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Stretching the Frontiers of Communication and Media Studies

An interview1 with Nico Carpentier, conducted by David Grondin
Nico Carpentier et David Grondin
p. 155-170
Traduction(s) :
Étirer les frontières des études sur les communications et les médias [fr]


Nico Carpentier is a renowned researcher in the field of communication and media studies. He published a large number of studies dealing with participation, media, media technologies, civil society, discourse analysis, power and communication rights. His scientific writing, always attesting its concerns of well anchoring its research theoretically. In this interview, Nico Carpentier discusses the significance of disciplinary dialogue within and beyond what he calls the “discipline/field” of communication and media studies. He argues, on the one hand, that disciplinary strength is fundamental because it allows the articulation of conversations within and between regional outbreaks (e.g. European, North American and Latin American) of the discipline/field. On the other hand, this stance favors an interdisciplinary opening that can reinforce the theoretical and empirical foundations of communication and media studies. Last but not the least, throughout this interview, Nico Carpentier gives access to his most recent research. These seek to highlight the empirical case of the Island of Cyprus ongoing conflicts, by analyzing the discursive-material knot of a participatory-agonistic assemblage (a community radio station)—these observations are discussed in his 2017 paper, The Discursive Material Knot: Cyprus in Conflict and Community Media Participation. Through this particular case, he is also interested in showing the links between the material and the symbolic per the study of representations, cultures and materialities—which results are presented in the article Cyprus and its Conflicts: Representations, Materialities, and Cultures (co-directed with Vaia Doudaki, 2018).

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  • 1 With great thanks to Hélène Jutras for translating the original version of the interview into Frenc (...)

Interview by David Grondin,
his interventions are in bold type.

1How would you situate your work? How would you explain the evolution of your research interests and scholarship? Who would be your primary audiences? And given the topic of your latest monograph, have you encountered people doing security studies and cultural studies?

2That’s a whole battery of questions, and they are not easy to answer [smiles]. There are different entry points into questions like these. One is institutional. I am affiliated to several communication and media studies departments in Europe, namely Uppsala University in Sweden, Charles University in the Czech Republic, and the Free University of Brussels, in Belgium. I also hold fellowships at Loughborough University in the UK, and the Cyprus University of Technology in Cyprus. In that sense, I have a European identity, which also translates in the research that I do. I still focus, in a fairly strong way, on social and political phenomena in different European countries. Cyprus, where the case study of The Discursive-Material Knot (2017) book is situated, is just one example. To give another example, together with Anna Batistová, I recently published a study on the construction of the Czech nation in cultural magazines during World War II (Batistová & Carpentier, 2018). These are connections to different places, which expose me to different contexts. The Czech Republic, obviously, is not the same as Cyprus, which is not the same as Belgium or Sweden. Even if the academic institutional context might not be the exiting part of our academic explorations, it remains important because that is where your research is situated. It impacts what you can, but also what you want, to study.

3The other part of my answer is disciplinary. I am rooted in the field of communication and media studies. But that is a very general statement, that needs to be unpacked further, to see what it actually means. This brings me to your question about “my” audiences, as a lot of my work is engaged in a dialogue with European communication and media scholars. I might bring slightly different ideas to the table, but it’s still that table that I bring my ideas to. Who you engage with, really matters, as this makes you become part of an academic community in which you play a role and where you belong to. And that brings us to the logics of academic fields and disciplines. Disciplines are important, because they offer us protection and safety, and allow for some degree of shared understanding. But at the same time a discipline has its disciplining and restricting aspects. That’s why we need the protection of the discipline, but also the openness of the field, allowing us to oscillate between the dynamics of the discipline and the field. And I believe I am very much part of these dynamics, trying to function within the box, and at the same time trying to escape the box.

4If you allow me to continue this narration of the self [smiles]: What may be a bit more specific is what I then bring to the table, what my story is. If you go into career trajectories and histories: Some of the research I have done in the past might be slightly unusual for a communication and media scholar. I started working in academia, in the early 1990s, on a research project that was analyzing the sexual behavior of Belgian adolescents in response to the HIV problematics (Van Hove, Carpentier & Knops, 1995). This was a health sociology project, with only some vague traces to health communication, but it was quite an interesting and fortunate starting point, with topics related to sexuality, health and death. Related to that was another project, on prostitution, and the construction of the subject position of the prostitute (Carpentier, 1999). These early projects already showed my strong interest in the dis-privileged, the stigmatized, the down-trodden, whatever you want call them, people who are not necessarily accepted in society and, who are, in the particular case of prostitution extremely objectified. It is almost the embodiment of objectification that you find in prostitution, but at the same time there is a huge resistance against that being-reduced-to-an-object and a very strong appeal towards subjectivity and the acknowledgement of subjectivity. It is a fascinating field of study.

5I would not say that these very early research projects were part of a consciously created research agenda, which would suggest that there is continuity, or even linearity, in all the research I did. That would be too much of a reconstruction of my intellectual trajectory, with its continuities and discontinuities. But still, I am always surprised to see how many elements do come back. When I think back about these histories, I almost feel a sense of relief, to see that there is actually some consistency in what I’m doing (grins), especially with the fairly diverse background that I have, which includes medical sociology, international relations, applied economics and philosophy. Still, this is my background, and it impacts on what I bring to the table.

  • 2 Hall (1992) famously wrote he was dealing with questions that implied “working within shouting dist (...)

6Nowadays, when I try to narrate my field(s) of interest and/or my research agenda, I tend to use the metaphor of the triangle, with its three corners. One of the corners has politics and democracy. This also brings in participation, one of the concepts that I am very much interested in. The second corner is culture and processes of meaning – discourse is then the more specific translation of that focus. And the third corner is conflict. That triangle is the lens I use to do my research. It does bring me close to, for instance, cultural studies. I could paraphrase the famous Stuart Hall (1992) quote2, and replace “Marxism” by “cultural studies”, arguing that I work within shouting distance of cultural studies, that I work on cultural studies, work against cultural studies, work with cultural studies, and work, at least a bit, trying to develop cultural studies. Maybe the link with cultural studies is not always very explicit, but is always there. And the same applies to political studies, conflict studies, peace studies, security studies, (sub)fields that are also dear to me, but always remain at a shouting distance.

