The impetus for Making Publics, Making Places was a desire to map the connections and disjunctions between scholarly approaches to understanding the making of publics and places. Primarily, the approaches in this collection represent the broad field of media scholarship complemented by perspectives from adjacent disciplines. The collection is exploratory, a boldly heterogeneous reaffirmation that places and publics continue to be the focus of investigations into cultural practices in a hypermediated era.
In accounts of mediation and societal change, digital technologies are often framed as taking on an agency of their own. Nigel Thrift's (2014) editorial commentary for an issue of Environment and Planning A on data, space and place notes an important limitation in taking up either side of the Manichean divide on technological and human determinism. He argues that not only is technology ‘more mundane than it is generally portrayed, it is part of people's practices and adapts to them’. Its impact is therefore more likely to result in a ‘slow upheaval’ of change made by mostly invisible technology infrastructure, rather than ‘some kind of ecstatic change’ (p. 1264). Taking on Thrift's argument about the symbiotic nature of advances in technology and people's practices of use, our aim in the call for chapters was to invite contributors to help shape a collection illustrating the breadth and variety of approaches to understanding new media's generative power in everyday life.
The volume thus attends to two specific areas of disruption and generative change which are often taken up separately, despite their intrinsically linked nature: understandings of publics, and understandings of place. Following Couldry's advice on the opening up of cultural theory, we aimed to include perspectives beyond those in our disciplinary location as new media researchers — perspectives with the potential to ‘open up possible empirical work on culture’ (2000, p. 14). Couldry notes the benefits of stepping out of theoretical straightjackets, and refers to Stuart Hall's advice that ‘the only theory worth having is the theory you have to fight off, not the one you speak with profound fluency’ (1992 in Couldry 2000, p. 280).
Social media present both opportunities and threats for news media, affecting their relationships with their publics and the geographical places and spaces that they have traditionally served. Social media provide opportunities to create and expand audiences, increase geographical reach, respond more quickly than ever before to news events and issues, and interact with news consumers in more immediate and direct ways. Consequently, they may enable news media to develop new publics and shift understandings of their relationships with place. However, news outlets’ capacity to respond to these opportunities may be limited by competition for audience from non-traditional news providers, dispersal of demand, and as-yet limited opportunities to profit from social media engagement. Further adding to the complexity of the picture is that these opportunities and challenges are occurring at a time when the news media are in a state of flux more broadly, with the destruction of established business models, the fracturing of audiences and the widely heralded demise of print newspapers threatening the ongoing profitability — and in many cases viability — of news organisations. The threat to newspapers is particularly profound: McCombs et al. describe them as having been in perilous decline for many decades (2011), but the decline has been hastened more recently by technological and societal developments that have both severely impacted their capacity to sustain themselves through advertising and dispersed audience demand for news and information.
At the same time as capacities for information distribution have expanded and audience expectations of instant, ubiquitous access to news have continued to grow, declining profitability has resulted in large-scale and ongoing redundancies (see, for example, New beats, n.d.; Paper cuts, n.d.). This declining resourcing puts newsrooms and journalists under severe and constant pressure — pressure that may be felt even more intensely in newsrooms outside major cities, as non-metropolitan newsrooms have traditionally operated with relatively few resources. A small number of journalists have to cover not only a wide range of news topics, but also, in countries such as Australia, a geographical territory that may span thousands of square kilometres. Further adding to the complexity of the news environment in regional areas are the historically strong relationships between audiences and traditional news products, which may limit both incentive and opportunity to comprehensively utilise online platforms.
This chapter traces the shifting conceptual contours and parameters of the public sphere as they relate to ethnic minority, transnational and diasporic media. Each of these forms of media challenges the equation of public with nation, and nation with state, and problematises the housing of effective public policy within a bordered nation-state. Drawing on historical, political and theoretical critiques of the bourgeois public sphere ideal, several authors have taken minority media as being central to an understanding of multiple publics competing for political legitimacy and influence in increasingly diverse societies (Fraser 1990; Eley 1990; Calhoun 1992). Transnational media have been implicated in a similar process, wherein the location of the public sphere has been stretched to incorporate transnational public spheres, and even a global public sphere. Here, transnational and diasporic media are thought to be the engines upon which the expression of transnational publicness can occur. In many ways, then, this chapter engages with the question: ‘What media provide what kind of public spheres?’ (Butsch 2007, p. 3).
