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The Network and the Fragmentation of the Public Sphere
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The Electronic Journal of Communication / La Revue Electronique de Communication
***** SASSI ***** EJC/REC Vol. 6, No. 2, 1996 **************

THE NETWORK AND THE FRAGMENTATION OF THE PUBLIC SPHERE


Sinikka Sassi
University of Helsinki

     Abstract.  This article focuses on two main
     communication technology themes.  One deals with
     the debate on the contemporary cultural turn
     predicted by new technologies; the other concerns
     the implications of that disputed turn for some
     core concepts of the public sphere, and connected
     to it, the civil society.  Does the Network
     strengthen the political model of representation
     and lobbyism rather than that of participatory
     democracy?  Is the Net, in the main, a way of
     defining an emergent elite, a technological class,
     a way of making distinctions between both the
     older elites and various plebeian strata?  Whose
     public sphere is the Network?  And who are the
     publics?  Through a series of elemental analyses,
     this essay attempts to make purposeful these
     questions.

     The contemporary phase of modern society is often
called the communication society or the era of communication
technology, and computer networks are regarded as
paradigmatic signs of the new culture.  In this article,
there are two main communication technology themes, one
dealing with the debate on the contemporary cultural turn
and the other concerning the implications of the disputed
turn for some core concepts of communication research,
especially the concepts of the public sphere, and connected
to it, the civil society.  The network, for its part, is
both subject and object in the process of transformation.

               The Network and Civil Society

     The origin of the network, together with its structure
and organisation, comprise a proper starting- point for the
discussion at hand.  The network embraces more than the
wellknown part of it, the Internet, and the Internet
involves more than just a forum of university people and
freaks.  When I speak of the net I refer to a metanetwork of
all networks, a matrix, and not to any single part of it.
The phenomenon under consideration is hopelessly chaotic and
messy, which actually forces one to apply fairly abstract or
formal methods to make sense of it at all.  The fact that
the emerging networks are both more dispersed and more
pervasive in their reach than ever before makes the attempt
to analyse them all the more urgent.

     The network is here approached with the assistance of
Habermas's system model and, accordingly, divided into two
parts:  the system, comprising the economic world and the
administration, and the lifeworld, comprising the privacy
and the public sphere.  In Habermas's conception the system
and the lifeworld are not totally detached from each other
but, rather, in many ways interconnected and interacting
through various channels.  The division applied to the
network is primarily analytic since in practice these
spheres in part share the same infrastructure and are deeply
intermingled.  In this essay the concepts of system and
lifeworld are not used, but the terms digital highways and
cyberspace, respectively, are employed (Sassi 1995).

     It seems clear that in cyberspace, in contrast with
digital highways, innovation comes from the ground up.
Internet, though it was born from a military monopoly, and
because of certain external constraints which dictated its
decentralised design, has developed into a chaotic,
voluntarist, and unpredictably fertile world (Unsworth
1994).  Internet is demonstrably useful for those kinds of
communication purposes which rely heavily on verbal
information, and particularly when the community of users
has agreed on a set of consensual rules of behaviour.

     The network as a whole has indisputable implications
for civil society as well as for the public sphere, the
latter being an elementary part of the former.  The idea of
civil society can in broad lines be equated to the
principles of citizenship and democracy _ they all belong to
the same old tradition.  Currently, the quest for civil
society is gaining strength since the civil society appears
to us as the only source of solidarity and sense of
community available.  However, just this longing for an
experience of warmth and sympathy constitutes its main
problem, both theoretically and in practice.  Simultaneously
with these difficulties in comprehending such a society,
even the national one with its more familiar traits, we are
now offered a global civil society by the network.  The
national civil societies for the first time in history, we
are told, can now communicate with each other, and both the
silent and the silenced will finally get their voice _ all
through the network.  That is an attraction hard to ignore.

     But who, actually, gave us the network and the global
civil society along with it _ have we behaved that neatly
and nicely?  I am looking for the answer through the
emergence of the network, an event where necessities and
coincidences intermingle and which has to be historically
understood.

               Main Trends of Modern Society

     With the network the narrative of progress through
communication has again been mobilised, and, in Druck's
(1995) words, at the very moment that the collapse of the
promise of urbanisation, industrialisation and modernisation
is becoming impossible to disregard any longer.  Therefore,
before coming to the core items, the networked public sphere
and the global civil society, I will briefly discuss some
generally recognised trends and characteristics of modern
society.  This framework easily leads to the
modern/postmodern discourse and to the dispute over the
thesis of cultural turn.  The dispute might become a little
clearer, if not be resolved, by the examination of certain
trends and processes of modernisation, namely
rationalisation, differentiation and commodification.

     Rationalisation denotes trends and processes of
instrumentalisation, rational and technocratic thinking,
instrumental rationality, efficiency, all intensified by
industrialisation but already initiated centuries ago.
There is no doubt about rationalisation still having
enormous impact on various spheres of life and, presumably,
being as impressive as ever.  Its roots are deep in
JudeoChristian culture and history but the thrust towards
rationalism and intensified efficiency has never been as
clearly seen as in the current capitalist economy.  The
capitalist system of production is inherently bound to
enhance the volume of production in order to bring more
surplus value wherein rationalisation has its importance.

     What has the network actually to do with
rationalisation?  There is a non-casual connection, and in
the first place, through the mediation of technology.  A
corporation can increase its profits remarkably if it is
capable of obtaining more technological advantages than its
competitors.  Technological innovations are crucial in
accumulating capital and for successful business.  Just how
are information super-highways justified in different
nationstates?  They are backed up with statements about
"being able to meet international competition," of "taking a
strategic market lead by means of new technology."  As a
system capitalism remains alive mainly through continuous
technological changes.  Social theorists have traditionally
identified the consolidation of capitalism and the process
of industrialisation as two developments central to the
emergence of a modern economic order.  A number, however,
have refused to accord explanatory priority to either one.
According to Murdock (1993) there are good reasons for
prioritising capitalist dynamics in the analysis of
modernity's political economy, particularly if the major
concern is with the interplay between communication systems
and other formations.

