Monday, April 09, 2007

Chapter 1 (Sixth Installment)

I welcome your Peer Review!

First Installment: Introduction

Second Installment: That Which We Call a Blog?

Third Installment: From Blogs to Blog Carnivals and Beyond

Fourth Installment:The Myth of Internet Democracy

Fifth Installment: The Imagined Communities of Blog Communities

The Public-o-Sphere

“The changes sweeping through news media are vast and tremendously disruptive of old hierarchies. But they are not limited to the news media. They are coming to your life and probably have already appeared there" (92). –Hugh Hewitt

In exploring the blogosphere, it is important to consider what type of space this cyberspace has become. To better understand the blogging world, I will utilize feminist applications of Jürgen Habermas’s theories on the public sphere. Using the work of theorists who have extended Habermas’s original concept to take new information technologies like the internet and rapidly the evolving transnational condition developing through the global migration of industries, materials, and ideas into account, the blogosphere can be understood as a transnational public sphere. In this assessment, the feminist blogosphere relates to the larger world of blogging as a counterpublic sphere. Focusing on the elements of the feminist blogosphere that contest hegemonic discourses, I will incorporate Mikhail Bhaktin’s concept of the carnivalesque to supplement Habermas’s rendering of the public sphere. While many theorists have read the differences between the publics of Bhaktin and Habermas as oppositional, I use this theoretical tension as a generative space for exploration of the potential of feminist blogging to make social change in cyberspace and in the offline world.

The concept of the public sphere comes out of The Theory of Communicative Action in which Habermas argues for “communicative rationality” (93) in civil society that would promote a democratic culture. Using nineteenth century literary salons of the liberal bourgeois as an example of what he calls ideal speech situations, Habermas presents the public sphere as an intermediary space in which the “lifeworld” (94), or private sphere, can be protected from “colonization” (95) by the “system” (96), or the forces of the modernizing state. For Habermas and many of the theorists who have further developed this concept, the public sphere “describes a social imaginary that is created and reproduced through discourse, but, at the same time, denotes a collection of historically-specific institutions that structure the possibilities for communicative access” (97). In this way, the public sphere is relational and contextually situated.

Habermas’s formation of the public sphere has been criticized for its exclusive nature (98), its lack of attention to the counterpublic spheres that are created through the hegemony of a dominant public sphere (99), and its linguistic focus that dos not address embodiment (100). Further, theorists like Gemma Edwards have asked what is so “new” about the new social movements that Habermas proposes originate in opposition of colonization of the lifeworld (101). In light of these accurate critiques, I will be incorporating feminist revisions of the public sphere and Bakhtin’s concept of the carnivalesque into my assessment of the blogosphere as a public sphere.

Can cyberspace be considered a public sphere? In applying Habermasian theory in analysis of the blogosphere, this question is the first that must be addressed. If the requirement of face-to-face communication is relaxed, then many aspects of the public sphere can be found in the online world. Although theorists have expressed skepticism about the degree to which cyberspace fits the definition of Habermas’s public sphere, I would argue that the blogosphere in particular meets many of the “normative features of communicative public interaction”: the “social acts” that take place in the blogosphere are aimed at an audience that is “indefinite,” there is an “expectation of response” to these social acts, and it is an open space for “interaction” (102). Generally speaking, blogs are available to any (or at least most) internet users who choose to access them and feature a comment system that allows dialogue between the blogger and reader. In this way, blogs present the possibility of enacting the democratic ideals that underlie Habermas’s public sphere.

While arguing that the blogosphere is a public sphere it is important, however, to remember who has access to this space. As previously discussed, the digital divide prevents some individuals from entering cyberspace and the systems of oppressions that exist in the offline world are also present online, as “the Internet develops in interaction with the larger social structures, ‘offline’ problems and conflicts it internalizes and refracts” (103). So although the blogosphere may fit the parameters necessary to be considered a public sphere, it also shares the same negative exclusive qualities and other problems of such spaces.

