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Beyond Media Events: Disenchantment, Derailment, Disruption
The Olympics exemplify a class of occurrences that are not only preplanned and heralded long in advance, but also inscribed on calendars. The issue is not whether or not they will take place. We know they will. And since the “what” of the event is already known, the “how” becomes the important issue. Given the predictable nature of the Olympic formula, the Olympics tend to be no longer envisaged as “events-on-their-own” (as expressive actions, or as gestures). They are not seen as messages but as media. They are used as blank slates, as empty stages available for all sorts of new dramaturgies besides their own. The Olympics thus become palimpsests, scrolls that have been written upon, scraped almost clean, and written upon again.
The Olympics have a discontinuous existence made of long intervals and of episodic reenactments. They are an unusual form of “repertory” events. As in repertory theater, each enactment means to be different. Yet the play or event must be recognizable from repeat to repeat, from episode to episode. This might lead to a “freezing” of the event. Short of freezing the event, the organizers try to control its performance.
In the case of the Olympics, two models of episodic reenactments come to mind. The first model is religious. The Olympic “religion” is dominated by an almost mystical entity: the Olympic “spirit,” a doctrine that, like all dogmas, calls for a hermeneutic approach. A body of specialized literature is devoted to identifying, contextualizing, and Page 392updating this “spirit” in reference to the pronouncements of the institution’s entrepreneurial prophet, Pierre de Coubertin. Conducted in the name of this doctrinal belief, the orthodoxy of the Games generates a whole bureaucracy of semantic gestures, symbolic displays, and ritual manifestations. Like the Vatican bureaucracy, the IOC bureaucracy seems ferociously attached to detail, and the Olympics are not open to unnegotiated change.
Yet, unlike the church, the IOC cannot rely on threats of excommunication. Attempts by the IOC to impose a given reading of the Olympics involve, therefore, another dimension. This second dimension is legalistic. A given script is handed over and must be implemented. Variability is accepted but only within limits. Implementation is governed by contract. In this regard, the IOC is not very different from the Dutch television company, Endemol, whose reality television shows—including the universally imitated Big Brother—are franchised into formats meant to encourage successful reproduction. Like Endemol, the Olympics offer “probabilistic” dramaturgies: ready-to-implement situational plots. Delivered to very different sets of actors and countries, these dramaturgies are meant to function independently of cultural contexts and specific outcomes. In the case of the Olympics, as in the case of Endemol (and, of course in the case of many other serials as well), the dramaturgies are submitted to managerial rationalization. One could describe them as “Taylorized” or “bureaucratic.”
In 1992, Elihu Katz and I wrote Media Events:The Live Broadcasting of History about those great occasions—mostly occasions of state—that are televised as they take place and transfix a nation or the world. We called these events—which include epic contests of politics and sports, charismatic missions, and the rites of passage of the great—Contests, Conquests, and Coronations. In so doing, we were seeking to identify a narrative genre that employed the unique potential of the electronic media to command attention universally and simultaneously in order to tell a primordial story about current affairs. These were events, we argued, that in effect placed a halo over the television set, thus transforming the viewing experience. Fifteen years have now passed since Media Events was first published. The world has changed. We have learned from experience and from the many who have commented on our writings. This volume on the Beijing Olympics provides an opportunity to revisit several aspects of our joint approach to the phenomena of modern communications. For example, in our book, we focused on three story forms, or “scripts,” that constitute the main narrative Page 393possibilities within the genre of Contests, Conquests, and Coronations. We argued that these three story forms are dramatic embodiments of Weber’s (1946) three types of authority: rationality, charisma, and tradition. The present volume opens the possibility of additional themes that are less tied to celebration and that reflect new tensions in the world, including what Tamar Liebes (1998) calls “disaster marathons” and what James Carey (1998) describes as television rituals of “shame” and “degradation.”
When we wrote Media Events, we found that the fact that the events were preplanned—announced and advertised in advance—was significant, as advance notice gives time for negotiation, but also for anticipation and preparation on the part of both broadcasters and audiences. These broadcast events were generally presented with reverence and ceremony. In the past, journalists who presided over them suspended their normally critical stance and treated their subject with respect, even awe. Even when these programs addressed conflict—as they often did—they frequently celebrated not conflict but reconciliation. On our reading, media events were generally ceremonial efforts to redress conflict or restore order or, more rarely, institute change. They called for a cessation of hostilities, at least for a moment, very much in keeping with the ancient Greek tradition of an Olympic truce. Here too, there have been great changes. Each of us has been contemplating whether there is a retreat from the genres of media events, as we described them, and an increase in the live broadcasting of disruptive events of disaster, terror, and armed conflict.
