Hannah Arendt, Jurgen Habermas, public spheres and social software

A friend of mine, Fred Dolan, and I recently had an email exchange on the transformation of the public sphere in online communities and social software sites like myspace, tribe, friendster, orkut, facebook, etc. For those interested in the discursive practices of online communities, as seen from the competing or complimentary views of habermas and arendt, here it is, pretty much verbatim. Is it possible that in web 2.0 there is a fundamentally new kind of social space? Or is it like the real world on which it is modeled?

(from Fred)

I just wanted to say that I’ve been reading your stuff all day and it’s been enormously, enormously helpful. I now feel like I have at least the beginnings of a sense of what this is all about.

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(from Fred)

Good to see and talk with you yesterday. I found your paper on MySpace (the case study on social interaction design) and it is most illuminating, especially the category of presence and the idea of open-state talk….

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(to Fred)

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One thing I felt the need …. is examples. You know, a stretch of dialogue exchange in which someone establishes himself as a wit or whatever. I want to emphasize the Arendtian theme of the agon, where everyone is just trying to outdo everyone else with their virtuoso performances of self, and it’s all a theatrical matter of putting on the mask that works, not sincere confessional truth telling, and above all standing out (though for some, of course, blending in is the thing — the Nietzschean slaves).

What I immediately liked in your analysis was the point that this is not about the “rational choice approach” of “cognitive scientists” but rather — well I wouldn’t call it sociology or anthropology, but just the aesthetic, theatrical, performative field governed by poetics and narrative. …. It is all about the agon, the drive to appear and distinguish yourself (or at least to be seen with those who are distinctive). And that is what the public sphere is for, according to Arendt.

I also like the clear distinction you draw between the value of “knowledge” (e.g. Wikipedia) and the value of self-display, which is all about wit and seduction. Still, i want to find some vivid examples of this. I’ll have to start searching the site….

(to fred)

I’m working out some ideas on hitchcock, influenced by lacan/zizek… Thinking about what makes a crime, and that a crime requires a judge, and that the judge in hitchcock is the gaze. But that in film it can also be the command (voice, often mother), or the law (word, often father). Think M, the trial, for the law. Psycho, with the dead mother’s voice… Hitchcock operationalizes the judge, and infuses the field with it. So the eyes are removed, become the camera seeing, and the whole film is infused with the gaze (this being the conventional lacanian reading of hitch). > Could we theorize the same of social software? That a social operation is dispersed throughout a field to become its virtual function? Connections and friends. Celebrity and popularity. Speed and participation. Expertise… News… Each of these being an operation that produces a presencing of participants online (where presence is absent, invisible, and atemporal)… >

(from Fred)

This strikes me as exactly right, a series of operationalized virtual public spaces where you get all the effects you want but no real authority (unless you’re luck). Thanks for the bookmarks. I have to start synthesizing all this….

Looks like I’ll be in Grass Valley for most of tomorrow. Maybe I could manage to swing by on Wednesday?

(to fred)

I’m working on a draft I’ll share with you, as I deal in it with the ways in which social software content is designed to emphasize contributors or contributions, and that more than just establishing a genre/social activity, they also have to successfully engage psychological interest in seeing/being seen..

(from Fred)

The distinction between contributions and contributors is a good one. The more I think of it the more I see systematic ambiguity between the normative “content” dimension and the aesthetic “being seen” function. This ambiguity is always present but may be harder to disentangle in some contexts than others, e.g. with young people. The “safety” issue. Look forward to the draft….

(from fred)

There may be, in this online communities, a confusion between communication in Habermas’s sense and action in Arendt’s. As we discussed a bit at your place, for Habermas there are built-in communicative norms such as sincerity, truthfulness, willingness to provide reasons, desire to reach an understanding, and so on. Obviously that sort of thing is crucial to the real-world normative universe of rules and procedures that keep us more or less honest and reliable. In Arendtian action, those norms are trumped by sheer aesthetic expressiveness. Nobody wants a public figure to “be himself,” they want him to say the right thing at the right time, that is, to do the appropriate thing in a memorable, distinctive, stylish way. Now whether this makes for strategic action in the online setting is a real question. Because online, there is a much greater ability to calculate, prepare, and script your image — a bit like the way real politics is now carried out, as a PR exercise. It also makes for the “dangerousness” of these forums — the fact that one can appear to be speaking in accordance with the normative pragmatics of truth, sincerity, etc., but in fact be constructing a completely made-up figure.

