June 24, 2003

bloggers as the new public intellectuals

Tim Dunlop has an article on bloggers as the new public intellectuals. It is listed at the Evatt Foundation. The article has been noted but not substantively commented on in Australia. A one liner can be found here and some comments on bloggers and punk rock by James Russell here

Tim's article deserves more than a cursory glance.

I will outline Tim's argument then move to introduce some quibbles. I support the argument for the democratic forum and the role Tim allocates to bloggers to support and foster that forum in civil society. My quibbles are designed to strengthen the argument--to get him to think more deeply about some bits and pieces that he skated over--and to open up the discussion about what bloggers are doing.

Tim's core argument is that bloggers are situated and biased public intellectuals who engage in intellectual practice. This practice he says is:

"...the practice of engaging in public debates about matters of social and political importance that is theoretically open to anyone. By doing this, we move beyond constructing the citizen as a passive recipient of vetted knowledge and recognise them as creators of such knowledge in their own right."

He then argues that this engaging in public debate as citizens involves making arguments, which he then connects to democracy. He uses the work of Christopher Lasch to make his case:

'Lash says "our search for reliable information is itself guided by the questions that arise during arguments about a given course of action. It is only by subjecting our preferences and projects to the test of debate that we come to understand what we know and what we still need to learn. Until we have to defend our opinions in public, they remain opinions in Lippmann's pejorative sense - half-formed convictions based on random impressions and unexamined assumptions. It is the act of articulating and defending our views that lifts them out of the category of 'opinions,' gives them shape and definition, and makes it possible for others to recognize them as a description of their own experience as well. In short, we come to know our own minds only by explaining ourselves to others."'

And further that:

"....democracy requires argument and that public argument involving ordinary citizens has been usurped by an elite, a group of insiders who either because of political connections, expertise or other institutional reasons have easier access to the media and are therefore able to dominate public discourse. Such debate then tends to happen within pre-defined parameters that reflect the education, specialisation and norms of that elite. Thus, not only do they dominate public argument by virtue of their elite access and knowledge, they also tend to define the topics, terms and presentation of such debate and are liable to judge any lay contribution as illegitimate."

So blogging is more than empty flag waving. It challenges the closure tendency in the public sphere, whereby alternative opinions are not really sought or welcomed and where open frank discussion is actively discouraged. Blogging has a democratic ethos and it challenges the anti-democratic tendencies whereby political power is used to manage public opinion through spin by publicity hacks.

Tim does acknowledge that bloggers engage in public argument in a rough and tumble way, which involves a lot of shouting and point scoring. But he says that that blogging also helps to create an environment [what Bernard Williams once called rational civility] where citizens can use arguments to increase their knowledge in a topic.

I'm quite happy with this line of argument. All I would add to it is to say that it gives us deliberative democracy.

So what sort of knowledge is achieved by allowing our opinions and assumptions to be tested by vigorous debates with other bloggers? Is knowledge reliable information as Christopher Lasch, and Tim following him, imply? Or is something else. That, I think, is the area Tim skates over. So what are my quibbles?

There are two.

The first quibble has to do with the truth bit in relation to knowledge and power. In no way does blogging resurrect the idea of capital-T truth. If bloggers are situated and biased public intellectuals (as they are), then you kiss that idea of truth (Truth) to one side, as it implies Absolute Truth or being on a sky hook or a God's-eye view. Debates amongst bloggers is more like the blowtorch-to-the-belly polemics in the House of Representatives and no one engaged in them reckon they are standing outside language to to find some test for truth. We are all operating within the concepts of language. (My interpretation of Tim's appeal to Kant. I exchange mind for langauge).

This blowtorch-to-the-belly polemics does not mean that there is no rational civility that increases our knowledge of events, or deepens our understanding of what is happening to us. A good example of the process of increasing our knowledge through argument is provided by Invisible Adjunct, which explores the impact of corporatisation on the liberal university, on academic labor and the humanities. Our knowledge is deepened by this weblog. And this particular post on unemployed PhD's is a great example of the rational civility of conversation in civil society, where by people sort out what is going on in the liberal university through a dialogic.

What I gained from this discussion was a deeper understanding of my history as an academic. I knew that things were bad in academia with the corporatisation of the university. I got out because there was no job market. But my understanding of the two labor system was deepened through reading and participating in Invisible Adjunct'sweblog. What the shocking way the senior faculty treated PhD students meant in terms of the university as an institution was disclosed.

