Red threads and corkscrews
As friends and readers know, 23 February is my “second birthday”, a perhaps-Calvinistic way of describing my decision to join the Baha’i Faith four years ago. The first two cycles, I commemorated the event by reviewing the events leading up to the big decision; the third cycle, I decided to do something bold and propose the beginnings of a “philosophy of journalism” (for which, according to no less a source than the Chronicle of Higher Education, there is a crying need). This cycle, I want to say something about “divine confirmations”. It’s a peculiar feature of, let’s call it Baha’i phenomenology: an intuitive feeling of providence, the perceived intimation of an invisible “yes”. However, I don’t want to theorize it; I just want to explore it as it seems to be appearing in my life as of late.
To others, sometimes it may appear as though my academic concerns have meandered, but in fact there is, as the Flemish say, a rode draad, a red thread: my journalistic experience, which has gradually re-directed my intellectual focus. When I think over my intellectual journey, it’s interesting to see the cycles within it, like a corkscrew slowly drilling into time:
Turning the corkscrew
Although I’ve always been by inclination an Islamicist (not an Islamist, which is a very different thing!), my Bachelor’s at La Salle University was officially specialized in post-Holocaust Jewish theology (for the Religious Studies aspect of my degree) and Democratic Theory (for the Philosophy aspect), particularly the ideas of Richard Rorty. It wasn’t until my subsequent La Salle Master’s that I finally went full-tilt into Islamic Studies, followed by my Leuven Master’s in Averroës. Along the way, my expertise ambitions shifted from, as it were, Arabia to Eurasia.
And then the corkscrew turned. For my Leuven Master’s, I analyzed Averroës’ Kitab fasl al-maqal, which, although fundamentally a methodological work, also doubles as a treatise of social-political theory. It was then that I was, so to speak, converted to a degree to monopsychism, through which I was able to make an unexpected and profound new reconnection to my Jewish, which soon received startling divine confirmation. The notion also seems to make cameos in the Baha’i Writings, although to what extent it is literally or metaphorically meant is probably debatable. Notably, humanity is described as being collectively bound in a common destiny as a single entity created from “one same substance”, obligated to “be even as one soul”.
The corkscrew turned again. By a series of unfortunate events, I ended up stuck in Leuven for another (my current) degree, and found myself back in Democratic Theory, now passed through the filter of Eurasia. My current thesis is an application of Claude Lefort’s dichotomy of democracy|totalitarianism to Fareed Zakaria’s notion of “illiberal democracy”, using Ivan Krastev’s work on “managed democracy” (cf. here and here) in Russian, and by extension Kazakhstan, as the case study.
And now, it appears, the corkscrew is turning once more. Those posts on philosophy of journalism inspired a series of weekly meetings with the professor to which they were initially targeted, Bart Pattyn, which, in turn, evolved into something of a master-apprenticeship; and then that, in turn, has evolved into a potential Doctoral research project (for which we have, somewhat brazenly, applied for funding from the Flemish government). We have discovered in each another a shared curiosity for the ontological aspects of journalism, combined with a mutual enthusiasm for well, monopsychism (variously understood).
Moreover, we are both frustrated by what we see as the occultation of journalism as an object of philosophical inquiry by the voluminous attention given to media, as an institution and as a technology, and a related occultation of the common good by the individual good. Thus, we see this proposed project on public opinion as a first step toward the development of a philosophy of journalism proper, and, crucially, a reviving of the notion of the “common good”. But how?
De rode draad
This corkscrew is not only drilling, it’s sewing, too: my current MPhil and the proposed Doctorate share a genealogy in Averroës. What was his doctrine of monopyschism really? Among the first attempts to develop a notion of a collective consciousness that simultaneously constitutes and is constituted by individual agents of experience, and which, though not in itself rational, nonetheless enables rationality. Such a doctrine would return in strikingly similar form in Émile Durkheim’s theory of “collective consciousness”, which has fascinated Bart for quite some time. According to Durkheim, collective consciousness is “[a] totality of beliefs and sentiments common to the average members of a society [that] forms a determinate system with a life of its own”.