One distinction between the public sphere of the internet and the public sphere Habermas describes is found in what type of intermediary the public sphere is in these two cases. For Habermas, the public sphere is generally mediating between the individual and the state; this conception has a local focus. On the internet, institutional forces largely originate in the corporations and media conglomerates that provide the infrastructure of cyberspace; these institutional forces operate on a global scale. As James Bohman explains in “Expanding Dialogue: The Internet, the Public Sphere and Prospects for Transnational Democracy,” “[t]hose powerful social institutions that may now inhibit the formation of a public sphere in electronic space are no longer states, but, rather, corporations and other market actors who increasingly design and control its architecture” (104). The global reach of internet is important in terms of the transnational movement of capitalism and culturally based values. While some theorists have seen the trend towards transnationalism as having more negative effects than positive ones (105), Bohman does see promise in the formation of transnational public sphere:
In such boundary crossing publics [of a transnational public sphere], the speed, scale, and intensity of communicative interaction facilitated by the Internet that open social space that is a positive and enabling condition for democratic and perhaps cosmopolitan deliberation (106).


For Bohman, the “development and expansion of a transnational civil society” (107) in cyberspace is both possible and, at least potentially, positive. Bohman makes it clear, however, that the transnational public sphere created via the internet is not unitary. He explains that computer-mediated communication is “distributive” in that it “‘decentres’ the public sphere: it is a public of publics rather than a distinctively unified and encompassing public sphere in which all communicators participate” (108). The overlapping public spheres of this assessment are helpful in considering how the feminist blogosphere in its specificity relates to the larger blogosphere. As I will later illustrate using feminist public sphere theory, the feminist blogosphere becomes a counterpublic to the public sphere of the greater blogosphere. Bohman makes it clear that such counterpublics are important to the maintenance of public space:
Just as all public spheres have technological mediations of features of communicative interaction, all public spheres require counter-intermediaries and counter-public spaces to maintain their publicness; that is, their sustainability over time depends precisely upon those members of public concerned with the public sphere and public opinion and, thus, concerned to have a say in the construction of the public space in whatever technical means of communication is available (109).

In what follows, I will consider how the feminist blogosphere helps to construct the public sphere of the cyberspace and vice versa.

In “Feminism and the Political Economy of Transnational Space,” Lisa Laughlin discusses how feminist theory has been used to revise Habermas’s conception of the public sphere. Laughlin explains,
Feminists have revealed the ways in which political and economic factors that have played a role in the exclusions constitutive of the normative and historical dimensions of a liberal-burgeois public sphere, where the very meaning of ‘civil society’ was constructed through the very exclusion of women, the proletariat, and popular culture (110).
As a corrective to this theoretical position that ignores these exclusions, feminist theorists have “introduced the concept of the counterpublic sphere, a space for the invention and circulation of counter-discourses by members of subordinated social groups” (111) Similar arguments have been made about the existence of other alternative public spheres, such as those focusing on “[s]ubaltern counterpublics” (112). The feminist blogosphere is a counterpublic sphere, as it is composed of members of a “subordinated social group” (113) and as it presents a “counter-discourse” (114) to the oppressive ideologies that circulate in the larger blogosphere and cyberspace in general. In its communicative composition, the counterpublic of the feminist blogosphere is quite similar to the larger public sphere of cyberspace; it is the content of the counterhegemonic discourse that circulates in the feminist blogosphere and its subordinated status to the discourse of the larger blogosphere that makes it a counterpublic.

The way in which feminist bloggers are a “subordinated social group” (115) may not be immediately clear, especially because of the democratic assessments that are usually provided about the blogosphere in general. For example, in describing how the blogosphere has innovated traditional media, Hugh Hewitt claims that through the blogophere “[t]he public becomes the editor” (116) and therefore decides what information is deemed newsworthy and subsequently circulated. Citing the role of blogs in exposing the scandals surrounding Trent Lott, Dan Rather, and Jayson Blair, Hewitt proclaims, “[t]he old information monopoly has had an enormous ability to decide where and when news would be ‘news.’ That gatekeeping function is gone, and blogs have rushed in to decide for themselves what matters” (117). It is true that blogs have changed the way in which news is reported; not only have blogs broken stories before traditional new venues, but they have also pursued issues that were not being reported until they forced mainstream media outlets to do so. While it may seem that the blogosphere is realizing the potential of the public sphere through its ability to influence the corporate media system, some individuals are denied access to effecting change in this way. Individuals who are separated from cyberspace by the digital divide do not have the option to participate in the public-o-sphere of the blogosphere. Further, some individuals are silenced in the blogosphere because of their identities and beliefs; gatekeeping is still taking place. Analogous to the systems of oppression that operate in the offline world, individuals who are excluded from the public sphere in the offline world are also excluded online.

