This study enacts a three-pronged relationship between transnational communications, participatory democracy and the World Social Forum. While doing so, it pre-empts a hypothesis of ‘new media cleavage’ in response to ‘fragmentation and convergence’ as mutually exclusive paradigms of technological revolution. It revisits theories of public spheres of alternative media (at micro, meso and macro level vis-à-vis Downing, Fraser and Habermas) and leads on to reveal the existence of ‘spheres of communicative dissipation’ as negative spaces of affinity in the communications repertoire of the World Social Forum, acting as impediments to negotiate regimes of participatory democracy and ‘communicative rationality’ in the Forum.



    The folly of mistaking a paradox for a
    discovery, a metaphor for a proof,
    a torrent of verbiage for a spring of
    capital truths, and oneself for an oracle
    is inborn in us
    (Paul Valéry, 1956)

  1. This section is a synopsis of the intellectual inquiry that made this project possible. In many ways, it is a stand-alone chapter; a beginning of the end with theoretically inspired explanation.
  2. It questions the overwhelming nature of the post-national communicative struggle, which has evolved at the cusp of a transnational information and communication revolution.
  3. There is always a degree of ‘authorial prejudice’ in an argument which is not sufficiently objective. However, I believe it also adds a flavour to an already existing paradigm in an attempt to mobilize authorial threads and formulate understanding of the intellectual baggage behind an act of discovery. I assume this section will be approached with this frame of reference.

1. Prelude to a Paradox

Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
T. S Eliot (Lovesong of Alfred J. Prufrock, 1915)

In the ‘Lovesong of Alfred J. Prufrock’, T. S. Eliot depicts a passionate character imprisoned in the paralysis of his own subjectivism. Prufrock's obsessiveness is shown to be extremely aesthetic, but at the same time it is also a sign of compulsive disjuncture that makes him inactive and isolated to strike a communicative chord with his beloved. Caught in an ‘opaque sphere’ (Miller, 2005) of a long and tedious argument, he cannot disturb the universe even if he desperately wishes to do so. The paradox heightens as the object of Prufrock’s affection is also shown to be imprisoned in another sphere and like soap bubbles, the spheres cannot converse or become one (Ibid, 2005). Time and space also converge into subjective existence acting as impediments to Prufrock’s ardent and obsessive desire to combat the forces of disorder (Spurr, 2005) and strike a purposive discourse, and yet he keeps struggling to drive himself out of his smoldering conundrum.

An opening that starts with metaphors of ruptures, alienation and fragmentation is a risky undertaking. It becomes more dangerous when one assumes an unusual position of speech. Very often it makes one vulnerable to difference, objection and exclusion. However, this is an important beginning for a number of reasons. First, it pre-empts dismissal of a utopia. Second, there is a need for side-stepping a bar particularly when the subject of study calls for an inquiry into a struggle which is trying to confront and contest the limits of a global reality. Prufrock’s dilemma offers an opportunity to approach our subject with a sense of anxiety and critical apprehension. Without a certain level of immersion into the nature of passions and obsessions that drive the subaltern, one cannot imagine and articulate alternative spheres of ‘communications internationalism’ (Waterman, 2000: 142). While there are instances where banalities of ‘micro-desires, small differences, unconscious practices and anonymous marginalities’ (Baudrillard 1983: 40) may lead to revolutions, there are occasions where it takes ages to build a repertoire of ‘communicative action’ (Habermas, 1984) and even then possibilities of redemption are minimal. This is the hiatus which defines the vocabulary of all our struggles the world over: the scaling up of a paradigm where resistance meets transformation; where weapons of the weak become tools of participation and democratic change. (Pieterse 2000: 192).

Third, Prufrock’s inability to communicate also seeks to identify the self-limiting nature of certain positions of speech behind a ‘communicative action’ (Habermas, 1984) where at times ‘cooperative interpretations’ (Ibid) and reconciliation may not happen. While this presents a paradox and a compulsive disjuncture within a system, it is also a precondition for discovering and valorizing in each scale of representation not only what it reveals but also what it conceals as its ‘sociology of absences’ (Santos, 2004). It is, therefore, important not to dismiss blind-spots and quiescent spheres as arbitrary factors. They may lead the subaltern towards identifying possibilities, alternatives and new imaginaries - the ‘sociology of emergences’ (Ibid) of all ‘those tendencies and latencies that are actively ignored by the defining moment of a hegemonic rationality’ (Ibid, my emphasis added).

