[iDC] Public Sphere Polka

Frazer Ward fward at email.smith.edu
Mon Jul 10 11:01:05 EDT 2006


I've been reading this list with a lot of interest, but haven't previously posted (does that make me a lurker?), as I am relatively new to this discourse, so forgive me if this is too familiar, but I wanted to throw in the suggestion that in thinking about publicness, we must also think about privacy. It may be as difficult to understand the implications of forms of privacy as it is to find productive models of publicness, but they may be inextricable from one another. To go back to Habermas for a moment, in the Structural Transformation book he argues that the modes of discourse used in the public sphere emerged from the intimate sphere of the bourgeois family. There’s a familiar critique of this, which I don’t think I need to rehearse, but the larger point that tends to slip from view a bit is that private provides ground for public, that private and public discourses are interdependent. This is of course complicated by the compelling view that the public/private split is overstated, if not fictional, but I would argue that even if fictional, it nonetheless remains centrally important to how we imagine experience and behavior.  

I’m an art historian, and I’ve been studying the work of performance artists including Ono, Acconci, Burden, Abramovic, and Hsieh for some time. Their work (taken together, from the 60s to the 90s) tends to perform a kind of double negation: they expose the public/private split as fictional or ideological, at the same time as they reveal the pathological effects that follow from abandoning it. Interestingly, much of this happens under the banner of “participation.”  My sense is that some of the “participatory” drive behind that earlier performance art has now migrated to the web (perhaps the IDC is one instance of this), at the same time as the technologies people have been talking about in this forum – the web, cellphones, hand held devices, etc. – are more broadly understood not only to have transformed the possibilities of publicness, but to have profoundly affected privacy (work that never goes away,  new social behaviors and experiences, shifts in patterns of attention and attentiveness, etc. ). As a number of posts have argued, these changes are not equally distributed, though they may have effects beyond their immediate availability. It seems to me that privacy and publicness may be more tightly wound together than ever, so that while we try to articulate relations between what we might call micro-publics and larger formations, we need not to forget the private realm, or whatever has become of it. 

- Frazer  

Frazer Ward
Department of Art
Smith College
413 585 3124

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