In our book we also discussed how media events preview the future of media technology. We suggested that when radio became a medium of segmentation—subdividing audiences by age and education—broadcast television replaced it as the medium of national integration. But that too has changed, as so many have recognized. Beijing is not the first Olympics to take place in this fundamentally altered television environment, but it is clearly a theater for seeing the implications of new distribution methods. As new media technology multiplies the number of channels, television has become a medium of segmentation, and television-as-we-knew-it continues to disappear. It is not clear that any medium has replaced or will replace it; if anything, the newest technologies, like mobile, further increase this segmentation. In 1992 we wrote that “the nation-state itself may be on the way out, its boundaries out of sync with the new media technology. Media events may then create and integrate communities larger than nations. Indeed, the Page 394genre of media events may itself be seen as a response to the integrative needs of national and, increasingly, international communities and organizations.” Beijing seems to be a laboratory for these and related ideas.
The moments that Elihu Katz and I characterized as “Media Events” offered a powerful contrast to ordinary news. Media Events, as we defined them, invite their audiences to stop being spectators and to become witnesses or participants of a television performance. Rephrasing in a slightly different vocabulary the characteristics explored in the original volume, I would hold that the concept of Media Events includes the following four major features:
- Insistence and emphasis
- An explicitly “performative,” gestural dimension
- Loyalty to the event’s self definition; and
- Access to a shared viewing experience.
The first feature, emphasis, is manifested through the omnipresence of the transmitted events; the length of broadcasts that disrupt organized schedules without being themselves disrupted; the live dimension of these broadcasts; and the repetition of certain shots in seemingly endless loops. Performativity means that Media Events have nothing to do with balance, neutrality, or objectivity. They are not accounts but gestures: gestures that actively create realities. Loyalty consists in accepting the definition of the event as proposed by the organizers. It means that the proposed dramaturgy is not questioned but substantially endorsed and relayed. And, finally, Media Events provide not only knowledge or information but, also, a shared experience. This participatory function leads to formats that rely on narrative continuity, visual proximity, and shared temporality. Media Events, in our original formulation, were about the construction or reconstruction of “we.”
The Beijing Olympics exemplify in many other ways the established sense of media events, as defined in the analytical framework we sought to forward in 1992. Audiences recognize Media Events as an invitation—even a command—to stop their daily routines. If festive viewing is to ordinary viewing what holidays are to the everyday, these events are among the highest holy days of mass communication. In keeping with this insight, our original project attempted to bring the anthropology of ceremony (Durkheim 1915; Handelman 1990; Levi- Page 395Strauss 1963; Turner 1985) to bear on the process of mass communication. In this way, we defined the corpus of events in terms of three categories inspired by linguistics—syntactics, semantics, and pragmatics. We showed that a media event, as a contemporary form of ceremony, deals reverently with sacred matters (semantics), interrupts the flow of daily life (syntactics), and involves the response (pragmatics) of a committed audience.
Because the Beijing Olympics is taking place in a different world from the one in which Media Events was first published, it is useful to reprise the three categories as a means of marking the contrast. To better understand the nature and some of the consequences of the changes I will briefly explore the semantics of conflictualization, the syntactics of banalization, and the pragmatics of disenchantment. All are characteristics of today’s media events and ways of differentiating today’s “media events” from the Media Events in the grand sense we implied in 1992.
In terms of semantics, an ideological sea change has taken place. In 1992, what had particular resonance was the end of conflicts, the waning of feuds, the rise of gestures that seemed to lessen the possibility of war. This mood was later captured in the title of Francis Fukuyama’s book The End of History and the Last Man (1992). On the eve of the Beijing Olympics, the themes that resonate globally are significantly more somber than those of the late 1980s and 1990s. After a long eclipse, Foucault’s “order of supplices” seems to be back, lending its macabre accoutrements to televised ordeals, punishments, and tortures. Numerous events are in keeping with, and indeed extend, James Carey’s emphasis on stigmatization and shaming. War rituals multiply. Agon is back, where the dramaturgy of “contest” succeeded in civilizing the brutality of conflict. Media events have stopped being “irenic.” Their semantics is no longer dominated by the theme of a reduction of conflict through mediation and resolution of differences. Rather, they could be characterized by Gregory Bateson’s notion of “schismogenesis” (1935), that process through which one provokes irremediable hostility, fosters divides, and installs and perpetuates schisms.
