Something About Critical Theory, Stephen Downes, The Opportunities of the Virtual

More Equal than Others

Lecture de la tragédie de l'orphelin de la Chine de Voltaire dans le salon de madame Geoffrin, Anicet-Charles-Gabriel Lemonnier (1812).

Lecture de la tragédie de l’orphelin de la Chine de Voltaire dans le salon de madame Geoffrin, Anicet-Charles-Gabriel Lemonnier (1812).

Since its publication in 1962, the Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere has been critiqued for author Jürgen Habermas’s apparent class bias. In the book, Habermas formulates a theory of a discursive space in which individuals and groups congregate to discuss matters of mutual interest, dependent upon free and unfettered access, within the context of the evolution of the bourgeois constitutional state in Western Europe. He writes,

The public sphere of civil society stood or fell with the principle of universal access. A public sphere from which specific groups would be eo ipso excluded was less than merely incomplete; it was not a public sphere at all.

As many critics have pointed out, entry into this public sphere required  an excellent education and property ownership as preconditions. Since the public sphere Habermas discusses is inherently limited to a particular social stratum, some have gone so far as to claim that the public sphere Habermas describes in fact only existed by dint of its exclusion of particular classes.

The painting I have included depicts a 1755 reading of Voltaire’s play L’Orphelin de la Chine in the Paris home of Marie Thérèse Rodet Geoffrin. Geoffrin (b. 1699, d. 1777), was a so-called “salonnière” a person who frequently hosted gatherings of dignitaries and public figures (“salons”). In her relationship to her salons, Madame Geoffrin represents a contentious space in Enlightenment historiography. Historian of women’s history and European thought Dena Goodman believes the salonnières played a key role in the institution of Enlightenment sociability, and that Madame Geoffrin was at the center of that process (along with a few other women). In Republic of Letters (1995), she writes:

Under the guidance of Marie-Therese Geoffrin, Julie de Lespinasse and Suzanne Necker, Parisian salons became the civil working spaces of the project of Enlightenment.

Goodman uses Geoffrin to argue that salonnières in the eighteenth century represented a re-shaping of an existing form of sociability that would serve the ambitions of the women who ran them. Thus Goodman stated, in her 1989 article, “Enlightenment Salons:”

In using the social gathering and transforming it to meet their own needs, Madame Geoffrin and salonnières like her created a certain kind of social and intellectual space that could be exploited by the expanding group of intellectuals who were beginning to call themselves “philosophers.”

This representation was widely criticized in subsequent literature. In 1996, feminist scholars Janet Burke and Margaret Jacob argue that Goodman, by placing “a handful of selfless salonnières (such as Geoffrin) at the centre of Enlightenment history,” effectively obliterates a wider version of Enlightenment cultural practices, downgrading “all other seemingly enlightened women”  (Burke and Jacob 514-515). Modernist historian Antoine Lilti, in countering many of Goodman’s arguments, disabuses the idea that Madame Geoffrin acted an autonomous participant in the sociability of Enlightenment society; instead he claims that the politeness and gift giving she facilitated would have been unthinkable without the presences of fashionable men of letters. It was these men, which attracted to her salon the finest representatives of the Parisian and European aristocracy, that “permitted her to appear as a protector of talents and an accomplished socialite” (Lilti 423-426). This was published in 2005.

Ironically, the ongoing historiographical debate on gender and Geoffrin’s role in Parisian society precludes the implication of the conversations conducted in Geoffrin’s salon with, respect to enlightenment-era identity politics. To discuss this let’s turn our attention to what is depicted in the painting—a reading of Voltaire’s 1753 play, L’Orphelin de la Chine.

