Focal Point

The public sphere in the making

Accompanying the Eurozine conference 2013 in Oslo, entitled “Making a difference: Opinion, debate and activism in the public sphere”, this focal point explores some of the aspects of building – making – a space for public exchange of opinions and worldviews. A place where anyone can make a difference.

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Accompanying the Eurozine conference 2013 in Oslo, entitled “Making a difference: Opinion, debate and activism in the public sphere”, this focal point explores some of the aspects of building – making – a space for public exchange of opinions and worldviews. A place where anyone can make a difference.

The focus is on cultural, intellectual and political debate or, more precisely, on the production of the public sphere. The public sphere, die Öffentlichkeit, is not something given; it is made – over and over again. Therefore it is all the more important to ask who is active in this space and what roles do they play? Where does the debate take place? In which media or in which public space? Is there a difference between an intellectual and an expert? Are theory and action, discourse and protest, really separate entities or should they be thought of together?

The current European crisis has not only shaken faith in the prevailing economic system but also led to a loss of trust in democratic institutions. However, resistance is spreading: alliances are forming across academic, artistic, journalistic and activist milieus. Social movements such as the Spanish IndignadosOccupy! and Right to the City favour bottom-up production of knowledge over top-down expertise, and help to ensure that associated themes find a place in public discourse.

Some of the texts in this focal point address exactly these questions: How are research, art, journalism and activism influencing the public sphere? What is the role of traditional and new media in the establishment of alternative public spheres? What kind of influence do contemporary social movements have on social and political processes? And how do the new alliances influence public discourse?

An additional question would be: how can one make protest last? This has never been more difficult than now, writes Olav Fumarola Unsgaard in a text describing the decline of the once so strong Attac movement. While new technologies can be made to work for political change, bridging the gap between virtual and real-life activism remains a serious challenge, notes Belarus media activist Iryna Vidanava.

All over Europe, journals in the Eurozine network are in one way or another involved in activist and/or discursive attempts to influence the current state of affairs: there is Varlik’s committed take on the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul; Dialogi‘s intellectual involvement in the revolt against the political elite in Maribor, which led to a nationwide uproar; or Intellectum‘s campaigns in Greece, based on the provocative claim that “the simple translation of facts into words is outdated and words alone lack the power to attract a wider audience”. Some of these cases are reflected in this focal point, alongside attempts at overarching theories of “the new social movements” (see for example the articles by Saskia Sassen and Nilüfer Göle).

We also take a closer look at the role of experts in public debate. While the task of intellectuals is often perceived as that of opening debates (and keeping them open), experts can be brought into the discussion to end it, presumably replacing opinion with knowledge. Here there is certainly room for doubt: the rhetoric of no alternative, as recently practiced mainly by economists, is giving experts a bad reputation. What is obviously an area tainted by ideology is described as a simple choice between right and wrong.

In the field of climate change, however, the image of the expert is different; here facts and figures are thought of as an asset. While one debate might be closed by experts (Is climate change anthropogenic?), another one opens up (What measures are to be taken to try to deal with climate change?).

Werner Plumpe and Sverker Sörlin provide different perspectives on the roles of experts in debates on economic and environmental issues respectively.

Another aspect of the changing public sphere has to do with knowledge as a “common property of mankind”, as US Founding Father Thomas Jefferson put it. Currently, the large institutions involved in the production, dissemination and mediation of knowledge – libraries, museums, universities, media – are redefining their roles in society. Or, rather, they are reformulating their strategies for fulfilling these roles. Digital super libraries Europeana and the Digital Public Library of America are finally catching up with private endeavours such as Google Books. Yet it isn’t only the big institutional actors that are driving this process forward: small-scale, independent initiatives based on open source principles offer interesting approaches to re-defining the role and meaning of the library, writes Alessandro Ludovico.

Finally, a third major focus of the Oslo meeting, and of this focal point is the representation of gender in the public sphere. The figures speak for themselves: there are roughly twice as many male as female editors-in-chief in the Eurozine network. We have asked selected partner journals to respond to a European survey on gender. Somewhat surprisingly, the participating editors showed little support for quotas for women in cultural journals – a measure examined in more depth by Lena Brandauer.

Read the conference report of the 25th European meeting of cultural journals held in Norway.