"The Media of Civil Society"

I propose to explore civil society and civil society conferences as a powerful, yet much ignored media of discussion, education and organization. Civil society has long been seen as a necessary ingredient in democratic societies with strong public spheres of free expression. Scholar Jurgen Habermas identified civil society as a vital part of Eastern Europe’s development of democratic institutions, and much scholarship has followed his work. I believe that civil society is a concept of utmost importance today, and that revisiting this notion as a media promises interesting insights to both the landscape of contemporary media and to a better understanding of the role civil society.

Throughout recent decades civil society has come to play an increasingly important and self-conscious role in promoting global dialogue and in facing some of the most important challenges facing humanity. Today’s civil society is made up of business and not-for-profit leaders, as well as of scholars, activists and artists. They are engaged in work that goes beyond the traditional realms of capitalistic acquisition, independent artistry, or academic research. While their type of work spans a spectrum as diverse as the many different causes they pursue, what perhaps is common to members of civil society is their self-conscious intention to impact social change. (Identifying a more clear definition of civil society will be a clear first step in this project).

I am interested not only in civil society itself a media but also in civil society conferences. The 1899 Hague Appeal for Peace was in some ways the first major multinational conference where global dialogue sought solutions to common problems through peaceful means, however it served as a meeting place for actual government leaders. The 1999 Hague Appeal for Peace reflects by contrast the new importance of non-state actors, becoming the largest international peace conference in history with thousands of active citizens coming together for a week of discussion. The Hague Appeal was just one of many such international conferences, and the trend does not appear to reversing: the Forum 2004 in Barcelona this summer will be trump all past conferences with 141 days of dialogue, activism and celebration of culture. Nevertheless, unless such conferences include heads of state (G-8 and WTO conferences, for example) or unless they bring major corporate leaders to discuss business topics (the World Economic Forum), they receive very little attention from the American mass media.

This project thus hopes to look at civil society and civil society conferences as important media in addressing and discussing issues of global concern. In one sense, the project will look at the potential impact of the work done in civil society. Meanwhile, it will examine civil society’s relationship with the mainstream media, questioning whether civil society receives the attention it deserves and what theoretical implications result from this relationship. Would a marginalized role of civil society through lack of media coverage suggest the need for the remediation of social activism? Or, stated differently, is civil society itself not a strong enough media to effect the change it seeks? And, why is civil society not more newsworthy?

The work of several media theorists will guide this analysis. First, Marshall McLuhan’s understanding of media as an extension of man allows for the understanding of civil society itself as a media. Additionally, the Frankfurt school and the work Jean Baudrillard will be incorporated in the looking at the potential for social change through media. I hope to be able to consider as well other theorists that are suggested to me as relevant for this project.

Working Bibliography

Civil Society related: works by Jurgen Habermas

Perhaps Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action

From Communicative Actio to the Face of the Other: Levinas & Habermas on Language, Obligation, and Community by Steven Hendley

What Liberal Media? by Eric Alterman

Understanding Media by Marshal McLuhan