The public sphere as a critical theoretical model has undergone many changes since Habermas's original conception. Debates have raged over the idea's historical validity, its ability to incorporate differing sectors of complex modern societies into its discursive space, and its ability to capture globalising tendencies through which national borders are seemingly becoming more porous. What tends to remain central to discussions of the public sphere, however, is the centrality of questions over the communicative landscapes and structures within which deliberative debate can be said to take place. This chapter focuses on two developments in understandings of the public sphere, and the communicative landscapes so central to rational debate. The first concerns the fragmentation of the public sphere into smaller sphericules or spheres, coalescing with ideas of subnational publics and identity politics (Fraser 1990; Gitlin 1998; Cunningham 2001). The second concerns what Fraser calls the transnationalisation of the public sphere — that is, the way that, through increasingly prominent movements of people, goods and media across borders, the ideas of society, nation and community have been wrenched clear of their nation-state home (Cammaerts & van Audenhove 2005; Fraser 2014).
The elasticity of the public sphere: Expansion, contraction and ‘other’ Media
This chapter traces the shifting conceptual contours and parameters of the public sphere as they relate to ethnic minority, transnational and diasporic media. The chapter focuses on two developments in understandings of the public sphere, and the communicative landscapes so central to rational debate. The first concerns the fragmentation of the public sphere into smaller sphericules or spheres, coalescing with ideas of subnational publics and identity politics (Fraser 1990; Gitlin 1998; Cunningham 2001). The second concerns what Fraser calls the transnationalisation of the public sphere — that is, the way that, through increasingly prominent movements of people, goods and media across borders, the ideas of society, nation and community have been wrenched clear of their nation-state home (Cammaerts & van Audenhove 2005; Fraser 2014). The aim of this chapter is to examine these reconceptualisations and to think about the place of ethnic, transnational and diasporic media in each.
'Imagine if our cities talked to us': Questions about the making of ‘responsive’ places and urban publics.
A key feature of the urban Internet of Things and ‘smartification’ is the immediacy of the information collected from, and deliverable to, city inhabitants in ambient environments. These flows create, according to proponents, a smart city that ‘talks back’ efficiently to the public by eliminating human error, simplifying and automating decision making, and thus solving the problems that municipalities face in times of exponential urban population growth and diminishing resources. The chapter explores what follows from considering big data as a ‘collective achievement’ (Ruppert 2015), arguing that liveable, sustainable and participatory cities are created when based on a partnership between governments and urban publics, appropriate public engagement strategies and citizen-user advocacy. Beginning with a brief overview of the UN's Urban Renewal initiative as it pertains to guiding principles for the protection of rights to the city and the encouragement of transparent, multilevel governance, the chapter moves through a series of illustrations and propositions about traditions of placemaking, ambient environments and smart cities.
This chapter explores contemporary films set in Beijing, to examine how the city's protagonists are contextualised within the architecture and landscape of China's state capital, and how the city is spatially depicted and imagined amidst a time of immense technological change. Our investigation of Mr Six (Lao Paoer, directed by Guan Hu, 2015), illustrates how citybased films shape perceptions of a city beyond the glamourised images of technocratic metropoles designed to stimulate tourism found in international blockbusters such as Skyfall (directed by Sam Mendes, 2012). This chapter draws from Edward W Soja's discussions on the trialectical relation between space, social relations and history — particularly the ‘Thirdspace’ (based on Lefebvre's Production of Space), which combines material, physical and mental or cognitive spaces into a conceptual site that includes ‘the knowable and the unimaginable and the unconscious, the disciplined and the transdisciplinary’ (Soja 1996, p. 56). Mr Six serves as a postscript to an earlier Beijing-based film about disaffected youth, In the Heat of the Sun (Yangguang can lan de rizi, directed by Jiang Wen, 1994), enabling us to see how the cinematic view of the city has changed in the intervening decades.