I agree that the theatrical metaphor only goes so far. It’s key that everyone is both actor and spectator, and also that there’s no director.

Interesting about how you show you’re paying attention. Even in real life, it’s not enough just to be silent and listen. You have to repeat back what the person said in a way that demonstrates you get the point. I learned this as a teacher….

(to fred)

This is good. It’s interesting that you bring in instrumentality. I’ve wondered whether a place like myspace is a grand example of strategic action at work, and not the communicative action I’d hoped to find. The absence into which members project their presence and then negotiate their presence with others distorts the communication space, amplifying looks, appearances, appeals, and provocations too, and dampening the shy, quiet, and reserved. Speaking is privileged over listening, showing over paying attention. There’s no way to show that one’s paying attention, in fact, without speaking! I’m not sure about the use of theatre, but it’s a playspace of some kind, yes. Roles are less defined though, as are scripts. Everyone’s the audience and the actor. And authenticity can be as important as drama. Tribe, in general, is more authentic perhaps, but myspace does serve to allow teens to expand their style and see how it’s taken up by others. Perhaps that explains a big part of the interaction. A goffmanesque reading might be that in an interaction space that has no presence, the take up of communication becomes an issue. People have to try harder to get taken up (paid attention to); attention-getting members offer a “place” in which being seen is more likely, the person’s celebrity offering the guarantee of an audience that’s cool and happening….

(to fred)

Philosophical remarks One gets the sense, when pursuing a topic for a significant period of time, of sometimes finding one’s own footprints, and of having returned to a starting place, though perhaps from a different road or port of entry. I would like to venture one of these moments now. In an effort to simplify the nature of online interactions and social software content structuring, it has occurred to me that the three truth conditions proposed by Jurgen Habermas might be of value. I used these over two decades ago when studying international relations theory. According to Habermas’ theory of communicative action, we make claims to truth when we interact with one another. I’ve long suspected that these claims to truth become distorted and masked by mediated interactions (such as those we’re discussing here). It would only follow that online interactions make an issue out of them; and that interpersonal communication, group talk, and communication forms from blogging to commenting, comment tracking, etc., all involve the addressing and clarification of these truth claims. All we need to assume is that in the case of member-produced content sites, members themselves becomes as well as what they say (post), for reading and interpreting content will involve the intentions, style, personality, etc of their author. Habermas’ three truth claims are facticity, sincerity, and normative authority. There is the truth of what is said as it corresponds accurately to fact (it’s raining, and so if I say it’s not raining, I’m making a false claim.). The sincerity of the speaker (because a person can say something true, and still not mean it, and thus make a false statement). And the normative authority (I may make a claim on you that I don’t have the authority to make, and lacking authority, my claim is false). Social software engages users in discovering and establishing these things about other members. As well as making them clear (or not) about oneself. It would follow that in all social software, and other technologies in which the primary mode of user interaction is communicative, participation is engaged in establishing the:

  • truth of what a person says
  • the truth of their intentions (the sincerity of their self presentation)
  • and the normative rightfulness of their position

