Lately I have been watching the HBO series Deadwood. Now while this might initially appear to have little to no relation to the topic at hand (taking place in the end of the 19th Century), I actually find the show fairly thought provoking. Indeed, I would go so far as to suggest that it is perhaps a useful “text” to teach in a media studies class. I say this not because the show represents questions of technological change, although it does-the scene with the telegraph coming to Deadwood is particularly good in this respect, but rather for the questions of sovereignty, and law and order raised by the show.
The creator of the show, David Milch, has indicated as much, that one of the central themes the show explores is the relation of violence to social order, or what happens in a place that is legally outside of the law. Or to put the matter rather simply: when there is no sovereign what governs social relations.
The ark of the show (minor spoiler alert) follows the town from it’s initial lawless beginnings to it’s subsequent development and progression towards annexation. Thus one of the central questions the show raises is how a group of individuals create law out of lawlessness. In several of the episodes we are presented with scenes where the influential characters in town meet around a large table, eat canned fruit, and discuss the crucial decisions that affect the town.
Now it might seem that these scenes would point us to a public sphere analysis, these meetings have a sort of salon feel to them even if they take place in the town bar/bordello. But what is interesting about these scenes is not the dialogue, or the rational discourse which takes place, but rather the way in which this dialogue is structured, displaying the limits of the “public sphere.” In the first place as one could imagine only men attend these meetings, so that already it really isn’t a community discussion, at one point a female character observes that despite owning the local bank, Mrs. Ellsworth is not invited because she is a woman, but even more telling I think is the degree to which rationality or rational discourse isn’t even the structuring factor of these meetings, or at least any rational discussion is always bordered by, limited by two other, more important factors. The first is violence, for without a sovereign to which the sphere can appeal, there is always the threat of violence which underlies these conversations. But secondly, and more importantly perhaps is the conflict with capital, or what it means to have a space which in the absence of law, defaults to capital and corporate (or at least wealthy individuals) power, where rational discourse has no effect.
When talking about organizing lawless spaces such as the Internet maybe we spend too much time thinking about salons and not enough time thinking about saloons.