Sunday, March 8, 2009

Public Sphere

This weeks readings where all related in a way that it just makes sense to discuss them as a whole. To start with the original work, Habermas, it semmed to me, had a utopic idea in mind in the sense that "all citizens" are guaranteed access to it. I think we all know just how untrue that is. Second, he spoke about both opinion and control (p. 73)... what control? All my democratically-inclined cohorts will surely point, just as Habermas did, that control rolls around every four years... so what happened to guaranteed access to all? In this sense, to participate in the public sphere you need to be a certain age, have certain standing and, up to a few years ago, a certain sex and color. In other words, I truly beleive that the public sphere is usually the less powerful middle-aged white man complaining about what the very powerful middle-aged white man is doing or not doing.
This forces me to bring in Fraser: "The claim to open access in particular was not made good" (p. 521). She brings in a plethora of reasons of why the initial idea didn't work and what historical developments forced it farther away from what it was originally intended to be. Most powerful, in my opinion, is the "welfare-state" in which "society and the state became mutually interwined" (p. 521). Now we have a weird mix of private, public, state, market, church and a multiplicity of groups with very different, and in some cases violently clashing, ideas of what should be discussed in the public sphere. This "plurality of competing publics" (p. 523) was totally ignored by Habermas: can we really blame a middle-aged white man for ignoring women, blacks, latinos, the working class, noisy nationalists, screaming revolutionaries, peasants, etc? Fraser thinks we can, and so do I.
Ths discussion on stratified societies and egalitarian societies was truly fascinating. The idea that a single public sphere could be better in some cases than multiple publci spheres gave me something to think about for a few hours. In anyc ase, I felt like the discussion fell back into a utopian-hole in an attempt to apply the concept to an utopian society: a society "whose basic framework does not generate unequal social groups in structural relations of dominance and subordination"..."societies without classes and without gener or racial divisions of labor" (p. 529). What society is that? Can I move there tomorrow? If we cannot separate public sphere from democracy and the US is the craddle of democracy, can we say the US has succesfully applied publci sphere multiplicity? Is it an egalitarian society then? Isn't the idea of a single public sphere a silly return to hegemonic controls and pressures?
The next important point, as far as I'm concerned, was the discussion of private and public matters. According to Fraser, "only participants themselves can decide what is and what is not of common concern to them. However, there is no guarantee that all of them will agree" (p. 531). What happens to those that don't agree? Lets say they go on to from another public sphere (we already agreed on the fact that many is better than one). Then, at some point, the members of that new group come to a disagreement: a new group is formed and so on and so forth. This has actually happened due to political, sexual, economic and religious differences, to name just a few. And this brings me to one of my areas of research: publci engagement.
If the purpose of the public sphere is to generate publci opinion and actions in search of a common good, how can they be succesfull if they have 11,342,987 different common goods? Should we homogenize the whole deal...for the common good? Who will chose what that finally is? How can we ever get over "individual preferences" (p. 531) when we are dealing with so many individuals? In my research, the end result of the power to create as many spheres as we want is that they become lost amongst so many others and their power is null due to overcrowding and lack of support. Diluted drops of social concern in an endless sea of public spheres with no power to get to the media and effect change. That is the biggest problem I have with the Kellner piece: "A democratic politics will teach individuals how to use new technologies, to articulate their own experiences and interests, and to promote democratic debate and diversity, allowing a full range of voices and ideas to become part of the cyberdemocracy of the future" (p. 19). Please, I beg you to excuse my language: Bullshit!!!!! Will this new democratic politics close the digital divide? Will they provide the poor with that new technology so that they can give their two cents? How will cyberdemocracy reach those that are not cyber?
The technological revolutionof our time thusinvolves the creation of new public spheres and the need for democratic strategies to promote the project of democratization and to provide access to more people to get involved in more political issues and struggles so that democracy might have a chance in the new millennium" (p. 19) . Oh, God, please. Utopia anyone? Seems to me that democracy will forget about you even quicker if you don't get yourself a computer soon. How can we critique Habermas and finish our piece with this democratic fest of positive technological revolution? Look at the current state of civic engagement, public manifestations "for the common good", etc.
Lets move on, lets say we do get together, we do find a common concern, we do create a general public opinion about it and we finally have "an aura of independence, autonomy and legitimacy on the 'public opinion' generated in it" (p. 534). What do we do with it now? What power does that grant us? Why were Molotov cocktails never mentioned in any of the readings? Maybe that's what Fraser meant when she spoke of "authoritative decisions"?(p. 535). I hope so.
If our theories need to help us understand the world, we really need to work on this "indispensable" (Fraser, p. 520) theory that is perfectly applicable to white male-ruled "democracies" and not the rest of the world. If you don't think I'm right, try to publish your opinionated articles in Cuba or Colombia... best of luck with that. The public sphere is two things: a total waste of time and the most important tool we have to effect change in our society. It is truly important that we learn how to use it effectively, overcoming all of its shortcomings, in order to get something done. We can't keep our "as if" mentality and hope for a better tomorrow. We can't pat ourselves in the back beleiving that the Internet really "expands the realm of democratic participation" (p. 18) because it does only for those that can afford it. We need to kick the"social passivity" (p. 9) created by media to the curb and grab those Molotov cocktails... than again, I'm probably alone on that one, totally left out of the public sphere. No big deal, I'll create my own!

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