Twitter Fight Club – a view from the canvas
Habermas and Balls
The notion was good: A modest aim for ‘a bit of a chat’ about that-there EU on the Twitters, with a bit of good humoured snarking.
It started in the US, where a community of policy wonks decided to launch a “Twitter Fight Club” contest (or “TFC”). They traded smackdowns and shared information. The one deemed to be the “best” at it “won.”
And then one bright-eyed idealist decided to do the same for Europe. Or the EU (and in that distinction lies some of the complexity).
@ShearmanM off-of the Twitters set the contest up and invited participants.
Yours truly duly volunteered for twattle, as did an assortment of other EU watchers.
But would we tweet ourselves up our own fundaments, or contribute – in however an incremental (as opposed to excremental) way – to the grand ideal of some undefined “European Public Sphere”?
Truth is, a bit of both.
And necessarily so.
The ‘European Public Sphere’ is an awful translation of a lofty concept championed by German philosopher Jürgen Habermas.
It is a way of describing some metaphysical common “discursive space” [*beurk*] of and about Europeanness.
That it has been wholly embraced by EU policy makers is no recommendation to the notion.
And the week-long euro “TFC14” contest (yes… a week long) has exposed the philosophical concept’s limitations.
Common discursive spaces only work as long as there is common language.
And we’re not talking about English here (the lingua franca of much of the badinage, to borrow un mot juste).
To crash Habermas uncomfortably into Wittgenstein here (yes, I’m citing Wittgenstein), there’s a mismatch in ‘language games’ in Jürgen’s cherished concept.
Cultural exchanges across Europe have kept the continent largely in step as it meandered through artistic movements. Visual and aural cues can belong to the same common language, and an elite of literates and an even cosier elite of polyglot scribes helped to keep the creative written word largely in line with cultural trends over the centuries.
But politics and the people subject(-ed) to them do not play the same language game.
The terms of political reference between each European nation are vastly different, not least in the legal grounding that underpins any given regime.
And the actual means of communication of people differ not just in language, but also in language ‘game’ – in terms of reference.
The language issue per se (French v Spanish v Dutch etc) out of the way, what are the common terms of reference of ‘Europeans’? I mean when actually talking about actual things, not intangible notions of ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ and the like.
There’s a good chance a European Public Sphere can safely refer to Merkel, Cameron, Hollande, Obama, Putin, Ukraine, and a smattering of other big-enough terms of reference.
Otherwise, if you hand the common subject of ‘Europe’ over to the minds, mouths and thumbs of a common group of people, if they are to talk about anything more than that, they will need to find or engage in deeper terms of reference: a language game of their own.
And that’s what we did.
To occasional (justified) claims of being insular and beltway, we traded puns about jargon and procedure, created memes out of Habermas and European Parliament Canteen Protocol (guilty), and retweeted each other incestuously.
But I’d like to think that in the process we stretched the beltway.
I think most TFC contestants saw an uptick in followers. And no language game is closed to other participants. If, in stretching the beltway, the common European terms of reference for discussion, snark and banter inched (or millimetred) further out from the narrow band of Merkels/Ukraines etc, we may allow ourselves to think that the TFC week wasn’t just the idle blurtings of a bunch of euro-nerds who should be concentrating on their day jobs.
I don’t expect a citizen (pronounced “sdzn”) to appreciate – or even want to appreciate – the finer points of delegated acts or the relative weight of olives in an EU institution salad.
But the focus and momentum – however small – TFC brought to a whole range or other European topics may have perhaps helped to bring them more into the public conscience. In this respect the latest televised debate between the self-proclaimed candidates to run the European Commission couldn’t have been better timed. That broadcast, and the social-media blurting that surrounded it, have nudged Schulz, Juncker, Verhofstad and Keller a little closer into the light.
Perhaps the ultimate extension of this Habermasian-Wittgensteinian mash-up is that there is no Single European Public Sphere, and cannot be one, much as its harmonised concept and Big Ideas may appeal to EU lawmongers.
There are, rather, lots of little spheres, of varying sizes, all in one bag.
Just need to take care not to lose them.
I hereby declare this metaphor… broken.
Oh, and VOTE BERLAYMONSTER.
The contest ends today.