Lidia De Michelis
(Università degli Studi
My essay aims to provide an overview of some recent trends and transformations which have emerged in the fields of cultural studies, British and Anglophone fiction and critical discourse analysis vis-à-vis the challenges posed by the new communication ecosystems and online environments since the advent of social and digital media, new technological affordances and user-generated contents. Drawing on Stuart Hall and Lawrence Grossberg, I shall attempt to address what appears to be a convergence among the different areas of scholarship represented in this issue by suggesting the adoption of a «conjunctural» ap- proach to the discussion of some of these commonalities and differences in light of their consonance with the new media «revolution» and transformed political communication ecology. The analysis unfolds around two major interconnected concepts, post-truth and affect, seen as discursive signposts and correlatives of populism.
Keywords: conjunctural cultural studies, computer-mediated critical discourse analysis, 21st-century British literature, post-truth, affect.
My perspective reflects my subject position as an Italian academic doing research in contemporary British literature and postcolonial theory, with a strong commitment to the methods and pedagogies of conjunctural cultural studies (Gross- berg, 2010; 2019b; Hickey, 2016) and a passion for political communication and criti- cal discourse analysis. My remarks may possibly resent, therefore, of «multiple degrees of (disciplinary) separation» in regard to the thematic core of this special issue. Still, I believe that such a hybrid approach may contribute to the wider conversation on the political impact of the changed online environment and communication ecosystems since the recent development and spread of social and digital media, new technological affordances and user-generated contents.
This perspective is broadly consistent with Mazzoleni’s (2017) focus on context and multi-perspectival approaches to «mediatization», and with his call for a «new look» at this concept, best attuned to interpret the ever more protean relationship among evolving media logics and affordances, and its impact on political, cultural, and societal domains. Particularly relevant to a cultural and discursive line of argument are, as well, his discussions of the time- and format-specific links between the media and «the larger process of culturalization» (Mazzoleni, 2008: 3052) and of the «social-constructivist» approach to the capacity of the new digital communication environment to shape reality (Mazzoleni, 2017: 137).
These notions chime with major concerns which have recently elicited pressing research questions from the practitioners of critical cultural studies and deep- ly transformed theoretical foundations and analytical practices in the field of discourse studies. They also inform many 21st-century literary and imaginative attempts to experiment with structure, content and form in order to respond to the challenges posed by the new structural and political architecture of interactive and dis-intermediated forms of communication. More crucially, authors have been revising and stretching the very meaning of «narrativity» – a concept which has gained huge relevance across the fields of discourse and communication studies and, in particular, in political com- munication –, in order to mobilize literature’s unique capacity to produce alternative, and sometimes even utopian imaginaries. The current surge in speculative fiction and «non-conventional» realist forms of storytelling should also be approached, I suggest, as part of an attempt to resist the most manipulative, obfuscating and morally disabling biases implicit in the current communication environment.
While a few of these issues will be briefly addressed in my essay, I have restricted my scope to a preferred analytical approach (cultural studies) and two major, strictly interconnected keywords, «Post-Truth» and «Affect». They are not only central concerns shared by all the disciplines represented in this issue, but also close correlatives of their common elephant in the room: the hydra-headed threat of «Pop- ulism», a subject so complex and controversial that the very meaning of the term is still a matter of dispute.
I have chosen these two essential underpinnings of the political, affective and discursive geographies of populism also because of their emergence as discursive «sign- posts» of shared concerns relating to the (possibly) concomitant role of the new digital media environment in defining the contours of the current, «post-political» conjuncture.
I want to conclude this premise on a note: consistent with my specialization, I shall preferably (although not exclusively) refer to authors, works and trends pertaining to my research domains.
The new communicative environment: arguing for a conjunctural approach
The reminder that one should resist easy causal assumptions about the primacy of the new media ecosystem in shaping the codes and substance of public and private interactions and worldviews is a widely accepted premise in media and communication scholarship. While the existence of such an immediate connection has gained huge circulation in mass media and popular discursive spheres, it has been challenged, notably, in the fields of political communication and political philosophy, where the complex, ever-changing nature of the digital media/political attitudes nexus has been especially foregrounded and put to the test due to the current analytical focus on populism(s) and post-truth.
Even if these two strictly entangled phenomena can be traced back to the beginnings of organized societies and political oratory, since the start of the millennium they have become the foci of specific articulations foregrounding their essential symbiosis with the affordances and logics of the new media, and with the rediscovery of «affect» (Ahmed, 2004; Clough and Halley, 2007; Wetherell, 2012; Papacharissi, 2014; Massumi, 2015). They have, thus, gained a dominant position as both political challenges and «problem-spaces» (Grossberg, 2010: 48), before finally coming under the spotlight with Trumpism, Brexit and the so-called «crisis» of Europe (to mention but a few glaring examples).
