A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

a multi-faceted look at the middle east, and the middle west

the new public blogosphere

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on November 21, 2006

Conversations about the ‘public sphere’ are hugely popular with academics – particularly those interested whether a relationship can be found between new media and broadened or more active publish sphere. The term comes from a Jurgen Habermas work, and its application to new media is usefully discussed online in an article by Georgetown professor Denis Gaynor entitled “Democracy in the age of information: a reconception of the public sphere”, which can be found at http://www.georgetown.edu/faculty/bassr/gaynor/intro.htm.

I will quote a bit from a more general analysis, UCLA professor Douglas Kellner’s “Habermas, the public sphere, and democracy: a critical intervention” (http://www.gseis.ucla.edu/faculty/kellner/papers/habermas.htm) , which explains Habermas’ work as follows:

Jurgen Habermas’s The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere is an immensely rich and influential book that has had major impact in a variety of disciplines. It has also received detailed critique and promoted extremely productive discussions of liberal democracy, civil society, public life, and social changes in the twentieth century, among other issues. Few books of the second half of the twentieth century have been so seriously discussed in so many different fields and continue, almost forty years after its initial publication in 1962, to generate such productive controversy and insight. While Habermas’s thought took several crucial philosophical twists and turns after the publication of his first major book, he has himself provided detailed commentary on Structural Transformation in the 1990s and returned to issues of the public sphere and democratic theory in his monumental work Between Facts and Norms. Hence, concern with the public sphere and the necessary conditions for a genuine democracy can be seen as a central theme of Habermas’s work that deserves respect and critical scrutiny …

Habermas’s focus on democratization was linked with emphasis on political participation as the core of a democratic society and as an essential element in individual self-development. His study The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere was published in 1962 and contrasted various forms of an active, participatory bourgeois public sphere in the heroic era of liberal democracy with the more privatized forms of spectator politics in a bureaucratic industrial society in which the media and elites controlled the public sphere. The two major themes of the book include analysis of the historical genesis of the bourgeois public sphere, followed by an account of the structural change of the public sphere in the contemporary era with the rise of state capitalism, the culture industries, and the increasingly powerful positions of economic corporations and big business in public life. On this account, big economic and governmental organizations took over the public sphere, while citizens became content to become primarily consumers of goods, services, political administration, and spectacle …

The bourgeois public sphere, which began appearing around 1700 in Habermas’s interpretation, was to mediate between the private concerns of individuals in their familial, economic, and social life contrasted to the demands and concerns of social and public life. This involved mediation of the contradiction between bourgeois and citoyen, to use terms developed by Hegel and the early Marx, overcoming private interests and opinions to discover common interests and to reach societal consensus. The public sphere consisted of organs of information and political debate such as newspapers and journals, as well as institutions of political discussion such as parliaments, political clubs, literary salons, public assemblies, pubs and coffee houses, meeting halls, and other public spaces where socio-political discussion took place. For the first time in history, individuals and groups could shape public opinion, giving direct expression to their needs and interests while influencing political practice. The bourgeois public sphere made it possible to form a realm of public opinion that opposed state power and the powerful interests that were coming to shape bourgeois society.

“Habermas’s concept of the public sphere thus described a space of institutions and practices between the private interests of everyday life in civil society and the realm of state power. The public sphere thus mediates between the domains of the family and the workplace — where private interests prevail — and the state which often exerts arbitrary forms of power and domination. What Habermas called the “bourgeois public sphere” consisted of social spaces where individuals gathered to discuss their common public affairs and to organize against arbitrary and oppressive forms of social and public power.

The principles of the public sphere involved an open discussion of all issues of general concern in which discursive argumentation was employed to ascertain general interests and the public good. The public sphere thus presupposed freedoms of speech and assembly, a free press, and the right to freely participate in political debate and decision-making. After the democratic revolutions, Habermas suggested, the bourgeois public sphere was institutionalized in constitutional orders which guaranteed a wide range of political rights, and which established a judicial system that was to mediate between claims between various individuals or groups, or between individuals and groups and the state.”

“Kellner cautions that “Many defenders and critics of Habermas’s notion of the bourgeois public sphere fail to note that the thrust of his study is precisely that of transformation, of the mutations of the public sphere from a space of rational discussion, debate, and consensus to a realm of mass cultural consumption and administration by corporations and dominant elites,” which latter Habermas understood as the state of the sphere in the twentieth century.”

All the above is merely an introduction to what follows – a mention of the panel I attended yesterday evening, one of many at the annual Middle East Studies Association (MESA) of North America conference, currently taking place in Boston. I like to think of us as hummus-flavored nerds, rather than the generic variety found at other conferences.

Yesterday evening’s panel promised a discussion of blogging, the Middle East, and the possibility of a new public sphere:

SPECIAL SESSION–Blogging the Middle East: A New Public Sphere?
Organized by Leila O. Hudson

This session will consider how the new genre of online weblogs has changed the relationship of Middle East studies to public opinion, journalism, and policy making and reshaped the public sphere within which the MESA community works. Among issues to be addressed, are: blogging and the wartime public sphere, blogs and the traditional media, blogs and policy-making, adversarial and attack blogging, blogging readership communities, blog censorship and control.

