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Digital Dialogue
Digital Dialogue
Digital Dialogue 08: Public Sphere

In episode 8 of the Digital Dialogue, I am joined by Shannon Sullivan, Professor of Philosophy, Women’s Studies and African and African American Studies here at Penn State. Shannon is also the Head of the Department of Philosophy.

She has written extensively on American pragmatism, psychoanalysis, feminist philosophy and critical race theory, including two excellent books, Living Across and Through Skins: Transactional Bodies, Pragmatism and Feminism and Revealing Whiteness: The Unconscious Habits of Racial Privilege.

She joins me on the Digital Dialogue to discuss the recently publish book by Noëlle McAfee entitled Democracy and the Political Unconscious.

We focus on three specific issues:
    1. McAfee’s understanding of the public sphere as a “semiotic happening” (p. 132)
    2. The meaning of the political unconscious.
    3. The notion of a political posture McAfee introduces briefly ( p. 84).

In the course of the discussion, we touch upon McAfee’s recognition that social media opens important possibilities for political community.

Related Links
    • The 2009 SPEP program (pdf) which announces the book session on Democracy and the Political Unconscious in which Noëlle will respond to Shannon and Robyn Marasco. Thursday, October 29th, 2009, 12:30 to 3:00 in the Jefferson room at the Key Bridge Marriott in Arlington, VA.
    • See my live blog post of the Specter Town Hall in State College on August 12, 2009 where the current pathetic state of public discourse and deliberation in the US was on display.  See the video of a disturbing confusion between the God and the VA here.

Of Note
The podcast and this post are being highlighted by the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution where Noelle McAfee is on faculty.

They also posted it to their Facebook page.  I captured a screen shot here.  If you click it, you will be brought to their page on Facebook.



  • What a great conversation!
    First, though I'd have loved to hear more about Shannon's recent work, it was actually really interesting to have you both focused on a third, absent scholar. This is doubly true because it was Noelle McAffee, who I think truly deserves the attention.
    Second, I really liked the discussion of the Habermas quote. The "where ever two or more" phrasing that Habermas uses has some interesting antecedents. It seems to derive from biblical passage in Matthew 18:20, "Where ever two or more gather together in my name, there I am also." Levinas picks it up to describe the *ethical* encounter, as you talked I sensed a slight disagreement with McAffee: the "green room" experience is striking, it seems, because it's an ethical moment that de-pluralize but then has political effects. If politics is agonistic and rooted in pluralism, then that affective, postural work can't also be political. Perhaps Noelle will turn up and clarify this for me?
    Third, I really liked the way you both talked each other out of viewing the Town Hall protesters as purely non-deliberative "unconscious" eruption. These are techniques with a long and storied history on the left (I'm thinking of Code Pink among others) and they're generally regarded as honorable especially in settings like the highly controlled town halls which try to pass top-down speaker/audience dynamics off as democratic deliberation. (Peter Levine at Tufts has some good insight into this, because it really seems important to focus on the particular structure and institutional design that's being disrupted.)
    Thanks again for the great discussion!

  • Thanks for listening Josh! The points you make here are insightful.
    I am happy to be reminded of the quotation from Matthew 18:20 because it articulates something important, I think, about how I understand Socratic politics. It seems to me that Socrates lived the truth of the Matthew statement without, of course, the monotheistic frame in which it is expressed in Matthew. I am trying to highlight the notion that politics is in play wherever we enter into dialogue with one another.
    I have more to say about the Town Hall phenomenon after my experience at the Specter Town Hall on Wednesday. I will return to that when I have a moment.

  • DoctorJ says:

    [Chris, I'm still having this problem of not being able to comment longer than a few sentences. So, I'm breaking this up into a series again.]
    Excellent episode! I also appreciate the sensitivity with which you discussed the town-hall meetings. As Shannon pointed out, clearly the disrupters of those meetings feel as if they aren't being heard, they aren't being represented, and their interests have somehow fallen outside of the attention of the collective. I agree that it's important to be very attentive to those feeling and the way they traumatize.

  • DoctorJ says:

    Here's the problem, though: many people would argue (myself included) that the disrupters' description of their own experience and their role in public deliberation processes is… well… just not true. If I had a student in one of my classes who completely denied the reality of global warming, or evolution, or the non-connection between 9/11 and Iraq– and if that student composed all of his or her in-class arguments on the basis of that erroneous belief — there would come a point where, I imagine, that student would feel alienated and ostracized in my class discussions. I could certainly understand, and even be sympathetic to, the frustration that he or she feels as a result… BUT there's only so much that can be done about that. I am generally loathe to employ the language of "the market," but one of the benefits of public deliberation (or even one-on-one conversation) is that the "marketplace of ideas" is activated and, hopefully, bad ideas cannot survive.

  • DoctorJ says:

    Many of the town-hall protesters are actually manifesting the affects of a trauma that has nothing at all to do with health care. It has to do with race, with parisan politics, with the lingering effects of Executive-branch fearmongering over the last 8 years that sedimented into an almost intransigent civic posture for some. But, of course, the town hall meeting are about health care, and not all of those other traumas. So, my question to Shannon would be: how do we moderate these truly multivalent public conversations?
    I liked Shannon's "marraige" analogy. As we all know, one of the ways to quickly sink a conversation between partners is to believe you're both talking about the same thing when, in reality, you're not. That's what seems to be going on in the town hall meetings, in my opinion.

  • Leigh, I think you are exactly right that the trauma of a very determinate racial history in this country is at play in the anger at the town halls. This, when combined with economic hardship and a political ideology that refuses to recognize the manner in which humans are interdependent (a failure, indeed, to appreciate your 'weak humanism'), erodes the capacity of reasons to persuade.
    Even if we agree with Noelle McAfee that traditional liberal political theory has perhaps relied too much on the capacity of reason to foster agreement, still, the anger and hatred that animates these town halls renders any political posture that could open the possibility of real transformation impossible.
    If you look closely at this video I took of an exchange at the Specter Town Hall in State College, notice the body language of the man who appeals to prayer as a panacea and who refuses to recognize the role government played in the survival of his wife. At the end (and I tried to emphasize this by highlighting it also at the beginning of the video because it so powerfully expressed the tone of the entire exchange), he is yelling, pointing and his face is filled with anger and I would even venture to say, hatred.
    When Noelle speaks of the sort of political posture needed to transform one another in political dialogue, she suggests that it involves a way of holding ourselves in which we lean toward one another, are open to the perspective of the other and to the possibility of changing our view. A more striking example of the opposite sort of posture is on display here. There is no openness here. There is a leaning toward the other, but only in order to point and yell and intimidate. Where is the generosity and grace that one might imagine should come from someone committed to prayer and grateful that someone he loves has been returned to good health?

  • i think in the most classic socratic way, dialogue is the basis of politics, you shouldn´t try to change someones opinion, you should help him get to the answer or truth by himself and by reason only,

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