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.