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Research Area B: Public Spheres

Research Area B started off in 2007 with a set of ideas formulated for the original application. These ideas are set out here. What the Research Area has grown into since can be seen here.

Central themes of Research Area B are public spheres - as media, events and spaces - that have been and are built by political and cultural flows between Asia and Europe. Three research foci elaborate on various forms of historical and present public spheres with a focus on: a) aspects of mediality, visuality and textuality in relation to the production and transfer or translation of public texts, images or musical products, b) aspects of public life, events and performance as public constituents of social practices, and c) aspects of public space and urbanity, especially in urban centres such as mega-cities, including new multi-ethnic and diasporic public spheres that have emerged through national and transnational migration. In targeting the constitution of public spheres, the point of departure is the particular state-society relationship that shaped in the “West”. It involved a conceptual separation of an expanded bureaucratised state and a civil society; the circulation of capital, information and opinion in a controlled or liberalised market; a dynamic interaction of strangers engaging in issues of mutual concern (social contract); a set of concepts, institutions, and practices to ensure the flow of communication and to negotiate interests and values. This predicated the formation of a highly rational “civility”, that is, the largely non-violent solution of conflicts between state, civil society and a multiplicity of publics. The conceptual division between state and society that developed in Europe during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries has become, through a characteristically asymmetrical flow, a structural marker of modern nation-states and public spheres worldwide.

Following recent critical discussions on Habermas’ work (Nick Crossley and John M. Roberts, After Habermas, 2004), we extend and develop his notion of the “public sphere” in four respects. Firstly, the public sphere is not an intrinsically neutral space between state and society, reserved for the articulation of a critical public and elite. Secondly, the state is a historically factual and important player in the shaping of public sphere above and beyond its regulatory powers. This role has been especially strengthened in states with single-party rule while it has been recently weakened in others through transnational media, economic liberalisation, and migration. Thirdly, the public sphere is transnational and potentially global in character, not coterminous with the national space (Rudolf G. Wagner, Joining the Global Public, 2007). This requires a new analysis of relationships towards “home”, “roots” and “routes (James Clifford, Routes and Roots 1997; Steve Vertovec, Hindu Diaspora, 2000). Lastly, the public sphere does not only enable the opening of a rational discourse on matters of public concern, but operates with a wide range of articulations from the simply entertaining to the darkly manipulative.

The enlightenment assumption of the collective common sense rationality of an informed public encoded in some readings of the public sphere was contested in Europe itself, and met with unequal acceptance in different parts of Asia. Deep doubts about the maturity of the “public” justified repressive measures, and aspirations of self-appointed political avant-gardes to have to remould the entire citizenry in a spirit of “modernity” came with the claim to full control over the public sphere. While these experiences from Czarist Russia, the Communist International, or Mussolini’s Italy still operated within the basic categorical universe of modernity, they offered to Asian reformers serious alternatives to the Anglo-Saxon or French models.

None of the Asian societies simply reproduced any variant of the basic model. This Research Area will focus on the asymmetrical spread of the concept of public spheres in order to explore the ensuing construction of “multiple modernities” and multiple public spheres. In this approach it will critically extend the normative and idealising notion of a public operating on the basis of the collective rationality of common sense to include as an attitude-, opinion-, and action-guiding force the “social imaginary”, a concept first suggested by Cornelius Castoriades that broadly refers to the ways people imagine their collective social life and agency. It will investigate the processes by which these public spheres in turn provide the platform and framework for the unfolding of distinctive modernities in different nations and regions in their continuous interaction with “universal” forms and experiences of modernity (nation state, science and technology, development, secularisation, etc.). Different points of departure, however, such as colonialism, imperialism, and nationalism but also the forces of global media, migration, and capital, have contributed to a range of variants responding to the relatively similar changes occurring at a global scale.

Seen from this angle, public spheres and modernities “elsewhere” or in premodern times are not meaningfully analysed as “corrupt deviations” from a prototype, but rather as markers of an “alternative social imaginary” (Dilip P. Gaonkar, “Towards New Imaginaries”, in: Public Culture, 2002). The concept of “public spheres” in the plural enables us to consider the existence of parallel and counter-publics or the formation of a global public sphere thereby allowing us to address different kinds of public identity and belonging, solidarity, participation and dissent.

Both in Europe and in Asia, the public sphere was claimed to be instrumental in ensuring the exchange of information and opinion between ruler and ruled and within society as a condition for harnessing national energies through consensus. The public sphere shares space with the market and is similarly structured, with its public and regulated circulation of, and competition among, goods, ideas and people. This suggested openness, its potential impact, and the commodified (even fetishised) form of many elements in the public sphere prompted political or commercial forces, religious, subaltern or marginal groups to vie for a voice, for control, or even for hegemony.

