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Relational Selves, Democracy and Equality?

I explore this question initially by way of a review of recent work in (Western) Internet Studies that highlights different expressions of “third spaces” of shared communication in online venues—i.e., ones that presume a sense of group rather than individual privacy. At the same time, these third spaces sustain individual privacy in significant ways, and thereby facilitate at least local or micro-level forms of political activism and democratizing citizenship (4.1). This work brings to the foreground, however, a core tension between modern Western commitments to the values of equality, including gender equality, and the values of more relational selves in late modern societies (4.2). Finally, (4.3) recent work on Confucian traditions helps both: reiterate this core tension between these traditions (as rooted in relational conceptions of selfhood) and Western commitments to robustly democratic regimes and a core modern value of equality, including gender equality (rooted in more individual conceptions of selfhood), and thereby; point towards what “democracy” might look like for more relational (and, perhaps, more emotive) selves— both in praxis in contemporary North Asia and thereby as a concrete example of what “democracy 2.0” might look like in Western contexts as well.

4.1 Recent Work in (Western) Internet Studies

There is something of a thread of recognition in Internet Studies that online communication venues foster what might be called “third spaces,” i.e., ones shaped by a sense of group sharing and intimacy that is neither individually private in a strong sense nor public in some wholesale sense. So, for example, Elizabeth Bassett and Kate O'Riordan described the interactions on a listserve devoted to GLBT participation and discussion in terms of a “partial privacy,”

… because the participants constructed utterances that they stated they would not convey to certain audiences such as their family. This facilitated the participant's illusion that was a space over which they exercised some control, and in which they could expect quite high levels of confidentiality, safety and freedom. (2002, p. 241)

This sense (however illusory) of a partially private communicative space characterizes manifold communicative phenomena in the age of Web 2.0 as well, for example, in Patricia Lange's account of how young people using Facebook are able to carve out “publicly private” and “privately public” communication strategies (2007). At the same time, such spaces closely cohere with Helen Nissenbaum's account of privacy as “contextual” (2010). Most briefly, Nissenbaum defines privacy in terms of a right to an “appropriate” flow of information, where this appropriateness in turn depends upon a specific context, such as the marketplace, education, political life, and so on. What is critical here is that this appropriateness is defined primarily by the expectations of the human agents whose specific roles and relationships constitute a given context. Following Nissenbaum's example: when two persons— one as patient, the second as physician—thereby constitute a medical informational context, the patient expects certain norms of privacy regarding her medical details to be respected. On the one hand, these details are appropriately shared with other medical professionals immediately concerned with her case. On the other hand, the physician might instead operate by the informational norms of the marketplace, so as to put her details up for sale, e.g., to a drug or advertising company. While this more public use of her medical information might be perfectly appropriate within a marketplace context—within the medical context, the patient would rightly feel that her privacy expectations had been inappropriately violated (2010, p. 33).

Following Nissenbaum's account, it is hence perfectly appropriate for human agents, as engaging with one another across a range of possible relationships and roles, to establish and negotiate within specific contexts notions of “privacy” that are “partially public,” i.e., as shared third spaces between a strictly individual conception of privacy and a fully public, non-private space. As we have seen, such conceptions are already in play and articulated in Denmark and Norway in the terms privatlivet and intimsfære, and in the Norwegian research ethics guidelines. Even more concretely, Stine Lomborg has analyzed a prominent Danish blog ( Huskebloggen, “The Memory Blog”) as constituting an online example of the intimsfære—a shared communicative space that is between strict individual privacy and wholesale publicity. Lomborg's analysis highlights fine-grained details of “phatic communication” between the primary blogger and her audience, communication that signals, “listenership, reciprocity, availability for conversation, concern and empathy, and this, in turn, frames the blog as a personal space” (2012, p. 428). Specifically,

To maintain the blog as a personal space, self-disclosure plays an important role through the personal, even intimate, experiences and emotions revealed in the blog conversation. By this means, both author and readers balance a fine line between, on the one hand, pressure to reveal personal issues as a preamble for developing relationships among participants and, on the other hand, a norm of non-intrusiveness to protect each other's [individual] privacy. (2012, p. 432)

The upshot, finally, is a sense of shared personal or intimate space that correlates with Georg Simmel's account of “the sociable self”—a self engaged in a network of relationships, where sociability means “highlighting similarities and de-emphasizing individuality in conversation by 'hiding' intimate and potentially uncomfortable topics because serious discussion disturbs and threatens the continuity of conversation.” ( ibid).

