I have been encountering a certain assumption recently, one that I do not think is warranted, but one that is nevertheless prevalent among the people that I know, even among those that I respect.  The assumption is that new media in general, and social media in particular, have resulted in a less literate and less relevant public sphere.  David Eaves and Dave Humphrey have both written posts recently that touch on this subject, and I concur with both of them, but I think that the whole debate generally misses an important fact: that is, the public sphere has always been mostly illiterate and irrelevant.

Anyone who has had a conversation about politics or economics or any other public concern knows this to be true.  Most of what we say to one another about public life is uninformed, derivative, biased, poorly reasoned, and self-interested.  This is true, I would argue, even in much of the traditional mass media, but it is particularly true of the conversations that occur around the kitchen table and the water cooler and the bar stool, because these are the places where the public sphere is at its most informal.  This kind of conversation has not become more inane and uninformed due to the rise of new media.  It has always been largely inane and uninformed. The only difference is that a vastly greater portion of the public sphere is now expressed through mass media, because a vastly greater number of people have access to mass media through twitter and blogs and forums and wikis and other technologies.  The only difference is that the kitchen table and the water cooler and the bar stool have now found expression in mass media.

This is not a crisis.  At least, it is not a greater crisis than it has always been.  Yes, the public sphere is healthier when it is better informed and more articulate, but this healthier public sphere is not essentially compromised by new media, nor is it essentially enhanced by traditional media.  To create a healthier public sphere it is necessary, not to restrict public discourse to traditional mass media, or to any other form of media for that matter, but to foster increased engagement and concern with public life through every medium that the public in fact employs.  By all means, the public should be encouraged to use new media in ways that are increasingly informed and reasoned and articulate and to respond to new media critically, but this is true of traditional media also, now as much as ever.

In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Friere is concerned with articulating a means for education to bring about revolutionary action by oppressed peoples against their oppressors.  To do so, he undermines the traditional separation between the roles of the teacher and student, through what he calls dialogic education.  He does not, however, similarly problematize the categories of oppressor and oppressed to any great degree.  Though he acknowledges that the oppressed begin to resemble their oppressors, and though he acknowledges also that the oppressors can willingly choose to identify themselves with the oppressed, he maintains a sharp distinction between oppressors and oppressed, despite the fact that it functions similarly to the distinction between teacher and student that he is so determined to subvert.

Freire’s central argument is that it is necessary to have a dialogic approach to revolutionary action and to education, as opposed to an approach that employs the techniques of the oppressors themselves, and as opposed to techniques that acquiesce entirely to the felt needs of particular oppressed persons or communities.  Dialogism, as Friere understands it, is the practice of engaging in education and other activities in a way that permits the right to dialogue if not absolute equality to all the participants.  This process involves all parties coming to recognize that they are both teachers and learners simultaneously, even if people occupy certain roles during a particular dialogue.  Some people, for example, may be facilitators of a dialogue, and some people may be appointed to fulfil other tasks, and some people may have knowledge or expertise that is particularly relevant, but this does not imply that these people solely occupy the role of teacher in opposition to the others who solely occupy the role of learners.  In this way, dialogic education recognizes the provisionality and limitedness of teacher and learner roles, seeking to turn the attention of the participants away from these roles toward the particular social, political, or educational issues that they are currently addressing.

Friere does not, however, make a similar move when he addresses the distinction between oppressor and oppressed, maintaining this opposition in every case.  Yet these roles are as susceptible to subversion as those of teacher and student, the role of the teacher even being implicated in a kind of oppression in many cases.  Maintaining these roles as absolutes only draws attention to the roles themselves and distracts concern from the issues in which both oppressed and oppressors are implicated.  This does not mean, of course, that oppression should be ignored, or that the perpetrators of oppression are not responsible for their actions.  It is only to recognize that the roles of oppressor and oppressed are not absolute, that they often shift from one context to another, and that they are always more complicated than these labels are capable of expressing.  It is to recognize that any lasting solution to oppression will need to put its attention, not on maintaining the distinction between oppressor and oppressed, but in erasing this distinction as much as it is able.

All of us are subject to our capitalisms and our democracies, our legalities and our governmentalities, our educations and our medications, our communications and our entertainments, our scientisms and our technocracies, our humanisms and our humanitarianisms, but we do not all endure this subjection in the same way.  Those who are even able to recognize it variously endorse, exploit, resist, or capitulate, but none of these responses are acceptable.  They only reinforce our subjection in any case.  The only acceptable response, though it is always tenuous and unguaranteed, is otherly concern.

To be otherwise concerned in this sense is to refuse to be primarily concerned with the structures of subjection themselves, neither in resistance nor in acquiescence, but to show oneself to be concerned precisely with those things that the structures of subjection do not recognize.  This act of concern may sometimes appear to be oppositional and sometimes to be affirmative, but it is never primarily either of these things.  It is an act whose appearance in relation to the structures of subjection is only ever a provisional appearance, an appearance that is only the remainder of its true concern, which is with something other and something otherwise.

