pavlos hatzopoulos on Thu, 9 Aug 2007 22:15:07 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> The banality of blogging

The banality of blogging or how does the web affect the private/public

by Helen Kambouri and Pavlos Hatzopoulos

When it comes to debating how gender intersects with digital realities, it
is as if the by now mythical term ' digital
subsumes everything under its wings: in the case of gender one simply needs
to point out the disproportionate access to digital goods and services that
'women' experience and the issue is settled. Or, is it? Not that these
gendered forms of inequality should be brushed aside, but the downside is
that they obstinately stick to a limited horizon. And this horizon
obfuscates the more radical, interesting, and difficult questions that the
focus on gender might raise for the analysis of the net society. The rise of
digital technologies does not invite us, in other words, to rehash existing
political concepts, but rather to, at least, engage in their reformulation.

We will try to engage in such a reformulation by unpacking the following
question: how is the private/public distinction re?structured on the web?  The
problem, here, is not that this question is somehow ignored, but that when it
comes to analyses of the net society it is seldom addressed from a gender
perspective. All the 'radical' calls for 'participatory journalism', for 'user
generated information', for 'being the media', encompass -whether this is
voiced or not- a challenge to the private/public dichotomy which is profoundly
gendered. How, then, is gender an intrinsic part of that picture?  In order to
address this problem, we will try to go back to Hannah Arendt's stubborn
keeping the limit between private and public strong, not in the name of
maintaining the marginalized, undervalued character of the private, but in the
name of preserving the rich multiplicity of the public. To use Arendt's
metaphor, the web often acts like a vanishing act: the table that existed
between people that brought them together, united them and differentiated them
seems to have suddenly disappeared. Instead we are all brought together closer
without any table in between us to connect and separate us.

*The private, 'feminine' universe of intimate blogging *

Blogging seems to have unraveled a whole new unexpected world of 'private'
political issues. Teenagers talk about their sexuality, mothers share their
concerns about their children, war veterans acknowledge publicly the violence
of their everyday lives, housewives share the secrets of their boredom, Muslim
women describe their relation to God, lonely men open up their dairies to the
whole world, 'citizen journalists' publicize their personal views about
political events without intermediaries. Those who were previously excluded
from the public discourse can today find a place in a public arena that allows
them to 'express' themselves through private, intimate, 'feminine' practices.
The success of these practices is that even politicians, journalists and
writers who have privileged access to public discourse increasingly find
themselves compelled to 'express' their own views, diaries and thoughts in
private blogs. Thanks to blogging, we can all 'open up' today, even if we are
not marginalized and underprivileged. Some of us would even find it interesting
to take a different exciting persona (of a transexual, of a woman, of a gay, of
a prostitute) just to see what happens.

And yet we usually don't.

The 'feminine' universe of intimate blogging seems to reveal very few
interesting and exiting 'facts' about the private. Most bloggers (even if they
write under pseudonyms) would repeat the same old boring 'information' about
their private life, whether this is imagined or not. They use similar narrative
styles, they will employ the same codes and ? most of all- the same repetitive
and unimaginative language: nothing to open up, very few gender crossings. The
most 'successful' confessions often find their way through to the published
world, bloggers tend to turn to 'professional' writers. Some famous or infamous
bloggers even tend to dominate the public sphere.

Arendt thought that the distinction between private and public is a distinction
between darkness and light. The private kept hidden all that involved physical
labor (women, slaves, and then workers). The public, on the contrary was the
domain of light, an intermediate space that permitted difference to exist. In
modernity by making private things public, this difference evaporated and
public space came to be overtaken by insignificant 'little' things. This is not
because what was kept hidden in private was insignificant, but because
significant private things, such as pain or love, tend to loose their
overwhelming power once they come to light. The disintegration of the public
sphere by the extension of private intimate practices signaled the
transformation of strong emotions that cannot be expressed in a public form
into innumerable charming 'little' things that signaled the dissolution of the
public as the domain of difference. The strange effect of the overtaking of the
public by the private is that the view of the world is one sided and the whole
world is seen from a single perspective.

The tendency of contemporary societies to consume massively the private in
public attests for an a-political public sphere where passion and difference is
impossible. For Arendt, the reality of public life is based on the simultaneous
co-existence of innumerable perspectives and multiple points of view of a
common object. There is no common denominator, nor measurement.  Contrary to
family life, public life offers the ability to everyone to become visible. But
this ability is only important if we can become visible from different
perspectives. The overtaking of the public by those charming 'little' things
denotes that we all feel part of an enlarged 'public family', we all identify
and empathize with the same insignificant issues that perish as soon as they
are brought to light. The loss of the multiplicity of perspectives that comes
with the security and comfort of being part of the same family and sharing the
same private secrets, means that people are transformed into 'private beings',
who have lost their ability to see and listen to other people or to be seen and
be listened by other people. They are all 'captives' of the subjectivity of
their own personal experience, which remains private even if it is multiplied
myriad of times.

*Is the personal political in blogging?*

Blogging offers then the type of solution to the private/public dichotomy that
Arendt dreads. It does not release the passion of private life into the public,
but deprives the private of its fascination and invests the public with a
continuous repetition of identical personal experiences. It imagines an
all-inclusive public sphere, as long as citizens participate there as private
beings, as individuals. Its promise of absolute transparency, of pressing for
all things to potentially 'come out' into the open is, however, void of
content. Blogging sanctifies its own revolutionizing of the process of
creativity rather than its substance. What if everyone can create and upload
her own video for the whole world to see? Are new aesthetic forms developed
through this process or are Hollywood and mainstream television standards
simply reproduced ad infinitum? The answer is clear if
YouTube<>and Holywood are to be compared, there is not
much difference in their aesthetics. By becoming public, the private universe
of 'intimate' blogging loses its emotional strength, while the public becomes
banal in its denial of difference and its deeply a-political character.