The eponymous Mr Six (a.k.a. Zhang Xuejun, played by famed director and sometime actor Feng Xiaogang, who also appears in the earlier film as the central figure's teacher, the hapless Mr Hu) is a former youth gang member, now a revered fixture in his local community, well respected for his grassroots approach to justice. When his wayward son goes missing, presumed kidnapped, Mr Six wanders the streets and alleyways of Beijing looking for him. When he locates his son, Mr Six becomes entangled in a generational struggle between an organised group of wealthy young upstarts and his own band of ageing gang members.
Amidst a background of poverty, crime, corruption and violence a dystopian view emerges in Mr Six, where technologies (mostly mobile phones and the internet) permeate everyday life, but offer little respite from the harsh realities of the city. The constant street-level activities reflect Michel de Certeau's (1984) concept of walking as an effective way of conducting space practice, where walkers resist the rules and orders imposed by city planners, governments or other institutional bodies.
Diaoyu Islands are China's, but Guangzhou is ours!
(Diaoyu Dao shi Zhongguo de, er Guangzhou shi WoMen de!)
The territorial dispute between China and Japan over the Diaoyu Islands (the Senkaku Islands in Japanese) in September 2012 triggered nationwide protests. Since Guangzhou was one of the main protest sites, thousands of people from other parts of China travelled there to launch their campaign against Japan. However, the protest turned violent as protesters damaged private and business properties in Guangzhou. In responding to these disruptions, some local commentators launched a Weibo [microblog] campaign to boycott the anti-Japan protest to protect Guangzhou from chaos and disruptions. The phrase ‘Diaoyu Islands are China's, but Guangzhou is ours!’ was the campaign slogan. Many Guangzhou's Weibo users were quick to follow by re-posting the message to their own networks.
This chapter examines the role of an opinion leader on Sina Weibo who conducted the online campaign that countered the nationwide anti-Japan protests in Guangzhou. Specifically, I focus on those online practices by the opinion leader and his followers which have reproduced the sense of locality of Guangzhou, the southern Chinese city near Hong Kong and Macau.
Current literature has established that the communication process in public communication is indirectly mediated through a few individuals — opinion leaders — who present their knowledge, expertise and authorities over the issue at hand in order to facilitate public engagement and participation (Katz 1957; Katz & Lazarsfeld 1955; Gokce et al. 2014). However, Sassen (2011, p. 574) argues that contemporary political practices are increasingly related to ‘the production of “presence”’. In other words, the formation of the publics and the reproduction of place are intricately connected, and this spatial-public dialectic redefines the role of opinion leader in the digital era. After determining one local media commentator as the opinion leader during the event, I ask two specific things. First, how did the opinion leader exploit Weibo's platform and Guangzhou's inhabitants’ experience of place in order to construct himself as a spatial subject rather than merely as a ‘political leader’? Second, how did he mobilise his Weibo followers to ‘re-make’ Guangzhou during a period of hypernationalism in China?
A perfect storm of opportunity
Digital, mobile and social technologies are transforming the possibilities for place-based engagement and interaction. The rapid informating of public places and spaces offers many new ways to change how we encounter, explore and respond to place. A cluster of technology-based innovations — including smart phones, wireless connectivity, high speed broadband, GPS, cloudbased computing, mobile applications and social media platforms — bring into play many new potential combinations of content, interactivity and context of use. The emergence and co-mingling of these technologies create the conditions for a perfect storm of radical innovation, a step change in the relationship between people and place. For organisations and individuals interested in the interpretation of place, this creates vast opportunities and a complex conundrum of choices. The experience of place can now be mediated through a bewildering variety of digital content, devices and interactions that have enormous potential to change perceptions, interest and involvement.
