Monday, February 9, 2009

The Public and Its Problems, John Dewey (Long Form)

Notes, summation, and tangents

Some summary:
It’s interesting to see how Dewey’s argument written 80 some years ago, with a few stylistic changes and reference swaps could be for today. We face the same issues and still seem oblivious to the same problems as when he was writing. That’s touched on throughout all the notes here. Rather depressing, but hopeful to know that people have been thinking clearly, and perhaps the time will come when we act on them – and these sorts of texts will have provided a foundation for shaping the future…

P3) Addresses the idea that “facts don’t carry their meaning along with them” We have to construct it, hence objectivity of facts is called into question. I think of my term, unflattening in terms of taking information that’s flat and making it into something of meaning.
P15) Definition of the Public: “The public consists of all those who are affected by the indirect consequences of transactions to such an extent that it is deemed necessary to have those consequences systematically cared for.” We see this reiterated throughout – public/private, when things can’t just be in public sphere because of interconnectedness, become Public.
P18) States that while “Individual human beings may lose their identity in a mob or in a political convention … [doesn’t mean] that some mysterious collective agency is making decisions, but that some few persons who know what they are about are taking advantage of massed force to conduct the mob their way…” There are still “concrete persons” involved – acting as representatives (true or not) of the public. Makes clear distinction between person in private and representative character. As per last week’s discussion, this mystery of the collective is talked about here….
P19) Distinction between authorship and authority – officials control behavior as public agents…
P21) “the society itself has been pulverized into an aggregate of unrelated wants and wills.” Thus state is viewed as oppressive or pooling of resources of all.
P22) “Singular things act, but they act together. Nothing has been discovered which acts in entire isolation.” This was known then, Dewey connects idea to biology, which has known this for some time, it seems the only people who don’t – deny climate change, deny problems are connected.
P24) More on connections between us all, and that all of us were infants and cared for – even when we were helpless. Example of acting in interests of others, based on understanding of benefits for all. We can apply this to importance of education (which Dewey does), to having health care, clean water, food, etc. It benefits all of us to have a healthy community.
P25) Humans become “a social animal in the make-up of his ideas, sentiments, and deliberate behavior.” Again, things are connected, ideas come from “association and intercourse” with community – inseparable.
P33-4) Dewey writes: “The formation of states must be an experimental process. … since conditions of action and inquiry and knowledge are always changing, the experiment must always be retried; the State must always be rediscovered. … we have no idea what history may bring forth.” This is key, reminds me of “peril of perfection” in thinking about the French Revolution. Everyone thought that they got it right, as a result – kept killing each other, tearing down government. Knowing that we don’t have it right, that it’s a constant experiment, allows for growth, humbleness in recognizing that you’re part of a continuum not an endpoint…
P37) Dewey says the author of the state is “nothing but singular persons, you, they, me.” We forget, it’s “we the people,” and this is Dewey’s larger point – we make the state, it wasn’t the mysterious collective but all of us signing off on it. And if we want it to be otherwise, the responsibility lies in our hands.
P41) Gives an example of village tightly connected to one another, everyone knows everything – in such a “condition of intimacy, the state is an impertinence.” And truly, we need the state to negotiate that space between people, the lack of intimacy…
P48-9) Move from public to private domain of religion. He writes, “As long as the prevailing mentality thought that the consequences of piety and irreligion affected the entire community, religion was of necessity a public affair.”
P50) Extends example above to intellectual matters – again moving from public to private. Gets to reason of why we do make some of these things public – organization and need for the State.
P53) Great question: “Why should the will of the rulers have more authority than that of others? Why should the latter submit?” Force, or is it “general will”? or because we don’t ask this question?
P63) Public to private again, in reverse: Children are educated by the State even though cared for by family. Stresses importance of childhood for shaping good citizens.
P64) “Transactions between singular persons and groups bring a public into being when their indirect consequences – their effects beyond those immediately engaged in them – are of importance.” When things we do have effects beyond the private, then it becomes realm of the public – need a State to govern those transactions. Good definition of origin of State or purpose of it.
P65) Following on from this: “The line of demarcation between actions left to private initiative and management and those regulated by the state has to be discovered experimentally.” Goes on to talk about how this line is drawn differently at different times and places. It’s blurry, we all have different definitions of it, and indeed that landscape continually shifts…
P67) KEY: “the lasting, extensive and serious consequences of associated activity bring into existence a public. In itself it is unorganized and formless. By means of officials and their special powers it becomes a state. A public articulated and operating through representative officers is the state; there is no state without a government, but also there is none without the public. The officers are still singular beings, but they exercise new and special powers.” Argument comes together from thinking about public, connections between all, line between public and private, and need to negotiate that space – need State.
P68-9) More GOOD Stuff: discussion of officials of the state “the state is its officials are. Only through constant watchfulness and criticism of public officials by citizens can a state be maintained in its integrity and usefulness.” Excellent. Again, it’s “you, they, me.” It’s up to us to watch, to keep the experiment going…
P71-2) Talks of strength of state in enabling individualism, protecting people from external forces – “A measure of the goodness of a state is the degree in which it relieves individuals from the waste of negative struggle and needless conflict and confers upon him positive assurance and reinforcement in what he undertakes.” Perhaps we could pass this sentence to the Republican Party? Of course, I suppose one reading for it could be “less taxes, less government” but I think that would be a poor reading.
P74) KEY: “There is no more inherent sanctity in a church, trade-union, business corporation, or family institution than there is in the state.” These are all inventions of men, and thus can be reinvented, dismantled by men too.
