Shani Orgad. Media Representation and the Global Imagination. Cambridge: Polity, 2012. xiii + 230 pp. $24.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7456-4380-9.
Reviewed by Edward Timke (University of Michigan)
Published on Jhistory (October, 2013)
Commissioned by Heidi Tworek (University of British Columbia)
Media Representations and the Pictures They Put in Our Heads
In 1922, American public intellectual Walter Lippmann observed that mass media have a strong influence on how we picture the world that we cannot directly experience ourselves. Although she does not mention him, Shani Orgad’s book Media Representation and the Global Imagination theoretically and practically grounds Lippmann’s warning in today’s “age of new visibility,” a term she draws from John B. Thompson’s book Media and Modernity: A Social Theory of the Media (1995) that distinguishes our mediated environment in the last twenty years from the past due to its being more intense in the amount of information available, more extensive in number of people engaging in information networks, and less controllable in what is disseminated (p. 5). To understand media’s power in shaping how we imagine and relate to others in different temporal and spatial locations, Orgad argues that we need to investigate media representations’ dominant discourses and scripts of our “global imagination,” which is a “a collective way of seeing, understanding, and feeling, at a global level” (p. 3).
Orgad identifies five sites of global imagination: others, ourselves (as a nation), possible lives, the world, and the self. She examines each of these five in separate chapters after a first chapter explaining theories of media representation and how studies of globalization do not adequately take media representation into account. Across all of the case studies she uses to ground her chapters, Orgad focuses on the politics, power, and competing meanings embedded in the intimacy that media representations create between us and others in the world. For Orgad, media discourses and scholarly analyses of media representations often create a vision of the world filled with oversimplifying binary tensions: us and them, attachment and alienation, utopia and dystopia. Furthermore, discourses and academic and popular analyses of media representations tend to smooth over the contested, contradictory, and dialectical conditions in which we live to favor narratives that support competitive, neoliberal, and Westernized visions of the world.
Although this book will appeal directly to international media specialists, scholars broadly interested in globalization could use it in the classroom and their research. Media scholars will appreciate the first chapter’s clear synthesis of the evolution of the concept of representation. International relations scholars will be interested in global imagination’s influence on how people may develop their knowledge and relationships of other nations and peoples through media. Sociologists will value Orgad’s use of sociological research and theory about the nation, modernity, and the place of media in everyday life. Historians may use the concepts and tensions of global imagination to better understand media’s roles in shaping international understanding prior to today’s “age of new visibility.”
Still, Orgad does only use a handful of case studies to develop a broad framework of analysis. Although Orgad importantly cautions that she draws from a few examples to tangibly explore the sites of global imagination, there is a danger, especially for quick readers, to think that this book generalizes a broader framework based on a handful of specific, often disparate cases. For example, in chapter 2 on representations of natural disasters, moving from 1755 Europe to mid-1980s and 2010 America creates very large historical jumps. Orgad notes carefully that she uses these cases to show how today’s representations incorporate similar elements found in the first mediated representation of natural disaster in 1755. However, from a historian’s standpoint, comparing cases that are over two hundred years apart is challenging given the many influential forces within and between those time periods.
Additionally, Orgad remarks early on that her book does not look to audience interpretations of media representations since they go beyond the scope of representation (and will be the subject of forthcoming work). But the large body of research in media industry studies has shown that it is helpful to address the production of media representations when discussing the context of specific media representations. Media companies and contributors to the representation process may have certain political or other agendas that might influence the production of the global imagination. Orgad importantly notes possible dominant discourses and scripts within representations, but interpretation of messages is different from intention of messages.
In the end, like today’s converging media environment, Orgad hopes to break disciplinary barriers by drawing from various media sources (e.g., mainstream, alternative, and user-generated) and literatures (e.g., critical cultural studies, media studies, sociology, and geography) to show different forces at work in the sites in which the global is imagined. Some readers may wonder how the “sites” of global imagination work practically, as they give an appearance of being an all-encompassing, ever-malleable analytic framework that can fit nearly any representation. Moreover, one might ask if there were other sites of imagining the world beyond the other, ourselves (as a nation), possible lives, the world, and the self. However, trying to devise a one-sized-fits-all explanation of contested, ambivalent media representations of the world is counterproductive. Media Representation and the Global Imagination initiates a conversation on media’s role in imagining our world today and how media representations can problematically obliterate difference and complexity. Orgad does not want to impose a monolithic structure; asking questions that eschew binary thinking is one important lesson and goal of the book. Like Lippmann over ninety years ago, Orgad encourages readers to be critical of media representations’ ability to bring us in contact with the distant world, which can have serious consequences on how readers might come to act and treat others remote from them.
. Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion (1922; repr., New York: The Free Press, 1965), 11, 16.
 John B. Thompson, Media and Modernity: A Social Theory of the Media (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995).
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Edward Timke. Review of Orgad, Shani, Media Representation and the Global Imagination.
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