Parody Blogging and the Call of the Real
Trish Roberts-Miller, University of Texas at Austin
Debate over the invasion of Iraq seemed appallingly bad to me. The pro-war position relied on evading central questions (e.g., whether the U.S. manage the occupation of two countries), responding to them in ways that should have been treated as embarrassing on the part of a national leader (e.g., 'he tried to kill my father'), presenting information that was openly fraudulent (e.g., the cost of the invasion), or intentionally misleading (e.g., assertions and implications that Iraq was supportive of al Quaeda or responsible for 9/11). Those opposing the war were operating at a considerable media disadvantage (as anti-war sentiment was assumed to be indicative of anti-Americanism), so I saw only a distorted portion of it, but what I saw seemed to hang on motivistic arguments (e.g, no war for oil), or was almost excessively pragmatic (e.g., the view that this was another Vietnam).
And it was not argumentation. 1 This point is often lost on critics, especially in rhetoric and composition, probably because what is generally taught as argumentation or persuasive writing is neither. Many teachers and scholars in rhetoric and composition use argument and argumentation as though the two are synonymous, and neither is particularly clearly defined, when European theorists of argumentation make a useful distinction. In rhetoric and composition, for instance, argument/argumentation is sometimes one of the several modes of discourse. By this definition, argumentation is distinguished from the other modes of discourse (e.g., description, narration, exposition, etc.) because it is supposed to consist of assertions or propositions, which may or may not be logically linked to one another (for more on various versions of this definition of argument and argumentation, see Fulkerson, 1996, especially pp. 1-5). James Kinneavy distinguishes argumentation from exposition and expression, on the basis of the "aim" of the rhetor (ultimately, argumentation is discourse in which the rhetor intends to argue). Argumentation textbooks often define it in terms of what it is not: it is not pro/con debate (Ramage & Bean, 1998), it is not about winning (Lunsford & Ruskiewicz, 2004). With any of these definitions, there is no difference between a text which consists of a single person making assertions, and a discourse which involves several people making assertions in light of one another--both are argument.
On the contrary, Franz van Eemeren and Rob Grotendoorst define argumentation as "not so much a process whereby a single individual privately draws a conclusion as it is a procedure whereby two or more individuals try to arrive at an agreement" (1993, p. 12). The former may be argument, but it is not argumentation. Similarly, the conventional "argument" assignment (in which students are invited to take a stand on an issue and list their reasons for that stance) is not argumentation. It is simply an individual explaining his or her reasons for drawing a conclusion. And this was my experience of the public squabble over the Iraq War--it consisted of people making assertions, generally not in the light of what anyone (especially the opposition) had said.
Similarly, political discourse which consists of someone making unsupported assertions intended to confirm or rouse like-minded people is not argumentation: "For argumentation to occur, disagreement must be externalized, or at least externalizable: incompatible standpoints must be expressed and brought into confrontation with one another" (Van Eemeren et al., 1993, p. 11). Public discourse in which the opposition is misrepresented or dismissed does not externalize the disagreement; it tries to shift public attention from the real place of disagreement to something more manageable, or to pretend that there is not really disagreement at all (the opposition is not motivated by a philosophy or policy orientation, but evil motives beyond the realm of argument).
One might wonder why it is worth making the distinction between arguments and argumentation, and there are several reasons. First, the conventional approach to argument--the making of assertions with support coupled with ignoring, dismissing, or misrepresenting opposition arguments--does not persuade an intelligent and informed opposition audience. This means that people who are informed and committed cannot use discourse to settle their differences, but must resort to some form of coercion.
Second, argumentation, unlike argument, complicates the creation and maintenance of hegemonic ideology. Hegemonic ideology always has contradictions and fractures, and is best preserved by silencing dissident voices who might draw attention to the cracks and crevices. Ideologies are not unique to large groups--sub-groups often have them as well. The more that the univocality of the discourse can be maintained, the more the group's ideology can be protected; spheres of public discourse in which people can express themselves, but have no obligation to listen to (let alone fairly discuss) opposition viewpoints, maintain the univocality of the group(s) that participate. This was exactly my gripe about the public discussion of the Iraq invasion--the notion that removing Hussein was a necessary response to 9/11 was repeated by advocates of the war until it seemed to be a mantra. That they never had to respond to arguments that Hussein and al Quaeda were enemies, or that invading Iraq would add fuel to the fire of anti-Americanism, or that this plan was completely orthogonal to 9/11, meant that they never had to spell out the causal relationship. They never had to explain the cracks in their arguments.
