January 23-25, 2003

Jürgen Habermas’ influential formulation of the public sphere imagines it as foundational to civil society, a space of rational debate free from the threat of violence. Habermas locates the development of the public sphere in eighteenth-century coffeehouse culture, where the middle classes exchanged information in an environment separate from their daily occupations. This historical moment was then abstracted by Habermas into a conceptual space between the private sphere and the nation-state, a space of abstract reason free from the physicality of class, race or gender. Critiques of this formulation of the public sphere have pointed out that a space of “rational debate” systematically excludes certain groups, thus troubling arguments that would present the public sphere as normative or beneficial. Though the idealized concept of the public sphere is predicated on the assumption that violence and rationality are opposed, the exclusivity of the public sphere raises troubling questions about the place of violence in civil society.

Since we typically associate the outbreak of violence with a rupture in civil society - a breakdown in the way human affairs are expected to unfold - it might seem profoundly counterintuitive to think of violence as a constitutive element in what we have come to know as the “public sphere.” But if, as some claim, the public sphere is founded on the exclusion certain groups whose race, class or religion is seen as marginal, can violence be excluded from the public sphere, or is it rather necessary for the constitution of a public? Do we regard violence as an act of communication, or as communication’s breakdown? How can we describe the ecology of violence within nation-state polities where governments’ power to provide security for their citizens has been seriously challenged? Similarly, how can we understand the micro-mechanisms of violence on a global stage where state and non-state actors collide in what seems to be a new formula of aggression? To what extent is the “public sphere” a mythic space? What would the role of violence be in a public sphere that was refigured to more accurately reflect historical conditions?

In pursuing these questions, our program will consult scholars and scholarship in the fields of history, political science, philosophy and art criticism. Speakers include: Bruce Cumings (History), Stathis Kalyvas (Political Science), Rashid Khalidi (History), W.J.T. Mitchell (Art History, English), Robert Pape (Political Science) and Candace Vogler (Philosophy).

Prereadings