If you build it they will come

Blogging & the new citizenship
Tim Dunlop

There's an old joke where two kids are sitting in a room and one says to the other, "There's an aphrodisiac behind that radiator." And the other says, "What's a radiator?" The valuable lesson to learn from this piece of frippery is to define all your key terms, so that when I say, bloggers are the new public intellectuals, I will go on to give a definition of both public intellectual and blogger. And I'll begin with the latter because it is easier.

A blogger is somebody who writes a weblog. A weblog is a website where a person logs, often on a daily basis, his or her thoughts on a range of topics. The beauty of such sites is that the software is pretty simple to use and it is freely available from providers like Blogger.com. Once you sign up with such a company, you can easily add entries via your home or work or local library computer. In one form or another they have been around for a number of years now, but it is in the last year especially that the practice has really taken off.

Once you have your site, it is available for all and sundry to see and, if you wish, you can set it up so that readers can leave comments about individual posts. There are now a large number of reasonably well-established weblogs that attract anywhere up to several hundred thousand readers a week each, and though this is small potatoes compared to mainstream networks and traditional media it does represent something of a phenomenon.

To some people, weblogs (blogs, as the word is almost universally abbreviated to) are a geek hula-hoop, a fad that will pass once the novelty wears off; a bit of fun, but not something to get too excited about. To others they represent a rebirth of participatory democracy, a new form of journalism, and even the home of the new public intellectuals.

What do we do when we blog?

It would be dull to simply declare that blogs are something in between these extremes, so let me tilt towards the argument that says they are, at least potentially, the home of a new type of public intellectual, a type that breaks down the usual images of the detached wise person or topical expert explaining things to an uninformed public, and that blogging brings public debate back within coo-ee of those to whom it should belong anyway, the ordinary citizens. Blogging, potentially on a large scale, puts the public in public intellectual.

In saying this, I should specify that I am talking about what we might call political blogs. Remember, blogs know no boundaries and people use them to talk about everything from their favourite music, to day-by-day accounts of their European holiday, to paeans to their love for knitting. Political blogs on the other hand are ones where people may well talk about all that stuff as well (I do, except for the knitting bit) but which concentrate on providing a running commentary on either local or international political affairs.

Two things to note: the first is that blogs are necessarily sycophantic. Being run largely by people without the resources of a media agency with which to do original research, they are merely reactive to the news of the day as published by major outlets. The upside of this sycophancy is that the interested blogger can read behind the headlines, between the lines, and subject the bare news story to more scrutiny than it would normally get. They can do this from the perspective of being either an actual expert on the topic at hand or as an amateur, interested enough to do a bit of Googling.

To some extent, sources can be checked, facts can be verified, quotes can be tracked down and contextualised. For example, as happened recently: The Guardian published a report that said Paul Wolfowitz, the U.S. deputy secretary of defence, had claimed that the war in Iraq really was all about oil. Bloggers by the bucketload logged onto the United States Department of Defence website, checked the transcript of the interview Wolfowitz gave, and reported in pretty quick time that The Guardian had got it wrong. They had used a German translation of the interview that they'd then back-translated causing all the nuance to be lost in the process. Within half a day, many blogs had nailed the error and twenty-four hours later The Guardian had withdrawn the piece and apologised.

As I say, the lone blogger's resources are limited, but experience shows that they tend to make good use of those they have. Chief amongst these is the search engine Google which is to blogging what the Otis elevator was to skyscrapers: not just a way of getting around but the very thing that made the structure feasible in the first place. And there is something relentless that arises from a having several thousand interested persons poring over a given article checking every comma and quote, Googling its contents, that provides a kind of cumulative fact-checking facility that can sometimes be quite formidable. The blog collective, the ant-colony investigating effect, where a bunch of individuals working alone are able to loosely combine their findings in the blogosphere, linking and relinking to the original article, other sources and each other, can sometimes be overwhelming. I'd call it synergy if the word wasn't so trendy.

So that's the first thing to note: the second is that blogs are politically engaged, not artificially detached. Few bloggers try for "objectivity" in the traditional journalistic sense and most are happy to declare openly their political allegiance. This is both a strength and a weakness, as we will see, but ultimately it is the nature of the beast and nothing to get upset about. In fact, it goes to the heart of my understanding of bloggers as the new public intellectuals, and I will elaborate shortly.

So for the time being, that's the image you should hold in your head: a group of people sitting at their computers, scouring the news of the day, reading everything from The New York Times (online, of course) to other people's blogs, and writing their own responses and interpretations of whatever grabs their attention. It's somewhere between an online academic seminar and Friday night at the pub.

The lost art of argument

Blogging does not (and should not) try and emulate the sophistication of, say, an academic presentation or paper. It shouldn't even try and emulate the precision of a news report, though paradoxically, as I've said, one its best functions is to fact-check such news reports. The attraction and strength of blogging is that it is informal, first draftish, and more than a little breathless.

For the individual blogger, or even for the reader who decides to leave a comment, there is a real blowtorch-to-the-belly aspect to blogging in that, by engaging in political debate in such a public way, people often move beyond their own knowledge horizon, or come up against people who are simply better informed than they are, or who have thought about the topic more deeply. Under such circumstances bloggers can be forced to do their growing up on a subject in public, which can be a difficult thing. But it is also good thing, and it gets us back to the idea, espoused most fully by conservative thinker Christopher Lasch, that argument precedes understanding and is central to democratic opinion formation.

Lasch says that democracy requires argument and that public argument involving ordinary citizens has been usurped by an elite, a group of insiders who either because of political connections, expertise or other institutional reasons have easier access to the media and are therefore able to dominate public discourse. Such debate then tends to happen within pre-defined parameters that reflect the education, specialisation and norms of that elite. Thus, not only do they dominate public argument by virtue of their elite access and knowledge, they also tend to define the topics, terms and presentation of such debate and are liable to judge any lay contribution as illegitimate.

The net affect is not only anti-democratic, in that democracy relies on public argument between all sectors of society, not just its elites, but the very idea of debate-as-learning gets turned on its head. Instead of seeing arguments as a source of knowledge, they become seen as a sign of lack of knowledge. This criticism is misplaced because as Lasch says, "our search for reliable information is itself guided by the questions that arise during arguments about a given course of action. It is only by subjecting our preferences and projects to the test of debate that we come to understand what we know and what we still need to learn. Until we have to defend our opinions in public, they remain opinions in Lippmann's pejorative sense - half-formed convictions based on random impressions and unexamined assumptions. It is the act of articulating and defending our views that lifts them out of the category of 'opinions,' gives them shape and definition, and makes it possible for others to recognize them as a description of their own experience as well. In short, we come to know our own minds only by explaining ourselves to others."

Lasch's ideal was that arguments aren't won by shouting down your opponent but by changing their minds. Now, I'm not going to pretend that blogging comes anywhere near this ideal, and in fact, there is probably more shouting than mind-changing by a factor of about ten-to-one. However, the point is that blogging does provide a way of realising that other aspect of his ideal, namely of creating an environment where ordinary people can use argument to increase their knowledge on a topic. Believe me, if you put up a post about something based more on your prejudices than the facts, and that post gets blasted by another blogger who manages to show up your prejudice and lack of knowledge, then I'll wager you'll make some considerable effort to find out a few more details about the topic before you write about it again.

I don't mean to imply that everything written on a blog should be a well-reasoned, thoroughly researched think piece. It isn't, thank heavens.

This is not to say that there isn't room for longer, more reflective pieces that do approximate academic standards, only to say that the day-to-day blogging that most political bloggers produce has a hot-off-the-presses feel to it. This can sometimes leave the blogger stranded, having climbed a ladder only to see it slip out from under him or her. In such circumstances, it takes a certain maturity by both the blogger and his or her readers (who are often other bloggers) to, in the case of the former, admit that an error was made and, in the case of the latter, cut the blogger some slack.

In other words, there is an absolute need - itself a positive off-spin of public debate - to offer bloggers a reasonably generous reading, to allow for the speculative nature of what they do and to give them a chance to redeem their error. If there was one overriding criticism I have of blogging it is that bloggers themselves too often try to play "gotcha" and will pounce, via a counter post, on any perceived weakness in another blogger's argument. Now, sometimes this is reasonable, sometimes it's even fun, especially if your target dresses on the other side to you politically speaking, but too often it is not, and in my estimation, nothing will kill blogging quicker than people feeling that they are going to get creamed every time they make a mistake, or express an unpopular opinion.

Regardless of such pros and cons, at this stage you are probably getting some idea of what I mean by suggesting that bloggers are the new public intellectuals, a new source of democratic debate. To clarify what I've been hinting at, I need first to explain that key term, public intellectual.

Redefining 'public intellectual'

The term probably traces to Russell Jacoby's 1989 book, The Last Intellectuals, but it has outgrown its origins. In Australia it has more or less replaced the bare term "intellectual" as a description of the sort of prominent individual engaged in social criticism. And although some, like Robert Manne, have suggested that the term is a tautology (intellectuals are by definition public), there is perhaps reason to suggest that it has come to mean something different from, and more specific than, that more traditional term.

In contemporary usage, the public intellectual is generally some sort of specialist, most likely an academic, who finds a way of engaging in public, as opposed to specialist or academic debate. Jacoby says that when writing The Last Intellectuals he "put the stress on public intellectuals, because obviously a kind of professional and technical intelligentsia prospered in America, but as far as I could see the public intellectuals were becoming somewhat invisible." So it is the intellectuals' "publicness", that is, their intervention into the public sphere, that defines the category.

Some care needs to be taken not to conflate the term intellectual with expert, but the fact is, in the contemporary world, the two roles are often closely aligned. Thus, for example, an ethicist takes to the pages of a daily newspaper to explain the government's latest stem cell legislation, and the expert has become the intellectual by becoming public (and hopefully by using a more accessible language than he/she would use with an audience of ethicists), and so has become a public intellectual. From this you can see why people add the adjective public to the bare term intellectual, but you can also see why it might be considered a tautology.

Jacoby and others who discuss the topic tend to insist that public intellectuals, as a group, are in decline. That is, there are less of them and, as is made even more overt in Richard Posner's book, Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline, the quality of their work is getting worse. Such claims of decline rely on a particular understanding of who and what we mean by public intellectual. The entrenched understanding, I'd argue, needs to be challenged, especially at the normative level, and replaced with a more democratic, less elitist model, one that specifically ties the title to participation and citizenship.

The basic of idea of the public intellectual is of someone with superior knowledge coming into the public sphere and speaking slowly, and perhaps interestingly - essentially, dumbing down what they say - so that the rest of us will pay attention and learn. This understanding of "the" intellectual or the "public intellectual" therefore constructs "the public" as a passive recipient of the intellectual's opinions rather than as participants in the democratic dialogue that most understandings of citizenship theoretically require.

So for instance, Melbourne academic Judith Brett notes in her influential Meanjin essay on the topic that "[b]ooks, pamphlets, essays and articles are the most important means of communication between intellectuals and their public" and that therefore a "public intellectual must write well." She argues that most do not, and traces the reasons for this to the bureaucratization of working life and knowledge, and to an overly positivistic model of truth underpinning most intellectual approaches to knowledge. She suggests that the "preconditions for good discursive writing are relatively simple: a fully imagined audience, a sense of urgency, something interesting to say." While most academics, she argues, "start out with important and interesting things to say" the lack of the first two attributes eventually "corrodes the importance of what they have to say."

She explains well the nature of the structural divide between the intellectual (academic) and the citizen which arises as the result of the academic being forced to use a bureaucratized form of writing aimed at securing promotion and position within a professional hierarchy which is additionally "underpinned by the hegemony of empiricist and positivist models of truth as the goal of academic enquiry":

University academics do not write to persuade but to impress and gain approval within a hierarchy. They are trained to write for approval. From their student essays to their PhD theses, they are writing work to be submitted for examination. And, even when they have received their PhDs, they must submit work to refereed journals in order to accumulate the publications necessary for appointment and then accumulate the publications necessary for promotion and so on. At every point their writing is subject to external criteria - approved topics, accepted methods of research and styles of writing, the norms and conventions of the discipline (Brett, J., 1991, pp. 520-21).

This is all accurate but the focus is too narrow. It is simply inadequate to suggest that the solution for this is merely a "fully imagined audience", the adoption of which will cause the intellectual to write in a more accessible way. Certainly if the intellectual sets out to write for a lay audience rather than a professional one, and is openly seeking understanding rather than promotion and other bureaucratic goals, he/she is more likely to produce knowledge in a form accessible to the ordinary citizen. But what I would question is whether this should be the ultimate goal of the public intellectual. If the aim is to connect more fully with citizens in general, then this must include ways of allowing the citizens to interact and contribute to the creation of the social knowledge Brett speaks of - that is, to form opinions and an understanding of key social and political questions themselves - and not just to be constructed as passive recipients of the knowledge of intellectuals who have imagined themselves as "public" and whose goal is only to "persuade".

The potentially interesting thing about blogging is that it solves all these legitimate and actually existing problems that Brett delineates, but it also takes the category of public intellectual one step further and provides a forum, a space, where the ordinary citizen is no longer passive but can be a participant in the argument.

One of the most attractive aspects of the blogosphere is that both lay people and academics/experts blog and they are able to interact in ways hitherto impossible. It is a worldwide phenomenon, but in Australia we can point to people like legal academic Ken Parish, economists Jason Soon and John Quiggin, political scientist Rob Schaap, all experts in their various fields, all taking advantage of blogs to engage in more open debate, but additionally, all of whom are subject to attack at various times from "ordinary Australians" who disagree with them or who demand a clearer account of what they say and who may also respond by taking these public intellectuals to task on their own blogs.

In such circumstances, to refer only to the academics and experts as public intellectuals is obviously inadequate and nothing more than a vanity term insiders lay upon their own shoulders. It is clear in reading the interactions that occur between lay and expert bloggers that both types are engaging in public intellectual practice and that the term public intellectual (or even the solo term intellectual) needs to make room for the lay citizen as well as the institutionally recognised expert.

In fact, that is the key to normatively re-imagining the term: rather than concentrate on the hero figure of the individual public intellectual, "the" intellectual, we focus instead on the idea of an intellectual practice, the practice of engaging in public debates about matters of social and political importance that is theoretically open to anyone. By doing this, we move beyond constructing the citizen as a passive recipient of vetted knowledge and recognise them as creators of such knowledge in their own right.

Blogging goes some way to putting this theory into practice.

Treating truth decay

There's another factor at work here too, again picking up from Brett's comments, namely the idea of objectivity, the commitment to big-T Truth in what has traditionally been seen as the role of the intellectual. This idea is most succinctly expressed in Edward Said's maxim that the role of the intellectual is to "speak truth to power", but its provenance goes back at least to Dreyfusards and in fact, as far back as Plato. Even in this postmodern age, this idea - that intellectuals are dedicated individuals searching for Truth - haunts the literature.

The search for such epistemological certainty was expressly abandoned by various intellectuals beginning in the sixties and most conspicuously by French scholars such as Michel Foucault. Such people became less interested in the "why" of an action and more concerned with the "how", with the operations of power, and from this built up a notion of intellectual intervention that, they claimed (unconvincingly in my book) did not require the underpinning of any Kantian certainty. In short, Truth was sent packing and replaced with, at various levels of sophistication, the relativist idea of multiple "truths".

