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New geographies of power are defined by sex scandals, plant closings, cyberporn, sweatshop labor, information webs, and stock market schizophrenia. Global capitalism and its cyberrelations use this chaos to construct modern forms of sexual and racial exploitation.
Into this world steps Zillah Eisenstein, with a book of profound despair and yet also great hope, informed by her trademark sharp analysis and her unrelenting passion for a more humane world. Exposing the purported democratic effect of new media for the global mirage it is, Eisenstein shows how transnational capital and its patriarchal obsessions threaten us all, while at the same time creating possibilities for a new democratic society.
Virtual Globes and Cyberpublics
I want to talk about creating democracy—for people, especially women and girls—across the globe. In this democracy, no one would be left hungry or without a job. No one could be forced to birth a child. No one would remain illiterate. No one would have to breathe contaminated air. It would be a democracy that recognized the unique individual differences of each person while allowing that person the access needed to develop her or his potential for a creative and sustainable life.
This means I must reclaim the public realm—as an imagined IDEA that presumes the interconnectedness of people and their responsibility for each other. This is a hard sell, particularly since the fall of communist statism and the destruction of the social welfare states of the west. But my notion of `public' is not one and the same with activist government, or corporate interests, or civil society.
Rather, my `public' is socially constructed—part real, part imagined—and requires a politics beyond selfish individualism, governmental privatization, and state corruption. It creatively invokes an imagined space defined by individuals' freedom alongside their social responsibility. It is where the varied demands for equality are negotiated. It is where the relational aspects of individual needs are uncovered. The IDEA of `public' allows that individual needs are met socially and collectively, and collective needsare identified individually.
My notion of `public' then is both a process—of thinking through and beyond the self—AND a place where this happens. It is both verb AND noun, an attitude AND a location, an imagined space AND also real.
Have I lost you before I have begun? Some of you will not agree with my notion of publicness. Some, though sympathetic, will say I am living in a fantasy land, that I might as well move to Oz and click my red ruby slippers. But who's to say? I have a thirteen-year-old daughter and I want her to live in a different world. I am tired of the reigning political chatter: that government must do less, people must do more for themselves, that the united states is thriving economically and presents the only viable alternative for third- and fourth-world countries of the south to emulate. Instead, new publics and new ways of governing must be imagined and created.
There is no easy way to enter my discussion. I therefore ask you to travel with me on a somewhat bumpy and seemingly disconnected journey.
Marshall McLuhan notwithstanding, the globe is not a village. While some sign on to the internet to chat, others still haul water and firewood daily. Some are unknowingly infected with AIDS while others can afford state-of-the-art medications to combat it.
Governments scale down and privatize more and more services and create new communities in need. Meanwhile, the very notion of taking responsibility or caring for `the' public health, or public education, or public housing loses credibility in the minds of the very officials who were once supposed to articulate such a commitment.
The process of NOT seeing and hoping has become essential in the creation of a privatized globe. And yet, media's telecommunications networks and cyberspaces connect and create other imaginings and fantasies that both initiate democratic visions and completely undermine them.
So, who is looking at what? And how is the `reel' seen? What is real in this new mix of media-ted experiences? How does one construct this nonmaterialist materialism to understand imaginaries, fantasy, and virtuality—simulations of `the' real? I here examine the realm of virtuality, the screen, the re-presentation of the globe through Disney's eyes, in order to return eventually—and differently—to the REAL of hauling water. The real is pluralized today through digital and cyber-mediated appearances. And the realm of appearance seems real and becomes real while genuine systems of power are submerged from view.
Searching for Democracy in New Publics
The tension between privacy and publicness has long structured the bourgeois notion of democratic living. This structure is not without its problems. It has been a foundation of the racist/masculinist privileging of citizenship. The increased privatization of western societies and the de-publicizing of government responsibility has reconfigured the dynamic of racial/patriarchal privilege. Patriarchal societies look different as more women of color work in public spaces, although the risks these women face often remain the same. The selfishness of privatization reframes the privileging of white men for the twenty-first century. Meanwhile, it is hard to sort fact from fiction, real from virtual, hyperreal from everyday life.
"Think globally, act locally," the saying goes. But it is too difficult to do either as public space declines and is taken over by `the' private. Giddy endorsements of Barnes and Noble and Niketown as townsquares aside, the public has declined as a space/idea where people meet, share with others, and come to care about each other. Think of the dismal state of the public schools in most big cities today. Simultaneously, governments in advanced capitalist nations have shifted their rhetoric from encouraging a responsibility for public life to trumpeting the private sector of volunteerism.
Privatized individualism and volunteerism mask a dependency on patriarchal and racialized forms of familialism. And this mask covers the labor of women of all colors, as well as multiple realities of networked support that are already stretched as far as they can go. As government programs are downsized or relegated to the privatized economy, the needs that they no longer meet are relocated to a fantasized family life that certainly does not exist now and probably never did.