Exclusion from the public-o-sphere based on gender categories is especially important to consider in assessing the role of the feminist blogosphere in relation to the larger blogging world. Laughlin raises gendered aspect of the digital divide when she points out that,
When gender is factored into the equation [of the digital divide], the gap between ‘information-haves’ and ‘information have-nots’ is an especially wide one, with poverty, illiteracy, and lack of access to basic infrastructure such as electricity and telephone lines blocking the majority of the world’s women from having any opportunity to represent themselves and their concerns (118).
Laughlin does not, however, believe that the answer is to dismiss the public spheres that are enabled through new technologies. Instead Laughlin calls for a
transnational feminist approach to the public sphere to find a way to address this simultaneous inclusion and exclusion of women [specifically through low-skilled and semi-skilled information technology employment] rather than to walk away from it as thought it were a lamentable ending to an otherwise appealing narrative (119)
. I believe that the feminist blogosphere is one potential space for fostering this “transnational feminist approach” (120). While acknowledging the limitations of the blogosphere in terms of its accessibility, feminist bloggers can – and do – use this space to raise awareness not only about the digital divide but also about other feminist issues. The feminist blogosphere provides a space for countering hegemonic discourses through its counterpublic qualities and many feminists are taking advantage of it.

The counterhegemonic discourses that are circulated in the feminist blogosphere are not always well received; in fact, ideas circulated in this counterpublic of the have often been rejected in other public spheres of cyberspace. Further, the dominant public of cyberspace – and even the offline world – have policed the discourses of the feminist blogosphere. Examples of such censure can be seen in the recent experiences of bloggers Kathy Sierra, Melissa McEwan, and Amanda Marcotte.

In late March 2007, technology expert and software programmer Kathy Sierra was “subjected to verbal abuse” on weblogs that ranged from hate-speech to threats of sexual violence and death (121). The motivation behind this attack seems to be sexist and misogynist attitudes towards women; the fact that Sierra is a woman who is succeeding in a male-dominanted field appearss to be what earned her this negative attention. In early February 2007, Melissa McEwan and Amanda Marcotte chose to leave the staff of John Edwards’s presidential campaign because of the blogstorm that centered around the feminist writings that they posted on their personal blogs prior to joining the campaign. The negative attention that these two bloggers received became so great that they felt that the controversy over their feminist positions prevented them from being able to effectively contribute to Edwards’s campaign.

In both of these cases, women who were participating in counterpublic spaces were silenced because of their sex, the content of their speech, or a combination of these elements. In this way, the legitimate entry of these individuals into the public sphere was limited; seen as undesirables by those who dominant the public-o-sphere, Sierra, McEwan, and Marcotte were denied access. Such maintenance of the public sphere is important to consider when attempting to assess the potential of counterpublic spheres online. If the contributions of the members of counterpublic spheres can be shut down, as can be seen in the case of these bloggers, then the ultimate ability of the feminist blogosphere to effect social change must be questioned.