In terms of syntactics, there is also a significant change. The format of media events has been dismantled into discrete elements, many of which have migrated toward other genres. As a result of this dissemination, the rhetoric of media events no longer stands out as radically distinct. Take the notion of an event that is automatically guaranteed a monopoly of attention, a characteristic imputed to the royal weddings, Page 396coronations, and moon walks of an earlier day. This kind of exclusive focusing on one event at any given time is now becoming almost impossible. Instead, there is a “field” of events in which different candidates compete with each other for privileged status, with the help of entrepreneurial journalists. Social and political polarization and its effect on media mean that it is harder to achieve a broad consensus about the importance of particular events. News and media events are no longer starkly differentiated entities but exist rather on a continuum. This banalization of the format leads to the emergence of an intermediate zone characterized by the proliferation of what I would call “almost” media events.
Finally, the pragmatics of media events have also changed. One of the characteristics of classical Media Events was the way in which such events seemed capable of transforming the home into a public space by inviting spectators to assemble into actual viewing communities. The power of those events resided, first and foremost, in the rare realization of the full potential of electronic media technology. Students of media effects know that at most times and places this potential of radio and television is restricted by society. In principle, radio and television are capable of reaching everybody simultaneously and directly; their message, in other words, can be total, immediate, and unmediated. But this condition hardly ever obtains. Messages are multiple; audiences are selective; social networks intervene; diffusion takes time. In the case of media events, however, these intervening mechanisms are suspended. Interpersonal networks and diffusion processes are active before and after the event, mobilizing attention to the event and fostering intensive hermeneutic attempts to identify its meaning. But during the liminal moments we described in 1992, totality and simultaneity were unbound; organizers and broadcasters resonated together; competing channels merged into one; viewers gathered at the same time and in every place. All eyes were fixed on the ceremonial center, through which each nuclear cell was connected to all the rest. Social integration of the highest order was thus achieved via mass communication (Kornhauser 1959).
Since the 1990s, entertainment genres such as reality TV have called for a similar transformation of the home into a communal, public, space while media events themselves have offered less of a communal experience. One may watch the Olympics in a living room or even in a stadium, but in both cases, the ubiquitous cell phone is a constant invitation to disengage from the surrounding community. Reliance on Page 397new media has reintroduced individualized reception, and this in turn has led to what seems to me to be one of the most significant differences in context: it is not merely the notion of a shared social experience that wanes, it is the very notion of “communitas.” What characterized great Media Events was a kind of agreed conspiracy among organizer, broadcaster, and audience: a tacit decision to suspend disbelief, repress cynicism, and enter a “subjunctive” mode of culture. It is this machinery of suspension that is now at risk.
The resonance of media events used to be associated with what Victor Turner called the “as if” or subjunctive modes of culture. Even when an event was perceived as “mere spectacle,” authors like John MacAloon (Rite, Drama, Festival, Spectacle 1984) believed in a process through which it would ultimately transcend this status and become truly festive and participatory. But a noticeable change of mood has taken place at the level of reception. Media events produce cynical behaviors. They foster rather than suspend disbelief. Spectators and publics act like Clausewitzian strategists. While they do so, they are themselves being negotiated, acquired, or stolen. Media events still mobilize huge audiences, but they have lost a large part of their enchantment. Bureaucratically managed, they are an exploited resource within a political economy of collective attention. Their magic is dissipating. They have become strategic venues.
These changes in the character of media events have at least two implications. The first implication is theoretical. By virtue of their explicitly “performative” nature, media events are an excellent starting point for understanding the status of news images. Yet the visual “performatives” at play in media events are not to be opposed to some “normal”—that is, devoid of performatives—status of television news images. Quite the contrary. While media events display a spectacular performative dimension, a performative dimension characterizes news as well. Indeed, excluding those systems of unmanned video surveillance (whose function involves neither watching nor showing anything, but retroactively retrieving the recorded traces of past occurrences), television never offers images that are merely informative, images that are enunciatively neutral.
Yet this does not mean that the two performances—news and media events—are or should be identical. They call for a distinct set of rules and for different grammars. And the nature of these grammars brings us to the second implication, a political one. It concerns the quest for Page 398proximity that characterizes media events, and almost specializes them in the construction of what I have suggested is a collective “we.” In the case of Media Events, the process of “we” construction is perfectly explicit. This process is what the event is about: it is heralded, discussed, negotiated, in advance. The construction of a “we” becomes much less explicit for events in which the sharing of an experience is imposed by a merely journalistic decision. In this case, the construction of a “we” (insufficiently heralded, negotiated, or discussed) intervenes before and/or without any sort of debate. News quietly turns into rituals. When this transformation takes place on a daily basis, when we attend a constant banalization of the format, the very multiplication of “almost” media events leads to the emergence of a “gray” zone, inhabited by images that are neither Media Events nor news.
