25th European meeting of cultural journals held in Norway

Conference report

Against the background of civil protest in Ukraine, the production of the public sphere was the subject of three days of debate at this year’s Eurozine conference, held in Oslo from 29 November to 2 December, and co-organized and hosted by the Norwegian Association of Journals and Eurozine partner journal Syn og Segn.

Wergeland room, Litteraturhuset. Photo: Antonia Plessing.

The public sphere is not something given; it is made – over and over again. But which actors are involved and what roles do they play? Is there a difference between an intellectual and an expert? And in which media or public space does the debate take place? The production of the public sphere was the subject of three days of debate at this year’s Eurozine conference, entitled “Making a difference: Opinion, debate and activism in the public sphere”, held in Oslo from 29 November to 2 December and co-organized and hosted by the Norwegian Association of Journals and Eurozine partner journal Syn og Segn. The conference gathered over one hundred editors and intellectuals from all over Europe.

The pre-conference public event, “Hungary: Democracy in question”. From left to right: Nina Witoszek, Lásló Rajk, János Széky and Volker Weichsel. Photo: Nadine Blanchard.

Already on Thursday, at the main conference venue Literaturhuset, a pre-conference public event entitled “Hungary: Democracy in question” dealt with the dismantling of democracy in Hungary since the election of the Fidesz government in 2010. The panel discussion was chaired by writer and scholar Nina Witoszek, who likened developments in Hungary to a rising “demonocracy”, a pathology that required closer examination. Witoszek was joined by the writer and literary translator János Széky, who considered Fidesz to have taken advantage of faults in the system created in 1989 and tightened its grip on power by drawing on a potent mixture of grass roots anti-capitalist, collectivist and ethnonationalistic sentiments. Former dissident and politician Lásló Rajk deepened the analysis further and alluded to Kim Lane Scheppele’s concept of a Frankenstate, in which the constitutional components of a state may seem acceptable in isolation but not as a whole. However, Osteuropa editor Volker Weichsel saw no need for neologisms, emphasizing instead the need for a rational debate on how rational actors can turn a democratically elected government into a dictatorship.

In Oslo City Hall on Friday, the mayor of Oslo Fabian Stang gave participants a warm welcome to the Norwegian capital. With its monumental murals depicting scenes from city life, European history and Norwegian folklore, the City Hall – which is both the seat of the city authority and the venue for the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony – provided a stunning setting for the welcome reception. Stang expressed his enthusiasm for the potential that the Eurozine conference programme offered in terms of forging intercultural relations between and among representatives of the partner journals and those of Norwegian publications and institutions.

Tour of Oslo City Hall. Photo: Nadine Blanchard.

Following a tour of the City Hall, Eurozine guests crossed the public park surrounding the Royal Palace to the Fritt Ord Foundation, where they were greeted by historian and writer Erik Rudeng. Also the foundation’s director, Rudeng gave a blistering review of the history of the building that houses Fritt Ord. It began life in 1887 as a town house, became a Russian embassy after the dissolution of the union between Norway and Sweden in 1905 and then, following the German invasion of 1941, a Gestapo officer’s club. Indeed, the realization, born of the experience of occupation, that democracy cannot survive without freedom of expression, played an early role in the creation of Fritt Ord (known in English as the Freedom of Expression Foundation). Today, the foundation supports freedom of expression by collaborating on relevant projects, including Eurozine’s 2013 conference.

Jean-Louis Fabiani delivers the opening speech at the Fritt Ord Foundation. Photo: Nadine Blanchard.

The sociologist Jean-Louis Fabiani then delivered the opening speech, entitled “Changes and challenges in the public sphere 1983-2013”. Fabiani assessed the scope for critical intervention in a contested and precarious public sphere characterized by austerity, democracy fatigue and spontaneous public protest.

Pelin Tan and Zuzana Wienk on the panel “Common knowledge: Discursive action and political activism”. Photo: Nadine Blanchard.

Back at Literaturhuset on Saturday morning, Elke Rauth, editor of the Austrian journal dérive chaired a panel entitled “Common knowledge: Discursive action and political activism”. Activist, sociologist and curator Pelin Tan spoke on the collective experience of the translocal production of knowledge among activists. Tan emphasized the importance of alternative pedagogy, such that activists learn from one another through doing, and the long-term effects of the intense experience of participating in instant alliances. Despite the transient nature of associated protests and interventions, Tan suggested that their legacy could be reinforced through the creation of a “common space for uncommon knowledge”. This might involve the creation of dynamic archives to store material including videos of activist interventions. Zuzana Wienk of the Slovakian NGO Alianca Fair-Play then addressed how open data could be used to promote accountability and transparency in political life. Wienk showcased the NGO’s alternative online register for politicians, designed to help uphold standards in public life. The organization’s use of software shows the potential of new technologies, often in combination with civil or legal action, for effecting long-term institutional change.

Mykola Riabchuk and Oksana Forostyna of Krytyka. Photo: Nadine Blanchard.

The National Library of Norway was the venue for the public afternoon session. However, before formal proceedings got underway, news of the brutal dispersal of protestors in Maidan Nezalezhnosti in central Kiev at around 4am/the same day prompted a brief ad hoc address to conference participants by Oksana Forostyna and Mykola Riabchuk, both of Krytyka (Ukraine). Peaceful demonstrations had first commenced on 21 November, following the Ukranian government’s suspension of proceedings geared toward signing the Association Agreement with the European Union. However, the violent clashes in the main square in which demonstrators had assembled signalled the possibility of Ukraine turning its back on Europe altogether, explained Forostyna and Riabchuk. These developments became the subject of a statement in support of the rights of Ukrainian protesters to assemble freely and express their opinion in the public sphere. This text was published the following day in Eurozine and in partner journals on behalf of conference participants.