Before lamenting the demise of the feminist blogosphere that such public policing seems to suggest, it is important to consider the fact that there have been instances in which this counterpublic has successfully confronted dominant groups. Despite setbacks faced by individual bloggers like Sierra, McEwan, and Marcotte, the feminist blogosphere as whole remains robust. Further, some activist projects that have been launched via the blogosphere have been extremely effective. For example, the anti-street harassment campaign launched through the collaborative HollabackNYC blog led to direct action by the New York City Police Department to reduce “sexual misconduct” aimed at women in the city’s subway system (122). Today, Hollaback blogs have been started in various cities and states in the United States and around the world; HollabackNYC currently lists sixteen other locations have that have launched similar projects (123). Further, even in the cases of Sierra, McEwan, and Marcotte, the feminist blogosphere was able to level some resistance against its detractors. By compiling large archives of blog and media coverage of these events, the feminist blogosphere launched a counternarrative that interrogated mainstream sensibilities about these situations. The 32nd and 35th editions of the Carnival of Feminists provide examples of such archives. Here I would like to suggest that it is the very carnival nature of feminist blog carnivals that allow them to succeed as counterpublics despite opposition. In framing blog carnivals as carnival spaces in the Bakhtinian sense, a place for subverting official narratives is created.

Many blog carnivals have been introduced by their hosts with language that recalls the ambience of a county fair or circus. In fact, the first blog carnival was started with a call for bloggers to “Come one, come all. See the freaks on the display for the low, low price of absolutely nothing!” (124). Feminist carnivals have opened with similar lines like “Welcome! to the first Carnival of Feminists. In this show there are no captive animals or ‘freak’ displays, but plenty of passion, lots of fun, and more than the odd bit of juggling of life” (125) or “Welcome, ladies and germs, to the sixth edition of the Carnival of Feminists. We’ve got quite a show for you tonight, so sit down, take a whiff of that sawdust, break open that bag of buttery popcorn, and enjoy the show!” (126). While these introductions that emphasize the playful nature of carnival may just be clever word play, the fact that bloggers consistently reframe blog carnivals in this way is important. In invoking the carnivalesque, bloggers reinforce the idea that blog carnivals are a carnival space. This insistence on the carnivalesque indicates that it is not only a primary quality of blog carnivals, but one that is also useful to bloggers in some way. As illustrated by Bakhtin, in the middle ages, carnivals provided a space for individuals of lower status to engage individuals of higher status in acts of subversion. By asserting the carnivalesque nature of weblog carnivals, feminist bloggers are implicitly establishing blog carnivals as a space for challenging dominant groups.

Obviously, the nature of carnival online is different than its embodied form in the offline world. Nakamura provides an assessment of the carnivalesque qualities that cyberspace generally takes on in Cypertypes:
This ‘second world’ [cyberspace], like a carnival, possesses constantly fluctuating boundaries, frontiers, and dividing lines that separate it from both the realm of the ‘real’ (that which takes place offline) and its corollary, the world of the physical body which gets projected, manipulated, and performed via online interaction (127).
It is the “constantly fluctuating boundaries, frontiers, and dividing lines” (128) that make the online world such a generative space for contradicting hegemonic discourse. As a new “frontier” (129) the rules and norms of cyberspace are still being developed. Although this “wild west” quality can sometimes lead to expressions of prejudices online that are not considered appropriate in the offline world, it also simultaneously frees internet activities from offline constraints. The norms that govern the world wide web, however, are quickly being established through the corporatization of cyberspace. In this rapidly developing environment, blog carnivals function in a similar way that the medieval carnivals that Bakhtin studies in Rabelais and His World do: “they buil[d] a second world and second life outside officialdom” (130). Feminist blog carnivals operate outside of the “officialdom” of mainstream news media and the larger blogosphere. Like the literary carnival spirit that “offers the chance to have a new outlook on the world, to realize the relative nature of all that exists, and to enter a completely new order of things” feminist blog carnivals serve
to consecrate inventive freedom, to permit the combination of a variety of different elements and their rapprochement, to liberate from the prevailing point of view of the world, from conventions and established truths, from clichés, from all that is humdrum and universally accepted (132).

In other words, feminist blog carnivals enable the spread of counterhegemonic discourses through their very carnival nature.

