Spring Break with Daniel Dayan: the politics of small things meets the politics of even smaller things

I recently returned from a very enjoyable and very fruitful week in Paris, combining business with pleasure. I spent time with family, and also enjoyed a series of meetings with my dear friend and colleague, Daniel Dayan. We continued our long-term discussions and debates, moving forward to a more concerted effort, imagining more focused work together. His semiotical approach to power will inform my sociological approach and visa versa, with Roland Barthes, Victor Turner, Hannah Arendt and Erving Goffman as our guides. At least that is one way I am thinking about it now. Or as Daniel put it a while back in an earlier discussion: my politics of small things will combine with his analysis of the politics of even smaller things.

We had three meetings in Paris, a public discussion with his media class at Science Po, an extended working breakfast and lunch at two different Parisian cafés, and a beautiful dinner at his place, good food and talk throughout. I fear I haven’t properly thanked him for his wonderful hospitality.

At Sciences Po, Dayan presented a lecture to his class and I responded. This followed a format of public discussion we first developed in our co-taught course at The New School in 2010. He spoke about his theory of media “monstration,” how the media show, focusing attention of a socially constituted public. He highlighted the social theory behind his, pointing to Axel Honneth on recognition and Nancy Fraser’s critique of Honneth, Michel Foucault on the changing styles of visibility: from spectacle to surveillance, Luc Boltanski on the mediation of distant suffering and especially J. L. Austin on speech acts.

At the center of Dayan’s interest is his metaphor of “the media as the top of the iceberg.” He imagines a society’s life, people showing each other things, as involving a great complexity of human actions and interactions, mostly submerged below the surface of broad public perception, not visible for public view. The media’s role is to go down and bring up, deciding what is important, what is worthy of attention, to show and illuminate. As Austin was interested in the fact that sometimes the mere articulation of speech – “acts,” Dayan is interested in how “media act.” By making some things apparent, and some not, they set the agenda, both forming and informing publics.

A key activity of the media, then, is witnessing, where the media record, translate and illustrate for its public. This is Dayan’s framework, as I understand it, most interesting in the details of its application as it provides a means to consider the relationship between media and power. Daniel draws on Austin here. He makes fine distinctions concerning media expression, applying to the media Austin’s terms: exercitives, verdictives, commissives, expositives and behavitives. As he explains it, this makes sense. But I have a concern, which he and I discussed at length.

Dayan focuses on the relationship between the media and power, making fine distinctions, applying Austin as a way of analyzing forms of expression and showing, but he does not make what I take to be the important distinctions between forms of power. Not only the disciplining power of the truth regime in the fashion of Foucault, and the Weberian notion of coercive power and its legitimation, but also the notion of power that emerges from the capacity of a group of people to speak to each other as equals, reveal their individual qualities through their individual actions and then develop the capacity to act in concert. In his presentation at Science Po, Dayan didn’t present in his framework how the media facilitate political power in the sense of Hannah Arendt. I pointed this out, and we discussed this extensively. We did not disagree; rather, we saw the topic of media and power from different directions, with different perspectives.

I illustrated my point by discussing gay marriage, an issue in the news that day in both France and the United States. In the U.S.: the opening hearings at the Supreme Court concerning two cases, one focused on the Federal Defense of Marriage Act and the other focused on a California referendum on gay marriage was widely reported. In France: at the same time, also widely reported, there was a mass demonstration in Paris against gay marriage, against a likely new law (since enacted) legalizing marriage equality. I noted that from the American court hearings commentators judged that it is highly likely that the official recognition of gay marriage would proceed, pushed by broad popular support, while in France, the legislation yielding the same result was meeting popular resistance. There is an interesting irony here.

Media monstration of actions in the Supreme Court revealed the relationship between official power and the power of concerted action. The popular support for gay marriage was a result of a long media monstrating march, from the Stonewall Riots to the Supreme Court, LGBT rights have been emerging as American commonsense. Gay activists meeting, talking and acting together, seen by their friends and colleagues, but also by many strangers thanks to media presentations, have appeared as normal citizens, worthy of full citizens rights. As Daniel and I might put it, the politics of small things became large, through monstration.

In the meanwhile in France, marriage equality’s road to legalization was more a consequence of big politics. It was part of the Socialist Party Platform, upon which François Hollande ran. Public opinion had not been clearly formed around the issue. More popular was the longstanding traditional commonsense that marriage, and more specifically parenting, should be between a man and a woman, and not between two men or two women. The long road of the politics of small things, shown by the media didn’t exist. While in the U.S. the story was of a conservative Supreme Court trying to keep up with changes in the society, in France official power was ahead of public opinion, at least this is the way it looked at the time of our discussion.

Dayan and I don’t completely agree on marriage equality, and more specifically on the importance of parenting equality. Yet, we both saw in this example (and others we discussed during my visit and our discussions) a platform for dialogue, about the connections among the politics of small things, big politics, monstration, and media and publics.

At our breakfast, lunch and dinner, we explored this. We discussed his ideas about media and hospitality, the analogy between media and museums, my concern that we have to consider not only the media, but also media as a facilitator of all social interaction, monstration as a sphere of gesture (thus our common interest in the sociology of Erving Goffman), the media as a system of monstrative institutions, the relationship between the new (small) media and big media, terrorism as it monstrates, our topic, and Israel – Palestine (a zone of conflict about which we disagree) and “politics as if.”

The politics of the consequential and the inconsequential: people, activities, events and monstrations, the relevance of irrelevance, this fascinates us. We will continue to work on it, and we will report here about our progress, from time to time. I will explain more in my next post.