The low level of political discourse is not new--from the Antinomian Controversy to the Lewinsky debacle, American public discourse has had far too many instances of public argument in which important issues were obscured, information was fabricated, and dissent dismissed.
In other words, this was not the worst of times. But I had thought it might be, if not the best of times, at least better than most. I had accepted much of the argument about the Internet fracturing and possibly even democratizing public discourse, and had even experienced something along those lines in my days as a Usenet junkie. Hence I expected to see a public sphere in which hegemony was more difficult to achieve and dissent less vilified--in which major issues regarding the invasion would be argued in light of what opposition arguments asserted.
Specifically, for reasons discussed later, I had thought that the proliferation of blogs would have the effects many people have claimed for them--a more open and public public sphere of participatory argumentation rather than simply expression. I was instead dismayed to see a realm, not of counterpublics, but of enclaves, and of a system that, at its worst, facilitated the hardening of ideology, and, at its best, allowed for an expressive public sphere. In frustration, I wrote a parody blog: the Chester blog, in which my very popular dog discussed his day to day life, the squirrel conspiracy, and his loathing of small dogs. The experience of trying to write a parody blog made me modify, once more, my sense about the potential place of blogs in a deliberative public sphere. To explain that modification necessitates beginning with a long discussion of argumentation in the public sphere, my frustration with blogs, and then my experience blogging.
To use the term "public sphere" necessarily invokes Jurgen Habermas's Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, a somewhat problematic book. Habermas there argues that the eighteenth century public sphere of the philosophes, flawed as it was, did a fairly good job of enacting rational-critical discourse. It was rational, not in the sense that it involved reliance on instrumental reason (which is generally what people assume Habermas means), but because arguments were assessed by the quality of argument (a somewhat complicated distinction Habermas does not adequately explain in that book), rather than the status of the arguer. It was critical in the sense that it permitted criticism of the current political system and dominant ideology.
Over the course of the next two centuries, Habermas says, this rational-critical argumentation degenerated and fragmented into a mass market public sphere of acclamation and commercialization on the one hand ("the domain of nonpublic opinion," 1992, p. 246) and a realm of "pronouncements, declarations, and speeches" of quasi-official institutions ("the sphere of circulation of quasi-public opinion," 1992, p. 246-7) on the other. The former is obviously not argumentation, and the latter is not rational-critical debate because "as institutionally authorized opinions, they are always privileged and achieve no mutual correspondence with the nonorganized mass of the 'public'" (1992, p.247).
The most famous criticism of Habermas's argument may well be that this tragic narrative privileges a centralized public sphere, ignoring the significant contributions of what Nancy Fraser called "counterpublics." The problem with this criticism is that Habermas's narrative itself ignores that public sphere of the philosophes was not particularly central. It was actually a counterpublic of an elite and philosophically oriented group of men who read and argued with one another. It is not that such counterpublics ceased to exist (the Frankfurt School would be an instance of a modern one), but that his later chapters look at mass market media. His argument that the mass market is both mass and a market is, therefore, tautological.
This is not to say, however, that it is entirely wrong. There is something different about the elite counterpublics of current think tanks from the rational-critical public sphere of the philosophes. The Hoover Institute, for instance, is a critical counterpublic in the sense that it often criticizes government, but it is not rational in the way Habermas uses the term. Participants must assent to a specific political philosophy, which cannot itself be the object of criticism. The discourse, then, is extremely exclusive, both in terms of the political and institutional status of the speaker being of central importance and in terms of what can be discussed. In addition, its critical function is a priori limited, in that such think tanks only criticize the governmental policies of opposition political philosophies. Finally, think tanks are often funded (secretly or openly) by commercial enterprises, and charged with making the public sphere more amenable to their profit (ranging from groups that only fund supportive research to ones that try to reduce governmental control of the market in general). Such elite counterpublics, then, do evidence increased irrationality, decreased critical functions, and commercialization.