Having established that feminist blog carnivals have utility despite resistance from the larger public sphere, it may be helpful to explore the formal traits that blog carnivals share with Bakhtin’s carnivals. Like the “mesalliances” (133) Bakhtin’s carnivals, weblog carnivals blur boundaries. In providing a list of links to blog articles spanning a variety of topics, blog carnivals “allow for unusual combinations” (134); different types of information from personal to political to public and an assortment of writing styles from non-fiction prose to opinion piece persuasive to life writing all come together in weblog carnivals. Further, blog carnivals encourage “‘free and familiar contact between people’ who would usually be separated hierarchically” (135), temporally, or even by the difference in subject matter that they include in their blogging. Additionally, blog carnivals blur the boundary between reader and writer in their weblog format; as previously illustrated, the community that is created through the comment feature on a blog is as important to defining the blog genre as the writing done by the individual blogger who is creating this website. In the same way that there is “no difference between actors and spectators” (136) and “everyone is a participant” (137) in Bakhtin’s carnivals, blog carnivals also have a participatory nature. It is this “free and familiar contact” between individuals and collective participation that make blog carnivals as space that “allows for ‘mass action’” (138) that effects social change.

Of course, one could challenge this assessment of blog carnivals as carnivalesque spaces because of the many differences between the carnivals Bakhtin describes and weblog carnivals. For example, an important aspect of medieval carnivals and literary carnival is the use of the grotesque. Although some bloggers may include elements of the grotesque in their blog postings, the grotesque is not an implicit component of blog carnivals. Despite such disjunctures, the spirit of the carnival, however, is maintained in feminist blog carnivals in the way that they provide a venue for challenging official narratives.

Notes
92. Hewitt, Blog, 155.
93. Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action, 1:10.
94. Ibid, 2:318.
95. Ibid.
96. Ibid.
97. Laughlin, “Feminism and the Economy of Transnational Public Space,” 159.
98. Ibid, 160.
99. Ibid. Crossley and Roberts, “Introduction,” 15. Gardiner, “Wild Publics and Grotesque Symposiums,” 43-4.
100. Gardiner, “Wild Publics and Grotesque Symposiums,” 30-1.
101. Edwards, “Habermas and Social Movements: What’s ‘New’?,” 111.
102. Bohman, “Expanding Dialogue,” 135.
103. Ibid., 141.
104. Ibid, 137.
105. For example, Inderpal Grewal provides an excellent discussion of the consequences of transnationalism in terms of how the United States has circulated globally both in physical and ideological manifestations in Transnational America: Feminisms,
Diasporas, Neoliberalisms.
106. Bohman, “Expanding Dialogue,” 137.
107. Ibid., 138.
108. Bohman, “Expanding Dialogue, 139-40.
109. Ibid., 143.
110. Laughlin, “Feminism and the Political Economy of Transnational Space,” 160.
111. Ibid.
112. Crossley and Roberts, “Introduction,” 15.
113. Laughlin, “Feminism and the Political Economy of Transnational Space,” 160.
114. Ibid.
115. Ibid.
116. Hewitt, Blog, 108.
117. Ibid., 17, 103.
118. Laughlin, “Feminism and the Political Economy of the Transnational Public Sphere,” 172.
119. Ibid.
120. Ibid.
121. Walsh, “Men Who Hate Women on the Web,” http://www.salon.com/opinion/feature/2007/03/31/sierra.
122. Lee, “Undercover Police Charge 13 with Lewdness on Subways,” http://www.nytimes.com/2006/06/23/nyregion/23expose.html?ex=1176177600&en=9909877ba3309975&ei=5070.
123. HollabackNYC, http://www.hollabacknyc.blogspot.com.
124. Carnival of the Vanities, http://www.silflayhraka.com/archives/carnival.
125. Bennett, “Carnival of Feminists #1,” Philobiblion, http://philobiblion.blogspot.com/2005/10/carnival-of-feminists-no-1.html.
126. Jenn, “Carnival of Feminists #6,” Reappropriate.com, http://www.reappropriate.com/?p=348.
127. Nakamura, Cybertypes, 142.
128. Ibid.
129. Ibid.
130. Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, 6.
131. Ibid.
132. Ibid., 34.
133. Vice, Introducing Bakhtin, 149.
134. Ibid.
135. Ibid., 152.
136. Ibid., 181.
137. Ibid.
138. Ibid.,152.


Constructive criticism from "experts" on Bakhtin and Habermas would be especially appreciated!


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