Reconstruction 5.3 (Summer 2005)
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Rhetorics of Place: The Importance of Public Spaces and Public Spheres / Michael Benton
<1> This special issue's emphasis on the "rhetorics of place" is a claim that our physical places are shaped and understood through the "public sphere" by the various "communities of meaning" competing for attention, and, in which "public opinion is formed and policy decisions are made (Sanchez-Casal and Macdonald, 10-14; Strickland,165; also see Arendt; Borradori; Calhoun; Escobar; Fraser; Glissant; Habermas).
<2> Habermas's original historical narrative of the rise and fall of an 18th century public sphere (1962/1989) is well-known and has been critiqued for its exclusionary nature (Fraser). Responding to these critiques Habermas himself later revisited the concept in "Further Reflections on the Public Sphere" (1992) and Philosophy in a Time of Terror (2004). The rise of the 18th century public sphere coincided with the rise of capitalism/industrialism, print-based mass communication, technological optimism and nationalistic movements (also see Benedict Anderson). Its strength was the core literacy of the elite members of the public sphere who shared a common knowledge of essential texts, similar class experiences and a vested-interest in the continuation of the current social system. There was an emphasis on debating and forming policy through reasoned discussion "among private people that tended to be ongoing" (Habermas, 1992: 238). Habermas provides three key features of the public sphere that can serve as a model of participatory democracy: The first is "inclusive," in that participation is open to all; the second is "egalitarian," in that all participants are considered equal in the enactment of debate and dialogue; and the third, is "openness," in that any issue can be raised for rational debate (Habermas, 1992, pp. 238-239). These three factors can serve as an ideal model of a public sphere in which citizens engage in rational debate concerning the policies that govern their lives (Baoill).
<3> Unfortunately, we are currently faced with a perplexing problem in regards to the functioning of the public sphere in the American democratic process. There has been a beneficial rise in the level of social participation for many people in our multicultural society, but a concomitant result has been the increasing fragmentation of a perceived public sphere shared by everyone in which public intellectuals could reasonably discuss and form public policy. Additionally the increasing speed of mediated information exchanges works in the interest of expert political actors because most people have little time to think about and critically absorb the onslaught of information. Slowly, but surely, citizens have been weaned from debating their own positions based upon reasoned discussion of ideas in public forums, to an almost complete reliance on their perception of political personas as portrayed in public spectacles (Borradori 56-57; Debord). While the public sphere has retained its separation from state influence, it has been colonized by corporate culture and reflects a culture of "branding," "mcdonaldization," and "disneyification" (Baudrillard; Boje and Dennehy; Klein; Lasn; Ritzer; Snow). This "branding" of public issues and political actors reflects the changing role of active citizens to passive consumers in a corporate culture (Dennis; Snow). This leads to citizens absolving their response-ability to engage in the public sphere in return for simply consuming "in order to feel part of the social milieu" (Mclaren and Leonardo: 218). Engaged political action becomes simplified consumer reaction, clearly demonstrated as George Bush encouraged American citizens to respond to the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Towers: "We can't let the terrorists stop us from shopping." Is this the essential freedom of our current political situation? Are we now a "democracy of consumers" reduced to the concerns of "possessive individualism" (Giroux, 173; MacPhearson; Norris)
<4> In this contemporary public sphere those who are most educated about political issues and public policy in our society generally are committed in their political stances, thus, contemporary electoral politics aims toward those who are uncommitted and wavering, those that are least informed, due to time-constraints and/or indifference, resulting in a further simplification of the issues. Political discourse devolves into a campaign of slick advertisements devoid of content and those that shout the loudest, and the most often, with memorable jingles and slanderous attacks, generally win. This manipulation, or branding, of public opinion ignores rational debate of real issues because it is not needed to achieve success. The branding of issues encourages monologism, in which a small range of media experts and political actors speak while the public passively listens, or, at best, repeat what they hear from these media experts. This is a shift from the bottom-up debate of the public sphere, to a top-down imposition of limited choices. This top-down effect is increased through the dualistic political system in which allegiance is unchanging and not open for rational debate, while real discussions about the multiple issues and perspectives in our society fall by the wayside. The dominant two-party system frames what we will care about and effectively silences any positions that fall outside the scope of their interest. According to Giovanna Borradori, the concept of political "monologism refers to the idea that the individual's participation in the public sphere is limited to the simple sharing of her already constituted opinions and moral decisions." This contemporary monoculture generally benefits "private interests rather [than] serving the public interest" and is a symptom of a larger global threat of a single-minded technocratic order (Borradori, 59, 58; also Frederick Buell; Arundhati Roy).
