Thursday, November 14, 2013

Schwarz Tragen (Wearing Black)

Visibility suggests that we can solve societal problems by exposing and publicising them. The concept is from sociology, touted by media theorists such as John Thompson, and is maybe the most widely-employed (and ironically under-discussed) tactic for problem-solving of perceived social issues in the first world. It holds a privileged place over and above, for example, direct political action, which is perceived as confrontational, aggressive, and potentially destructive. This is mainly to do with its ability to initiate change without widespread disruption. Visibility maintains the social order whilst suggesting a slight adjustment - not enough to overthrow government, but nevertheless enough to generate tiny instability necessary for change. The approach is that the system is capable of self-correcting through a mechanism involving public and private dialogues and the 'fourth estate', the media, which is responsible for selecting, through the editing process, dialogues that will advance society. This idea has been in place since the mid 20th century with Habermas’ ‘Public Sphere’ and his demarcation of a shift from a “representational” culture to one of Öffentlichkeit, but also predates him with much theory related to media systems, most of which discuss the nature of visibility in some form or another. Exposure is, after all, a key role of the media.

Its adoption as a key method of problem-solving today is problematic. If one were cynical, one might suggest that merely making a problem visible today, in an environment of 'crisis proliferation', is not enough to cause any kind of meaningful change. With this proliferation occurring hand-in-hand with an overwhelming explosion of image culture - lives exposed on Facebook, invasions of privacy by the NSA among many others, and an endless stream of well-meaning causes flooding your life... visibility becomes rather a means, this imaginary cynic would suggest, to give the appearance of progress without ever having to undergo any actual authentic transformation on the part of the individual. In street-level terms, just because I walk past a beggar every day, doesn't necessarily mean, when my attention is finally drawn to their existence, that I will act on it, either personally or at a ballot box. The main point about visibility seems to be that it is totally not working. See all those images of melting ice in the newspaper? Not exactly compelling anyone to act, are they?