August 22, 2003

blogging and democracy

I see that Ken Parish has an article on blogging that is a response to the one by Tim Dunlop. For my comments on Tim's article see here and here

Ken is more sceptical about blogging than Tim, as he argues that the role of blogging is more akin to functioning as fire alarms rather than as public intellectuals. He sets out his case clearly:

"Tim Dunlop makes a less than compelling case for blogging public intellectuals as agents for a truly informed citizenry. Schudson suggests that the entire project may actually be unattainable: 'Political theorists are eloquent about public life, the role of public intellectuals, the necessity of a public sphere, and the virtues of the common good, but there is a time also to think further on the private life ... on the joys of appreciating a sunset, humming a tune, or listening to the quiet breathing of a sleeping child ...'"

Public versus private. That old liberal duality once again. It should really be called into question rather than taken for granted, since many weblogs are about making public the private lifeof webloggers whilst those that are about public life introduce a lot of webloggers private life.

On a first read, what struck me about Ken's piece was the emphasis on numbers of readers of a weblog, rather than the blockages to the circulation of ideas in the public sphere. I thought that it read just like media analysts talking about circulation numbers of newspapers as a criteria for a viability. Hell, it won't be long before there is talk about advertising on weblogs and bloggers as small business people decrying attempts at regulation of their activiities.

On first impressions I interpreted Ken as reading the diverse weblogs through the eyes of journalism. His duality is light hearted tabloidism versus serious broadsheets, and he connects audience size to a populist writing style and subject matter.

If you view weblogging from the public intellectual perspective, then the concern is with the circulation of ideas. As McKenzie Wark puts it:

"Its a public intellectual's job to debunk intellectual fads and fashions. But it is also part of the job to broker new ideas from the margins into the mainstream. Its on this score that all too many of our overpaid newspaper pundits are failing both their readers -- and their editors. None of which would matter were it not for the stranglehold on some key editorial gatekeeping and intellectual brokering functions presently held by folks who actually seem proud of their own ignorance."

Debunk means criticism. Wark maintains that criticism is dead, finished, kaput. That leaves us with the brokering of ideas.

The public sphere in Australia is in pretty poor state in terms of the exchange of ideas. What is highlighted by this approach is the gatekeeping functions that moderate the degree of openness or closure in each of the media vectors where a sense of public life might occur. McKenzie Wark describes this closure quite well:

"I don't know which is worse, old cold warriors looking for new enemies-of-the-people to pretend are under the bed, or what I would call the curse of the Whitlam ascendancy. You know who I mean: people who by 1970s standards were enlightened, informed and forward thinking, but by 1990s standards are ignorant, obsolete and out of touch. One has to admit that the collective utterances of these two old cohorts makes for some great unintentional comedy. Howlingly stupid, ill-informed, incoherent ranting about postmodernism, poststructuralism, feminism, political correctness and all the rest.... some once revered names have spent the last few years depreciating their own reputations, speaking about books they haven't read, concepts they haven't mastered, spectres that haunt only their own impoverished imaginations."

This afflicts the blogosphere in Australia. Blogging does need to be contextualised as it is but one part of the diverse media that constitutes the public sphere. On this account we come back to distinquishing between some of those spaces that are open enough to renewal to be thriving and those that are not.

So what is Ken saying on this? The implication he draws is that it is necessary to go tabloid to keep the readers interested. He has some good arguments for this position.

Ken redescribes Tim Dunlop's republican conception of citizen self-rule and participation into an ideal, and then contrasts it with the actuality of modern western democracies where there is little or no inclination towards increased civic or political participation by citizens. We have a void between republican rhetoric and democratic actuality. The central criticism of the republican conception of informed and active citizen is that this tradition demands too much of citizens, as it expects citizens to follow public affairs in all of their particulars. It is just not possible for us as citizens do this.

Ken's response to the void in democratic rhetoric and theory is to adopt Michael Schudson's idea of the "monitorial citizen." Rather than try to follow and being informed about everything, the monitorial citizen scans the environment for events that require responses. For many purposes, merely scanning the headlines is sufficient. So:

"...political bloggers are best seen as self-selected monitorial citizens, keeping the bastards honest on behalf of the silent, politically disinterested majority."

