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  • Undomesticated Hostilities: The Affective Space of Internet Chat Rooms across the Taiwan Strait
  • Shih-Diing Liu (bio)

This essay aims to address the omission of affect from much of the theoretical discourse on the political public sphere. Recent Internet studies have revived the Habermasian conception of a public sphere to explore the democratic potential of the Net as a forum of public deliberation for facilitating rational-critical debate and fostering democratic culture. At the core of the model of deliberative democracy is the assumption that political antagonism and conflict, which are charged with passions and desires, can be eliminated through deliberative procedures in order to create a universal and impartial consensus that meets everybody’s interests equally.1 The advocates assume that all participants, free from the structural effect of power relations, are capable of leaving behind their feelings, critically examining their own values, and showing sincere respect toward others. This essay suggests rather that the deliberative model loses sight of the potential of affect in mobilizing [End Page 435] popular political participation. As a consequence, the very absence of a proper analysis of affect in situated antagonism has led to our growing inability to grasp the challenges facing East Asia and to imagine real alternatives for progressive engagement in an age of neoliberal globalization.

By examining a range of emotional practices observed in Internet forums and chat rooms, I argue that although the rationalist perspective is a valid approach to thinking about what democracy ought to be like, it cannot adequately account for the political energy of online discussions that do not fit the normative criteria set for an idealized public sphere. This study attempts to fill this gap by examining the emotionally charged conversations and interactions in Internet chat rooms concerning cross-Strait relations between mainland China and Taiwan. It follows the insights of Cheryl Hall and Martha Nussbaum that emotions are not simply unmediated and unintelligent affective impulses, but embodied thoughts and value judgments that involve a complicated cognitive process and the use of reason in determining what is good and what is wrong.2 Emotions, which include deep yearnings for values perceived to be good, are essential to ethical reasoning and a vibrant political culture.

This study also benefits from the critique of liberal thought contending that the negation of affect eventually leads to political impotence, especially when confronted by antagonisms. Political theorist Iris Marion Young, for example, mounts a forceful critique of the rationalist approach on the grounds that the ideal of impartial reason is predicated on a strict, hierarchical, and mutually exclusive division of reason and affectivity that reduces plurality to unity and identifies the former with universality and the latter with particularity. “Impartiality,” writes Young, “seeks to master or eliminate heterogeneity in the form of feeling. Only by expelling desire or affectivity from reason can impartiality achieve its unity.”3 For Young, the normative ideal of an impartial consensus that stands above all particular desires and identities will eventually exclude those subjects who do not fit the model of rational citizen from the public.4 The ideal of impartiality “expresses in fact an impossibility, a fiction. No one can adopt a point of view that is completely impersonal and dispassionate, completely separated from any particular context and commitments.”5 Chantal Mouffe argues that democratic politics “needs to have a real purchase on people’s desires [End Page 436] and fantasies.”6 She points out that the deliberative model seeks to eradicate antagonistic aspects of politics, which makes us “incapable of thinking politically, of asking political questions, and of offering political answers.”7 Further insights can be gained from the work of Carl Schmitt, who insists that politics is impossible without a political frontier being created and a political moment of discrimination being defined. Rather than being partisan-free and nonadversarial, democratic politics always consists in the identity formation of an “us” counterposed to a “them,” and the phenomenon of the political “can be understood only in the context of the ever-present possibility of the friend-and-enemy grouping.”8 In a similar vein, Peter Dahlgren maintains that the restrictive and formalistic version that Jürgen Habermas and other proponents promote “delimits the...


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pp. 435-455
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