This capacity to retain some element of individual privacy while participating in a shared intimate or personal space with others correlates with what we have seen above as the construction of a “public privacy” in online venues, as a third space between purely individual privacy and indiscriminant publicity. Moreover—and as we would expect in light of the historical and philosophical correlations between individual privacy and agency, on the one hand, and democratic processes on the other—this third space opens up distinctive political possibilities, as described by Maria Bakardjieva in terms of “subactivism” and “mundane citizenship” (2009). Bakardjieva acknowledges what we might think of as “the grand narratives” of conceptualizing the potentials of the Internet and the Web for helping to realize and expand democratic processes: these include communitarian and Habermasian frameworks that, from my perspective, tended to dominate discourse and research in the 1990s and in the early part of the twenty-first century. These grand versions of democracy, moreover, are often pitted against equally grand dystopian visions— perhaps most dramatically, the Orwellian “Big Brother” scenarios that “total transparency” online all but inevitably seems to entail (Jensen 2007). But Bakardjieva, prominent for her various explorations of “the Internet and everyday life” (2005), points to a more recent, somewhat more modest thread that runs squarely between these grand polarities:

A common feature of these works is the insistence that we should look for germs and projections of the political and public world in the private quarters and daily dealings of individual persons. Everyday thoughts, conversations, and activities have a bearing on democratic politics (see Couldry et al. 2007). Some of the necessary conditions for a functioning democracy exist at the level of lived experience, resources, and subjective dispositions (Dahlgren 2003). Put together, these arguments mark a “cultural turn” (Dahlgren 2003) in the study of democracy and political communication. (Bakardjieva 2009, p. 92)

Drawing on classical feminist sources as well as the work of Lefebvre (1971), Beck on “subpolitics” (1997), and Giddens' notion of “life politics” (1991) as foci more appropriate to a second stage or late modernity, Bakardjieva describes subactivism first in terms of its locus in

…the private sphere or the small social world. It blends ethics and politics, or oscillates around that fuzzy boundary where one merges into the other. It is rooted in the subject but necessarily involves collective identities often in an imagined form—recall Anderson's (1983) imagined communities. It is constituted by numerous acts of positioning—often in the imaginary vis-à-vis large-scale political, moral, and cultural confrontations, but also with respect to ongoing micro interactions and conversations. It is not about political power in the strict sense, but about personal empowerment seen as the power of the subject to be the person that they want to be in accordance with his or her reflexively chosen moral and political standards. (Bakardjieva 2009, p. 96; emphasis added, CE)

While grounded, we may say, in an everyday lifeworld not immediately focused on democracy in the larger, more prominent ways (e.g., the Arab Springs)—this subactivism nonetheless contains the potential for not insignificant political activity and impact:

Subactivism may or may not leak out of the small social world and become publicly visible, meaning that its acts and products, although multiple, can remain insulated in the private sphere. This, however, does not condemn subactivism to inconsequentiality. The potential for it to be mobilized by trigger events and transformed into overt public activism is always in place. It is that essential bedrock against which individual citizens' capacity for participation in subpolitics or in the formal political institutions of the public world is shaped and nurtured. ( ibid)

In short, this conception of subactivism foregrounds the political possibilities that attach to a more “mundane citizenship,” one primarily focusing on micro-level efforts as empowerment rooted in individual and small group interests. While not democracy on a grand (Habermasian or communitarian) scale—neither is this the complete loss of individual autonomy and democracy as threatened in more Orwellian visions. At the same time, the online communicative spaces that facilitate and foster such “subactivism” thereby share the same structures and characteristics of the third or “personal space” described by Lomborg, i.e., one that balances between a (still protected) individual privacy and an indiscriminate publicity. Such third spaces, again, are best described in terms of “partial privacy” (Bassett and O'Riordan 2002) and “contextual privacy” (Nissenbaum 2010). In particular, such spaces, as they allow individual participants to negotiate what they share for the sake of sociability and subactivism at the micro-level, thereby preserve a classic modern Western sense of individual privacy as protecting individual agency and autonomy—precisely for the sake of the project of being/becoming “the person we want to be” (Bakardjieva 2009, p. 96).

In broadest terms, this would mean that the relational or sociable selves of late modernity, while fully entangled in the communicative networks facilitated by Web 2.0 technologies, may indeed emerge as hybrid selves, ones that preserve at least some of the classic modern emphases on individual autonomy and agency—including the democratic correlates thereof, at least in local or small scales.

