Indymedia, Journalism, and Digital Culture (part 5)

Continuing ICA paper, #5


John Hartley (2002: 22ff), referring to Claude Levi-Strauss, defines bricolage as the creation of objects with materials to hand, re-using existing artefacts and incorporating bits and pieces. According to Hartley, bricolage incorporates practices and notions like borrowing, hybridity, mixture, and plagiarism. Most scholars in media and cultural studies invoke bricolage when describing the mixing, reconstructing and re-using of separate artifacts, actions, ideas, signs, symbols and styles in order to create new insights or meanings. Bricolage has many manifestations: as in the various ways in which (sub-) cultures constitute their 'new' identity by borrowing artefacts - clothes, hairstyles, accessories - and ritualistic activities - dancing, communicating, performing - from a wide variety of groups and time periods. The extreme metal scene for example combines Biblical with oppositional references (the inverted cross) in order to distinguish itself from the mainstream, to that purpose also wearing shirts with gory pictures or offensive words printed on front and back (Purcell, 2003, p.29). This kind of blending to achieve new - if only temporary - styles, indentities or subcultures has also been associated with the supposed end of Grand Narratives as a typical feature of Lyotards' postmodern era.

With bricolage originality or a modernist emphasis on 'first things' as an emblem of quality is thrown out of the window in favor of an attitude that prefers an assemblage of good copies over a single bad original. The international resistance against the efforts of the media publishing, recording and distributing industries to defend the copyrights of their materials is a good example of a phenomenon that is tied in with bricolage as the legitimate way of doing things in today’s emerging digital culture. Again I must emphasize how bricolage has its roots in mid- to late 20th century developments in for instance the arts and sciences. Examples of people openly embracing the identity of a bricoleur can be found from popular music to postmodern philosopy. In music, bricolage is applied by artists in all genres, from a mainstream artist like David Bowie changing faces every four years or so to a marginal band like black metallers Dimmu Borgir from Norway mixing classical music, pop melodies, extreme hard rock music with a highly decorative band image reminiscent of the days of Kiss and Alice Cooper. Another excellent example of a late 20th century celebration of bricolage is the popularity of disk-jockeys who mix, cut, edit and re-assemble bits and pieces of music to shape new soundscapes fueling parties and raves all over the world. In philosophy we find the bricoleur embraced by pragmatism’s leading philosopher Richard Rorty from the United States, while online the ultimate bricoleurs are the individual webloggers of the world with their daily musings, linkdumps and ramblings.

Bricolage plays an important role in the realm of politics and political citizenship, as although people may recognize Left from Right, Progressive from Conservative or for example Democrat from Republican, they also experience problems when having to identify themselves (as voters) exclusively or explicitly with a single side. People assemble political positions on just about everything rather than follow the guidelines of a single party program or political ideology. As Anthony Giddens has argued, today we are immersed in our highly personal life politics - another building block the individualized society - through which the multiple private and public spheres we (assume we) belong to get meaning. Those meanings are not necessary consistent, nor are our convictions implicitly rational and deliberate. The bricoleur-citizen identifies with many issues, images and symbols before (or, heaven forbid, after) voting or enacting some other kind of civic engagement.

On the World Wide Web bricolage is evident in the ways in which we click, publish and link our way online. Chandler (1998) applies bricolage in a textual analysis of personal Home Pages: especially in a virtual medium one may reselect and rearrange elements until a pattern emerges which seems to satisfy the contraints of the task and the current purposes of the user. Indeed, no version of the resulting text need be regarded as final - completion may be endlessly deferred in the medium in which everything is always 'under construction'. In (online) journalism bricolage is acknowledged in the common practice of shovelware: the repurposing or windowing of content. Online, journalists re-use and re-distribute edited and otherwise manipulated versions of content originally produced for offline media. News sites generally offer repurposed or aggregated content that was previously produced and used in other media, such as audio and video clips, still image galleries, logos and icons, bits and pieces of written text. When online journalists acknowledge their sources and offer internal or external hyperlinks to a vast array of materials, documents, related stories, archival content, and other sites, they attribute an active bricoleur-identity to their users as they give people a chance to find their own way through the information at hand (Deuze, 2003). Indymedia websites are also a good example of this practice, as IMC sites tend to offer a bewildering array of links to topics, sources (sometimes including Web radio and video), issues and places all over the world. To the average journalist or politician this chaotic, disorganized and seemingly random display and practice of online information is pure horror. How to make sense of it all? What is credible information? Help! Credible and manageable or not: this is the way people behave online (and increasingly offline as well: constantly zapping, browsing, switching and even multitasking between and within different media types, genres and formats).

Digital culture consists of the practices and beliefs of the bricoleur - whose activities should not be confused with boundless freedom and endless creativity, however: The bricoleur’s strategies are constrained not only by pragmatic considerations such as suitability-to-purpose and readiness-to-hand but by the experience and competence of the individual in selecting and using 'appropriate' materials (Chandler, 1998). Again, bricolage as an emerging praxis can be considered to be a principal component of digital culture, as well as an instigator, engine, and accelerator of it.

[to be continued]