7I can see the links with people and all the work I’ve seen, emerging in critical security studies, just been pushing in all these directions in the past ten years. I mean, I’ve been part of that …

8Yes, and in that sense… I don’t want to claim uniqueness. Luckily [smiles].

9You start The Discursive-Material Knot (2017), your most recent monograph, by emphasizing the figure of the triptych, where you speak of three platforms in your book that you claim to be interconnected. What is it you want readers to take from this triptych? What does it allow you to achieve that could or could not have been achieved in three separate articles?

10To start by providing a map of that book: Its first platform is a theoretical discussion of the relationship between the discursive and the material. Drawing on discourse theory and new materialism, this platform is a search for a reconciliation between these fields, focusing on the development of a theory of entanglement. The core objective of the first platform is to do this without creating a hierarchy between the discursive and the material. On the contrary, the aim is to generate a respectful balance between these two fields, and actually between these two dimensions of the social world. Platform Two then engages in a re-reading of three theoretical fields, through the lens of the discursive-material knot. These three fields are participatory theory, community media theory and conflict theory. The third platform, finally, takes us to Cyprus. This platform has two chapters: The first chapter is a re-reading of the literature on nationalism from, again, the discursive-material knot perspective, combined with a re-reading of the history of the Cyprus Problem, using the same perspective. The second chapter of platform Three is then the analysis of a particular participatory-agonistic assemblage, the Cyprus Community Media Centre (CCMC), and its radio station, MYCYradio. This first chapter of platform Three is necessary, in order to explain the reader what the Cyprus Problem is, as this is not very well known, unfortunately, I would add. But the chapter does more, as it is driven by the same principle as platform Two, namely the re-reading of existing fields, whether they are theoretical or historical, through the lens of the discursive-material knot. The focus on entanglement compensates for those components, discursive or material, that have been pushed out, forgotten, left out… I do not want to claim that I am engaging in a set of deconstructions, at least not in the very strict sense of that concept, but this strategy is very much about identifying the weak components in a particular body of thought, and then making these components more visible, while at the same time placing emphasis on how the visible and less visible components are entangled. And these reflections are further deepened by bringing in agency, structure, contingency and rigidity, as structuring principles of entanglement.

11Do you go back from your third platform to the other two?

12Even if they are platforms, which have the potential to be read independently, they remain connected, in several ways. First of all, I am using a trickle-down model. Because the theoretical re-readings—platform Two—can only exist by virtue of the core ideas developed in the discursive-material knot platform. The same applies to the first chapter of platform Three, which deals with theories on nationalism, with nationalism in Cyprus and with the Cypriot Problem history. Platform Two exists by the grace of platform One, but can still be read without actually reading platform One. Secondly, the empirical research of the third platform is grounded in a qualitative research tradition, and thus uses a cyclical-iterative procedure. This implies that the first and second platforms have been developed in dialogue with the empirical analysis that the third platform reports on. So, yes, I moved back up to “earlier” platforms.

13To give you one example that’s dear to me: In the re-reading of conflict theory, I attempt to bring out more clearly the discursive components of conflict theory, something that has not been done sufficiently, I think. In doing so, I of course made good use of the more recent work of Chantal Mouffe (2013) on agonism. It would be rather silly to produce a book that remains very much grounded in discourse theory, and then exclude her more recent work. But at the same time, the way that Chantal Mouffe writes about agonism is not enough to support an empirical analysis that looks into the articulation of agonism, and into the transformation of antagonism into agonism. This led me to attempt to understand better what agonism actually means in social practice. Even if I think there are no contradictions with what Chantal Mouffe has been writing about, there are also differences, in the sense that I want to understand what the dimensions of agonism are, in dialogue with the Cypriot case study. One of these dimensions, for instance, is conflictual togetherness.

14My argument here is that the transformation from enemy to adversary, implies a transformation from radical difference into conflictual togetherness. When we construct enemies, we define them as radically different from the self, while in the case of agonism, we might disagree, but we simultaneously share, and accept to share, a political space with them. There is togetherness, but it is not the romantic “oh, let’s all be happy together” type of togetherness. That is not what agonism is about. It is a difficult togetherness, consisting out of contractions, disruptions, tensions, frictions… It is intrinsically conflictuous, which is why I labelled it conflictual togetherness. There are two other dimensions of agonism that I distinguish—the pluralization of the self, and peaceful and non-violent interaction—and I argue that agonism cannot exist without the articulation of these three dimensions. Similarly, antagonism exists through the articulation of its three dimensions: radical difference, the homogenization of the self, and enemy destruction.

15This theoretization of antagonism and agonism, and their respective dimensions, also serve a better understanding of the intercommunal relations in Cyprus. Here, it is important to mention that the Cyprus Problem revolves around the history of antagonism between two communities, Greek-Cypriots and Turkish-Cypriots, driven by two distinct nationalisms. In order to transform the relationship between these communities into a more agonistic relationship, there is the need, for both communities, to embrace a notion of togetherness, which is probably structured by the geography of the island. Arguably, it would require the performance of a multilayered set of identities that acknowledge this togetherness, as Cypriots, but that also acknowledges the existence of Greek-Cypriots and Turkish-Cypriots, their internal and external differences and the conflicts that this generates, without turning to violence, symbolic or material.

