Media and Publics in Dark Times
An OOPS course
Under normal circumstances, the course I am offering this semester at Eugene Lang College would be a standard academic affair, as it has been in the recent past. We would read and discuss key works in the sociology of media and the public domain, explore together how publics are mediated, and consider pressing public problems: how public concerns appear, are expressed, addressed and confronted, and how such confrontation facilitates political power — both of the state and society.
The course objective, as I put it in the planned syllabus (responding to an administrative mandate to include such statements):
“The objective of this class follows the insights of Michael Oakeshott, the great British (conservative) philosopher, as he illuminated the problem of education and of the liberal arts. He observed that ‘Education in its most general significance may be recognized as a specific transaction which may go on between generations of human beings in which newcomers to the scene are initiated into the world they are to inhabit.’ He went on to explain that a liberal education involves ‘the invitation to disentangle oneself, for a time, from the urgencies of the here and now and to listen to the conversation in which human beings forever seek to understand themselves.’ Our objective in this seminar is to prepare ourselves to take part and help facilitate others to take part in the specific transaction that education is, and to prepare ourselves to participate in informed and critical ways in public life, as it is now mediated.”
Yet, these are not normal times and when I met with the class this week, I let them know that we will work together accordingly. To build upon Oakeshott, I will present to the relative newcomers the study of the world of media and publics, as I know it, and welcome them into this field of study, and encourage them to develop their own critical analysis. It will be important to listen to the long and deep conversation of our trying to understand ourselves and not only respond to the pressing issues of the day. But the issues of the day will be included, more than I expected, because our primary object of investigation, a free public life, is now threatened. These are dark times, as Hannah Arendt describes them, and this presents an immediacy and urgency to our topic exactly because the illumination that publics provide is dimming, with free inquiry, free speech and freedom of the press all endangered.
Our inquiry will indeed be informed by the approach of Hannah Arendt to the public realm in “dark times”:
“It is the function of the public realm to throw light on the affairs of men by providing a space of appearances in which they can show in deed and word, for better and worse, who they are and what they can do, then darkness has come when this light is extinguished by “credibility gaps” and “invisible government, “ by speech that does not disclose what is but sweeps it under the carpet, by exhortation, moral and otherwise, that under the pretext of upholding old truths, degrade all truth to meaningless triviality.” Men in Dark Times, p. viii.
For Arendt, there is a distinction to be made between bad times or hard times, and dark times. There are times of economic downturns and political challenges, when social injustice becomes unbearable. Yet, in her account, dark times, in contrast, are when the public realm is wrapped in darkness. People cannot see each other. They are not visible. They do not appear, and appearance is essential in establishing a public realm, with the possibility of creating political power as an alternative to coercion. There can be prosperous dark times, as well as economically distressing dark times, and quite often a combination of both, as is the case now: a post truth era, where there is a realm of alternative facts, with attacks on the press by the “Tweeter-in-Chief” and his subordinates an everyday occurrence, and with silencing of those with expertise in inconvenient truths about the social and natural orders . Our class will focus more on the condition of the the public, less on specific political policies and programs, more on the darkness, less on how hard it is.
So the class will operate on dual tracks. On one track, we will stay the course, very much informed by Oakeshott’s and, in the curriculum, Arendt’s understanding of the relationship between the education and politics, dispassionately investigating the complex human arrangements of media and publics. On the other track, we will work at understanding and responding to the dangers of an eclipsed public, of dark times, and how we may oppose them. We will read the news and try to make sense of the new authoritarian threats, and of the weakening of public freedoms, and how they are mediated.
In this the first week of our class and of the Trump administration, I shared with the students a series of reports on the systematic attack on factual truth by the Tweeter-in-Chief and his representatives. See this, this, and this. We will explore the issue further when we read over the weekend Arendt’s classic essay “Truth and Politics.” Arendt maintained that truth has contradictory relationship with politics, with factual truth being the foundation of a sound politics, while philosophical truth can undermine political life. We will discuss this next week and I will address the issue in my next post. My working title: “Truth and Politics at The New School and Beyond.”
In the meanwhile, here is the syllabus of the course. We will be working with it with significant improvisation, as we both go through the literature on media and publics, and as we use the literature to illuminate our dark times:
Media and Publics LSOC 3107 – A
Monday and Wednesday 3:50-5:30
6 East 16th Street, Room 912
Professor: Jeffrey C. Goldfarb
Phone: 212 229 5767 ext 3127
Office: 6 East 16th Street, Room 920,
Office hours: Mondays, 2:00 – 3:50, and by appointment
This course combines a review of the sociology of media and of the sociology of publics, applying these reviews to an analysis of pressing political problems. We will consider how political regimes and alternatives are made possible and shaped by specific media forms, and how the forms of media have embedded within themselves specific political possibilities and difficulties, including supporting and undermining a free public domain..
