Public Sphere(s) and Human Life

What are the proper components of a public sphere?

1. Class and gender difference (as preconditions):

“Tho’ the other Papers which are publish’d for the Use of the Good People of England have certainly very wholesome Effects, and are laudable in their Particular Kinds, they do not seem to come up to the Main Design of such Narrations, which, I humbly presume, should be principally intended for the Use of Politick Persons, who are so publick-spirited as to neglect their own Affairs to look into Transactions of State. Now these Gentlemen, for the most Part, being Persons of strong Zeal and weak Intellects, it is both a Charitable and Necessary Work to offer something, whereby such worthy and well-affected Members of the Commonwealth may be instructed, after their Reading, what to think: Which shall be the End and Purpose of this my Paper, wherein I shall from Time to Time Report and Consider all Matters of what Kind soever that shall occur to Me, and publish such my Advices and Reflections every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, in the Week, for the Convenience of the Post. I resolve also to have something which may be of Entertainment to the Fair Sex, in Honour of Whom I have invented the Title of this Paper.”

(inaugural issue of The Tatler, April 12, 1709, Richard Steele, aka Isaac Bickerstaff)

2: Subtractive theory of taste:

“In a Nation of Liberty, there is hardly a Person in the whole Mass of the People more absolutely necessary than a Censor. It is allowed, that I have no Authority for assuming this important Appellation; and that I am Censor of these Nations, just as one is chosen King at the Game of Questions and Commands. But if in the Execution of this fantastical Dignity, I observe upon Things which do not fall within the Cognizance of real Authority, I hope it will be granted, that an idle Man could not be more usefully employed.”

(“Censor of Great Britain,” Tatler #144, March 11, 1710)

3. Commerce as the moderation of ‘extremes’

3a. Abstract equality as the basis for nonviolent competition:

“Equality is the Life of Conversation; and he is as much out who assumes to himself any Part above another, as he who considers himself below the rest of Society. Familiarity in Inferiors is Sauciness; in Superiors, Condescension; neither of which are to have Being among Companions, the very Word implying that they are to be equal. When therefore we have abstracted the Company from all Considerations of their Quality or Fortune, it will immediately appear, that to make it happy and polite, there must nothing be started which shall discover that our Thoughts run upon any such Distinctions. Hence it will arise, that Benevolence must become the Rule of Society, and he that is most obliging must be most diverting.”

(from Tatler #225, September 16, 1710)

3b The expansion of attention (keeping the sphere open to novel experiences):

“It is my Custom, in a Dearth of News, to entertain my self with those Collections of Advertisements that appear at the End of all publick Prints. These I consider as Accounts of News from the little World, in the same Manner that the foregoing Parts of the Paper are from the great. If in one we hear that a Sovereign Prince is fled from his Capital City, in the other we hear of a Tradesman who hath shut up his Shop, and run away. If in one we find the Victory of a General, in the other we see the Desertion of a private Soldier. I must confess, I have a certain Weakness in my Temper, that is often very much of affected by these little Domestick Occurrences, and have frequently been caught with Tears in my Eyes over a melancholy Advertisement.

The great Art in writing Advertisements, is the finding out a proper Method to catch the Reader’s Eye; without which, a good Thing may pass over unobserved, or be lost among Commissions of Bankrupt…But the great Skill in an Advertizer, is chiefly seen in the Style which he makes use of. He is to mention the universal Esteem, or general Reputation, of Things that were never heard of.”

(Tatler #224, September 14, 1710)

Not explicitly mentioned here except by me is the fact of competition — ‘cultural’ competition for public recognition as a compensatory field for defunct aristocratic or ideals and justification for the brutal material competition keeping everyone in business. History of ‘crises’ as the illusion of their division becomes increasingly untenable, until by now they’ve become formally and sometimes practically the same thing.