As advanced capitalism—or global capital in its racialized and sexualized guises—proceeds to destroy public arenas of support for democracy, power is quietly siphoned out of the once social service/public spaces of nation-states. This hollowed-out AND revamped government apparatus is positioned impotently against global capital. AS the global economy and its media/medium of the culture industry become more and more autonomous from national governments it may matter less and less who occupies these traditional seats of power, now increasingly virtual. The u.s. government is not `really' powerful in its relationship to transnational media/corporate interests although it retains a crushing power over the poor. Though never autonomous from capital, nation-states have never been as dependent on it as they are at present.
Maybe this is in part why mainstream politics appears so vacuous and emptied of consequence. Bob Dole seemed out of touch and beside the point in the 1996 presidential election. Bill Clinton seems like such a waffler, as he says so much but delivers so little. The women elected to public office today may be too late to do any good. David Dinkins wondered the same thing about his mayoral election in New York City.
The `real' of power is open to negotiation. As consumer culture facilitates profit-making alongside a symbolic discourse of decadent individual freedom, the media of these messages weave a symbolic order that is not simply true or false, virtual or real. Murphy Brown, a t.v. character, was criticized by former vice-president Dan Quayle as though she were a `real' single mother; O. J. Simpson became something other than the defendant in a murder trial; the Gulf War was won, and `not' really won; Princess Diana in death became a great humanitarian who challenged the british monarchy.
In this process of depicting, representing, and symbolizing the `real' the multimedia of knowing—t.v., internet, print media—have become more and more insidious as they construct new locations that disperse power. Media such as t.v. talk shows, news programs, tabloids, and cyberspace chat rooms undermine the divide between public and private discourse. If privacy is public-ized, publicness is privatized and neither remains as it was—both are lost. If everything is known, there is nothing left to know.
So we know our president's secrets: he has had multiple affairs, an abusive and alcoholic father, little discipline, and so on. We know this, but we really know nothing at all. They are no longer secrets, but they are not `real' information that matters, either. It is also information I need to forget as I pretend that he is a president with power to affect things. But I do remember enough of these secrets to know that little is what it seems. Then, I am expected to pretend anyway.
Politics, although always in part theater, raises this process of symbolizing the `real' to new heights. The Republican Revolution of 1994 clearly was not what it seemed. At first it SEEMED that the voting public was asking for sweeping change and an end to government as we have known it. But by 1996 Newt Gingrich was in disfavor. He just SEEMED too brutish and mean. But who knows how long this ever lasts, or if it does not, why it does not. Who `really' believes this matters?
However, it does really matter to some. It matters particularly for those who have lost their safety net, or who cannot get a green card. But political routes have shifted toward transnational capital and its telecommunications networks. C. W. Mills might say that the military-industrial-cultural complex locates `real' power at multiple and interconnected sites. The sites shift as the global telecommunications complex becomes more sophisticated and concentrated. I call this concentrated core of dispersed power a cyber-media complex of corporatist capital. And this complex operates to renegotiate the global systems of patriarchal and racialized hierarchy.
It is hard to see the sites of power as they shift and fluctuate today. The military has been shrinking since 1989, yet it remains a major source of u.s. global power. Deindustrialization is transforming first-world economies. And consumer culture media-ted through tele/cyber communications dominates everything else. The sites of power are singular and plural. If the cultural logic of capitalism is "to produce a uniform culture of pure consumption." then the locations of power, though more dispersed inside and outside the nation, are also more concentrated in the transnational cyber-media corporate complex.
Seeing is key. And we see through media-ted forms that can make knowing almost impossible. Imaginaries—of the globe and cyberspace—attempt to displace and reconfigure the excessive greed and wealth of transnational capital. We need a revamped materialism that will allow us to see the virtual realities of the globe. I want a class-conscious, race-conscious, feminist critique of the `virtual' realm of cyberspace and media-ted telecommunications. Then, maybe we can reconfigure a viewing of a public with `real' possibilities for democracy.
On Virtual Marxism
The extremes of wealth and poverty within the united states also mirror the extremes across the globe. The wealthiest 20 percent of u.s. citizens received 99 percent of the total gain in marketable wealth between 1983 and 1989. More than 38 million people live in poverty in the united states, of whom more than 40 percent are under eighteen years of age. In his last major address as labor secretary, Robert Reich made it clear that the broadly shared prosperity of the post-World War II era is gone. Meanwhile, the joblessness and poverty among Black americans becomes more entrenched as "work disappears."
Economic inequality blooms alongside cyber freedom. Technological empowerment has no trickle-down effect for the poor. Although Bill Clinton and Al Gore talk about hooking up every child to the internet, it is ludicrous to speak of access to the information highway in a country, and a world, defined by economic and societal inequality. But government is not on the side of the poor. The u.s. government recently handed over almost $100 billion worth of free space on the airwaves to enhance u.s. corporate telecommunications power globally.