For those with a commitment to the conservation of urban environments and their social and historical associations, the idea of heritage has been a guiding concept for advocating and promoting the preservation of our built and natural environments. Heritage and heritage places may be defined in different ways, but generally what distinguishes them in the environment is their recognised significance as sites of aesthetic, cultural, historical, scientific or technical interest. More simply, heritage may be defined broadly as those things that we preserve from the past for the future. For more than 120 years, organisations such as the National Trust have sought to raise awareness of the natural and built environment around us and to encourage an interest in conserving the physical fabric, natural systems, stories and cultural values of heritage places. The recent emergence and confluence of digital technologies and their rapid uptake present a unique opportunity to promote heritage conservation in the digital age.
The recognition and documentation of places deemed to hold heritage significance is an ancient practice. In promoting significant places, we have also transcribed the stories of the past onto the landscape with memorials, monuments, markers and signage.
In 2009, the Australian federal government decided to fund the construction of the National Broadband Network, or NBN. At a total projected cost of A$44 billion, it was the largest engineering and public infrastructure project in Australia's history, with the intention of laying 200 000 km of fibre optic cable to the doors of 93 per cent of Australian premises. For the remaining 7 per cent of people, who lived in rural and remote areas, wireless and satellite would replace fibre. However, in 2013, this fibre-tothe- premises [FttP] model was subsequently replaced by a much slower, hybrid model that used a mix of optic-fibre, co-axial cable and copper infrastructures alongside wireless and satellite in regional and remote areas (see Arnold et al. 2014 for installation history).
One of the stated key goals of the various plans for high speed broadband networks in Australia is to overcome the challenges of distance and the concomitant difficulties for transport implicit in distance. For example, in the initial scheme, the then Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Stephen Conroy, signalled broadband-enabled benefits relating to social inclusion, economic productivity and geographic connectivity. He stated that ‘every person and business in Australia, nomatter [sic] where they are located, will have access to affordable, fast broadband at their fingertips’, and that high speed broadband [HSB] ‘will help drive Australia's productivity, improve education and health service delivery and connect our big cities and regional centres’ (2009). Australian geography has had a major impact on the history of telecommunications in the nation (see, for example, Given 2010). The National Broadband Network [NBN] has been promoted as a way of overcoming the ‘tyranny of distance’ experienced by people in remote and rural regions (Swan & Conroy 2011).
In this chapter, we seek to examine the dynamics of this process, exploring what high speed broadband infrastructure means for overcoming (or ameliorating the effects of) the ‘tyranny of distance’ for those living in regional and remote areas, and what HSB means for the social and material significance of these places.
The media landscape is in a profound moment of transition. Perhaps this statement has been true since the development of moveable type, but the impact of the transformation in media environments as a result of digital technologies, particularly those which are utilised through internet services, is significant in all realms of everyday life, and in the organisation of forms of modernity.
What constitutes ‘publics’ is contextual and contested, as Warner's work on the concept convincingly illustrates (2002). His analysis begins by examining the many confusing overlapping uses of the terms ‘the public’, ‘publics’ and ‘a public’. He notes that individuals may belong simultaneously to many publics, and that this fact contributes to the ambiguity and circularity of many publics constituting ‘the public’, making research ‘difficult’. In dealing with defining elements of a public, he states, ‘space and physical presence do not make much difference; a public is understood to be different from a crowd, an audience, or any other group that requires co-presence’ (p. 53). His argument is that a public is best understood as formed around textual practices and self-organised relationships with strangers.
In the last decade of burgeoning many-to-many communications, as the chapters in this collection show, publics are forming and fragmenting around access to particular technology — platform, website, application, game, profile, group, hashtag — although accessibility to information, space and discourse has always been a determinant to one's membership within a public. Such publics have an increasingly nebulous quality, forming and dispersing, being created and fractured through adoption, insertion or rejection. The fragmentation of mass audiences since the turn of the century has accelerated in the last decade. What replaces the mass audience includes the ubiquitous mobilisations of social media; the segmentation of readerships during the adaptation of print and broadcast media to internet delivery; and the increasing power of media technology companies like Google and Facebook as content providers and corporate stewards of the ‘walled gardens’, where publics form around news, entertainment and politics. The process of making and unmaking publics continues to be dynamic, initiating this book's explorations of the ways they can be conceptualised, how makers of publics function, and the practices of inclusion and exclusion, which shape disparate, sometimes ephemeral, and geographically distant publics.