Another way that Habermas's argument is accurate is that there is a paradox between inclusion and argumentation. The more people included in any public (or counterpublic) sphere, the less the discourse can be rational-critical. This dilemma results, not from the kind of people included, but the number (that is, it is not that the masses of people necessarily argue less rationally or critically than the elite, but that it is harder for a number of any sort of people to engage in argumentation).
If a large number of people are trying to participate, and everyone is to have a chance to contribute, then people can speak only very briefly, and only once. This situation is not one in which people can express complicated or subtle arguments, describe multiple contingencies, indicate changes in perception, relate their own positions to complicated oppositions, or otherwise engage in ratiocination. By ratiocination I do not mean simply an argument that moves through logically connected syllogisms to proof, but any process of reasoning in which one moves toward a conclusion through a series of connected arguments, whether those arguments are personal narratives, syllogisms, steps in a process of controversia, or even something like explication of complicated evidence.
The result of inclusion is a public sphere in which people express relatively simple ideas, which I have come to call, somewhat unhappily, the expressive public sphere. This approach to public discourse is epitomized in opinion polls, which enable large numbers of people to express their opinions on issues, but only to the extent that those opinions can be accurately reflected in yes or no or multiple choice questions.
The problem with the expressive public sphere is that it does not contribute particularly well toward deliberation (for more on this, see Hauser, 1999). Iris Marion Young has said:
Too often those in structurally superior positions take their experience, preferences, and opinions to be general, uncontroversial, ordinary and even an expression of suffering or disadvantage. Having to answer to those who speak from a different, less privileged perspective on their social relations exposes their partiality and relative blindness. (Young, 1997, p. 403)
This is exactly the distinction between argument and argumentation. Argument does not necessarily prevent people from universalizing from their particular, ignoring different experiences, and remaining completely oblivious to what might be wrong with their generalizations. To prevent such an outcome, not only must the public sphere include the expressions of different people, speaking from different positions, but it must involve people taking into account those different positions. That is more than simply acknowledging that they exist in order to misrepresent, ridicule, dismiss, or even argue against them, but actually allowing the possibility of one's stance being shaped by them. That is what is meant by good faith argumentation.2
James Fishkin has described the long history of failing to find ways to enable deliberation among large groups to occur in a single location; as early as the Greek city-states, communities faced problems of trying to give everyone a chance to speak, coupled with difficulties finding locations in which everyone could hear (1995, pp. 17-21). A virtual locus may seem to resolve many of the technical problems, so bulletin boards, newsgroups, mailing lists, webpages, and now blogs have all been proposed as methods of enacting new and larger town meetings. Unlike opinion polls, these media permit people to present complicated and nuanced arguments, and bulletin boards, newsgroups, and many mailing lists often have an etiquette that demands good faith argumentation. "Netiquette" insists that one give context for one's statements, quote passages to which one is responding, and attribute correctly. The very way in which posts function--one's own comments interspersed in the original posts--means that one must quote accurately, that argumentation obligations are reciprocally binding. Perhaps most important, the threat of being "plonked" (that is, entered in numerous readers' killfiles) operates to ensure that participants argue appropriately. In a certain sense, then, newsgroups are Habermas's rational-critical public sphere of, in Usenet jargon, "argument geeks."
Yet, Habermas's tragic narrative seems to apply to newsgroups. As traffic in newsgroups increased, even before spamming became a major problem, it became increasingly difficult to follow all the threads, and traffic was overwhelming. Newsgroups were broken up into more specialized topics; this fracturing necessarily meant greater homogeneity among interlocutors. Still, argument geek that I am, I have found that the very virtues of newsgroups--the insistence upon correct representation of the context, awareness of the history of the issue, supporting evidence, and accurate quoting or paraphrasing of previous arguments--necessitates a time commitment I cannot manage. My sense is that many people feel the same way.
Even with smaller groups, the presence of people not interested in good faith argumentation (e.g., spammers, kooks) makes participation in newsgroups too frustrating for many people, so many groups have shifted to some form of moderation. Thus, whether de facto or de jure, exclusion is a natural consequence of inclusion.
Mailing lists are similarly problematic. While there is also a tradition of accurately paraphrasing of the opposition, and many lists demand good faith argumentation (either through moderation or threats of plonking), there remains the problem of diversity and traffic. The more diverse the group, the higher the traffic, and the greater the time commitment needed. In practice, mailing lists are not tremendously diverse; they tend to have a philosophical homogeneity, and many have various kinds of membership restrictions. In other words, newsgroups and mailing lists suggest that Habermas is exactly right to say that inclusion and exclusion are paradoxically intertwined.
The paradox at the center of inclusive communities of discourse is not Habermas's only point. He describes the increasing commercialization of the public sphere, and one can see exactly that in regard to electronic public spheres. At least until the introduction of blogs, the world wide web was inherently expressive; people used webpages to express and explore their own points of view. While far more amenable to subtle and nuanced positions than technologies like opinion polls, webpages neither encourage nor demand good faith argumentation. If one chooses to misrepresent, ignore, or dismiss opposition arguments, one may or (more likely) may not receive critical email, but there is nothing like the participating audiences of bulletin boards, newsgroups, or mailing lists to insist on appropriate behavior. Very quickly, even such personal expressions have become swamped by commercial pages, including ones that purport not to be commercial. As the web has proliferated, users have had to rely on commercial search engines, which themselves tend to favor commercial sites. Thus, webpages, from the beginning not an instance of ideal argumentation, also demonstrate commercialization.
My point is several-fold: first, Habermas is right that there is a contradiction inherent in the goal of inclusion. The more people included, the harder it is to include complicated and diverse arguments. The more complicated and diverse the arguments, the harder it is for many people to participate. Second, public arguments are not necessarily public argumentation; media demand fairness to the opposition, reasonableness, and supporting evidence to different degrees.
What I had hoped about blogs is that they would represent a medium that would encourage good faith argumentation more than do webpages (because they are interactive), but be more accessible and inclusive than bulletin boards, newsgroups, and mailing lists (because they require less technical knowledge and time commitment).
Instead, I found several tendencies among blogs, all of which amounted to their being what Jane Mansbridge has called "enclaves," which are discursive spaces "in which the relatively like-minded can consult with one another" (1996, p. 57). First, the very presentation of blogs--the privileging of the blogger's text(s), as well as that the blogger can choose whether and which comments to include--keep discourse roles far from equal. This is not argumentation among equals.
Second, and closely related, the privileging of the blogger means that s/he is the focus rather than the argument(s). This is associated with explorations of what Hannah Arendt called the "intimate" realm, so that, all in all, the blogsphere kept reminding me of her comment on the collapse of the common world. She says that in mass society, citizens
are all imprisoned in the subjectivity of their own singular experience, which does not cease to be singular if the same experience is multiplied innumerable times. The end of the common world has come when it is seen only under one aspect and is permitted to present itself in only one perspective. (1958, p.53)
This is related to the third problem: it may seem that the sheer number of blogs ensures multiple perspectives, but that is only the case if people read all of them. It does not matter how many blogs there are if supporters of the war only read pro-war blogs, and opponents only read anti-war ones. Blogs, as much as (if not more than) newsgroups and mailing lists, tend to attract people with similar philosophies. Thus, what I saw was a proliferation of counterpublics in which various arguments regarding the invasion were repeated or expanded to support whatever position the blogging community already shared, but not altered in light of the opposition. All commitments were precommitments.
It may seem that there are two main problems with my characterization of the blogsphere--first, that blogs tend to have a list of links, generally to other blogs, and not infrequently opposition ones. Second, there are disagreements in the "comments" sections on blogs, and bloggers do often mention opposition arguments they have read elsewhere. But here we are back to the confusion about argumentation--links take one elsewhere to see the opposition argument; it is presented as the discourse of the outgroup. Comments are sometimes critical of the blogger, but they are not only always subservient, they are also necessarily brief.
In short, blogs are highly amenable to the expressive public sphere--they provide fairly accessible spaces in which large numbers of people can take stances on issues of public import, but only as long as those stances can be explained briefly. The problem is that that is not argumentation.
