GLOBAL PUBLIC SPHERE AS A POSTNATIONAL PHENOMENON
(США, Восточно-Вашингтонский университет)In an earlier publication (Sinekopova, 2006) we discussed Habermas’s attempts to renovate the modernist tradition in social and political theory, positioning the concept of the public sphere as a crucial aspect of modernity with its commitment to unity, equality, and transcendence. We showed how the public sphere, as a communicative phenomenon of modernity, is built in the original Habermasian form around a number of fundamental premises that can be viewed as its bases. Specifically, we identified four such bases: autonomy, historization, transparency and logocentrism. At the same time, we argued that within each of these bases there is a blind spot, i.e., the unacknowledged assumption through which it operates. Those assumptions were identified as biases and labeled, respectively, binary, ethnocentric, lingocentric and teleological. We argued that such an approach to the public sphere is grounded too deeply in the ideas of modernity—too forceful, too active. Such ‘‘active voice still dominates conceptions of rhetoric even in the present day. The categories of persuasion or argumentation suggest the activity of a subject upon his or her listeners, of objects that receive the intended action of a subject. The exclusive value of speech in the rhetorical tradition presupposes that such processes are organized in the supposedly inherent reason, virtue, and identity of a speaking subject whose speech represents forms of presence exterior to the order of language’’ (Vivian, 2004: 76–77). As a result, we concluded that the view of the public sphere, founded on the rhetoric in the active voice, fails to reveal the complex dynamics of the public sphere.The present article continues this line of research and is aimed at contributing to the redefinition of the concept of public sphere within the global context. Specifically, it is argued that the concept of the public sphere can be viewed as a postnational phenomenon once its normative rational nature is challenged by post-modern ideas with a more dynamic orientation.The concept of the public sphere is related to the idea of public opinion as a special realm found in many social theories. But, it was J. Habermas who crystallized this idea in the concept of the public sphere, conceptualized as the sphere of private individuals coming together to discuss, freely and rationally, all matters orientated to the common good (Habermas, 1989).As mentioned earlier, the public sphere is traditionally conceptualized as a mark of modernity, when individual identities and interest are put aside for the common good. This concept highlights such traditional Enlightenment values as equality, justice and freedom. In this sense, the ideal aim of the public sphere is to transform socially situated persons into abstracts individuals who can reason in universal terms. Most directly, “the public sphere is paradigmatically associated with discussions on democracy and its shortcomings” (Pinter, 2004: 217). In this respect, the public sphere is viewed as a resource for growth of democracy, promoting discussions of civil society and public life. The concept of the public sphere appeals to the nature of civil society as it “attempts to explain the social foundations of democracy and to introduce a discussion of the specific organization of social and cultural bases within civil society for the development of an effective rational-critical discourse” (Downey & Fenton, 2003: 191).However, Habermas’s work goes well beyond discussions of democracy and civil life, raising a number of key issues in social and behavioral sciences, such as truth, freedom, accountability, norms, knowledge, and representation. Not surprisingly, Habermas draws from many disciplines in taking up these issues: his theory of communicative action strives to integrate classical social theory, hermeneutics, phenomenology, developmental psychology, Parsonsian systems theory, and Speech Act theory. At the same time, the concept of the public sphere seems to defy the explanatory potential of all these disciplines, calling for further study.It is known that Habermas has famously addressed formations of publics within nation-states, pinpointing the emergence of a critically reasoning public in the 18th century Europe wherein the public sphere appeared as grounded by a common commitment for deliberative rationality. In this respect, Habermas’s attempt to anchor the concept of the public sphere was resolutely intranational at both the cultural and economic levels.As a result of this ethnocentric (read: Eurocentric) bias, Habermas is said to have ignored, for example, its roots in the ancient Greek heritage as well as other theories of the public realm (Dean, 2001), including especially non-Western history, when he traced the emergence of the public sphere to Northern liberal democracies.Yet, Habermas later came to view the concept of the public sphere in terms of a globalized “postnational” world of numerous debating publics less constrained by nationalism ( Habermas, 1992; Habermas, 2001). One can recall Habermas’s suggestive comments on “the regard for the world public” (Habermas, 1989: 295-296) and the need for articulation of “the universal interest with great precision” (Habermas, 1989: 233). It is fair to note that the idea of debate over issues of general concern is not new; it finds its manifestation, for example, in Plato’s Timaeus History of the World, Aristotle’s World State, Bacon’s Globus Terrestris, Hegel’s World Spirit (Weltgeist), or Kant’s League of Peace. However, Habermas can be viewed as having “laid the theoretical groundwork for thinking about global politics” (Mater, 2001: 213) and “the possibility of a global public sphere” (Mater, 2001: 214).The emerging redefinition of the idea of the public sphere that includes its global aspect can be explained, above all, by the new developments of multimedia and computer technologies as well as a strong tendency of the public sphere towards fragmentation. Two recent developments have contributed to the importance of the global public sphere: new communication technologies, e.g. digital interactive networks, and the shift from nation-states to the Post-Westphalian world. In 1648, the Peace of Westphalia ended religious wars in Europe and created the institution of sovereign nation-state. Today nations-states no longer dominate the world politics, cf. the role of NGOs.There are a number of related terms that are aimed at expressing the same idea as the global public sphere, e.g., International Public Sphere (Ball, 2000), Cosmopolitan Public Sphere (Bohman, 1997) or Transnational Public Sphere (McLaughlin, 2004). The term ‘global public sphere’, which captures the non-governmental flavor best of all, is conceptualized as “a place where forms of organization and tactics for collective action can be transmitted across the globe” (Guidry et al., 2000: 7). Sometimes, the term Cosmocracy is suggested to refer to the global system of complex governance. Cosmocracy is conceptualized as a structure or a new type of polity between the