Posted by: Richard Chennault | November 18, 2006

Revitalization of the Public Sphere on super-capitalist grounds

I’ve been reading a book of essays critiquing the Public Sphere by Jurgen Habermas. The essayists are critiquing the theory in order to improve on or identify the deficiencies of the theory of Public Sphere. This is my second time reading the book. The first was a decade ago and my internalization of the material was temporal up to the point of passing an exam.

As a maturing adult I’ve begun to carve out time to reflect upon life or what Habermas and others refer to as the lifeworld. It may be because age is settling upon me and wisdom is ever patiently creeping into my being or that I’ve simply become immune to the opiate addition products of the culture industry. To be quite plebian I’ve become bored of my Xbox and hate ‘reality’ television. Therefore I find myself with an inordinate amount of time to reflect on life, universe and the meaning of it all.

I now suffer the withdrawals from the culture industry. Without mass media to cruelly succor me into thralldom their itches in me a deep urge to forever break free of the banal and enter into the enlighten echelons of the rational thinker and begin particpation in the discourse of public matters. I find myself motivated by fear of sliding back to the addiction of ignorance. I equally am compelled onward by each knowledge discovery that surface up from the well spring of thought like the sun finally breaking through the heavy dreary of long cold winter.

This is my problem, my soul’s burden. For how to escape the repressiveness of the machine when wherever the eye darts titillating seductions draw us back into the machines embrace like a familiar lover.

But enough of sentimental prose and on with the rational critical investigation that has led me to this fount of knowledge. Broken free from the shackles of the dull I’ve time to reflect upon the body politic. And so as a friend so succinctly stated,
“I think therefore I am dangerous” I plod on.   Now on with the show; the culture industry is designed to prevent rational critical discourse in order for status queue of the separate but not equal hegemonies of the state and late-capitalist democracy controlled by the super-capitalist our modern day robber baron.

Before you write me off as being one with the paranoid fringe please remember that the idea of the culture industry deadening the dendrites of the private homme or man is not my idea but one well understood and documented by media critiques and social philosophers. I’m not alone in thinking TV is bad for the brain. Just turn off the TV for a week, isolate yourself from the rhythmic lulling hum of the radio and turn your sight from the pulp of print and discover what waits. I think you may discover a world of beauty that has been at tip of fingers desperately wishes for you to drink of its sweet nectar and breathe deep of its cleansing waters.

And so motivated by personal boredom, work repetition and political events the questions of theories of communication once again haunt the recesses of my mind. Habermas’ concept of the public sphere was rooted in the 17th century bourgeois experience born out of the Greek polis. From Aristotle to Caesar and from the Enlightenment to modern day there has existed, in various forms, public sphere accessible to all who have the right keys to unlock its potential.

Of the many things that can be understood of the public sphere of certainty is the level of discrimination within the marketplace of ideas. Certainly Aristotle’s ability to contemplate the role of state vs. the private was born upon the backs of family, workers and slaves. He was the apex of his culture and enjoyed rights and privileges uncommon to those to which he ostensibly represented. Continuing forth in history we observe name changes but little else in the who makes up the primary speakers. From Aristotle to Rousseau and Martin Luther to Pope Benedict XVI the public sphere is dominated by the cultural ethnocentricity of the male sex.

Today the public sphere is vibrated with the noise of the denizens of super-capitalist, irrationals and partisan rankist. The names have drifted to the fringes of the sphere but their ideas are firmly rooted in the patriarchical dominance from whence they came. The noise dampens the sound of the well reasoned rationalist. It marginalizes their voice and ability to set in communication action that results in public opinion.

It is probable that it would be far easier for a subsistence society to form an ideal public sphere than it would be for modernity in all its splendor to create even a mediocre public sphere. Instead our modernity presents us with a populace cowed by the tyranny of the super-capitalist and state. Truly a pessimistic statement and perhaps one that modernity can not solve without progress to postmodernism and anarchy (note I reference anarchy in the political sense).

However until that dreadfully joyous day we must toil in tumult within the incandescent neon light of the cathode ray tube. Thus I believe it is meritorious to continue to strive towards a working public sphere in modernity if at all possible. For what is the worth of struggle if not in the hope that common good is achievable?

Thus I concern myself with where possible public sphere(s) can exist in modern life and how the mundane can be reinvented as to invigorate the public sphere. The initial locale is a first step outside of the private home. In suburbia the life of the modern man (or woman) is contained by the four walls of home and the space between neighbor and neighborly participant engagement in the public sphere is a gulf that is not often closed. The distance between private home and public discourse when the participants are meters away exposes matters truly private to the view of the public participant and thus constrains both to a predetermined set of topics.