Now, the pros and cons of this at both a philosophical and a political level have raged amongst believers and heretics alike ever since, and I will largely ignore that debate. Personally, I think such relativism does harm to politics, particularly progressive politics, but the main point I want to make here is that blogging resurrects the idea of capital-T Truth, calling the bluff of postmodernists and reinstating it at the heart of public discussion. But it does this in a way that say Mannheim or even Kant would not recognise. Blogging reinstates a Kantian notion of truth, but it does so by grounding it in partisanship, not relegating it to the ostensible objective sidelines.

For this was the other thing at the heart of traditional understandings of "the" intellectual, that such a person not only pursued Truth, but was detached from the hurly-burly of day-to-day politics, and sought, as Julien Benda put it, "an unworldly rejection of all national particularism or social partisanship in the name of the disinterested service of humanity as a whole." This was always a bogus standard, as Humphrey McQueen points out in regard to Benda himself. According to McQueen, Benda

...wanted intellectuals to return to a metaphysical detachment from politics, although his vision of justice required support for France in the war against Germany. He attacked the pollution of thought by the passions of nationalism, race and class, but was so out of date that he had not a word to say about how science, industry and corporations were transforming the transmission of ideas. None of the corporate liberals who parrot Benda's title could adopt his metaphysical demands in their thought or actions

Nonetheless, the idea of disinterested detachment has nearly always held sway as the essence of "correct" intellectual practice.

Manheim's influential notion of the intellectual as detached, transcendent commentator, repackaged and made influential again via Said's 1993 Reith Lectures, is the very thing that blogging challenges and, in my opinion, to excellent and necessary effect. Any normative understanding of intellectual practice as being done by an elite wedded to positivist, objective knowledge - as important as that knowledge is - cannot survive the rigours of modern, populist democracy. And I use populist in the deep sense of citizen self-rule and participation.

Let me illustrate the mismatch I am talking about with an extract from Eva Cox's Boyer Lectures. When she says, "Civil societies are also civic societies, that is, we as citizens must take responsibility for changing what we do not like" she is invoking a notion of citizenship that subsumes the category of intellectual: as a Boyer lecturer she is speaking as an intellectual but identifying as a citizen. The "goods" she notes that are necessary for citizens in "changing what we do not like" are social and collective values (concepts she returns to often), notions like trust, reciprocity and mutuality. She declares that her approach will "trace the often forgotten but powerful forces that connect us as social beings" and that she is responding to what she sees as the fact that the "social aspects of humanity have somehow disappeared and we are left with a more atomised image of individuals competing in an endless process of distrust."

And yet, when she discusses herself as an intellectual, the emphasis changes. She in fact privileges the "atomised image" of the individual intellectual. Arguing that "too many critics are co-opted" she states that in "Hannah Arendt's terms I am a pariah who chooses to stay on the outside because only from the margins can you see the whole field. This is not just a feminist position but one shared by others who, by choice or circumstances, become the outside commentator, the one who sees the unclad emperors" (emphasis added). In such accounts the intellectual is identified as necessarily separate and apart: and it leads to the contradictory call for the same being to be "detached" when operating as an intellectual but "involved" when acting as a citizen, which becomes doubly confused when the citizen and intellectual are called upon to perform similar public functions: that is, to be actively participating citizens. It is the "atomised" individual not the "social beings" of citizenship that are invoked as the intellectual ideal.

If you build it they will come

It's this sort of detachment I'm rejecting (and argue that blogging rejects) and replacing it with an understanding that sees the intellectual as involved, not detached; committed not neutral; and where transparency of interest is more important than independence and objectivity.

The inclination of those still attached to the romantic notion of the "hero" intellectual, the uberbrain come to tell an uninformed public how to understand the issue du jour, is to see any democratisation of intellectual practice as a decline in standards.

