The complex processes and consequences of the political economy of screen media were at the core of The Political Screen conference organised for the Screen Studies Group by University College London (UCL) and London School of Economics (LSE), with support from SAS. This report by Ana Ecaterina Tan and Tressie Xitong Pan explains the rationale behind the conference and provides highlights from the two-day event.
What do ‘Screen Studies’ entail, and why discuss their implications? Organisers Dr Shakuntala Banaji (LSE) and Dr Lee Grieveson (UCL) began proceedings with a call to recognise the rhetorical and sometimes material dominance of screen technology and media in parts of the world.
Dr Banaji emphasised both the contexts and the audiences of media. She said screen studies encompasses a wide range of processes and industries involved in the production, distribution, and consumption of screen-based content. It also raises questions about meaning and experience, hegemony and resistance, labour, exploitation, exclusion and absence as they function at the intersection of technology, industry, content and geopolitics.
For Dr Grieveson, the globalised liberal capitalist system in which screen industries and scholarship operate needed to be underscored. He said the media is a powerful tool for hegemonic corporate and often US or West-centered interests, and academia should give greater consideration to this political economy while engaging with the media.
Opening keynote speaker Professor Anna McCarthy (New York University) tackled ‘the jargon of productivity’. The session was both lighthearted and unsettling, casting a shadow on the fluffy world of internet listicles, GIFs, and productivity hacks. She highlighted the impact of the high-speed online content creation industry on professional writing and journalism. Recycling content and repackaging ideas into click-bait pieces capitalises on signal-anxiety of ‘content creators’ and consumers.
A ‘labour cultures’ panel touched on the implications of labour practices for job security. While in ‘the politics of duration’, Glyn Davis (Edinburgh) looked at the longueurs of cinema. This was particularly thought-provoking for the questions it raised about the relationships between length, content, labour and leisure.
Mobile and online platforms then took centre stage, as did the political implications of seeing and being seen through online technology, particularly with regards to the rights to privacy and security. Sonia Livingstone (LSE) spoke about how adults continue to shape the internet and its regulation, despite the fact that one in three users is a child. She discussed the role child respondents should be playing in directing policymakers towards forms of internet regulation and content curation. Meanwhile, Shaunak Sen (Jawaharlal Nehru) revealed that ‘sting videos’ in India has caused a shift in the qualification of visual evidence and the very definition of truth in local politics and the justice system.
Amid questions of power relations and resistance, Peter Kramer (East Anglia), who spoke on ‘media activitsm’, suggested the internet should be used for ‘self-mobilisation’ and appealed for continued vigilance. ‘The likelihood that anything will change is low, should not stop us from trying’.
The first day closed with S V Srinivas (Azim Premji) emphasising that the mediatisation of politics, often considered the cause of rupture in democratic process, is itself a phenomenon to be considered critically.
The second day included sessions on ‘screen wars’, ‘cinema and post-war industry’, ‘censorship, production cultures and democracy’, ‘finance aesthetics’, ‘civic space’ and ‘conservative media’, with discussions on various national contexts. Dr Michele Aaron (Birmingham) spoke on film ethics, Britta Ohm on Turkish media, Siao Yuong Fong on censorship ‘performance’ in Singaporean television and Lambrini Papadopoulou on ‘critical’ media and the radicalisation of journalists in Greece since austerity.
Professor Liesbet van Zoonen’s (Loughborough) closing keynote argued that political fiction matters in its capacity to address the prevalent fear of the unknown, particularly in areas of politics and security. However, while programs such as Person of Interest have predicted major global events like the Snowden NSA leaks, they would do better by showing a bright rather than dark horizon for politics.
Issues on the political economy of the media are not new. However, The Political Screen discussions were through-provoking and sometimes surprising for their engagement with specific screens across the long history of screen media. The conference expressed hope for greater visibility, access, and resistance to hegemonic power relations within and beyond the screen media industry.
Ana Ecaterina Tan and Tressie Xitong Pan are students on the 2015 MSc Media and Communications programme at the London School of Economics.