     Second feature of modernisation, differentiation, has
particularly to do with specialisation, expertise and
fragmentation which all prevail in the current situation as
well.  Science, art and morals are branched off in modern
world, and being divergent they have few points of contact
with each other.  They all produce their own codes and
languages which have barely any interaction.  More precisely
differentiation has to do with elaboration and
sophistication of the division of labour and the emergence
of expert systems.  There are strong trends towards
specialisation in narrowly defined, though often deep, areas
both in science and in work life.  The logic of
specialisation leads, for instance, to mathematical
abstractions which render visible only matters that are
calculable, measurable and simulable.  This also explains
the social and human indifference and backwardness of
economics that, on the other hand, is the most
mathematically advanced of all of the social sciences.  The
evolution of expert systems and, as a result, falling of
issues formerly deliberated on and resolved by means of
common sense and experience into the hands of specialists,
is also a brand of specialisation.

     How is the network related to differentiation?  The
network obviously produces and deepens cultural divergence
and fragmentation, the emergence of subcultures and
segmented audiences.  Network may well, on certain level,
produce dissolution of homogenised cultures and societies
characterised by consensus, where they still exist _ Finland
might well pass for a paradigmatic example of this sort of
homogeneity.  The network may assist in reaching a certain
maximum of individualisation, a genuinely modern phenomenon
and a kind of differentiation.

     Third feature, commodification, is also strongly
effective in present-day society.  Commodification lies at
the heart of modernity's political economy.  It deals with
turning of matters and relations into commodities and
objects of market exchange, with reification of all human
value into market value.  Extension of commodification into
areas previously free from market forms is also easily
perceivable.  The process, however, is not without nuances:
in cultural production, for instance, a twofold development
has occurred.  First of all, culture has clearly become
commodified, become part of the market form, but in addition
the market has itself become cultural; that is, cultural
meanings and distinctions are found in its functioning.  In
the network, the extension of commodification into the field
of information is occurring, but also an intermingling of
market form and public good which can be noticed in software
production, for example.  Distinctions between pure
commercial action and genuine public good become difficult
to make, which renders analysis and classification at least
more troublesome, if not impossible.

"New" Features Elicited by Technology

     Some new phenomena have sprung up attached to the
network which, again, make the spectator thoroughly consider
the proposition of cultural change.  The most prevalent of
these are, on the one hand, the expanding process of
digitalisation of the most diversified matters and subjects
and, on the other hand, the hugely increased volume of
interaction and detached intercourse.  Digitalisation means
presenting a steadily growing body of processes and actions
in the form of digits, that is, turning the basic knowledge
of various fields into sequences of zeros and ones, enabling
their quick delivery to, and retrieval in distant places all
over the world.  As a consequence, the models of physics and
mathematics especially gain significance in evaluating the
circulation and transformation of digitalised flows of
values.  This, for its part, contributes to detachment and
disengagement of the flow economy from social and ethical
valorisation.  Although digitalisation as such will not
provoke high feelings, it nevertheless has remarkable
implications for our social and economic life.  What is
more, it clearly represents a true intensification of
rationalisation and efficiency.

     The second new feature, and from our point of view more
interesting, is the extensive growth or acceleration of
mediated interaction.  In van Dijk's (1993) words, the last
three decades have witnessed an acceleration in the use,
demand for, and need for telecommunications, data
communication, and mass communication transmitted by and
increasingly integrated into networks.  The miniaturisation
of computer technology and the digitalisation of analogous
communication facilities have led to a virtual explosion in
the entry, processing, and transmission of information.
Through telecommunications tens of millions of people are
connected to a metanetwork and could, in principle, interact
with each other.  Although this interaction more often than
not is indirect and impersonal there are however reasons for
seeing the re-emergence of a premodern or traditional mode
of communication even if in completely transformed form.  In
this context, the concepts of communication society or
communication technology society are frequently heard.

     Still, even if we agree to speak of explosions of
information and interaction, were they really born by
accident?  Actually, the growth of information and
communication has been characteristic of modernisation
throughout its evolution and can be explained by
modernisation theories.  According to van Dijk, the attempts
to explain the rising human need for communication
facilities usually proceed with concepts of classical
sociologists like Durkheim, Tnnies, and Weber and end with
contemporary sociologists, especially Giddens and the theme
of time-space distantiation in modern society.  General
modernisation theories explain the need for information and
communication through key factors like extension of scale,
growing complexity and division of labour, economic and
cultural rationalisation, and social or cultural
individualisation.

     Finally, it is easy to see some connections between the
sources of dynamism in modernity and the capacities of
mediated communication and information networks.  The
industrial system is increasingly dependent on
communications networks for the effective control and co
ordination of production, distribution and consumption.  The
modernisation of Western societies also entails a
fundamental shift in their social infrastructure.
Traditional closed communities are lost and replaced by the
much more selective communities of diffuse social networks
which van Dijk sees as a necessary extension of the growing
privatisation of a dense individual or small- family life.
The communication networks have the capacity to pass the
barriers of space and time across the globe and to assist in
programming and organisation of extremely complex modern
societies.