So, in essence, most accounts of intellectuals over-emphasise the role of certain charismatic individuals in defining the requirements of intellectual practice. By de-emphasising the role of these charismatic individuals who participate in the production, distribution and interpretation of ideas or knowledge, and who might through the public sphere or civil society perform a broader, public "intellectual function", we are able to focus, as I've already suggested, on the idea of an "intellectual practice", an involvement with knowledge - social knowledge - that is available to everyone.

John Dryzek, an Australian political scientist, once wrote that "one might argue that political education, participatory action, and successful social problem solving could together help constitute a community fully capable of steering its own course into the future. The distinction between citizen and expert would lose its force."

What I am saying is that there is a strong overlap between the idea of a "public intellectual" and an active citizen, and if we stop concentrating on "the" intellectuals and think instead about intellectual practice, then the distinction between the two melts away, loses its force - or at least somewhat.

I'm not saying that this means "we are all intellectuals" in some Monty Python sense. But I am saying that the distinction between "the" intellectuals and the citizens is often overstated and tends to be anti-democratic, assigning the vast mass to the passive role of spectator in most societal debates.

And here's where blogging comes in. Blogging changes all that to an extent that wasn't imaginable even a year ago. By giving an increasingly legitimate forum to anyone who can hold the attention of an audience, blogging has provided at least one of the technical means of dissolving the division between intellectual and citizen.

So rather than being in decline, as it is fashionable to suggest, the category of "public intellectual" in this sense is exploding.

What wannabe citizen intellectuals have always lacked is a proper forum in which to express their ideas as the usual outlets of the media and commercially published and distributed books were not available to them. Blogging, with its cheap online publishing facility and its networking capabilities, where one blogger links to another and to another and builds up what is usually called the "blogosphere", has to some extent solved this problem of access and audience. Sure, the scale is small, but so were the audiences for the "small magazines" of the past that were seedbeds for a whole range of influential intellectuals and commentators. And as small-scale as blogging is, it is so infinitely greater than what has ever been available before, that it is worthy of the title phenomena, worth taking seriously and worth investing some hope in.

So is blogging really the new public intellectual rock 'n' roll or am I just exaggerating?

Well, to some extent I am. The blogosphere can be vitriolic, petty, unfair and mean. But I really don't want to say that as if it was altogether a bad thing. Democracy needs a bit of amateur rough-and-tumble to get its juices flowing, and in an age where politicians increasingly hide behind media experts and image consultants, where media people themselves have been co-opted by business and political machines and by a star system, where key journalists are spoon-fed press releases and background material by faceless partisans, where almost the ultimate affront is for a journalist to ask a probing question, and, worst of all, where so much decision-making takes place behind closed doors, something had to give.

Just as punk rock shook a fist at the pretentious, bloated "progressive" thing that rock music had become, and found a way for anybody with the guts, the inclination and something to say to pick up a guitar and command an audience, so blogging has risen up to challenge the soundbitten, amnesiac, pale little thing that PR-spun democratic politics has become.

Now, we all know that punk rock produced its fair share of charlatans and pretenders, elevated no-talents to undeserved heights and was itself co-opted by the very forces of commercialism it originally rejected. But we also know that it provided a welcome injection of enthusiasm and democratic participation to an industry that was growing moribund, and it produced some stuff of lasting quality.

There's no reason to think blogging will not suffer from the same failings. But nor is there reason to think it will not achieve some of the same gains.

If you don't believe me, find a blog (here, use mine) and follow the links to other bloggers and other voices and join in the conversation via the comments box and stick with it for a week, get used to its contours and its form, and I'll wager that you too will conclude that there really is something in it.


Tim Dunlop, an Australian currently living in Washington D.C., has been running the The Road to Surfdom, a political weblog, for over a year. His PhD, completed in 2001, dealt with deliberative democracy and the role of intellectuals within such a structure. Blogging wasn't really invented when he began his thesis, which is just as well, as he might never have finished.


See also:

Suggested citation
Dunlop, Tim, 'If you build it they will come', Evatt Journal, Vol. 3, No. 4, June 2003.<http://evatt.org.au/papers/if-you-build-it-they-will-come.html>