16If we return to the previous century, then the relations between Greek-Cypriots and Turkish-Cypriots were antagonistic, driven by the clash between a version of Greek nationalism, and a version of Turkish nationalism. It is a complicated story, I am afraid, and there is no time to go into details, but many Greek-Cypriots felt Greek, and wanted Cyprus to become part of Greece, which they called enosis. On the other hand, Turkish-Cypriots were deeply concerned about this prospect, and preferred to divide the island, so that part of it could be joined with Turkey. Cypriotism, or the sense of belonging to a Cypriot nation, existed, but was crushed under the combined weight of Greek and Turkish nationalism, and only recently saw a revival. But in the previous century, Cypriots were either Greek or Turk. One illustration is the famous Rauf Denktaş statement—he was a former president of the non-recognized Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus—who would say: “The only thing that is truly Cypriot are the donkeys of Karpasia.” That was a typical nationalist position that was grounded in radical difference, feeding into the argument that co-habitation was impossible and that the island needed to be split. Greek-Cypriot nationalists would say that “the Turks” simply needed to leave the island, and the 1950s and 1960s saw what I would label attempts of ethnic cleansing, which ended in (and with) the Turkish invasion of 1974.

17In contrast, if the logics of peace-building and conflict transformation would have prevailed, we would have seen conflictual togetherness. We would have a Cypriot community, with its own sense of belonging, constituted out of these different groups and communities, also acknowledging that Greek-Cypriots and Turkish-Cypriots are not internally homogeneous either, and that there are also other communities living on the island. But this would not imply erasing the conflicts between these communities; it would be a matter of pacifying them. The reason for going into this long narrative is that the analysis of antagonism and agonism, and their dimensions, came out of the Cypriot case study, cross-fertilized with a series of theoretical re-readings. Or, to put it differently, I did not impose Chantal Mouffe’s theoretical work on agonism, or my own for that matter, on the Cypriot case study data. It was very much a dialogue between theory and data, as good qualitative research should always engage in.

18My next question is linked to that. Your work in the book illustrates how community media organizations contribute to a culture of peace. How does your exploration of the CCMC and their radio station MYCYradio contribute to peace-building and subsequently to community-building among members of these societies? How does antagonism turn into agonism?

19There’s many things to be said about this, but I would like to argue there are two main features of CCMC that allows them to play a role in peace-building. One relates to the MYCYradio programs, the broadcasts they produce. The community media producers offer in their broadcast agonistic representations of the Other. What they do, for instance, in the broadcasts, is to deconstruct the dichotomy between self and other. Remember that the antagonistic model consists out of radical difference, the need to destroy the other-enemy, and the homogenization of the self. The MYCYradio broadcasts that I studied signify that the radical difference between the different communities in Cyprus does not exist and that the divide can be bridged. It is bridged, for instance, because they share the same food. It is bridged because they meet. It is bridged because they belong to the same island and share a Mediterranean culture... It is bridged because there is family and friends on the other side of the buffer zone, with whom they interact. What these programs offer is an endless set of little, even minute anecdotes from within the practices of everyday life that demonstrate how that divide is disrupted and bridged, which structurally undermines the idea of radical difference. One type of response to the question why they matter is because of what they broadcast.

20But what the research project also made clear is that this is not CCMC’s main contribution towards peace-building. That main feature is material. CCMC generates a material space where there is collaboration between members of both Greek-Cypriot and Turkish-Cypriot communities. There is collaboration at the level of management and organizational practices, but there is also collaboration at the level of media content production. Co-creation is very present, but it is not co-creation in the very generalist and neutral sense. It is the co-creation of media content by people that belong, or are seen to belong, to different communities. We do not see the destruction of the enemy, on the contrary. You have Turkish- Cypriots and Greek-Cypriots peacefully working together, showing that they are not enemies, demonstrating that they are not incompatible. Of course, this is also made visible in the broadcasts, so it is connected to the community media content that I mentioned before. But it is also that very material set of interactions, where a group of people – Cypriots and non-Cypriots, because some of them are not Cypriots – work together, interact and participate in both content and management, and manage to prove that it is possible to work together, to be together in the same space. This sounds obvious, but this is what antagonistic nationalism claims to be undesirable and impossible. Antagonistic nationalism says that these enemies can not share the same collaborative space, and even should not share that space. CCMC, with its material presence in that very particular space, in the buffer zone in Nicosia – the capital of Cyprus – is producing the everyday material evidence that it is indeed possible to collaborate. And these material practices become translated into signifying practices that further strengthen an agonistic discursive order. But my point here is that it is not just the broadcasts. I would argue that that collaboration, that material participatory-agonistic element is even more important than the broadcasts. Producing media content together, working together, … really matters in overcoming a divide, together with being heard to be working together.

21But then there is one additional element which is more of a theoretical point that I try to raise. What this case study also shows is that conflict transformation, the transformation from antagonism to agonism, is actually made possible through the participatory dynamics of the community radio station. By creating a participatory environment, CCMC facilitates and enables that transformation towards agonism. This participatory environment makes it much easier to contribute to conflict transformation. More specifically, each of the components of the community media identity—serving the community, being an alternative to the mainstream, being part of civil society and being a nodal point in a rhizome, which are all linked to participation—also work to enhance agonism. For instance, the emphasis on serving the community by giving members of that community the opportunity to represent themselves, is grounded in a set of values, such as equality, respect for diversity, and inclusion. And it is exactly these values that also support agonism. Of course, participation and agonism are not necessarily connected, but participation and agonism do strengthen each other in a very structural way, in this case study. Again, this articulation is not a given, it is not an automatic relationship, but there is a very strong articulation present in the Cypriot context.

22Have you thought about the social reasons, the social forces, structural forces that led to these community initiatives?

