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  • Introduction:Medium and Mediation
  • Matt Tierney (bio) and Mathias Nilges (bio)

As we were composing the introduction to this special issue of Postmodern Culture, a Missouri grand jury delivered its decision not to indict a white police officer, Darren Wilson, for the killing of an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown. This decision, baffling to many, was announced in a press conference by Robert McCulloch, the prosecuting attorney for St. Louis County. McCulloch considered the grand jury’s deliberation to have been difficult, but not because the jury was distraught over the racism built into most forms of American policing, and not because the jury knew that there would be public outcry no matter what choice it made, and certainly not because the prosecutor’s office had made any mistakes in presenting the case against Wilson. Indeed, it was never in question that Wilson had fired the gun that killed Brown on August 9, 2014. In spite of this, McCulloch professed: “The most significant challenge encountered in this investigation has been the 24-hour news cycle and its insatiable appetite for something, for anything to talk about. Following closely behind were the nonstop rumors on social media.”1 News media and social media thus bore the blame for any difficulty in the grand jury’s decision because, immediately after Brown’s death, “neighbors began gathering and anger began growing because of the various descriptions of what had happened.” Any conflict that followed the shooting was, in McCulloch’s eye, due to the contradictory and mediated “descriptions” of the shooting, and not to the shooting itself. The media, both news and social, had spread “speculation and little if any solid, accurate information.” By McCulloch's logic, it was the inaccuracy of reporting and the media's formal insolidity, rather than the actual death of Michael Brown, that had led to widespread anger and protest.

The effort in this special issue is both to refine and to broaden the conceptual language of “media” and “medium,” so that we may reduce some of the distance between its scholarly employment within theory and its popular use to describe culture. This is a matter of terminological precision, not populism. McCulloch’s traffic in the language of “media” is both banal and troubling. Banal because McCulloch’s use of the word is too mundane to merit further notice. Yet troubling because the word’s flexibility is what allows McCulloch to perform an insidious rhetorical move, draping a single heading over a broad array of cultural forms, from television to print and from cellphones to the Internet, and then blaming that whole array, in one triumphant gesture, for having impeded justice in the death of Michael Brown. “Media” is just a word, it could be argued. But in this case, it is a word and an idea that, no matter how much it was touted in the struggle against reactionary social forces, had come to belong as much to the reactionary forces as to the struggle. Whatever truth-telling capacity may survive in the fourth estate, it could be said, this capacity vanishes as soon as the press is dismissed for its “insatiable appetite” and “inaccurate descriptions.” And whatever countervailing common voice might be heard in the texts and images of Twitter and Facebook, this voice is hushed by the accusation of mere rumormongering. There may be a great deal of liberation latent in the specific techniques of protest and knowledge called “media” in their plurality and “medium” in their discrete character. It is difficult to tell. As long as these words allow the techniques they name to be so easily lumped together and then marginalized, those techniques might not liberate much of anything. Conversely, we insist, as long as these words may be sculpted by someone like McCulloch, they might also bend to other hands.

What do we mean when we say the word “media,” and is there any chance that its refinement might facilitate, or even communicate, an ameliorative language? This question stands fittingly at the beginning of the introduction to this issue, since it is the fundamental question with which each essay in the volume grapples. We also begin here because it is precisely this...

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