Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Postdemocracy Always Rings Twice

I've been thinking a lot about the idea of "postdemocracy" during the course of the Obama campaign, particularly after friends Ava Arndt and Julia Lupton wrote this essay about "forgetting representation" and embracing participation in many-t0-many practices of political life.

On this subject,
Reformatting Politics: Information Technology and Global Civil Society is an an ambitious collection of essays that attempts to come to terms with with what editors Jodi Dean, Jon W. Anderson, and Geert Lovink call the "postdemocratic" political order that is being shaped by computer-mediated communication and distributed electronic networks. The collection shows how far thinking has come about e-government in the last decade beyond old HCI paradigms that only focus on usability or access, as the authors follow trends in generally non-governmental civil society organizations toward subsidiarity, multistakeholderism, the role of expertise, and reputation management created by the "hybridity, reflexivity, mobility, and performativity" of networked social units.

Unfortunately, sentences like the following one may need a bit of unpacking for readers outside of these debates: "Experiences of diasporas and of creolization come forward from the margins, highlighting less displacement and mixture than the centrality of reputation management as a vital component of network society's postdemocratic governmentality." In somewhat plainer English, the beginning of this sentence tells us that the authors are well aware of arguments in recent critical theory taking place in Europe and the postcolonial world that include Étienne Balibar's ideas about "fractal borders," Eduoard Glissant's critique of Négritude, and the rise in academia of "diaspora studies" and have chosen not to pursue themes of "displacement and mixture" that are popular in other schools of critical Internet studies and will instead consider the role of strategies of command and control. By using the distinctive term "network society," we know that these writers have read Manuel Castells (and probably Jan A.G.M. van Dijk before him). We also know that they are influenced by the later work of Michel Foucault, particularly his work on "governmentality."

The first essay by Noortje Marres in the collection examines the intellectual history around "issue networks" that are divorced from political parties or other formal structures of institutional politics and cites the work of Hugh Heclo who pointed out some disturbing aspects of this phenomenon back in the Carter administration. The next essay by Ned Rossiter is clearly one that I see in dialogue with my forthcoming Virtualpolitik book, which opens with a great allusion to the Communist Manifesto: "A specter is haunting this age of informationality -- the specter of state sovereignty." Rossiter goes on to talk about the "limits of liberal democracy" and question how well rational consensus models of politics from John Rawls and Jürgen Habermas really work in an era of multistakholderism by citing and then critiquing the work of Chantal Mouffe and then Wolfgang Kleinwächter. The next essay by Clay Shirky is probably the most accessible to nonspecialists, since it uses graphs to explain how "power laws" generate inequality in the supposedly nonhierarchical structures of the blogosphere. Written before the era of YouTube and the work being done in connection with the Video Vortex project, Drazen Pantic's "Anybody Can Be TV" looks at videoblogging as a possible challenge to network news.

Then, a number of provocative case studies from around the world follow. Lina Khatib writes very intelligently about one of the current areas of fear-mongering about the Internet, the use of the World Wide Web by groups of Islamic fundamentalist radicals. As someone actually able to read the language and study the relationships of hyperlinks, Khatib's thoughtful analysis of the rhetoric of these sites and how it relates to cultural conversations about globalization provides much needed scholarly perspective on this subject. (For those interested in further reading, this report from the International Crisis Group is also useful.) Merlyna Lim's essay about the Internet in Indonesia points out that electronic distributed networks have been useful both for toppling despotic governments and for promoting jihadist agendas that undermine liberal democracy. For a great overview about the role of mobile telephones in the politics of the developing world, Okoth Fred Mudhai's essay is also very interesting.

The final section of the book looks at international governing organizations for the Internet and debates about ICANN and the United Nation's World Summit on the Information Society. Articles by Hans Klein, John Palfrey, and Claudia Padovani and Lovink's interview with Milton Mueller close the book with an exploration of issues, conflicts, and rhetorics involved with transnational governing bodies.

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Blogger Lupton said...

I liked this book a lot, and ended up using the stuff about mobile phones in Africa in my undergraduate lecturing. I absorbed bits and pieces of the rest of it ... and appreciate your thorough mapping of this book's relationship to the larger field. My map is much cruder: I kept thinking "Social Science" (not humanities, not cultural studies...) as I was reading it.

12:05 PM  

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