The same issues are being increasingly addressed at the levels of aes- thetics and political theory (especially in regard to grassroots and social movements activism), cognition, psychology, governmentality and utopian thinking, and in a spate of very recent literary works centering on the baffled conditions of the individ- ual and the nation state vis-à-vis the traumatic erosion of established ethico-cultural and affective patterns.
Based on this common ground, which makes a strong bid for enhanced interdisciplinarity, I shall draw on critical cultural studies in order to highlight what appears to be a convergence among different areas of scholarship in their responses to changing economic, epistemic, and affective reference systems and their accompanying ideological fault-lines. Consequently, I shall suggest to adopt a «conjunctural» approach to the discussion of some of these commonalities and differences in my fields of expertise in light of their consonance with the new media «revolution» and its symbiotic articulation with a transformed political communication ecology.
Such changes, including transformations in the media, are often discussed, currently, in terms of discursive and knowledge «crises», or as responses to such «crises» of established frames of reference. Therefore, I shall unfold my analysis in light of Stuart Hall’s definition of «conjunctural crisis»: a period when «[…] «relatively au- tonomous» sites – which have different origins, are driven by different contradictions, and develop according to their own temporalities – are nevertheless «convened» or condensed in the same moment. Then there is crisis, a break, a «ruptural fusion»». (Hall and Massey, 2010: 59-60).
Against this framework, «populism» seems to deserve pride of place as a political, semantic and affective intersection where different human strategies and structures of feeling converge and compete for the mobilization of hearts and minds. At the same time, it cannot be understood – neither can it find a nurturing ground – outside a framework of crisis, be it in the institutions or/and in the ethico-cultural, affective and knowledge systems. It may be regarded, hence, as being a perfect product of what Grossberg (2015: 66) calls «crises of commensuration», pointing «to the lack of an authoritative and stable standard against which to measure the comparative value of competing claims across a wide range of cultural phenomenon, including knowledge claims, but also aesthetic merit, political priority and even economic value». Such disintegration of shared narratives and systems of reference is also a foundation of «post-truth» communication, which, by «lay[ing] bare the crashing down of the modern, rationalist model of a well-defined, accepted model of truth-telling as a shared communicative enterprise grounded in reason and science» (Waisbord, 2018: 19), ends up by being, in this author’s words, «exactly where populism wants politics to be – the realm of divided truth, binary thinking, and broken-up communication» (ibidem: 30).
With a focus on online media, Dahlgren provides a useful starting point for an analysis of affect (and its «ambiguities») in light of the concept of «political participation» (Dahlgren, 2018: 2052) and of its connection to the capacity of dis- course and culture to exert «control or influence over symbolic environment» (ibidem: 2054). While pertaining to the domain of media and communication studies, his es- say is particularly relevant to my perspective because of its recurrent references to key positions of cultural studies: notably, the need to approach these phenomena as always occurring under specific conditions and practices (ibidem), and Raymond Williams’ notion of «structures of feeling» (Williams, 1978), which may well be considered as a precursor of «affect». Dahlgren’s emphasis on the way «post-truth» and «fake news» – alongside anger, disinformation, fear and the production of affective «eco chambers» – are instrumental to putting «opinion […] on par with fact-based knowledge» (Dahlgren, 2018: 2065), is also convergent with Grossberg’s recent analyses of the multiple truth and authority crises characterizing the current US political environment (2018b; 2019a). Furthermore, Dahlgren explicitly points to the increas- ing prominence of the role of affect in cultural studies, providing a useful point of departure for my survey of recent trends.
