More Action Please!

More action please!

Katharine Sarikakis

Published in TEXTE ORF Public Value Report 2012/2013 [PDF] 

Is there room for pleasure in public service media, and what is the place of public service media (PSM) in our pleasures? The role of PSM is deeply engrained in Europe’s public and normative debates as one for mediating rational public spheres, understood to be the primary spaces for democratic praxis. Information and education figure predominantly as the major contributions of PSM; »to entertain«, as its third function, is often an afterthought and to be realised under strict conditions. Private media are unhappy when PSM offer entertainment and upset when this proves popular. Conditions, guidelines, »mission« and dilemmas can certainly take away all the fun of creativity and do not seem to leave a lot of room for pleasure in the public media. Doing the »right« thing is probably not about joy. Or is it?

A lot of assumptions are made in this preceding paragraph: that entertainment equals pleasure and that information most probably does not; that pleasure is a private affair, perhaps best entrusted in the hands of private media, while citizenship is public and based on reason; that public and private are clearly separated with the primacy of the former also clearly established; that citizenship therefore is a public matter with very few private elements; that reason and pleasure do not usually meet in the same sentence or act. That pleasure is subjective, personal, individual, superficial, private, commodified and occasionally anti-intellectual, uncritical, in other words, low in quality, relevance and priority. It is important to return to the examination of the role of pleasure, not in the meaning of »Vergnügen« but as enjoyment in democratic praxis and the possible role of PSM in creating the spaces and possibilities for it.

For the sake of noble acts

The act of deriving and expressing pleasure from cultural goods and its role in creating oppositional, critical and emancipatory readings is neglected during anxious discourses about public media. Pleasure is at the heart of creativity, discovery and worth. From science to politics, some of the greatest minds have spoken of the joy of creativity and knowledge, of »finding things out« (Richard Feynman) and creating something new, and the joy of actively contributing to communal life. Aristoteles, in the Nichomachean Ethics, argues that Eudaimonia – »the good life« or living well – is a  flourishing, active life, not one simply of happiness, but one of moral strength. This is  connected to qualities, such as self-control  and tenacity but also, to the quality of knowing what ought to be done and acting in accordance to it. In this sense, good life is one of public participation but also one of actively engaging in all aspects of life, including home life. The existence of institutions, and in particular of the state, is not simply to provide communal life but »for the sake of noble actions«.

Eudaimonia is a state of existence fueling the direct kind of democracy the Athenians enjoyed, which not only allowed for efficient administration of the state, but also provided  financial mechanisms for  the Arts and especially  Greek drama, as well as great public works, such as the construction of the Parthenon. Translating eudaimonia into institutional responsibility requires us to think of ways in which creative and substantial contribution to all aspects of life is facilitated and enabled not only through the provision of fora for the airing of »expert« views and »cool-headed« discussions. It is also for the construction of spaces and making available of resources for the integration of everyday, non-expert, non-professional impact onto the cultural and political life of a society. Pursuing »noble acts« is therefore neither the privilege nor exclusive right of highly educated elites, but indeed a right and act of the »lay man«. What might these »noble acts« be and how may they be connected to pleasure in PSM? The work of the soul in accordance to excellence is for Aristotle the epitome of Eudaimonia. For this to take place, citizens must be enabled to live an enlarged citizenship, one which, according to the works of T. H. Marshal and Ruth Lister would involve the satisfactory cover of material as well as legal conditions, economic, social and cultural dimensions in addition to the – rather limited – political ones. Where the symbolic dimensions of cultural texts (whether sound, images or actual text) do not directly allow for the development of such dimensions, where the cultural environment does not directly speak of people’s experiences and hence the possibility for action, for creativity and joy, people create their own cultural environments that provide alternatives to existing ones, speak directly against them or modify them.