23This is an interesting part of the analysis because then we have to go into the financial structures that have enabled all of this. It is quite fascinating to see that CCMC was originally financed by UNDP (United Nations Development Programme), with USAID (United States Agency – International Development) money. That was the starting point of CCMC, driven by an initial report, written by an author connected to the European community media movement, who suggested the establishment of a Community Media Centre, an idea that was very different from what the international donor initially had in mind. This donor agency was gently shown a number of options that proved to be highly relevant, and convincing.

24Bringing in UNDP did create some real problems, at the same time. I think that the CCMC people were (and still are) extremely grateful for what UNDP did, but they were also very much aware of all the problems that UNDP brought into the equation. There is one anecdote mentioned in the book, referring to the period where the Occupy movement also had a branch on Cyprus, which was called Occupy Buffer Zone. It was a short-lived activist movement, but still important in trying to use the space of the buffer zone to make an activist-pacifist point. And when CCMC wanted to cover the activities of Occupy Buffer Zone, UNDP did not allow CCMC to do that. I think that this situation must have felt very awkward for all involved, but it was particularly troublesome for the CCMC people. Incidents like these eventually led to CCMC not necessarily being very keen on having additional financial support from UNDP, after the initial phase. Later, the web-streaming community radio station, MYCYradio, was established with European money, with the support of the Representation of the European Commission in Cyprus. That was another one-shot project, without much structural follow-up, which increased the mid-term vulnerability of the CCMC.

25To go back to your question, there is a very active international donor community in Cyprus, which contributed to the establishment of CCMC and MYCYradio. They have been supporting many other projects, successful and less successful projects on the island. And they gave CCMC a very necessary initial push but simultaneously created considerable problems. Of course, these are the classic dynamics of international donor interventions, which have their own agendas and their own ways of doing things, and their definitions of what conflict resolution, as they often would call it, should be. Equally important is how these international donors are perceived on Cyprus, by the Cypriots. In particular, bringing in American money, also created tensions and vulnerabilities because the relationship between Cyprus and the US has been troubled, to put it politely. Cyprus is one of the few countries where a US Ambassador was killed, for instance, even if this was quite some time ago, in 1974, during an anti-American demonstration. These histories and sensitivities complicate these money flows and how they are perceived. In the beginning of CCMC’s existence, some even argued that the CCMC was an agent of “the Americans”, which only shows that even in the 21st century, the relation of Cyprus with the US is not without its problems.

26You curated the photographic exhibition Iconoclastic Controversies: A Visual Sociology of Statues and Commemoration Sites in the Southern Regions of Cyprus, in 2016 in Cyprus, and later, in 2018, in Brasilia. Given that you address in this the weight of public monuments and memorials for competing parties, I cannot escape but ask you about what you could say about the ongoing move in the US to dismantle monuments representing heroes from a part many wish to whitewash.

27I can even add a third country to the equation (grins). Being a Belgian, I am quite familiar with the memorializations related to the colonial history of the Congo, and in particular to Leopold II, who initially controlled the Congo Free State. Belgium is still infested with statues of Leopold II who was responsible for millions of casualties, reducing the population of that region by half. Histories like these do raise issues with how we commemorate the past, and in particular how we commemorate troubled pasts.

28But allow me to take one step back, to go to the role of commemoration practices in relation to the Cyprus Problem, and return to the international dimension a bit later. What is striking in the Cypriot landscape is how many of these statues and commemoration sites are grounded in militarism, nationalism and heroization. It is very much about honoring the dead heroes. One example is Grigoris Afxentiou, who was the second in command of EOKA, the Greek Cypriot right-wing Greek nationalist revolutionary movement, fighting the British colonizers. Afxentiou was killed by British soldiers, and nowadays his image (and his name) are still very present on the island, with statues, street names, etc. His end was extremely violent, as he was burned to death by British soldiers in a very little cave that functioned as his hide-out. That cave is now also a memorial site; I actually visited it, as part of the research project that then resulted in the Iconoclastic Controversies exhibitions, and one of the cave’s photographs is very much part of this exhibition. That commemoration site is incorporated into the discourse of heroism and sacrifice in the name of liberty, which is a very typical discourse that you will find in these settings.

29A lot of the commemoration sites that you can find in the south of Cyprus, controlled by the Republic of Cyprus—and the north is not that different, but with different references and articulations—have this glorification of military heroes and a glorification of war, which I find troubling in its own right. What I wanted to do, when I started working on this project—to contextualize the project a bit more—is to understand the Cypriot history. In order to write platform Three of The Discursive-Material Knot book, I had to get a very clear picture of the Cypriot history, which is extremely contradictory and complicated. Studying the statues and commemoration sites was one way of entering into that historical narrative, and a very precious one for me to better understand things. It led—and that is a footnote—to me traveling through the entire island with the camera, annoying the car driver, asking every five minutes: “I’ve seen one! Can you please stop the car?”. I’m still grateful to Vaia [Doudaki] (Doudaki & Carpentier, 2018) for being very patient with me, in helping out with this project. But anyway, this project allowed me not only to better understand the dynamics of the Cyprus Problem, but also communicate the outcomes of the analysis through a photography exhibition.

30That became a project in itself, aimed at producing a different academic narrative about research. Instead of doing what we so often do—writing a book or an article—, I chose to communicate my academic analysis—and it was still, I would argue, an academic analysis—by using a combination of two genres, namely photography and exhibition. Translating the analysis into photography and then into an exhibition with about 20 photographs was quite a challenge, but it was also very rewarding. What the analysis showed was a strong hegemonic discourse, which was built on heroism, sacrifice for freedom, nationalism and militarism. This antagonistic militaristic discourse was materialized, translated, into statues, buildings, etc. For instance, there is a very strong presence of the ancient Greek architecture. The columns (mostly Doric and Ionic) are very much present in these commemoration sites. Why? Well, because EOKA, the Greek-Cypriot resistance movement, wanted enosis. They wanted to join Cyprus to Greece. They defined themselves, and the entire island, as Greek, which was also legitimated through history. These constant references to the Greek ancient culture are very visible, and these can actually be shown through photography, and not only by writing about them. Next to this hegemonic discourse, there was also a counter-hegemonic discourse, supported by a small number of memorial sites that communicated peace and tolerance, commemorating peace heroes, and not so much war heroes. These examples were quite rare, but their presence showed the political struggle over the commemoration of the Cyprus Problem, and the material possibilities of resisting antagonistic nationalism.