The Concept of Cultural Turn Once Again

     The expansion of communication infrastructures and
services can be seen as the result of a crisis of control in
the economy and in society in general, van Dijk states.
There are numerous signs that such a crisis has reoccurred
in the last three decades.  For van Dijk, growth in
communication infrastructure looks like a revolution instead
of a new, albeit accelerating phase of technological
innovation.  From this perspective, the thesis of postmodern
turn can be interpreted as something more crucial than just
cultural change.  The technical potential included seems
convincing enough since the new communication networks are
integrating sound, speech, text, data, and images into a
hybrid form and, in this way, producing a metamachine; in
some respects an autonomous and creative phenomenon.

     While electronic networks certainly open up
possibilities for the decentralised circulation of
information, it does not follow that cyberspace and the
digital highway are going to ensure universal access, peace,
democracy, equality or any other component of Enlightenment
humanist ideology (Druck 1995).  Despite all the promises
and possibilities being articulated onto this new
communications infrastructure, all the indicators of the
actual implementation of this electronic infrastructure
actually point away from the universality, equality and
democracy promised by governments and academics alike.  For
example, only 13 per cent of American households are
currently equipped with a personal computer and a modem; a
small proportion of the first world, not to mention the
so-called developing world.  In current social scientific
discussions it is also suggested that we, instead of living
in a society based on discipline, now are situated in an
environment characterised to a growing extend by control.
In this emerging society traditional coercive institutions
are losing their significance and extremely quick and
elusive processes of control are evolving in their place.
The network is a very efficient servant for accomplishing
these controlling efforts.

     Lash and Urry (1994, 3) argue that in the sense of
increased profusion and speed of circulation of cultural
artefacts, postmodernism is not so much a critique or
radical refusal of modernism, but its radical exaggeration.
It is more modern than modernism.  The abstraction,
meaninglessness, challenges to tradition and history issued
by modernism have been driven to the extreme in
postmodernism.  On one hand they admit that a pessimist
attitude is appropriate, on the other hand they argue that
there is a way out.  Against increasing homogenisation,
anomie and the destruction of the subject there is another
set of radically divergent processes simultaneously taking
place.  For Lash and Urry these processes appear to open up
possibilities for the recasting of meaning in work and
leisure, for the reconstitution of community and the
particular, for the reconstruction of subjectivity, and for
heterogenisation and complexity of space and of everyday
life.

     The networks offer opportunities to form new
communication communities in the social space between public
and private.  It is characteristic of the culture produced
in this new infrastructure that it is generalised and
pluralised at the same time.  This situation can be
interpreted as a postmodern turn, for we are witnessing
important cultural changes.  However, these shifts are more
complex in nature, with deep roots in the contradictions of
modernity.  After all, to understand the changes we need to
see them as a further extension of the process of
modernisation rather than as something totally new, while
having reached a new qualitative level.  From this
perspective the network world would be more productively
viewed simultaneously as a modern and a postmodern
phenomenon, a standpoint which has implications for the
functions expected of the networked public sphere and the
civil society.

     Digital highways, the system part of the network in
Habermas's sense, is the context for cyberspace, that is,
the environment where networked civil society has to operate
and to which it is in many ways tied.  Cyberspace is
confronted with tensions caused by networked economies and
finance markets, and controlled and surveyed by the state's
security services and the administration.  The network
definitely is not a neutral, virgin space for citizen's
activities but instead it is loaded with economy's
aspirations for extra growth and surplus gains as well as
with increasing tendencies to law and order.  To summarise
it roughly, the hierarchic, authoritarian, linear modern
ethos lives well in digital highways whereas chaotic,
pluralistic cultural trends can obtain a foothold in
cyberspace.  All in all, the network is essential for civil
society and citizenship realisation since, as Lash (1994,
121) says, life chances in reflexive modernity are a
question of access not to productive capital or production
structures but instead of access to and a place in the new
information and communication structures.  The position in
information flow predicts who will be marginalised and
deprived of citizenship because, in Lash's view, civil
society and the public sphere are growingly existing
precisely in this infrastructure.

        The Reconceptualisation of the Public Sphere

     Every time the media landscape changes _ as with the
rise of the "information highway" today _ we confront the
real but, in Rosen's (1994) view, unrealised possibility of
a communicating public.  One basic concept of communication
research is the concept of the public sphere, the current
renaissance of which is mainly due to Habermas.  In very
recent times it has come on to the scene both with new
technology and the more comprehensive discussion on the
future of democratic rule and the viability of civil
society.  Feminist scholars have paid critical attention to
the concept of the public sphere and elaborated it in a
radical way (see e.g., McLaughlin 1993).  Even this critical
feminist formulation now seems somewhat challenged by the
new communication environment.

     The public sphere appears simultaneously to become
thinner and more resilient.  The private and the public are
getting increasingly intermingled, and on the surface it
looks as though hierarchies, institutions, and civil society
could all be vanishing away.  They still exist, however, and
because of their more hidden form the essence of power is
liable to become more obscure.  On the other hand,
fascinating new perspectives, especially from the feminist
and women's point of view, are unfolding in the network.
Features typically affixed to postmodern culture and
liminality (Turner 1974) are those that could equally well
be coded as culturally feminine; for example nonlinearity,
de-centeredness, fragmentariness, anarchy; relations
characterised as undifferentiated, eqalitarian, direct,
nonrational, existential.  If experiences of liminality are
being actualised and certain postmodern qualities are
gaining a stronger foothold in the network, shouldn't we be
pleased?  How are these two representations of the networked
public sphere, the potential fading away of the public
sphere and the experiences of empowerment and new horizons,
to be adjusted to one another?