In other words, people create their own symbolic spaces from where they can derive pleasure. These are not limited to spaces of entertainment genres, but of cultural offerings, including »factual« programmes, rational debates, evidence-based »texts«. This is what John Fiske called productive pleasure in resistance culture making. His thesis is based on the observation that overall, elites possess the resources for culture making of myths and values, whereas society at large has more limited options, and that because of this discrepancy culture is always a terrain of conflict and compromise, a struggle to »fit« and see oneself belonging. Mainstream institutions would therefore tend to reflect these values and omit ideas and experiences of the majority. Indeed, one of the most prominent criticisms against PSM has been their elitism, patronising approach to culture and top-down values. This point of critique is a common point between reformers of public media and proponents of for profit media – beyond that understandings of what opening-up of narratives and democratisation of culture making entails, become blurry. For-profit media are concerned with the functional monetary outcome, which is thought to be secure, if cultural »recipes« for mass cultural products are followed. Popularity therefore is conflated with pleasure and entertainment of one parti­cular character, that of esca­pism. Such pleasure does not derive from creativity and active participation but from withdrawal. For Fiske however resistance produces a special type of pleasure productive pleasure.

Paternalistic approach

Not to repeat ourselves tiringly, but to remind ourselves briefly, the media are different and changing, their usage is more complex and creative, audiences are inventive, curious, multiskilled and demanding. At the same time, all this remains also remarkably the same: there coexist patterns of couch potato and popcorn consumption together with interactive intervening in developing a cultural text. Hence, the linearity of PSM is assymetrical to the range of possibilities and acts being realised through varieties of platforms and connections: the question would be therefore, not only to serve the people through the noble act of rational thought and high quality entertainment, but also to serve by taking the »back seat« in or sharing the control over culture making is a real and mature need. PSM must become broader, more complex and more flexible, so that they can be involved in genres of direct intervention, cross-media creativity, multiple story lines and multiple authors and options for narrative development. Especially in early citizens, such as children and young adults, the need for an ethos of public service must be coupled with excitement about creativity and expression, and certainly play.

How are our arts and educational needs debates and decisions taking place in our societies, where the disconenct and loss of trust in major institutional pillars of european societies are the shaky ground? Culture making has born conflicts of ideals and purpose within it, as well as marginalisation or legimisation of the work, distance and proximity to a critique of social conditions under which citizenship is to be acted. Often, »popular« cultural creativity has been characterised either as folklore or as vulgar in the worst cases or unsatisfactory in the best. The debate over public media has been dominated by a paternalistic, »civilising« approach exclusively reserved for the experts and skilled over cultural processes deriving from non professional, precarious, and other forces. When these latter groups gained spaces on TV they were under conditions of ridicule, as the spectacle of savages and other »curiosities« or were enthroned to the tip of the mountain of happy-go-lucky and similar clichés. Plenty such examples are to be found in reality tv or entertainment shows and the news. Wisdom of mosaic truths are then trivialised, and untlimately denied.

creativity is social

I have written elsewhere about the restrictive and limited agenda through which debates on PSM are being held, certainly not ony through policy debates but also in scholarship and socialisation of the role of PSM in contemporary societies. Preoccupation with the national as the departing point and destination, is not one of expansion of intellectual horizons, if it does not entail genuine commitment to reflection, enlarged thought and empathy with the world »beyond« the national. This should not be taken to mean simply the world outside country borders, but indeed the diversity of experience and perception, within borders, and the ways of connection. Creativity is a social process, intangible for its most part and vulnerable to cultural and intellectual openness, dependent on institutional provisions and availability of resources. Not as a »creative industries« buzzword to roughly include sectors meant to make up the new knowledge economy, but in its more substantial meaning of thinking in new ways, engaging different perspectives, discovering how things work, making something from which one communicates but also others can take and further or integrate existing products or thoughts. Creativity means moving beyond the standard ways of doing things, opening up new ways of seeing, allowing more knowledge to build on knowledge. For-profit communication industries largely rely on the individualisation of pleasure and its definition as gratification, as an instant- and anonymous part of a consumerist-purchasing act. For Public Service Media the script would read a little like the words of Sir David Attenborough about the beginnings of the BBC »We thought too that we could play a key role in modern democracy by enabling a stockbroker in Surrey to understand what a fisherman in the north of Scotland might be feeling – and vice versa. We would be able to broaden horizons, introducing people to subjects that they might have never encountered and bringing them new pleasures and delights«.

»Der ORF hat ein differenziertes Gesamtprogramm von Information, Kultur, Unterhaltung und Sport für alle anzubieten. Das Angebot hat sich an der Vielfalt der Interessen aller Hörer und Seher zu orientieren und sie ausgewogen zu berücksichtigen.« ORF-Gesetz § 4. (2)


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