Aisthesis and the Common: Reconfiguring the Public Sphere

Colloquium Description

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” (Between Fact and Norms, 1996: 361).

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 — of women and other social groups, who in fact constituted counterpublics where members could formulate oppositional understandings of their identities and interests (“Rethinking the Public Sphere” in Habermas and the Public Sphere, ed. Craig Calhoun, 1992). Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge have disclosed the interdependency between the bourgeois public sphere and the proletarian counterpublic sphere (Public Sphere and Experience, 1993). Chantal Mouffe has contested Habermas’s rationalistic model of argumentation, to propose instead an agonistic model where antagonism is the necessary passion of politics (Agonistics: Thinking the World Politically, 2013). 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 (John Thompson, The Media and Modernity, 1995; Manuel Castells, “The New Public Sphere,” 2008). 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 (S. Low and N. Smith, The Politics of Public Space, 2006; D. Barney, G. Coleman, C. Ross, J. Sterne and T. Tembeck, eds., The Participatory Condition, forthcoming). 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 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. They are defended in recent developments in contemporary art where humans and nonhumans are invited to assemble in specifically designed sites to constitute common worlds or simply to provide a sense of the common (e.g., installations; situations; street art; participatory and relational sites; expanded monuments; physical and digital agoras and salons; specially created public spaces). Aisthesis and the Common: Reconfiguring the Public Sphere’s working hypothesis is that art that explores the common creates a realm for the reconfiguration of the critical public sphere. The colloquium asks two fundamental questions related to this hypothesis: how is the public sphere rethought aesthetically (in terms of forms, media, materialities and sensibilities) in contemporary art? And how does an artistic public sphere succeed in permeating a political public sphere?

Aisthesis and the Common: Reconfiguring the Public Sphere brings together artists, designers, art historians, curators, philosophers and scholars in urbanism and media studies to reflect on emerging models of the public sphere and the role of aisthesis (αἴσθησις: the faculty of perception by the senses and the intellect) in this emergence. These models represent different ways to challenge common sense through reformulations of common concern. They rethink the human/nonhuman relations of the public sphere’s communality, following a reinvented dialectic between mutuality and individuality, agreement and dissensus, common good and common activity. Some of the aesthetic models considered here include: the atmospheric; the magnetic; speculative realism; the edge and the action of edging; worldly cosmopolitism; the communism of the senses; the reinvention of the salon as an interspecies site; unbecoming communities; the performed and virtualized public space. They evolve alongside and sometimes in dialogue with new political and philosophical models of public life, including: the inoperative community (Jean-Luc Nancy); the meeting of species (Donna Haraway); the (non)relationality of human and nonhuman objects (Graham Harman); cruel optimism (Lauren Berlant); the multitude (Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri); hermeneutic communism and the end of emergencies (Gianni Vattimo and Santiago Zabala); tolerance (Wendy Brown and Rainer Forst); world-forming (Nancy); spherical expansion (Peter Sloterdijk); and a political co-activity by which the common is instituted through participatory actions rather than as a thing to appropriate for the common good (Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval).

When (more than what) is the public sphere? When does contemporary 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. How do aesthetics and politics intertwine? And how are cultural public spheres spatialized and temporalized in different geographies, in relation to globalization? Aisthesis and the Common: Reconfiguring the Public Sphere is an occasion to raise and discuss some of these questions, all of which revolve around the place of aisthesis in contemporary reformulations of the public sphere.