Advanced capitalism must be confronted by a critique that locates excessive profits as a key problem for first-world-north and third-world-south countries alike. The new extremes of opulent wealth and horrific poverty found in any city across the globe are supported by a transnational sexual division of labor that increasingly demands extraordinary amounts of labor from women. As nations across the globe are privatized and the public-regarding spirit of governmental responsibility recedes, the new burdens of this individualism fall especially upon women and girls.
But if this is `the' real, it is not what we see through the mediated discourses of racialized patriarchy via global capital. Instead, the visual images that are mediated for us through CNN, MTV, the internet, and so on displace and remove the relations of power and naturalize what we see, making it appear ordinary and inevitable.
Jean Baudrillard believes that the virtual—as the symbolic rather than the actual—becomes a substitute for depiction. Information "obliterates the original reference" to capital, technology, and power. Technologies and their forms of communication define the parameters of everyday life today with a relative "autonomization" from transnational corporate power.
Commodities become social signifiers. There is no longer a real economy and an unreal advertising world, but rather a "hyperreality, a world of self-referential signs." In hyperreality, a reality without origin, the signifier becomes its own referent. The real is unreal, the unreal real. Advertising and consumption are ruled by the value of the sign, which has a self-referring hyperreality.
Simulacra, copies that no longer have originals, become the real. "A world of surface" dominates. These self-referential signs, these simulations, are not fictions that seek to replace the real. Rather, they are a process of "absorbing the real within itself." Truth is not concealed here because there is no longer any origin. It is the generation of a real without reality. Simulation then "threatens the difference between `true' and `false,' between `real' and `imaginary.'"
The threat is profound, and sometimes Baudrillard collapses it into complete victory. He says: "It is reality itself today that is hyperrealist." Digital simulation absorbs the world and wins out over reality. Reality is reduced into hyperrealism. Information does not matter here because the simulation goes forward. Our politicians are crooks, but lots of people still vote for them. The justice system is racist, but it keeps performing its duties anyhow. Welfare mothers are predominantly white, but people see them as black. Baudrillard would no doubt call this the "hallucination of truth."
The "work-real, the production-real, has disappeared" with the industrial age. In this age of the sign, simulation reigns. It is hard to know whether one sees signs as pointing to reality, trying to hide reality, or hiding the absence of the real.
The illusion of reality substitutes for reality. Virtual arenas of electronic cyberspace accentuate this substitution. Simulation and real blur information. The virtual, deployed abstractly, has overtaken the actual. The signifieds and signifiers of politics become what politics is. Moments of origin are emptied of their meaning. Of course, illusion masquerading as truth is hardly a new phenomenon. However, these processes are accentuated by the new possibilities of cyber-media technologies.
For Baudrillard, the codes we listen to no longer refer back to any subjective or objective `reality.' The signifier becomes its own referent, and the "sign no longer designates anything at all." Signs simply refer back to other signs. Paul Patton calls this hyperrealist logic: the distinction between virtual and actual no longer holds while the virtual deters the real.
Signs come to have a life of their own. One can see `Blackness' where it does not exist—for instance, a Puerto Rican seeming or acting `Black.' One can see gender where only sex exists—a female acting or seeming like a man. But the `reality' of racism and sexism is what allows these signs their meaning, which is already in place. It is not ALL simulacra. Power and oppression are not simply signs with no origin.
Baudrillard is consumed by the reality of illusions and phantasms. For him, Disneyland presents an imaginary in order to make everything else seem real. The issue is no longer the false representation of reality but "of concealing the fact that the real is no longer real, and thus of saving the reality principle." The Disneyland imaginary becomes a "deterrence machine" that "rejuvenate[s] in reverse the fiction of the real."
Maybe this is why theme parks are so popular today. Surrogate experience and synthetic settings stand in for `real' life. What we get is a "real fake" like the hotel/casino New York, New York, in Las Vegas. One can pretend to be in New York without experiencing all the problems of the subways. Defects and problems are removed. New York becomes user-friendly. Virtuality has no predefined limits. Cyberspace, as one location of the virtual, makes the "artificial as realistic as, and even more realistic than, the real."
The virtual is real and the real is also virtual. Each is, in part, a construction of the other. Signs signify and they also float freely. Virtual worlds do not exist merely in technology, nor purely in the mind of the user, but "between internal mental constructs and technologically generated representations of these constructs." There is an illusion of reality because individuals treat "imaginings as if they were real."
It is significant that in so many arenas of life we are asked to dichotomize, to choose between the real and the ideal. The fluidity between these realms is thus denied. When Marx critiques Hegel for his nonmaterialism, we are left with Marx's overly materialist definition of ideology. When Baudrillard critiques Marx for overstating the materialist analysis of production, which is devoid of "language, signs and communication in general," he excessively privileges the "whole murky field of signification and communication."
Yet, I agree with Baudrillard that the very "production of meaning, messages and signs poses a crucial problem to revolutionary theory," and that in some sense Marxist theory is not helpful here. It cannot sufficiently explain the process by which the hyperreal operates as its own logic. The process of production is often separated from its sign. Therefore, it is not enough to say that the mass media are a mere tool of ideological manipulation, but neither are they simply conveying messages. There is a relatively autonomous logic to the signification of capital, which is not wholly grasped by a mirror image of production. For Baudrillard, `the' commodity is just one form of signification, and these other signs have no referent. "Capitalism detaches the signifier from the signified, making the signifier its own signified."
For example, in the past money represented some material and useful thing. It was merely a token to facilitate complex barter. Then money became detached from the thing and an object of desire in itself. The signifier is detached from the signified. Now things are even more detached—the signifier of the commodity becomes the valued thing, and a pair of NIKE shoes is worth more than the kid wearing them.
The Gulf War was both signifier and sign. But for Baudrillard "the mode of signification" is one and the same with the "monopoly of the code." The sign becomes its own "super-ideology," sort of like the hyperreal. All becomes fiction, and there is no real.
This is not quite right in my mind because the Gulf War did `happen.' And Nicole Brown was murdered. And Princess Di is more fantasy than she is of `of the people.' And right-wing militants do blow up buildings. Yet, Baudrillard is right when he says that the war was a sham, that we did not view `the' war, that there was a captive t.v. audience, and that what they saw onscreen was fabricated. But, there was also the `fact' that over 200,000 people died in this fabricated war.
The war was both illusory and horrifically real. The tricky part of the virtual/real, hyper/simple, and t.v./everyday life dichotomies is that they partially collapse into each other. Each/both are powerfully symbolic. Each played a part in constructing the O. J. Simpson `official' story. Each played a part in constructing Princess Di as a `real person's princess: a bourgeois, media-savvy aristocrat. In the end it is almost impossible to tease apart fact from fiction because they are simply neither: they are instead two kinds of reality.
Baudrillard comes close to explaining the art of the spectacle today, but he also overstates it. Whether it is bosnia, or rwanda, or Rodney King, or welfare mothers, or `the' government, each is a sign and also real.
Baudrillard tells us that the simulators of war have won and that when there is a `real' war no one will be able to tell the difference. I doubt iraqi women would concur. They can tell the difference between real and unreal by the black air they breathe and the blackened corpses that once were their loved ones.
Yet, Baudrillard is right when he describes the Gulf War as a post-cold-war strategy of "monopolistic deterrence." The part of the war that was electronic/hyperreal did neutralize and consensualize the war, domestically, for a short piece of time. In large part this was orchestrated by the pentagon via CNN. Television news did not just distribute information, it constituted the information—and it did so dangerously, by fabricating non-communication as dialogue. T.V. screens isolated the war by presenting it, according to Baudrillard, "as speech without response."
Media-ted information privileges passive reception rather than active reciprocity. Call-in talk shows mimic dialogue more than they encourage liberatory exchange. The new technologies of communication—e-mail, faxes, teleconferencing—hold out autonomized spheres of democratic possibility, but these exist alongside and within established antidemocratic parameters. The democratic possibilities of virtual media interlace with the reality that people of color, white women, and girls across the globe have less access to a living wage, reproductive health care, computers, and phone lines.
When we speak of information highways, we need to remember that one out of three women worldwide is illiterate and spends a significant portion of her day performing essentials like collecting wood and drawing water. On the other hand, cyberspace requires a phone line, and only one in five people across the globe have them. In the united states, nearly one in five Black and Hispanic households do not have phone lines; among poor women heading households with small children, close to half do not.
One must make enormous leaps back and forth to connect the different extremes and realities that constitute the challenges of a liberatory democracy for tomorrow.
Privatization and Its New Shifting Publics
The concept of "public" shifts around and invariably has multiple meanings. The public arena has long been identified by feminists for its maleness and its masculinist authority. The public has also been subsumed as one and the same with government, or the economy. Other times it is viewed as anything that is not private, or tied to family life. For Jürgen Habermas the ideal public is the area of discussion and exchange. For Walter Lippmann it is the phantom notion of a shared consensus. Since the revolutions of 1989 western, news correspondents depict it as a suspect arena that tramples on individual freedoms. Neoliberals link the public realm with the inadequacies of government.
Yet, when Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992, many voted for him because they thought he would devise a notion of public health to meet the crises of private health care. In a 1995 New York Times/CBS News Poll almost two-thirds of those interviewed said they believed government should take care of those people who cannot take care of themselves. Clearly, many still want an active government that assists people and maintains the larger sense of community: clean air, safety controls on products, medical research, food stamps for those in need, and so on. In this view, government has a responsibility to maintain the structural requisites for the public good. This public sphere is where the needs of individuals merge with those of the collective whole: roads, education, drinking water, social discourse, interactivity, and so on.