This play, whose thesis was that genius and reason has a natural superiority over brute force and barbarism, was based on a Chinese play from the Yuan era: The Orphan of Zhao (趙氏孤兒 Zhaoshi guer), attributed to the thirteenth-century dramatist Ji Junxiang (紀君祥). In 1731, Jesuit father Joseph Henri Marie de Prémare translated the play, which he titled L’Orphelin de la Maison de Tchao, into French. Voltaire praised the Confucian morality depicted in Prémare’s translation, remarking that it was a “valuable monument of antiquity, and gives us more insight into the manners of China than all the histories which ever were, or ever will be written of that vast empire” (Voltaire); however, the play was still considered problematic by him as it violated the conventions of the unities of time, action, and place. Voltaire, therefore, altered the story to fit his idea of European enlightenment and Chinese civilization. One prominent alteration included the introduction the theme of love (which is absent in the original play), where Genghis Khan has a secret passion for Idamé, the wife of Zamti, but he is rejected by her as she stands firm to the lawful conduct of her nation.

Echoing Gayatri Spivak, I would argue that there are always barriers to entry with respect to participation in the public sphere. Not every person is a full-fledged subject, at every given time. From Hegel to Althusser, it has been common in European thought to believe that subjectivity is always determined from outside. From the perspective of feminist and queer theory, it is typically prejudice that defines, or bolsters, barriers to the pursuit of equal person-hood, especially in the arena of discourse. I would like to reflect on these two intellectual trajectories as we move to consider the implication of the public sphere, and its barriers to entries, with respect to MOOC courseware development.

Many in the arena of internet studies have argued that the World Wide Web is a powerful, flattening force, capable of everything from radically decentralizing economies and reproduction (cf. Friedman, The World is Flat), to revolutionizing technological evolution (cf. Zittrain, The Future of the Internet–and How to Stop It), to transcending traditional boundaries of place and culture. Stephen Downes believes that the internet is capable of functioning as a global public sphere, where people from around the world can talk to each other without regard to their social position, and that MOOCs are a fundamental vehicle for achieving this openness. As Downes stated in his EdgeX2012 presentation (discussed in our last post),

Online, the Prime Minister of a country can have a conversation with people from all over the place; offline, that’s a lot more difficult, because the Prime Minister’s always surrounded by advisors, and then media, and then other media, and then a crowd of people, and that prevents the Prime Minister from talking to people directly. It is this directness, this immediacy of communication, that you can do online that allows a MOOC to be open, that is one of its defining features. The MOOC is structured as a network. And again, this is the sort of thing you can’t really do offline. But online – I see people laughing at the diagram, that’s a creative representation of a MOOC, by one of our students in a MOOC – and the idea here of a MOOC is that it’s not one central entity that everybody goes to, it’s not like a school or a classroom or a book where everybody would go to this one thing. It’s distributed. There’s a bit here, there’s a bit here, there’s a bit here, there’s a bit here – there’s my website, there’s George’s website, there’s Dave’s website, there’s Rita’s website, there’s Helene’s website, there’s Nancy White’s website, Grainne’s website even (it was only created recently), and it’s the website of this student, this student, this student, it’s the website of a person in Spain, a person in Brazil, a person in India, a person in Canada, the United States, wherever.

Despite this flattening aspect, like all public spheres (and here I use the term loosely), MOOCs are characterized by barriers to access. The most important one here is that of regular sustained access to an internet connection. Downes makes a note of this in his presentation:

Anybody can enter a MOOC. Well, OK, I have to be a bit careful here: anybody with a computer and an internet connection, or access to one, can enter a MOOC. These are types of online learning. I’m going to emphasize this a little bit later as well, but what we built is a type of online learning. And it requires a certain infrastructure.

As with Voltaire and his side-lining of Confucian values, and the histiorgrpahical questionableness of Madame Geoffrin as an interlocutor in her salons, the non-possession of prerequisites for participation (an internet connection, for Downes) preemptively dis-interpolates a person from participation in the MOOC public sphere. In fact, Downes is almost uncanny in his echoing Voltaire in the transformation of potential inequity is into a question of taste; in this vein he continues the selection above…

It takes advantage of that infrastructure to do things that we could not formerly do without the infrastructure. You might say, and you’d be very reasonable in saying, well what if you don’t have that infrastructure? Well then probably you’re not going to want to do a MOOC, because it’s going to be a lot more difficult.