Public debate on “Knowledge is the common property of mankind”. From left to right: Jon Arild Olsen, Rasmus Fleischer, Yngve Slettholm, Jill Cousins and Carl Henrik Fredriksson. Photo: Nadine Blanchard.

Saturday’s afternoon session drew on the words of American Founding Father Thomas Jefferson for its title: “Knowledge is the common property of mankind”. Despite the apparently straightforward nature of the statement, the session proved that many hurdles lay in the way of safeguarding this “common property”. Keynote speaker Jill Cousins, executive director of the Europeana Foundation, outlined the practical challenges of securing online access to European cultural heritage – not on the basis of the decisions of policy makers but rather those of users. Cousins spoke in favour of an “open, unless” rights policy that would allow maximum access to the cultural digital commons Europeana has assembled from the holdings of European libraries, museums and archives. She also spoke of efforts to streamline records of individual items to enable the discovery of “my” culture in “your” language. The National Library is already a Europeana partner and its research director, Jon Arild Olsen, was on hand to give an overview of the impact that digital text collections would likely have on the public sphere. He even talked about “a new Golden Age for empirical research”. Yngve Slettholm, executive director of the copyright collecting society Kopinor, then presented “Bokhyllan” (The Book Shelf), a project on which the National Library and Kopinor collaborate under an extended collective license and will, by 2016, make every book published in Norwegian prior to 2001 available online (to Norwegian IP addresses) in digitized form. This is indeed a revolutionary cooperation that not only guarantees wide access to knowledge but also compensates copyright holders such as writers and publishers. However, historian Rasmus Fleischer insisted that access to knowledge would not be enough, since access is never immediate but always mediated through an interface and therefore filtered. As such, the question becomes one of who controls the filters: which led Fleischer to plead for reinvigorating the link between copyright policy and cultural policy, such that not only the economics of culture but the quality of culture was given due consideration.

Hans Asbjørn Aaheim, Alexandra Bech Gjørv and Daniel Stedman Jones on the panel “Outsourcing ideology: The rise and fall of the expert”. Photo: Nadine Blanchard.

Sunday’s programme commenced with the session entitled “Outsourcing ideology: The rise and fall of the expert”, chaired by Marc-Olivier Padis, editor of Esprit. The historian and barrister Daniel Stedman Jones showed how neoliberalism came to dominate economic thought from the late 1970s onward. Stedman Jones traced the origins of neoliberalism back to a 1938 colloquium in Paris, convened by intellectuals to discuss Walter Lippmann’s 1937 book An Enquiry into the Principles of the Good Society. He concluded by reflecting as to whether in an era of increasingly dissipated political action, neoliberalism can retain its thus far unswerving influence over policy makers, even in the face of the “trickle down fallacy”. Alexandra Bech Gjørv then spoke about her experience of acting as the chair of the 22 July Commission, which was convened for one year in order to author a report on the 2011 Oslo bombing and Utøya massacre. As for the report she submitted to the Norwegian Prime Minister on 13 August 2012, Gjørv explained that the overriding intention was to provide a readable document capable of making everyone an expert on the terrorist attacks, including children. Finally, Hans Asbjørn Aaheim, from the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research Oslo, spoke on the role of experts in public debates on climate change. Technical arguments concerning cost-benefit analyses aside, Aaheim stated that the chances of policy makers becoming managers of common sense and being able to act on experts’ knowledge in tackling climate change will remain slim as long as oil and gas giants account for six out of ten of the world’s largest corporations.

Lunch was accompanied by a talk from Ivan Rod of the Association of Danish Cultural Journals, who has published a two volume work on Danish and Nordic cultural journals. Rod spoke on the precariousness of journals seeking to maintain their independence against a continuously changing political backdrop in Nordic countries.

Elisabeth Eide speaking on the representation of gender in the public sphere. Photo: Nadine Blanchard.

In the last formal address to the conference, scholar of gender and media studies Elisabeth Eide provided a historical perspective on how, despite some progress having been made, the representation of women in print (and digital) media remains unacceptably low. After 100 years of women’s suffrage in Norway, the gendered gaze on the media still needs to be intensified globally, Eide concluded, if consciousness of the gender gap is to bring meaningful change.

Parallel Sunday afternoon workshops dealt with network-specific matters. One workshop provided a forum for the discussion of the Eurozine survey on gender and cultural journals. There was a preparatory session on the Eurozine conference 2014, to be held in Conversano in Italy and address issues such as Fortress Europe (EU refugee and immigration policies), intellectual partnerships across the Mediterranean (Eurozine Maghreb) and the intra-European North-South conflict. In a third workshop entitled “Design Emergency Room: First aid for cultural journals”, an experienced editorial designer showcased selected partner journals and offered critique and suggestions for changes. A forth workshop discussed challenges that the print vs digital dilemma poses to cultural journals.

Steffen Kverneland. Photo: Nadine Blanchard.

Finally, the closing dinner at Fritt Ord was prefaced by a highly entertaining presentation by the comic artist and illustrator Steffen Kverneland concerning his graphic biography of Edvard Munch, which won the Brage prize for best work of non-fiction this year.

Texts based on presentations given at the 25th European meeting of cultural journals will be published in Eurozine in the coming weeks. Read all articles in the focal point: “The making of the public sphere”.

Published 6 December 2013
Original in English

© Eurozine



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