Friday, May 30, 2008

Public sphere and publicity: a violently desirous speculation on bodies?

What role can 'culture' and its criticism play in terms of a Liberalism which has an ethos of separate realms for culture and the private sphere; realms which stand apart from the mass-market and the state? This question is one addressed by Jurgen Habermas in his study of the genesis of the modern political public sphere. For Habermas the critical-rational techniques that are publicly addressed to private people, firstly through criticism of epistolary novels like Richardson's Clarissa, model the means by which the police [in Foucault's terms - i.e. policies] of the state can be debated and decided. The autonomy of 'culture' thus serves as a 'space' into which such critical-rational debate can form spheres of public discourse. Something like this process can be currently seen in the multiple and overlapping debates, position-takings, affective testimonies and analyses surrounding photo-artist Bill Henson's work.

Henson's photo-models, in particular the becoming-adolescent female nudes, are both vulnerable, transforming individuals and mass-mediated images. The liberal rights of the models - to consent, to privacy, to restrict the uses of their image in the future - are in conflict with those of artistic autonomy: the rights of art to be free from state censorship and free to provide the impetus for rational-critical debate. Part of this debate is fuelled by anxieties about privacy and publicity in a time of accelerating mass-mediation with narrow-casting, networking and broad-casting image circulation coupled with increasing access to technologies for recording and disseminating 'private' information-image-text-sound globally.

For Habermas rational-critical debate in a public sphere that was no discriminator on grounds of differentials in class, status, race, gender, sexuality and education is an imaginary of the late c17th and c18 in Western Europe based on print-cultures. In his Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere it is print-culture (newspapers, journals, novels etc) that provides the means and forms for creating and circulating public-ness and public-ity. The transformation of this ideal open-ness comes, in part, from the infiltration of advertising publicity into this sphere of public-ness. Yet this narrative of decline - of the corruption by mass-culture and advertising of a once pure, neutral sphere of rational-critical debate which decided on the basis of the best arguments and evidence - was always predicated on its male, bourgeois, white, educated entry codes and conditions. That said the shifts from print- to image-based to multi-media cultures, from 'i-read therefore i am' to 'i-pod therefore i am', is not so much a decline in (print-)culture and its attendant rational-critical debate, as a transformation in forms and technologies that carry publicness. And thereby altering what we think and feel to be legitimate forms of privateness and the limits and objects of rational-critical debate.

Letter I.

Miss Anna Howe to Clarissa Harlowe
Jan. 10.

I am extremely concerned, my dearest friend, for the disturbances that have happened in your family. I know how it must have hurt you to become the subject of public talk: and yet upon an occasion so generally known, it is impossible but that whatever relates to a young lady whose distinguished merits have made her the public care, should engage every body's attention.
[Samuel Richardson Clarissa -1748. Opening lines - note the use of the two terms proceeding 'public': talk and care]

Is Liberalism then capable of adapting its critical-rational modes to our contemporary culture; a culture in which images and affect can circulate like forest fires or influenza through the social body? Is art capable of bringing moralities into question when it is itself, at moments in its social life, a commodity? Can art stand separate to modes of publicity which aim to sell? If controversy is an arm of modern PR, then to what extent is the choice of a controversial subject-form intended to generate publicity? Do we engage with these art-commodities as consumers or citizens?

These questions, I think, boil down to the criteria on which we try to separate public-ity from public-ness (open-ness). This brings us to Australian Cultural Studies academic John Frow's thoughts and his recent (1999)historicizing of Liberalism and what he, among others, sees as the transformation of classical Liberalism into a new form. Are we after Liberalism? Is neo-liberalism a form of classical liberalism or does the prefix 'neo' signify that the break with Locke's and Mills' (for example) liberalism is a ruptural and radical one?

In "Cultural Studies and the Neoliberal Imagination."
[The Yale Journal of Criticism 12.2 (1999): 424-30] Frow argues that American Liberalism "fails - constitutively, not accidently - to think three modes of historical transformation in the course of the twentieth century."

These three historically emergent blindspots of Liberalism are (concerning corporations, state, subject-citizen):

  1. the transformation of corporations into forces radically transcendent of any one individual will. Liberalism simply has no good way of thinking about the overwhelming force of concentrated and deregulated capital other than as a system error or imbalance, and that means it has no good way of thinking about the complicities between its vision of cultural openness and the forces in the world that make for closure;

  2. the transformation of the state into something more complex and differentiated than the site of sovereignty, such that it may under certain circumstances be available as a vehicle for the protection of individual freedoms, for the regulation of capital, and for the economic protection of those who lose out in the play of market forces - as well as continuing to be under other circumstances and perhaps also under the same circumstances a vehicle for oppression;

  3. the transformation of the subject of citizenship into the mass-mediated and mass-interpellated subject of the culture industries and of the social-imaginary of consumption.

While Liberalism may have these three blindspots, neo-liberalism publicizes itself as "locating its vision of freedom in an expanded realm of economic transactions rather than in a separate realm of culture [and thereby it] has less of a problem in . . . coming to terms with a form of citizenship grounded in consumption rather than in the sphere of political judgement." [424-5] And rather than posit a separation between market and culture, between a domestic-intimate private-sphere and a commerical- corporate private-sphere, neoliberalism seeks to flatten this separation so that the idealised practice of rational choices exercised on the basis of entering freelyand equally into contracts of exchange in unfettered markets becomes the model for such events as marriage, going-to-war, visiting the dentist, buying a David Bowie Greatest Hits CD.