     For a number of feminist scholars the general idea of
the public sphere is indispensable to critical theory, but
they argue for its reformulation.  Fraser (1992, 110) sees
the public sphere in modern societies as a theatre in which
political participation is enacted through the medium of
talk.  It is the space in which citizens deliberate about
their common affairs, and hence an institutionalised arena
of discursive interaction.  However, the original bourgeois
public sphere, according to her, rested on, and was
importantly constituted by, a number of significant
exclusions, especially on the exclusion of women, the
proletariat and popular culture.

     Fraser (1992, 115) proceeds to present some elements of
a new, postbourgeois concept of the public sphere.  Two of
them are of special importance here.  First, she poses an
argument in favour of a multiplicity of publics in
stratified societies instead of a single public sphere.  The
problem of Habermas's notion is not only that it idealises
the liberal public sphere but also that Habermas fails to
examine other, nonliberal, nonbourgeois, competing public
spheres.  Revisionist historiography demonstrates that the
bourgeois public was never the public (italics in original).
A host of counterpublics which contested the exclusionary
norms of the bourgeois public arose simultaneously,
elaborating alternative styles of political behaviour and
alternative norms of public speech.  Fraser sees that
counterpublics can partially offset, although not wholly
eradicate, the unjust participatory privileges enjoyed by
members of dominant social groups in stratified societies.
What then needs further examination is the interpublic
discursive interaction that is of primary value.

     Second, she poses an argument for the inclusion of
private interests and issues instead of a universal common
concern defined in advance of the discourse.  Only
participants themselves can decide what is and what is not
of common concern to them.  Fraser's point is that there are
no naturally given, a priori boundaries between the public
and the private.  Democratic publicity requires positive
guarantees of opportunities for minorities to convince
others that what was not public in the past should now be
so.  Habermas's stress on a common good transcending the
mere sum of individual preferences can work against the
principal aim of deliberation; namely, to help participants
clarify their interests.  In particular, the less powerful
may not find ways to discover that the prevailing sense of
"we" does not adequately include them.  In general, Fraser
invites a more critical look at the terms "private" and
"public" since they are cultural classifications and
rhetorical labels deployed to disenfranchise some interests,
views, and topics and to valorise others.  Instead of a
coherent, homogeneous public, feminist scholars propose a
public sphere, or multiple public spheres, where differences
are recognised and appreciated.

     However, according to Baynes (1994) Habermas's project
of communicative ethics or, more specifically, the
conception of the public sphere that it is intended to
strengthen does not anticipate the idea of a homogeneous
public which excludes difference or diversity.  Neither does
it rely on a model of face-to-face interaction that has
become increasingly irrelevant for modern forms of social
integration.  Rather, the public sphere must be broadly
conceived as a vast array of institutions in which a wide
variety of practical discourses overlap.  It ranges from the
more or less informal movements and associations in civil
society where solidarities are formed, through the various
institutions of the public mass media, to the more formal
institutions of parliamentary debate and legal
argumentation.

     There is a common understanding among the critical
scholars that a post-bourgeois or post-liberal concept of
the public sphere should be read as plural and decentered,
constituted by conflict, and combining the notions of
interest and identity.  There is a further aspect of
publicity, stressed by Fraser (1992), that has to do with
the meaning of discursive interaction for members of a
public.  However limited a public may be, its members tend
to understand themselves as a part of a potentially wider
public.  To interact discursively as a member of public is
to aspire to disseminate one's discourse to ever-widening
audiences.  However, from the perspective of everyday life
these considerations may appear distant and even
uninteresting.  For a citizen bound by quotidian constraints
and routines it is sometimes cumbersome to grasp the concept
of public sphere in all its abstraction and sophistication.
What, actually, does the concept tell people who
theoretically are embraced by the public sphere?  If they
happened to get acquainted with the concept, would these
elaborations make sense to them?

The Politics of Representation

     Not only do some basic assumptions that underlie the
model of public sphere appear dubious, but the whole idea of
comprehensive, open, and critical-rational political
discourse seems highly utopian in the conditions of mass
democracy and mass communication.  For an average member of
a public it inevitably brings up the question of
representation:  who is justified to speak for whom and by
whose mandate?

     Clarifying the contours of modernity's distinctive
political formations led Murdock (1993) to the question of
how representation is organised in modern societies.  The
issue brings together questions of social delegation, of who
is licensed to speak on whose behalf, and questions about
the organisation of discourse and visual representation, of
what can be said and shown, to whom, where and in what
forms.  Murdock sees the problem of representation as an
intensification of contradictions that have been unfolding
since the early years of the century, when the state, the
party system, the mass consumer system and the modern
popular media, began to coalesce into something like their
present forms.  Thus, the present crisis of representation
is a crisis in the relationship between the discourses of
major parties and the institutions of public communications
available.  These discourses are losing their purchase on
public attention and support and are subject to challenge
from counter- discourses rooted in racism, nationalism,
fundamentalism and the new social movements.

     A critique of representation is also inherent in
Arendt's (1958) conception of governance.  In her view,
representative democracy has led to the emergence of an
oligarchic class and the privileged governing of the
majority by the few.  Representative democracy is in crisis
because it does not allow systematic and active
participation of citizens and seeks to render them
meaningless to the system except on voting-day.  Here we are
dealing with the role of the citizen as a political actor
and especially with the relationship between the state and
the citizen.  Part of a citizen's experience in contemporary
society is his/her relationship to the state presented as a
direct union between these two (Vhmki 1994).  The model
belongs to neoconservative political thought and seems to be
prevalent both in theory and practice.  The notion
anticipates a citizen who is detached from intermediary
social groups and communities, of traditions, special
interests, class attachments and prejudices.  Consequently,
the prevailing conditions resemble a complete break between
politics and the people.  Politics has fallen into the hands
of experts, the politicians.  Since politics is the
privilege of the politicians every articulation of citizen
opinion is an interference, an inconvenience.

     As an opposite view we could have Arendt's (1958)
conceptions of power and the political world.  For her power
is essentially communicative by nature, evolves both as
action and as discourse, and is inseparable from politics.
It refers to power for something or the potential for power
and in this sense is not repressive but a necessary quality
especially for those without a share of entitlements and
wishing to pursue change.  Characteristic of Arendt's
political world is its irreversibly open and processual
nature:  it is always a sphere of differences and ambiguity,
and unavoidable conflicts and disputes are exactly the
forces which create progress.  Habermas (1992, 451), for his
part, depicts politics as the interplay between a
constitutionally instituted formation of political will and
the spontaneous flow of communication unsubverted by power.

     The dominant trend of contemporary society, however, is
to downgrade citizens more or less to the role of spectators
which for Rosen (1994) is a dismissal of democracy itself.
What emerges as a result of these considerations is a
picture of society where an empty space has arisen between
the citizen and the state, and between the citizen and the
class of professional politicians dependent on the state.
When political affairs are submitted to the expert system of
politicians governance begins to resemble mere
administration and the citizen, gradually, an instrument of
the system.  As a consequence the public world will tend to
dissipate in the absence of citizen deliberation,
conversation and decision- making.  In Rosen's view this
condition should be corrected by reinstalling the public as
both the object and the subject of democratic politics.

     It is now suggested by some postmodern scholars (e.g.,
Vattimo 1991) that the cultural turn, assisted by new
information and communication technology, will bring
essential changes to this situation eliciting plurality and
a vast array of heterogeneous audiences.  Even though
fragmenting and proliferating formations of discourse and
contested cultural fields are characteristic of late
modernity, plurality does not mean that all players on the
field are equal in any case; some are more equal than
others.  In this essay the question can be formulated as
follows:  Does network strengthen the political model of
representation and lobbyism rather than that of
participatory democracy?  Is the net, in the main, a way of
defining an emergent elite, a technological class, a way of
making distinctions between both the older elites and
various popular and plebeian strata?  The questions, Whose
public sphere is the network?  Who are the publics? can also
be raised.

     Though the network is not as elitist as is easily
suggested, it nevertheless comprises just an insignificant
minority of the global population.  Network as a whole can
contribute to legitimating an emergent form of class rule.
Nevertheless, it is simultaneously an arena in which
different social and cultural groups may constitute
alternative publics.  They may or may not be subordinated
social groups _ subaltern counterpublics in Fraser's (1992)
terms _ like women, workers, peoples of various colours, and
gays and lesbians.  These publics are arenas where members
of social groups invent and circulate discourses to
formulate interpretations of their identities, interests and
needs.  They may be counter- discourses and oppositional
interpretations in Fraser's sense but they may also be these
in a weaker sense, that is, as discourses infrequently
represented in official public spheres.  In short, we can
notice a slight turn from the politics of representation
toward the politics of participation brought forth by the
network but though it exists it is not without problems.

Fragmentation and Unity

     As noted above, Fraser has constructed a reformulation
of the concept of the public sphere emphasising four
important elements, the first one pointing to the
significance of the multiplicity of publics.  Articulated
slightly differently, we can under the same heading, of
multiplicity, discuss the basis of civil society, and
specifically the fragmenting and unifying forces beneath its
construction.  In general, to understand modernity is to
understand the dialectical interplay between the
disaggregating and the uniting forces of modernity.
Seligman (1992, 120) notes that it was the autonomy of the
individual citizen stressed throughout the nineteenth
century that led to a decrease in solidarity between
citizens, and gradually to the fragmentation and
reformulation of social life.  In highly complex societies
there will necessarily be a plurality of competing interests
that makes it doubtful whether a general interest of the
kind to serve as a foundation of civil society can ever
emerge.  Thus, homogeneous background convictions cannot
easily be assumed.

     On the other hand, there is the globalising and
assimilating quality of modernity that acts against
fragmentation and subsequent social disintegration.
However, these unifying forces do not bring about any strong
affiliations and what we are left with is, as Tomlinson
(1994) says, a kind of "weak sense" of global commonality.
In his view, the simple perception of common risks might
give some sense of global unity, but this is liable to be
fragile and easily displaced from the foreground of
consciousness.  What is required in the current situation is
a much stronger sense of commonality, a sense of a "positive
global community."  The question arises as to whether any
experience of "community" can be retained in global
modernity.  There are tentative suggestions that the media
may give us access to a sort of communal experience, though
different from the experience of community linked to
locality.  For Tomlinson, the problem of the constitution of
global "community" via a global media is that of the
audience lacking a "past in common."  What seems clear is
that a sense of communal identity must depend on opportunity
at some point to engage in a dialogue _ to have a sense of
others as dialogue partners.  Because there is nothing like
a global public sphere it is not surprising for Tomlinson
that our sense of the global context remains largely that of
a set of determining structures, not of a potential
political and cultural community.

     The technologically mediated or mass-mediated
experiences of global community are by definition dispersed
by nature.  Although the experiences of network events in
the main resemble the mass-mediated ones there are
significant traits of and occasions for more interpersonal-
like interaction.  The mode of communication in the network
can alternately be dialogical and hence the environment can
actually produce conditions for an audience to be a
community, though maybe not necessarily in a strong sense.
But is not the notion of a global public or global public
sphere an anomaly itself, precisely because it can never
include the majority of population?  That is also a problem
of representation, as Seligman notes (1992, 191).  Given the
interconnected nature of today's world economies, for civil
society to attain the validity mandated by Habermasean
communicative rationality, it would have to include all of
humanity and not just the citizens of a given state.  In his
view, social movements and the institutional arena of their
interaction would have to be of an international scope and
not limited to the confines of a particular nation-state.
This question could perhaps more productively be approached
from the perspective of process and flow than from that of a
structure.  For a moment, something may evolve that could be
called global in the sense of interaction reaching all over
the globe, though to a restricted extent.  Not
underestimating the possibilities of the emergence of a
global public, however, it seems more plausible that in the
network various micro public spheres (see Keane 1994)
applied to specific issues or spaces will flourish.