31Returning to the international dimension: One of the differences with what we see in the discussions about, for instance, the commemoration of the American Civil War, or the commemoration of the Belgian colonial presence in Congo, is that in these countries we are focusing on the resistance against these representations. There is a, what Foucault would call, mettre en discours of these memorializations, from a critical perspective, that problematizes them. I do not think that, in Cyprus, this resistance is that strong, at least not at this point. There have been some interventions, for instance, one of the statues of Makarios, the first president of the Republic of Cyprus, had paint thrown over it, but this is not comparable with the societal debate and very strong sentiments of resistance against these representations that we can find in other countries. There is a long way to go in Cyprus.

32This means that the photography was not your research objective first, it came through the fieldwork?

33Yes. I lived in Cyprus for a year and, of course, I was documenting the memorials from a fairly early stage. But it was only half way that I started to identify the Iconoclastic Controversies project as a separate project. I understood that this was also an opportunity to rethink my own writing practice, trying to come up with what could call a photographic academic communicational practice, very much related to the work done in visual sociology. Actually, it is also an exhibition academic communicational practice, because the exhibition is a genre in itself. The project restructured the tools that I used to communicate my analyses, but it also had epistemological consequences, allowing me to generate knowledge through the creative-artistic practice. All this only occurred at the tail of my one-year research stay in Cyprus, but I am still very happy that I did so.

34To add one more thing, after the first two iterations of Iconoclastic Controversies, I started working on a larger project, Respublika!3, which included two main exhibitions, and a third smaller one, a festival week and a seminar series. Respublika! was still connected to Cyprus, but focused much more on community media. After finishing the The Discursive-Material Knot book, with its case study on CCMC, I wanted to open a channel of communication where community media activists could demonstrate their importance, as a participatory-democratic force, but also as a creative force. We often underestimate the capacity of community media producers to engage with more artistic-creative repertoires, and I wanted to tap into these reservoirs.

35Respublika! then became a project with 18 art projects, partially created by so-called community media affiliated artists, which related to one of two types of creative practice: Participatory arts, and arts that thematized participation and democracy. As Respublika! curator, in collaboration with the arts centre NeMe and CCMC, I was able to use my expertise to give others a voice and to work with them in narrating a number of ideas that I found (and find) deeply relevant to contemporary societies, in particular the logics of participation, democratization and community self-expression, whether it is through community arts or community media production. Of course, I am not the only person on the planet doing projects like these. But we surely could have more people in communication and media studies doing these kinds of projects. In the meantime, the Respublika! catalogue has been published, so it is now up to the readers to evaluate whether this kind of work makes any sense in our field.

36What do you think is the place and the transformed role of alternative media in today’s digital ecosystem, which is characterized by interconnectedness and platforms seeking to monopolize media? How can it be reclaimed?

37Partially, my academic take on the role of technology in society is that I am trying to find a position in-between technological determinism and what Raymond Williams (2003) called “determined technologies”. I am trying to move away from both extreme positions and to find a theoretically middle ground… Again, many others have worked on this topic, and the discursive-material knot is just one way of looking at it… Because, of course, I would say that material technologies are articulated in assemblages together with meaning-making practices.

38I think I should also add that my interest in looking at alternative media and participatory practices is not restricted to a particular media technology. I am interested in participatory practices, full stop. I am of course aware that there is something like technological specificity and that each technology has its own affordances. As an assemblage, they are different. And I am obviously also aware that there is a digital media ecology, which is absorbing a lot of other technologies. But I am very uncomfortable with media-centrism. And I am even more wary of its more contemporary, and even more reductionist version, digital media-centrism, which seems to be evolving into the dominant modus for doing communication and media studies these days. This also means that I do not want to start my research from (media) technology and that I do not want to consider technology as my unique entry point for understanding social processes. I am much more of a communication sociologist, interested in looking at how people find their place within these media ecologies. How they organize themselves in that particular context. And how they then integrate technologies in that assemblage, using always particular technologies.

39In that sense, I do not want to restrict myself to critiquing technological determinism, or techno-optimism, either. That has been done, and rightfully so, but in the process, we locked ourselves in analytical dichotomies, such as the techno-utopianism versus techno-dystopianism, which has not been helpful on the long term. Finding richer models and frameworks of thinking about these relationships and interconnections, for instance between technological objects and individual users, always contextualized, is now more important. One example that I cherish, extensively discussed in the Media and Participation (2011) book, is the Kinoautomat, the first interactive film that was produced by the Barrandov Studios in Czechoslovakia. It was brought to Montreal for the 1967 world exhibition, and it was screened in the Czechoslovak Pavilion, where people were queueing for hours to get into and see this film.

40Kinoautomat, and its set-up, allowed people a choice between different narratives, through an organized series of voting moments. Through this procedure, viewers could generate their own viewing experience on the basis of their collective decision-making. It is a wonderful example, because this was 1967. There was no digital platform used, for the record [smiles]. This is film technology being used: Rather large projectors, which also brought about substantial technological problems. It was hard to stop a film projector quickly, as this might have damaged the film. The solution was provided by the projectionist, that had to place a lens cap in front of one of the two continuously running projectors. This also implied that there were only two options, and that the forked narrative structured could not branch out any further. Both narrative branches always met again, at some point, to then branch out again. I should also add that this was not a participatory film: The film production was still firmly in the hands of a group of professionals but the viewing experience had a modest participatory component. At the same time, this film, the projection space, the live moderators, even the audience members were part of a larger assemblage, that included the ideological project of the Czechoslovak communist party to show off the accomplishments of the regime at the world exhibition combined with the counter-hegemonic attempts by the film’s makers to hijack the platform to produce a reflection of film and democracy.

41Another reason for referring to the Kinoautomat is that we should always be aware of the histories of participation, and not fall into the trap of defining the contemporary era as the starting point, or even worse, the ultimate heydays of participatory practices. We should be careful not to label this period the end of participatory history. Apart from the problems related to endism, we should also avoid a too celebratory approach towards the digital. If you want to talk about digital technologies, digital platforms and participation, then I am not too sure that participation is maximized in the contemporary period. I am actually pretty sure that it is not, because a lot of commercial platforms have gained very strong power positions, for instance in how they deal with users. Here, we can use the distinction between participation in and participation through a particular technology (or organization, or process…). In particular, participation in social media organizations, focusing on the decisions that are made in these companies, is minimalist, if it is existent at all. Now, of course, there is participation through social media: People can indeed express and represent themselves, even though here too the situation is less straightforward as one often thinks.

42Still, if you look at the industry and at the possibilities of structural participation in these organizations, it is virtually absent, with only some forms of resistance, and some attempted negotiations... I had this wonderful discussion with Henry Jenkins (published in the journal Convergence [2013]), about participatory culture, and eventually we agreed that there was an increase in participatory intensities, but that we should also be a bit careful, and refer to more participatory culture, as a process and not to participatory culture as an achieved state of being. I do not want to fall into the trap of labeling this present-day conjuncture a maximalist participatory culture, because there are too many contradictions, frustrations, limitations… There is simply too little maximalist participation. It is more accurate, I think, to refers to today’s era as the era of minimalist participation.

43You have done much work on how media can be used to resist powers and offer alternative democratic rights, and especially communication rights. What would you see as the biggest challenge the world faces today in terms of communication rights?

44When I talk about participation, I talk about the redistribution of power, or about the equalization of power relations. To cut a long story short, that, for me, is the definition of participation. This definition, of participation as sharing power, contrasts with broader definitions of participation, that define participation as taking part. For me, when people take part in a particular process, without any redistribution of power, there is interaction, and not participation. After all, we have two different concepts, interaction and participation, and I do not think we should conflate them.

45For me, your question is a question about how we are doing when it comes to the redistribution of power. Obviously, not too well. We are living in what I would like to call the era of the both. We are living in an era where, more than before, we are able to express ourselves, to exercise these communication rights, to speak, sometimes even to listen—which is apparently much more difficult than speaking. We, in many parts of the world, are offered access to an incredible set of technologies that support us to do so. This is not just about present-day digital technologies, but, for instance, also about camcorders in the 1980s. The transformation of audiovisual recording devices, from the most clumsy, hard to move, expensive tools, to the accessible, highly portable and not-so-expensive tools, is simply spectacular. And all these technologies, always embedded in more democratic assemblages, actually support what Chantal Mouffe (2000, p. 1) calls the “democratic revolution”, a long-term process of social change where our democratic rights, political rights, and communication rights have increased.

46But the idea of the era of the both also refers to the inverse situation. We are living in an era where surveillance, where the disciplinary logics of state power, is substantial. We live in and with a culture of anxiety where even the signifier of solidarity has disappeared. We live in an era where nationalism, militarism, racism, sexism, agism, ableism and so many other “isms” have (re)gained prominent positions in so many different countries. Europe is impressively good in finding always new ways of putting the notion of la forteresse Europe into practice, with heavy-handed mechanisms of surveillance, of control, of oppression. It is of course nice to discuss communication rights, but if you are about to drown in the Mediterranean, your human rights are not necessarily very much respected. Even worse, the ghosts of those who did not make it, have to listen to the populist voices that tell them that their deaths was their own fault. And if you are lucky enough to make it across to Europe, this does not mean that your quality of life will improve. In many cases, you will end up in a refugee camp, being even more the object of state control.

47And if we look at the global context of perpetual war, that has become so prevalent, then we are not doing too well either. The large number of conflicts where the West got itself involved in, and where its interventions have become very disruptive elements, is fairly well-documented, I would add. In our own countries, we see the decrease of human rights, we see the contestations of democratic models of citizenship, we are giving up on civil liberties because of the anxieties caused by terrorism. That is the era of the both. We can speak, but many of us forget to speak about compassion and solidarity. We are living in an era where communication rights are being put into practice, but we are also living in an era where human rights are being discredited. I am not too optimistic about the direction we are moving into. Keeping in mind that the democratic revolution—and thus participation—is something that we have constructed, over a period of more than 200 years, we again might need to be more careful. It is an illusion that we are on a permanent trajectory of democratic progress. Obviously, at some point, we can shift into a regressive model that privileges authoritarian reflexes; and these can very easily destroy participatory logics and communication rights.

48You’ve done work on the World Summit for the Information Society (2003/2005). Especially on the idea of sustainable information society. So now, in the era of the both, how do you see that idea taking shape?

49The good side of this is that there is still a permanent push for communication rights, for a democratic and participatory information society, to use labels that have gotten a bit outdated. There is still a part of civil society that is keen on defending those principles. But it is also clear that the communication rights discourse has weakened, and the World Summit demonstrated that. But the good side is—and maybe I am now happy with a relatively small thing, but that should not spoil the fun—that there is still resistance, that there is still political activism that is arguing in favor of a more participatory information society. That is the good side.

50The dark side—and this analysis is part of the work that Bart Cammaerts and I were doing on the Information Society World Summit—also shows how troubling the dynamics of multi-stakeholderism were, and how state actors, with their own political agendas were still extremely strong players, able to impose definitions of the information society that were driven by capitalist logics and political objectives that had little to do with the democratization of society. This is the era of the both, again, with the balance slowly tipping towards the reduction of participation and democracy.

51Your work has a strong interdisciplinary tone. What would you say are the challenges and opportunities that communication and media studies face to favor interdisciplinary dialogues?

52The broadness of this question makes it difficult to answer. The first part of my answer is that there is a very complicated dynamics between whether we need to work for ourselves, as academics, and in particular as communication and media scholars, whether we have to defend our own discipline and propagate our own ideas through our research and teaching, or whether we should focus on assisting in the construction of a better society. Obviously, we need to balance both objectives, but creating that balance is probably not the easiest thing to do. What I am basically arguing for is that we should not fall into the narcissistic trap of focusing explicitly on what we do, forgetting that there is an outside world. We do not need an imperialist communication and media studies that is out to conquer the world. It needs to be a respectful dialogue, but we need to know our place in society, which is still about providing a service to society, which we sometimes forget. Returning, for just a second, to some of the exhibitions and photography work that I have been doing, that was one of its main motivations. Maybe this response is sort of a disclaimer: We need to be careful about our objectives, and not to create objectives that are, first of all, ethically problematic, and secondly, counter-productive. But we should also be very careful, as academics, not to be incorporated in a neo-liberal order, and protect our autonomy.

53Having said that, if we then have a closer look at our field of communication and media studies, I do believe that, by now, our field has been well-established. I actually like to call it a “discipline/field”. I prefer that formulation, because it refers to what we briefly talked about before, the necessary oscillation between the discipline and the field. I resent the closedness and self-centeredness that a discipline tends to produce but I also argue that the groundedness in a discipline remains important, because of the safety, protection and understanding that it offers. So, to return to the well-established nature of our discipline/field: if you look at what we have, for instance our international organizations, our publication outlets, our educational programs… We are pretty well-rooted. At the same time, we are—and that is another charming component of communication and media studies—quite open and in some cases even eager to engage in dialogues with other disciplines.

54And I prefer not to see that relationship being developed in antagonistic ways. The metaphor I started using for this, a few years ago, when I was talking about the dialogue between communication and media research in Latin America and Europe, is the sqridge (Carpentier, 2014). The word is the conflation of the square and the bridge. The argument behind this slightly eccentric concept is that having a bridge is not enough. A bridge reproduces dichotomies, it creates the idea that there are two solid entities that we need to connect. The idea of connectivity (captured by the notion of the bridge) is important, but at the same time we need to think about our discipline/field as a square, as an open space where we can enter, but also invite others to visit us and work with us, both intellectually, symbolically but also physically. Of course, we should not naively assume that everything is open, that there are no obstacles that require bridges. Enter the sqridge. It became my metaphor for capturing the idea that we need to bridge fissures and ravines, but we also need to create an environment where we can have multiple entry points and where there is more emphasis on diversity, moving away from antagonism. And here, the concept of agonism proves helpful again: We need to move away from antagonistic relationships with other disciplines and develop more agonistic relationships which acknowledge difference, and where we do not attempt to assimilate each other. We need to create more of these squares that are bridges at the same time.

55Finally, there might still be a need reflect more on who we are. Of course, self-reflexivity in academia can easily turn into narcissism, so care is needed. Still, one area, where I think a lot of work still needs to be done, is on the role of the “and” between “communication” and “media” in the name of our discipline/field. We always talk about communication and media studies, but we do not sufficiently think through what that “and” means. For me, this is particularly important because I also want to move away (and stay away) from a media-centric communication and media studies. I, for instance, prefer to create more connections between communication studies and discourse studies. This is my agenda, and this is one of the issues that I am committed to. One new project here is the edited volume entitled Communication and Discourse Theory [forthcoming in 2019], edited together with Leen Van Brussel and Benjamin De Cleen. This articulation of communication studies and discourse studies feeds the need to reflect about that “and” in the name of our discipline/field, to think through more what our objects of study are. These three little letters are a key and an entry point into that very necessary discussion.

56Finally, I would like to know more about your coedited work on the social construction of death, how would you say this topic fits with your other research?

57You have kept the best topic until last [laughs]. There are a couple of connections, and that brings me back to democracy and participation. Because democracy has its opposite side—there is a moment where democracy stops being democracy. War is the moment when democracy is suspended or destroyed, depending on the kind of violent conflict. If you are interested in democracy, as a way to pacify conflict, then its opposite, the dark forces of death and destruction, are important. In the edited book you are referring to référence [The Social Construction of Death, 2014], I have a chapter entitled “Ethics, Killing and Dying”, which deals with the (at least for me) fascinating question, how to ethically legitimate the killing of another human being, and the different (and competing) normative frameworks that can be tapped into to reject, accept or celebrate killing during violent conflict. If we are to understand agonism, we also need to understand these radical forms of antagonism.

58This brings me to another link, which relates to my interest in discourse studies, the interaction between the discursive and the material, and in particular the dynamics of contingency and rigidity. My deeply rooted relation with post-structuralist thought translates in a fascination for contingency, not as an always present condition, but as a baseline of the social, requiring us to always generate fixations and sedimentations. Death produced a fascinating counter-case, an intellectual challenge, as death is seen as the ultimate materiality, where contingency stops short. So, I wanted to understand better the discursive and the contingent components of death… One article I wrote about this is actually entitled “On the contingency of death” (Carpentier & Van Brussel, 2012). This article deals with questions like: Where is the discursive in this? How is death discursively constructed, in knotted, entangled interactions with that materiality? And how do we deal with the paradox where you cannot think death when you are dead? A lot of our thinking about death is organized through references to the living. Think about the metaphors of sleeping and resting, as, for instance, captured by the expression: Rest in peace. These metaphors are indications of the discursive environment that gets activated when we start thinking through what death actually means, not being capable to think death from the position of the dead. That is just one tiny example from that theoretical work on the contingency of death. It is very counter-intuitive, and it does require a bit of context to explain that I think death is contingent. It raises an eyebrow or two, when I talk about it, which I can understand. But there is a good case to be made, namely that you need—to use a Lacanian formulation—the symbolic to access the Real. We are humans, after all [smiles]. Death is a radical case study of that relationship between the material and discursive: Extremely challenging and extremely fascinating at the same time.