Governments need to be revised and rebuilt to initiate and sustain networks that allow individuals to inhabit collective spaces. In this sense, a governing body must nurture a sense of collectivity and social responsibility that individuals share. This notion of public recognizes the webbed and intersectional connections between people. It pluralizes an individual's needs beyond the self to others. Someone else's hunger becomes my problem, and I improve myself as I address this need. This does not simply mean donating food for the poor, or working at a soup kitchen. Rather, it requires a demand to restructure the economy and its racial/gender hierarchy so that there are no poor.
My thinking about public life—the space where the IDEA of publicness is also lived and nurtured—is not positioned against private life, but neither does it conflate the two arenas. Public and private are not homogeneous categories to begin with. There are several publics, and there are multiple sites for private life. And there are sites where the two intersect: coffee shops, settlement houses, t.v. talk shows, beauty parlors, bars, day care centers.
We must move beyond a simple spatial or literal notion of public/private. Susan Williams asks us to think of the public not as a realm, but as an orientation. We need to contrast the IDEA of publicness, not with privacy, but with selfishness, irresponsibility, and nondemocracy. Publicness becomes a commitment to a collectivity that is never limited to the self, although it does not deny the parameters of individual autonomy.
My notion of public is not a cramped locale between the governmental and the private realm. Rather, it is the `intersecting relationships' that reconfigure these realms. Publicness assumes a set of responsibilities that recognize the shared and relational meaning of individual experience. This imagined public requires individual freedom alongside available means to actualize choices. One freely chooses AND one really gets what one needs. This arena is not without conflict and tension as differing needs are sorted out. But there is also recognition and celebration of real diversity.
I am reclaiming the IDEA of public and publicness for a radically progressive democracy. `Public' is imagined, meaning that one must conceptualize beyond the privatized neoliberal politics of the day. There is a big difference between the political imagination I am requesting and the media IMAGINARIES that support and sustain privatized culture. We must dare to imagine a publicness that challenges the excesses of global capital and its racialized and patriarchal structures.
My notion of publicness does not simply augur an activist government because there are too few skeletal remains of such government from which to build. Nor is it simply an imagined arena, just a space of shared interconnected community. It is parts of each: a nonpaternalist, nonauthoritarian, collective and individualist idea of shared access that directly challenges the cyber-media complex of global capital.
The crisis in our sense of publicness is exacerbated by the greed of global corporations. A majority of the world's population is excluded from the new modes of access, and there are signs that more and more people are becoming critical of this situation. In the united states, 44 percent of those interviewed in a 1995 New York Times poll about the downsizing of corporations blamed corporations, 44 percent blamed the government, and 60 percent blamed the economic system. But alternatives seem few and far between amid the triumph of capital. Socialism supposedly cared too much about the public and not enough about the individual. Yet, capitalism without a formidable nation-state to set limits is obsessively self-interested.
Philanthropist George Soros worries that excessive individualism can destroy democracy just like excessive statism, or fascism, or communism. As transnational corporations outgrow the `geographical' nation they become less interested in what happens to the countries they were once located within. Corporations can thus disregard the public good with less consequence to themselves.
The nation-state, though always partly dependent on class formations, becomes more so with the instantaneous transmission of information around the globe. These new forms of communication bypass old borders. Significant sites of globalization are then located in electronic spaces that escape all conventional jurisdiction, as well as borders. Saskia Sassen calls these spaces a realm of new "non-governance."
These same instantaneous transmissions also create a global gaze that can be used to demand that certain standards of democracy be met. For example, public debate has scrutinized Disney's use of offshore sweatshops and starvation wages for its young women/girl workers in haiti, indonesia, and china. Union organizers at the National Labor Coalition have been instrumental in demanding that Disney obey u.s. national standards when hiring workers overseas.
Habermas wonders whether a sense of public can be reconstituted given the present forms of capitalism and its cultural artifacts. The public sphere, he believes, has been dumped by late capitalism; public life eventually withers and is "refeudalized." Global capitalism's attack on nation-state capitalism, Benjamin Barber argues, heralds the demise of democracy. Michael Sandel fears that the onslaught of big capital and its assault on big government has eroded democracy. Small government does not have enough of a civic voice.
The bourgeois nation-state developed with the language and discourse of (liberal) democracy. This construct articulates the public/private divide, which embraces the conundrum of individual and collective existence. We are living through the transition from the bourgeois nation-state to an unknown governance structure of transnational global capital: a nation-state defined by global capital and its racialized, patriarchal, cybermedia-ted relations. This new construct demands a very much downsized and privatized version of social welfare government. It also premises a privatized version of citizenship that replaces public responsibility with individual initiative. Liberal democratic discourse is displaced by neoconservatism, also termed neoliberalism.