Chair: Leila O. Hudson, University of Arizona

Juan Cole, University of Michigan (http://www.juancole.com)
As’ad AbuKhalil, California State University, Stanislaus(http://angryarab.blogspot.com)
Helena Cobban, Contributing Editor, Boston Review (http://justworldnews.org)
Joshua Landis, University of Oklahoma (http://faculty-staff.ou.edu/L/Joshua.M.Landis-1/syriablog/)
Marc Lynch, Williams College (http://abuaardvark.typepad.com/)

(http://mesa.wns.ccit.arizona.edu/annual/session9.htm )

Josh I know from Damascus, the Angry Arab I read frequently, Marc Lynch teaches at my alma mater, Helena Cobban I know from her work as a journalist, and Juan Cole of course both for his prominence as a blogger-turned-media authority on Iraq and for the vicious ad hominem attacks he receives because of that prominence (and, I would argue, which he facilitates by allowing photos such as

Juan Cole

to circulate publicly, giving anti-Middle East studies folk like those at Campus Watch ample visual support for their rabid critiques).

In the end, none of the panelists spoke much about a new public sphere. Most spoke anecdotally about their personal experiences, while Cobban raised the very sanguine point of gender in the blogosphere (there are more male bloggers than female, which I would push further by noting that the ‘authoritative’ blogs – blogs to which readers go for information and analysis, rather than personal narratives – are almost exclusively male written). The panel was lively and the panelists dynamic, but for the most sophisticated analysis of the public sphere vis-a-vis new media and the Middle East, I suggest Lynch’s very old media format book: Voices of the New Arab Public: Iraq, al-Jazeera, and Middle East Politics Today.

update, November 22, 2006

Marc Lynch has posted his take on the panel on his Abu Aardvark site. He has this to say:

“… I focused on two things: why there aren’t more MESA bloggers, and the relevance of Arab bloggers rather than just American academics writing about the Middle East. At least I think I did – like I said, I was freestyling and talking real fast. One point which I forgot to throw in was about the competing demands of different audiences: what impresses other academics will not be the same as what impresses policy audiences or wider general blog-reading publics or readers from the countries you’re writing about, and scholar-bloggers have to think carefully about who they are trying to reach and why.

I pointed out out that all of us on the panel had started our blogs by fall 2002. Why hadn’t a new generation of Middle East studies bloggers emerged to replace join us? Maybe because the critics of MESA are right, and Middle East studies scholars just don’t have much to add to the public debate. I don’t think that’s true, though – I know how much quality knowledge about the region was at the conference, and in the room, and how much they could add to the blogosphere if they chose to. Maybe they’ve all just got better things to do, but – I argued – the internet is of growing importance in shaping public debate and even policy in areas we care about, and if experts don’t engage then they just cede the field to others with less (or different) expertise. Or, more bluntly, they can’t cry about the state of public debate about the Middle East if they refuse to take part in that debate.

But most of the answer, I suggested, was that the first five speakers had presented an overly rosy picture of academic blogging. Now, I’m as big a fan of blogging as anyone, and blogging has been very good to me, but it’s important to have a balanced perspective on the risks and costs, as well as benefits, of academic blogging. I mentioned the various rounds of intense public criticism that Juan and Josh had received, and the ways in which blog-fed firestorms could threaten scholars, especially junior scholars without tenure, or at least consume huge amounts of their time and energy. I mentioned the very real time commitments that blogging entails – no matter how many synergies you can create between your research and your blogging (and I create a lot of them), time spent on blogging is time spent not doing other potentially productive scholarly activities. Bloggers’ energies can be diverted into policy-relevant work which isn’t conducive to long-term research projects. Even the best blogging just doesn’t rate compared to a peer-reviewed publication… and probably shouldn’t. Blogging often means writing fast, and that can mean making mistakes – horrors! – especially if you venture outside your areas of expertise… and academics sometimes live in fear of making such mistakes. Bottom line: I feel uncomfortable advising junior scholars, who I think are probably best placed to become great bloggers, to take those risks.”

In his talk, Lynch mentioned bloggers IN the Middle East, which no other panelist did, and had this to say on his blog:

“The other major thrust of my talk was to point to Arab and Iranian and other bloggers from within the region. I spent a lot of my time at the podium urging the audience to pay attention to Arab bloggers, many of whom offered sharp, savvy political analysis in both English and Arabic. These folks can represent themselves and speak for themselves, and don’t need North American based scholars to do it for them – what they need is for people to pay attention to them, which is why I try to link to them as much as I can and why I spent so much of my talk touting them.”

Lynch’s full post, followed by a thoughtful and reflective series of comments, can be found at: http://abuaardvark.typepad.com/abuaardvark/2006/11/mesa_blogging_p.html#comments.

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