     It is important to find out how easily and unnoticed
discussion on the network and the civil society turns into
the discussion on the public sphere, and actually with full
justification because the network can be seen as nothing
else than just a huge public sphere itself.  However, this
observation offers a more crucial insight into the current
cultural transformation, that is, the extension of the
public sphere at the expense of the civil society and its
basic activities.  If in recent history there were civil
societies without any means of communication of their own,
there now are networked public spheres without any
significant social organisations and citizen activities or
put another way there is a tiny civic body that has
developed an enormous public head.  The heterogeneous and
fragmenting nature of these public spheres constitutes
another problem of politics.  McLaughlin (1993) notes how
counter-public activities often appear to be operated on the
assumption that they are inherently resistant, emancipatory
and, preferably, altruistic political activities.  This is
so despite the presence of numerous counter-publics and
movements characterised by conflicting interests, many with
notions of liberation based on the repression of others.
These publics may end up using methods of force and violence
which actually belong to the prepolitical assets of
governing whereas in democratic political practice it is
assumed that decisions are reached by means of negotiations
and persuasion.  For this reason the organisation of
interest groups on racial or ethnic- particular lines is
seen by Seligman (1992, 167) as a breakdown of civil society
and not as its realisation.

Aspects of the "Public-Private" Dichotomy

     The second element mentioned by Fraser as part of the
reformulated public sphere was the inclusion of private
interests and issues instead of a universal common concern
defined in advance.  There are actually complex
reconfigurations of the public and private domains which are
themselves linked to the ways communications systems are
organised.  Communication technologies can be viewed as the
site of continual struggles over interpretation and use
intermingling with the disputes over the boundary between
the public and private spheres (Murdock 1993).  It is
commonly accepted that the boundary separating public and
private should be seen as continually contested, and that
precisely these shifting interactions between them should be
explored.  Some commentators go as far as to state that the
whole division is simplistic and unhelpful in relation to
the new communications technologies.

     Scholars also frequently use these terms in meanings
widely departing from each other.  The first aspect of the
dichotomy examined here is the one set forth most
determinedly by feminist research and based on various
exclusions from the public sphere.  A set of objections
against the model of the public sphere is projected onto the
hierarchical ordering inherent to it which privileges reason
over affection, the universal over the particular, and male
over female.  A consequence of this ordering is a model of
the public sphere which is homogenising in its appeal to the
common good or general interest, excludes difference _
including gender difference _ and relegates particularity to
the realm of the private (Baynes 1994).  The "original"
creation of civil society through the social contract is a
patriarchal construction and thus also a separation of sexes
(Pateman 1988).  Most scholars have, however, failed to
appreciate the gendered subtext of the public sphere.

     The core meaning of "privacy" and "privacy rights" for
Benhabib (1992) is that of the intimate sphere.  This is the
domain of the household, of meeting the daily needs of life,
of sexuality and reproduction, and of care for the young,
the sick, and the elderly.  Benhabib argues that
contemporary moral and political theory continues to neglect
these issues and ignores the transformation of the private
sphere resulting from massive changes in women's and men's
lives.  For her the women's movement and feminist theorists
have shown that traditional modes of drawing this
distinction have been part of a discourse of domination that
legitimises women's oppression and exploitation in the
private realm.  In a later work Habermas (1992, 458) points
to the integration of the patriarchal family system with a
system of private property as the fundamental grounding of
the private sphere.  In the light of various feminist
critiques, he has conceded that his earlier formulation of
the public/private distinction may have failed to note how
this distinction was gender-specific.  This critique has led
Habermas to suggest that it may be more appropriate to speak
of public spheres rather than simply the public sphere.  His
later formulation of the concept constitutes it in a more
fragmented and unorganised form (Habermas 1992, 445).

     For van Zoonen (1991) the bourgeois public sphere seems
to presuppose a civic public consisting of impartial moral
reasoners standing outside the situation discussed, adopting
a detached attitude.  This civic public is not misled by
particular ends and interests, but guided by universal
rationality.  A necessary precondition for this is the
exclusion, at least temporarily, of all non- rational
aspects of existence such as affectivity, desire, feelings.
As an alternative, van Zoonen proposes a contextualised
evaluation of public life which would appreciate specific
discourses rooted in e.g. the particular experiences of
women and ethnic groups.  The gendered subtext of the
bourgeois public sphere leads her to suggest replacing its
universalist morality with more particularist and contextual
evaluations of public life, and recognising and appreciating
differences instead.  Nevertheless, says Baynes, the
conception of public sphere is not inherently structured to
exclude heterogeneity or particularity.  Though it
presupposes some distinction between the public and the
private, it has a self referential character that opens it
up to possibilities of self-transformation.  The boundaries
between the public and the private are not fixed but rather
refer reflexively to the presence of a public sphere in
which the reasons or grounds for any particular division
remain open to contest, criticism, and possible
renegotiation.  Similarly, the model of the public sphere
does not rest on an a priori distinction between the
universal and the particular.

