June 11, 2014, by Judith Tsouvalis

Re-imagining the public / re-imagining the political

Who is 'the public'?

Who is ‘the public’?


Last month (15-16 May) I attended a conference organised by Michel Ledda, Robert Cowley, and David Chandler from the Centre for the Study of Democracy (CSD) at the University of Westminster entitled: ‘New perspectives on the problem of the public’. Together with Sujatha Raman I work on the Leverhulme funded project ‘Models of Managing Science/Politics Boundaries in the Advisory System’, and different ways in which ‘the public’ or ‘publics’ are conceptualized are a key to our research. Indeed, they are key to the whole Leverhulme programme of which this project forms a part: ‘Making Science Public’, after all, is its title! Ideas of ‘the public’, of ‘publics’, and of ‘making public’ matter, not least in the area of science governance (Mohr, Raman and Gibbs, 2014).

What’s in a title? Contextualising the conference theme

The Westminster conference – which framed the public as a ‘problem’ – attracted scholars from a wide range of disciplines (among them sociology, geography, politics, planning, law and architecture) and featured an impressive cast of keynote speakers (John Law, Clive Barnett, Julian Reid, and Andrew Barry). This indicates that the notion of ‘the public’ has lost none of its attraction since John Dewey’s publication in 1927 of ‘The Public and its Problems’, in which he responded to Walter Lippmann’s claim made in ‘The Phantom Public’ that there was no such ‘thing’ as ‘the public’; that ‘it’ was but a mere phantom. Lippmann had been disillusioned with democratic politics in the wake of the First World War and the silencing of the public under fascism. A similar disillusionment with politics and a fear that the demos is once again being deprived of its voice characterizes problematisations of ‘the public’ in our own era.

Concerns about the devastating effects of neo-liberalism on democracy are increasing. Political theorists argue that we live in a post-political, post-democratic age where politics proper – defined as the potential for agonistic struggle which is inspired by ideological differences, disagreement, and conflict of interest and aimed at changing dominant governance arrangements and power relations – is being eroded and supplanted by the globalization of neoliberal ideals and practices. Symptomatic of this post-political condition, as we might call it, is the expert-led governance of issues of public concern where ‘problems’ are defined and tackled based on science-, engineering- and managerial knowledge (Žižek, 1999; Mouffe, 2005; Diken, 2009; Ranciére, 1999, 2007; Swyngedouw, 2007, 2011). The critique of the post-political condition has been an interest of mine for some time (Tsouvalis and Waterton, 2012a & 2012b), and it is highly relevant to my current research, in which I consider carefully, among other things, whether technocracy has supplanted democracy; whether ‘evidence’ and ‘facts’ have robbed the public or demos of its voice; and whether non-political approaches to public matters of concern have become the norm. It is not surprising – given the current climate of political turmoil in which fascism is once again on the rise -, that the Westminster conference called for new perspectives on the ‘problem of the public’. Below, I briefly present some of the issues raised by the keynote speakers before raising a question of my own.

‘The public’ as a gathering

In the first keynote, John Law talked about how the framing of the issue of economic recovery in terms of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) had constructed a vast imaginary public assumed to partake ‘in this (recovery), together’ (Johal, Law and Williams, 2014). The GDP discourse, Law argued, excludes many voices of locally and regionally disadvantaged groups of people for whom economic recovery simply is not happening – such as the people of Enfield, with whom Law and colleagues work. He proposed that alternative framings of ‘the public’ are needed that can do justice to the experiences of these marginalised people, and the one he suggested was that of the ‘congregation’. The term ‘congregation’ is useful, he suggested, because it highlights that people ‘gather together in particular (though not always geographical) locations because they believe, correctly or otherwise, that they share commitments, enthusiasms, or sets of concerns’. This definition is reminiscent of Latour’s (2007) idea of ‘new collectives’ that assemble around specific matters of concern in particular places. In the discussions that followed, the notion of ‘congregation’ was challenged on the grounds that congregations always have foundational institutions in place (such as the Church) that enable them to meet regularly. The added value of the term was also questions, for example, over a notion like ‘activist communities’. Finally, there were concerns about whether new framings of groups can or should be imposed from the ‘outside’ by experts, or whether it would not be more meaningful to let them emerge from the ‘inside’, rooted in place.

Emergent publics

Clive Barnett from Exeter University in his keynote picked up on the idea of ‘the public’ as problematic and linked it to Habermas’ view of the decline of the public sphere advanced in his book ‘The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere’ (1962). The continuing influence of this work, in Barnett’s view, is deeply problematic. For him, public life should be seen as subject to ongoing reconfigurations. As he put it, just because publics form around issues of public value, ‘they’ cannot simply be created. Indeed, present-day fast-changing and innovative modes of public action give rise to a multiplicity of what Barnett calls ‘emergent publics’. He defines public action as the medium to partake in public life: a ‘sharing in the collective life of a community of strangers on an equal footing’. In a recent publication (p16), this is explained more fully: “The idea of sharing as involving relationships between strangers is best captured in both classical literary accounts of the modern public, as well as recent literary-theoretical and philosophical accounts of the public sphere, in which a key feature of a public is this idea of a community of strangers (Warner 2002). Both reading publics, and also the modern city, are often invoked as figures for this type of collective, in which the value of openness of a public space or medium is specifically related to being exposed to the initiation of communication by others. In short, the value of openness associated with the idea of publicness necessarily implies this emphasis on relations with strangers.” This understanding of the public as a ‘community of strangers’ did not go down very well at Westminster, and it was argued the ‘collectivism’ of public action should be emphasised instead.

