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The New Authoritarianism and the Structural Transformation of the Mediated Public Sphere II

The Sphere of Publics and its Bifurcation

As our seminar on authoritarianism and public life progressed, we focused on the work of Daniel Dayan and Elihu Katz, and Joshua Meyrowitz to develop an understanding of mediated public life. Their sociology of media is a sociology of mediated interactions, rather than studies of the media, i.e. major newspapers, broadcasters and other media institutions, including the likes of Facebook. Dayan and Katz’s key point from the point of view of our seminar: ceremonial television makes possible social solidarity. Planned live action televised events, off the normal schedule of television viewing, of coronations, funerals, sporting events, inaugurations and the like, reveal and constitute a common public experience, making possible a coherent sphere of publics. Meyrowitz’s key contribution to our discussions, on the other hand, is to demonstrate how difficult it is create a common world when place, including what is private and what is public, is continuously challenged by the fluidity of the social world as it is electronically mediated. The sociology of mediated social interaction points to two challenges in our times, one coming out of Habermas’s approach to the public sphere, the other coming out of Arendt’s studies of the public domain: the challenges of centering the sphere of multiple publics, and of sustaining a principled coherent politics when our loss of a sense of place has been radicalized.

I shared with the seminar my piece showing how Dayan and Katz provide a way to understand how the well institutionalized media regime of television, which included quotidian and extraordinary forms, facilitated a centered sphere of publics. And, reading Meyrowitz, we discovered together how key differentiations of modern social life are challenged, for better and for worse, in electronically mediated social interaction: the separation of the world of adults and the world of children, the distinction between public and private, the domains of women and men, the hierarchies of legitimate and illegitimate authority, and the political and the social (in Arendt’s sense).

Using these theories I outlined a three part account of the continuing structural transformation of the mediated public life: following the syllabus, pre-television, television, and post-television public life. I had thought this through in preparing my class, but as our discussions proceeded, I learned something new, a critical component that I didn’t understand before, concerning the bifurcated sphere of publics and the transformation of the relationships between truth and politics (which I will address in my next post).

Before television: in the era of print capitalism, as Benedict Anderson once put it, public life combined the media of face to face communications and of the printed word. It was a semi intimate, semi public affair in Habermas’s account. Bourgeois men met in cafes, taverns and tea rooms as they authored articles in journals of opinion about the pressing issues of the day, and they read each other’s writing. They discussed them in face to face interaction, as they continued to write and read. Though they may have been of different means, they checked these differences at the door and deliberated as equals, trying to set forth reasonable solutions to political and economic problems. Their discussion then informed official political discussion and decision, leading to informed reasoned policy formation. Granted that there may have been many publics and not a singular public, as Habermas’s critics underscore, but the power relations of the social order made it so that some publics were very much more equal than others when it came to influencing the political and economic powers. Such is a generalized account of the bourgeois pubic sphere before electronic communications.

A great irony of the age of television, from the point of view of critical theory, is that that the efficacy of free public life, of a deliberative democracy, arguably, was advanced because of television, contrary to what Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse, et al suggested. Habermas recognized this in his essay “Political Communication in Media Society.” Even though with television, political candidates were marketed as were brands of toothpaste, the wide reach of television was democratic, bringing into political life less literate and educated, the more marginalized and dominated. Radio and television also brought the wider world, beyond immediate experience, to a broader segment of the population. Multiple publics existed, but major broadcasting systems provided order for the sphere of publics, creating a common world. The post war television age saw an explosion of publics: in the United States, for example, surrounding the civil rights, anti-war, feminist, LGBTQ, environmental and anti-war movements. But as the saying went, with television, “the whole world was watching.”

Television created a sphere of publics, connecting multiple publics, supporting democratic life.

The role television played in helping to relate multiple publics is especially apparent now that it no longer plays a dominant role, as it once did. The basic facts were set by the major television broadcasters, as they worked through their own reporting and the reporting of major magazines and newspapers. There could be serious concerns about the bias of this reporting, from the left and the right. But the left critics, along with the critics on the right, worked off the mainstream script. There was a common world. What the networks paid attention to, a broad public paid attention to, as they criticized the range of attention. Thus, the irony that such radical critics as Noam Chomsky obviously knew about the world about him by drawing upon the professional reporting of the news services he forcefully criticized, as an examination of his endnotes reveals. It’s not that there was agreement about the quality of the reporting and its meaning, but it was where attention of a broad segment of the population was focused. That this was key is clear from its present absence.

In the U.S. and beyond, we lack a common understanding of the factual grounds of the order and disorder of things. As is commonly noted, both with approval and in despair, we live in a world with opposing facts and realities. There are the facts and truths to be found in the major established media institutions, in The New York Times, The Washington Post and, significantly The Wall Street Journal. And then there are the facts and truths of Fox News, Breitbart and The Washington Times. There is even an official White House “real news” site  that resembles the state propaganda that is now coming out of more clearly illiberal democracies such as Poland, Hungary and Turkey. In each of these countries, and notably also the U.S., there is a fundamental public divide that is in part an outgrowth of polarization, but it also creates the polarization. And at issue is not simply normal partisan conflict. Each side declares that the other propagates fake news, with the authoritarian side developing a view of the world that is based on purposeful denial of the findings of science and the confusion of fact with fiction. And, crucially, it systematically ignores the segment of the population, sometimes the majority, who still are moved by the findings of science and basic facts. This will be explored more fully in my next post.

The setting of our seminar was Wroclaw, as Polish democracy seemed to be collapsing. I went to a dinner party at an old friend’s as the political crisis was escalating. The parliament was in the last stages of debating and passing three laws that would effectively destroy the independence of the judiciary. The television was on throughout the party. I must admit, as I was socializing with friends I hadn’t seen in years, I didn’t watch very closely. Yet, there was a pattern that repeats itself that I noticed. In my hotel room, I didn’t get the private cable television programs. Thus there the events of the critical days were all closely focused on the parliamentary debate, had no shortage of denunciations of the opposition, but few images, if any, of the developing protests in the tens of thousands around the country against the so called judicial reforms. But at the party, on the private news channel, the opposition voices were heard, and the protests were seen. It was just like Fox News vs. CNN (and the late night comedy shows) in the U.S. There are clearly many people who get their news of the world from only one side of this divide. In comparison with the news during network television, what appears as real and true about the world is fractured, opposites, depending on your media diet. It’s not only that each of these segments of the sphere of publics has a different political slant. They actually depict independent realities, making a sound politics nearly impossible.

I draw two implications from this, one informed by Arendt, the other from Habermas, both further informed by the sociology of media of Dayan and Katz and Meyrowitz. On the one hand, the conflicting publics need to become committed to politics in Arendt’s sense, with a careful understanding of the relationship between truth and politics. And on the other hand, it is necessary to work to somehow overcome the polarization of public life. I will turn to each of these propositions in future posts.

Jeffrey Goldfarb

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