If public reason is a dialogic reason then we need to rethink what is meant by truth in this dialogue. I would suggest that, since blogging is intertextual (the raw material is texts linked to other texts that are layered by multiple interpretations), so it is more a process of understanding and interpretation to make sense of, or grasp the significance, of an issue for us rather than uncovering facts or getting reliable information. Blogger is much more than the poor women's journalism.

So what is it that bloggers are doing? At this point we need to highlight the political nature of blogging. We can take this political turn by considering the issue regulation of the media. In the political forum of the Australian Senate we have a dialogical exchange between different groups of Senators that aims to change a bill with introducing, amending and correcting amendments. This is done within various conventions that say there is a right and wrong way to go about engaging in debate and changing legislation.

As the recent debate on cross media ownership indicates there is a lot of give and take in the Senate. This reweaving can, and does, result in agreement or an overlapping consensus on some amendments---a common ground---is established; whilst on other occasions there is an agreement to disagree on specific amendments. What has been agreed to in this social practice of reweaving and recontextualising? It is a process of reweaving the web of beliefs about media ownership.

Is this reweaving idea whacky? Well no one stood up in Parliament during this media debate and asked: "Are you representing accurately?" "Are you getting at the way the object really is"? And rightly so, because they understand that they were not doing realist physics or economics in Parliament. Theirs is a different kind of social practice; one in which they come to agreements that are reached through some sort of political consensus. No one claims that the agreement is objective truth given by the correspondence of theory of truth. It is a temporary compromise in an ongoing political struggle.

The senators understood that their social practice in the Senate was about re-desiging a regulatory regime for the media industry in changed conditions. In the words of Senator Harradine, one of the 4 independents in the Senate, it is designing a regulatory regime:

"...which would prevent further media concentration but allow the media industry to expand for the benefit of the general community...It is our job as elected legislators to ensure not only that there are reasonable parameters set for the running of successful media businesses but, much more importantly, that these parameters serve the Australian people."

In trying to achieve this goal they said things like:"the amendment does this job"; "you misrepresent what I said"; "you have not included this in your considerations"; or "the point you are making is not what the issue is about"; "we need to consider this"; "what is meant by localism" etc. No one said that "I reject this amendment on the grounds of the 'facts of the matter.'" In doing so they deployed various rhetorical devices to persuade one another to adopt a particular course of action---more market less regulation, more regulation less market.

My second quibble with Tim has to do with the kind of knowledge that is achieved by rhetorical debate in civil society. Tim seems to imply that using argument to increase our knowledge on a topic is a form of theoretical knowledge based on removing our prejudices and ignorance. I interpret the tacit conception of knowledge to be less the theoretical knowledge of the social sciences, such as economics, and more the knowledge provided by investigative journalism. It is one of chasing down the facts or correcting errors----as illustrated by Tim's Guardian example.

This scenario of knowledge as reliable information is misleading. True, what Tim is saying is partially right. Representational knowledge does happen, since many bloggers see themselves as proto-journalists or are journalists and they are very good at both kinds of writing. But that is not the fully story. The knowledge that is implied is an ethical knowledge, because we are making judgements about what is right and wrong based on our lived experience. This is quite different to knowledge as reliable information.

Let me illustrate through the great issue in Australian public life--the economic reforms (in the form of deregulation, privatisation, user pays etc), which opened up the Australian economy to the processes of the global market and which have radically transformed our everyday life. Though Positivist economists try to talk about reform in a neutral way (without expresssing their approval or disapproval), the reality is that citizen's understand these reforms in terms of the impact they have on their life. And they do so from their lived experience.

Citizens make their judgments from their experience of economic processes--unemployment for the industrial working class, declining living standards for the middle class). We understand the meaning of these reforms in terms of how they enable or hinder us in our attempts to fashion our lives so we can live well. In engaging in public debate we give voice to these experiences of being caught up in radical change that we understand is trying to establish a new market order for Australia.

It is a normative view based on our tacit knowledge that there are winners and losers from the radical change. It is a not neutral description because the judgement is saying that the income distribution from the economic reforms is unequal. It is unequal because the big corporations and top income earners have disproportionately increased their share of the national income. And that is wrong. It is unfair, even though Australia is living in a boom time.

That is an ethical judgement about the relations of power hidden in the invisible hand of the free market. And ethical judgements are made about the crude utilitarian economics that is deployed to justify the inequality in terms of a % increase in Australia's GDP. The market ethos is judged to be one of 'stuff you Joan, I'm doing okay, so get out my way.'