     Another aspect of the dichotomy under consideration
could be referred to as the potential emptying of the public
sphere caused by the extension of the private.  Habermas's
analysis of the public sphere traces its reduction to an
arena of private interests, incapable of representing the
whole.  This development is characterised by the "collapse"
of that publicness on which the idea of civil society stood.
To show the difficulty to "return" to a civil society
Seligman (1992, 132) also points to the way the relations
between public and private spheres are currently conceived.
The realm of shared public space, within which the citizen
is constituted, has itself disappeared.  What has taken its
place is the individual existing in public only in most
abstract and generalised form.  Seligman proposes that in
lieu of the public the private is projected into the public
arena, is made public.  The idea of civil society was seen
to rest upon the synthesis of public and private, and it is
precisely the breakdown of that synthesis that we are
witnessing according to Seligman.

     Scholars unanimously admit that there is need for a
more nuanced analysis of the public/private distinction,
although the way of defining these spheres may vary
markedly.  On the other hand, any theory of public, public
sphere, and publicity presupposes a distinction between the
public and the private since the public sphere rests on the
distinction.  Suggestions to include the formerly excluded
publics into the public arena are, of course, justified as
are the appeals to transform the boundaries between private
and public issues.  Finally, to make issues of common
concern means making them increasingly accessible to
discursive will formation; it means to democratise them
(Benhabib 1992).  From the perspective of political action
and the conduct of everyday activities, a distinction
between the public and private issues should remain,
although between these oppositional terms a grey area of
mixed qualities may arise.

     Features prevalent in contemporary culture, in
particular those of fragmentation and particularisaton, and
the extension of the private over the public, certainly gain
strength in the network.  The exaggeration of these trends
to the extreme would nevertheless be as disastrous or tragic
as their radical reduction or reversion.  Too strong a
desire for unity can lead to repressing differences within
groups, but correspondingly, too strong a desire for
fragmentation can lead to indifference and passive
appropriation of social inequalities, or, gradually, to the
dispersion of the idea of the public.  McLaughlin (1993)
refers to the definition of a heterogeneous public as
helpful in conceptually accommodating both the unity
necessary for mobilisation and the differences and the
specific experiences of individuals and groups.  A balanced
view is needed to weigh unity and fragmentation, private and
public against each other, a view based on synthesis and
natural harmony.

         The Perspective of Civil Society Revisited

     Besides the vague and dispersed foundation of its core
institutions, modern civil society is facing another problem
that may weaken its viability _ namely, that of its ethical
grounding.  The current wish to return to civil society
signals the need to reassert a social solidarity that would
admit community as well as individuality, to include an
element of shared solidarity in the notion of individual
rights.  The idea of civil society had already been an
attempt during the Scottish Enlightenment to find a
synthesis between a number of developing oppositions that
were increasingly being felt in social life (Seligman 1992,
25).  These oppositions, between the individual and the
social, the private and the public, egoism and altruism,
between a life governed by reason and one governed by the
passions, have according to Seligman become constitutive of
our existence in the modern world.

     We identify the freeing of the individual from
traditional, primordial and particular solidarities based on
kinship and territorial identities with the forms of modern
society.  It is, as is well known, exactly the notion of the
individual that is crucial for an understanding of
modernity.  The new civilisation of modernity based
ideologically and politically on the assumption of equality
and of the growing participation of citizens in the social
and political life of society.  However, previous as well as
contemporary societies face the crucial problem of how to
represent the ties and relations between morally autonomous
individuals.  In Seligman's (1992, 94) words, what emerges,
is the classical problem of squaring the demands of the
abstract rights of the individual with the desiderata of
social entitlements and mutual welfare.  The constitutive
problem of ethically integrating individual and social life
has been at the agenda of social and political debates for a
century but has, for the most part, remained unsolved.
Though we can celebrate differences as such, it is not the
retreat into the group, into the particular, that opens up
possibilities for empowerment (McLaughlin 1993).  However
difficult it may be, we should be committed at the same time
both to the universalist and the particularist aspects or
drives of social life since they both are necessary and,
finally, only exist in union.

     A further problem that has to be solved or dealt with
is the conceptual confusion.  The very basic concept of
democratic vocabulary is civil society, but its history and
all the ramifications have made it controversial or even
unfruitful in contemporary discussions.  For practical
reasons we need a concept, a tool, to gather under the same
heading all the efforts of care, co-ordination, compassion
and political contestation.  A pragmatic solution would be
to apply the concept when needed and to pay no attention to
its inherent ambiguities and anachronism.  The other way
would be to define it according to the present need and,
again, to supplant its genealogy (Bourdieu on concepts, in
Bourdieu & Wacquant 1992).  We are actually not left with
any elegant solution if we want to deal with the old bunch
of democraticcommunitarian incentives.  My choice is to keep
the concept of civil society because of its reference to
political action but to apply it as a faded horizon.  As a
structure the network seems to bring with it qualities of
fragmentation and privatisation that are prone to weaken the
organisation of citizen's activities but there may be
evolving undercurrents of solidarity and care, of mutual
understanding.  To make these tendencies visible a cultural
or microsociological approach with its near focused lenses
is fruitful since it has the capacity of showing how social
relations actually are constructed in the network.  I
decided to use the term "community" to refer to shared
qualities and social ties although it carries with it the
very similar problems and controversies as the concept of
civil society.

     The reading of the term in this context leads to a
hermeneutic interpretation of it delineated for example by
Lash (1994, 143-168).  He provides us with two sets of
notions worth presenting here, one dealing with the
culturalisation of society and the other with the suggested
basis of community formation.  It is argued that only in
very recent modernity has a cultural sphere fully
differentiated off from social, political and economic life.
Only now is there full value pluralism, only now the
possibility of a genuine multiculturalism and a self-
organising sub-politics (see Beck 1994) in which the stake
is the cultural creation of reality.  Not only have the
former dominating social institutions _ including economic
firms themselves _ become more cultural in character, but
more strictly cultural institutions have become increasingly
central to reflexive or late modernity.