Since the early 1990s Lawrence Grossberg has stood out as a forerunner of the affective turn in this field (Grossberg, 1992). Over the last few years, however – with the ascent of Donald Trump and the coalescing in the president’s rhetorical and online mediated personas of alt-right populism, anti-intellectualism and an aware- ness that «the power of fake news is one of desire» (Grossberg, 2018a: 3; 2018b) – affect has become a primary focus of Grossberg’s «ongoing conversation» (Grossberg, 2015: 59), in conjunction, again, with the crisis of knowing. He has been particularly committed to highlighting the intrinsic nature of affect as «a determined and a deter- mining dimension of the organizations of a lived reality and a distribution of power» which is not, however, «always already political», but needs work in order to be made «explicitly» so and put «it in the service of particular political struggles» (ibidem: 104). While conjunctural cultural studies is a form of «intellectual experimentation» and praxis that is always politically articulated in its aspiration «to change the world» (ibidem: 225) – even though in ways that are not aprioristically committed to «some absolutist vision of the “correct” and “pure” in politics» (Grossberg, 2019c: 24) –, Grossberg’s recent responses to the conditions of US politics, political commu- nication and culture(s) under the Trump presidency are not confined to an analysis of epistemic, discursive and «affective landscapes» (Grossberg, 2019a: 61). They are also acutely and effectively attuned to find out new ways for public intellectuals and the American Left – indeed, the Left in general – to map out and countermand the current capacity of the right to exploit and «weaponize chaos» (Grossberg, 2018b) by nurturing affective environments of incommensurability and fear and promoting populist models of power which thrive on an ever more vocal polarization of disoriented publics. Against this backdrop, Grossberg (2019b: 52) calls on public intellectuals and leftwing politicians to abandon overly elitist or entrenched «rational» attitudes in order to thoroughly examine the lived reality and mechanisms of «affect» and so under- stand today’s «affective struggles, not only in relation to ideological and other sorts of struggle», but also by «com[ing] to terms with the chaos of “the people” and their many and different needs and sufferings, their struggles to survive, and their dreams of change». Part of the intellectual work required in order to achieve this goal is
inaugurat[ing] a popular politics that connects with people’s lives, that starts engaging with people where they are, and that makes questions of everyday life and agency central. It would not only embrace democracy, but heterogeneity, seeing the political struggle not as a battle between two warring camps but as a struggle to create unities-in-difference, new forms of social, cultural, and political assemblages (Grossberg, 2019c: 26).
These aims are largely coterminous with a call to conceive of «better stories». Based on «the production of the best knowledge possible» (ibidem: 24), these stories focus on «what’s going on, so that one might find better ways of actually affecting the tides of change» (ibidem: 40).
Critical Discourse Analysis
As both an interdisciplinary research method premised on critical theory, and a theoretical paradigm specifically designed to scrutinize and expose the imbri- cation of ideology, language and power, CDA (Critical Discourse Analysis) has always regarded politics and political communication as a primary field of inquiry. Wodak and Meyer (2008: 1-33) provide an exhaustive guide to the history, analytical tools and ethical standpoints of CDA’s different strands and to the work of some of their leading representatives. All of these approaches share an emphasis on context and praxis which is expressed in the aim to achieve «practical relevance» (ibidem: 20) through research that might help to «discursively resist» the reproduction of inequality by dominant groups (ibidem: 9). This is consistent with the continuing engagement of critical cultural studies with radical pedagogy and its commitment to produce knowledge and understanding which may result in actual practice and in a continued conversation.
CDA’s perspectives and methodologies have been particularly responsive to the resurgence of populist discourse and attitudes and to seismic transformations in the new media environment. These changes have occurred not only in the nature, location, modality, genres and length of the «texts» preferably selected for investigation, but have also produced a need to associate core discursive approaches with the techniques and insights of corpus linguistics and multi-modal and computer-mediated analysis. Recently, CDA’s scope has been further expanded to include an awareness of the operations and politics of algorithmic tracking, data mining, big data (Khosra- viNik and Esposito, 2018: 59-60; Paganoni, 2019) and of the current embedding of internet communication in commercial agendas and logic, all of which has produced an even greater commitment to interdisciplinary networking and collaborative research.
The evolving 21st-century conjuncture has also witnessed a gradual shift of CDA’s focus from the discursive construction of individual political leaders, party manifestos, speeches, institutional blueprints and the discourses of modernization and the war on terror, towards a more distinct interest in issues such as nationalism and group identity, the global financial crisis, austerity, the discourse of neo-liberalism, the demise of the Welfare State and, increasingly, immigration, fear, populism, hate speech, trolling – often in relation to twitter and the web (Wodak, 2018). Climate change, too, has recently emerged as a new «crisis» domain.
In many of these areas, Ruth Wodak and her academic networks at the Universities of Lancaster and Vienna have been at the forefront of such change, pro- ducing landmark research on the discursive construction of national identity (Wodak, De Cillia, Reisigl and Liebhart, 2009), politics as discourse and practice (Wodak, 2009), right-wing populism and fear (Wodak, 2015), to mention but a few examples. More recently, while still focusing on populism, EU integration, illiberal democracy and the «post-shame era» (Wodak, 2019), their research has come to include how to adapt their CDA’s discourse-historical approach to the requirements and discursive affor- dances of social media (Unger, Wodak and KhosraviNik, 2016).