When one considers that this factor of taste, as idealized, might be motivated by other contingencies, in reality–especially, wealth–the narrative offered by Downes echoes that seen elsewhere. Consider Craig Watkins and Juliet Schor’s recent report on connected learning, which argues that new educational approaches risk becoming an opportunity to reinforce already existing priveledges of class and status. So they write,

The trend for privileged young people and parents to mine the learning opportunities of networked and digital media is one more indicator of how differential supports in out-of-school learning can broaden the gap between those who have educational advantages and those who do not. When the public educational system lacks a proactive and well-resourced agenda for enriched and interest-driven learning, young people dependent on public institutions for learning are doubly disadvantaged.

My historiographical training encourages me to see this problematic as one with a long history. The problem of MOOCs and access is analogous to the historical problem of the public sphere inherent limitations. With that in mind I can draw upon my critical reserves in seeking a more constructive framework for engaging with the problem at hand.

Habermas’s critical theory is characteristic of a variant of criticism known as ideology criticism, which views ideology as socially necessary. In this mindset, it is thought that ideology can fulfill social functions by making what is a social and man-made institution appear to fixed, such that it serves a narrow class, while appearing to serve the needs of everyone. According to Habermas, the public sphere is of crucial importance because it is both an idea and an ideology; it is a place where people participate as equals in pursuit of truth and good, but remains a Utopian vision. To these ends, while public spheres (or their analogues) can serve legitimating political and cultural functions, covering societal prejudice and inequality with a bad faith gloss of equanimity, they can nonetheless still be leveraged as means for identifying social and institutional conditions that foster autonomy.

Downes’s public sphere of the MOOC as infrastructure, while not really free and available to all, nonetheless serves as a means of resistance to an established social order (the example of this being the ability to talk to a Prime Minister directly, rather than going through layers of bureaucracy and media). In this sense, the MOOC can function as a means towards truly democratic operations, capable of withstanding the corrosive effects of prejudice, narrow-mindedness, and elitism.

As we discussed in our last post, 4.605x carries with it certain undemocratic tendencies because of its nature as a survey course. Nonetheless, taking cues from Downes we can give a picture of an xMOOC that is much less bleak and pessimistic than his derision towards content-based MOOC development would suggest.

It is rationality that is both the cause of our somewhat undemocratic pedagogy in 4.605x, as well as the way towards its possible undoing. Professor Jarzombek’s course holds up the ideal of free, rational association between historical episodes. Paraphrasing his abstract (now available on, Jarzombek’s lectures give students grounding for understanding a range of buildings and contexts. Analyzing particular architectural transformations, arising from various specific cultural situations, his lectures answer questions like

  • How did the introduction of iron in the ninth century BCE impact regional politics and the development of architecture?
  • How did new religious formations, such as Buddhism and Hinduism, produce new architectural understandings?
  • What were the architectural consequences of the changing political landscape in northern Italy in the 14th century?
  • How did rock-cut architecture move across space and time from West Asia to India to Africa?


  • How did the emergence of corn impact the rise of religious and temple construction in Mexico?

These questions are easily answerable, and their answers coordinate a very particular viewpoint towards architecture and its role within historical unfolding. The third question, for example, can be answered in part by saying that the emergence of the town square in Siena, and the singular Mangia tower, there, signals the emergence of a civil society in early modern Italy. The city created common areas for its citizens to congregate, free from fear of attack, and this is related to the disappearance of prolific, defensive  towers in residential compounds, and their replacement with a single tower in the town square. For a comparison of the later and earlier town-scape conditions, review the photos below.