4.2 Core Tension: Equality and Gender Equality

At the same time, however, there is a key point of tension in the appeal to Giddens' account of “life politics”—in contrast with the “emancipatory politics” of classic Western modernity. As Pak Wong has characterized these:

… where the former seeks individual liberation from (pre-)existing constraints, and aims to “reduce or eliminate exploitation, inequality and oppression” by “the imperatives of justice, equality and participation” (Giddens 1991, p. 211 f.), the latter is “a politics of lifestyle” that concerns with the question of 'how shall we live?' (Wong 2012, p. 86)

Wong further ties emancipatory politics to Charles Taylor's account of the disengaged rational autonomous self as the sense of self emerging from the Enlightenment and fostering Western conceptions of democracy and the liberal state (Taylor 1989). Such a self is further marked by specific value commitments:

Values such as knowledge, autonomy and equality are being strived for to free people from any pre-given natural and social orders. These values are important because they are about people's life chances. Once people are liberated from these constraints, they are propelled to consider the questions concerning their self-actualization. As such, life politics represents an increasing emphasis on values such as authenticity, individuality and diversity. (Wong 2012, p. 86 f.)

The critical point here is: how far does the transition to late modernity—and, in our terms, the shift towards a more relational (and perhaps emotive) self as facilitated by “electric media” most broadly and digital media in particular—involve:

Either—an abandonment of the core values of emancipatory politics—including autonomy, equality, and gender equality—in a “life politics” that stresses different values, And/Or—“life politics” as presuming, building upon, and thereby always necessarily incorporating the core values—and conception of self—of emancipatory politics?

The force of this question can be illuminated by exploring it within contemporary Confucian philosophy and real-world political contexts—i.e., the People's Republic of China (PRC) and its governing Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

4.3 Recent Work on Confucian Traditions and Contemporary Communication Technologies

Most briefly, Wong's thesis presents an exceptionally fine-grained analysis of the shifts in conception of selfhood that are central here—in both Western and Eastern, specifically Confucian traditions. On the one hand, as we have just seen, Wong finds an open tension between the sense of self and core values of the emancipatory politics of classical Western modernity and those of the “life politics” characteristic of what is variously characterized as “late,” “second stage,” or “radicalized modernity”.

In particular, after carefully reviewing a number of prominent critics and proponents of Web 2.0 technologies, Wong argues that the dividing line between critics and proponents in large measure rests precisely on their preferred conceptions of selfhood. Simply, the critics (including Nicolas Carr (2010), Sherry Turkle (2011), and Jaron Lanier (2010)) see contemporary media technologies as threatening either the modern disengaged (rational-autonomous) and/or expressive (Romantic) self as accounted for in Taylor's work. By contrast, the proponents (e.g., Clay Shirky 2009, 2010) see these technologies as fostering precisely the more relational (and perhaps emotive) sense of self at work in “life politics” (Wong 2012, pp. 102–114). For Wong this remains an open debate—one that leaves us with some room (still) for choice in terms of what digital literacies, perhaps in conjunction with more classical literacies as rooted in literacy-print, we will take up, precisely in light of which sorts of social structures and political regimes we prefer, i.e., more egalitarian vs. More hierarchical, and more democratic vs. more non-democratic (2012, p. 123 f.). Such a choice is clearly consistent with what we can call the third spaces of subactivism as a shorthand for the accounts of online communication and mundane citizenship in the work of Lomborg and Bakardjieva. Specifically, a choice in favor of sustaining equality and democracy would thereby favor the literacies and media

usages that preserve individual autonomy and privacy of agents who at the same time participate in savvy ways in the onstruction of such third spaces.

When Wong turns to Confucian thought and the Chinese Internet (as explored both through CCP documents and official newspaper pronouncements), however, the tension between emancipatory politics and life politics becomes pronounced and irresoluble.

To begin with, Confucian thought is rooted in hierarchical and patriarchal family structures, stressing first of all the virtue of filial piety. This family model becomes the model for the larger society, issuing in a clearly hierarchical structure of a paternalistic (if not frankly authoritarian) regime responsible for the well-being of a clearly subordinate people whose primary virtues are keyed towards sustaining harmony ( te) within the larger community (Wong 2012, pp. 141 ff.).

This means, in particular, that Confucian thought thereby foregrounds familial privacy vis-à-vis the larger society. This is in keeping with the sense—at least prior to the past few decades—in Japan, Thailand, and China, that individual privacy must be something negative. At the same time, we can see in this conception of Confucian familial or group privacy, as rooted in a relational conception of the self, a counterpart or analogue to the sorts of “partially private” third spaces described above as characteristic of contemporary Western usages of digital media technologies.