If the truth of a person’s statements, and of their sincerity (to us), and their position were indeed fundamentally obscured by the lack of face to face co presence, then it would make sense that all kinds of online social phenomena be explained by the importance of establishing a communicative foundation. We would want to know if a person really looked as they do in their pictures. Whether their friends and connections can validate them and who they seem to be (and claim to be). Whether their work and professional background correspond to their claims, in fact or on paper. A review of the member’s posts and comments online might help uncover the person’s particular stylistic choices, thus whether they are genuine, honest, witty, or perhaps flirtatious, jocular and not to be taken entirely seriously. And indeed we do see that the blogging phenomenon, social software services, and social networking sites, often deal with an author’s credibility, expertise, appearance and attractiveness, social or professional network, expertise and relevance reflect concerns as to the validity of these truth claims. Social networks are meant to produce trust. Links, tags, technorati posts all build credibility. Testimonials and rankings argue for sincerity. And so on. I don’t want to suggest that the only thing driving online interaction is the matter of truth. Certainly all manner of play and pleasure occur online also. And yet, it is possible that only when the “truth” claims have been dealt with, either through validation, or through exemption, does play occur. A site must protect privacy, maintain anonymity of members, and remove all connections to the “actual” member behind the camera before members will expose themselves: their sincerity is rendered irrelevant, and the site is organized to keep it so. And so on.

(from fred)

That last material you sent me was most provocative. I want to set it against Arendt’s public sphere, which is aesthetic-affective- emotional rather than oriented towards truth and sincerity. The confusion between these two normative spaces, and the negotiation of their competing claims, may illuminate much. More on that soon, I hope.

(from fred)

The performative in Arendt’s sense is self-presentation or self- assertion, not a performative in the sense of speech act theory, but the main point to me is that it’s governed by aesthetic judgment (in the Kantian sense: affective and non-cognitive). Saying the right thing at the right time, like Aristotle’s phronemos who doesn’t have a theory of justice or norms of justice but possesses the ability to just straightaway do what is called for under the circumstances, doesn’t satisfy rules or norms already in existence; if anything it brings them about, defining and extending the definition of what it means to be just, courageous, etc., etc. In other words, the normativity that Arendt’s public actors appeal to is Kantian aesthetic judgment, where the rule is not given but must be invented, as the actor’s original deed suggests a new norm or standard in the way that a new symphony or painting extends the idea of what it is to be beautiful. The only criterion of public action in this sense would be “greatness” — saying/doing something distinctive, original, memorable, extraordinary — quite apart from whether it achieves any strategic or pragmatic goals or ends or purpose. The “end” of the activity is its own performance, like flute-playing as opposed to flute-making; it’s ateleological. For Arendt, this is just what “freedom” is — freedom from pre-established ends; spontaneity — so it requires no further justification, being a way of life desirable in itself. Since action of this sort is unpredictable and anarchic and therefore morally unbound, Arendt points to two performatives that introduce into free public spaces a measure of order, namely promising and forgiving: the first establishes relationships, the second frees you from the consequences of your actions (which, as they ramify through the web of human relationships, are intolerably unpredictable and endless). I don’t know whether this is Boyd’s approach or not; when I talked with her she seemed quite hostile to anything Heideggerian or Arendtian or even theoretical, in favor of the “data-driven” (so we didn’t get very far).

But I have no doubt that the Habermasian dimensions of communicative action play a role in these online spaces too. I suspect that a big part of what’s happening is a confusion between the two: some people see the sites as places to redeem validity claims and build relations, others as places to play and role-play, which is more the Arendtian idea of freedom (but what goes along with that, of course, is moral unaccountability). …. I’d like to learn more about the distortion of “proximity,” which, now that you mention it, is obviously key….

(to fred)

I think, fundamentally, that I come from the position that linguistically-mediated interaction is a particular form in which claims are tested, and relations are bound. …. relations are in the performative as self-presentation; for me, the performative, as long as it involves talk, is a matter of pragmatics….

(to fred)

I came across this passage in a Borges fiction last night. It reminded me of what you have said about Arendt. It refers to socrates, so it’s morea bout education than it is about the extraordrinary expression, but still. Paradoxically, the tale ends with the dreamer having been dreamed himself. So the tale is about simulacra, plato’s cave. And that got me thinking about the online world as a version of the cave. Can we tell the shadows from the figures? There might be an interesting essay in this: online communities: ” Plato, Arendt, and the Freedom in Expression.”

