Culture & Communication : Public Sphere and Conflict

Avni Sethi, a trained kathak dancer and designer who has put together Ahmedabad’s first “participatory” museum of conflict, Conflictorium was here at MICA to take us through the concept of Public Sphere in context to our subject Culture & Communication.

In the book The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere – An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, Jurgen Habermas expressed the most contemporary conceptualizations of the Public Sphere.  He stipulates that due to specific historical  circumstances, a new civic society emerged in the eighteenth century which formed a separate domain from the ruling authorities. It was driven by a need to freely exchange and discuss news and matters of common concern and was accompanied by the growing rates of literacy, accessibility to literature, and a new kind of critical journalism. Public Sphere as a concept was a replacement of the emergent bourgeoisie in which state authority was publicly monitored through informed and critical discourse by the people. Habermas pointed three institutional criteria for these Public Sphere where organized discussion among people took place. Firstly, it preserved equality and disregarded status altogether but this criteria wasn’t actually realized in earnest and was only consequential. Secondly, the discussion in this private environment were sort of a public critical attention to the domain of ‘common concern’. Lastly, it always understood and found itself immersed within a more inclusive public of all private people, persons who – insofar as they were propertied and educated – as readers, listeners, and spectators could avail themselves via the market of the objects that were subject to discussion.

In 1992, 30 years after Jurgen expresses his ideas in the book, Habermus and the Public Sphere went through a core criticism or conflict by scholars from various academic disciplines which was directed towards the above stated “institutional criteria”. In Rethinking the Public Sphere, Nancy Fraser claimed in contrast to Habermas’ assertions on disregard of status and inclusivity, that the bourgeois public sphere discriminated against women and other historically marginalized groups. She called it all a network of clubs and associations of philanthropic, civic, professional, and cultural  group of people which were anything but accessible to everyone and was a training ground of a “universal class” of bourgeois men who were preparing to assert their fitness to govern. The Public Sphere which Habermas described disregarded the basis of equality in gender, social status, ethnicity and property ownership. Nancy Fraser identified the fact that marginalized groups are excluded from a universal public sphere, and thus it was impossible to claim that one group would in fact be inclusive. However, she claimed that marginalized groups formed their own public spheres, and termed this concept a subaltern counterpublic or counterpublics.

By the end of the lecture we were told about many such instances of Conflict in the arena of Culture & Communication through the Blank Noise ProjectThe Fearless Collective and Pinjra Tod which were an effort towards the truth and reconciliation process. She stated that Communication can serve as a start when in culture or society at large someone has identified and defined some Conflict. These conflicts should be resolved constantly through dialogue which will serve as a basis for more liberal and socialist democracy. ‘Conflictorium’ her museum with its tagline ‘keep talking’, also aims to encourage people to discuss conflicts in a healthy manner rather than brushing these incidents under the carpet by simply refusing to talk about them. It gives the residents a medium to communicate, understand and express their internal conflicts.


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