July 10, 2003

what sort of changes?

I have just come across this weblog----kind of bluegreen---via Rana at Frogs and Ravens. Susan has an interesting post here on academia and civil society which starts a dialogue with Invisible Adjunct.

Susan makes some excellent points in her post. She refers to the insularity of academia; the need for critical thinking in civil society; the need to rework academia's role in society; and a need to rework academic culture.

Unfortunately, she does not say what kind of reworking she has in mind. It is a blank.

Sad to say, but it is the market that is currently doing this transformation of academia. The reworking of academia that is being done by the state's use of the market is rapidly turning ethical institutions in civil society into business corporations. The power of the state is being used to gear the universities into ensuring wealth creation in the knowledge economy. From the liberal state's perspective it is right and proper that this happens since the wealth of the nation depends on it.

What is being lost, and forgotten, in this process is the old connection of the university to citizenship and liberal democracy and to fostering citizenship as participation, as an expression of human agency in the political arena.

That leaves us with Susan's need to foster critical thinking in civil society. Who fosters critical thinking in civil society? It does not come from academics, as they are just another voice in civil society and a minor one at that. Who has picked up the mantle?

Mark over at Pinappletown has something of interest to say here. His argument is that the blogosophere is an emerging sixth estate, rather than being an extension of the fourth estate - mass media. A fuller account can be found here. In doing so Mark develops a more positive account of this earlier post of mine.

Following Umberto Eco, Mark accepts the standard position that the media are the fourth estate and that it functions as the watch dog of democracy. (He fails to mention the judiciary as an estate) He sees the non-government organizations of (global) civil society as a fifth estate. Mark then argues that bloggers constitute the sixth estate. The bloggosphere is:

"... a medium that aids commentary, and which has a self-checking and balancing effect when discussing issues.... people spontaneously express themselves, comment on other people's postings and reveal their personal thoughts and opinions. In this self-organizing ecosystem, there are times when a blogosphere story gets up and running and within a few hours a story is borne that highlights a world issue, a national issue, or the concerns of an individual."

That makes bloggers like journalists, which is how Tim Dunlop and many US journalist bloggers understand blogging. But Mark also notices the differences:

"However, there is a huge difference between journalism and blogging. Journalists have a code, a focus, a method of orgniazing and disciplining its members. Bloggers are free to express themselves without the code journalists adhere to, without the governance of publishers and media owners."

He then links bloggers to the classic watchdog role:

"...the blogosphere is the sixth estate that keeps a check on and can criticize the other five estates..bloggers combined have a power to speak and make others listen through the blogosphere and thus have an ability to act as a check and balance to the other estates, upholding democracy and defending the public interest. We have a power to be critical of non-governmental organizations, we are separate and can be critical of mass media (as was exercised through the second Iraq war), we can be critical of and examine issues to do with national governments and also of economic powers."

That implies the mass media does not act as a watchdog for democracy and the mantle is being picked up by bloggers. Mark says that the bloggosphere is attuned to individuals----it is real individuals speaking. What he does not say
is that, if it is individuals speaking critically on public issues in the name of the publci interest, then it is individuals as republican citizens.

Citizens who deliberate are a break from individuals as political spectators---the passive citizens of representative democracy. As passive citizens we participate:

"...only in plebiscitary elections while the important business of governing takes place daily in our names but without our input. There is a significant cognitive disjunction between our lived political lives and the rhetoric of democracy in this country."

There is simmering unease about this. The link between Mark's idea of bloggers speaking critically and republican citizens gives us a Socratic citizenship Te emphasis here is on the conformity and docility that is so noticeable in the public sphere; the recycling of cliches based on an incapacity to think and judge in an autonomous manner. This closure often leads to a rejection of diversity and newcomers, and to an inability to thoughtfully participate in the public forum.

The practice of socratic citizenship in blogger commentary would consist in the public questioning of the way our fellow citizens apply various standards in making their moral and political judgments. The assumption underlying this practice is that citizens are inadequately reflective and self-critical about the criteria, idols and presuppositions they bring to bear in political decision-making. Without examination, these taken for granted concepts (eg., those of the market) may well often turn out to be derived from knowledge systems and ethical concepts inappropriate to the democratic public sphere.

This conception of citizenship opens up possibilities to broaden the model of classical civic republicanism, which confined political citizenship to the formal political sphere of government. This broad definition is more women friendly, as it would:

"...include both the process of negotiation with welfare institutions, frequently conducted by women, and the kinds of informal neighborhood politics in which women tend to take the lead, in contrast to their underrepresentation in the formal political system."

Following Hannah Arendt, what we citizens need to acquire in these dark times is the capacity to make judgements in a political world bereft of moral rules and legal strictures; judgements based on the capacity recognize to evil, and the courage to stand up and say "no" to political wrong doing. Such a political judgement is a capacity that connects what appears to the private senses and phronesis; and then fits what is thus united into a common world that both keep human beings distinct and related in a shared public world.

This gives us political judgment that enables us to weigh up, evaluate, interpret and assess the significence of political actions.

Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at July 10, 2003 05:47 PM | TrackBack
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