“A feature, not a bug” – IAMCR 2019
IAMCR in Madrid, Spain, from July 7 until July 11 at the Facultad de Ciencias de la Información at UCM. Some things worked, others did not, for instance providing sufficient space for all accepted speakers. Still, those of us who made it, enjoyed another conference of critical thought and research. Our biggest praise and criticism this year: the most interesting talks came from junior scholars, especially women, people of color and from the global south.
“A feature, not a bug” – IAMCR 2019
A conference report by Mandy Tröger and Kerem Schamberger
First off, we like IAMCR. We attend the conference every year, if we can. True, IAMCR is more expensive than other conferences due to its philosophy of sharing conversations over meals. This year, the catering unfortunately invited to share thoughts on its lacking quality and quantity: some attendees stopped eating, others started bringing their own snacks. We do not want to ponder on this but we take it as a proof that communication, networking and good food go hand in hand.
Every year, we are being reaffirmed that IAMCR is an important, informative and intellectually engaging international conference, one that combines academic research, a political agenda and activism. It is one of the very few places where academics do not need to explain or justify working in the critical tradition, we just do it. And every year, we write about our conference experiences (2017 in Cartagena, Colombia, and 2018, in Oregon, United States) and we praise and criticize. Doing the latter is easy. It takes less effort to criticize all the things a conference failed to do rather than appreciating all that was accomplished. When we write, it means we care enough to put in the effort. This is our small contribution to improving everyone’s conference experience next year.
The most innovative and interesting research in Madrid came from junior scholars, for instance, in the Political Economy section. It were not necessarily the highly attended panels with the big names that shed new light on current conditions but those placed at 8:30 a.m. on Wednesday morning: “Digital Finance and Digital Capitalism,” two women, Xiaofei Han (Canada) and Anuradha Bhattacharjee (India), and Benjamin Birkinbine, a junior scholar from the US. A panel on ownership but also on national and language diversity of what we tend to see as state entities. The follow-up discussion evolved around solutions, which turned what is generally a “bleak and pessimistic room” (as one audience member called it) into a space of constructive outlook: becoming aware again that teaching is a privilege as a means of emancipation (not a burden in the way of tenure). Working with students allows us to jointly question dominant practices and to offer alternatives, for instance, by doing hands-on workshops on open-source software. In the face of growing tendencies to self-promote also within the academy, it is important to remember that neither our students nor we are “brands” but that we do this work for a reason.
This reason is awareness, resistance and change. These features drive the research presented at IAMCR; they are the common ground that connects the plurality of sections and methodological and theoretical approaches. In this, as Sarah Roberts (UCLA) reminded us in the panel on “Resisting Precarity and Exploitation in Media Industries” with regard to digital labor, capitalist exploitation and the coopting of resistance movements are “a feature, not a bug.” They are intrinsic to what we study and they increasingly shape our own working conditions as well as the ways we think about them. To simply accept them is not the answer and IAMCR is a good place to be reminded of that.
Roberts was also one of the few English natives speakers coming from the United States who made her background and research outlook an explicit part of her talk. This was a welcomed exception. Western centrism is still driving academic research and the language employed in its service. All too often it is the implicit assumption that we all know about the context of research that focuses, for instance, on the United States. This is not the case and why should it be? Contextualizing one’s research, giving insights into the social and cultural conditions or explaining what institutions stand for should not only be the task of academics whose research is concerned with non-Western regions. In addition to the remaining advantage of English native speakers, IAMCR would benefit from a more practiced awareness of how the academy itself continues Western-centric assumptions and privileges in research.
Some conference participants were surprised that Yoani Sánchez was part of the second big panel. She is (with generous Western financial support) one of the best-known Cuban dissidents. On her blog Generation Y Sánchez writes on everyday life in Cuba, partly based on unsubstantiated rumors. Nonetheless, her articles are being re-published in big daily newspapers such as the Huffington Post (USA), the New York Times (ibid.), El Pais (Spain) or Die Welt (Germany). At IAMCR, Sánchez sat in a panel with the researcher and lawyer Malavika Jayaram (Hong Kong, Digital Asia Hub) and Monroe E. Price (USA, Annenberg School for Communication) to discuss the important topic of “Communication, Technology and Freedom”.
While Monroe E. Price surprised the participants by showing a video featuring himself on communication of the future (soon on the IAMCR website), Sánchez’ talk was an expected disappointment. Referring to the report recently published on Venezuela by the UN Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet, Sánchez claimed it to mirror Cuba:
“I read that report to myself as someone who reviews a familiar story. Have you ever reviewed a text that tells a story so close that it is painful to you (…) because it is too familiar? Well, that’s exactly what I felt.”
Bachelet’s report states that 5.300 people have been killed by security forces in Venezuela this last year alone (which has recently been contradicted by various media reports, left-wing organizations and citizens whose family members have been killed by the right-wing opposition). No doubt, the situation in Venezuela is a dramatic one but Sánchez, in following her own agenda, conveniently left out all criticism of the Bachlet report and made no effort to distinguish between historical realities in Cuba and current conditions in Venezuela.
While we support the tradition of IAMCR to invite critical voices on political and economic oppression, we also believe it to be important to step outside of such black-and-white narratives. Despite all justified criticism of the Cuban government, there would have been more insightful speakers on Cuban society than Sánchez who is making a living off of bashing it. Many IAMCR participants reacted with incomprehension to this invitation and we cannot help but agree. This was only one example to a more general problem: we have too much black-and-white narratives as it is, IAMCR is the space to overcome them.
According to Peter Thompson (New Zealand) at a business meeting, this year’s conference struggled with a “cluster of problems,” which led to various “hick-ups:” the registration process (no sufficient space), catering (low quality), the program (confusion due to different versions), local organization (wifi problems). In particular the registration issues had called for pre-conference email warnings and eventually made for several unintended non-participants. These issues were followed by serious discussions amongst sections heads and appeals to the council. Steps are being taken to avoid these problems in the coming year but if there was one positive side-effect to the scarcity of space, we would like to mention it here: there were no no-shows in any of the panels we went to. We would wish this to continue next year, as it shows a greater appreciation for the opportunity to speak at IAMCR.
Other positive changes and developments: the Political Economy section has its own journal (www.polecom.org) and the small post-socialist and post-authoritarian working group has changed its name to “communication in post- and neo-authoritarian societies.” Anyone interested in this topic may continue networking at the annual Moscow Readings conference (October 17 and 18, at Moscow State University), submissions are still welcome. Also, in the anticipation of next year’s IAMCR in Beijing, several pre-conferences are in planing, giving more space to intriguing research.
IAMCR-president Janet Wasko also addressed concerns over potential problems regarding critical research (e.g. on surveillance) in Beijing. According to Wasko, a “memo of understanding” declares that individual sections will work on programs “autonomously” – it is a declaration of intend but it is a good, first step. This will not take care of visa issues but these issues exist no matter where we go (as Kerem Schamberger experienced this year with ICA).
Our conclusion: regardless the “hick-ups,” IAMCR is a strengthening conference experience in particular for young scholars. Neoliberal thinking increasingly sets the conditions within which we work and it is more important than ever to appreciate the spaces created by this gathering of critical researchers and activists. Until next year!
Recommended citation format
Mandy Tröger & Kerem Schamberger: “A feature, not a bug” – IAMCR 2019. In: Michael Meyen (Hrsg.): Medienrealität 2019. https://medienblog.hypotheses.org/6190 (Date of access)
Pictures: Kerem Schamberger