The Insignificance of Public Discourse (v 2.0)
May you live in interesting times — says one of the most vile curses of the ancient China. This sentence, although apocryphal and never proved to actually exist, still applies to our times in genuinely good, and surprisingly demonic way.
Interesting times we have, forsooth — the times of new- and post-media. This travesty just appears to be ridiculous. Don’t we live in the well-fed times-of-prosperity (and now, on the very edge of the global conflict), when communication never was easier and more accessible, together with knowledge and the entire universe of virtual goods offered by the Internet and common connectivity…?
Time of new media is divided between what we can name as post-communication and post-politics, set on the foundations of dissolved axiology. If we speak today about “2.0 revolution” or “forming of digital society”, we do not necessarily understand the depth of the words we use. As a consequence — we are not able to see the abyss between the meanings of classical words we use to describe contemporary reality, and its actual shape.
Classical Citizenship: Freedom and Participation
The shape of the world that became home for the European civilisation (that means philosophy and science, but also technology, law, culture and values), was formed in the reality of flourishing ancient Greece, circa 400 B.C. Koinonia politike, the commonwealth of free and equal people was shaping the discourse and defining the frames for the society, which could not be understood in different way, than civic society. Freedom and the division between public and private — these are the values that laid the foundation for the Athenian democracy.
The ancient Greek definitions of democratic values shouldn’t be transferred into contemporary understanding; the freedom of Greeks was understood mainly as freedom for common (collective) governance. Only life filled with usefulness and liking for the collective shaping of the reality is a purposeful life, Aristotle says; a life led by individual delights in comparison is just a waste of time and enslavement.
The most important factor in forming of the ancient Greece was its well defined system of values and definitions. The entire society was understood as a civic one, ruling and deciding about its own fate. These people, who want to participate in public life, have to free themselves first from what is private (concern for existence, the biological aspects of life — hierarchic, crippling and violent). There is no equality within the private sphere — it’s dominated by the functional understanding of power, that brings human being back to brutal animality. The private sphere then is not a ground for development, neither a way to create anything new in one’s life. In ancient Greek universe, perfectly free man doesn’t touch anything material — he fulfils himself in purely intellectual way.
At the same time, the ancient Rome defined the self-fulfilment of human life as being a part of the public sphere, understood par excellence. The Rome will also lay the foundation for bigger equality by defining citizenship not on the basis of one’s origin, as it was in Athens, but by meeting some socio-legal criteria.
The fall of Rome, together with its understanding of diplomacy and citizenship and the value it brought into turbulent process of shaping the public sphere, is the fall of particularly understood civilisation level. The fall, that will define years, or even ages — because it is not just the fall of the Roman Empire. It includes also some interpretation of the world, and the understanding of the human role in the reality formed on the basis of civic values.
The place of free citizens will be now taken by peasants and townspeople, and citizen’s community will become overvalued by the family.
The Middle Ages: Hierarchy And Violence
The Middle Ages will redefine the structure of the society, in which everyone besides the king is a subject. It will also disassemble Greek koine, and replace it with family, economical and — finally — political communities (the perfect construction of the ideal society is well depicted in De Civitas Dei by Augustine of Hippo).
Parting with the natural, human likeness for public participation will become an obvious consequence of the Middle Ages, and, ipso facto, a strong mark on the very beginning of the modern era, filled with wars, but being also a starting point for the rise of national identities among Europe’s peoples.
Bellum omnium contra omnes and the conviction that public participation doesn’t change anything in one’s life wouldn’t be possible in the intellectual reality of ancient Greece and Rome — but in England, in 17th century, is not a surprise. Even more: it’s something obvious.
Political dimension, which was once a sphere of maximal empowerment of the participating subject, now reshapes itself and sinks into technocracy, defined by the tasks and benefiting the power, now parted from individuals, slowly becoming an assemblage of dehumanised values.
According to Hobbes and Locke, whose thought defined the time in question, what is social, public, is always minor, derivative, secondary. We are not — or maybe we have never been — autonomic individuals.
The echoes of the previous understanding of public sphere come back with rise of the bourgeois. The power — slightly parted and set in opposition to its subjects, their own consciousness and intimate life, that became a cultural escape from tyranny and political domination of absolutism, are two elements of inevitably incoming revolution. The third (still underestimated) factor is the media.