This analogy with contemporary Western contexts is further strengthened in terms of the sense of selfhood at work here. Wong describes a “bicultural” or dual sense of selfhood that has emerged in Confucian tradition since exposure to Western cultures—namely, that of a small self (akin to the Western notion of the individual pursuing individual interests and desires, etc.) vis-à-vis “the great self” as relational and thereby concerned first with the well-being of the country (Wong 2012, p. 167). But again, if there is conflict between the great self and the harmony of the larger community vs. the small self and its strictly individual interests, then the small self must capitulate. In the terms developed above, individual autonomy and privacy (of the small self), however it may be sustained in Western contexts in third spaces and subactivism, will be sacrificed for the greater good in a strongly Confucian context. But this further means that within this Confucian context, fundamental equality—both individual equality and with it gender equality—is simply an untenable, if not frankly undesirable value. Wong points out that this point has been made in the work of Mary Bockover, who concludes that “Western values of free expression, equality and free trade as well as the idea of personal and political autonomy are incompatible with Confucian values” (2010, p. 170; cited in Wong 2012, p. 168). While Wong argues persuasively that some forms of free expression and free economic exchange might survive (or even thrive) within contemporary (and future) Confucian China—equality (between individuals and between genders) will always disappear in the general subordination of “the people” to the government, a subordination willingly practiced as a virtue of “the great self.”

Both Wong's thesis and forthcoming publications offer very helpful accounts of emerging Confucian politics as compatible with the “third spaces” and “subactivism” we have explored. These accounts suggest that, insofar as Western

developments may emerge in ways importantly analogous with North Asian Confucian (and Buddhist) traditions, we can be cautiously optimistic that some form of democratic processes and at least some characteristic democratic values may survive and thrive as digital media technologies continue to interact with our senses of selfhood, “life politics,” etc.

However that may be, these and other considerations (e.g., the ways in which the “return of the body” in developing communication technologies brings in its train the return and reinforcement of gender stereotypes in our self-presentations online) suggest that the classical modern conception of the self as an individual autonomy, its democratic engagements, and specifically commitments to individual privacy and the values of equality and gender equality may well be imperiled in the transition from emancipatory politics to “life politics” of late modernity. That is, insofar as the latter—and its conception of the self as primarily relational (and, perhaps, more emotive than rational)—is no longer seen to be rooted in and dependent upon the former, but rather as fully replacing the former: then, as the contemporary Chinese Confucian examples make clear, equality and gender equality will be sacrificed—along with the individual or “small self”—for the sake of greater harmony in a forthrightly hierarchical society.

Concluding Remarks

This analysis of Confucian societies is intended first of all to indicate that hybrid selves may well retain some dimensions of individual selfhood alongside more relational ones—sufficient for sustaining some aspects of democratic processes and commitments, but not necessarily sufficient for sustaining high modern Western norms of equality, including gender equality.

None of this is meant to suggest that Confucian societies are to be judged as necessarily deficient for their lack (so far) of commitments to equality and gender equality norms. Given the analogy Confucian societies may offer for future democratic societies constituted by more relational selves—the point is rather to suggest that the shift towards more relational selfhood seems to put at risk high modern Western norms of equality and gender equality.

Insofar as this is true, Medium Theory would argue that we now stand at a unique place of choice in both “Eastern” and “Western” societies—namely, the choice of determining the relative weight or emphasis on the individual vis-à-vis relational aspects of selfhood and identity. Most simply: if we should choose to sustain strong democratic societies, including commitments to norms of equality and gender equality—such a choice would entail sustaining high levels of the skills and abilities affiliated with literacy-print.

That is, to recall Foucault (1988), writing in particular is a technology of a particular sort of self, namely, the sort of (more) individual-rational self of high modernity—the autonomous subject, agent, and thereby citizen requisite who both justifies and requires high modern Western liberal-democratic societies and their core norms of equality and gender equality. Our choices for future media use seem clear. If we do not want to risk equality norms and democratic processes, then we must endorse continued, if not expanded, emphasis on the acquisition and cultivation of the skills affiliated with literacy-print. Such cultivation need not come at the cost of diminishing attention to digital (electric) media skills. But to allow the latter to eclipse the former runs the very great risk, in my view, of society-wide losses of our abilities to cultivate the sorts of selves requisite for democracies and strong equalities.

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