Rick Roderick and the Political Unconscious on Diet Soap #201

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A while back I wrote here about how a video of my late friend Rick Roderick had surfaced on the web. I was so astonished by that video — to hear his voice and brilliance after all those years. This wild man of philosophy, a Texo-Marxist genius with a hellacious drawl, was too busy being an activist to get tenure at his first job at Duke University; so he became an itinerant philosopher. And one of his gigs was teaching a series of lectures for The Teaching Company. And now more than a decade after his premature death, he has garnered quite  a cult following because of those videotaped lectures now on the web and web sites and a wikipedia entry.

Because of my connection with Rick, the novelist Doug Lain of the Diet Soap podcast invited me to be on his show.  We talked about Rick, critical theory, psychoanalysis, and my book on the political unconscious.  Doug just posted the wonderfully edited podcast, with clips from Rick’s lectures, the Art of Noise, and other interesting snippets.

Check it out!

Habermas weighs in on Merkel’s poll-driven politics

Over at Delliberately Considered, Tim Rosenkranz reports on a recent piece by Jurgen Habermas in a German news magazine in which he excoriates the German Chancellor for her  “opinion-poll dominated opportunism.”

While the article focused on the problem of European integration and the continuing democracy deficit of the institutional frame of the European Union, Jürgen Habermas points his finger at significant systemic problems of today’s democratic political process – between civil society, the public sphere, political elites and the media-sphere – the problem being the loss of larger political projects in a process driven by the short-term politics of public opinion polls.

Read the piece here.

Civil Society, or the Public Sphere?

I am ready to come clean with my worry about these two terms, “civil society” and “the public sphere.”  My political theorists friends (trained in political science departments) act and talk as if the difference between the two is patently obvious.  I just nod, a bit hesitant to admit that I don’t quite get it. Many others use the terms interchangeably to denote a NONGOVERNMENTAL arena.  Okay, yeah, I get that

Between the state and the mass of individuals there is this other, nongovernmental realm.  Hegel aside, let’s suffice it to say that by the late 20th century people were returning to the idea of civil society to point out the political importance of the nongovernmental arena of associations such as labor unions, civic clubs, higher ed, churches, bowling leagues, choral societies, garden clubs, you name it.  Some theorists included the market; others didn’t.  (This seems to me to be a huge question that didn’t get enough attention.)

At the same time, or really earlier, with Habermas’s publication of The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, the term public sphere came into vogue. Habermas’s book was originally published in the 70s, if memory serves me (this is a blog so I don’t feel compelled to look it up just now). It was translated into English in the early 1990s, just when the term civil society was hitting it big.

Both terms seemed to hit the zeitgeist in the same way.  But there were some key differences. Various arenas of civil society may, at any given moment, be attending to things political, or not.  But the public sphere seems to be defined as an arena that is all about political matters.

Moreover, civil society is a demarcation of entities, asssociations, not activities. But “the public sphere” is something else. In the popular imaginary, the public sphere may be a space waiting in the wings upon which people can enter and attend to things political. But in Habermas’s conception it was something else altogether. He described it (in Steven Seidman’s 1989 volume) as the space that arises whenever two or more people come together to talk about matters of common concern.

In this sense, the public sphere is not a space but an occurence. It’s not an entity; it is a phenomenon. It is the effect of two, three, or more people coming together to figure out what to do on matters of common concern.

Where civil society seems to map formal and perhaps informal associations, the public sphere maps activities. We have here the difference between substance and process ontology. In philosophy, substance ontology focuses on the essence of things, which it generally sees as having essences and properties, with things being relatively static or at least continuous over time. It might move from a focus on a thing to its relations between things, but in general it attends to the thing itself. Process ontology doesn’t see things as fixed or having essences. It sees beings as matters of being, as phenomena. The desk upon which my hands rest isn’t a table so much as it is some matter TABLING.  Likewise, we could say that the public isn’t an entity but a phemonenon of people in relation taking up matters of common concern.  One day they might do that, and we call them a public, and another they don’t, and we don’t call them much of anything.

I still think that civil society is a useful notion, but I don’t think it should ever stand in for the more robust and specific conception of the public sphere. Perhaps we should attend to how, in a particular moment, under certain kinds of conditions, entities of civil society, and even those not seen as qualified members therein, morph into the public sphere.

if we think of the public sphere as a process and a phenomenon, as an effect of political engagement among people who may not in any way be “authorized’ to act, we can see it as a really poweful and potentially transgressive space for politics. The idea of civil society might contain that, but only the idea of the public sphere makes this manifest.

Blogging and the End of Journalism

I’ve had a running debate with someone very close to me—I won’t say who, just that he is a journalist—about whether blogging has killed journalism.

It’s true that journalism as we have known it is dying an agonizing death.  Walk into the newsroom of any major newspaper, my journalist tells me, especially its Washington bureau, and it’s a ghost town.  The bodies that are there are those of the young.  The old, along with their relatively big salaries, have departed.

The once-mainstay source of income for newspapers, the classifieds, has migrated to the net.  The old business models have shattered. No one wants to pay for the news anymore.  The advertising and eyeballs model of web journalism can’t pay for good reporting. And in the wake of journalism come all these blogs that just comment upon what real journalists do. If it weren’t for REAL journalists, the bloggers would have nothing to comment on.  And increasingly bloggers come to be taken as journalists.  But what the hell do they know?  And so goes the rant.

My journalist isn’t the only one complaining.  In my work on media and democracy I’ve convened and attended lots of meetings of journalists as well as new media types.  Get the journalists in the room and they start kvetching and bitching and whining and looking for the nearest razor blades.  Journalism as they know it, journalism that lives on newsprint, is dead.  And so go their jobs.

Get a bunch of new media people in a room, and there’s glee mixed with trepidation.  The world is their oyster; there’s something new every five minutes; and everyone will be there twittering about it, or watching via twitter, and clicking on the latest tinyurl to come their way with news of the newest, latest thing.  There will be an obligatory session on “new business models,” as in, “how the hell are we going to get paid for this?” But there’s joy all the same.

What about journalism?  Has blogging become stand in and interpreter? Miscreant? Monster?

Let’s make one thing clear: what you are reading here is not journalism.  I am not pretending to dig up stories and give you the truth of the matter.  The blogosphere is more like the op-ed pages. I’m going to give you my perspective on things.  Of course the op-ed page can’t stand alone, it needs the news pages to comment on; but it is a vital place for making sense of the news, for thinking out loud about what it all means for us. The op-ed pages and the blogosphere are places for regular folks to think through and work through what kind of people and communities we want to be, what we stand for, what we think is vital and of value.

But to say that this isn’t journalism is not to say that I can just make things up.  This communication, like any communication, ought to live up to what Habermas calls valididty condidtions. You have every right, and I have every obligation, to be truthful, sincere, and appropriate.  These are obligations that journalism, blogging, and regular conversations all share.

So what about journalism? Definitely we need new models.  I like my morning newsprint newspaper; I hope it continues.  Yet clearly the main platform is becoming the web.  But whatever the medium, the messenger needs to make a living.  How are we going to support and sustain good old fashioned reporting, especially investigative reporting?  Maybe newspapers need to be endowed. See a New York Times, ahem, op-ed on the subject. That’s a decent idea.  There’s no easy answer to this, especially in the midst of an economic melt down.  But while we try to figure it out, please don’t shoot the likes of me.