Public Spheres

If you play a game by its rules, and can’t predict the moves of the other players, isn’t there a sense in which the game plays you?

Social participation is a far thicker thing than most people believe it to be. After the Lockean turn, we are capable of thinking of participation as only a personal choice. In as much as we feel the pull towards participating, we call it “peer pressure” or “social pressure,” and class it as a type of oppression (however mild in degree).

This thick participation, however, is central to the human experience. It is at the heart of language, art, politics, and commerce. It’s not just how we accomplish things together, but how we reach common understanding, how we fill our lives with a shared joy. It is also, of course, how we dominate and immiserate one another and ourselves.

But I don’t think we can avoid this sort of participation, nor do I think it is wise to try. The project of eliminating all power relations, pursued by 19th and 20th century radicals, has proven fruitless. All relations, from our most cherished and intimate to our most remote and official, have political implications. To eliminate power means never to love, trust, or depend upon anyone ever again. In short, it means isolation and it would result in our extinction.

I want to work up to an apology, because I have rejected that in which you participate. I have participated, but with anger, smugness, and arrogance in my heart. I will return to this shortly.

First, a little background. We live in an era in which “the public” appears to have given way to the publics, a plurality of ongoing conversations and vital communities.

But speaking for myself, the plurality has never been the problem. Instead it is the way that any one of these conversations will all of a sudden spill out of a given community, until it is all anyone is talking about. In short, it’s not the fracturing that bothers me, but the continued unity. I’d much rather stick with my little corner, where people will talk about the strange, obscure things we share an interest in.

But it turns out that rather than impairing the national conversation, the Internet has instead created a thicker international conversation. I used to be drawn into conversations about matters of national politics that I didn’t want to be a part of, now I find I am drawn into conversations about the politics of faraway nations.

This is not merely a matter of opting in or out. I can walk away from Twitter and Facebook and the various other ways I carry on personal conversations online, though I would be missing out on a great deal I want to be participating in by doing so. But the people in my life are drawn into these conversations. When someone walks up to me at work and asks if I’ve heard about the latest media event, I’m not going to simply ignore them. I may try to change the subject, but they’re no robot I can flip a switch for—I can influence the flow of the conversation, but I can’t control it. I certainly am not going to be rude and bowl the other person over.

This isn’t meant to be a complaint—it’s simply meant to illustrate how far the reach of these conversations extends.

I used to blame the media for this phenomena, but I now think it’s far too simplistic to do so. For one thing, the media reflects the demand of its consumers, especially in this precarious, low margin environment. For another, the various publics that spring up on social media exert an influence on each other and on the media, which in turn also exerts an influence. The relationship is complex, not at all straightforward.

In the end I’m no longer sure that I should be seeking to blame anything at all, other than human nature. We don’t seek to make sense of the world around us and what we should care about in isolation; we do it through this process of thick participation. We cling to romantic visions of isolated thinkers working out problems on their own, but such thinkers rely on books and other materials authored by other people. The language which makes those materials intelligible requires the very thick participation that such a thinker ostensibly is seeking to avoid.

And so I am sorry. I’m sorry for feeling contempt for these conversations, for many years. I’m sorry for acting as though I was somehow better than the people who openly participated. I’m sorry for acting against the spirit of the conversation rather than observing in silence or adding something of value.

Accepting life in this world means respecting that you don’t get to control what people want to talk about or what they believe. It also means accepting that you’re just as limited, just as flawed and prone to error, as anyone else. Most importantly, it means taking responsibility for your part in these conversations.

I will try to be more responsible, more accepting, and more humble.

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