Spectacles or Publics? Billboards, magazine covers, and ‘selfies’ as spaces of appearance

Presented by Mehita Iqani

Monday, 11 November, 2013 - 15:00

This paper critically examines the relationship between theories of the public sphere and empirical research into consumption and consumer media. The notion of the public sphere, although considered with much ambivalence, quickly became ‘canonical’ in media and cultural studies, especially in public opinion, public service broadcasting and audience research. Questions of how the public is constituted are central to all forms of critical enquiry in the field of media studies; this paper argues that it is particularly necessary to ask what the theory of the public sphere can do for critical research into commercial and consumer media forms and mediated practices organised around commodity exchange and aspirational lifestyles, which have typically been theorised by critical theorists as manipulative spectacles that compromise and minimize the democratic potential of communications technologies. As an empirical reference points, the paper discusses three genres of consumer media: the billboard, the magazine cover and the ‘selfie’, drawing on established bodies of literature about outdoor advertising, magazines, and self-portraiture and snapshots. The paper sketches out the key characteristics of each genre and discusses how each has been conceptualized as either public or spectacle. Next, the paper engages the canon of work on public sphere theory, and asks how the participatory paradigm can assist in developing critical thinking about consumer media forms. The paper argues that consumer media forms are neither simply “publics” nor “spectacles”, but complex “spaces of appearance” that are at once symbols of potential participation and signs of how that participation will be conditioned by capital.

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