59Thank you for this conversation.

60You are most welcome.

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Batistová, A. & Carpentier, N. (2018). Constructing the Czech nation. A discursive-theoretical analysis of the articulation of the nation in the cultural magazines produced by Czech WWII London exiles. Journal of Language and Politics. doi:

Carpentier, N. (1999). Beelden van prostituées: de discursieve strijd om de subjectpositie [Images of prostitutes: The discursive struggle over the subject position]. Communicatie: Tijdschrift voor Communicatiewetenschap en mediacultuur, 28(2), 21-44.

Carpentier, N. (2011). Media and Participation: A Site of Ideological-Democratic. Bristol, Angleterre/ Chicago, IL: Intellect.

Carpentier, N. (2014). On Walls, Squares, Bridges and Sqridges A framework to think about North-South dialogues in communication and media studies. Journal of Latin American Communication Research, 4(1), 12-29. Retrieved from

Carpentier, N. (2017). The Discursive-Material Knot. New York, NY: Peter Lang.

Carpentier, N. (2019). Respublika! Experiments in the Performance of Participation and Democracy. Limassol, Cyprus: NeMe.

Carpentier, N. & Van Brussel, L. (2012). On the contingency of death: a discourse-theoretical perspective on the construction of death. Critical Discourse Studies, 9(2), 99-115. doi:

Doudaki, V. & Carpentier, N. (Eds) (2018). Cyprus and its Conflicts: Representations, Materialities, and Cultures. New York, NY/Oxford, UK: Berghahn Books.

Jenkins, H. & Carpentier, N. (2013). Theorizing participatory intensities. A conversation about participation and politics. Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, (3), 265-286. doi:

Hall, S. (1992). Cultural Studies and its Theoretical Legacies. In L. Grossberg, C. Nelson & P. Treichler (Eds), Cultural Studies (p. 277-294). New York, NY/London, UK : Routledge.

Mouffe, C. (2000). The Democratic Paradox. London, UK: Verso.

Mouffe, C. (2013). Agonistics. Thinking the World Politically. London, UK: Verso.

Trivundža, I. T., Nieminen, H., Carpentier, N. & Trappel, J. (Eds) (2018). Critical Perspectives on Media, Power and Change. New York, NY: Routledge.

Van Brussel, L., Carpentier, N. & De Cleen, B. (Ed.) (Forthcoming). Communication and Discourse Theory. Collected Works of the Brussels Communication and Discourse Theory Group. Bristol, UK/Chicago, IL: Intellect and The University of Chicago Press.

Van Brussel, L. & Carpentier, N. (2014). The Social Construction of Death. Brasingstoke, England/New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Van Hove, E., Carpentier, N. & Knops, N. (1995). Jongeren, seks en AIDS herbekeken (Youngsters, seks and AIDS reconsidered). Leuven, Belgium/Apeldoorn, Netherlands: Garant.

Williams, R. (2003). Television. Technology and Cultural Form. London, UK: Routledge.

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1 With great thanks to Hélène Jutras for translating the original version of the interview into French, and to Kirill Filimonov for transcribing the English version of the interview.

2 Hall (1992) famously wrote he was dealing with questions that implied “working within shouting distance of Marxism, working on Marxism, working against Marxism, working with it, working to try to develop Marxism” (p. 280).

3 Carpentier (2019), and see:

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Nico Carpentier et David Grondin, « Stretching the Frontiers of Communication and Media Studies »Communiquer, 23 | 2018, 155-170.

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Nico Carpentier et David Grondin, « Stretching the Frontiers of Communication and Media Studies »Communiquer [En ligne], 23 | 2018, mis en ligne le 01 septembre 2018, consulté le 19 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Nico Carpentier

Professor, Department of Media Studies
Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic (and Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium, and Uppsala University, Sweden)

Nico Carpentier is Docent at Charles University in Prague. He also holds part-time positions at Uppsala University and the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB – Free University of Brussels). Moreover, he is a Research Fellow at the Cyprus University of Technology and Loughborough University. Earlier, he was ECREA Treasurer (2005-2012) and Vice-President (2008-2012), and IAMCR Treasurer (2012-2016). Currently, he is Chair of the Participatory Communication Research Section at IAMCR. His latest books are The Discursive-Material Knot: Cyprus in Conflict and Community Media Participation (2017, Peter Lang), Cyprus and its Conflicts. Representations, Materialities, and Cultures (2018, co-edited), Critical Perspectives on Media, Power and Change (2018, co-edited) and Respublika! Experiments in the Performance of Participation and Democracy (2019, edited).

David Grondin

Professor, Département de communication
Université de Montréal, Canada

David Grondin is Associate Professor in the Communication department of the Université de Montréal, where he is teaching international communication, media studies, political communication, and popular culture. Moreover, he is a researcher affiliated to the Centre international de criminologie comparée and to the CÉRIUM (Centre d’études et de recherches internationales de l’Université de Montréal). In its research, David Grondin both mobilizes communication and media studies, notably popular culture, cultural industries and cultural studies scholarship, as well as issues of mobility and surveillance, with a reflection that addresses power manifestations in communication and the effects of communications. Its research is divided into three main areas: 1) the surveillance of mobilities, the algorithmic security and the techno-political infrastructures governing North American border areas; 2) the militarization of everyday life, the surveillance society and the culture of the US “national security state”; and 3) popular culture and American media cultures, with a focus on war and surveillance on the small and the big screen.

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