Social media platforms provide spaces for interaction and increased engagement, thus furthering the goals of public diplomacy. Due to the perceived ease with which social media can be accessed and the low cost in comparison with other methods, social media platforms are seen as attractive technology-based communication channels for many embassies and other organisations, particularly for those facing budget cuts and demands to increase engagement (Fisher 2013).
It is believed that social media provide the right channel to reach youth populations, which is one of the major goals of current public diplomacy efforts (Mershon 2012). For public diplomacy, it is equally important to listen to and understand young people's thoughts and aspirations, along with their information-seeking and other kinds of behaviours (Riordan 2004). In addition, social media provide the opportunity to reach the youth populations of other countries. In foreign embassies in China, for example, there are more than forty embassies that use the most popular Chinese social media platform — Weibo — to engage with the ‘online publics’ in China.
This chapter examines how ‘generative technologies’ are offering opportunities for modern diplomacy. Engagement and interactivity are what have been emphasised in using social media in public relation works. However, this chapter argues that interactivity is not necessarily linked to the success of the engagement with online publics via social media accounts. This chapter examines the interactivity of those embassies’ Weibo accounts by looking at two aspects: the number of comments or retweets that each post receives, and the number of negative and positive comments that each post receives.
According to my previous research, it is evident that Weibo can be employed effectively to engage with online communities, which is one of the goals of public diplomacy, but it was difficult to measure its real effects simply by looking at the data collected at that stage. In fact, one of the important phenomena which my research illustrates is that the number of followers does not equal the influence Weibo has on its followers — that is, the level of ‘conversational’ or informal communication on Weibo accounts does not indicate the success of e-diplomacy.
In this volume, we speak to the making of publics. One of the ways that publics are made is through research, where the researcher defines the inclusion and exclusion of different individuals and groups when creating their sample. Audience research makes publics in two ways: the researcher defines the target population, and from within that population, individuals come together to identify as audience members. This necessarily complicates the process of determining how different audiences engage with different types of media products, as the views, behaviours and responses of those who are either excluded by the researcher, or who exclude themselves, are not represented in the research process. An ongoing issue in primary qualitative research, engaging with members of an audience — however nebulous or fractured that audience might be — without inconveniencing the participants of the research process has been facilitated in recent decades by access to online forums, discussion boards and social media streams, where collected views and behaviours can be studied ‘in the wild’. Although these spaces are used by only a fraction of the viewers of any particular film, television show or concert, the ability for researchers to make a ‘public’ of these viewers gives us new ways to engage with audience research.
In this chapter, I present the preliminary results of an investigation into the way audience members of fictional television shows engage with actors and characters via Twitter. I propose that Twitter use by audience members makes visible an everyday practice that has yet to be fully acknowledged by research — that is, the way that we hold both the actor and the character in our heads while watching television, simultaneously acknowledging the ‘realness’ of both. To illustrate this proposal, I am using data collected during the first broadcast of the television drama Love Child, Season Two, on the Channel Nine network in Australia.
This project was designed to test a personal observation of Twitter user behaviour during the final season of True Blood (HBO). While following the live tweets of fans during the broadcast of the show in the United States, I realised that Twitter users were not only tagging the characters’ official Twitter feeds1, but often the actors’ personal Twitter handles as well.
This chapter will examine an online comic published by the Global Mail, ‘At Work Inside our Detention Centres: A Guard's Story’ (Olle & Wallman 2014), which documents the difficult situations faced by asylum seekers who have been detained by the Australian government. Asylum seekers face the dilemma of placelessness on political, psychological and phenomenological levels, and the comic affectively conveys this dilemma to its readers by employing elements of the visual language of online communication used in social networking. An analysis of the comic demonstrates how online communication can also be characterised as engendering placelessness, although in a significantly subtler and less perilous way than seeking political asylum.
