There is a memorable scene in Aaron Sorkin’s HBO series The Newsroom. It is the culmination of an ongoing argument between Jim Harper and Hallie Shea: Harper is a national network TV news producer and Shea is a correspondent-turned-blogger. In the 3rd season episode “Contempt,” Harper and Shea are arguing over whether Shea was right to publish (on the blog, “Carnivore”) an account of a personal fight between them.

“Your problem isn’t with me and with the site, it’s with the audience,” says Shea. “You don’t like that they like what they like because you need them to like you. . . . I think you’re threatened by technology. . . . I want to be part of the digital revolution.”

“I’m not talking about the apparatus!” Harper interrupts, exasperated.

This is a remarkable moment, not least because it is such an odd thing to exclaim. I think of this scene often when trying to describe the way I think about political systems. To me, politics is ecological, emergent.

Especially when I am talking about what community politics consists of, and what it might mean to foster a more deliberative politics. I think about the ways “the apparatus” can intrude and occlude what I am really trying to talk about.

For instance, when I describe efforts to encourage deliberative discussions on community issues — it seems that often people hear “I am promoting NIF forums.” When I describe the idea of framing issues so that the things held valuable that are in tension are made clear — people often seem to hear “writing NIF issue guides.” When I describe framing an issue so that things commonly held valuable are made clear — people hear “three strategies.” When I describe strengthening civic capacity — people hear “civic infrastructure.” When I describe institutions aligning their routines with how citizens do their work — people hear “promoting participation.”

The Concept

All of these share a common feature. They mistake the apparatus for the the concept.

This is not to say it is wrong to talk about the apparatus. It is important and a worthwhile discussion. But this is also a challenge, because talking about the apparatus can get in the way of talking about the underlying ideas. I have come to believe it is not surmountable simply by “saying it the right way.” There is something, I believe, about the element of mechanics that short circuits the ability to see and talk about the underlying ideas.

Photo: Niels Heidenreich via Flickr

Photo: Niels Heidenreich via Flickr

Indeed, the very word, “system,” can become problematic. While it is the correct term to describe the ecology, dynamics and interrelationships of all the disparate actors that make up a “community,” it is easy to mishear. By “system” I mean that set of interrelationships described above. But often, the term is taken to mean something built, mechanical. It’s the same with “network.” To me, that term means a disparate and interlocking set of relationships between and among people and other entities. Networks, in this understanding, emerge. But when the term is commonly used, it is often understood in the way computer networks are understood: as built artifacts.

As I try to explain what an ecology of political life in a community might look like and consist of, people will nod and affirm, “You are talking about systems. Networks. Yes. I get it.” But as we talk, it becomes clear that they think of systems and networks as built things. (They are thinking in machinebrain terms.)

And thus the conversation turns to the apparatus, which pushes out the concept I am trying to get at.

This is an area of research for me where I work. We often talk about it as a linguistic or technical problem: “How can we talk about these ideas in such a way that they are understood?” But even these articulations let the apparatus (of language) get in the way of the idea.

It is really a fundamental question. How is it that the insights of deliberative politics can come to be understood? What blocks this? What encourages it? (Note the passive construction, which is on purpose. Not how can I say them. But how can others understand them.)

This question is articulated throughout our research program and its strategic basis in more and less direct ways. The challenges we face in this area, though, are persistent.