Monday, July 4, 2011

multimedia city

It’s December of 2010 in Seoul. A woman in her 20’s has taken a seat in the part of the subway reserved for the elderly and physically disabled (noyak chwasŏk). An elderly man approaches, expecting her to relinquish the seat (yangbo) to him. Instead, she refuses. “I’m sitting here—sit somewhere else!” An argument ensues. As luck would have it, a passenger sitting across from the disturbance tapes the whole episode on his cell phone, and within a short time, uploads the video onto the Internet, where it quickly gets cross-posted across hundreds of forums and blogs. Some netizens find her cyworld account (a social media site ubiquitous in South Korea) and start blasting her with abuse until she’s forced to close it down. Others recognize her from school. Someone says that she’s pregnant—and that’s why she deserved the seat. Finally, more established new sources in Korea (e.g., Oh My News) pick up the story—contextualizing the disturbance against societal change in a way not dissimilar (and perhaps all too similar) to what the blogs had been saying just days before. The incident of “Rude-speech Girl” (panmal nyŏ) focuses critique on several perceived problems in Korean society: the alienation of the city, the generational divide, the replacement of the multi-generational household with the nuclear family. But it also opens a door onto a shifting, kaleidoscope city.

It’s been over ten years now since the anthropologist Arjun Appadurai introduced “mediascapes” to anthropology—or not exactly, since anthropologists had engaged media many times before (think Hortense Powdermaker’s work in Hollywood: the Dream Factory). That essay, “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy,” opened up a productive inquiry into an urban ecumene that exceeded geo-political boundaries in significant “scapes” that linked (and decoupled) one place from another.

Built upon these disjunctures (which hardly form a simple, mechanical global 'infrastructure' in any case) are what I have called ‘mediascapes’ and 'ideoscapes', though the latter two are closely related landscapes of images. ‘Mediascapes’ refer both to the distribution of the electronic capabilities to produce and disseminate information (newspapers, magazines, television stations, film production studios, etc.), which are now available to a growing number of private and public interests throughout the world; and to the images of the world created by these media. These images of the world involve many complicated inflections, depending on their mode (documentary or entertainment), their hardware (electronic or pre- electronic), their audience (local, national or transnational) and the interests of those who own and control them. (35)

With Appadurai as provocateur, anthropologists looked to the intersections of people and what Guy Debord called “society of the spectacle”: global media, journalism, internetworked communications. The anthropology of mediascapes as a cottage industry extended anthropological consciousness beyond locality into global spaces.

The city is key to this—indeed, as many have argued, the city’s modernity coincides with the birth of media. Accordingly, the city develops as a particular way of knowing, of desiring, of seeing and of being seen. Photography appears as “an important placebo to the looming problem of cultural memory” (McQuire 2008: 34). Media represents new “forms of cultural display” to a population forever estranged from the medieval city (38). The “imagined community” of the nation is said to be premised on the architecture of print media—as well as the media of the state.
But here is where the bundled metaphors of Appadurai’s mediascapes fall apart—so helpful to think about the extension 19th century modernity into the mass mediated urban of the 20th century. Haussmannization means the top-down structuring of the experience of the urban—mediascapes extend that logic of control to mass media. But what to make of “rude-speech girl”? Is the primary function of the social media here representational? Are they about the production of images of reality? Are these “mediascapes” tracing a kind of representational architecture?

Many assumptions about the functions of media are limited by—imprisoned in—their spatial metaphors. The “media city” appears as a series of overlays sitting on top of the physical city, where we “leave” the physical to enjoin the “virtual”. But the multimedia city can’t be reduced to a kind of nonce-space: it’s primary functions are relational, temporal, phatic. Likewise, “virtual” and “real” shift back and forth in a way that resists awkward, “cyberspace” metaphors from Web 1.0 days. Here, “real” and “virtual” endlessly interpellate each other—non-Euclidean topologies, perhaps. Finally, the power relations are a good deal murkier than the media of previous eras of modernity. To be sure, the “rude speech girl” incident shows capital in the ascendent, neo-liberal technologies penetrating deep into the cortex of everyday relationships. But that said, neat algebras of media producers, media consumers, of domination and resistance, fail to describe the messy scrum of productions, reproductions and para-productions. On the other hand, the fault lines revealed in this episode—between older and younger generations, between gender identities—remind us that we haven’t “transcended” anything; indeed, to assume that would be to fall back upon bankrupt, spatial metaphors. That is, far from some break with modernity, “rude speech girl” continues the frisson of modernity into new, recurvate technologies that double back onto older identities and relationships.

Anthropology of the Multimedia City

How do we come to grips with the multimedia city? On the one hand, “rude speech girl” resists totalizing representation—lines of flight extend and multiply media into fractal complexities that cannot be reduced to a single, authoritative account where ultimate significance can be “mapped” against physical and social space. On the other hand, “rude speech girl” is an excess of representation—images, discourse, endless commentary, infinite regress. Finally, “representation” here may be less important than the capacity of multimedia to connect people together: the formation of networks of strong, weak and virtual ties that momentarily congeal around the production/reproduction/dissemination of multimedia. In actually, all of those goals and media effects coincide in behaviors that are as much about the performance of the self as the representation of the other.

The only way to accomplish an anthropology of the multimedia city is to intervene in that efflorescence—the way to the multimedia city is through the multimedia city. When we “intervene” here, it is not to arrest the viral movement of social media, but simply to generate the possibilities for different connections against entropic fields that will proliferate endlessly before finally collapsing on themselves. Not, in other words, to become media “producers” but to generate nodal constellations against those media productions.

Ultimately, the goals of an anthropology of the multimedia city may seem merely tautological: the multimedia city itself. But there’s more to it than that: the production of difference against a field of meaning that is as much about connection as it is about disconnection. That is, people weigh-in, re-post, re-mix, link—but in ways that exclude critiques against a neo-liberal development that atomizes and alienates the human even as it connects people together in novel and profound ways. Anthropological responses should be to enjoin that circulation, but to do so through a critical context that mediates against the totalizations of capital.


Appadurai, Arjun (1996). Modernity at Large. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

McQuire, Scott (2008). Media City. Beverly Hills, CA: SAGE Publications.