View of downtown Piazza del Campo (Campo Square), which backyard in Mangia Tower (Torre del Mangia) and Santa Maria Church

View of downtown Piazza del Campo (Campo Square), which backyard in Mangia Tower (Torre del Mangia) and Santa Maria Church

Reconstruction of Bologna in the early middle ages about 12th century.

Reconstruction of Bologna in the early middle ages about 12th century.

The narrative Jarzombek offers configures a certain historical methodology, whereby architectural developments are seen as causally related to a wide variety of cultural factors. There are other metanarratives that one might fit this incident in Italian history in to; examples range from foregrounding of moral concerns (Rusklin) or technological innovations (Banham), to rebuking architecture’s connection to sociopolitical factors entirely (Eisenman). Here,  a student is not given an opportunity to choose, or even explore, such counterpoints. However, in offering an admittedly singular and sanctioned narrative among a broad variety of 24 related, but autonomous incidents (see the sample lecture topics shared in the bullet points above), students are enabled, if not forced, to use their own reasoning to create a comprehensive understanding of global architectural history. Jarzombek says little about how students should relate the various topics addressed in his individual lectures, as a whole. This method differs from that of many others because, despite operating on a inherent notion of propriety and sanctioned knowledge, Jarzombek’s epistemic values nourish and encourage an individualized engagement with architectural history, and therefore history, writ large. The practical aim is to equip students with case studies that will enable them to resist integration into the fateful homogenizing metanarratives of other architectural surveys.

It is with this encouragement in mind that we, as a course team, are doing very little to direct additional conversation within the bounds of our course. Like most surveys, fostering a connection between related material is foregrounded at the expense of individualized exploration. There is a lot of material to connect–and while I would not go to so far as to say it is easy for students to connect material wrongly, I will say that it is very easy to get lost when trying to reconcile 5,000 years of human history, for the first time. Because of our interest in shepherding students as efficiently as possible though a very broad range of material, we have opted to encourage comprehension over exploration. That said, our course community offers an unprecedented opportunity for students to connect with each other, and this won’t be discouraged. Indeed, we see the open-posting capability written into the edX discussion forum as a wonderful tool for students to get to know each other as they get to know the material–and to experience whatever benefit this may offer. To this end, rather than try to facilitate an equitable and open conversation therein, we are now devising policies such that the discussion can remain free without impinging upon comprehension of the class’s radically inclusive historiographical methodology. Those policies, informed by previous edX courses, include:

  • Be polite. We have learners from all around the world and with different backgrounds. Something that is easy for you may be challenging for someone else. Let’s build an encouraging community.
  • Upvote good posts. This applies to questions and answers. Click on the green plus button so that good posts can be found more easily.
  • Search before asking. The forum can become hard to use if there are too many threads, and good discussions happen when people participate in the same thread. Before asking a question, use the search feature by clicking on the magnifying glass on the left-hand side.
  • Notify staff. If you want to have a staff member look at your post, please write [Staff] at the start of your title.
  • Be specific. Choose a descriptive title, and provide as much information as possible: Which part of what problem or video do you want to discuss? Why do you not understand the question? What have you tried doing?
  • Write clearly. We know that English is a second language for many of you but correct grammar will help others to respond. Avoid ALL CAPS, abbrv of wrds (abbreviating words), and excessive punctuation!!!!
  • Use discussion while working through the material. On many pages in the learning sequences and homework, there is a link at the bottom that says “Show Discussion”. Clicking on this link will show all discussion on the forum associated with this particular learning material.

By limiting our regulation of class discussion to these very simple rules, we hope that we can avoid a situation whereby the inherent inequities posed by the MOOC format, and this course, are limited. By not seeking to direct student engagement with the open discussion forum, while also trying to maintain a sense civility and legibility, we hope that our course community will develop itself into a vibrant forum of equal interlocutors. Thus, despite the centralizing epistemological tendencies of the survey format, a democratic community can be fostered.


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