the macro-level often clashes with the harshness and rigidity of the practices of the power-bloc at the micro-level, and the frustrations and feelings of hopelessness they sometimes cause.

Moreover, the degree of empowerment, and how much – what I have called in Media and Participation (2011) – maximalist participation we want, is a political choice. It not a given, but it is a choice, driven by ideology. Some ideologies legitimate power differences – at least to some extent – through an argumentation linked to meritocracy, efficiency and individualism. This also connects to different approaches to democracy with, for instance, the influential model of competitive-elitist democracy favouring power differences and stressing the democratic importance of the power-bloc.

Other ideologies are more egalitarian, and aim to limit power imbalances in society, driven by notions of solidarity, needs and communalism. Again, also here we can find a translation into different democratic approaches, with, for instance, the model of participatory democracy – with its objective to equalize power relations – as a significant alternative.

Also, this line of argument is grounded in the idea that power relations are not a given. Instead, they are object of political struggle, with outcomes that cannot be guaranteed. Which power differences are accepted in particular societies, and which are unthinkable or unacceptable is part of a societal negotiation and thus power struggles. This is where the world of ideas – the realm of the discursive – becomes important, as this struggle is about participatory-democratic ideologies, about ideologies of legitimate empowerment, about how to democratically organise a particular society so that justice and equality can play a significant role in that society.

Of course, the discursive is entangled with the material – for instance, how capital is distributed in society – but the discursive offers ways to think different distributions, and to think a different world. But at the same time, the discursive can be activated to legitimate the status-quo, or even to move towards a more inegalitarian world. In this sense, the discursive opens up avenues for hope, but it can also bring tragedy and hardship.

Communication allows discourses

This then raises the question: Where is communication all this? When we define communication as signifying practices that allow for the circulation of discourses, then the link becomes apparent, as communication then becomes a tool for the participatory struggle, a part of this struggle and an object of struggle in itself. As a condensation of discourse, communication is a vehicle that allows a diversity of discussions to take place, performing the power (im)balances in the discussions about endless numbers of themes that circulate in all societies.

Communication allows discourses, for instance, about the environment, about migration, about redistribution and about recognition to circulate, but also to engage in the political struggle about them, through an endless flow of signifying practices related to their definition, problematisation and prioritisation.

But we communicate also about communication and media; or, in other words, we use signifying practices to articulate discourses about communication. For instance, we argue about what kind of communication is desirable. Remember Jürgen Habermas’s work about the ideal speech situation, outlining a situation where people (and their ideas) are not excluded, where there is no coercion and where all assertions can be questioned. Or, as another example, let’s take Pierre Bourdieu’s reflections about symbolic violence, to show that also communication can be violent, and thus undesirable.

And again, power plays a role here, as these two authors try to articulate communication with a discourse of equality and respect, in order to counter communicative practices that deny particular people this equality and respect. In some cases, this discourse on communication is translated into regulatory and/or legal frameworks, which is again connected to the exercise of power, allocating rights to entire populations or particular groups, or forbidding particular signifying practices (e.g., Holocaust denial in some Western countries).

Finally, also communication is part of the democratic-participatory struggle itself. We communicate about power relations, democracy and the political. In doing so, we again engage in struggles over how power should and should not be distributed in society. We communicate about how societal problems need to be resolved, what problem-resolving procedures we should use, how our political cultures should function (and how not), and –importantly – we communicate about which democratic ideology we should translate into political practice and what level of participation – minimalist or maximalist – we should have.

Of course, these three discursive levels are entangled with the material. For instance, communication technologies and infrastructures impact on all three levels, but if we want to understand power, participation and communication we need to pay more attention to their discursive components and connect these theoretical reflections more with our democratic-participatory desires and actions.

Nico Carpentier is Extraordinary Professor at Charles University (Prague, Czech Republic), a Visiting Professor at Tallinn University (Estonia) and President of the International Association for Media and Communication Research (2020-2024). His theoretical focus is on discourse theory, his research is situated in the relationship between communication, politics and culture, especially towards social domains as war & conflict, ideology, participation and democracy. He frequently uses arts-based research methods, as a hybrid scholar, artist and curator. His latest monographs are The Discursive-Material Knot: Cyprus in Conflict and Community Media Participation (2017, Peter Lang, New York) and Iconoclastic Controversies: A Photographic Inquiry into Antagonistic Nationalism (2021, Intellect, Bristol). The most recent special issues he edited are Arts-based Research in Communication and Media Studies (2021, with Johanna Sumiala) in Comunicazioni Sociali and Mediating Change; Changing Media (2022, with Vaia Doudaki and Michał Głowacki) in the Central European Journal of Communication. His last exhibitions were The Mirror of Conflict photography exhibition in October 2023 at the Energy Museum, in Istanbul, Turkey, and the Moulding Nature arts exhibition in Färgfabriken in Stockholm, Sweden. See http://nicocarpentier.net

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