According to Habermas, participation in the bourgeois public sphere was/is the privilege and responsibility of any proprietor, and the sign of their common humanity. This humanity itself, insofar as it is tied to expressive capacities, becomes increasingly subject to the laws of the market, including its many quirky exceptions. A human body is worth 6.9 million USD, a decline in value relative to other more precious resources. Uncounted human bodies tend to have negative value (sure sign of a burst bubble). A humanistic opinion, “every life is precious,” being a cliche, is also declining in value, following the unprecedented expansion of communication networks and access to them. When a public figure like George W. Bush uses it while publicly sanctioning mass murder, its value declines even further. Overpopulation as a political-economic problem is mirrored by overpopulation as cultural problem.

Warren Ellis on the new cultural crisis:

The years 2001-2007, approximately, on the web were the crazy years. The patchwork years. The years the web was massively and chaotically pumped full of Stuff. 1995-2001 were pretty crazy, of course, but they were checked by connection speed and the limitations of personal publishing. By 2002, broadband was happening over a broader swathe of the world, and blogging had bitten in. Followed by the takeup of bit torrent, YouTube, podcasting, and every other damn thing.

One of the few sane responses to this explosion of production was to assume the role of curator. (Other sane responses include moving to the woods and considering a completion of the work Ted Kaczynski started.) The two most famous examples of same are Jorn Barger’s Robot Wisdom (est. 1997) — Barger is said to have coined the term “weblog” — and Mark Frauenfelder’s Boing Boing (est. 2000 as a weblog, previously a print magazine est. 1988), co-produced for much of its life by Cory Doctorow, David Pescovitz, and Xeni Jardin. The latter, in particular, has spawned countless imitators, all deeply involved in doing the web-work of 2001-2007 — sorting out all the weird crap that’s out there and re-presenting it in some kind of ordered and aesthetically or politically filtered manner for our consideration.

Anyway. That’s been the job of half the web, for the last several years — collating links from the other half of the web. Last year, I started getting a little itchy about this.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could stand up now and say, okay, these are the post-curation years? The world does not need another linkblog. What is required, frankly, is what we’re supposed to call “content” these days. When I were a lad, back in the age of steam, we called this “original material.” Put another way: we like it when Cory and Xeni are the copy/paste editors for the internet, but we like it better when Cory writes a book and Xeni makes an episode of BoingBoingTV.

In the face of oversaturation, Warren Ellis is trying to persuade us of the value of humanity-as-expressive-capacity, against our deeply ingrained economic rationality and its “sane response” of “curating” or starting a linkblog. Addison & Steele’s “Mr. Spectator” persona announces himself as an ideal apparatus; not a singular perspective, but a portal to other perspectives, the most representative parts of the world:

“Thus I live in the World, rather as a Spectator of Mankind, than as one of the Species, by which means I have made my self a Speculative Statesman, Soldier, Merchant and Artizan, without ever medling with any Practical Part in Life. I am very well versed in the Theory of an Husband, or a Father, and can discern the Errors in the Oeconomy, Business, and Diversion of others, better than those who are engaged in them; as Standers-by discover Blots, which are apt to escape those who are in the Game. I never espoused any Party with Violence, and am resolved to observe an exact Neutrality between the Whigs and Tories, unless I shall be forc’d to declare my self by the Hostilities of either side. In short, I have acted in all the parts of my Life as a Looker-on, which is the Character I intend to preserve in this Paper.”

(Joseph Addison, Spectator #1, March 1, 1711)

The linkblogger adopts the position of invisibility and disinterestedness not to ‘real life’ but to the content of the Internet. Each link is a like a snapshot; a documentary record that doubles as the coordinates of an aesthetic, one which may be indirectly critical but is always civil. Civility online is less a function of urbane rhetorical style than it is the almost complete subtraction of rhetoric.

But in this direction, Ellis and Geert Lovink warn us, still lie all the old vices fought by Addison & Steele in the early years of the 18th century — news addiction, derivativeness, sycophantism, distraction from local concerns, etc. etc. Still, the only alternatives to neutral distance risk worse embarrassments; blogland is characterized by a reticence toward displays of passion. Whether the (over)investment is self or world doesn’t matter so much. One does not blog full-time. It’s hard to imagine Ellis’s idealized producers of “content” would do much more than fail to comprehend their environment, entering it instead as passive, dead matter to be arranged. Getting one’s name in print used to be a form of insurance; uploading it is closer to hedonism.