Hmmm. I'm willing to accept the monitoring. I monitor what is happening and and select the bits of news that sit with the concerns of public opinion. But I do not accept the "silent, politically disinterested majority" bit, as my fellow citizens are also monitoring the news in variety of diverse ways from a wide variety of media. I write about it. Many don't. Some do not have the time. Others do not have the training. But many other citizens in civil society do engage in intellectuals in and around their work.

What does need to be displaced is the universal intellectual speaking on behalf of humanity on public issues within a common culture. It is all much more situated and particularized than that, since we all monitor from our particular perspectives and in the light of our specific concerns. The common public world forms out of differnt groups of people bringing their particular and different perceptions, stories, interests, passions and modes of reasoning to bear on common objects, events or concerns. There are many public spheres with their overlapping circles.

So what follows from bloggers being self-selected monitorial citizens? For Ken it is this:

"... to the extent that bloggers aspire to be cyberspace fire alarms or monitorial citizens who affect society and the political process in however small a way, they can't help but come to terms with Zaller's observation that the quickest and most potent way of doing so is to adopt some of the familiar techniques of tabloid journalism: racecourse journalism; infotainment; sensationalised, beat-up controversies and all the rest."

That says learn from Rupert Murdoch. Okay. Fair point. So what does that mean? For Ken it means this:

"If occasional outbreaks of tabloid sensationalism are the price that must be paid for bloggers to attract a large enough general audience to fulfil a meaningful monitorial citizen role, perhaps it's a price worth paying. As long as the bread and circuses stunts are interspersed with more meaty analytical posts, intellectual depth and rigour need not be sacrificed."

What else does Murdoch tell us about intellectual practices? That television, not newspapers, is the central media today. And television is a visual culture not a literary one. So why not experiment with a visually orientated weblog. Why not follow the visual style and practice of women's magazines? What not explore different and more experimental ways of writing?

This suggests that we bloggers do more than monitor issues and act as fire alarms. As Mackenzie Wark puts it, we are also "in the business of opening vectors of communication to different kinds and instances of speech and finding ways to negotiate their irreconcilable qualities." We bloggers are in that business because of the hardening of the arteries of a gentrified mainstream 'public sphere' along the major dividing lines by which public things are organised. But there are also little imperceptible cracks in the edifice of things along which change will come.

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Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at August 22, 2003 12:24 PM | TrackBack


May I suggest that the key sentence for the purpose of your question is this one:

"Of course, minimal audience penetration doesn't necessarily entirely negate the informed citizen ideal, but it's asking rather a lot of osmosis or intellectual trickle-down effects."

In other words, it's fine to aspire to promote serious thought, but if almost no-one is reading it it's unlikely to have any significant effect in creating the "informed citizen" ideal Tim was discussing.

It may well be possible to cultivate a "boutique" audience of "opinion leaders" that helps to shape public discourse to an extent disproportionate with the raw numbers. However, it's still unlikely to be a significant enough effect to achieve a large change in the quality and depth of public discourse and therefore citizenship. Hence the tension that a blogger who aspires to saying something serious from time to time may feel, because in order for their ideas to be heard by any more than an infinitesimal number of people it becomes necessary to be entertaining and "tabloid" at least part of the time (I suggest). That tendency is, for example, evident in bothe my work and Tim D's, and no doubt others as well.

Thus you were quite correct in discerning a focus on questions that also concern mainstream media, albeit for different reasons (circulation for in order to disseminate ideas more widely instead of circulation in pursuit of profit). I don't think there's any way to avoid such questions unless you're content to talk to yourself (and I do enough of that already).

Posted by: Ken Parish on August 22, 2003 01:59 PM

What if the practices of "sensationalism" are anathema to a public (as opposed to "the masses")? If the problem is traditional mass media resigning their responsibility for tabloid techniques (or political correctness), how would bloggers' adoping those techniques solve the problem?

Posted by: chutney on August 24, 2003 11:39 AM

i've found this discussion fascinating.. but just as enlightening is the epitaph on the tombstone (at least that's what i read) of Karl Marx:

"The Philosophers (or bloggers in this context)have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it."

Posted by: kez on August 27, 2003 04:57 PM

I think what is necessary is a framework for bringing to light problems, proposing new ideas to address these problems, and evaluating the popularity or importance of problems and solutions. I've developed a proposal for using blogs to do this. Its on a blog...

Posted by: Pete on January 21, 2004 02:25 AM
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