I take this to mean that in neoliberalism public-ness is the limited circulation of information that precedes contract-exchange in order to attract your attention and to provide the sorts of information that can enable a more rational choice when assessing a contract and its commodity. Publicity might be disseminated widely but it is aimed ultimately only at what will be consumers. Our interest in publicity is effectively our interest in consuming what is being publicised.

Can then public-ness be distinguished from public-ity in this time of neoliberal governmentality? For Frow, following Michael Warner, 'the public' in the term public-ness is predicated on an attitude of indifference to our own particularities and partialities: the public subject is a technology of the self which imagines through "a fiction of genericity, and is therefore a rhetorical fact" that the ordinary and public self are continuous [427].

For Warner the rhetorical fact of this public-ness is built on the classical rhetoric of disembodiment; a rhetoric which is challenged by mass consumption and its modes of publicity. Frow:

From this moment the political public sphere and mass consumption are at once alternatives and yet increasingly resemble and shape each other: publicness in the West henceforth has to do with iconicity, a rhetoric of embodiment, the display of bodies for the purposes of "admiration, identification, appropriation, scandal, etc; and public figures "increasingly take on the function of concretizing that fantasmatic body image, or in other words, of actualizing the otherwise indeterminate image of the people" (Warner, 385 &388) [428]

There is now a tension in the political realm between the generalized abstraction of the public subject in its classical form and "the always inadequate particularity of individual bodies," and it is this tension that generates the contemporary public sphere's dedication to "a violently desirous speculation on bodies" (Warner 397). [428]

I take Frow to be asking whether or not the public sphere can be said to exist if its founding rhetorical fact - print-culture based indifference to the self's particularities and partialities: disembodied self - is 'returned to' the representation of embodied identities. Frow questions whether Warner's argument for such an embodied public sphere is nostalgic, and whether or not it is "overdetermined by the sphere of commodity consumption and become the site of a fantasmatic identification." [428]

There are a few points here that Frow is seeking to make. I'll summarize these before attempting to apply some of them to the Henson art scandal.

Firstly, in terms of cultural studies Frow is seeking to defuse the project of subculture-liberation of minorities strand that comes out of parts of the Birmingham 'School'. For Frow these studies of subcultural formations are almost identical to the principles of neoliberalism, and any such studies need to attend to the rationalities and technologies of neoliberalism as a complementary study in order to discern whether or not a subculture's creative resistance is actual or based on the freedom-resistance nexus central to the imaginaries of neoliberalism.

Secondly, he aims to dissolve the barrier separating political and cultural fields through a consideration of liberalism and neoliberalism's blindspots and founding modes of subjectivity: the myth of equality and freedom in contract exchange.

Thirdly, the dream of a common public culture, which occurs in some forms of cultural studies that derive from Raymond Williams's writings, needs to take these developments in publicity's mass culture and mass consumption into account, and in particular the imbrication of the political and mass cultural fields. "When do we imagine that politics was ever a matter of dispassionate and rational judgement?" [429]

An yet Frow maintains the Habermasean imaginary of a rational-critical public sphere is still a viable and valuable one and that we shouldn't "give up on rational debate and on the critical analysis of social interests, or . . . reduce political action to the working-out of fantasmatic identifications." [429]. And its participants might register that "[t]his mass culture is no longer, for the main part, a print culture, and it is perhaps this shift that most distances us from the liberal vision of a common public culture." [429]

The Henson scandal is a dense web of desires, anxieties and rational-critical speech and text. I would like to just touch on those aspects of it that are highlighted by what I have taken from John Frow's essay; in particular the tension or contradiction between an embodied and disembodied identity that, in print-form, arguably founds the generic fiction of a public-ness that can function outside of public-ity.

The internet circulations of the photo that has generated the most attention are both public-ity for and instances of public-ness. Any framing of the photo, in itself, can't decide for us as citizen-subjects, between these two modes of the public. In other words whether or not the image is construed as publicity or as an artefact of public-culture is not finally immanent to the image nor able to be directed by the textual commentary or framing of its display. This indecidability is on the one hand an opening into our freedom to choose its meaning - this might be its libertarian and liberal dimensions and this might also be due to our capacity to disembody the subject of the photo. On the other hand this indecidability opens the photo to meanings and affects which are imputed to its embodiment of pubescent breasts framed by the body from thigh to crown of the head. This is construed as publicity: a display of an embodied privateness which must not be disembodied. It must not be disembodied because this will enable pedophilia, subsequent shame, the destruction of innocence.

That we are dealing here in photo-images circulating through the Web 2.0, through mobile phones, and able to be recorded points to how far from the print-culture roots of the classical public sphere we are. These technological-media conditions would be feeding into the moral panic that also traverses this debate. Yet to what extent is our imaginary of a rational-critical debate predicated on moralities and affects that are so normalised and naturalised as to count as the neutral ground upon which indifferent reason can do its work? If our idealised political public sphere was one created out of a conflation of two modes of private-ness (private commerical/property and private domestic-familial-intimate) then what affects or feelings are structured into this model of rational-critical debate in order that rationality can declare its forms and logics?

Is it more than a coincidence that Habermas's argument about the formative role of the epistolary novel in the creation of forms of publicness used by the political public sphere has as its central subject a young woman whose morality is at stake?

*Open letter of Support for Bill Henson here. *

No comments: