Are Crises Symptoms of Fast Media?
Today, it seems as if ‘crisis’ is not the exception but rather the rule. If a politician refers to ‘the crisis’, her audience will have to draw on contextual information in order to understand if she is referring to ‘the’ financial/economic crisis, which is more or less ongoing since 2007; to the immanent ecological crisis; to the crisis of democracy/democratic participation; to the crisis of the European Union; to the crisis of truth; et cetera. In this state of omnipresent crisis, it is worth reflecting on the question what ‘crisis’ actually means and why we experience so much of it today.
Historian Reinhart Koselleck has provided multiple possible understandings of the term ‘crisis’. Accordingly, ‘crisis’ may refer to a situation of choice between alternatives, to a state of revolution, to the end of an epoch, to a phase of transition, or to a recurring event that is implicated in a certain system (Koselleck 2006, qtd. in Meissner 2017: 1-2).
What this makes clear is that the notion of crisis is highly ambiguous. This ambiguity prompts another important definition of crisis. A crisis is a situation for which humans are still lacking the appropriate cognitive and/or semiotic sense-making structures. Crisis is a situation of figuring out what has happened, what is happening and what will happen. It is a situation of guessing who is and will be affected by what is happening. It is a situation of finding out who may be responsible for it. And, above all, it is a situation of developing the cognitive, semiotic and narrative means that will allow for these questions to be framed and addressed.
Crisis thus describes a state of challenge and invention. Within this state of challenge and invention, it is determined whether or not a given crisis will – retrospectively – be described as a situation choice between alternatives, as a state of revolution, as the end of an epoch, et cetera. This makes it clear why it is important to examine the role of media in producing crises. By this, I do not only mean that it is important to critically assess how media represent a given crisis. In addition, I think that it is relevant to think about the role of media production and consumption in creating crises.
Today, multiple media – news media, social media, literature and the visual arts – are competing to communicate a given issue. This is not a new situation. Yet, in the age of digital media, what is new is the timing of this competition. Media are competing to deliver stories in the here and now – at the very moment a new matter is arising. If this ‘matter arising’ happens to be complex, however, then ‘crisis’ forms the only narrative that is instantly available. Crisis means that the story for the matter arising still has to be written. It means that the story to be written may be long and intricate.
This implies that crises do not necessarily proliferate because more transitions, ends of an epoch, choices between alternatives, et cetera are occurring today, but rather because contemporary ‘fast media’ cannot afford to take the time to come to terms with complex matters arising. Coming to terms with complex matters arising would mean to write long stories. For both – the production and the consumption – of long stories, however, there is less and less time in an era of digital ‘present shock’ (Rushkoff 2013).
How to deal with this situation? Of course, more reflection will have to go into the ethics of media production and consumption. At the same time, I suggest that it is worth having a closer look at the ‘micro-forms’ of crisis narration that ‘fast media’ are developing today. In Narrating the Global Financial Crisis: Urban Imaginaries and the Politics of Myth, I examine micro-forms of expression that have been used to tell and show the financial crisis of 2008. The book demonstrates that the concept of myth – with its various backgrounds in the disciplines of anthropology, semiotics, philosophy and critical theory – provides new and nuanced insights into the structure and politics of popular crisis-narration. In so doing, the book provides a framework of analysis for fast and condensed forms of crisis expression, including images, architecture, gestures and the list goes on.
Miriam Meissner, May 2017
Koselleck, R. (2006) “Crisis”. Trans. M.W. Richter. The Journal of the History of Ideas 67(2): 357-400
Meissner, M. (2017) Narrating the Global Financial Crisis: Urban Imaginaries and the Politics of Myth. Palgrave Macmillan
Rushkoff, D. (2013) Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now. New York: Penguin
Miriam Meissner is Lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies in the Department of Sociology at Lancaster University, UK. Miriam’s research is about cities and urban cultures, visual culture and critical theory – with a particular focus on financial and ecological crisis discourses and practices. Her book Narrating the Global Financial Crisis is available now.