Thursday, January 21, 2010


Is it the question of maintaining a public sphere the question of the possibility of democracy?

ORWELL: Political purpose - using the word "political" in the widest possible sense - the desire to push the world in a direction, to change other people's ideas about the type of society for which they should fight. (2008, 17)

I have always defended artistic intervention in public space, for the defense of a participated public sphere, therefore democratic and this is my political purpose. But what is public sphere or even democracy and its relationship with art it is still to be understand, and what I share here is just the beginning of a search. Neither the fabric is woven, or the loom ridden, but only the warp preparation is being done.

The bourgeois public sphere, which Habermans gives account of its disintegration in the The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, was a the late eighteenth century sphere of private individuals gathered as a public and thus controlling public authority. This enlightened public use of reason was not only the courage to think for ourselves, but to do it aloud, and is seen as the paradise lost, but with the mixture of state and society in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century a 'public sphere has lost its political function, namely: that of subjecting the affairs that it had made public to the control of a critical public.’

Salons disappeared, in the course of twentieth century, the leisure activities of culture-consuming public replace them, but these new activities do not require any critical discussion. The diagnosis was that the discussion has become a mere exchange of tastes and preferences among consumers since the occupation of the public sphere by the dispossessed masses, which led to an interlocking of state and society that has demolished the old foundation of that sphere without supplying a new one.

The importance of a critical public sphere in connecting society with the state seems still paramount to democratic theory, therefore many defend its rehabilitation, but is there only one public sphere, or are they multiple?

HANNULA: The idea of an open public sphere, where so the story goes, all interested parties can collaborate and exchange ideas equally is a beautiful dream, but not much more that that. Public space is a tool of control, and a tool for achieving certain ends. (2006, 74)

Let’s admit the plurality of public spheres – but Habermas considers only a democratic public sphere, which does not coincide with the public spheres of mass culture, is one and only one in which citizens could communicate about the regulation of public affairs.’

Unlike Habermas the Viennese philosopher Marchart opposes to this idea that the democratic public sphere 'is naturally privileged over others’. He asks, ‘what makes all the various "partial" public spheres such as the everyday public spheres of advertising, backstairs gossip, sports events, youth cultures, etc. any less public, less autonomous or less universal than a public sphere created through rational discussion.’

LACLAU: For me, a radically democratic society is one in which a plurality of public spaces constituted around specific issues and demands, and strictly autonomous of each other, instils in its members a civic sense which is a central ingredient of their identity as individuals. Despite the plurality of these spaces, or, rather, as a consequence of it, a diffuse democratic culture is created, which gives the community its specific identity. Within this community, the liberal institutions - parliament, elections, divisions of power - are maintained, but these are one public space, not the public space.

Mouffe would follow saying that despite this plurality democracy does not consist of a colorful harlequin suit of public spheres, ‘rather the conflict of the question as to which public spheres are tolerated as politically legitimate and which are not’. This is the notion of an agonist democracy where different groups will be in permanent conflict, not as enemies but as competitors. Public sphere emerges where is dissent since homogeneity is an illusion and consent an impossibility. What Mouffe proposes, therefore, is a continuous and permanent agonist conflict, that instead of trying to eliminate power relations brings them to the fore to be disputed. The possibility of democracy lies also there where a constant articulation and re-articulation of alliances, or temporary consensus is made.

HANNULA: We are part of the game, part of the mess. What we ought to strive for is the perspective of a critical reflective participant... (2006, 76)

In what sense can art – and we shall say public, including performance which is the reason for this ‘warping’ – be a part of this ever-present attempt ceaseless attempt to build a public sphere and hence society?

BEGGAR: you have nothing to do with it. Now you have your chest hollow, like a hole in the sewer, because you made a stupid question. They are all stupid questions. What stupidity, questions! *

So lets untangle the skein from another end. Democracy for Plato was not only a form of government, but the third degree of the good government’s decay. The democrat, son of the oligarch, blind due to excessive freedom: for him everything is the same, good and bad, everyone is entitled to equal civic participation, liberty and equality is his motto. Jusque ici tout va bien. But it is not the fall but the landing that is matters, and according to Plato all that is excessive comes back as its opposite. The destruction of democracy, he announces, will be by the metamorphosis of its highest good - freedom - into its opposite: excessive slavery, and with it tyranny.

By this diapason the contemporary critics of democracy tune their repertoire, portraying democracy as the destroyer of the social body due to its excessive individualism – the search for personal pleasures and material prosperity - which in turn is seen as the antidote since time Aristotle’s time of that which is fatal to democracy and which reveals the known democratic paradox: the excess of democratic activity is the ruin of democracy and therefore should be repressed. In turn this repression leaves citizens indifferent to the common good and undermine the state’s authority. Good government, as Rancière affirms, shall be that which is capable of balancing this excess of collective activity and individual withdrawal inherent to democratic life.

RANCIÈRE: democracy is the worst of governments with the exception of all the others. (2006, 4)

Being able to rule or be ruled is an aphorism dear to the good government of Plato - where the most stronger and wise were the guardians of the city - but it is also exactly where democracy turns out to be problematic. The real scandal, Rancière would say, is not in the excessive demand for individual pleasure but in the superiority to rule be based on nothing more than the absence of superiority, i.e., the guardians would be chosen by drawing of lots.

Politics begins exactly there, where the power of birth is undermined and declared for what it is, the power of the property-owners. Democracy is precisely this dissociation and not a kind of constitution, or a type of society. The power of the people is not the union nor the power of the majority but the very particular power of those who have no more right to govern than to be submit, which is then the power of anyone, and everyone.

The public sphere, as stated above, shall be in constant conflict, just as democracy must fight continuously against the distribution of public and private under the control of oligarchs, and also, as Rancière says, ‘struggle for the enlarging of the recognition, as equals and as political subjects, of those that have been relegated by State law to the private life of inferior beings, and to assert the public character of spaces, relations and institutions regarded as private.' It will then be in the small gestures of emancipated political subjects that democracy operates.

* In The Begger or the Dead Dog. 1919. Bertolt Brecht

HABERMAS, J. 1989. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: an Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Polity Press.
HANNULA, M. 2006. The Politics of Small Gestures: Chances and Challenges for Contemporary Art, art-ist.
MARCHART, O. 1999 . Art, Space and the Public Sphere(s). [Online] disponível em [Acedido a 14 Novembro 2009]
MOUFFE, C. 2000. The Democratic Paradox. London, New York: Verso.
ORWELL, G. 2008. Por Que Escrevo e Outros Ensaios. Antígona.
PLATO. 1997. Republic. Wordsworth.
RANCIÈRE, J. 2006. Hatred of Democracy. Verso.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

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