Radical re-imaginings – political subjectivity and ‘the public’

In the third keynote, Julian Reid was adamant that ‘the public’ was in the process of being destroyed; its properties, goods and services either being abolished or sold-off into private hands. Liberal democracy, Reid held, has dumb-struck ‘the public’. What remains to be answered for him is this: ‘can we outwit the regimes that destroy the public?’, and ‘how does the public imagine itself and its future’? Read’s evaluation of the situation echos concerns expressed by scholars writing on the post-political condition: the future has become unimaginable outside the confines of neoliberalism and capitalism. The way forward is to radically reimagine political subjectivity and disentangle life from the economy! In a recent publication with Brad Evans (Evans and Reid, 2014:167), he puts it this way: “… if the contemporary crisis of liberalism can be read as both a logical and altogether predictable expression of its narcissistic and self-destructive qualities, how may we think the political differently so that we may entertain the possibility of out-living its catastrophic imaginary?” In the literature on post-politics, the term ‘politics’ generally refers to the ontic arrangements of society (its institutions and orders), while the notion of ‘the political’ implies the contingent political ontologies that underpin them (see, for example, Badiou). Hence Žižek’s definition of a proper political act is one that ‘changes the very framework that determines how things work’ (Žižek, 1999:199).Inspired by psychoanalytic theory and the work of Bachelard, Reid suggests that we need to overcome ‘the public within ourselves’ in order to renew our political subjectivity. This necessitates a radical reimagining of our political ontologies – including our conceptions of ‘the public’ – and the constructing of political subjectivities beyond what is imposed on us (or taken away from us) by neoliberal thought and practice.

Material publics

Andrew Barry added complexity to this task of reimagining the political by foregrounding the role of materiality in the reinvention of ‘the public’. Referring to Bruno Latour’s work on ‘Making Things Public’ and Noortje Marres’ contribution to a better understanding of materiality in participation, he reminded the audience that publics are not simply produced through an act of the imagination, but rather through experimentation and relations with different materials. ‘The public’, for Barry (as for Law), is a ‘site specific invention’. This perspective foregrounds questions such as ‘what are the apparatuses of the public’? ‘What is the history of matters of concern?’ ‘What are the properties and movements of materials and how do they matter in material politics?’

The above perspectives and those provided by the other speakers in their thought-provoking papers at this conference highlight the challenges encountered when trying to rethink ‘the public’. The session titles also make this clear: public space; constructed and emergent publics; beyond the subject; and material publics. To finish, I would like to offer some reflections of my own, beginning with a question.

 ‘P’ublic or ‘p’ublics?

Should we, like Latour does for ‘S’cience/‘s’cience, draw a distinction between the ‘Public’ with a big capital ‘P’, and ‘publics’ with a small capital ‘p’? Would it help us disentangle some of the issues touched on by the Westminster conference? For Latour (2004:10), the ‘discourse on Science has no direct relation to the life of the sciences. […] ‘S’cience is the politicisation of the sciences through epistemology in order to render ordinary political life impotent through the threat of an incontestable Nature’. By ‘incontestable Nature’ Latour means the ways in which the material world (including climate change) is represented in politics as fact; as objective, incontestable truth. On the other hand, ‘The sciences’, he argues, ‘[…] create collective propositions with which to constitute the world’ (ibid: 249). In a similar way, ‘the Public’, when conjured up in political discourse as the ‘mass’ in whose name all things can be done, renders ‘publics’ mute in politics. The Public is the imaginary described by Reid that has become so corrupted by neo-liberalism that it has lead to the death of the political subject. This is ‘the Public’ as depoliticizing effect. And yet, by foregrounding this Public in our analyses and critiques, do we not miss the multiple ways in which ‘publics’ can and do act politically? These multiple and complex publics – made up of assemblages of humans and non-humans –, I would argue, do the work that Latour refers to as composing the common world, or Stengers names cosmopolitics. It is through this work – the work of these ‘new collectives’, as Latour calls them – that neo-liberalism will fail. Small capital ‘publics’ are transforming the political in ways that ‘the Public’ has long ceased to be able to do. The reason perhaps why it is difficult for us to comprehend this is that materiality has for a very long time been written out of our accounts of the political: our philosophies of the ‘Public’, in its disembodied form, is indeed in urgent need of revision.

Photo: Wiki Commons

References (with no links in the text):

Diken, B. Radical critique as the paradox of post-political society. Third Text, 2009, 23 (5), 579-586

Mouffe, C. On the Political. Abingdon, Oxford: Routledge, 2005.

Swyngedouw, E. Depoliticized Environments: The End of Nature, Climate Change and the Post-Political Condition, Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement, 2011, 69, 253-274.

Swyngedouw, E. Impossible/undersirable sustainability and the post-political condition, in Krueger, J.R. and Gibbs, D. (eds) The sustainable development paradox. New York: Guilford, 2007.

Ranciére, J. On the shores of politics (transl. Liz Heron). London: Verso, 2007.

Ranciére, J. Disagreement. Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 1999.

Žižek, S. The Ticklish Subject – The Absent centre of political ontology. London: Verso, 1999.

Posted in publics