Putting two things together in a transforming public sphere

9 minutes to read
Academic paper
Odile Heynders
04/10/2016

 

In her opening lecture, Odile Heynders (head of the department of Culture Studies, Tilburg University) argues that the world has changed with the birth of Diggit Magazine.  Following Barnes, she claims that if you put together two things that have not been put together before, the world is changed. 

 

Ballooning, the first selfie and a 19th century video-clip

 

In Levels of Life (2013), my favourite essay of one of my favourite literary authors, Julian Barnes takes us to the 19th century and introduces us to balloonists: that is the inventors, experts, aeronauts and travellers of gas balloons. Since as early as 1783 people have tried to fly up in the air in an bag-balloon construction moved by the powers of wind and weather. Ballooning was associated with freedom and happiness, and became in the course of decades more and more of a technology inventing better and bigger and faster balloons. There even was a ‘Society for the Encouragement of Aerial Locomotion by Means of Heavier-than-Air Machines’, and as such the balloon was the forerunner of today’s Boeings.

The story of ballooning is, according to Barnes, the story of several fascinating people, such as Félix Tournachon (1820-1910), a ‘journalist, caricaturist, photographer, balloonist, entrepreneur and inventor, a keen register of patents and founder of companies; a tireless self-publicist, and in old age a prolific writer of unreliable memoirs’ (Barnes 2013,15). Tournachon flew The Giant, one of the most spectacular balloons, three times larger than a standard balloon, with a two-story gondola, in which cabins, a printing room, a lavatory, a store room and an office were situated. The Giant made five flights between 1863 and 1867, and was even exhibited at the Chrystal Palace in London.

The combination of photography and aeronautics implied that a new technique led to new ideas and fantasies.  This optimism, I claim, can be felt as well today, now that we launch Diggit Magazine

Tournachon’s pseudonym was Nadar, and with this name many of us know him as the famous portrait-photographer of the 19th century. Nadar made pictures of French poet Baudelaire, novelist George Sand, actress Sarah Bernhardt or the musicians Listzt and Verdi. He made these historical figures visible for today’s viewers and fans. He photographed himself as well, taken the posture of a serious, artistic figure. These self-portraits are, we could argue, the forerunners of today’s selfies taken by cell phones. He even constructed a sort of video clip avant la lettre: the turning portrait.

 

 

Nadar, as Barnes describes, did something else as well: he put together photography and aeronautics when he found a new technique of aerostatic photography, that is a way to make and develop photographs from a darkroom built in the balloon’s cradle. The outcome was spectacular: for the first time there was an ‘eye in the sky; God’s security camera’, as Barnes writes. Nadar made it possible to look for the first time at the earth from above, to ‘look at ourselves from afar’, to ‘make the subjective suddenly objective’ (Barnes 2013, 27). As Barnes inimitably claims -- and this is the theme of his essay --: ‘You put together two things that have not been put together before. And the world is changed. People may not notice at the time, but that doesn’t matter. The world has been changed nonetheless.’ (Barnes 2013, 3).

The combination of photography and aeronautics implied that a new technique led to new ideas and fantasies. The 19th c is, as we can read in Barnes and others, a very optimistic period, full of activities of thinking, inventing, and realising. This optimism, I claim, can be felt as well today, now that we launch a new magazine in the context of an academic BA & MA programme. Let me explain what Diggit is about and why I think there is reason for optimism, even when I consider the current public sphere a very complicated context. Let me first say a bit more about the latter.