The starting point for the discussion of media will be the theories of Erving Goffman, Joshua Meyrowitz, and Daniel Dayan and Elihu Katz. The starting point for the discussion of publics will be John Dewey, Jurgen Habermas and Hannah Arendt. The media – public connection will lead to an examination of mediated dramaturgies drawing upon a variety of alternative theorists and researchers.
Jeff Weintraub “The Public/Private Distinction”
- Erving Goffman
The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life*
“The Nature of Deference and Demeanor,” in Interaction Rituals
“The Underlife of Public Institutions,” in Asylums
Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience. Cambridge. Harvard. 1974. Pp. 1-20; 124-155
Gary Allan Fine, “Tiny Publics”
Vaclav Havel, “The Power of the Powerless”
Jeffrey Goldfarb, The Politics of Small Things*
- Joshua Meyrowitz
No Sense of Place (excerpts)
- John Dewey
The Public and Its Problems
- Jürgen Habermas: The Public Sphere
The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Cambridge, MA. MIT Press. 1991
“The Public Sphere: An Encyclopedia Article (1964)” in New German Critique 3: 1974. Pp. 49-55
“Political Communication in Media Society” in Communication Theory 16(4): 2006. Pp. 411-426
“Further Reflections on the Public Sphere” in Craig Calhoun, ed., Habermas and the Public Sphere, Cambridge, MA. MIT Press. 1992 Pp. 421–461
Nancy Fraser, “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A contribution to the critique of actually existing democracy” in Craig Calhoun, ed., Habermas and the Public Sphere, 1993.
Michael Schudson, “Was There Ever a Public Sphere? If So, When? Reflections of the American Case” in Craig Calhoun ed.
- Hannah Arendt: The Public
Between Past and Future*: “What is Freedom?” “Truth and Politics,” “The Crisis in Education,” The Crisis in Culture”
The Human Condition: selection, “The Public and the Private”
Jeffrey Goldfarb, The Politics of Small Things*
Elzbieta Matynia, Performative Democracy (selection)
Seyla Benhabib, “Models of Public Space: Hannah Arendt, the Liberal Tradition, and Jurgen Habermas” in Craig Calhoun, ed.
- Media and Genealogies of Publics
Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities. London; New York. Verso. 1982. Pp. 37-46
Daniel Dayan and Elihu Katz, Media Events*
- Daniel Dayan, Media & Publics Continued
“The Peculiar Public of Television” in Media, Culture & Society. 23(6): 2001. Pp. 743–765
“Mothers, Midwives and Abortionists. The Genealogy and Obstetrics of Audiences and Publics” in Sonia Livingstone, ed., Audiences and Publics: When Cultural Engagement Matters for the Public Sphere. Bristol. Intellect Books. The European Science Foundation Series, vol. II. 2005
“Conquering visibility, Conferring visibility” in International Journal of Communication Special issue: Voices from Europe 7: 2013. Pp. 137–153
“Sharing and Showing : Television, Attention, Monstration” in Elihu Katz, Paddy Scannell, eds., The End of Television? Annals of the American Academy of Social & Political Sciences, Philadelphia. Sage Publications. 2009. Pp. 17-32
“Beyond Media Events: Disenchantment, Derailment, Disruption” in Nick Couldry, Andreas Hepp and Friedrich Krotz, eds., Media Events in a Global Age. London. Routledge. 2010
Media and the Politics of Showing”. The William Phillips Lecture. NSSR. Feb 2013
“Sharing and Showing : Television, Attention, Monstration” in Elihu Katz, Paddy Scannell, eds. The End of Television? Annals of the American Academy of Social & Political Sciences. Philadelphia. Sage Publications. 2009. Pp. 17-32
- Media, Publics, Intellectuals, Experts
Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion (excerpts)
John Dewey, The Public and its Problems
Jeffrey Goldfarb, Civility and Subversion and Reinventing Political Culture (excerpts)
- Media and the Sphere of Publics Workshop
During the course of the semester, students will give presentations applying the theories examined to research topics of their own choosing. Our theoretical review will be applied to different media and publics as they related to such zones of politics as American electoral and extra-electoral contestations and the rise of a postmodern tyranny and its democratic and authoritarian alternatives.
- Regular and active participation in class discussions. Attendance is required.
- Four short papers (600-1500 words), either a critical response to readings or developing themes in the readings and discussions as they address contemporary or historical problems of media and the public. The papers are due on or before the third, the seventh, the eleventh and the last Wednesday of our meetings.
- The final short paper should reflect on some aspect of the course, as a whole, or be a follow up on your previous papers.
- The short papers may be developed as contributions to the Open Online Public Seminar (OOPS) feature of publicseminar.org.
- Leading discussion of one of the readings or a discussion of one of the explored political topics.