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M/C Journal, Vol. 14, No. 5 (2011) - 'zone'


Our challenge for this special issue was to describe and analyse the zones we live in and to a large extent take for granted.  There are micro zones. These are small intimate spaces that are very temporary and circumscribe activity between two or three people. The second category of zone is we might call mezzo or mid-range zones. These are zones wherein activities that occupy us for several hours take place. These could include bars, restaurants, playgrounds, and of course the rooms in a house or workplace. Finally there is the city level macro zone. Most of us live in cities. This is an aggregation of time and space we relate to and identify with over a long period of time. We identify with city sports teams and landmarks. For various reasons to do with cultural evolution cities are symbolically important to how we live and form our identity. City zones are meaningful to us.

Zones proscribe and prescribe, but usually without any visible rules. They enable and govern complex social routines without anyone being able to explicitly explain how. They encode narratives spatially. That is, zones as spaces, have material, social and symbolic layers. The material environment is the most basic layer of a zone, that is, buildings, furniture, roads and so on. However zones have two other important layers. The first is the social layer—that is, the people that are in the zone. In addition zones have a symbolic layer—that is the meanings that are found or created in the zone. This includes the aesthetic style; the actual and implicit messages in the space, as well as any personal associations the place may have or invoke. Clearly zones operate at different scales, in different time frames, and with different symbol systems. However, they no longer need be actual spaces at all, because many zones we now inhabit are purely virtual or purely discursive. Zones can be virtual too, such as Facebook. Zones can be an area of conversation as implied in the phrase “Lets not go there!” We now think and talk as if our mind was spatial.

Perhaps a zone might be defined as a bounded system of agents and resources, governed by a unified and discoverable set of rules, which determine relationships that dictate how agents and resources are linked. Or perhaps you prefer the dramaturgical metaphors of front and back stage, actors, roles, scripts, and choreographies. But the truth is, there is no agreed definition or theorisation, although many disciplines use the term freely (e.g. cultural geography; urban planning; human ecology). Papers were invited therefore to interrogate the notion of zone from any disciplinary perspective, or which reflected on a particular zone, either fictional or actual, to uncover the alchemy of its operation.

Jeremy Hunsinger invites us to think about a street-corner, as an “interzone,” a complex assemblage of meanings, things, and people. Here the material infrastructure, the road, the sidewalk, the streetlights with their cabling and electrical grid, the sewers, and their gutters, intermix within semiotic and governmentality politics. He argues zones are inscribed by codes and conventions to form pragmatic regimes through which we enact our lives and our roles. Though these zones are integral to our lives, we are “zoned out” about the zones in which we live. That is, dispersal of these zones has impeded our awareness of them and disguised the meanings we can assign to them. Through this dispersal they are alienated from our subjective experience within our day-to-day experiences of integrated world capitalism. The challenge of knowing an interzone is a challenge of territorialisation, and thus of subjective awareness. To operate with subjective awareness within these zones is form of semiological guerilla warfare, allowing us to interpret, and influence the governance of, our techno-semiological existence. The paper seeks to “challenge us to rethink our subjective positions in relation to zones, their aesthetics, and their legitimation as functions of semiological warfare … to find new opportunities to make a mess of these spaces, to transgress and create new spaces of autonomy for ourselves and future participants in the zones.”

Suneel Jethani takes a similar point of theoretical departure and describes a new media project which does just this, by injecting various “voices” and subjectivities into a digital cartography of Bangalore. By focusing on the social relations embedded within the cartographic text(s), the project demonstrates the kind of politically oriented tactical media that Jeremy Hunsinger calls for in his paper. This “praxis-logical” approach allows for a focus on the project as a space of aggregation and the communicative processes set in motion within them. In analysing such projects we could (and should) be asking questions such as—“Who has put it forward? Who is utilising it and under what circumstances? Where and how has it come into being? How does discourse circulate within it? How do these spaces as sites of emergent forms of resistance within global capitalism challenge traditional social movements? How do they create self-reflexive systems?”

The focus on the integration of digital affordances within the social/spatial realm continues with Adam Ruch and Steve Collins’s examination of the nature of the architecture of social media and their influence on definitions of identities and relationships. What are the effects on one’s social relations and therefore social identity of, for example, whether one chooses to use friends lists on Facebook or “circles” of different social categories as on Google+. The paper investigates the challenges involved in moving real life to the online environment and the contests in trying to designate social relational zones. They argue that in contrast to early utopia visions of social identity online, we are increasingly obligated to perform identity as it is defined by corporate monoliths such as Facebook and Google+. They suggest the new social practice of “being online” is just as pervasive as “being elsewhere”. Put another way we could ask: “Are social media an instance of the primacy of technological mediation of identity over social constructions of identity?”