Institutions and practices of the public sphere were introduced in East and South Asia by local elites or colonial governments and their contestants into utterly different contexts and were used for different and changing purposes depending on the historical context (such as colonisation), forms of governance (such as single-party rule), existing market policies, and social relations or contracts. A notion of the public sphere that reduces its legitimate manifestations to what had been described in normative European terms will misjudge not only the manifold, including Asian, elements that went into this feature of modernity, but also the modern viability and acceptance of premodern Asian values and notions of public welfare, media, space, education, and life-style.

This research area therefore explores the manifold ways in which concepts of “public”, “publicity” and “public sphere” took shape in varying historical and contemporary contexts; how they are negotiated and manifested in different ways by different social agents with varying motivations and means; and the quite remarkable consequences of the ways in which (de-)legitimising notions of “the Other” and ourselves were created.

The “structure” of public sphere is heterogeneous and highly dynamic in itself, and it varies across geographical, social, historical and media-generated spheres. Simple binary opposites such as modern/ traditional, religious/secular, private/public, elite/popular have proven too blunt for such explorations. One of the most drastic changes is related to the asymmetries introduced by mass media’s impact on face-to-face relations, thus creating new public domains and new forms of socialisation and communication (Craig Calhoun, “Tiananmen, Television and the Public Sphere”, in: Public Culture 2, 1989: 54–72). Does the media globalisation and digital revolution give rise to new asymmetries of knowledge, power, and community production? Both commercial and political entities have attempted to restrict and control access to the “virtual” public sphere, “colonising” the public realm through privatisation or through subordination to propaganda purposes. The results have not confirmed predictions. Through a radicalised asymmetrical flow, in the anticipated homogenous and monodimensional public articulation dominated by big powers and companies, the real-life process showed a stunning capacity of local and even marginal actors to launch their own cultural agenda on the stage of the globalised media. Instead of subjecting entire populations to a passive, unified and globalised mediatic infotainment, the creative potential of such media in the field of cultural production comes to the fore. These media often enable local agents to revitalise regional performance traditions, to shape an “archive” of historicity and aligned practices of collective memory, and to shift their position from a peripheral to the international literature market, or to preserve specific meanings and roles of the senses, rare local dialects and languages as well as performance traditions in a production of heritage and historicities (cp. Research Area D). On the other end, far from resulting in the predicted WWW-prompted end to the nationalist autocracy of the single-Party state, this state proved highly sophisticated in maintaining control over vital sectors of the public sphere while liberalising other fields such as entertainment. New structures of the public sphere thus surface with old structures of control being retooled and new social groups gaining access to this domain and challenging previous power relations by creating, for instance, transnational “electronic empires” (Daya K. Thussu, Electronic Empires. Global Media and Local Resistance, 1998) that reflect what Thomas J. Friedman (The World is Flat, 2004) has proclaimed as a “flat world” resulting from globalisation.

The first mostly theoretical explorations on the global ecumene (Ulf Hannerz, Transnational Connections, 1996), flows and scapes (Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large, 1996), habitat (Zygmunt Baumann, Intimations of Postmodernity, 1992) and the world wide web (Steven Gan, James Gomez, Uwe Johannen, Asian Cyberactivism, 2004) have shown the need for deeper empirical research and theoretical testing in this important field.

Any public sphere also excludes or marginalises particular publics (e.g. by stigmatising them as “lawless”, “uncultivated”, “counterrevolutionary”, “incompetent”, or “infidel”). This sets the stage for fractured publics with public spheres that have little connection in topic, value, or language but remain in an often unspoken dialogue with the rules and practices of the dominant public sphere. One particular interest of the Cluster pertains to grassroots activities using vernacular and familiar idioms of action to shape and impact on public debate (not just elite discourses that are often the ones most dramatically “empowered” by the new media). Consequently, vernacular visual and acoustical (audio-) visual material, grey and oral literature, or intangible practices (rituals, theatrical performances, political events, habitus), in other words, previously substantially neglected and marginalised material, will be brought into the focus of our research. This will require the development of a new scholarly framework through which we address alternative concepts of public arenas in modern and premodern Asia and Europe. Sites of investigation would be collective and public events (Don Handelman, Models and Mirrors, 1998 [1990]) as well as the creation of subaltern, partial or counter-publics. Performativity plays a crucial role here as the form in which some of these publics engage in identity- and opinion-making, and in the performative construction of modern social imaginaries, nation-states or even capital itself (Benjamin Lee, Edward LiPuma, “Cultures of Circulation”, in: Public Culture, 2002). Multiple local and translocal cultures of public performances have sought to increase their impact on public debate as well as their agents’ positions by developing a new vernacular of modernity that differs in its idiom and values from elite discourses. The focus here will be on different kinds of spatiality, communication media and performance means, with particular emphasis on evaluating the relationship between place, image, word, and practice.

In this context, we will explore the tension between a postulated “flat” national, regional or global public sphere and the “particular”, “deep” primary loyalties in certain groups defined via caste, kin, clan, sect, or religion that have been stressed by other scholars.


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