     The second point concerns the possibility of cultural
communities.  For Lash, these communities, the cultural
"we," are collectivities of shared background practices,
shared meanings, shared routine activities involved in the
achievement of meaning.  Community is based on Sitten, which
are customs and by definition not rules; it is based in
habits, not on judgements, but "prejudgements."  These
preunderstandings and background assumptions are the domain
of hermeneutics and the best mode of access to truth is in
involved engagement, in having concern for things and people
in a shared world.  Lash refers to Bourdieu (1992) who
speaks of reflexivity in terms of the systematic uncovering
of the unthought categories which themselves are
preconditions of our more self-conscious practices.  These
unthought categories or schemata are not inaccessible to the
conscious mind as for example is the Freudian unconscious.
Lash proceeds to ask where all this leaves the "self,"
pointing out that it is not at all satisfactory only to
allude vaguely to a "dialectic" of self and community or to
speak of a theory of community that "leaves space" for the
self.  What is needed is a notion of involvement in communal
practices out of which the self grows.  There are important
sources of contemporary self, which are analytically
separable as cognitive, aesthetic and
hermeneuticcommunitarian "moments," and which, according to
him, exist in us in an often contradictory and
irreconcilable way.

     Because the text and the constellation of social
interaction are readily available in the network it is an
ideal environment to examine the mode of construction of
social relations and the uncovering of the unthought
categories.  In bringing forth our shared experiences it is
a "positive" project, yet at the same time it is a very hard
project because the shared meanings are mostly hidden and
live beneath the visible surface and there are not many
other clues available except the discussions.  Lash has his
project, too, a "positive" task to be accomplished, namely
to emphasise the hermeneutic or communitarian dimension
because in the present age of cognitive-utilitarian and
aesthetic-expressive individualism it is the one most in
need of some sort of retrieval operation.  I have nothing
much to add to that except that how askew we may ever go
with the conceptual elaboration and theoretical
considerations _ which many times appear as very remote and
alienated _ there definitely is an empirical need for a
strengthened communitarian aspect in our lives and in our
societies.  And if we hesitate to concentrate on network
research because of the minority and elite nature of the
network let us try to keep in mind that the thrust towards
its existence lies in economic forces which inevitably will
also cause its extension.

                A New Beginning of the Story

     Confusing and ambiguous features of the network include
the split between two worlds, the virtual and the real.
Virilio, in an interview (Wilson 1994), states that there is
no simulation but the coexistence of two separate worlds.
One day the virtual world might win over the real world.
These new technologies try to make virtual reality more
powerful than actual reality, which is the true accident.
The day when virtual reality becomes more powerful than
reality will be the day of the big accident.  Mankind has
never experienced such an extraordinary accident.  He
further concedes:  "I am a Christian, and even though I know
we are talking about metaphysics and not about religion, I
must say that cyberspace is acting like God and deals with
the idea of God who is, sees and hears everything."

     A principal code for contemporary political action is,
nevertheless, clear:  to be committed to equality, not to
inequality, but equality understood as justice and
reasonableness, not as sameness and annihilation of
differences (Vhmki 1994).  The perspective on politics
radically changes if differences between individuals are
accepted as natural and individuals conceived on the basis
of their differences more as imperfect than as perfect.  If
the plurality of ways of living is appreciated, we
understand the need for co-operation and completion better.
With respect to global and local risks we still have to try
to apprehend the network from the perspective of civil
society.  The character of civil society's institutional
core has been transformed and could now be better expressed
as "relations of associations," which is a weaker
formulation compared to the "associational life" that at one
time constituted the social stratum of the bourgeois public
sphere (Habermas 1992, 453).  The relations of associations
should finally produce political communication that readies
citizens to engage in "responsible behaviour" through
sufficiently convincing arguments.

     However odd and archaic Habermas's expression sounds,
the pursuit of reasonable and responsible behaviour is not
totally out of question.  In postmodern frontier conditions,
and, more literally, as a neighbour of a collapsing
superpower, I as a Finn would evidently benefit from
something global and, at the same time, metaphysical
emerging, of a new experience of the sacred.  Somewhere in
Siberia there is a city of 200,000 inhabitants called the
town number 27.  Underground, beneath the city's surface
there is a comprehensive construction, a factory with its
numerous floors and roasting facilities responsible for
refining and management of nuclear waste.  The plant should
be closed but the earnest men working there know that it is
impossible.  Although the pipes and installations are
getting old and dangerous, and the men tired and sick, the
waste itself remains active for thousands of years.  So the
men stay underground and worship the sacred luminous matter
till the end of their days, regardless of the insufficient
and irregular salaries and inhuman conditions.

     What has civil society to do with plutonium?
Everything, since plutonium should not be let go, and
somebody has to convince the men that the work they do is
indispensable and irreplaceable.  It surely is; they have to
keep on servicing the radioactive substance at the risk of
their health for the simple reason that if they don't the
silent explosion will exceed all the effects of Chernobyl.
Global civil society has to be aware of the town and its
secret in order to put pressure upon governments and
international bodies for assistance.  The disintegrating
Russian state alone will be incapable of preserving the
secret in the box.  Without global support, material and
immaterial, the prisoners of the mountain may some day just
walk away with no backward glance to the underground demon
and to the generations to come.

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------------------------------------------------------------
Author Information:

Sinikka Sassi is Assistant at the Department of
Communication, University of Helsinki, Unioninkatu 37,
P.O. Box 54, FIN-00014 University of Helsinki.
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   Communication Institute for Online Scholarship, Inc.

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