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<nettime> Cybersalons and Civil Society

Public Culture, Volume 13, Number 2 (Spring 2001)

Cybersalons and Civil Society: Rethinking the Public Sphere in 
Transnational Technoculture

Jodi Dean

Recently, I checked out the discussion lists on Borders Books' 
on-line magazine Salon. I had enjoyed Salon's commentary on the 
Monica Lewinsky scandal, so I was optimistic about their discussion 
groups. There were hundreds of options. I could chat about the 
challenges of mothering, debate current events, or analyze television 
shows. I joined the group on current political and cultural events. 
Again, there were abundant possibilities: gay parents, gays in the 
military, gay schoolteachers–the very range of options on queer 
matters suggested the prevalence of contemporary cultural anxieties 
around perceived threats to straight sex, anxieties that easily 
exceeded the ostensible terms and terrain of debate. After noticing 
that most of these "discussions" were voyeuristic excuses to gay bash 
or painstakingly detail a variety of sexual practices and positions, 
I went to a group considering the pros and cons of establishing 
English as the official language of the United States. I found it 
difficult to follow–or find–the logic of the discussion. Few of the 
comments seemed relevant, and few offered reasons to justify a 
position or arguments to counter an opposing viewpoint. One thread 
concerned why Germans like to watch American blockbuster movies and 
whether James Cameron's 1997 film Titanic would be a hit in Europe. 
Other remarks were "Hi," "Jimbo's remark was lame," and "Later."

This brief foray into Salon's discussion list is not an exhaustive 
account of talk on the Net or life in cyberspace. Rather, it 
highlights the salon as a form of computer-mediated discussion, of 
communication among persons linked not by proximity, tradition, or 
ethnicity, but by an ability to use and an interest in networked 
interaction. The cybersalon provides a link, as it were, to the 
networked complexities of communication, interaction, and information 
exchange in late capitalist technoculture.

Before tracing this link, I want to contrast this salon with two 
other salons, those offered by JŁrgen Habermas and Seyla Benhabib. In 
The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Habermas presents 
the salons of eighteenth-century France as instances of the newly 
emerging bourgeois public sphere. There, bourgeoisie, nobles, and 
intellectuals only recently removed from their plebeian origins met 
on equal footing. As Habermas writes, "In the salon the mind was no 
longer in the service of a patron; 'opinion' became emancipated from 
the bonds of economic dependence." The salon provided a space apart 
from the economy, a space where people could exchange ideas and voice 
criticism on matters of shared interest or concern. The vitality of 
the exchanges was such that new works and great minds first sought 
legitimacy in the salons.

Habermas associates the salons with the Tischgesellschaften (table 
societies) and coffee houses of Germany and England to abstract the 
following characteristics of this new form of interaction, of what 
for him is the newly constituted sphere of private persons come 
together as a public. First, there was disregard of social status, a 
fundamental parity among all participants such that the authority of 
the better argument could win out over social hierarchy. Second, new 
areas of questioning and critique were opened up as culture itself 
was produced as a commodity to be consumed. Third, the newly emerging 
public was established as open and inclusive in principle. That is to 
say, anyone could have access to that which was discussed in the 
public sphere. These abstractions lead Habermas, fourth, to 
conceptualize the public sphere in terms of the public use of reason.

Benhabib's version of the salon comes from a rather different, and 
largely feminist, angle. In "The Pariah and Her Shadow," her essay on 
Hannah Arendt's biography of Rahel Varnhagen, Benhabib views the 
salon as "a space of sociability in which the individual desire for 
difference and distinctiveness could assume an intersubjective 
reality and in which unusual individuals, and primarily certain 
highly talented Jewish women, could find a 'space' of visibility and 
self-expression." Contrasting Arendt's conception of the public 
sphere in The Human Condition with her account of the salon in the 
Varnhagen biography, Benhabib brings to the fore the feminine, ludic, 
and erotic components of the salon. She highlights the 
world-disclosing aspects of the language used in the salon, the joy 
and magic of shared speech. She emphasizes the play of identities at 
work in the salons, the ways in which self-revelation and 
self-concealment disrupt the public sphere's ideal of transparency.

With this reading of Arendt, Benhabib counters Habermas's vision of 
the salon as a rational public sphere with the notion of the salon as 
a sphere of civic friendship. Accordingly, she presents the ideals of 
the modern salon as the joy of conversation, the search for 
friendship, and the cultivation of intimacy. But even as she 
foregrounds the difference, desire, and dissonance of salon 
interactions, Benhabib finds embedded in Arendt's vision of the salon 
one key element of overlap with Habermas: both Arendt and Habermas 
find in the salon a disregard for status and fundamental equality 
based on shared humanity....

The complete essay appears in Public Culture 13.2

Jodi Dean is an associate professor of political science at Hobart 
and William Smith Colleges where she teaches political theory. Her 
publications include Aliens in America: Conspiracy Cultures from 
Outerspace to Cyberspace (1998) and Solidarity of Strangers: Feminism 
after Identity Politics (1996), as well as the edited volume Cultural 
Studies and Political Theory (2000).

(c)2001 by Duke University Press. All excerpts appear in Public 
Culture, Volume 13, Number 2 (Spring 2001). This text may be used and 
shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of US copyright 
law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, 
provided that this entire notice is carried and that Duke University 
Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, 
redistribution, or reduplication of this text in other terms, in any 
medium, requires both the consent of the authors and Duke University 


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