That this totality’s existence (or, at least, the presumption of its existence) engenders the existence of, as well as the outline for, a common understanding’s development; that collective consciousness reveals how common understandings shape concrete individuals when they think both about concrete issues and about “the Good”; and that there are in fact people who are tasked with the cultivation of this common understanding. Specifically, these people are (or, at least, ought to be) journalists, precisely because of their position within society as professional informers, i.e., in a dual sense of service providers tasked with delivering information, and of human beings who profess a calling to inhere a certain form or ethos into society.
My own conviction that society is in fact concerned about the common good, not just the individual good, arises from the existence of the profession of journalism itself. Simply put, if all people want is raw information, then why have such a profession? This was precisely what Julian Assange underestimated when he decided to circumvent journalists altogether, and even in some circumstances to wage a kind of war against them (e.g., his notorious clashes with The New York Times and The Guardian, whom he denounced as “puppets” and “agents” of imperialism, i.e., the American and British governments). As Lynch concluded from her analysis of social media reactions to WikiLeaks’ publication of electronic pager messages during terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers, audiences do not just want data; they want to know what to think and how to think about an issue. Moreover, they do not just want to know how an issue affects them as individuals, but also as a collective.
The anthropos of journalism
As of yet, philosophy of media has largely been concerned with unveiling institutionalized patterns of knowledge and power – which themselves are encodings of disciplinary structures — latent within semiotic events (blog posts, print and broadcast news reports, etc.). In my estimation, though, the results of philosophers’ efforts on media have been problematic. Certainly, they have been useful in uncovering power imbalances and, generally-speaking, in dispelling what could indeed be condemned as the enchanting effects of commercial mass media. However, by the very same token, they have achieved, to borrow the subtitle from Marshall McLuhan’s famous book, essentially nothing more than an inventory of effects. They have revealed a crisis, but not its resolution. The origin of this conundrum lies in the inventory’s own methodology, which has obscured the anthropology of media – quite literally, the anthropos of media: journalists. The fixation upon media as communicational techne subconsciously renders the agents of media as tools themselves, mere vessels for power structures. In phenomenological terms, a second-order phenomenon has come to occult a first-order phenomenon, but it has been mistaken by philosophers for the latter.
So, what do the journalists have to say? If you were to ask one about his/her job (as I have done innumerable times), the immediate reply would probably be something along the lines of, “I supply information”; some might compare their work to an economic model of supply and demand. If you were to press this journalist about what his/her audience should do with the information, they are likely to defer to the individual discretion of their reader, viewer, or listener to decide: the journalist, so it seems, is content to merely, if only incrementally, inform that individualistic action.
Now, push the conversation forward for a few more minutes, and something much more throbbing and categorical emerges: the journalist shall begin to speak about serving “the Truth” or “the People”, and of “defending democracy” or “speaking for the powerless”, and so on, and about his/her “calling”, the strange joy in obedience and obedience in joy that arises out of being vividly part of something immense. This seems awkward, for only moments before, they were talking as individuals about individuals – there was nothing in common between them and their audiences, nor any sense of something transcendent to them both. Suddenly, we see that a profession which seems to have a very definite and limited role in society is quietly, if vaguely, ultimately about something quite indefinite and unlimited. Yet, we journalists have few conceptual tools at our disposal – ironically, we the wordsmiths lack the words – to describe this overriding sense of duty.
It is time to forge such tools. The concern for the common good, which is a fundamental element of the journalist’s profess-ion, must entail a concern for the quality of the common mentality. Moreover, the quality of the common mentality itself hinges upon the quality of the reference system – the language, i.e., the very words we use in conversation – and the quality of the psychological space in which conversations occur. A decent society does not occur in a vacuum. vacuum; journalists can build the theater of calm, nuanced reflection on issues that engenders it, as, via that theater, they can craft a language of complexity and a psychology of sangfroid and solidarity.
To conclude this post, Bart and I are crossing our fingers that we shall get the funding. I’ve been learning, though, that this corkscrew does, well, as it pleases with our lives, and that our task is really to ride it to the best of our ability. I don’t mean this in a fatalistic sense, and anyway, it’s a subject for an entirely different blog post…