Westphalian model of sovereign states and a single, unified system of world government. However, regardless of the label, the public sphere at the global level is a postnational phenomenon and should be theorized as a construct of postmodernity.First of all, it must be emphasized that the modern approaches to the public sphere favor unity and transcendence. Habermas’s original project appears grounded in a number of categorical distinctions. The rigid distinction between system and lifeworld that stands at the center of his work governs the entire rhetoric of the public sphere. Distinctions between the classical (liberal) and contemporary public spheres, between production and interaction, between the cognitive-instrumental rationality and communicative rationality – all these binary conceptions have the goal of identifying the public sphere as an autonomous realm.Contemporary metaphors of the public sphere have unmistakable postmodern connotations, for example, the public sphere is discussed in terms of “Flows, “Fluidity, “Mobilities, “Networks, etc. It is clear that the public sphere as a postnational phenomenon favors plurality and coexistence of competing publics. It is worth mentioning that Habermas himself in one of his later works talks about the widely expanded and differentiated public spheres (Habermas, 1998). Still, it must be noted that the postmodern attitude to the public sphere accepts basic Enlightenment values, while taking a relativist rather than transcendental approach to them.Second, the public sphere as a postnational phenomenon is more and more often linked to the idea of grounded everyday moralities. The grounded everyday approach focuses on “what living, concrete, ‘real’ people from all areas of lived experiences actually say and do about moral issues of their everyday lives” (Plummer, 2001: 248). This approach is clearly contrasted with the view of the public sphere that focuses on abstract rational norms and practices; that latter view fails to reveal the complex nature of the public sphere and treat it as a truly dynamic communicative phenomenon. Even though all the pieces in the puzzle of the public sphere seem to be in place, it fails to answer the question how the public sphere can be revitalized, which is the key goal of building the public sphere. In other words, the view of the public sphere “fails to address the way in which the public sphere constructs itself as a unified entity” (Mah, 2000: 166). The grounded everyday approach, on the other hand, provides a foundation for understanding the public sphere as anchored in concrete relations of the lifeworld.In this respect, parallels can be drawn between the grounded everyday approach to the global public sphere as a postnational phenomenon and Bakhtin’s carnivalesque ideas in which power relations can be inverted through popular, ‘earthly’ and wildly funny culture. Thus, global debate over general public concerns must be viewed as performed through daily events.Not surprisingly, in this light criticism is growing of overly serious and rationalistic discourse perspectives of the global public sphere. For modernists, commercialized forms of culture are not ‘rational’ enough. They look at the spectacle character of our time and lament its showy nature wherein rational presentation of information through the medium of written word is vanishing and logical debate is lost. For postmodernists, all forms of communication are welcome. More and more often public discussion includes different genres like rap music—that’s a more postmodern view of communicative rationality. It is noted that other forms of cultural expression are important in understanding the nature of public sphere as a postnational phenomenon. We are even warned that the danger of “genocide is more likely to come from those who are purely logical at the expense of feelings” (McKee, 2005: 114). Thus, a postmodern attitude to the public sphere accepts basic Enlightenment values, but takes a relativist rather than transcendental approach to them. While the modern focus is on ideas and abstractions; the postmodern focus is on lived experience.It must be especially emphasized that the global public sphere is, first and foremost, a process. Such conceptualization of the public sphere is aimed against two biases in its original treatment—historization and spatialization.As mentioned earlier, originally attempts were made to historically pinpoint the public realm - from ancient Greece to Muslim societies before European conquest (Keane, 2003) to Northern liberal democracies of the 18th century. Yet, it is a more constructive way to view the public sphere not as merely a structure, but an ongoing process, conceptualized as a postnational phenomenon. The global public sphere is constructed through a complex process of negotiation. The main goal of building a true public sphere can be achieved only by developing “the capacities of public reason to cross and negotiate boundaries and differences between persons, groups and cultures” (Bohman, 1996: 116). In other words, at the postnational level what is called for is the difficult work of cultural translation in which difference is honored without (a) assimilating difference to identity or (b) making difference an unthinkable fetish of alterity.This approach to the global public sphere is based on the constitutive view of negotiation, captured very well by Judith Butler who writes, “How is it that we become available to a transformation of who we are … if we demand, in advance, to know that, as subjects, we are intact, uneroded, uncontested, presupposed, and necessary? … To be so grounded is nearly to be buried: it is to refuse alterity (Butler, 1995: 131). It is important to remember that rules and norms come into being in the process of making and validating claims. Everybody must enter the public debate across national boundaries of cultural difference aiming at ‘enlarging one’s interpretations and enriching them by holding them open to other interpretations’ (McKee, 2005: 160).Also, conceptualizing the global public sphere as a process overcomes another bias, that of spatialization. The public sphere is commonly conceived as a space or domain that one enters, occupies, or leaves. While the public sphere can be viewed as a horizon for the organization of social experience, it must be emphasized that moving towards that horizon is not simply a spatial endeavor, but also a matter of time. As a result, there exists “the inescapable instability in representing the public as a mass subject” or “the always existing gap between the abstract plural pronoun and the singular, particular person who has appropriated it” (Mah, 2000: 169).In conclusion, the concept of the postnational global public sphere raises a number of important issues that deal with global cultural change, e.g. interactions between individuals and state, practices of argumentation, forms of resistance, marginal groups, and ethical concerns. Understanding the concept of the postnational public sphere helps us to grapple with the nature of these cultural global changes.
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