CDA’s growing engagement with the ways in which political discourse is responding to the new digital and social media environment and its current con- ditions of social, cultural and technical production has resulted in a huge output of academic literature. Particularly interesting are the studies on the interplay between political discourse, digital mediatization and social media by Majid KhosraviNik and other scholars. Along lines that are consonant with approaches shared by academics in political communication and social theory, KhosraviNik and Esposito elaborate on the emergence of a new analytical method, Social Media-Critical Discourse Studies (SM-CDS), and call for the adoption of «immersive, digital ethnographic/observational approaches in SM-CDS», apt «to capture the ethos of interactivity, connectivi- ty and always-on nature of social media communication» (KhosraviNik and Esposito, 2018: 59). Highlighting the prominence of multimodality, and discussing methods and tools specifically developed to assess its impact on current online communication, they also argue for the incorporation and development of «specific social media research software for collection, analysis and visualization of digital data», along with «big data, data visualization, data mining software, network analysis» (Khosra- viNik and Esposito, 2018: 60). Even more relevant to my perspective is KoshraviNik (2018: 6), which addresses «the intersection of technological design of Social Media communication, the notion of post-politics-affective turn in contemporary (Western) societies» and the discursive arenas of populism, paving the way for a recognition of «affective communication» as «a form of political expression» and «potentially a powerful political act» (ibidem: 9).
A useful contribution to this field is also Bouvier and Machin (2018). Fore- grounding the shift brought about by social media from the «“elites” texts» that used to be at the core of CDA’s research to the multifariousness, genre hybridity and multi- modality of web discourses and digital platforms, their essay indexes the discourse of participatory media to a «decline of the authority of the text» (ibidem: 182) vis-à-vis the empowerment of «diverse and fragmented user opinions» (ibidem: 183).
To conclude this section, I cannot omit the contribution of conceptual metaphor analysis to the understanding of the current conjuncture – Charteris-Black (2019), for instance, provides a valuable deconstruction of the «metaphors of Brexit»–, or Anna De Fina’s (2018) insightful work on «narrative analysis» and the multiple roles of political narratives as meaning-making structures and as affective frame- works for new participatory dynamics of group affiliation and belonging.
British and Anglophone fiction
Space prohibits a discussion of the countless «adaptive» narrative and stylistic strategies which have recently emerged in literary fiction vis-à-vis trans- formations in the media ecosystem, not to mention the cognitive and narratological insights and the interactive practices tested and explored in videogame storyworlds. But mention must be made, at least, of new, promising expressive arenas such as dig- ital storytelling, experiments in web-mediated participatory fiction, microfiction, and Twitterfiction, to name but a few. As Thomas (2013: 353) notes, «Twitter has proved to be a particularly fertile ground for the sharing of stories» and a primary engine for transmedia storytelling. Narrative experiments on Twitter have been carried on also by writers of international acclaim, such as, for example, David Mitchell and Teju Cole (ibidem: 357; 363), while blogs, and their particular kind of convivial discursivity, have been encapsulated, in function of both structure and plot, within the canvas of more «conventional» novels experimenting with form. A famous recent example is Chimam- anda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah (2013), where the protagonist runs a blog in the US and one in Lagos, the latter being briefly doubled in real life by the author.
I would like to end my essay, however, with a few notes on some generic trends and thematic changes which have recently emerged in the relationship be- tween the fictional and the political and may be well seen to mirror, or resonate with, strategic modes and structures of the new mediality.