The first-world nation-state of the twenty-first century redefines public arenas AS private: less and less is done by governments for individuals, and more is done to ensure corporate competitiveness globally. Private lives even become the metaphor for politics itself. Bob Dole is reduced to his personal struggle with war wounds; Al Gore reduces himself to his sister's suffering from cancer and his son's brush with death; Bill Clinton becomes one and the same with his brother's fight against drug addiction. On the one hand, we are only individuals; on the other hand, we are the globe. The dismantling of the construct of public—the intersection of individuals in communities—is insidious and remarkably effective.
In the war between public and private worlds, privacy is winning for those who are able to claim it. The u.s. culture is becoming "starved for public experiences." Because people are a social species, the more they live without a sense of publicness, the more they seek to find it. Today, "stores entice us into their versions of a public realm." But Niketown and its high-tech ambiance provides a fantasy environment premised on the very selfishness that people desire to escape. Niketown becomes Disneyland and consumerism becomes the real.
For Barber citizenship itself premises a public sphere. Without a notion of public it is hard to imagine a democratic democracy because we are all just individual selves. The notion of `the' public has always functioned as part façade. But the very façade of sharedness also functions as a promissory for the real. The tension is between our similar and common human needs and their specific and diverse manifestations. Without the notion of the public—of interconnectivity—there is no commitment to weave human bonds.
The bourgeois nation-state was in part justified and authorized by the western/liberal-democratic version of publicness. This discourse, which is also a patriarchal and racialized discourse, has—often inadvertently—provided the tools for its own critique. The commonality of the public and the sharedness of citizenship allow those who are left behind to critique exclusionary and undemocratic notions of publicness and citizenship.
The racialized and engendered aspects of nation and its notion of public are exacerbated as the economic bourgeois nation-state is undermined by global capital and its cybermedia complex. Public/private domains are renegotiated in real and virtual space. The transnational sexual division of labor is highlighted against this backdrop even while it is not represented in the discourses of virtual reality. Girls, especially, are exploited in the global factory, with little recognition of the global facets of the patriarchal power of transnational capital.
As early as 1923 Walter Lippmann argued that there is really no such thing as `a' public—it is a construction of politics. Government as "the will of the people is a fiction," the public "is a mere phantom." The phantom public is neither public nor informed, but rather "a bewildered herd." As a result, Lippmann put no great stock in what can be done by "public opinion" or the "masses."
When the notion of public is positioned hostilely against difference and radical pluralism, it negates the possibility of a liberatory democracy. The problem of publicness also appears when the state governs corruptly rather than regulating and enhancing public space democratically. A liberatory publicness must engage in open dialogue with multiple and different interests while protecting as well as empowering individuals within this domain.
Postcommunist states can also be privatized in the hopes of creating "public participation." The process of privatization in this case is to create a "civic morality" where individual freedom will flourish. The goal of this participation is not merely to bring capitalist markets to eastern europe, but to use privatization to minimalize governmental authoritarianism.
This process may necessitate destroying and eliminating authoritarian governments while embracing the idea of publicness in new ways. A full democratization of public life means envisioning the needs of all people—especially girls and women across the color divide—while displacing the logic of consumer capital. This demands an assault against the racialized patriarchal discourses and practices of global capital and its privatized notion of the transnational state.
New ways of thinking and imagining are needed to reclaim the idea of publicness. How does one establish trust and concerns across time and space? According to Anthony Giddens, this will require a "transformation of intimacy." After all, the nuclear plant disaster at Chernobyl demonstrated just how small the globe is. Women from across the globe meeting in Beijing began to draw these new lines: of a public of women and girls across and through different cultures and values speaking against global poverty, sexual violence, and discrimination of all kinds. This new notion of citizenship does not use the borders of nation/family, public/private, or government/economy.
As long as we are able to creatively imagine a community at odds with capital's use of racialized patriarchy, the very idea of publicness can be used as a start to discipline transnational capital. This process of `imagining' requires an assault on mediated, antigovernment imaginaries. The rhetoric of privatization—that government can do no right—distorts the possibilities available for creating democratic publics by assuming that all government, not just bad government, is the problem.
Actually, government largesse has a significant history of success. Through research and development, the u.s. government has funded fossil fuels and the "renewables revolution" with positive effects in developing energy alternatives, environmental protection, and a growth economy. Present cuts in research and development have a double-edged effect, especially in areas such as biofuels, bioenergy crops, and electric cars. Many tools of government—including taxing, licensing, public works, and anti-trust laws—let individuals get what they want: parks to walk in, roads to drive on and so on. It was government investment that put a man on the moon, footed the G.I. bill, and built Boulder Dam.
The internet owes its life to government funding. U.S. corporate dominance in computers and software is due in large part to the pentagon's advanced research projects. Most of the computer technology used for the internet was developed by and for the military and now is being completely taken over by private corporations, as they reap the profits of public investment.