Any event can be turned into a media event through an addition of specific features. The same event can be given more or less space, more or less attention. The same incident can be summed up in a few shots, or treated as a continuous narrative. It can be told retrospectively or transmitted live. It can be shown once or repeated in a continuous loop. Events, and their producers, contend with each other for being awarded the largest amount of features. In today’s “gray zone,” where there is a blurring of the limits between media events and news, each event can be treated as a news item and as a media event at once. Each situation can be simultaneously addressed through different formats, lending itself to a whole array of discursive statements. Such statements enter in dialogue or debate with each other. Rather than being spoken by a single, monolithic voice—the voice of the nation—any event becomes part of a conversation involving competing versions of the same event, some of them local, some of them foreign. This conversation enacts a new model of public affairs in which the centrality of events seems to have dethroned that of newscasts (Csigo 2007). Instead of dominant media organizing and conferring a hierarchy on the multiplicity of events, dominant events now serve as the contested ground for a multiplicity of media voices.
Following Daniel Hallin (The Uncensored War: The Media and Vietnam 1986), Michael Schudson (2006) proposes a strong distinction between two exclusive modes of functioning of the public sphere. One corresponds to the normal regime of a democratic society. It is the “sphere of legitimate controversy.” The other corresponds to exceptional moments, such as wars, crises, and periods of redefinition of identity. It is a sphere dominated by consensus and complemented by a mirroring Page 399sphere, the sphere of deviance. One sphere is meant to allow deliberation and debate. The other sphere is meant to stifle it in the name of some higher general interest.
I would suggest that one sphere is characterized by the normal, critical, informative functioning of news while the other is characterized by a situation where all news items tend to be treated as if they were media events. Schudson points to the danger of allowing the sphere of consensus/deviance to persist beyond moments of acute crisis, of allowing it to take over functions that are normally performed in the sphere of debate. This—I believe—is the danger involved in the undue generalization of a media event model to all news forms, in the rampant progression of the gray zone.
Disenchantment and the Loss of the “We”
These issues are obviously relevant to the Beijing Olympics and the contested territory of media events. Events compete with each other for the conquest of public attention. All aspire to the privilege of being on all media at once. In this competition, there will be not only efforts by the organizers of an event to persuade but efforts by many to shape the pattern of that persuasion. Any media event happens because it is willed by some entity, but every media event is also offered as a “public” event. This dual status entails a series of tensions. Such tensions are first of all a matter of production versus reception. From the point of view of spectators, it is clear that the producers of an event have no right to claim ownership over its meaning. The event’s meaning depends on their own responses and interpretations. But there are other tensions as well: between the ratified performers of a given event and other would-be performers; between the “bona fide” definition of the event and alternative definitions of the same event; between the core of the event and the crowd of parasitic manifestations that proliferates around it, as so many doppelgangers or satellites, as discussed in Price’s chapter in this volume.
In the contest for ownership, media events lend themselves to a rich grammar of appropriations. They fall prey to entities that are neither their organizers nor their publics. They may be subverted (denounced), diverted (derailed), or perverted (hijacked). They can be used as Trojan horses or placed under the threat of a sword of Damocles. These multiple tensions and the calculated moves of various public actors Page 400interested in the exploitation of the event’s charisma ask the question of “legitimate ownership” and undue appropriation. Can anyone own a public event?
This legalistic question is in a way typical of today’s media events. It is one of the main questions raised by the Beijing Olympics and by the general transformation undergone by the Games. The Olympics, meant to propose a normative enactment, have become a provider of collective attention on a grand scale. For the IOC, international power consists in brokering such attention. For political publics, the Olympics provide an opportunity of harnessing that attention to the benefit of neglected agendas. For national organizers, the Games offer the prospect of a rite de passage into a certain “elite” of nations. For advertisers, this attention is available in serendipitous quantities. For spectators they are a spectacle or entertainment. What about those who embody that attention? What about the public and the spectators? Is it cynicism or communitas, skepticism or suspension of disbelief?
In each case what seems at risk is a certain form of “enchantment.” Of course disenchantment is not a particularly new development. John MacAloon’s classical analysis of the Olympic experience (Rite, Drama, Festival, Spectacle 1984) is centrally concerned with this disenchantment, a disenchantment it does acknowledge but transforms into a mere prelude to the real experience of the Games. Thus a complex initiation process takes the spectators of the Olympics through a succession of steps, or frames. The Olympic experience is framed as spectacle, festival, ritual, and finally as access to truth. MacAloon’s process starts with skepticism (spectacle) and ends with belief (truth). Is this progression still conceivable today? Is there any room for an Olympic experience framed as an access to some truth? Or should we rewrite MacAloon’s sequence in a style inspired by Baudrillard: “spectacle, festival, ritual, and finally: . . . simulacrum?”
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