This discussion is significant because the media that we use to communicate are strongly tied to our understanding of place as a political, physical and phenomenological experience. For example, the modern conception of national identities was shaped in part by the industries of print, particularly novels and newspapers (Anderson 1997), which were able to connect people across relatively long distances, while Marshall McLuhan suggested that broadcast technologies of radio and television helped to shape a ‘global village’ where physical boundaries could be largely transcended (1964).
Although advances in communication technologies have largely served to extend our political sense of place, theorists of place, such as Edward Relph and Melvin Webber, have argued that our phenomenological sense of place is being eroded by the industrial emphasis on accessibility and efficiency. Webber (1964) noted the rise of urban ‘nonplaces’ such as warehouses, loading docks and freeway overpasses crisscrossed with telephone wires, while Relph (1976, p. 143) described the alienation that humans experience in these kinds of ‘anonymous spaces and exchangeable environments’. Although Relph and Webber were writing in the mid-twentieth century, their theories are even more applicable now. Digital technologies are further streamlining communication, and social media platforms are increasingly aggregating and decontextualising content.
This research arises from an interest in heritage preservation in the public sector and, in particular, from the awareness of the key role heritage discourse can play as a tool for social inclusion in urban policy and planning. It reflects on the contribution of new media to what could be called ‘the invention of heritage’ in the line of Hobsbawm's ‘invention of tradition’ (1983), showing how heritage is discursively constructed to provide not just an objective historical truth, but collective memories. The selected area of analysis is the contribution of new media communication to the making and remaking of a UNESCO World Heritage site.
UNESCO's protection of World Heritage Sites was inaugurated by the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, commonly known as the World Heritage Convention (UNESCO 1972), which elevated national symbols into items of ‘outstanding universal value’ and property of all mankind, thereby corroborating an essentialist view of the past (Paganoni 2015b). Since then the approach has changed, expanding the meaning of heritage from the protection of historic buildings and monuments towards a more general understanding of the wider context and preservation of tangible and intangible cultural forms. This wider approach was ratified first in 1992 by the World Heritage Committee's decision to include cultural landscapes in the World Heritage List (UNESCO 1992) and then by the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (UNESCO 2003). In particular, from what Article 1 of the 1972 Convention designated as ‘the combined works of nature and man’ (UNESCO 1972), the notion of ‘cultural landscape’ was deduced, a concept that embraces diverse possible interactions between people and the natural environment.
Against this background, the following analysis addresses the discursive practices leading to the inscription of a site on the World Heritage List, one of the most ambitious achievements for localities that aspire to global recognition of the symbolic value of their historic legacy.
The digital world is converging with the physical world, and this phenomenon, known as the Internet of Things, represents the next era of computing. It is one where just about anything can be connected, through sensors and data to other objects, environments, people and, of course, the Internet. (Altimeter Group 2015)
The range of technical, social, environmental and political issues raised by the possibility of ‘just about anything’ being invisibly connected is overwhelming in breadth, scale and depth. The seamlessness of the connectivity predicted is unprecedented in human history and there are as yet few convincing full-scale examples in connected buildings, or in consumer supply chains enabled by the Internet of Things [IoT], or in smart cities, to illustrate how it works in practice. Critical issues already identified include a controversial means of data collection, which makes new forms of urban planning and placemaking as a ‘whole-ofcity’ enterprise possible; and related governmental techniques through which city populations (and specific publics) can be involved in designing their own governance. Yet initiatives exist (some of which will be used to illustrate this chapter's arguments) which cast light on the ways that smart technologies are starting to shape everyday experiences of the material world, and generate new relations of power.
In this chapter, the making of places and publics is addressed through the prism offered by the nascent Internet of Things and locative technologies in the ‘smart city’. The smart city can be defined as an urban digital infrastructure supporting, amongst other activities, technologically-enabled responsive environments. These spaces are governed by big data collected by various means, which allow ‘the city’ to talk back to its inhabitants by offering real time information and a range of choices designed to alter behaviour or encourage different relationships to place. The chapter aims firstly to identify the drivers of the rapid adoption of ‘smartification’ by cities and users, and then to canvass the democratic and participatory factors involved in implementing radical change, noting the risks which may occur in the rush to connect on such a global scale.
