Jürgen on YouTube

An interview with Jürgen Habermas on YouTube:

So, Habermas comes to the interweb. Or does he? There are those who say he still doesn’t quite get it, but I think there is much in his more recent work that–perhaps against his will–allows for a non-broadcast, networked model of the public sphere and a re-evaluation of the importance of ephemeral communication within it, if not the decentring of Reason as its connective tissue.

Case in point: I found this video via David Berry, via Twitter.

17 thoughts to “Jürgen on YouTube”

  1. Unfortunately I think that Snurb doesn’t ‘get’ Habermas. The problem is one of technological determinism – too many people are running round (i.e. Benkler) declaring the Era of the Networked Public Sphere without carefully analysing what this means in principle. For example, we live in representative democracies which in effect seek to turn the ‘rational’ decisions of the many into the executive power of the one. This is done through voting and lobbying but also indirectly through the channels offered in the public sphere. That is, the arena of media, debate and so forth.

    The problem is that to have true debate (for Habermas) we need a sphere of communicational equality – the is the ideal speech situation that is used as a counterfactual by Habermas to query the way in which we undertake reasoned debate. Interesting to note that Benkler in The Wealth of Networks explicitly rejects this notion leaving him in a normative wilderness where he tells us that a Networked Public Sphere would be ‘better’ than the Mass Media Model, but can’t tell us why or how. Afterall *more* or *faster* is not, surely, better communication between citizens.

    Therefore, by putting technology aside, Habermas is able to examine our communicational environment and the way in which it operates politically – remember that Habermas is interested in the Political Public Sphere understood as the articulation of Civil Society. Rather than claim as too many technophiles and adherents to the Californian Ideology tend to do, that technology will democratise/revolutionise/flatten/improve/add-your-own-hyperbole. No-one doubts that technology is crucial to the management and communicational strategies of citizens in the 21st century. But it doesn’t logically follow that this will make us more democratic, happy, civilised or anything else for that matter.

    – David

  2. “Afterall *more* or *faster* is not, surely, better communication between citizens”

    Surely, you’re leaving out the big difference between the broadcast model and what the “networked public sphere” actually does amount to – not more, or better, just “more direct”, and at the same time, we have to admit, more fragmented and ephemeral communication between citizens, and less engagement with expertise from the centre.

    So it seems that while the early adopters are flocking to ever more ephemeral and intimate forms of communication, the cultural public sphere as we knew it (i.e. as constituted by television) is being evacuated. That really does change things. In the meantime, the primary mode of engagement with television — affect, belonging, identity — has never been properly valued by the Habermasians.

    But like I said, with concepts like episodic publics, for example, I think Habermas – again, probably against his will – is onto what might be productive for cultural democracy about the “networked public sphere”.

  3. Surely, you’re leaving out the big difference between the broadcast model and what the “networked public sphere” actually does amount to – not more, or better, just “more direct”

    How do you quantify ‘more direct’. Is it better – why? How can we compare it? To what (remembering this is a normative claim)? More direct to who?

    Again to reiterate, Habermas is concerned with representive democracy – so it is crucial that publics can communicate with the centre. It is no use everyone ‘twittering’ when the Government cannot hear. It is a claim that Civil Society can articulate itself in a ‘public’ space – that is, a political public sphere. This is why Habermas talks about a national boundary to the public sphere – and perhaps why the Internet makes everyone excited but doesn’t answer this question about how communication in a networked environment will contribute to a polity.

    Unless you are suggesting a more radical suggestion – perhaps a radical democratic project. But then we need more analysis of the norms implicit in your claim (and Habermas is exemplary here in identifying them clearly in the ideal speech situation).

    In any case – to talk about ‘cultural’ democracy is to begin from a very different place to that of Habermas who is talking about ‘political’ democracy.

  4. Jean has posted a YouTube video of a recent interview with philosopher Jürgen Habermas, and also links to my recent comments on Habermas’s continued refusal to engage meaningfully with the Internet and other networked, decentralised, public many-to-many media and with what they may mean for the future of the public sphere. There’s also the start of a little further discussion about how to situate such media within Habermas’s theories. I meant to reply directly there, but my response turned out a little lengthy for a blog comment, so I’m posting it here instead.