There were anti-war and pro-war blogs, but almost all seemed to me to function as Mansbridge defines enclaves:
The goals of these counterpublics include understanding themselves better, forging bonds of solidarity, preserving the memories of past injustices, interpreting and reinterpreting the meanings of those injustices, working out alternative conceptions of self, of community, of justice, and of universality, trying to make sense of both the privileges they wield and the oppressions they face, understanding the strategic configurations for and against their desired ends, deciding what alliances to make both emotionally and strategically, deliberating on ends and means, and deciding how to act, individually and collectively. (1996, p. 58)
Each blog had its own dominant ideology; it was localized hegemony. And they thus accepted arguments that struck me as fallacious at best, and loony at worst. On the whole, in other words, blog discourse was no different from dominant American political discourse, and certainly not any different from how argumentation is conventionally taught--people took stances, listed reasons, and ridiculed the opposition. This is not to say that blogs never had dissenters (although that did seem to be true of many of them), but that dissenters had the same place in them that they do in something like the Rush Limbaugh show--every once in a while, a dissenter shows up and gets chased off.
At the same time, I found myself in an enclave of a different sort. Living in a politically reactionary suburb in Texas, I felt surrounded by the wrong hegemony. In a county that generally has no Democratic candidates for major offices, and a state that is bizarrely defensive about Texans, I found myself walking through parking lots with bumper stickers I thought crazy, and listening to comments at neighborhood parties that made me want to scream. My frustration with the low level of discourse was overwhelming. I started writing the Chester blog.
This was a parody blog in which my dog, Chester Burnette, wrote about major political issues (such as the squirrel-dominated media, the place of small dogs in the squirrel conspiracy) and more personal ones (his trips to the ranch, his trying to take care of his servants). My intention was to parody the blogsphere, its confusion of the intimate and public, and expressiveness and argumentation, and, especially, how bizarre the enclave arguments were.
But reality intruded.
The first intrusion was a fairly minor technical one. Objecting to the physical layout providing by most blogging software, I decided to do each blog entry as html code on a webpage. This layout enabled me to have longer entries (something not precluded, but discouraged, by the blogging software) and present comments as more central than other blogs. But, that decision meant that contributors had to email comments to me, which I then posted. In my efforts to equalize the discourse, I increased the moderation and control.
In addition, whereas my main interests were political, I found that readers (which I was surprised to have) were more interested in dog stories, which were, not coincidentally, more fun to write. I began the blog with long entries about relatively trivial things, which was intended to parody the narcissistic quality so many blogs have, but friends read the blog as a kind of perpetual Christmas letter, and other dog lovers wrote their own stories, so the place of the intimate--which had been a protest--took on a real value.
As I was writing the blog, the invasion of Iraq began, and the major argument for the invasion--that Hussein had an active and actively threatening weapons program--began to stagger. The lack of good faith became clear, as advocates of the Bush administration struggled alternately to salvage and distract the public from that line of argument. Parody relies on exaggeration, and I found it impossible to parody just how casuitical such arguments were.
Finally, I found it helpful to express my views on political discourse. Granted, given my scholarly interests, I can do that all the time, but in the blog I could vent without having to support my points, cite my sources, and otherwise engage in good faith argumentation. I could simply make fun of the arguments I thought so appallingly bad. Young says, "The public is not a comfortable place of conversation among those who share language, assumptions, and ways of looking at issues" (1997, p. 401). Given my political isolation, I was already uncomfortable enough--I needed an enclave, and that was what writing the blog gave me. Thus, the very qualities about blogs to which I object(ed) were the ones I found therapeutic.
What, then, do blogs do? They facilitate the expressive public sphere and enclave-based discourse. They give people a place--other than major media--in which to take a stance on issues. And neither of those is trivial. However, they neither preclude nor require good faith argumentation.
There is a tendency to make big claims about the impact of technologies on public discourse, and the imminent democratizing of public discourse has been predicted with everything from the printing press to the telephone. That the argument has been made before is not to say that it is therefore wrong. While the telephone did not usher in The Great Community for which Dewey hoped in The Public and Its Problems, it did have major impacts on modern culture. The Reformation succeeded where earlier and very similar movements had not, probably due to greater access to print technology. The antiwar and counterculture movements of the sixties were certainly aided by the mimeograph machine. Media may not be the message, but they do effect how, and to whom and at what expense, messages are conveyed.
If the problem with American public discourse is lack of access, then the blogsphere will do much to improve it. If, however, the problem is how people participate, if there is already too much stance-taking and not enough argumentation, the blogsphere will simply give more people easier access to a form of public discourse which actually has limited benefit. If, as I suspect, Americans have a tendency to argue badly, then the blogsphere simply enables them to do that with a wider audience; it does not necessarily cause them to argue better.
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