After the Silence

I spent yesterday in my office, behind a closed door, listening to music through noise-cancelling headphones. Reading Habermas, on the disintegration of the public sphere. Unable to admit anything else about the day.

It’s hard to get going again, today. There are classes to be taught (one on Habermas, of course), conferences to be held, meetings to attend. But the difficulty in re-emergence has made me start wondering whether the disintegration of the public sphere that Habermas so lamented has less (or less than he thought) to do with the media’s co-opting of public discourse, and its transformation of all of us into passive consumers of same, than with our flight from the media’s excesses into varying modes of silence.

I don’t want to fall into a species of empty net-boosterism, a new blogosphere version of the same old kinds of “the internet is the new agora!” metaphorizing that so populated the early nineties. Nonetheless, there’s a reason that such metaphors — particularly the internet as virtual caf?© — took hold; there’s a power in the sense that we can both retreat from the mainstream media’s noise into a space of silence and nonetheless find the signals of like-minded thinkers with whom we can commune.

All this by way of saying, to those of you who did find the words to post yesterday: Thank you. You helped me tremendously.


  1. … and some appreciation for your own styling of silence as a series of carriage returns to create a space…

    … space creation …

    … the work of making places for gatherings …

    … from the blogs outfitted with traceback and comment features to the static HTML pages with email addresses …

    … encouraging interlocutors to connect but first encouraging them to pause

    {a space created not by “getting going” by in the best civil rights tradition of resistence by “staying put”}

    KF, might you not be re-emerging, might you not be bringing the staying put power to future encounters?

  2. In a lot of ways, I feel like your silence said so much more than I did in the frantic and somewhat compulsive blogging I did yesterday while keeping my own mourning at bay.

    But your other question about a “public sphere” is one that haunts me, too. I turned to blogging out of a desire for that type of communication, and I think it offers a space to speak, even if our voices are drowned out by the mainstream media. I also sincerely believe that blogging and the online public sphere in general helped to combat the FCC deregulation decision. Obviously, that battle isn’t yet done, but the thousands (millions?) of faxes, letters, and phone calls certainly made a difference. Call that naive optimism, but I think it made a huge difference.

  3. I’m sure you’re aware that we have to be careful with the concept of the public sphere in the german tradition, sometimes it doesn’t quite map onto what u.s. means by public. Ulrick Beck mentions that in a few of his books, but the one of his that I’m taking notes from currently is Individualism in which he argues that the civicness or sociality of contemporary life is undermined significantly by the institutionalization of individualism, that is the building of all kinds of institutions that only recognize individuals and only deal with individuals, thus removing the collectivities and all the cultural effects that inhabit them, one of those cultural effects might be the ‘public sphere’ and he argues, that this is why we focus on the private lives of public people more than their public lives. anyway, it might be something to look at.

  4. Chuck, I think you’re right that certain aspects of the online public sphere have made a difference — it’s hard to ignore the work of groups like, which have managed to do large-scale grass-roots organizing around particular pressing issues. There’s certainly cause for optimism there. Of course the closet Althusserian in me worries about the ways that all such possibilities for subverting the dominant can be (and, depending on how pessimistic I’m being, are inevitably) recuperated by the dominant. But that there is some ability to make connections via the web is important, both socially and personally, I think.

    And yes, Jeremy, I do of course agree that the Habermasian public sphere can’t be mapped with any directness onto U.S. notions of publicness — but that having been said, I think there’s something important to the contemporary U.S. in Habermas about the role of the media in the disintegration of the public sphere. (Such is the argument of my class, in any event.)

    That having been said, however, I’m really suspicious of Habermas’s halcyon notions of that utopian moment at which men (a term I use with great intent) were able to affect political life via their communal discussions in that public sphere. He acknowledges the extent to which the illiterate (as well as “women and dependents”) were closed out of such a sphere, without ever fully reckoning with the full import of this: rational-critical debate, the cornerstone of the public sphere for him, both depends upon and limits itself to bourgeois masculinity.

    Another model, that suggested by Paul Levinson’s The Soft Edge, might argue that whatever other effects new media have, it remains that, with each new media develoment, more people have historically been brought into more active communication and participation in cultural life — a different model of democracy than that suggested by Habermas.

    Where this is going, I’m not sure. It’s Friday at 5, and I’m still in the office. So I’m outta here. More soon.

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