P110) “Optimism about democracy is today under a cloud.” Then and now… Stresses the need for constant criticism of the state for better democracy.
P112) I keep returning throughout this (and the class thus far) to the idea of Thinking Global, Acting Local. We tend to vote global, but ignore the local, where our impact could really be felt, and trickle upwards. Dewey talks about local formation of school districts. Perhaps this speaks against the federal or even State involvement in the schools, taking away the local ability to be active, have a voice.
P113-4) On this global-local trend, Dewey discusses town/village hall models, and how local and national are patched together. Our giant heterogeneous state is made possible by technology – but stresses how “piecemeal” this is.
P115) In mushing together heterogeneous people, lose individual ideas (See Wisdom of the Crowds) thus “The creation of political unity has also promoted social and intellectual uniformity, a standardization favorable to mediocrity.” Society is flattened out, rather than made rich. Not like making a tasty dish with different flavors, but blending it into tasteless goop.
P117) Dewey has really gotten into his argument of what’s gone wrong (evident by “Eclipse of the Public” as title of chapter), Vanishing public, decreasing vote. Don’t we hear that today? Disenfranchisement continues. Can we get “Change” that this election signaled? Perhaps only when all the people realize their ownership, their “you, they, me”….
P123) Address public not being concerned with finding “expert school instructors, competent doctors…” Missing out on the things that are really important – our health…
P126-7) Says machine age has made for “Great Society” but not “great Community.” Not truly democratic – great for some….
P131) “Publics are amorphous and unarticulated.” No focus, “canalization” – perhaps Obama did it, and Rush’s dittoheads have… But not a true public.
P133) Discusses inconsistencies in governing, saying one thing, and acting in other interests…
P137) It’s NOT not enough public, “too much Public.” Again, wisdom of the crowds. Voices lost and not educated enough to deal with all the matters. Argument for acting locally…
P140) “How can a public be organized when it doesn’t stay in place?” Need to find common denominators, unite people – get them thinking about the whole community. Huge challenge….
P141) KEY: Real devil are “Ideas” not machines – they change “more slowly than outward conditions.” Speaks to idea of memes – ideas are viral. Catch on, use technology to perpetuate themselves, infecting humans. Hard to inoculate against, get people to think for themselves…
P142) I like this: “Our Babel is not one of tongues but of the signs and symbols without which shared experience is impossible.” Even though we have great tools of communication (even more true than when Dewey wrote) we need common signs/symbols to forge great community.
P143) Makes distinction “between democracy as a social idea and political democracy as a system of government.” We may have democracy as our political system, but not clear we’ve realized it as social idea.
P145-6) Reliance on doctrines, become dogma, even good ideas – in a new situation, time, environment, too rigid. Need to question, criticism, keep experimenting. Democratic government “exists to serve its community, and that this purpose cannot be achieved unless the community itself shares in selecting its governors and determining their policies,….” Inclusion of all, realization of empowerment.
P147) Interacting of individuals with groups, groups with other groups, individuals in multiple groups, getting them all to work together, necessity of all-encompassing group – the democratic State.
P149) Beginning with “Communal life” – lead to idea of democracy. Need to start from that, otherwise false “utopian view.”
P150) re: Equality – “denotes effective regard for whatever is distinctive and unique in each, irrespective of physical and psychological inequalities. It is not a natural possession but is a fruit of the community when its action is directed by its character as a community.” Very hopeful – community as core of individuality….
P152) Signs and symbols give rise to new mediums, tools for communication. How community interacts. This means it’s essential to be versed in the signs/symbols of community to be able to interact, and invent new symbols…
P154) “We are not born members of a community” have to learn this, be educated into it… “Everything which is distinctively human is learned, not native…” Again, importance of education – in terms of community, in terms of democracy…
P159-60) Habit (Think “Tradition” in Fiddler on the Roof) Malcolm Gladwell talks about there being a “Southern-ness” that persists in geography. Habits (like memes) continue. Need habits to operate, but also we need to keep questioning, it seems to me, only on this balance between habit and reinvention, can we grow healthily.
P167) “free in thought but not in expression…”
P170) Again, question “sacred” and “sanctity” of courts, governments. But as Dewey argues, these aren’t supernatural, or holy, they are created by you, me, they… Have to always keep this in mind.
P171-2) Organization of physics making chemistry possible and thus making biology possible. Good ordering (my dad did this when he first developed science curriculum for his school as a young teacher…)
P173) KEY: Talks about how anything that makes environment “unknown and incommunicable” to human being as a disaster. Yet we allow this, prevent knowledge. Discourage education, but how can this be a democratic society if we don’t know our world?
P175) Men becoming machines to tend inanimate machines… We are becoming the Borg? Dewey questions the humanity of our choices. As we should. “The instrumentality becomes a master and works fatally as if possessed of a will of its own – not because it has a will but because man has not.” We’re not subjects to our machines by force, but because we let it happen… Continual inquiry (peril of perfection.)
P178) “Public opinion, even if it happens to be correct, is intermittent when it is not the product of methods of investigation and reporting constantly at work. It appears only in crises.” Opinion polls don’t reflect our logical thought or exploration – but simply that, uninformed opinion. An uneducated public is thus dangerous…
P181-2) Assent of the public “must be secured.” Need to be educated and empowered to give it….
P184) “Democracy will come into its own, for democracy is a name for a lie of free and enriching communion. It had its seer in Walt Whitman. It will have its consummation when free social inquiry is indissolubly wedded to the art of full and moving communication.”
re: the News – as series of events, distractions. Argues instead: “Artists have always been the real purveyors of news, for it is not the outward happening in itself which is new, but the kindling by it of emotion, perception and appreciation.” Mirrors other arguments that artists are pioneers of the future, speaks to importance of the arts to see ways that we don’t, to be that voice of continual questioning, to probe, to seek, to give us a way to see not imagined yet…. Yes to all of that. – N

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