IAMCR in Trump’s America (english)

Thoughts on the 2018 conference in Eugene, Oregon (USA), June 20-24. A report by Mandy Tröger

It might seem ironic that the first conference in the history of IAMCR taking place in the United States happened during the Trump administration. It was a choice heavily criticized in its run-up. The theme “Reimagining Sustainability” further emphasized the gap between academic aim and political realities: environmental policies under Trump are neither concerned with the environment nor with policy-making, and news reports of children, separated from their families and contained in cages at the US border, only added to a sense of urgency and disconnect.

Eugene, Oregon

Still, Eugene, Oregon, a progressively green, small city in the northwestern part of the US had its own incentives to temporarily push aside those realities. With locals uncommonly friendly and open, the beautiful campus of the University of Oregon, an excellent conference organization and the exquisite catering, one was tempted to get lost in the academic bubble. Also, the rather low number of participants gave this year’s conference a cozy feeling – instead of generally 1.500, this year, there were only 900 attendees. The question as to why that was brought up different answers: for US-Americans, Eugene was not incentive enough, for international guests it was generally hard to reach and/or too expensive, and for quite a few, the journey to Eugene was unwanted and/or impossible for political reasons.

For those who did attend, IAMCR 2018 offered a progressive island of opportunities: US colleagues found a space for exchanging ideas, frustrations and analyses on the current political climate in the US; for internationals, it allowed insights into social realities and alternative movements in the US generally absent from media coverage abroad. The defining features of IAMCR to push questions of social relevance and to aim for low hierarchies amongst conference participants generally worked again: one could chat over lunch with Kaarle Nordestreng and discuss Critical Theory over beer with Douglas Kellner.

The latter also presented a plenary talk on “Donald Trump, Media Spectacle, and the Crisis of White Male Patriarchy.” Exciting title, but ultimately a missed opportunity in a crucial moment of time. Neither Trump’s white masculinity was critically analyzed nor was it laid out convincingly in how far white male privilege really is in crisis. It was a reminder that we all hold the responsibility to make the best of the time and space given to us at conferences such as these. It also pointed to the special role in particular senior scholars hold who have the experience, knowledge and ability to substantially analyze and historize current realities, rather than replay their greatest hits.

Maybe this critique roots in the misplaced and disappointed hope that the (mainly white, male) pioneers of the field can offer reason and guidance in times of disorientation. It is a task they did not ask for and they increasingly do not (and cannot) fulfill. It only emphasizes that we need to break with old patterns to face old and new challenges, and it is on all of us to the take responsibility.

Also at the plenary session: Albana Shala, an Eastern European UNESCO official whose account on life behind the Iron Curtain fully satisfied Western narratives of Cold War oppression. Raised in the reality of George Orwell’s 1984, she escaped to the free West to now fight for democratic media worldwide. Though admirable in intent and understandable with regard to IAMCR’s history, such talks do not quite fit its frame, for it has also always been at the forefront to break with such black-and-white narratives. Especially given current US corporate media and communication realities, such talks put to a test the uncritical idea of an exported “free media” worldwide. It does not need Orwell’s state of oppression if Huxley’s version of willful submission and social blindness keeps people complicit.

Thus, this year’s IAMCR was defined by dissonance, which was less specific to the conference than its critics would have it to be. Rather, dissonance is everyday reality in the USA. It is the gap between progressive islands of thought and action, and a growing rejection to think and act at all. And though the Trump administration was ever-present in (in)formal talks, this was also more a reflection of US realities than it was specific to the conference. IAMCR could and should have been the venue for outspoken critique, for more voice, and more radicalism with a clear focus on growing fascist and nationalist tendencies around the world. This could have redefined its initial disadvantage of location to an advantage of action. It was a missed chance. What came to the fore, however, was that also the academic bubble must eventually burst in the face of a political reality that stings so many.

Pictures: Mandy Tröger

Recommended citation format
Mandy Tröger: IAMCR in Trump’s Amerika. Thoughts on the 2018 conference in Eugene, Oregon (USA), June 20-24. In: Michael Meyen (Hrsg.): Medienrealität 2018. https://medienblog.hypotheses.org/1560 (access date)


Michael Meyen

Michael Meyen ist seit 2002 Professor für Allgemeine und Systematische Kommunikationswissenschaft an der LMU München.

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