Today's continued privatization of the u.s. government means large cuts in social services and much smaller cuts in corporate welfare. The latter cuts are more indirect, but they nevertheless affect individuals by the air we breathe, the medicines that are not researched and developed, and so on. Similar cutbacks are part of most first-world politics today. Canadians took to the streets in October 1996 to demonstrate against the destruction of their governmentally subsidized safety net. Many regard this social safety net as quintessentially canadian, a defining component of their "caring society."
The privatization of and cutbacks in the welfare state continue to devastate. By 1992, less than 1 percent of the u.s. GNP was spent on human welfare. By 1996, 20.8 percent of all u.s. children were defined as poor. Yet, billions of dollars continue to subsidize corporate interests. Welfare caseloads shrink, homelessness escalates, and shelters overflow. Utter destitution is the order of the day in the streets of most large cities, while Wall Street bonus babies cruise the Hamptons in their shiny new muscle cars.
Ending welfare as the united states has known it also kills the idea that we share a public responsibility for one another. The extreme forms of this new poverty constitute the other side of the process of privatization begun a quarter century ago. A new selfishness denies welfare benefits to immigrants and public education to the children of illegal immigrants.
Nations point to the "limitations of the state" and the constraints of global capital to justify the abandonment of equality as a goal. This abandonment creates new loopholes to help the very rich become even richer. It lessens capital investment in physical infrastructure, while those who have the means access services on the net. Meanwhile, former chief of staff General Colin Powell, along with several former u.s. presidents, generate a campaign "to privatize compassion" through volunteerism in the corporate sector. Good luck to us all.
It feels like I have settled between a rock and a hard place. We need to imagine and then claim a public-regarding politics that stands against BOTH global capital and a simple reactivation of previous forms of the social-welfare state. AND this dialogue must move toward a notion of publicness that embraces the needs of all people and their global environments.
Girls/Women's Publicness and Democracy
It is hard to think one's way through to a place, or space, or `idea' of publicness that moves beyond the constraints of poverty, nationalist warfare, and postcommunist antigovernment rhetoric. But `new-old' technologies can begin to map possibilities for imagining beyond the images of the new political and economic frontier that are served up for us. Tragically, just as telecommunications could hook up the world, no commitment exists to create the equality of access that could make this happen. Instead, new technologies rewrite and expand new inequalities on top of those that already exist.
A commitment to the needs of `a' public is rooted in a notion of community that is derivative of both liberal and postcommunist democracy but moves beyond a simple mix of the two. Instead, the concept of individual privacy is specified by the needs of girls/women of color and white women and rewrites the community at large through this stance. The space that is created from these imaginings is built by the people in it. Publicness becomes a "social product" in this process of definition.
The process of thinking through to an idea of publicness that embraces individual privacy necessitates reimagining social responsibility. This reimagining must have as a cornerstone the full participation of women and girls of all colors in public dialogue. They must become part of the process that defines their needs. Abortion rights legislation would not be framed and decided upon by actors for whom the discussion is a mere abstraction. Instead, the different communities at risk would be at the heart of dialogue. Women and girls inside the global factory would set the stage for the discussion of a fair wage. Women of all colors would help set the priorities for breast cancer and AIDS research. Women across economic class divisions would initiate new progressive family legislation.
But does this leave us with selfish, interest-driven policy? No. Rather, it makes it possible for us to articulate policy for all the plural communities of the globe by specifying the plural realities—of race, sex, and class—that define any community. Also, if we contextualize the needs of individuals as part and parcel of a public orientation, then neither the individual nor the collective can be conceived without the other. The tension between diverse interests AND `a' public are continually renegotiated in favor of a public that is not reduced to corporate interest as defined by its racialized and gendered structures.
The privatization of publics usually hits women of all colors the hardest because it is within public arenas that demands for equality—sexual, racial, gender—are heard, if they are heard at all. Private arenas, defined either as the family or the market, have not done well in addressing issues of equality. Gains toward equality, when they appear, have often occurred as a result of governmental action. A Black middle class developed largely as a result of civil rights struggles effected in government hiring and educational opportunities. Domestic violence, long hidden within family walls, was exposed by the women's movement and its critique of abusive family life. Resulting governmental legislation assumes an activist public responsibility for individual women's safety.
While the u.s. government shrinks from its commitment to address issues of equality, the number of media through which we can view, witness, and experience inequity has exploded. This increased exposure has mixed results. Print media, t.v., and the internet expose the problems, but they also allow us to escape them. We watch, but often we do not really see. This process of viewing but not really seeing defines new challenges to the creation of a deliberative and liberatory public life.
If cyber-media-corporate power continues to grow and national/governmental authority to shrink, the context for thinking about public life shrinks alongside it. To whom do we direct our concerns? Who organizes dialogue? Toll-free phone numbers and computer menus already orchestrate too much activity today. Nobody is listening at the other end to hear your frustration. You can e-mail the White House whenever you like and pretend that it matters.
