Monday, February 6, 2017

Habermas Is Dead (He's Not, But Still)

Jürgen the Bear
 By Kerry Mitchell 

Ever since Jürgen Habermas, the public sphere has been pretty boring. I’m not talking about the drama that plays out in the public sphere. That drama can be as exciting as anything that happens. But the public-ness of the drama, the way in which the drama is given shape as public as opposed to private, that is a boring process. To be clear, I’m not talking about the process being boring. One can be excited to look at how that process works or not. Rather, I’m talking about the process doing the boring—not being boring, but boring. I’m talking about the process of making public as a process of boring.

Often such a line of thought highlights the civility of public discourse, the rationalization and sanitization of its subject matter, the seriousness and normalcy that it lends. Of course one could counter that making public often sensationalizes, shocks, or calculatingly manipulates to generate interest. To one who would argue in such a way I say, Jesus, God! Are you completely fucking stupid?

Notice how the counter to the counter does not bore. It excites with outrage, transgression, aggression, not so much appealing to the passions as slapping them—completely inappropriate for the public sphere. To employ such vulgarity does not bring the question into the public in an operable way. One can only leave those who utter such vulgarity to work out whatever issues they have with whoever volunteers to engage them further. But whatever and whoever are not the public. The public is everything and everybody. Vulgar exchanges are for private disputes, and their place in public is transgressive: the ones who shout death threats at each other beneath one’s window on an early morning city street. No, the proper counter to the counter, the counter to the counter made public, made appropriate for the public, belonging to the public, is the one that says yes, of course, the process of making public also excites, but within limits, is a balance of sanitization and excitement, but weighted more toward one side than the other.

Now that’s boring. Or more precisely, that bores. In the tradition of public discourse any tension that arises is enveloped and mitigated in a self-replicating and self-mollifying series of argumentative involutions. All of which brings me to the Badlands National Park Twitter Feed

First, a journalistic caveat: I did not, do not, and do not plan to follow this feed. I read these tweets in news reports like virtually everyone else did, and like virtually everyone else did, I read more about the tweets than I read the actual tweets themselves. Honestly, I don’t even remember exactly what those tweets said—something about climate change. I failed to read these tweets because the feed is, in the tradition of public discourse, boring, and I don’t need to follow it to know that it’s boring. To those who would say that such failure to read indicates a lack of journalistic or scholarly rigor I say, Donald Trump is President. Everything is different now, and not boring, and reading is beside the point. All of which brings me to the way that the Badlands National Park Twitter Feed stopped being boring. 

To be clear, the feed did not stop being what it had been. Its content, at least in terms of its thematic focus on environmental science, did not change. But in remaining what it had been (environmental science) it stopped being what it was (boring). In transforming itself in such a paradoxical way, the feed participates in the structural transformation of the public sphere that Donald Trump’s inauguration inaugurated (inaugurate here means not beginning, but celebrating the ascension to power). The public sphere, as infused with communications in Trumpian style, does not bore. Such communications are neither civil, sanitized, rationalized, serious, nor normal. Rather their function in the public sphere is aesthetic, gestural, evocative, provocative. Pundits have struggled to engage such communications from within the tradition of public discourse (e.g., fact checking). But such traditional approaches deal only with the tip of the iceberg: the ideological content of the utterance. Meanwhile, the style and subtext have remained largely unchallenged at the level of style and subtext—until the Badlands National Park Twitter Feed remained what it had been and thereby stopped being what it was. By continuing to tweet in defiance of Trump’s executive order, and by tweeting on a subject out of line with Trump’s political agenda, the feed added style and subtext to information and text. In this way the feed cast a shadow underneath its series of bland recitations of the signals of impending apocalypse that everyone has heard and that no one reads and that should be terrifying and exciting in a horrible way but that somehow through rational and insistent repetition became boring and ignored but that now through rebellious and recalcitrant repetition becomes exciting and heroic in a wonderful way by virtue of the vulgar, irrational, gestural subtext of each rational, informative tweet: Fuck you, Donald Trump

A strange shadow for a 140-character recitation of scientific fact. A paradoxical message. But the public has always cast shadow. Now, strangely, the bare vulgarity of public discourse has brought that shadow into the light.

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