<5> Habermas's later theory of "communicative action" understands that without citizen "sense of involvement with the well-being of the collectivity there is no public sphere," thus, any degradation of the public sphere translates into a decline in civic participation and concern about environmental conditions (Borradori, 62). Faced with this current trend we support "a new range of social movements whose focus is the well-being of the life world in the face of the encroachment of system-imperatives" and media consolidation (67). As public intellectuals we are concerned with language, representation and communication within the context of broader environmental issues. This includes the production of "counter-narratives" by "communities of meaning" and the development of "new interlocutors in and out of the academy" in the interest of our shared project of restoring the ecological commons and the public sphere (Damon, 33, 46; Freire, 84-86; Sanchez-Casal and Macdonald, 10-14; Strickland, 165-166).
<6> The well being of our material environment is increasingly dependent on the general public's recognition of the problems threatening our places. In our current society the presentation of problems and issues is severely limited by the continuing consolidation of the major media companies and their dependence upon the two-party system for the framing of what is considered acceptable for the public to discuss and what is off limits for polite media (see Project Censored's yearly roundup of the top 25 censored stories: http://www.projectcensored.org/publications/2005/index.html ). This monocultural media system is strangling the effectiveness of our democratic system and dulling the civic spirit of developing citizens. Recently a study reported that many high school students believe that the first amendment isn't very important and that "government censorship of newspapers may not be a bad thing" ("First Amendment No Big Deal Students Say."). A sophomore in my business writing course responded to this report:
I think the reason students think and feel the way they do about the first amendment is because my generation has never been fully educated on the first amendment or even the Bill of Rights in general. Of course most students have probably had to memorize the amendments in one history class or another, but I honestly don't think any of us have had an in-depth education about the Bill of Rights. I know that I personally have never done much more with the amendments than memorized them and had a test on them. I could probably name all ten amendments in the Bill of Rights but I don't think I could tell you the rights that all of them protect. I remember the topic coming up many times in my high school classrooms, but I do not even remember a time where I learned what is already censored and what is not. To this day I still do not know. Honestly, I did not know that as of right now newspapers could not be censored. After thinking about it, I realize how it would be a bad thing, but until now, I have never really been made to think about it. You had said that you were greatly disturbed by this article. I, on the other hand, am not. I think this is because I have never known anything different and because I am in this generation, I cannot see what the problem is like an outsider could. By your reactions I would assume that you grew up with a different attitude and education when it comes to the amendments. Perhaps, it should be the responsibility of your generation to educate us and make us appreciate the rights that we have and what they actually are. Otherwise, I think this trend is going to continue in the direction that it is heading: less education and less concern about our rights granted through the amendments.
Faced with this reality, the role of education in the development of a vital public sphere, proposals for reinvesting in the health of the public sphere, and the struggles for control of public discourse, must be a focus of our current environmental politics.
<7> This is more than an understanding of our connection to place it is also an understanding of our situational and material contexts? It is the recognition of how we are influenced by material relations and discursive realities. It is the recognition of the effect of the various communities we belong to and how they shape our understanding of the world. It is an awareness of how language codes the way we view the world, and how membership in various communities influence our experience and understanding of the world. It is the self-reflective move to think upon our own conceptual frameworks and how they shape our own textual production. This includes explorations of the operations of power in the production of place(s), the inclusions and exclusion of community, and the politics of representations of place (Williams). Teaching and learning isn't just a matter of skill acquisition or knowledge transmission. It's about building identities and cultures, communities and institutions. "We humans learn from one another. And that is only possible in the public space of a culturally stimulating milieu" (Habermas, 2004: online). While developing the necessary skills to participate in democratic processes we also need to develop the necessary critical awareness of how they operate and who is included and excluded from their benefits (Sasaki). More and more the context for our places, our knowledge, and our politics are lost to us, and that is dangerous because, as Stuart Hall reminds us, the discourse of a naturalized consensus erases the fact that "it comes from a place, out of a specific history, out of a specific set of power relations [and] speaks within a tradition" (185). Without a contextual understanding we are easily manipulated and managed.
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