The theoretical knowledge of economics is then used to deflect these ethical judgements from the public sphere, or if that doesn't work, then to keep them at bay. It pushes quality of life issues to one side by turning its back on wellbeing of citizens as the goal of public policy, and making money (wealth creation) the central goal. For the utilitarian calculators the % increase in GDP from national competition policy is all that matters.

Those are my quibbles. What they signify is the distinctive voice of bloggers and differentiates them from the reportage journalists who rarely write their articles in an ethical language. That different language is scrubbed out by the corporate media. This why I have turned to the intellectual practices in the political institutions. You may not agree with the tight connection I have made between blogging and politics, but it does highlight the way that blogging is distinctive from journalism. That difference makes blogging even more significant for democracy.


Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at June 24, 2003 09:30 PM | TrackBack

Excellent post. You're dead on target.

Posted by: chutney on June 27, 2003 04:57 AM

Gary, you're still misrepresenting me on the reforms. I said we should use the word reforms in precisely the way you have done, as a descriptive term without an implication of approval or disapproval.

This is totally different from taking a neutral stance in relation to particular reforms such as privatisation. I think it's fair to say that I'm the most prominent opponent of privatisation in Australia, certainly among economists. To paint me as some sort of value-free technocrat is way off the mark.

Posted by: John Quiggin on July 1, 2003 12:51 PM

Sorry I never got back to you on your reform post on your weblog. I had meant to but I got way laid with daily life.

I think that we are misinterpreting one another here. Let me clear the ground so that we see what is at issue between us.

Let me say straight out without any qualification whatsover that I do not see you as a value-free technocrat. I see you as an engaged public intellectual contesting neo-liberal reforms with an economist's knowledge across a variety of media:----your weblog, your AFR pieces, your various articles and books.

The 'positivism' word I used refers to the tacit conception of ethics that is tacked onto economics as a social science.

And just to prevent any future misinterpretation I am not questioning economics as a social science or the positivist conception of science in this post. Those questions are bracketed because it is the tacit ethics that I am concerned with here.

In the clearing stand two issues.

A. I cannot see how you can talk about such economic reforms in the public policy arena without making an ethical judgment (fact is tied up with) value. Hence my reference to our everyday experience of living with these reforms in our daily life. I take you as saying that we can speak about these reforms in a neutral way without approval or disapproval.

I question that on the grounds in the public policy area these reforms are politically charged. They are layered with networks of interpretation that embody ethical judgements about their value. We operate with these in mind. Hence the rhetoric that seeks to persuade us by developing an argument wrapped in ornamentation whose mechanisms address our emotions and experience.

B. The kind of ethics being employed. When you make reference to ethical judgement about the neo-liberal reforms (deregulation, privatistation) you use 'approval' & 'disapproval', which connote an individual emotional response to an economic state of affairs. I interpret this positivist conception of ethics to mean that mean science is rationality and ethics is emotional.

I contest that understanding of ethics in two ways. One says that we can discuss the value ends of economic reform (wealth creation v human happiness v sustainability on rational grounds. Two says that ethics is a form of rationality even though it incorporates human emotion.

None of this says that John Quiggin the person is a value-free technocrat. What it does is question the philosophically underpinnings of John Quiggin's economic understanding of politics and ethics of reform as it is understood in the context of the public policy arena.

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson on July 1, 2003 02:49 PM

We'll just see who takes the sword from the stone then.

Posted by: tr0ll by on July 1, 2003 04:43 PM

sorry tr0ll by,
your cryptic sentence eludes me. I am not able to connect the Authurian legend to the post.

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson on July 1, 2003 09:53 PM

Tr0ll by,
I've had some more thoughts about your cryptic sentence.

Do you mean a sword in the stone in the Straussian sense: that philosophy properly understood should speak in a code and so be a childproof medicine bottle cap designed to keep out the unworthy?

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson on July 1, 2003 11:20 PM


Have been meaning to say something under this post, but it's a big meal you've served up ... raising the transaction costs considerably. For now:

The first quibble has to do with the truth bit in relation to knowledge and power. In no way does blogging resurrect the idea of capital-T truth. If bloggers are situated and biased public intellectuals (as they are), then you kiss that idea of truth (Truth) to one side, as it implies Absolute Truth or being on a sky hook or a God's-eye view ... We are all operating within the concepts of language ... This ... does not mean that there is no rational civility that increases our knowledge of events, or deepens our understanding of what is happening to us ... Our knowledge is deepened by this weblog ... What I gained from this discussion was a deeper understanding ...