The Media And The Political Revolution
Coffee houses, salons, theatres. The art, and — finally — the press. The press, which gave birth to the practice of selling the information leaking from behind the gates of Louvre, fast shaping itself into the form of the newspapers, being sponsored by its subscribers, finally becoming the main way of putting impact on the public opinion. This last thing is — over all — the public opinion of the bourgeois, who build their identity by forming the opposition to the court of the Sun King. The newspapers are then the enemies of the king. What follows them, is the organisation of associations and the public discourse. What is political, stays within the walls of the Louvre. The public opinion in the beginning of the mass media feeds itself on the private sphere — intimate, taking place in the closure of Paris tenement.
The French Revolution pushes the discourse and the attention of the public opinion (for the first time becoming the opinion of the majority of society, not only its chosen layers) to the level of the private sphere (in the classical understanding); the wealth, which is a census of the citizenship. Following the classical definitions, the economy is a sphere of violence — when some are the owners, others have nothing. This is a game that sums up to zero; a game with a purpose of shaping the rules of power for the internally diverse society — and it is the beginning of the public discourse, as we understand it today — the discourse, that wouldn’t exist without the media.
Nowadays, in “2.0. era”, the public discourse cannot be seen differently, than through the connection with text. The discourse itself is a polyphony formed from individual codes, often without internal integrity and sense. The discourse is also — among others — a form of violence, against which it was turned in the past. Then it wasn’t responsible for defining one’s identity though, and its radius only partially was shaped by the power (nowadays diffused and ethereal, just as the discourse itself), knowledge, social order and the self-understanding of the individual. Today, the discourse is also propaganda, mass culture and legislation — and all the parts are fragmented, impossible to systemise.
The way discourse personifies itself in the society is also a form of violence; intense, impossible to extinguish, endlessly appearing in hundreds of communication channels, beginning with press and television, and finishing with complicated structures of recommendations in the Internet. The press, among coffee houses and salons, was one of the bourgeois institutions of the public sphere, while contemporary post-media institutionally represent nothing instead.
If the statement that founded Hannah Arendt’s reflection on the moral condition of the world in her time is true — that the violence is the end of the politics — nowadays we live in the time of post-politics.
Even if it appears that the public sphere is more individual and more democratic than it ever was, and that this individuality exists thanks to 2.0 media and insane activity of the word, of the sign — then, the basic elements of the discourse, therefore it has to be better than before the “digital revolution” — nothing could be more wrong.
The individuality doesn’t mean the empowerment, which through ages was the essential factor of the discourse, both in agony and in forming the consensus — where both are the foundations of the modern democracy. The likeness of participating in the discourse, even if it turns into an agonic conflict, in the hyperactivity of social media and the flood of generated information turned itself into the insignificance and the domination of the emotions, whereas emotions belong to the private sphere, placed far away from any form of intellectual nobility. The empowerment, which is ultimately needed for the civic participation in the contemporary public sphere, is also very distant.
Civic participation could be today best understood by the competence and requirement, a particular sense of duty needed by anybody who wants to become (and to remain) a part of the civilised society.
The society itself is founded on communication — especially today. Is it a mistake then to state that, if people want to participate in the communication, they have to have some competence as well? The question is very proper — especially in the time of post-media.
Among the authors commenting on the contemporary democracy, citizen participation is being defined by the lack of interest in what is private (Madison). It is the tolerance and the civility proper for gentlemen. It is also the way of life — natural and obvious, just like the participation itself — limited by the rule of rationality, which practically means lack of purposeful inducing conflicts. The civil society is the society formed by the consensus and the civility.
The 2.0 reality, shaped by instant communication and instant politics, the reality of majority’s domination — massive and thoughtless — has nothing to do with the classical ideas, similarly as with good understanding of the discourse, based on rationality and persuasion. The common communication was expected — though just for a while — to give hope, that the ideal situation of Habermas’ ideal communication will really take place — instead of this, we became dominated by the private insignificance.
The insignificance. What could be the other name for the flood of unimportant content, parted from any kind of real action, focused on pathetic photographs receiving millions of likes for the purpose of slacktivism? What could be the other name for the contemporary form of political war, shaped into calling each other names on Internet forums, just because we vote for different parties? This is the insignificance at its best, and our enslavement. This is the insignificance, and its horrendous domination above the genuine, rational discourse. Every form of domination is a form of violence — and violence doesn’t support the equality and demolishing the barriers, which once became new technologies manifesto.
Avoiding it — this is the best we can do for the public discourse today, in the age of post-media.
The Polish version of this essay was first published in 6th issue of “Nowe Media” scientific quarterly.