Regarding the fictional thematization of politics and its unavoidable engagement with the post-factual, I shall address, in particular, a somewhat «anomalous» work of narrative, which may function as an interesting point of articulation for the present discussion. Jeremy and Corbyn: A Post-Truth Novel resides, as the title shows, on a main narrative idea, the splitting of Jeremy Corbyn’s image into two distinct characters. Best friends since childhood, Jeremy embodies the more aspirational and radical strains in the public persona of the real life politician, whereas Corbyn reflects the ambiguities and inconsistencies often attributed to the Labor’s leader, alongside his intermittent ability to rise to the rhetorical occasion and inspire. The novel was self-published online in 2016 by Simon L. Baxter – a Corbyn supporter expelled from the Labor Party at the time of the leadership context in 2015 – and it was later published in paperback with an Amazon imprint through crowdfunding. The electronic blurb, reproduced also in the printed edition, describes the book as the «world’s first Post-Truth novel» and «the answer to the challenge of the moment for political fiction writers everywhere». «A fictional re-telling of the real events of 2015, including actual speeches and debates mischievously re-spun», the promotional text goes on, «the fictitious world of “Jeremy and Corbyn” speaks a profound truth about the stranger-than-fiction political era we have now entered» (Baxter, 2016). The novel is, in fact, avowedly ideological and provides a buoyant insider’s view of what it felt like to be young and campaigning for anti-establishment Corbyn during the leader- ship context. Being at the same time a radical manifesto, an anthology of Corbyn’s most famous speeches and a venomous satire against the Parliamentary Labor Party and its murky internal wars, the book derives its interest precisely from its self-posi- tioning at the intersection of the computer-mediated participatory forms of political activism and the new narrative templates facilitated by social media. The blurb also shows an ironic awareness of the interplay of truth and faked – or alternative – re- alities currently underpinning the discursive landscapes of politics. In this light, the epigraph is particularly worth noting, with its perceptive ability to play with words even while conveying the full disorientation and anger of the betrayed and the left behind rallying behind the banner of Momentum:
All facts, in the course of their unfolding, become fiction. Victory became defeat, Labor became New, and the union became traded. Iraq invaded Blair and the credit burst into debt. And those who had once managed found they no longer could (ibi- dem; emphasis in the original).
By way of conclusion, I wish to briefly broach the subject of the emergence, since 2016, of a growing corpus of British fiction which is being convention- ally referred to as «Brexlit» (Eaglestone, 2018). These works tend to have a strong thematic focus on identity and migration issues, and have most often been ascribed to the genre of the so-called «state of the nation», or «condition of England» nov- el, in so far as they shun a topical, or even literal discussion of the Brexit national divide, in an attempt, instead, to render the atmosphere of disappointment, social destructuration and anger now besetting the country. One notable exception is Anthony Cartwright’s The Cut (2017), a work specifically commissioned by the small imprint Peirene Press to address and thematize the social, economic and cultural rift caused by the Brexit vote. In a tone which is both poetic and grimly realistic, the book fully captures the feeling of abandonment of the «left-behind» in the northern regions and forcefully conveys the affective dynamics that have led so many representatives of the unemployed and the precariat to vote Leave, giving in to the lure of a post-truth, nostalgic propaganda which is structurally akin to «escapist fictions that allow people to suddenly feel good about themselves and the world in which they live» (Kalpokas, 2019: 16).
While it is impossible not to single out Jonathan Coe’s Middle England (2018) as the quintessential, choral and expansive «Brexit novel» – embracing a whole decade and painting a comprehensive canvas of the multiple emotional and cultural fault-lines tearing the country apart –, nor at least to mention Amanda Craig’s brutally «pastoral» The Lie of the Land (2017) and the more recent The Cockroach, by Ian McEwan (2019), and Agent Running in the Field, by John LeCarré (2019), it is on the work of Ali Smith that I would like to conclude. Her Autumn (2016), Winter (2017) and, particularly, Spring (2019), which are avowedly part of a quartet yet to be completed, join essential characteristics of the «state of the nation» genre with a conscious attempt, at the levels of utterance and form, to tackle the impact of popu- list rhetoric and new media fragmented communicative temporalities and modes on structures of feeling and the mobilization of affective publics. But if in Spring populist and popular claims «erupt off the page, a wide-ranging rant of demands and wants, as if the tantrum of our political moment has found a voice» (Akins, 2019), it is also true that such negativity is redeemed and countermanded, along a trajectory which is not too dissimilar to Mohsin Hamid’s in Exit West (2017), by a somewhat «magical» character and a non-realistic overlapping of temporal frames that contribute to evoke alternative realities and transform the deceptive escapism of post-truth into the re- storative hope provided by human re-connection and art.
It has been a major concern, for me, to teach students to «see» the pervasive connections networking the different literary, cultural and discursive intertexts which define our everyday web of references, and to develop effective skills based on interdisciplinary critical methodologies in order to strategically address complex current imaginaries and to be able to transfer such skills from one disciplinary field to the others. In this light, both my teaching and criticism have aimed at a continual undoing of disciplinary, discursive and intellectual «borders», and have always been concerned with looking for those meanings which may prove to be particularly rel- evant to the way we engage with culture, history and societies in our capacities as informed, language-savvy and committed interpreters and actors of our present and our future. Being based on narrative (or, rather, «narrative-with-a-purpose») and be- ing factually contrapuntal to the other kinds of fictions which make us human, the discourse of politics, and the stylistics and «narratology» of political communication in all their forms are essential components of the «better stories» I would like to con- tribute to the «ongoing conversation» about the current conjuncture and the ways to critically explore it.