This process of identification of particularities and alternatives is important for the subaltern to nurse and nurture its ‘counter-hegemonies’ (Gramsci, 1971) and to seek a way out of a conundrum without falling into the trap of ‘false consciousness’ (Scott, 1990). While this statement projects a paradox, I insist it is also a defining moment, a turning point in the history of our world. According to Latour (1993), we have never been modern and we could never be unless we rise above our ‘hyper-incommensurability’ (p61). Redemption is only possible if the subaltern overcomes the limiting nature of its inertia to ‘abolish compulsion’ (Habermas 1984) or coercion of the hegemonic construction of its reality.

Finally, to sum up, Prufrock’s paradox offers a space for the entry of new historical subjects and actors to confront the challenges of post-modern world and strive towards new possibilities. Whichever perspective is taken, there is an invitation – and also ‘the overwhelming question’ (Eliot 1915) to begin to rethink and reconstruct a system where social actors can relate to each other and project themselves into an arena where purposive discourse can help engender constructive spaces of participation (Escobar & Alvarez 1992; Habermas 1984). Hence, this beginning is both an invitation for contestation and an invocation for immersion into a unique struggle of ‘communicative action’ (Ibid).

The World Social Forum (WSF) is an innovative social experiment, which offers an entry point to contest and debate these positions. The lifeblood of this project is a belief in the possibilities of another world which anticipates an antidote to the self-perpetuating hegemony of neo-liberal globalization. As it may be clear by now, this study is not a celebration of this historical enterprise. Neither does it try to dismiss the latencies of its sociology of emergences (Santos, 2004). A project which has already crossed a threshold of nativity allows a retelling of its story. It needs a devil’s advocate to determine the validity of this cause and its position. While I set out to do so, I will contest the possibilities and limitations of this project through questioning the role of mediated communications in providing necessary conditions and spaces for democratic participation, a subject which has largely remained an uncharted territory for reflection in the contemporary scholarship on the WSF.

A pre-requisite and a formative influence in determining the efficacy of the Forum, transnational communicative activity deserves to be articulated as an inclusive narrative in this non-linear struggle from-below. The overwhelming question still remains to be asked: Is another communication really possible? Can new spheres of communicative action deliver a ‘greater common good’ (Roy, 1999) ensuring equity of participation between various positions of speech? How does horizontal networking of an egalitarian, de-centered and de-territorialized nature of struggle, such as the WSF, proliferates into participatory spheres of ‘rational discourse’ (Habermas, 1989)? Or is it too much of an expectation from the ‘critical utopia’ (Santos, 2004: 08) we are trying to configure? Perhaps we are caught in a moment where the invisibility and transparency of ‘a non-territorial sphere’ (Waterman 2000: 142) becomes a problem. Perhaps it needs a radical ‘community (that is) yet to be imagined and created’ (Ibid: 143) to ensure transition to participation and emancipation.

Whereas it is premature to find simple answers to all these questions, one thing is certain. At the heart of this struggle, transnational communications and media perform a transformatory repertoire to envision a communicative sphere that can pluralize enclaves of ‘local empowerment’ (Pieterse 2000: 193) into democratic spaces of ‘wider engagement’ (Ibid) and participation. While this presents a challenge to this historic enterprise, it is also an opportunity to capitalize on and to invigorate spaces of individual autonomy and collective action.

2. Pathologies of Participation

Moving from concept to critique, I state that in this large, diverse and transnational space such as the WSF, an infinite number of actors perform their speech acts. While doing so, they create affinities of interest that exude a lot of creative energy, which Hardt & Negri (2000) have also termed as ‘bio-power’. However, the nature of this symbiotic activity is inchoate and amorphous so much so that before it is able to strike a dialogue, let alone realize a rational discourse (Habermas: 1989), it gets withered away along various tangential trajectories of communicative dissipation. Therefore, the intensity of this enterprise never reaches a critical mass to create a stir or to stimulate a politically useful sphere. The inherent compulsion within this communicative field is a Gordian knot that the repertoire of the WSF has not been able to untie. I call this ‘new media cleavage’ hypothesis.

