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  • Culture and Democracy: Media, Space, and Representation
  • Danielle Vinson
Culture and Democracy: Media, Space, and Representation. By Clive Barnett. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2003; pp vii + 225. $29.95.

Rejecting as overly simplified arguments that mass media and popular culture have undermined democracy, Clive Barnett focuses on patterns of mediation to examine the relationship between culture and democracy, emphasizing the links among media, public space, and representation. The first half of the book provides a theoretical discussion of these themes. Barnett begins with an exploration of the idea of the public that posits the necessity of mediation for the expression (or formation) of the public. Furthermore, he suggests that it is through channels of mediation that accountable representation is made possible because they "serve as the means of recording and recalling the promises and claims of representatives, enabling the later assessment of intentions and consequences" (29). Addressing the development of new communications technologies, Barnett takes issue with those who expect new media technologies to replace representation, but he acknowledges that the new media may redefine our understanding of public spaces not only because of their contributions to globalization but also their ability to extend public debate into formerly private spheres such as the home.

In his analysis, Barnett conceptualizes the public sphere as networks of communication. He links the health of the public arena to "structures of media organization, ownership and use" but also notes the importance of having diverse means of association (79). Those who prefer an expansive definition of what is political will appreciate that his notion of the public sphere [End Page 507] makes room for the contribution of popular media culture to public debate to the extent that it raises issues and identities that are absent from the more traditional aspects of the public sphere (79).

The second part of the book applies the themes established in the theoretical discussion to an examination of media policies and their implications for citizenship and democracy in three contemporary settings. The first case examines how various aspects of the U.S. Constitution have been employed to deal with regulation of new communications technologies. Barnett observes that First Amendment law has shifted from an interest in ensuring equal access to public media to a concern for property rights that has found more communications to be private and thus not subject to regulation. In the second example, Barnett looks at the evolution and purposes of media policies in the transnational democratic setting of the European Union and their coincidence with changes in participation. And finally, he turns to the role of the media in the development of public culture and political power in the new democracy of South Africa. Using two examples, Barnett illustrates how the media have been a source of power for groups and how educational media have been used explicitly to raise cultural awareness in a society where broadcast media had traditionally been designed to keep various groups separate.

Grounded in several schools of philosophical thought, Barnett's focus on theoretical explanations of media policies and their implications for democracy and citizenship is a useful departure from some existing research that tends toward the empirical and practical without much concern for theoretical foundation. His heavy reliance on and critique of Habermas, Foucault, and Derrida in the first half of the book will challenge those who are not fluent (or at least conversant) in poststructuralist, deconstructionist, and postmodernist thinking. However, one of the strengths of the book is the author's emphasis on the areas of agreement among these philosophers rather than their differences, particularly their common focus on how power is exercised and on the role of culture and media in the process of democracy.

There is room to build on Barnett's discussion through empirical analysis to test his explanations. While his evaluation of the three contemporary cases seems quite plausible, his theoretical rationale was necessarily imposed after the policies had been implemented, and that makes them subject to charges that they are post hoc. Particularly, one might question whether there are other circumstances that caused the changes in media policies that the book does not explore. A more systematic empirical analysis might clarify...


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pp. 507-509
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