The disquieting image of a society “reduced to its public sphere” seems to derive from mounting concerns regarding the imperialism of communication technologies. The feverish enthusiasm for ever more sophisticated gismos supposed to connect our minds and selves on a 24/7 basis might in fact bring about a sever tightening of our capacity to bond and share. The medium, one might say, is not satisfied anymore with being the message, as in the good old times of Marshall McLuhan. It rather (ex)tends to eat the message up.
To this we should add the possibility of the horrific metamorphosis of a happy anarchic republic into an evil empire, once gigantic centralizations of resources are directed at controlling the Internet on the premises of removing present and clear dangers of the utmost, allegedly nuclear gravity.
Such negative vibes coming from the cultural-technological environment should of course alert writers all over the world, given the fact that their craft largely depends on a consensual valuation and preservation of the intimate, the personal and the private. Furthermore, it could be reasonably assumed that the eclipse of these values would alter not only the meaning and status of literature, but also the general sense of living in civilized and humane societies.
But before sounding the moral alarm, I would advise a moment of reflection on our actual understanding of what ‘public’ means. If we follow the logic of our fears, we will detect a marked tendency of equating publicity with visibility. With a kind of pernicious transparency which almost invites the brutal penetration of our private space. We are not left with much – as this turn of imagination has it – that would not immediately meet Big Brother’s all-scrutinizing eye. A vision which, as we know from abundant supplies of contemporary radical rhetoric, literally turns society into the penitentiary panopticon imagined in late 18th century by Jeremy Bentham.
Appealing as such malignant representations of the ‘public’ could be to our literary imagination, we should though not completely forget other understandings of the notion. For instance, it might be of some relevance to note that for a couple of centuries long, the public sphere was construed as a place of vibrant personal self-assertion. As the privileged stage of individual enfranchising and empowerment. As the one and only political site where individual consciousness could live the experience of being part and parcel of political sovereignty.
This classical settlement assumed a sharp opposition between public responsibility and intimate privacy, with a marked inclination of suspecting the latter of constantly subverting and corrupting the former. As we can see, the end of the 20th century seems to have reversed this perception: the public is suspected to pervade and pervert the alleged ingenuity of the private space.
At this point let us ponder a bit on our otherwise mechanical projection of the symbolism of the ‘sphere’ over our notion of publicity. Why do we tend to imagine public space, somewhat surrealistically, as a sphere? A vision of communication systems gone crazy should see the sphere as expressing a malicious movement of integration-cum-homogenization that leaves nothing outside itself. But the original meaning of the symbolism is less threatening and depressing. Public space was construed as a spherical whole because it was credited with virtually comprising all the perspectives and attitudes that might reasonably and humanely be held – with respect to a focal question. A problem, in other words, pertaining to the fate of a debating (and doubting) community.
We might be now at a moment in time when it would be wise not to let apocalyptic fears get the better of our sense of what the public is. We should be able to see that our hostility to the public sphere does not necessarily spring from the inherent vices of communication media turned into pervasive means of both horizontal and vertical control. Our feeling of ‘soulless’ expansion of the public sphere might also be connected to the path-dependency of our social imagination. In point is a constant antagonization of the public and the private that allowed for no other symbolic expression apart from the apocalyptic and the negatively utopian.
This is a matter in respect to which literature might confidently reassert its heritage and its current potential. It is historically wrong that literature can deal with social fears only through amplifying them to the point of cathartic exorcism. Truth is that literature is equally endowed to give the checks and balances of reasonable doubt the glamour of imagination. Considering our case, let it be said that literature could bring a distinct contribution to restoring the public and the private between mutual boundaries that would feel comforting and meaningful. And thereby support the conviction that dignified public involvement is not the negation, but the warranty of warm and imaginative privacy.
But literature could aspire to such a status only if able to detach itself from its entanglement in a rhetoric that indiscriminately mocks all forms of public decision-making as fraught with mercurial greed and power hunger. In many ways and at different levels literature is intimately involved in the production of the difference between Them, the grotesquely carnivorous “politicians”, and Us, the light-hearted, authentic, lotus-eating “private citizens”. This self-righteous self-styling misses an essential point: a democracy is not only a society in which “the people” can mock, in a quasi-institutional manner, free from fear but also from any serious moral responsibility “the rich and the powerful”. A democracy is not only a society in which people are allowed and endowed in order to endlessly exorcise, more often than not in carnivalesque manners, their fear of power and authority. The distinctive feature of a democratic society is that each of its members is virtually capable of overtaking the burden of sovereignty. Which essentially implies difficult and complex decision-making, torn between an ethics of principles and an ethics of consequences.
Literature could rethink the public sphere from its present popular representation as a technology-driven Moloch-in-the-making, both hated and derided, back into its condition of forum of civic virtue. Literature’s immense resources of strength and subtlety, of expressive force and finesse, could substantiate the tenet that, at decisive moments, democracy has to find its support in de-mock-cracy. That is, in accepting to displace our private consciousnesses from their safe mocking distance from, and directly confronting them with the most intimate and dramatic prangs of public (i.e. plainly political) decision-making.
Text written for the PEN International Conference in Bled, Slovenia, May 2015.