Discussing Public Spheres in a Networked World

This post is a summary of our class discussion on September 19, 2011 on Dialogic Approaches: From Public Sphere to Networked Counterpublics facilitated by J. Nathan Matias. Our collaborative class notes are located here. Before our discussion began, we read articles covering the emergence of counterpublic ideas from public sphere theory to what counterpublic means in the networked world. Our discussion began by summarizing these texts and ended by reflecting on how the ideas of these text fare today in the ever-evolving networked medium of the Internet.

Below is a summary of keys points from our discussion:

The Printing Press and the Emergence of Nation-States
In Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson explains how the printing press and spread of text formed the basis of a national identity. Before the advent of the printing press, a limited number of individuals, particularly the ruling elite and religious clergy, had access to the texts of a society. Once the printing press was invented, it facilitated the dissemination of this text, which later become further disseminated in vernacular languages to reach a broader market of individuals. Anderson called this movement “print-capitalism”. With easier access to print, individual consciousness became connected through common languages, from which emerged “imagined communities” or nation-states.
Rethinking the Public Sphere
In Rethinking the Public Sphere, Nancy Fraser criticizes the four assumptions that underlie bourgeois masculinist conception of a public sphere developed by J├╝rgen Habernas. The four assumptions and her criticism of each are below:

1. Assumption: Individuals who engage in the public sphere must deliberate as if they were all equal.
In reality we are not all equal and instead this assumption prevented those beyond the male bourgeois sphere, like women and those of lesser classes, from participating.
2. Assumption: A single public sphere is preferable over multiple publics
Because individuals outside of the male bourgeois sphere were excluded from deliberation, Fraser argues that promoting a single sphere does not leave room for dissenting opinions. Instead, marginalized groups must create their own publics, which Fraser calls “subaltern counterpublics”, spaces where these groups can discuss their own identities, opinions, and interests. From these counterpublics, groups can then assert their interests into the larger public.
3. Assumption: Deliberation covers common or “public” topics and that “private” topics do not belong in the public sphere.
The boundaries between what is public and private however is ambiguous and instead this classification can be used to arbitrarily de-legitatimize concerns. Fraser points to feminists and their efforts to assert domestic violence, which was considered a private topic, into public concern. Feminists formed a counterpublic and generated discussion and strategies that were later pushed into the public sphere. This example illustrates how the public sphere must be open to all topics, beyond policy and state matters, and include topics that were personal and related to the body.
4. Assumption: Civil society should be separate from the state.
This assumption supports a representative democracy, where public discussion would have an abstract influence over policy decision-makers (strong publics). However, this assumption only produces “weak publics” that could only deliberate but not influence or create policy and ignores a more direct democracy where people can govern themselves without the mediation of professional representatives. Fraser argues for a greater relationship or integration of weak and strong publics, of deliberation and governance.
Alternative Conceptions of Public Spheres
Catherine Squires in Rethinking the Black Public Sphere proposes two other conceptions of alternative public spheres for marginalized groups in addition to the counterpublic that Nancy Fraser proposed. In an enclave public, oppressed individuals can safely discuss ideas and strategies without any intervention from other publics. Squires also proposes a satellite public for individuals that wish to engage independent of other domains
Civil Rights Movement as a Counterpublic Model
Nathan challenged us to question if the Civil Rights movement was a successful model of a counterpublic. Using independent Black media, church gatherings, private residences, and segregated spaces, individuals in this counterpublic utilized their own media and spaces to hone their ideas and identity before they later asserted their movement. Performances such as protests and boycotts later caught the attention of mass media, particularly anglo-backed media, which disseminated their messages for a broader public to engage in. This counterpublic was successful in developing their ideas clearly and later asserting it into discussion and action in the public sphere.
Transformation of Public Spheres in Networked World
Yochai Benkler in The Emergence of a Networked Public Sphere discusses the changing public sphere as networked tools transform the role of individuals in a society. Previously, individuals relied heavily on mass media to curate of information and to act watchdogs. With a “see for yourself” culture that was facilitated by the open sharing and linking practices of the Internet, individuals could access primary sources for themselves and form their own opinions. Benkler also illustrates how networked publics can become a formidable force with as much or more power than mass media to enact change.
From Networked Counterpublics and Mass Media to Media Ecologies
Benkler situated the networked public, particularly bloggers, as a force independent from mass media. Today this assertion is less valid as networked publics and mass media have become more integrated and symbiotic forming a greater media ecology. On example of this relationship is how individuals may deliver “on the ground” experiences or discover developing events first, and the mass media can later amplify to broader outlets. Larger questions today explore how ideas originate and diffuse across the ecology.
What is a Counterpublic?
We ended our discussion reflecting on how counterpublics exist today and how they are different from just being a group or an organization. Amnesty International is an organization that works to protect human rights, but acts as a counterpublic only in the campaigns it pursues. For example, writing letters to free a prisoner of conscience is a counterpublic movement. We also noted the differing styles of discourse or performances of counterpublics, such as street theater or hip hop. For example, during the Tunisian protests, a popular MC in the area created a rap song to engage local youth in the discussion.