 

The Transforming Public Sphere

It was German philosopher Jurgen Habermas who wrote in the beginning of the 1960s an in-depth analysis of the modern public sphere considering it a typical metaphor for the way people, i.e men, had rational discussion about political issues. This metaphor of the public sphere is, according to Habermas, applicable to nation states after the Enlightenment. The discussion about political and social topics took place in coffee houses in cities all over Europe. The idea was, as Habermas claimed, that the public sphere is:

A domain of our social life where such a thing as public opinion can be formed [where] citizens … deal with matters of general interest without being subject to coercion … [to] express and publicize their views. (Habermas 1997,105)

The concept of ‘the public sphere’ is a useful one for thinking about how modern democratic societies function. It attempts to describe how citizens reach consensus in discussion and deliberation about the running of their society. It is about how people respond to the ideas and behaviour of representative politicians, it is about information and facts. So far so good, but today coffeehouses have been replaced by social media platforms. Discussion by men drinking a coffee and meeting each other in a formal and ritualized context (Sennet 1986), is now: discussion by millions behind a screen, drinking whatever they like, being connected but not immediately performing a social relation (van Dijck 2012). 

The point, obviously, is that Habermas’ marvellous metaphor of the public sphere based on rational discussion and resulting in democracy, is more and more squeezed between the online cacophony and the television spectacle. We are not in the coffeehouse anymore – women as such were staying at home at the time, but undoubtedly had strong opinions on politics as well – we are behind the screen chatting, surfing, zapping, and as such getting a lot of fragmented information in a very short amount of time. And the problem is: not all of this information is based on checked facts.

It was editor-in-chief of the Guardian, Katherine Viner, who in July 2016 wrote a brilliant but pessimistic article on this development. Her idea about the current public sphere is that it shows how technology has disrupted the truth, because most people are not informed by serious expert journalists anymore but by their social media groups and chat rooms. As Viner claims: 'Increasingly, what counts as a fact is merely a view that someone feels to be true – and technology has made it very easy for these “facts” to circulate with a speed and reach that was unimaginable in the Gutenberg era (or even a decade ago) (Viner, 2016).

In the digital age, Viner argues, it is easier than ever to publish false information, which is quickly shared and taken to be true – as we often see in emergency situations, when news is breaking in real time. Sometimes rumors spread out of panic, sometimes out of malice, and sometimes out of deliberate manipulation, in which a corporation or regime pays people to convey their message. Whatever the motive, falsehoods and facts now spread the same way. But when a fact begins to resemble whatever you feel is true, it becomes very difficult for anyone to tell the difference between facts that are true and “facts” that are not, and this, Viner argues, is what makes the current public sphere complex and diffuse.

Diggit Magazine will be an ‘eye in the sky’ offering a perspective on the world.

Viner very much thinks as a Habermasian scholar. It was the German philosopher indeed who warned in various lectures and articles for the lacking of filters and the abundant self-promotion on television. Viner, then, underlines a journalism ethic that inspires a newspaper such as the Guardian:

Serious, public-interest journalism is demanding, and there is more of a need for it than ever. It helps keep the powerful honest; it helps people make sense of the world and their place in it. Facts and reliable information are essential for the functioning of democracy – and the digital era has made that even more obvious.

And here comes the link to today’s launch of Diggit Magazine: a new format to share information and opinion, based on academic research, made by students and scholars, and addressing an audience beyond the university. Bring two things together and the world will change.

 

Diggit Magazine: New technology & new ideas

Diggit Magazine is based on new technology and new ideas on teaching and pedagogy. It operates at the intersection of academia and journalism. The magazine is academic in the sense that it mirrors the process of knowledge building and upholds academic quality standards. It is journalistic in the sense that it engages with what is happening in society right now and it tries to also reach out to an audience inside and outside academia by adopting a journalistic style and different formats of presenting information and reflection on current events.

Diggit Magazine will also offer, is our ambition, a context for reflection and research on the public sphere by examining the main politics topics discussed, the various positions of producers and consumers of media, the specific roles of what we call ‘public intellectuals’, the potential of online platforms in giving voice to sub-cultural communities. Based in Tilburg, Diggit Magazine will be an ‘eye in the sky’ offering a perspective on the world.