As a ‘nomad’ (Melucci: 1986) space, the WSF is trapped in a communications paradox, the metaphorical nature of which personifies the dilemma of Prufrock caught in the monologue of its interiority and lost as a speaker. This monologic is not an attempt to arrive at the subjectivist orientation of ‘Cartesian paradigm’ (Habermas 1984: vii) or nihilistic assumptions grounded in Nietzschian angst of any kind. Nor do I contest those who have hailed the democratizing potential of ‘virtual communities’ (Rheingold: 1993), ‘global village’ (McLuhan: 1967) or the ‘multitude’ (Hardt and Negri: 2000). Even in Prufrock, Eliot’s message is his inherent belief in the productive nature of fragmentation which is desperately seeking initiation. And similarly, the WSF as an enabling field of communicative action and participation has an incipient quotient of creativity, a ‘sociology of emergences’ (Santos, 2004) which is also in desperate need for initiation. In order to rise above this conundrum the communicative field of the WSF needs to develop, to borrow a phrase from Calhoun (1999), ‘a hydraulic relationship’ (p35) first between the constituents and players of its assembly and second with the larger system it is in contestation with.

I believe that without reaching a certain threshold frequency one can neither humble the gods of neo-liberal globalization, nor disturb the universe let alone actively progress towards another world. The repertoire of communicative action that brought the WTO meeting at Seattle to its spectacular halt provides an empirical flavour of this assumption. Having a passionate and obsessive belief in the possibilities of another world is a right kind of inspiration if it gets its fulcrum rightly appropriated. In spite of a diversity of apparatus and space available to maneuver through the ‘porous-ness, outer-directedness, and open-endedness’ (Fraser 1999: 127) of the WSF, stretching this horizontal paradigm to meet the ‘tension-point(s)’ (Milan 2004: 05) along the intersection of vertical axis might help to initiate a process towards arriving at a meaningful praxis of participation, communication and debate.

The celebration of WSF as a space of diversity and sub-cultures has gone beyond the life-cycle of this project. Since 2001, it has also gathered a nice bricolage of communications activists with hybrid skills who can no longer exist ‘measuring (their) life in coffee spoons’ (Eliot 1915). They have to transit from this vain syncretism to function at the level of a ‘communications internationalism’ (Waterman 2000: 142) like women’s liberation and environmental movements have been able to. If this makes a communications logic of any kind, shouldn’t this be a better idea to tame this celebrated repository of anti-globalization, and put its house in order first, before even thinking of ‘civilizing globalization’? While mediated tools and processes of transnational communication can act as effective conduits to sustain inclusive and enabling spaces of participation and democratization, they are having a hard time in keeping up with the internal fissures and ruptures within the WSF to offer it an enabling platform of politically correct narratives (Savio in Waterman 2005).

I contend that access to appropriate tools and methods of communication is not enough. Ability to speak a language is also not enough if one is unable to talk and communicate. There is a split between ‘access’ and ‘participation’; between enjoying an inclusive position of speech and being held in a state of exclusion through digital-divide. There’s also a world of difference between making noise and actually having a voice directed at the right adversary. If rightly appropriated sometimes even simple acts of silence are more powerful than random acts of speech (see Sreberny’s 1994 study on Iran).

Before the inspiration behind the slogan, ‘Another World is Possible’ loses intensity, it’s time to rise above this conundrum, ‘freeing up [the symbolic] baggage’ (Downing 2001: 08 emphasis added) of this paradigm through letting the doves of ideas fly into a meaningful trajectory - without getting ‘institutionalized’, ‘co-opted’ or ‘integrated’ during the process. The task is both a ‘paradox’ as well as a ‘conundrum’ for this expanding sphere of communicative activity.

Nevertheless, media have the role of a catalytic agent to provide a stepping stone towards the possibilities of a better world: ‘a global solidarity that is more than a merely imagined community’ (Waterman 2000: 140, Anderson 1983), which may not be there at the doorstep right away but with the right participatory communication in place, one can at least ‘hear her coming’ (Roy 2003). Against the backdrop of this introductory invocation, I set out to identify the salient bottlenecks that are acting as impediments to instantiate a communications model of participatory democracy through the WSF.

As a forewarning, this does not mean that the study preempts a premature dismissal of actually existing reciprocity within the WSF. The objective is not to abandon the strengths and pluralizing features of the project while identifying pathologies that are counter-productive towards the actual realization of an effective model of communicative symbiosis and participatory democracy.


Copyrights © 2005 Sumaira Sagheer Toor
Masters Dissertation, MA in Global Media and Postnational Communication, School of Oriental and African Studies, London