Critical theory IN mediology

Latour’s assertion that ‘…”to have” (friends, relations, profiles…) is quickly becoming a stronger definition of oneself that “to be”‘ (Latour 2011, 802) signals a paradigm shift that students of communications, culture, and technology must explore and expand on in order to do justice to their subject(s) of inquiry, especially the subjects of knowledge and power. Law explains that Actor-Network Theory (ANT) is useful because it asks the type of questions that should be asked about the mechanics of power, nature of organization, and the heterogeneity of network materials, and their implications on agency (Law 1992). Debray takes this paradigm shift further with the concept of mediology (Maras 2008, Debray 1999). To Debray and other mediologists, the subject of interest is not the technical innovation but what is in between technologies i.e. the cultural practices, social beliefs, and communicated messages (Debray 1999). The reason why the technology itself is ancillary to these ‘in between’ aspects is because whilst technology is the means by which synchrony (present communication) is achieved, it is vis-a-vis social beliefs and cultural artifacts that transmission (the more important transfer of communication over time via technologies and institutions) occurs (Debray 1996).

This is  a critical development in communications heuristics because unlike in past communications theory, mediology is anathema to technological determinism. As Irvine states: ‘technologies can’t be usefully described as having “effects” on cultures or societies, because technology is culture and only empowered by culture’ (Irvine 2005). This necessary paradigm shift deals with power and agency and according to Irvine, ANT and mediology are ways to uncover these power relations. Some of the conceptual frameworks we have been learning throughout the semester thus far can be incredibly helpful in helping synthesize mediology’s concepts and take them further, especially on fundamental issues surrounding how authority systems are legitimized.

The Critical Theories perspective would argue that since legitimacy involves garnering acceptance, socialization is a key way through which members of society can be led to embody appropriate attitudes that are conducive to accepting the authority system (Paletz e. al. 1977). According to Bourdieu, this socialization happens covertly, through what he calls symbolic power in the production of belief, a power that is effective precisely because it is unrecognized, or recognized as abitrary (Bourdieu 1991). Bourdieu would thus ask:

(1) How covert is the reification of [insert any technology] and is this clandestine effort successful in garnering acceptance of [insert said technology’s corporation, maker, regulator, user, etc.]?

(2) Which invisible insitutions (cultura, legal, etcl.) are linked to visible media technologies and how are they so?

(3) Are social networks powerful because of the technology itself or because of the networks, cultural artifacts, and social institutions that surround it?

(4) To what extent does [insert any technology or medium of communications]’s ‘agency’ and arguments/claims about causality (via blackboxing) contribute it its legitimacy?

The way to explore such questions is to use the concept of symbolic value and power to scrutinize via de-blackboxing (Latour 2011) because in order to fully understand the legitimizing and socializing processes that are present, the hidden power relations must be uncovered by analyzing the thingified technology itself as an ideological producer. Because the ‘ideological products offered by the political field are instruments of perceiving and expressing the social world’ (Bourdieu 1991, 172), the forming of opinions, and thereby individual thought-process, depends on the scope of available instruments of perception and expression. In other words, it is imperative to uncover any hidden or embedded political agenda in the process of reification because the political field effectively censors via its limiting the scope of what is politically thinkable.

These questions and methodology address fundamental elements in the quest for finding and developing a sound and rigorous conceptual framework and paradigm for a richer view of mediation and communication: symbolic value and power and their roles in the legitimization of those in power, and the clandestine socialization of those being overpowered. Using such concepts from critical theory will help add nuance and insight to the inquiries of mediologists and practitioners of ANT.