Diggit Magazine will be about globalization, digital culture and arts. Arts implies that we are also interested in an artistic perspective on the world, and in the participation of artists (visual culture, film, literature) in the public sphere. What they bring in is a focus on individual experiences, on narratives, and imagination. Artists in particular are able to invent stories, to reflect on stories, and as such to distinguish between fact and fiction.

So, this is Diggit: research, discussion, education, debatable stances, new and old forms of writing, but in particular: texts that put something ‘at stake’. 

This brings me back to Barnes. His essay on balloonists transforms in the second part in an essay on the love between actress Sarah Bernhardt and bohemian traveller and intelligence officer Fred Burnaby, two celebrities of the 19th c, and then in the third part transforms in an essay on mourning – Barnes lost his wife in 2008 and writes about grief. Grief is - in balloonist terms - ‘the loss of depth’, not being able to fly, to be in the air, to escape the earth. In describing his loss, Barnes puts into words what many people are experiencing: when they leave loved ones behind in unsafe countries, or when they lose friends or family in terrorist attacks. Death and grief are part of human life.

Bringing together three lines of thought and plot in one text proofs how Barnes is a talented narrator – he received the Man Booker Prize in 2011 and the prestigious Siegfried Lenz Prize this year - but also that the essay is one of the more intriguing genres of writing.  An essay is a piece in which one shows the process of thinking, of searching to find arguments, and retaking earlier thoughts. It was French philosopher Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) who coined the notion essai, positioning his writing against the systematic philosophical text. 

Three typical features of Montaigne’s essay can be stressed: 

  1. the distrust of final judgments and the resistance towards closure of the text, 
  2. the attention to physical influences on thinking and writing (Montaigne’s suffering of kidney stones reappears in his work again and again) and 
  3. the self-presence in the texts, which can be considered ‘recordings of the thoughts of a particular man living a particular life’  (Langer, 2005: 1-2). 

The essay is a ‘project of self portraiture’ (Conley, 1990: 74). What we see in Montaigne, writes philosopher Simon Critchley, ‘is something utterly modern: an attempt to write in such a way that captures and evokes the wanderings of the mind, its digressions, its assertions and its hesitations’ (Critchley, 2008: 132) Montaigne strived to formulate a logical response to the inconsistent world surrounding him. This response was constructed in the writing: writing implied the examination of a certain phenomenon.

The hybrid nature of the essay genre lies in the connection of discursive writing and thinking on the one hand and poetic or suggestive writing and thinking on the other. Individual beliefs and imagination are intermingled with general statements and political observations. An essay is diagnosis and meditation at the same time; the essayist tries to convince his public, and shows that his thinking is personal, contingent and open to debate. This makes the essay the perfect genre for the public intellectual, and for Diggit Magazine.

So, this is Diggit: research, discussion, education, debatable stances, new and old forms of writing, but in particular: texts that put something ‘at stake’. Colleagues: see Diggit as a platform for valorisation where we can demonstrate and share the relevance of our research with the public(s). Students: be free to examine in-depth, to take risks, to get up in the air and have an eye on the earth. Find pleasure in writing. Find out what new technology brings, but do take old examples, stories and fantasies with you. Be informed about theorists, writers and essayists who have done spectacular and inspiring things before our times. Combine your online presence with the future and the history. I wish all of us a happy flight.

 

References

Julian Barnes, Levels of Life, London: Jonathan Cape: 2013.

Thomas M. Conley, Rhetoric in the European Tradition, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1990.

S. Critchley, The Book of Dead Philosophers, London: Granta Books, 2008.

Jürgen Habermas, ‘The public sphere’ in Robert E. Goodin and Philip Pettit (eds), Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Anthology, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers 1997, pp. 105-108.

Ulrich Langer, The Cambridge Companion to Montaigne, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005, pp. 1-2.

Richard Sennett, The Fall of Public Man, London: Penguin Books 1986 [1974].

Jose Van Dijck, The Culture of Connectivity, A Critical History of Social Media, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Katherine Viner, How technology disrupted the truth, The Guardian, 12 July 2016.