Book Review – The Media Against Democracy

Thomas Field’s recently published The Media Against Democracy  brings together philosophical themes from 21st and late 20th Century  European philosophy and shows their political application in a very clear way. This is no small achievement, given the esoteric style of writing used by the philosophical tradition he draws upon, and the seemingly large gap between their theories and our contemporary political situation. In fact, Field’s book is the first to convince me that such a political application is possible.

Before going on to talk about it in more detail, I’d want to say that anyone interested in the politics of continental philosophy should read it. It is an informed apology for the political applications of “post-Deleuzian philosophy” (if I dare use such a term). It is well written, well argued, and has very up-to-date political examples. I’ve also found it to be a helpful starting point to some of the key arguments of Speculative Realism, a movement I should admit that I know very little about.

This is going to be a fairly long review, so buckle your seatbelt. I’m first going to give some historical background to Field’s book, then talk about its a couple of its theses.

The Politics of Contingency

Field’s book comes out of a Nietzschean tradition that sees the task of philosophy as striving to pave the way for the overcoming of the contemporary socio-political situation moving onto something “new”. The tradition being largely post- and occasionally anti-Heideggerian, I currently only have only a working knowledge of some of it (greatly increased by Field’s book itself). But, for my part, this is how the tradition seems to me.

In the wake of Heidegger’s political betrayal, continental philosophy is left in need of a new direction. As far as I can see, this direction leads to an emphasis of contingency over necessity. The basic idea is that the reason an alternative politics (socialism) is so difficult to bring about is that the current socio-political situation is interpreted as necessary, viz. it seems that things could not be any other way.

Although this is linked to the frequent defence of capitalism (“It’s the only thing we know that works”), the point is much more fundamental. We cannot even conceive of an alternative because all we can think is what currently exists, and all attempts to bring about something new ultimately result in a repetition of the same. As such, we need to learn to recognise what currently exists, the status quo, as contingent and not necessary; things could be otherwise.

This thought is exemplified differently in Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault. Foucault attempts to make this point through history. The myth that the current setup is the only way things can be is dispelled quickly by demonstrating that even ideas as old as “democracy” have a radically different meaning only a few hundred years ago. By showing that madness, criminals and sexuality have all had different meanings in history, Foucault demonstrates to us that our ways of thinking could be otherwise precisely because they used to be otherwise.

Deleuze attacks necessity in a more traditionally metaphysical way. He argues that all there is is creative becoming; nothing is necessary at bottom. This means that everything is contingent, and that “lines of flight” away from the present situation are possible.

The Foucaudian method, whilst hugely influential outside of philosophy, has not been carried forward by any major philosopher of which I am aware. While post-Deleuzian philosophers have moved forward by some sort of reclamation of Heidegger’s philosophy, the creative power of becoming remains a strong theme. This brings us to Field’s book and his use of Badiou, Castoriadis and Meillassoux, all of whom expand on the idea that what is is creative becoming and a fortiori the status quo is contingent and can be overcome.

The Media Against Contingency

Field’s major target, as the title of his book suggests, is the media. He is, however, very critical of Media Studies. This is not because the latter lacks academic rigour, but because that which we call the media does not mediate, it is therefore a misnomer. Field prefers to talk about “making images and sounds” as a preliminary replacement for the term “media”.

The reason that the media cannot mediate is that there is nothing to mediate: if all there is is creative becoming or, to use Field’s preferred term out of Castoriadis and Meillassoux, “chaos”, then there are,strictly speaking, no beings.

[…] if what is is chaos then what is there for the media to mediate? I am going to suggest that if we privilege a thinking of being as chaos or hyper-chaos then this may provide us with a means to live more democratically. If it is true that what is is chaos then the producers of new images and sounds would have to accept that nothing is given […]. The producers of sounds and images would have to accept that mediation of a given as a real is impossible, or at best illusory. To the extent they deny chaos then they also deny the conditions of democratic thinking and action.

I will say more about what Field means by democracy in a moment. As things stand now, though, the essential argument of the book can be seen; the recognition of chaotic becoming and radical contingency of everything is a founding condition of any democratic action. The media, as “representing” the chaotic events in the form of stable, digestible “things that have happened” conceals their chaotic origin, implicitly discouraging the recognition of becoming, making democracy less attainable. In his words, ‘What the media sometimes offers us is a never totally successful attempt to cleanse its images and sounds of the chaotic and the evental.’ In short, the media is ontologically as well as politically conservative.

So, the media is against democracy because it is one instance of a prevailing type of thinking that takes the genuine chaos of reality (becoming) and thinks it as a purely present, static object (being). As part of the project of recognising the radical contingency of our chaotic reality, with a view to political change, we need to be shot of it replacing it instead with alternative productions of images and sounds that bring us face to face with the primordial chaos. The final chapter of The Media Against Democracy, ‘Windows upon the Chaos’, gives some interesting examples of what that might be.

Anarchy and Democracy

While I will not speak about it in much detail, another interesting theme and argument in the book is an identification of democracy with anarchy where anarchy is understood as the absence of an archē or fundamental unifying principle. In line with what is said above, true anarchy would be affirmation of the fact that we, as chaotic entities in a hyper chaos, lack necessary ground and that change is possible. This is a very interesting argument that draws on many thinkers and includes a discussion of the Greek origin of the word (I’m always a sucker for anything that goes back to the Greeks). The chapter ‘Democracy and the Media’ also includes an interesting analysis of the Paxman Russell Brand interview as an example of the media attempting to maintain their fixed definitions.

Critical Postscript

I’m going to offer what you might call “Heideggerian Hesitations” about the philosophy of becoming, of which Field’s book is an instance. Ultimately, this philosophy makes me feel like a bluff old traditionalist because I specialise in a philosopher whose work ended half a century ago, and a lot has happened since then, many in continental philosophy today finding Heidegger lacking. The sketch of an argument I am about to give is not aimed at Field’s book in particular, but at these philosophies of becoming. I should say, however, that many would completely disagree with me, and that you shouldn’t take my word for it.

Although the tradition I’ve outlined comes chronologically after Heidegger, the latter was well aware of these arguments. Indeed, as Field also points out, the division between being and becoming is as old as philosophy itself. Further, process philosophy was very much in the air for the German philosopher, given his obsession with Nietzsche and the popularity of Bergson. In both Heidegger’s lengthy reading of Nietzsche and his many allusions to Bergson can be found arguments that ought to make us hesitate before building a politics and a philosophy around this of becoming.

Heidegger’s essential point is this: inverting being in order to think becoming is just an inversion of metaphysics, not its overcoming. By doing the opposite of metaphysics, process philosophy is essentially determined by that tradition. One may not see this as a problem (Deleuze certainly didn’t), but the basic critique is that there is nothing new in affirming becoming. It is the same old metaphysical tradition brought to its full conclusion and only superficially different. Heidegger’s own direction is to question the meaning of being in a, in his opinion, more fundamental way.

Many would criticise that argument, and many have to my face. I am yet to be convinced. But, don’t take my word for it and even if Heidegger has a point, I believe, along with these philosophers (most particularly Foucault) that what we need now is more ways of thinking, not less. In short, The Media Against Democracy is definitely worth a read if you’re interested in these issues.


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