At first his dreams were chaotic. A little later they were dialectical. The strangers stood in the middle of a circular amphitheatre which was in some measure the fired temple; clouds of taciturn students wearied the tiers; the faces of the last rows looked down from a distance of several centuries and from a stellar height, but their every feature was precise. The dreamer himself was delivering lectures on anatomy, cosmography, magic: the faces listened anxiously and strove to answer with understanding, as if they guessed the importance of that examination, which would redeem one of them from his insubstantial state and interpolate him into the real world. In dreams or in waking the man continually considered the replies of his phantoms; he did not let himself be deceived by his impostors; in certain paradoxes he sensed an expanding intelligence. He was seeking a soul worthy of participating in the universe. JL Borges, The Circular Ruins

(from fred)

This seems right to me. For Arendt, the public sphere is the place where being and appearance coincide; free interaction/speech is sheer appearance and so evades the appearance/reality distinction because in the public realm all that matters is how things appear to be. Since they appear differently to different individuals, the public sphere is the realm of opinion, doxa, judgment, not Truth — the endless and unresolvable exchange of views on how things seem rather than any convergence towards a stable essence. For Arendt, man’s basic passion is self-display; at least that’s what the good life is according to the Athenian demos. Of course, Plato wants to say that our basic passion is to know the truth, so we must turn away from the world of mere opinion and submit to the rigors of dialectical thinking. Heidegger has an interesting discussion of this in Introduction to Metaphysics, where he discusses man as having to “wrest being from appearance,” violently imposing stability against the ambiguity of the appearances in which he’s caught. In this, although he doesn’t believe in Platonic truth, he’s still strangely Platonic to the extent that he sees the world of appearances as problematic. Arendt, following Nietzsche, says we should just affirm the world of plural changing appearances, at least in limited spheres.

(to fred)

Ok, but there might be a critical slippage in the first sentence. Because the online world has no there there, it is where being and appearance cannot coincide. And the analogy would be just that, analogy. There can be social software but no socius, online “cultures” but no institutions, boundaries but no territories… Deleuze writes in Differnce and Representation that philosophy of identity has only four operations: identity, similarity, analogy, and contradiction. None of which permit difference as difference. Or as he says, a non-conceptual difference (as opposed to a concept of difference). If there is no place, no situation, no episodic organization, or temporality, to what “happens” online, can it be “like” the public sphere? We need to think *through* the medium. Spatio-temporal concepts of proximity wont help us. Self-reflexivity, presence handling and negotiation, communication and linguistic exchange, might. Action coordination, ambiguity resolution, error handling, corrective action, steering mechanisms, seriality, turn-taking… The medium frustrates being, but creates connective series for becomings. The medium confounds syncrhony, but in it asynchrony, breaks open the gaol of co-presence. It is a screen, not a mirror, and yet individuals are profoundly self-reflexive online. It can signal but not gesture, and its mode of speech is textual (yet it is speech, not writing). The system makes sure that actions are confirmed, but not interpersonal communications–those are left to the interactants. Given the displacements, decouplings and deferrals the medium performs on presence online, is the coincidence of being and appearance any more possible here than in the real world? What is subjectivity when intersubjectivity is stripped of its presence, relations of their binding power, and time, its duration?

(from fred)

But if the online world is sheer appearance and nothing else, isn’t it the case that to be there, to be online, is just to appear? That the mode of being that prevails there is just sheer appearance? All this does seem to imply a lack of accountability and an anarchic amorality, but that is how Arendt characterizes freedom and why it’s important to keep this sphere carefully “contained.”

However, I need to be careful. Arendt’s idea of appearance is connected to the idea that we are confronted with a plurality of clashing perspectives on what seems to be the case, and no way of determining which is “true.” A good performance is one whose meanings and implications we endlessly discuss and debate. In this sense, deferral is what it’s all about. Maybe the issue is what Arendt distinguishes as the private as opposed to the political. The private is all about binding relations, commitments, obligations, and enterprises designed to deal with necessity, get things done, etc. The political on the other hand is where everything is up for grabs and nothing is ever settled. The frustration of being creates freedom, in Arendt’s sense, but the trouble may be that these online communications introduce freedom where it doesn’t belong and where it is destructive, namely private enterprises. It makes the private public. Of course Arendt loved these distinctions that don’t necessarily map onto real life very well.

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