Nelly Kambouri and Pavlos Hatzopoulos – The banality of blogging or how does the web affect the public-private dichotomy
Is blogging the means by which the ‘feminine’ voices previously excluded from public discourse and kept hidden in the ‘private’ sphere, can now be released? Is blogging a means of affirming the public character of private practices, ask Kambouri and Hatzopoulos.
When it comes to debating how gender intersects with digital realities, it is as if the by now mythical term ‘digital divide’ 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 insistence on 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 was a ‘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 character, 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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