News | Lecture attempts to redefine media

Social movement activist speaks at McGill

John Downing – a scholar of alternative, social movement, and radical media – spoke at McGill last Thursday on the subject of “Transnational Social Movement Media.”

Downing, who is a visiting Media Studies professor at Aarhus University in Denmark, framed the lecture in Room W215 of the Arts Building around his redefinition of the word “media.” In the attempt to break away from traditional assumptions of “media” as television, print, cinema, and internet, Downing provides a more anthropological definition, including more people and more expressions of communication, especially when it comes to social movements.

“I include under the heading of ‘media’ the body, dance, tattoos, popular song, graffiti, dress, street theater – a whole variety of cultural expressions of communication which are very often in the textbooks excluded from studies of media, but I would argue are precisely media,” he said.

After Downing’s talk, Marc Raboy, professor in the department of Art History and Communication studies and Beaverbrook chair in Ethics, Media, and Communications, described Downing’s definition of media as new and exciting. “I was very interested in his broad anthropological definition of media, and how he broadens the scope of media to encompass different forms of communication, such as dance or puppetry,” he said.

Downing went on to explain the power of small-scale social media, as opposed to more mainstream media.

“These are media that generate out of social movements, which feed social movements, which keep a certain flame alive between the upsurges of social movements,” he said. “They are, therefore, focusing on their social movement connections and their integration with social movements.”

Transnational social media has increased significantly in the past few decades. Downing explained that transnational social activism through media does not always reap positive results.

“Not every transnational social movement is a social movement, which is encouraging and offers a constructive hope for expanding democracy and expanding mutual dialogue and engagement in social justice,” explained Downing.

He also argued that the most prominent writing in the field of transnational social movement media fails to acknowledge humans as individual players in the world of media.

“The political scientists operate as though they were talking about a chess board and we are, collectively or individually, the sort of pieces on the chess board that move in accordance with certain pre-established rules in opposition to each other,” he said.

These writers discuss media using words like ‘mobilization’ and ‘connections,’ and fail to account for human agency and feeling, Downing posited.

“I would suggest that this perspective is implicitly masculinist,” he explained. “What tends to be missed out from this picture is a focus on symbols, on imagination, on emotion, on feelings, on fear, passion, humour, fantasy and vision, and implicitly, or tangentially, I think, perspectives which are more likely to be present in feminist readings than elsewhere.”

Downing provided examples of social movements through media – including the global anti-apartheid movement – to explain how media has been used as a form of social movement in the past.

“This wave of sustained protest, fed by media, the movements media, and expressed to a wider set of activists by the movement media, eventually had a great deal to do with the final collapse of the apartheid regime,” he said.