This is a mixed bag. On the one hand, all kinds of new possibilities now exist for an informed and participatory set of publics as people leave their bodies behind and travel in cyberspace. This ought to make one's color and sex irrelevant, but this is hardly the case. White men still dominate the airwaves and Jesse Helms is still protecting women and children from smut and abortion.
As the `real' world becomes harder to live in, white flight to cyberspace accelerates. Cyberspace becomes to the nineties what the suburbs were to the fifties. Although Al Gore believes the information highway can spread intelligence and participatory democracy around the world and likens the present possibilities to a "new Athenian age of democracy," he conveniently forgets that Athens was a slave society.
Virtual reality both undermines and enhances the possibilities of a liberatory democracy that realigns the relations between family, state, economy, media, and globe to reimage a life of publicness rich in equality and privacy. These realignments must also negotiate the racial, patriarchal structuring of an earlier public/private divide and its media-ted representations. Herein lies cyberspace's enticing and maddening paradox.
Cyberpublics and Democracy
Information-age democracy assumes the power and centrality of computers. People will be brought closer to government through quick access to government documents. Computer-aided ease allows for quick information, read as participation.
The digital nation creates new forms of communication. It allows for an online culture that lets people have "a genuine say in the decisions that affect their lives." It allows for new discussions in new ways with new ideas of civility. Whatever this new civility may allow, however, it remains exclusive. This new online culture is inhabited by young, educated, affluent, white males. There is something less than new here. Not surprisingly, the mantra on the net is freedom, not equality.
The net allows for new ways to communicate and to create relationships and communities. Millions of north americans are faxing, e-mailing, and calling voice-mail boxes to speak out on issues. Tens of thousands of idiosyncratic websites and home pages now proliferate. This holds out promise for a publicness that stands outside the privatization demanded by global capital. And yet, cyberpublics will have to become much more inclusive for this promise to have any democratic reality.
Nevertheless, to a lesser extent, there is a new kind of "global plebiscite conducted on the behavior of nations" via the internet and e-mail and CNN. It is easier to see and communicate with faraway places. Women in afghanistan use faxes and e-mail to let the world know what the religious fundamentalist Taliban is doing to them. Students at the University of Belgrade create a website to speak out against government censorship, sidestepping the state-controlled media. With only ten thousand internet users in serbia, students still hoped to tip things in favor of democracy. Prodemocracy activists in china embrace the new access to unofficial news and uncensored information. Although the `masses' are not yet online, prodemocracy forces hope to break the state's authoritarian hold on information. For these activists the net is a world unto itself, providing both escape and connection. "Digital islands exist" and promise change.
These technologies allow for new ways of thinking, communicating, and knowing. This very same technology which promises to bring modernization to china may also undermine china's "monolith state itself."
The weblike structure of information also contrasts with the hierarchical structure of u.s. military. The information capabilities pose an "information-war" threat that is "overwhelmingly unstructured." The u.s. pentagon fears a cyber equivalent of Pearl Harbor and is bracing for cybercombat. But corporations will pay more for the best cyberminds, again giving global capital an advantage over traditional government.
Cybercommunications allow for new relationships across the globe. They often initiate information and scorn political authority and authorization. Cyberdiscourse can disassemble and reassemble established routes of order and control. In this sense, cybertechnology can enhance people's connectedness and concern with one another. It can create new ways of living publicly and democratically.
Yet, cybercommunications also reflect and are structured by old systems of power. Many poor people, people of color, white women, homeless children, africans, and others, are effectively excluded from the net. Without access there can be no participation.
Given the process of privatization in the u.s., new rules now strip billions of dollars of subsidies from telephone corporations operating in rural areas. This process will jeopardize the "nation's tradition of universal phone service." Cheap rural phone hookups will stop being a right and become a privilege. Given that one needs a phone line to hook up a computer to the internet, information becomes a privilege too.
Maybe Umberto Eco's vision of democratizing cyberspace is a starting point for discussion. He wants the Bologna Town Council to build a town center with a public multimedia library, computer training center, net access, and a communal screen for individuals to share and see together. He proposes that the state guarantee net literacy as a basic right and build a "network of municipal access points."
Cyberspace cannot be fully democratized unless the modes of information and production are constrained by and committed to a publicized notion of privacy. And the globe cannot be radically democratic unless, as Jean-François Lyotard writes, the public is given "free access to the memory and data banks." The struggle of the twenty-first century is to control the new flows of cyber-media corporate power.
|1||Seeing: Virtual Globes and Cyberpublics||5|
|2||Viewing: Media-ted Seeing and Cultural Capitalism||34|
|3||Talking: Cyberfantasies and the Relations of Power||70|
|4||Surviving: Transnations, Global Capital, and Families||101|
|5||Wishing/Hoping: Transnational Capitalist Patriarchy, Beijing, and Virtual Sisterhoods||134|
|About the Author||214|