What about gender politics though? What about the personal being political?
What about acknowledging the power relations inherent in the most common
everyday 'private' practices? Isn't blogging the means by which the 'feminine'
voices previously excluded from public discourse and kept hidden in the
'private' sphere, can now be released? Isn't blogging a means of affirming the
public character of private practices?

Strangely it is not.

Exclusion, as far as the blogosphere is concerned, is widely understood in
relation to the freedom to communicate, freedom of expression. Blogging makes,
however, an empty gesture: it calls for a 'utopia' that has already been
realized, that of giving everyone a voice. But, globalization and censorship
are the oddest of couples. No voice ?referring not to the voice of a
particular individual, but to a discursive uttering- can be silenced any
longer, even if the particular individuals or groups that carry it are
persecuted. Blogging is, in this respect, a 'revolution' proclaimed after the
fact. The important political question is, at least during the period of late
modernity, a different one: what types of voices will these be? Or, to put it
differently, would the public sphere be enriched by a multiplicity of voices or
would it be saturated by individual voices that sound strangely alike? And
blogging offers, in this respect, a conservative answer: it does not
substantially question the nature of the private and its relationship to the
public sphere; it does not create new subjectivities, new forms of life.
Blogging is simply there to release the intimate thoughts of private
individuals and very rarely does it lead to transgressions.

That is where Bonnie Honnig's
account<>of Arendt's
thought, provides an interesting twist for gender politics.  In spite of
Arendt's belief that the 'woman question' should be kept outside the public
realm, her theorizing opens up the space for an agonistic politics that resist
the homogeneity of closed identities and is realized performatively. 'If
politics is everywhere then it is nowhere. But not everything is political on
this (amended) account; it is simply the case that nothing is ontologically
protected from politicization, that nothing is necessarily or naturally or
ontologically not political. The distinction between public and private is seen
as the performative product of political struggle, hard won and always
temporary' (p. 147). If the private is not a fixed realm of closed, static and
naturalized identities, then it is possible to begin to act politically in
private. If the public is not fixed by the domination of closed and stable
identities, but instead it is characterized by heterogeneity and discontinuity,
then it is possible to open up the public to alternative performativities.


The question posed in the title has then an indefinite answer. How does the web
affect the private/public dichotomy? It depends. When it comes to blogging the
dichotomy is supposedly collapsed, giving birth to an all-inclusive, but banal
and a-political public sphere. There are, however, other web-related practices
that are much more promising for the radical re-articulation of the limits
separating private from public.

A well-known example is the Luther Blissett
project<>, which inspired a series of follow-up
initiatives<>after the ritualistic suicide of
the character that it created. The name Luther Blissett, borrowed from a 1980s
British football player, became the mark of a multiple identity adopted by an
open, informal network of people in a period of five years. Luther Blissett
'role play game, using all the media platforms available at the time'.
Questioning traditional gender roles
<>, Luther Blissett could turn
both male and female, both heterosexual and homosexual. The project called for
potentially everyone ?and thousands did so- to enact this character in public
and by enacting this persona to give it substance, to make him a new folk hero.
Luther Blissett(s) adopted a confrontational stance directed towards exposing
the complicity of traditional media, spreading counter-information, pulling
pranks, being a trickster with a hundred faces, waging, overall, a guerilla
warfare on the cultural industry.

Whatever its impact and the trajectories it made possible, Luther Blissett was
an attempt to challenge existing parameters of the public sphere by producing a
private being. Counter to blogging's introspective
projects of this kind promote an ethos of invention, performing alternative
individualities already engaged in political struggles and working towards
their digital re-articulation. Counter to blogging's embrace of closed
identities who 'speak out' to the world, Luther Blissett type of projects set
out an open identity, depended on the digital performances that will be enacted
in its name, an open identity which is amendable in relation to the political
projects it engages with.

Luther Blissett's digital body became, one might say, a hybrid body composed of
material and virtual, national and transnational elements that defy
pre-determined gender divisions between the masculine and the feminine, the
private and the public. This is made explicit in an art performance entitled '
Digital Mosque <>' plays with
the stereotypical gender images of Islam and of neo-orientalism. The ambivalent
meaning of terms becomes immediately apparent: once you klick the neologism
'modemites', the image of veiled women comes out. Whether deprived or not of
access to digital technologies, veiled women are already part of a virtual
world. Islamic women's practices are composed of private rituals of cleaning
and respecting prayer times, but also of public digital displays of grandeur
found in the high-tech web-sites of Islamic institutions. Western audiences
approach these practices 'the only way they know' through orientalist tourist
imagery. Different public personas expose the diversity of Islamic gender
roles: veiled women and white brides, Darth Vader and the Imam dance together
in virtual time. The audience watching the performance is divided into men and
women, but once you enter you can choose where to sit. The dividing lines
separating the private from the public and the feminine from the masculine have
not disappeared. Neither have the asymmetries entailed in those binaries. But
they are being re-articulated.  It is in this re-articulation that the
possibilities for an alternative gender politics lie.

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