My deep interest in the comparisons between sociability in 18th century England and social media in 21st century America (and the world, but I live in America) led me to structure my course on 18th century British literature around sociability, scandal, and satire. For the sociability unit, we are discussing coffeehouse culture, reading selections from The Tatler, The Spectator, The Female Spectator, and The Invisible Spy, and discussing public spheres and the formation of public opinion. Today we talked about Nancy Fraser’s essay “Rethinking the Public Sphere,” and applied it to coffeehouse culture and to the culture of social media.
The class is a wonderful mix of students. Four are traditional undergraduates (three are English majors, one is a communications major), and one is a retired education professor who loves sitting in on classes. We meet in a small seminar room that smells slightly of coffee. Everyone is rather comfortable with each other.
I knew today’s reading would be a bit daunting — the course is a 300-level so not all the students have had Literary Criticism yet. Fraser’s essay also requires at least a basic understanding of Habermas’ concept of an ideal public sphere as well as Althusser’s RSA/ISA/subjecthood philosophies and Foucault’s formulations of power structures. To help with all that, I created a PowerPoint that broke down the concepts a bit and contextualized some of those theories. (PowerPoint is here.)
We moved through the PowerPoint slides. They took notes for a bit, then we began applying the concepts and that’s when the discussion really began to get going. We talked about social media and slactivism. Our retired professor is a child of the 60s so she gave us insight into that decade of physical activism. We decided using social media to organize a physical protest or demonstration is the ideal action (i.e. Moral Monday protests and the overnight organizing against the Sharia Law/Motorcycle Vagina bills in North Carolina), but for most people, activism ends with a twibbon. We wondered if a proliferation of individual voices drowns out the message, and talked about how a coalition of public spheres needs to form so that individuals can see themselves as deliberative bodies. They decided class is the biggest stratified layer of public spheres now, and class issues exclude some voices.
I’ve used Fraser’s essay in my own work in the past, but only as it applies to literature. Today we applied these ideas to a networked culture that Fraser most likely couldn’t have imagined in 1990 when she wrote the essay. It was so exciting to see theory as a foundation for their thoughts on their own voices, on their participation within a democratic society. I also saw the essay in a new way as I’ve gotten older and have become more active in social justice and feminist policy issues. Good theoretical and critical writing enables people to peek behind the curtain of society, to see the inner workings, and, hopefully, to fix what is broken.