  5. Now I’m confused as to where to continue the debate. So if you don’t mind I’ll reply here as it kind of makes sense to the discussion narrative… Well that was a huge reply you made there and so I will try to answer your key point without taking up too much comment space.

    Most clear though is the concern you have with Habermas’ refusal to deal directly with the Internet and network technologies. I really don’t see this as a problem – indeed specifically for the research problem he has in mind these technologies are peripheral to the important questions his research is trying to address. Namely how to reconcile complex ordered polities with dispersed publics which result in a broadly liberal democratic project that continues in the tradition of the Enlightenment (i.e. rebalancing Communicative Rationality). For that reason the question of power in the arena of public debate is critical here. Now I don’t need to point out the obvious – we all realise that the online publics represent (i) a minority of the population; (ii) a fairly wealthy one; (iii) highly educated relative to the rest of the population; and (iv) technically proficient. This technical public sphere is also broadly dispersed globally and so lies in contrast to the concerns of a nationally situated democratic political public sphere. This, of course, raises questions to the Internet’s applicability for the kind of theorisation that Habermas is concerned with (he moved away from the liberal Bourgeois Public Sphere after all).

  6. I don’t think Habermas’ only problem is his reliance on representative democracy within a holistic State, but also his necessary homogenisation of ‘lifeworld’ (which is in turn ordered by the State). Thus we see not just the problem of ‘chatter’, but also of discursively ordered volume and scope!! Once we reengage the system/lifeworld dichotomy of Theory of Communicative Action and especially Legitimation Crisis, we begin to remember that it doesn’t really matter how reasonable or loud certain deliberations are, if they cause systemic crises, they cannot be enacted… regardless of medium. Perhaps I am becoming too close to Luhman (though I’d like to think Marx), but the State is too insulated from any public will. Communication cannot resolve this problem.

  7. A good point. Clearly if their is too severe a disconnection between system and lifeworld then this will result in a lack of legitimacy for executive power and consequently the legitimation crisis that Habermas’ describes. Therefore we have the interesting problem that the Internet becomes a Simulacra of a Public Sphere – offering massive amounts of communicational potential in dispersed but unrestricted quantities across all channels, but doesn’t offer many means of consolidating them or presenting (re-presenting?) this public to the state. The public meanwhile has collapsed into a multitude admiring its hyperreal Other.

  8. Wow, look what’s been going on overnight while I slept the sleep of the innocent…

    David – I *do* begin from a very different place, of course I do. That’s why I said “against his will”, and almost entirely tongue in cheek – of course any use someone like me might make of Habermas is a complete misappropriation. So beat me over the head with the *real* Habermas all you want. But I do think there are ways in which everyday participation in networked culture might amount to the practice of cultural citizenship, but I don’t even start there, I ended up there via observation and description.

    Also, I’m confused as to why a normative claim would necessarily inhere in a description like “more direct” – although of course the implied but unspecified normativity of many such statements is precisely what is wrong with technohype.

    And I thought it was implied as well that I meant “more direct communication between individual citizens, although not necessarily significantly culturally diverse citizens, than that which structured the imagined nation-space of the cultural public sphere as constituted via the dominance of individual channels within the broadcast television system” . Something like that. But if I was being all rational and precise even to that extent, this blog would be a very different communicative space too 😉

  9. Direct carries many different meanings. But of course, if you mean in terms of Shannon’s idea of direct communications channel to carry information that might be true. But may not mean direct democracy, for example, or direct to/from the people to government.

    Anyway its too late for me here… I will take up the thread tomorrow… hopefully theyll be more discussion on the other side… 😉

  10. Piping in again for what I promise will be a quick one this time (and I’ve posted a reply to your comment on my blog as well): David, you’re entirely right that my main concern is with Habermas’s refusal to address the forms of decentralised public communication prevalent on the Internet (or indeed, in some recent work, his outright and rather myopic dismissal of such forms as irrelevant for or damaging to the public sphere).

    Perhaps you’re right that for Habermas’s research agenda the shape of the communications technologies used is peripheral; however, in that case I would ask whether his research will still be able to address those important questions related to the public sphere in the current communicative environment.