Upon losing their homeland at the end of the Algerian War of Independence in 1962, the community of Pieds-Noirs, or former French citizens of Algeria, set out to protect their fragile memories through literature, photography and film. Every year the communities gather together in France to commemorate their exodus, and each reunion is guided by images of colonial Algeria. As the ageing Pieds-Noirs assemble, so do fragments of their past: school photos endlessly emerge from Pieds-Noirs seeking to identify lost or forgotten classmates, and iconic Algerian monuments reappear in slide presentations, films, photodocumentaries, paintings and websites. The Pieds-Noirs are eager to collect each remnant from their homeland, and the visual pieces are among the most evocative. As these accumulated images represent an entire community's long absent home, and as many members contribute to the composite image of colonial Algeria, a process of layering and overlapping occurs. The representations of places become densely piled, heavy with consolidated meaning and multiple memories of places to such an extent that the image becomes larger than life.
Through an analysis of recurrent images of Algeria produced by its former French citizens, from photodocumentary to mixed-media artwork, I hope to make apparent that the visual layering of a colonial past progressively narrows what is remembered from the colony while solidifying specific landmarks. I will then attempt to demonstrate that rather than jogging, confronting or preserving memory, the accumulated images of Algeria distance the viewer from the reality of the past by compressing personal experience under communal memory.
In the Souvenirs de là-bas series of Algerian photodocumentary books, author Elisabeth Fechner expresses that, in spite of distortions, the photograph is the reality that endures through time: ‘La photo alors, la belle affaire. Floue? Surexposée? Mal cadrée? Vue du ciel? De trop loin? De trop près? Ce rêve d'un soir, allez savoir comment, restait à jamais fixé sur la pellicule’. Fechner's goal is to let the Pieds-Noirs compare and contrast their memories with the assembled images in her works dedicated to Algiers, Oran and Constantine. Each text begins with the same introductory call: come and see how your memories match up to these pictures. After all, this is all we have left. Fechner similarly collects images in broader works such as Le Pays d'où je viens: Souvenirs d'Algérie 1910-1962 (1999) and La Gloire de l'Algérie: Écrivains et photographes 1830-1960 (2000).
The link between scientific discovery and empire building was never more evident than in the latter decades of the eighteenth century. During that time, as Mary Louise Pratt has noted, the ‘international scientific expedition’ became ‘one of Europe's proudest and most conspicuous instruments of expansion’. For Pratt, this period coincided with the emergence of a new version of Europe's ‘planetary consciousness’ — one which was characterised by ‘the construction of global-scale meaning through the descriptive apparatuses of natural history’.
Empirical observations of the natural world were indeed indispensable to the European Enlightenment ambition of obtaining a complete and taxonomic knowledge of the globe — and thereby gaining mastery over it. At this time, too, there was a growing realisation that the visual could play just as valuable a part in that process as the verbal. Accordingly, by the end of the eighteenth century, it had become common practice for professional artists to be included on scientific expeditions. Their role was to keep a pictorial record of the places visited, the peoples encountered and the specimens of flora and fauna that were collected or otherwise examined. The natural history drawings, ethnographic portraits, coastal profiles and landscapes that they produced, together with the various maps and hydrographic charts that the officers and geographers compiled, formed a rich store of iconographic material that became just as important to the imperial project as the discursive observations to be found in the logbooks and journals that their fellow travellers kept.
This development had profound implications, for both the sciences and the arts. As Bernard Smith has argued, progress in the arts not only paralleled scientific progress but also assisted it by providing scientists with ever more accurate and reliable visual material for analysis. Conversely, the increase in scientific knowledge of the world constituted an ‘enduring challenge to the supremacy of neo-classical values in art and thought’. The artist was henceforth required to depict nature accurately, not enhance or idealise it as the Renaissance had programmatically set out to do. The visual imagery that scientific travellers compiled had to conform to a new ideal of objectivity, as illusory as we now understand that ambition to have been. The pursuit of scientific knowledge thus influenced the development of artistic practices as much as art served and impacted upon science.
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