65th Annual Conference of the German Association for American Studies (DGfA),
John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies, Freie Universität Berlin, May 24-27, 2018
Irwin Collier (Economics), Jessica Gienow-Hecht (History), Ulla Haselstein (Literature), Frank Kelleter (Culture), Christian Lammert (Political Science), Harald Wenzel (Sociology)
Todd Gitlin (Columbia)
Andrew Gross (Göttingen)
Sarah Igo (Vanderbilt)
Catherine Squires (Minnesota)
Michael Warner (Yale)
Concluding Lecture by Award-Winning Poet Claudia Rankine
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The “public sphere”—an idea with deep roots in the European enlightenment—has always been a contested concept in American culture and society. Almost by default, American intellectuals, artists, politicians, and activists have stressed the non-unitary, diversified, and oppositional dynamics of all things public. In this manner, the US Constitution, while based on enlightened principles of free debate and rational deliberation, already eschewed a philosophy of consensus building in favor of a philosophy of multi-interested checks and balances. Not the expressiveness of Rousseau’s volonté générale but the procedurality of Madison’s extended republic stood at the beginning of American notions of democratic governance. As a consequence, “public opinion” in the United States could never easily be identified with the “public good,” but has always been open to multiple sub- and non-public (private, corporate, technological, etc.) influences.
Thus, from the early days of the American republic, competing interest groups and commercial mass media (first newspapers, novels, and the theater, then radio, television, and the internet) have worked to pluralize public speech and public action—and ultimately the notion of “publicness” itself. Numerous social, political, and aesthetic developments throughout American history can be (re)described against this background as struggles for publicity, waged against the power of elites to define or usurp the national agenda. Two of the most important American contributions to the theory of the public sphere—Walter Lippmann’s The Phantom Public (1925) and John Dewey’s rejoinder The Public and Its Problems (1927)—despite their ideological differences concur that the public sphere is not a realm of unbiased exchange and unanimous agreement. Rather, in the United States, the public sphere becomes visible as a multi-agential, commercially embattled, highly mediated, and eventually trans-nationalized aggregate of publics and counterpublics. Numerous later discussions of American counter/publics—from Nancy Fraser, Seyla Benhabib, and Michael Warner to Robert Darnton, Michael Hardt, and Catherine R. Squires—have further refined this self-conceptualization of democratic speech under the conditions of capitalist mass media. Recent accounts frequently stress the deterritorialized—though regularly Anglophone—nature of counter/public communication in global digital networks. In particular, the communication of public trust—within political contexts naturally inclined to distrust—has been a central topic in and for American culture.
The 2018 Convention of the German Association of American Studies (DGfA) will deal with questions of publics, counterpublics, publicity, and public (dis)trust in US politics, society, history, and culture, examined through the lenses of literary and cultural studies, political science, sociology, historiography, media studies, economics, and didactics.
(Image credit: iStock.com/Mike_Kiev)