    In other words, I think you have it backwards when you suggest that “this … raises questions to the Internet’s applicability for the kind of theorisation that Habermas is concerned with” – I think the more pressing question is to what extent, and with what alterations, Habermas’s theories are still applicable to a communications environment which does now prominently include decentralised public many-to-many communications media that operate differently from the mainstream media we used to be used to.

    Over on Jill’s blog you say “it’s hilarious to think that you have to *update* a theory everytime a new technology comes along”. I couldn’t disagree more. Any scientist knows that theories are just that – theories, and not eternal truths. To refuse to adapt a theory (as you appear to follow Habermas in doing) when what the theory aims to describe changes – not simply because of a new technology coming along, but because of significant changes in the social and societal uses of the available mix of communications technologies – is a position that I find incredibly myopic, I’m afraid.

  11. It’s sort of amusing in an entirely predictable way that in having this discussion you boys have ridden rough-shod over my own too-subtle references to feminist and cultural studies critiques of the blindness of the Habermasians to any mode of engagement other than rational debate. 😉

    But, bugger that, let me cheerfully wade in over my head at least for a second, before withdrawing demurely to the shore. Axel, you’ve raised a question that isn’t just about the objectivity or adaptability of theory, but its purpose. The uses of theory, if you like. So – and please, this question is not an intentionally naive one – are capital-S Scientific theories allowed to have a normative function? Are they so reflexive about their own communicative power or agency that they can be intentionally formulated so as to facilitate changes in the world in and of themselves?

  12. Hang on – I’m not sure that was what I was saying… I don’t (necessarily) propose to adapt Habermas’s work in order for the theory to be used in a particular way. What I’m saying is that today’s communicatory environment is no longer identical to the communicatory environment described in Habermas’s work (this not simply because of the advent of new technologies, but because of the now very well documented change in how people use both old and new communications technologies). My point is simply that if Habermasians are interested in describing this changed environment (rather than an older, strongly mass media-based environment which no longer exists in that form), they will have to modify existing theories because these theories do make certain assumptions about the media mix available in society. But this need to adapt is largely unrelated to whatever motivates researchers’ interest (or lack thereof) in describing today’s public communication patterns – so the ‘purpose’ of the theory (other than being as accurate as possible in describing reality) doesn’t come into this, I think.

  13. I have a feeling we might be in blinding agreement Axel, because you’re saying (and I’m putting this crudely of course) that a theory that wants to do something to the world needs to adapt itself to the changing realities of that world. Scientific theories have to adapt to changing realities (and epistemologies) too, but the point is that normative theories – theories that describe, or even simply make assumptions about, the way something in-the-world *should* be – have a different set of relations to reality – measuring it against an ideal type, for example. But it’s way past my bedtime, and I’m just thinking aloud really.

  14. Exactly Jean. Normative theories do not have to have a correspondence to the ‘truth’ of the world. Hence Habermas is making a normative claim about the value of a particular type of rationality (i.e. communicative) that is in decline and the fact that there needs to be a rebalancing of our political culture to ensure that we do not lose a democratic voice. This (should) therefore allow him to put technology on the side for a while whilst he outlines his normative ideal (e.g. the ideal speech situation).

    Now, for me a more damning critique of Habermas, is his tripartite division of rationality into instrumental/communicative and affective rationalities (ok I accept this is an analytical one but the slippage occurs in his work occassionaly). This is unfortunately because it means conceptually the realm of technology in any form is banished to instrumental reason and hence outside of the sphere of communicative rationality. This is why he does not talk about technologies – as they are in direct contradiction to his realm of communicative practices. Before, anyone starts to jump on this, please accept that these are meant to be analytical distinctions within a normative conceptual schema. Habermas is most definitely not writing scientific theories and I don’t believe he is making correspondance like claims about the ‘real’ (whatever that is).

  15. I found the discussion here very interesting and would suggest to somewhat separate the “person” and the “objective work”. As Habermas stressed in the interview, one is alway a child of one’s time and biographical events in childhood, youth and young adult life shape you once and for ever; this holds true for Simmel, Durkheim, Weber, Parsons, Luhmann and – yes – Habermas. The other aspect is the potential of a lifetime scientific work which is “objective knowledge” and unfolds its potential in other ways than an author would consider. So, my hunch is that internet communication and p2p-content production will unfold their discursive potential and contribute to democratization of present-day-society.

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