Germinal Gender Narrative: Teaching the Media to Relay the Message

Article published in Issue 8 of the Gender & Media Diversity Centre’s Southern Africa Media Diversity Journal, March 2010

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The FIFA World Cup is coming to South Africa this year, the first global event of its kind hosted by an African nation. That means 2010 will bring many aspects of life in South Africa into view for people around the world. There are competing theories about whom such grandiose event-stagings benefit: credible arguments can be made for the view that the Olympic Games or the FIFA World Cup infuse an established order with new money, media focus and influence, while others see such events as necessarily elevating civic virtues by forcing an established order to exhibit them. The 2010 World Cup can put all issues relating to women’s rights and possibilities in the forefront of global perceptions of South Africa.

South Africa has the legal framework, the people, the initiative, in short: the means, of making great strides forward for women, but also conditions that pose a constant threat to women’s health, physical safety and possibility for ascending through the established order to maximize their potential, in the workplace, the political sphere or even the realm of personal realisation. South Africa’s commitment to reaching the Millennium Development Goals [MDG] on gender issues should be moved forward as the world turns its gaze on the situation South African women face in living their daily lives.

Media do not exist in a vacuum, but by definition are contacts between people. An event as pervasive and attention-grabbing as the World Cup cannot occur without the media environment experiencing a wave of feedback inducements to new points of view. On rights issues, this can just as easily lead to voluntary adoption of the view that change is too hard, or even unnecessary, as to an increased understanding of what civic virtues need to be elevated, why and to what end. The chronically low profile of the problem of domestic violence in many societies, or the particular difficulties US president Barack Obama has had in effecting sweeping reforms in healthcare or banking, are examples of how easily an urge to distraction can shift popular consciousness away from the project of engagement with problem-solving.

Engagement with the media environment from a humanitarian perspective, to deepen the general understanding of women’s issues and heighten awareness of violence against women and inequality of opportunity, means taking a germinal role, aiming to spread a new perspective through an environment not necessarily attuned to the vocabulary of the problem. The philosopher Brian Massumi writes in Parables for the Virtual that: ‘A germinal or “implicit” form cannot be understood as a shape or structure. It is more a bundle of potential functions localized, as a differentiated region, within a larger field of potential. In each region a shape or structure begins to form, but no sooner dissolves as its region shifts in relation to the others with which it is in tension. There is a kind of bubbling of structuration in a turbulent soup of regions of swirling potential. The regions are separated from each other by dynamic thresholds rather than by boundaries.’ (Massumi 34)

Abstract as it may be, Massumi’s analysis regards the nature of media and information flows. He uses this analysis of Simondon’s exploration of ‘non-localized relations’ as key to how atoms ‘emerge’ from an undefined region of interrelations as a new vocabulary to talk about how recognizable forms—which can include perceptions, identities, even preconceptions—coalesce around evolving relations and feed back into their environment. The intense media focus on South Africa, during the 2010 World Cup, offers that ‘bubbling of structuration’ and the real possibility of more ‘dynamic thresholds’ operating between competing visions of the nation, its culture and its people, where before there had been less permeable boundaries.

The great psychological theorist and researcher Luce Irigaray treats the way reflections on the love offered to, or coming from, the other are dealt with by men or by women. Her assertion is that each subject may perceive the other either as part of a system of relations centered on the self or as the focus of one’s own relational outreach. In the former, the other is treated in the third person and the focus is on the first person; in the latter, the other enjoys second person privilege and the first person is subsumed in the question of the other’s reaction to that outreach. This suggests that any communication on issues of sexual difference, or on the promotion of a more just and egalitarian future, will first have to pass through ‘the bubble in which [the listener] is situated and enclosed’. (Irigaray 135) The listener listens through an implicit inquiry as to how the message relates to life within the space of his or her own selfhood. Massumi’s ‘parable’ of a ‘bubbling of structuration’, of ‘differentiated spaces’ across a ‘field of potential’, suggests the intensity of an environment of emergence, of germinal communications, can move some of those perceptual barriers and shift the communicative process into a realm of ‘dynamic thresholds’. If the emergent arguments are received only at the dynamic thresholds across which the communication seeks to travel, then the message is conditioned as much by the perceptual field in which it emerges as by the conceptual (germinal) understanding of its proponents.

The media environment of the 2010 FIFA World Cup may be hostile to any narrative focused on the details of equality/inequality or justice/injustice dynamics, except where that narrative fits into the narrative of nations, performance and talent. For actual nation states, their socio-political ‘virtues’ can be equated to ‘talent’, defining the field of potential across which civic-minded awakenings and social justice reforms can emerge. In 1992, the autonomous Spanish region of Catalunya, whose capital is Barcelona, seized the opportunity inherent in hosting the Olympic Games to highlight its unique cultural situation, its history of linguistic and political marginalisation and the fragility of Spain’s young democracy, rooted in the post-fascist constitution of 1978, in effect for just 14 years at the time of the Barcelona Games. Spain, as a whole, with a Socialist party government made up of fierce opponents of the old fascist regime, sought to build its qualifications, not just perceived qualifications, as a viable, stable, humane democracy. ‘Nationalism’, including Catalán regional nationalism, vied for prominence with humanism. The darker side of nationalistic leanings was demonstrated by the removal of Roma and vagrants living in shanties along the waterfront to predetermined sites on the outskirts of the city. (Sadd 2009)

Similarly, the 2010 World Cup could turn into a quest to obscure ongoing injustices suffered by women in South Africa, but it’s important to note that the Catalán identity culture was during this time, and as a result of the enthusiasm and the focus on civic virtues and democratisation, overtaken by a wave of youthful civic engagement more interested in demonstrating the idiosyncratic virtues of an egalitarian parliamentary democracy than in using force or censorship to create the appearance of order. To the extent that the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games spurred a construction boom, and therefore windfalls for the related industries, the claim that they were a great social success needs to be tested against whether that boom also benefited groups who were marginalised or underprivileged before the Games. For many, the perception is that the economic boom surrounding the Games exacerbated a problem of chronic inequity in housing, pushing property values far beyond what lower-income residents—Cataláns and immigrants alike—could afford. This, together with the revitalisation of civic sentiment and the urge to demand democratisation and equality in new areas, helped lead to a widespread and still powerful housing-focused protest movement (Del Olmo 2004).

The lasting legacy has been a trenchant Catalán popular valuation of open democracy, civic awareness and pluralism, even where that means accepting the Catalán-speaking children of African and Asian immigrants as Catalán. The intense focus on Barcelona and its attendant political and social culture allowed for that bubbling of structuration, with regard to cultural and national identity, moving boundaries and leaving an intangible but measurable social incentive to adhere to more open and democratic principles.

The bubbling of political perspectives —which means the dynamisation of differences and the freer movement of ideas— was also evident in China, during the months surrounding the 2008 Olympic Games. The Charter ’08 movement was not limited to one region or a narrow group of intellectuals: it marked the emergence of a critical mass of popular complaint against corrupt institutions and arbitrary abuses. China’s governmental reaction was authoritarian in tone and method, and entailed a crackdown on dissent and the jailing of dissidents linked to the reform movement. Though the most visible supporters of the Charter ’08 petition for democratic reform, have been detained and face serious prison time, that reaction itself helped to spread the atmosphere of complaint and the germinal argument for reform, i.e. the idea that indeed a problem exists and reform could be desired and supported by serious people across the society.

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Originally published in the Gender and Media Diversity Journal, Issue 8, March 2010, ps. 90-97.

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