Some sociologists maintain that by removing sentimental and cultural differences individuals can free themselves of the persuasive chains of private life. These rational men through bracketing are thus made equals in order to prevent emotive argument based on intimate knowledge of private lifehood. If for example a participant (Thomas Jefferson) was proffering the ideas of emancipation of all people yet within his household slavery was practiced then it is reasonable to assume the neighbor would question the authenticity of the argument not based on the validity of the case but instead on personal observation of the intimate. While logical rules of argument may help ameliorate the privilege of intimate knowledge I do not believe it is enough to prevent the baser ego from asserting claims of authenticity derived from voyeurism. Consequently neighbors make poor colleagues when the matters of public opinion may result in direct state intrusion of the private and thus cause deterioration of neighborly behavior.

Instead tools of modernity enable us to breach the captive walls of urban confinement and reach across the greater vastness of community and engage in dialogue with relative anonymity. However anonymity prevents ideal discussion in the public sphere because questions of motive can not be assessed and thus critique of ideas are difficult to maintain. I’ll side step the question of benefits and cost of anonymity in the public sphere. Instead let us presume that the tools of modernity enable us to have comfortable space between our truly private and that of our public selves. Therefore we can represent our ideals and not our reality. For it is our reality we wish to change in the public sphere that left to our own devices in private we can not. For what good is emancipation of a people in private land if those freed would simply be re-subjugated once departing from the protection of the private home?

Now let us direct the glow of the CRT and illuminate the communication channels that are at our disposal for expressing our public opinion. Specifically let us concern our attention with digital based communication channels. Blogs, discussion threads and email are potential enablers for creating public sphere. Certainly we have seen an explosive growth of these channels in the past decade with the new millennium culmination of social software.

The blog is a powerful communication tool that gives verbalization to sentiments regarding the rightful affairs of the public. However the mass communication capability of the blog is limited if not already completely castigated by old-world bureaucracy. Blogs and other like discursive channels of communication are constrained two fold. First by the elitism of the medium itself and by afore mentioned old-world media rankism.

However breaking the bonds of the western capitalist viewpoint is possible through initial association with equally imbalanced alternative viewpoints. The feminist thinker Nancy Fraser refers to these alternative viewpoints as weak public spheres. Their legitimacy as a normal public sphere is only marginalized to the point of extremeness of the alternatives to which the weak sphere advocates. The probability of success to be heard above the canopy of pulp publication is limited to those who are looking.
Thus a participants ability to reach even a like minded minority is difficult. Existing technology solutions in place seem to only serve reinforcement of rankism vs. aggregation of the truly diverse discourse.

Blogs must be augmented by mechanisms that ensure greater distribution of the communication to the public. Couple blogs with a way to mass project the voice of the blog then the public sphere participants will be able to hear and rationally debate the merits of the opinion. Immediately items such as opt-in feeds seem to address the limitation by instantly creating an alert to interested parties that a participant has spoken. The shortcoming of really simple syndication (RSS) is that it requires first that a participant in the public sphere be aware of the existence of another. Unlike the French salon or the London tea-houses of eras past there is no visceral expression of participant gathering and thus the existence of participant opinion will only last as long as the attention of the group to which know of the blog.

There are of course additional measure as to how the distribution of the content can be magnified in order to reach more participants. But no matter how wide the potential of distribution through public channels of new media there are still limits to which the public opinion formed therein has on state and super-capitalist. For while old media eclipses in consumption that of new and both are tightly controlled little chance exist for truly rational debate. As long as there exist an imbalance of power between that of state/super-capitalist and the public then the mass message of public opinion will be that of the former and not the latter. It is therefore important I believe to be able to transfer the public sphere onto the ground of the super-capitalist and or state to maximize the communication potential of the rational participants. Essentially the public sphere must hijack control of the means of communication from the super-capitalist and state when matters of private become the domain of public interest.

I leave you with this thought. There is precedent in history where the means of communication has been wrested from the grasping hands of the state and repurposed for the voice of the people. I believe it is now the time that we as discerning peoples realize that the tyrannical control of communication be wrested from the feculent interest of the super-capitalist and state and be returned to the voice of the people. We must develop new public opinions about our first and fundamental right of freedom of speech before we all fall into the oblivion of the culture industry.

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