No doubt I could discover this if I followed your links, but I assume you're referring to the theoretical impossibility of proving a rationally grounded universal truth, objectively lying outside the contestability of subjectivity, which I concede is finally necessarily moot. This close to tautological ultimate philososophical point should not, inmho, be taken to discount the value of the closer approximations of the truth that can be delivered via a medium that manifestly: "increases our knowledge of events, or deepens our understanding of what is happening to us ... Our knowledge is deepened by this weblog ... What I gained from this discussion was a deeper understanding ...

In this admitted pro tem low cost transaction with your high value post, if I have got your drift, and if you happen to agree with this, can you reappraise me of your point and its significance in due course?

Posted by: cs on July 2, 2003 11:13 PM

Hi cs

I will work it through cos I'm not sure what you are getting at.

If the old idea of science gaining absolute truth--one not shaped by human culture---is displaced,then we have to rethink what sort of truth and knowledge bloggers produce through their weblogs, links, rhetoric and conversations.

The truth and knowledge bit are relevant to citizenship and democracy. we do not want to say that weblogs are just personal opinions or prejudices.

Even though many of them are this and the various interactions affirm or reinforce the prejudices sometimes there is more. Sometimes there is truth/knowledge through correspondence to reality---- the sort of factual knowledge Tim mentions. But that does not capture all of what happens. Most of it is commentary.

If we look at blogging we see a lot of people engaging with texts (weblogs, newspapers, television programmes, books, speeches in Hansard etc). They are interpreting them in terms their import and significance for us as citizens (eg.,ASIO Bill& Media Ownership Bill to name two recent ones that stirred up some controversy) and they do so from a political perspective underpinned by a practical knowledge of the situation.

So it is a knowledge/power situation. The interpreting and commentary is done with a good working knowledge or understanding of the networks of power; we work within these power relations. We, as webloggers, do understand that we are working as micro-media vis-a-vis the corporate media(big media). There are lots of metaphors about the power relationships.

I'm suggesting that one way to get at knowledge and truth here is to look at the way political reason works in the debates that take place in the Senate. Information (from various reports)is introduced to highlight what the issues are, to help sort them through; X has studied this issue and they say this.

But over and above this there is a sorting out of the arguments; with this sorting out involving conceding points, countering other arguments etc. The dialogue in the forum is all a bit of winnowing and sifting of the different sets of descriptions of issue X to reach some form of an agreement.

And where is truth in all of this? That is to be sorted out. But the practices here are not scientific ones nor are they judicial ones.They are political practices. I would say truth is a form of disclosing things of significance that lie buried beneath the spin--eg. you uncovering the significance of corporatisation of public utilities in terms of making a profit and acting as businesses.

The agreement is not truth---its a consensus of sorts arrived at through negotiating the different views. (The Senate then goes on to cut deals and so the differences with blogging then become important.)

That agreement keeps shifting because circumstances/context changes. This shifting is not a problem because political practices aime to persuade others to adopt a particular policy or course of action on an issue eg privatisation of Telstra or GST. And the knowledge is knowledge to that end: ultimately, whether that policy or action wr it is good or bad for the country. Is it good to do X or is bad to do Y? Thats a very difernt kind of knowledge.

Is that enough for starters? If you take Tim's connection between blogging and democracy seriously, then blogging as a political practice of citizens forces us to rethink what we traditionally mean by truth and knowledge.

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson on July 3, 2003 08:09 PM


I'm with you and I agree, and would like to see the argument fully sketched in an article. My only caution is that your starting position on 'truth' appears to be in a sense limited.

You throw away big truth upfront with gusto, which places in my view undue pressure on having to recover new definitions of smaller truths, defined by the particularness of the medium (handily, using the senate analogy).

This leaves open the possibility that the starting point itself is too rarified. Perhaps all truths are small truths, for example? I'm not suggesting they are, but if they were, you can see that your particularism would be worth less ... but the general capacity of the medium in this direction may add up to more.

In short, I'm not saying you're wrong. On the contrary, I'm sure your absolutely right. The question is: how significant is the insight? Is it the whole story, or part of the story? Much turns on your underlying assumptions about the realistic possibilities and characteristics of truth in the first place. None of this takes away from my first sentence; it only questions the territory that can be claimed by it.

Posted by: cs on July 5, 2003 04:54 AM


it means that we think blogging as something different than the extension of journalism thesis. It has its voice.

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson on July 10, 2003 07:40 PM
Post a comment