This is not to say that the act of otherly concern does not recognize the structures of subjection.  It does certainly see these things, and its response is always a response to them.  It sees them, and it gives them their due.  It renders to them what was theirs already.  It does so, however, as if it is concerned, not with them, but only with something beyond them, only with something that they can not recognize, something that might be called justice or ethics or hospitality.

Otherly concern, therefore, is never provisional, but it always appears this way.  It is neither strategic nor tactical, though it may appear as either or both.  It may vote, for example, or it may refrain from voting, but in neither case will it put faith in this activity.  Its faith will always be in something other, something to which this activity can only hope to gesture.  It will never have faith in the conditional choice of a political system or a party or a candidate, but only in the unconditional something other that these things fail always to recognize.

This otherly concern is, therefore, the only acceptable response to the things that subject us, because it responds, not in ways that the structures of our subjection might recuperate, but in ways that continually call to what is essentially beyond recuperation.  This kind of response opens itself to the possibility of responding to the uniqueness of its subjection, to the unsubstitutability of this subjection, but in such a way that it cannot be reduced to the response that it makes to these things.

All this comes at the cost, however, of being beyond any guarantee.  There will never be any guarantee of the other with which I am concerned, or of the concern that I have with the other, or of the activity that comes from my concern.  Indeed, unless the other itself intervenes, it is always guaranteed that my concern and my activity will be faulty and insufficient.  More practically, it will always remain possible, even likely, that the structures of my subjection will not recognize the otherly concern that I am showing. Though my concern will be elsewhere, I will always remain physically imperilled by the things to which I am subject.

The hope that otherly concern offers, then, is only the most tenuous hope.  It is the hope that my concern for the other will somehow be justified by the other itself, though this possibility remains radically unguaranteed.  It is the hope that, as I am concerned with the other that is justice and ethics and hospitality and love, this other will in fact come, quite apart from anything that my concern might deserve, but merely because it condescends to come.  It is a hope that is barely a hope. It is hope that finds its place only among faith and love.  It is a hope that, in my mouth, says only and continually, “Even so, Lord Jesus, come.”

I held a miniature Pare Lorentz film festival this past weekend for those of us who were gathered at my Mother’s place on Manitoulin Island.  On Friday night, while drinking the previously mentioned concoction of mulled apple cider and apricot brandy, we watched The Plow that Broke the Plains (1936).  Saturday night, while drinking a beautiful 18 year old scotch, we watched The River (1938).  Both films are on a 2007 Naxos DVD release that includes a new recording of the original Virgil Thompson scores.

Having read about both films for my teaching, I came to them with an intellectual awareness of their significance to the development of both documentary film and orchestral music in the United States.  Both works were commissioned by the departments of the United States government in support of President Roosevelt’s New Deal policies, and both faced significant opposition because of this propagandist element in their creation.  Nevertheless, both were also fairly well received by audiences and by critics, receiving several awards, not just for their value as documentaries, but also for their musical scores and for their free-verse scripts.  They introduced several innovative elements in all of these areas, influencing people as diverse as composer Aaron Copeland and novelist John Steinbeck.

Ironically, considering the purpose for which they were commissioned and the reasons for which they were controversial, neither film would appear terribly propagandistic to current viewers.  While they are certainly critical of past farming and settlement practices, and while The River also advocates for an approach to these issues that accords with New Deal policies, there are no explicit political references of any kind in either film.  Both seem far more preoccupied with the land and the river themselves, as natural elements that have been destroyed by the practises of the settlers.  Their argument seems far more environmental then political, even if the politics of this environmentalism can never be ignored.  They lack the kind of visual rhetoric that usually characterizes propaganda films, like Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935), for example, which was released just before The River, or like Frank Capra’s Why We Fight series (1943-1945), which would be the United States’ next serious foray into producing propaganda films.  There are certainly some scenes in The Plow that Broke The Plains that are evocative of Riefenstahl, intercutting images of tanks and tractors along with scenes of people cheering soldiers as they parade, but the narration ironizes these scenes even as they are being played, and the narrative of the film soon does the same, as the tractors are next shown broken and half-covered in drifting sand.

This collection of facts about the films does not, of course, convey a real sense of the vision that Lorentz expresses through them.  What is most remarkable about them is the way that the cinematography and the music and the poetry come together to form a unified whole.  There is in The Plow that Broke the Plains, for example, a beautiful shot of a train running along the very bottom of the screen, its plume of smoke rising to parallel the clouds that dominate the rest of shot.  These kinds of images are overlayed by Thompson’s simple, emotional score and by the narrative that repeats throughout the film, “High winds and sun, high winds and sun, a country without rivers, without streams, and with little rain,” combining to create an argument that is less comprehended than experienced.

These combinatory effects are the strength of the films, what allows them to transcend the merely propoganstic purposes for which they were funded and to remain appealing long after those purposes have become obsolete.  They permit the films, not to ignore the politics that commissioned them, but to be more or less unconcerned with them.  They do not try to escape the political necessities that give them their context.  They merely show that they have other concerns as well, other concerns that are perhaps more significant, concerns with an aesthetics and an ethics that the political is unable or unwilling to comprehend.  This is why, eighty years later, they remain compelling, because their ethics and their aesthetics have remained relevant, even if their politics have not.