Maybe we can look at the explosion of virtual public life as a kind of overspeculation on real life. A new metaphysic with its own set of generative complexes. We bloggers are often told not to let ourselves get ‘carried away,’ but all of this is just a symptom of the real, collective danger. While I could care less about the fate of media conglomerates, they guarantee the currency of the value they exploit: the human ‘soul.’ (We now inevitably stumble into territory claimed on behalf of Agamben/Arendt.) The problem with dissolving the self is that we’re still allotted only one body each. That body is protected by laws which have to be enforced. Without public support, there’s no reason for them to be. Assuming a public both constituted by its communicative powers (as ours is) and ‘freed’ from their attendant institutions (the hypothesized ‘takeover’ by participatory media), one which has deconstructed its means of representation without the authority to justify itself or the organization to establish itself outside of corporate ownership, all in an environment where the economic value of its individual members approaches negative — given all this, can the sanctity of human life be defended civilly, or will it have to be fought for?


Not the most precise example, but notice the David Foster Wallace obits — check the blogs (as always) where the writers are more candid — that express their sorrow at his death based exclusively on his literary output, speculating on how many great masterpieces we were ‘robbed’ of because he decided to kill himself. The biggest cliche of celebrity, but perhaps increasingly relevant for the rest of us: the tragedy of being known only by one’s work, when that work is, or is supposed to be, honest, fearless, joyful human expression, about alienation maybe but not itself alienated. Tragedy because in fact no one escapes, and all we are left with really is just ‘the work itself.’

5 Responses to “Public Sphere(s) and Human Life”

  1. …Your tatler/spectator snips bring out the line to the persona of the BBC; a feature of the public sphere the vanishing of which Trow on the right hand laments in “within the context of no context” but is also, on the left hand, what Losurdo charges certain superrad intellectual trends (Foucault, Negri) with helping to destroy; context (and hierarchy and power) seems to be this pillar of the republic of letters, necessary to status quo maintenance thus inviting disruption as cultural war aim, but when control of it, of its function, is threatened (and this is the sin of the demonised “multicultists”) capital thinks its better to blow it up like a retreating army – blow it up and rebuild it later. The European commission is now debating policy to bar the member states public service broadcasters from expanding on the internet. Those “brand legit” addisonian voices, BBC, RAI, France Télévisions, SVT, NRK, are now troublesome – capital prefers the new media territory to be without ground, frame, etc.., as its policies radicalise and become more glaringly inconsistent with the ideological edifice. They take the Habermas perspective seriously enough to act to prevent consequences.

    DFWallace: strange. It is easy to be moved to feeling for the person, for people who liked him, etc.. But if its all about the product – suicide as cessation of text production – the propriety of lamenting would be open to debate. Funny that antihumanism should drag back into fashion this hyperindividualist “fount of potential”; seems evidence of the complete acceptance of incoherence generally.
    This was a good parody. DFW was such a symptom. But speaking of ‘carried away’ and all that is accomplished by indoctrination not to, I watched Lee’s Bamboozled last night, a kind of cinematic encyclopedia of the possibilities of being carried away, impassioned, beyond civility, as well as the means of exploiting that state in others. Was really good actually, and curiously, simply and straightforwardly ‘humanist’ – not nostalgically, not ironically, not self-consciously, and basically within a progressive liberal framework, but convinced. And watching it and looking after at some reactions I got a feeling that’s still really the bedrock, plastered over and concealed and subjected to energetic cocaculature assault but its just not so easy to iradicate I think.

