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Refeudalization

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Saturday, Mar 18, 2006

Blogging is still a recent enough phenomenon that most people involved with it are amateurs. Many who invest a great deal of time in it are doing it not for money or market share but for personal attention, for vanity. (One can derive a weird sustenance from the fantasy that one has legions waiting for descirption of parties one has been to, or relationship issues one is wrangling with, or incidental thought on whatever book one happens to be reading—like me and Structural Transformation. The audience doesn’t really exist, but pretense feels more real knowing they could be, that you are accessible and present online. You can pretend you are writing your personal fans into existence with each new post.) Site hits become a kind of currency, a means by which to rationalize one’s decisions as one continues writing, providing an underlying purpose that pursuing profits often provides in other endeavors. So is blogging, and internet presence in general, evolving into a parallel economy (not unlike the strangely viable ones that spring up in online role-playing games like Worlds of Warcraft, et. al.) that runs on attention and interconnection rather that cash? (This Business Week article calls the number of Google hits you have “the Q ratings for the creative class” in the “era of microcelebrity” and coins the phrase ego surfing to describe searching the Web for oneself.) Or is attention merely a temporary proxy that everyone involved hopes one day to convert to cash, the way eBay allows you to turn your garage-sale refuse into money. Are bloggers looking to earn attention now to earn a living later, or are the attention, the feeling relevant to cultural debate, the community-formation that one can initiate and direct—are these sufficently rewarding for their own sake, and will continue to be, drawing more and more participants without destabilizing the entire sphere?


Previously, the capital needed to publish and communicate on a mass scale eventually made the press an arm of corporate power—just as the masses who expected to participate in the public sphere reduced it to a lowest-common-denominator discourse of leisure and passive entertainment. Internet media permits and rewards a more active approach to media consumption; it makes that consumption more productive, more critical and transformative. One can reinterpret and retransmit what one consumes—by “remixing” cultural product to undermine it or make it more representative or expressive for the consumer or specific subculture or community built on shared intrests, or by linking to various items of interest, glossing them with what one wants to add to the conversation these items evoke, stoking the debate implicit in news or goods or ideas. This value that any individual consumers can add and pass along (a la wikis, blogs, filesharing, etc.) for no reward other than recognition, if that. The reward may simply be contributing to the public good in away that seems tangible and direct. The reward is a sense of belonging to a community that isn’t one of defensive exploitation and status competition—one that certainly persists in capitalist societies, but is driven underground by a variety of factors—atomized living conditions in suburbs, job insecurity, invidious comparisons made salient by physical presence (seeing what others have and envying it). The Internet may revive the conceptual space where the public sphere can thrive.


The trend in the past has been for commercialization to ultimately undermine community-forming and alternate forms of authority to cash piles. The “bourgeois public sphere” that Habermas chronicles in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere began as a public forum of disinterested debate as the bourgeoisie sought to repudiate feudal power and unjust influence peddling of courtiers close to monarchs and aristocrats. “Publicity once meant the exposure of political domination before the public use of reason”—is this what disinterested, noncommercial blogging is reinstating now, after the public sphere had been “refeudalized” by the business of public relations and advertising, which corrupted discourse and made it opaquely instrumental? (The process that made public discourse into “publicity.”) Will political blogs provide a lasting infrastructure for a critical-rational public sphere, as Habermas calls it? Or will they be refeudalized—taken into the operations of public relations and become promotional and advertising and propaganda tools controlled by centralized mass media? If advertising remains the main source of cultural credibility, then inevitably the promise of blogging to provide a counterweight to commercial media will fall apart; if people cease to blog for the pleasure of existing in public space, and begin to demand something more tangibly beneficial (power, connections, money)—then it will probably turn into a giant MySpace where one parleys the attention of marketeres into some paltry excuse for self-esteem and one congratulates oneself not for the substance of one’s contribution to public debate, but for how many others whom, by virtue of your connections, you can feel superior to.  In short, in will refelct the society that already exists in real space.

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