To remind us that identity is still thoroughly spatial—as well as digital—we next examine Michelle Hall's autoethnography of identity making in the intimate zone of a neighbourhood bar. Bars provide a shifting space where identifications are fluid, unpredictable, and thus open to opportunistic breaches. This unpredictability, and the interaction strategies we adopt to negotiate it, suggest ways in which a certain kind of third place experience can be developed and maintained in the contemporary inner city, where consumption based socialising is high, but where people are also mobile and less tied into fixed patterns of patronage. Nevertheless this process still involves a significant amount of emotional work. Establishing “a place where everybody knows your name” may not be likely. However Michelle's paper suggests that in consumption driven inner city zones, regular identification that operates at the boundaries of social realms can support a version of the easier friendship and congeniality that “third places” are hoped to offer. 

Giovani Semi describes and analyses the kinds of neighbourhoods in which such activities might take place, describing them as zones of authentic pleasure. His case study of gentrification of a Milanese neighbourhood—the Isola crossroads—argues that the multiple activities of small entrepreneurs and social actors can create zones of pleasure and authenticity—a softer side of gentrification. He in effect argues for a different kind of intervention to advance semiological warfare we referred to earlier, one in which local actors and passers-by contribute to the local making of atmosphere via daily consumption routines. The production of “atmosphere” in a gentrifying neighbourhood goes together with customers’ taste and preferences. The supply-side of building the aesthetic for a “pleasant” zone needs a demand-side, consumers buying, supporting, and appreciating the outcome of the activities of the entrepreneurs.

Similar themes are explored by Donell Holloway and David Holloway who examine everyday routines and social relationships, when moving through and staying in liminal or atypical zones of tourist locales. Their key question is to ask how domestic zones are carried into, and maintained in tourist zones. In the case of the “grey nomads” they interview, mobile living quarters play a key role. More specifically, “the ‘everyday zone’ refers to the routines of quotidian life, or the mundane practices which make up our daily, at-home lives. These practices are closely connected with the domestic realm and include consumption practices (clothing, cooking, mass media) and everyday social interactions. The ‘tourist zone’ is similarly concerned with consumption. In this zone, however, tourists are seen to consume places; the culture, landscape, and peoples of exotic or out-of-the-ordinary tourist locales.”

The next paper provides us with a link between zones which are first and foremost spatial and those which a more purely discursive. Deb Waterhouse-Watson and Adam Brown introduce Levi’s notion of “The Grey Zone” (published in 1986), based on Jewish prisoners in the Nazi-controlled camps and ghettos who obtained “privileged” positions in order to prolong their survival. Reflecting on the inherently complex power relations in such extreme settings, Levi positions the “grey zone” as a metaphor for moral ambiguity: a realm with “ill-defined outlines which both separate and join the two camps of masters and servants”. They then apply this to the issue of sexual assault within football culture in Australia and the representation of this in broadcast media. They argue that “Levi’s concept of the ‘grey zone’ helps elucidate the fraught issue of women’s potential complicity in a rape culture, a subject that challenges both understanding and representation. Despite participating in a culture that promotes the abuse, denigration, and humiliation of women, the roles of [the women involved], cannot in any way be conflated with the roles of the perpetrators of sexual assault. These and other “grey zones” need to be constantly rethought and renegotiated in order to develop a fuller understanding of human behaviour”.

Our final paper similarly tackles a zone which is primarily discursive in nature namely “media spin zones” in political campaigns. In their examination of the American presidential elections Kara Stooksbury, Lori Maxwell, and Cynthia Brown usefully deploy the zone metaphor to analyse the pragmatics of a political communication system that has enormous stakes for the world. Using examples from the two most recent presidential elections, they draw attention to two separate, yet interrelated spin zones integral to understanding media/presidential relations—what they term the presidential spin zone and the media spin zone. The interplay between these zones determines the fate of elections. They discuss how the presidency can use image priming—that is ameliorating negative media portrayals and capitalising on positive portrayals, to effectively counterattack the media spin zone.

From the intimate to the macro-urban; from the geographic to the discursive, the range of investigations in this issue shows that the idea of zones in social life can be applied meaningfully. They demonstrate the link between the way we think about our environment and the environments themselves. They also demonstrate the role of the media—both old and new—in refracting and morphing the operation of zones. The underlying theoretical architecture is eclectic, and the implied praxis at times, seemingly at odds, but as a whole they provide us with new insights into how the zones we live in effect our identity, community, ethics and politics. We commend these papers then, as an insightful response to our provocation to consider the concept of zone and its impact on our lives.