“We have to stay brave, energetic, and stubborn—we can’t walk away from the fight. Sparring is how you build endurance, how you learn to be quick on your feet and develop a sense of humour”
Nadya Tolokonnikova in a letter to Slavoj Zizek
It is a truth of structuralism, widely accepted and intuitively attractive, that things do not possess their own simple intrinsic meaning that is then communicated through the medium of language. Rather, as the peerless Stuart Hall noted, ‘the world has to be made to mean.’ It is through language and symbolization meaning is produced – not just transmitted. It is the implications of this that have all too often been ignored; for one meaning, one truth-value statement to be regularly produced there is an ongoing process of legitimacy that has to be achieved. This process becomes yet more complex when a further structural layer is added to it – it is not just language that requires a certain level of analysis to determine meaning, but the means by which language is transmitted should not be ignored either. Culture is political. This is something that theorists and thinkers have been aware of since at least the nineteenth century but the effect of rapid shifts in technology and new media has been overlooked. The proliferation of media distribution channels creates new social practises that in turn, produce new specific symbolic products, new meanings and new accepted interpretations.
The immediacy of social media to connect the viewer with the event carries with it a relatively under explored ideological power – the “power to signify events in a particular way.” (Hall 1982) This power is perhaps most easily observed in the moment of events that shatter our expectations of what the world is like; when oppositional ideological forces can be seen most clearly and when powerful social interests make themselves known. Watching breaking news on Twitter is to watch the formation of ideology in operation. The power to signify, that which we trust to Google, to Facebook and Twitter is not neutral, but profoundly political. Far from being just tools that provoke technological issues, social media raises new, never before encountered political and ideological questions.
The post-Derridean shift away from logocentrism gives rise to the politics of the image, which rather than reduce the limits of hermeneutics opens more possibilities for discourse and interpretation. The increase in discursive plurality and the immediacy of the viewer to the image has a secondary effect. The speed at which information breaks into social media has a secondary effect that more established media forms incorporate into their very forms. Traditional TV and print media have the pre-existing ability to frame particular events into a certain narrative. In contrast, the speed at which the image breaks, is read, and is widely circulated on social media makes this “pre-framing” no longer possible.
The consequences for this, is that every image no longer functions just as an object for interpretation but as the site of multiple intersecting ideological positions. The two-fold result of this is clear – the old-fashioned hegemony of the traditional media is shattered, whilst new “correct” narratives can be formed at a speed that so quick as to be almost impossible to keep track of. The interpretation of the image becomes something infinitely more important, as what is at stake is no longer just an understanding of one particular, commonly accepted narrative. Rather, the news image is now the location of the determination of what events mean. The traditional media had no need for an extensive hermeneutical engagement, as the narratives they propagated were generally reflective of wider concerns that had already established themselves. By contrast, the image online is the very location of the determination of meaning. News breaks online often without the anchoring of pre-determined discourse and the immediate response is one where the accepted meanings and interpretations of an event have yet still to be determined. What this allows for is a certain amount of potential for the redefinition of the established hegemonic discourse and the creation of popular discourses that oppose it. In the immediate wake of the terrorist attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, when the first pieces of information broke onto social media, hashtags of solidarity formed at a lightning pace. These were not solely for the expression of solidarity or connection with the victims but rather expressive of a quick forming ideological discourse, that sought to place the attacks within a certain narrative – that sought to give those who saw this news unfold before their eyes a framework of interpretation through which events could be “read.” However, what the internet brings that traditional media sources lack is the potential for counter narratives and even a kind of Hegelian synthesis. To see this in action one only needs to recall the dizzying speed at which #JeSuisCharlie, #JeNeSuisPasCharlie and #JeSuisAhmed spread across France and the world.
First, the solidarity, second the critique, third a type of synthesis that used ideological and technological aspects from both previous. It is not enough to see the dissemination of the image as a technical problem, an issue that can analysed through understandings of hashtags, algorithms and follower numbers – rather the necessity of engaging with the image as a site of discursive formation and interpretation cannot be overstated. To walk away from the image online is to abandon the ground on which meaning is determined and to allow others to dictate the significance of events. It takes effort, yet the image online is open to reflection, to refraction and to interpretation – a space where discourse and meaning doesn’t have to be left in the hands of hegemonic power but where the marginalized can have their voices heard.