Art, Media and the Public Sphere

In The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (first published in 1962 and translated into English in 1989), Jürgen Habermas defined the modern public sphere as a realm of social life where public opinion takes shape. This realm constitutes around rational-critical deliberations between individuals who “come together as a public” as they debate on matters of general interest and common concern. Its ideal type is the 18th-century public sphere whose efficiency lay in its capacity to act as a normative principle of democratic legitimacy, producing public opinion that influenced political action against the domination of the state. In subsequent revisions, Habermas emphasized the role of deliberative language and communicative rationality in the consolidation of the public sphere, which he redefined as “a network for communicating information and points of view” where “participants enter into interpersonal relationships by taking positions of mutual speech-act offers and assuming illocutionary obligations.”

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The Habermasian formulation of the public sphere has been contested from the start. Critics have questioned its presumed universalism and unity, as well as its rational-critical discourse. Nancy Fraser has shown that the bourgeois public sphere was constituted through a considerable number of exclusions—those of women and other social groups, who in fact constituted counterpublics where members could formulate oppositional understandings of their identities and interests. Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge have disclosed the interdependency between the bourgeois public sphere and the proletarian counterpublic sphere. Chantal Mouffe has contested Habermas’s rationalistic model of argumentation, to propose instead an agonistic model where antagonism is the necessary passion of politics. Media scholars have shown that the interpersonal relationships composing the public sphere were much more actively mediated than Habermas initially presumed and that the development of mass media does not necessarily lead to the degeneration of the public sphere. Other critics have highlighted the surveillance capacities of media, together with the increased privatization and commercialization of the internet, as well as the neoliberal depolitization of publicness. They maintain that these operations have contributed to the weakening of the public sphere as a democratic space. Habermas himself has postulated that the public sphere has been in decline since the 19th century.

In light of these critiques, what remains of the public sphere, and what is to be saved from it? Much more multiple, porous, passionate, mediated and mutable than initially formulated, can the public sphere nevertheless function as a motivating ideal? More importantly: how can and how does art participate in this impetus? In The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere Habermas locates the origins of the public sphere in 17th– and 18th– century cultural spheres, which progressively developed into a politically-oriented public sphere. Institutionalized by the coffeehouse, the journal of opinion and the art and literary salons, the cultural public sphere was composed of readers, spectators, listeners and critics engaged in deliberations (analyses of meaning, judgments of taste and moral discussions) around artistic, literary, theatrical and musical works. These deliberations unfolded through processes of identification and disidentification, as well as judgments on a variety of subjects aesthetically represented and performed (private life, the humanness of the family described in sentimental literature, beauty, the imagined life of others). The cultural sphere—the subjective themes and empathic author-reader relationships it introduced; the meeting places and critical arguments by which it unfolded—both prepared for and enriched the deliberations of the political sphere.

While it is difficult today to maintain the universal and rationalistic presuppositions of these two spheres, and although the cultural sphere is increasingly privatized, the role of culture in the shaping of the public sphere is worth reexamining. Some components of the public sphere—critical publicness; the aesthetics of its deliberations on matters of general and common interest; a public body’s capacity to reconfigure common sense—are worth defending. During the 2015-2016 academic year, Media@McGill will dedicate most of its research and conference activities to the question of the cultural public sphere, examining its relation to the political sphere and its operativeness both as an analytical tool and an aesthetic category. While some models of the cultural public sphere have failed, others have been reinvented and must be assessed. These models have been historically and are still today critical for the development and reconsideration of democracy, justice, commonality, relationality, ecology, vitality and publics, as well as for the evolution of the museum as one of the privileged institutions of the public sphere.

Our investigation of the role of the cultural public sphere in contemporary reformulations of the public sphere will revolve around six questions. First, what is the general state of publicness in the world today, especially the state of its related ideals: democracy, justice, commonality and emancipation? Second, what is the relationship between art, politics and media in the making of public spheres? Third, if we adopt Gerard Hauser’s more flexible definition of the public sphere, as a sphere “in which individuals and groups congregate to discuss matters of mutual interest and, where possible, to reach a common judgment,” how can the public sphere be aesthetically defined as a “sensibility” and not simply as a mode of rational-critical deliberation or decision-making process? Fourth, to paraphrase Nelson Goodman, when (more than what) is the cultural public sphere? The cultural public sphere has a history and a genealogy that still need to be traced by art historians, museum thinkers, curators, media scholars and social scientists. Fifth, when and how does art (especially media art) succeed in actualizing inclusive public spheres—public spheres that are open to human and nonhuman relations? To use Bruno Latour’s Inquiry into Modes of Existence’s terminology, when and how does art deploy spacious in-common worlds, which make room for a diversity of beings in conversation, new and old ways of relating through sensibilities, perception, thought, affects, movement, circulation, media, speech and body acts? Worlds that redefine what it is to be human. And sixth, how are cultural public spheres spatialized and temporalized in different geographies, in relation to globalization?

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