  2. Tragedy because in fact no one escapes, and all we are left with really is just ‘the work itself.’

    Absolutely untrue. That’s just the all-pervasive idea most people ‘cooperate with’ even when they think their ‘just the work itself’ could be described as ‘unending critique of capital’, which is, of course, to produce all possible joylessness in anyone who won’t also do it. It’s a tragedy to be ‘known only for one’s work’ because you opted for this. It’s a form of playing it safe, and most people do it in their determined self-flagellation. You learn how to do this, and always this must remain, in school. No matter what else you give up, this is the choice you make and there’s no reason why you should be remembered for anything else but the ‘work’, because underneath there is a sort of pride in this pose anyway. On the other hand, it is not even true, remembering ‘just the work’ and those remembering the rest of it are just different people in different relations to the object. Of course, lots of people can’t figure out why this ‘tragedy of identification with one’s work’ bothers them so much, so they go all the way down the opposite path, go to shrinks for several decades, and get the license and assurance from them that they need not work or produce anything at all (and they very often don’t, just talk about how ‘I can’t work’. It is too, too tedious, and I have no sympathy for them, unless they figured out how to do some other something or other that made them understod and appreciated. The ones that talk with glee about the beauty of their non-productivity are just as boring as the grinds (and they’re plenty boring.).

  3. chabert –

    thanks for the update — is there anything being written on this? on a related note, have you heard anything new about this at all?

    “the complete acceptance of incoherence generally.”

    that line made me laugh — but i was just thinking — the ‘fount of potential’ thing is probably enhanced in DFW’s case because even though he was a verifiable genius/maestro/whatever he never actually came out with a verifiable masterpiece, infinite jest wasn’t well enough received and short story collections don’t count.

    “DFW was such a symptom”

    well, he was very good at it. i’m not really distant enough to refer to him in those terms, i sort of grew up on his short stories, along with the Gen-X boys club: Mark Danielewski, Bret Easton Ellis, though not Franzen or Coupland or the slightly younger McSweeney’s founders. it’s shameful that that mccain book is his last major published thing, it’s like pissing on his own grave.

    what do you mean by “bedrock?”

  4. patrick –

    “No matter what else you give up, this is the choice you make and there’s no reason why you should be remembered for anything else but the ‘work’, because underneath there is a sort of pride in this pose anyway.”

    ok, it’s a little absurd to say reception is all the producer’s fault, granted you can see this as a pose in a lot (not all) of writers and artists and workaholics but as you say, most people cooperate with it, and one can’t easily get away from ‘most people.’ it would be nice if the ‘people for work’s sake’ thing could stay in school, so that 21st century working stiffs and hipsters could have a criticism of universities that wasn’t hypocritical, and these lazy head cases of yours could heal properly.

    anyway i didn’t mean to suggest any universal truth, just the power of a wrong idea.

  5. DFW and Lorrie Moore wrote the New Yorker short stories which proved that the New Yorker, which had been mainstream liberal ferreal, open at one end to seriousness, had become just crap without becoming its own satire – about the same time that “talk of the town” started to be all about celebrities aénd politicians. Their stories were both about terrible harm befalling middle class babies (burns, cancer). Very ‘well written’, total imitation of writing, manipulative, cheap, vacuous – prancing in front of the mirror stories which showed ‘literary fiction’ had become another genre. You can’t laugh at the suffering infants and their suffering parents. But because you can’t – really you can’t, its horrific – you’re laughter at these performances doesn’t have anywhere to go, and creates in you this terrible physical feeling, queasy, and ths feeling is supposed to convince you this is ‘literature’ or something. DFW and BEE and Franzen too are all gifted, but dully reactionary and have nothing to say. Overload of selfconsciousness as craftsman, utter lack of even normal person’s daily drop of ideological self consciousness. These postures of Authority made possible by the carnivalesque pluralism, where they don’t see their own thrones and podia (same old thrones and podia).

    “is there anything being written on this?”

    on the latest psb battle with the EC? The psbs are going to oppose this and are putting their case together now (a lot of recent developments, last six months, make the case stronger that this is a broadcast medium) The union makes statements (also btw about the problem of private equity takeover of media, here’s a pdf ‘private equity and why it matters to trade unions’:

    “what do you mean by “bedrock?””

    Just that wherever narrative is present, the engine is some version of agency/ structure in the liberal humanist vein.

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