My Coffee Makes The World A Better Place

Posted in 2010 The Gnovis Blog

In their essay, the “Public Sphere and Experience”, Negt and Kluge first trace the development of a new form of the public sphere that they call the ‘industrialized production public sphere’. This understanding of the possibility of publicity (where publicity refers to the information, views and opinions that actually get heard and circulate within the public sphere) includes a wide range of activities from the internet and social media to personal consumption practices.

For them, this type of universal public sphere is actually an aggregate of several diverse, distinct, and individual public spheres (blogs serve as a good example). At the second level, it includes the ‘consciousness industry’ such as advertising as the publicity work of firms and eventually as societal institutions (Negt and Kluge, 71). And the public sphere includes not only the messages of these institutions but the very structures of its existence, especially the economic.

For example, advertising, such as Starbucks’ publicity about their sourcing of coffee from fair-trade farmers, functions as a mechanism to further integrate the subject into the capitalist system by calling on their ‘humanist’ values of charity and equal remuneration. When the argument to consume is posed in that way, how can a good subject refuse to do so?

At the same time, it ignores that fact that it is the capitalist system itself that has left millions of farmers, especially internationally, without the capacity or the access to fair trade practices. The act of buying a cup of coffee is also an act of public expression. Slavoj Žižek refers to this in his brilliant argument on ‘cultural capitalism’ as the process of current capitalist systems in which the act of giving or charity is built into the act of egoistic capitalist consumption itself. So you ‘buy your redemption from being only a consumer.’

However, the production public sphere moves beyond just the hypocritical process of cultural capitalism as Žižek envisions it. It also extends to media systems such as the internet. The ‘free’ or democratic exchange of information that the internet seems to have brought us is often explained as a counter-cultural public sphere. Communication theorists such as Bernoff and Li who discuss the possibility of ‘empowering consumers’ through user-generated content such as YouTube videos in a process that they call ‘groundswell communication’ are particularly symptomatic of this turn in discussions about the public sphere, i.e. that the internet is free and democratic.

While their arguments are contingently valid, it is the democratic futurity that they see in the technology that I wish to call attention to. Such arguments paint both the internet as a monolithic entity and as the coming messiah. I’d argue that virtual space of the internet is not only an extension of the current public spheres, along with their problems but also shows specific instances of existing as a ‘production public sphere.’

First, it consists of diverse, often contradictory points of view. Second, it doesn’t exist in an economic vacuum of democratic exchange. Two types of controls come into play – first, the idea of legitimation that Negt and Kluge describe as a basic requirement or drive of any kind of publicity. Legitimation online occurs through the increase in cultural capital which is usually measured by the number of ‘followers’ of a person on Twitter or number of ‘hits’ on one’s site.

Second, the internet itself is built on specific controls – both geographic and economic that belie it’s ‘democratic’ possibilities. These controls function through the digital divide, through infrastructural control (servers blocking specific IP addresses) and finally, through monetary exchange online in terms of paid advertising for one’s sites.

Finally, and this is the most interesting form of biopolitical control, the selling of information and consumers itself – datamining of social networking sites, and so on. While my aim is not so much to pessimistically point out all the problems with our activities online, I think it serves as an interesting example of what it means to actually have a public sphere in our present time. How exactly can we see a counter-cultural public sphere functioning in our society?

José Estaban Muñoz, in his book Cruising Utopia, describes the functioning of certain graffiti and an anonymous sticker campaign launched by the ‘zine Swallow Your Pride* in New York that posted stickers around the city commenting on billboards and challenging the heteronormativity of the ads themselves. Muñoz reads this as an example of public debate that functions outside the “corrupt mediatized, majoritarian public sphere” (Munoz, 61). My questions to this and to everyone reading this article are:

a) How successful do we think these types of counter-cultures are?

b) Is there a way to use our existing public spheres in a resistant manner?

* For more on about the ‘zine and it’s creators, look here.

Works Cited

Bernoff, Josh and Li, Charlene “Harnessing the Power of the Oh-So-Social Web” MIT Sloan Management Review, 49, No. 3, Spring 2008, Web

Negt, Oskar, and Kluge, Alexander, “The Public Sphere and Experience”: Selections, trans. Peter Labanyi, October, Vol. 46, Autumn 1988, JSTOR, Web

Muñoz, José Estaban, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, New York: New York University Press, 2009, Print