Overhearing in the Public Sphere

1. Overhearing, intruding, my interview & Goffman

I was once invited to speak at a conference in Sigtuna, near Uppsala, in Sweden. The conference dealt with religious sociology and a few clerics were present. One of them was a famous Danish Imam, Abu Laban. He had ignited what came to be known as the Danish scandal of the Mohammed Cartoons (Favret-Saada 2007). I had exchanged a few words with him and was being interviewed by a Swedish newspaper. Abu Laban was seated nearby. In fact, he listened to the interview. Sometimes he nodded. Sometimes he smiled. I could hardly object to his presence without being rude. But then, the Imam started answering the questions that were put to me.

Although I do not remember how I reacted, what happened on that day illustrated a fundamental distinction established by Erving Goffman, between the “ratified” listeners of a verbal exchange and those who just happen to be there.

Being present and technically able to hear everything that is said does not make you a partner in a conversation. Unless “ratified” as a listener, you are just “overhearing.” An implicit protocol expects overhearers not to listen, since listening would amount to a form of eavesdropping. As to intervening, it clearly establishes that you have been overhearing and constitutes an additional transgression. Intervening takes overhearing one step further. It is, and was in the case of the Imam and me, an intrusion.

I believe that Goffman’s distinction between ratified participants and overhearers can be transposed on a larger scale, concerning those conversations societies hold with themselves under the name of “public sphere.”

2. Destabilized public spheres

Our vision of the public sphere is predicated on the implicit model of a conversation between a given nation- state and the corresponding civil society, with central media connecting centers and peripheries. This geography of centers and peripheries has been submitted to many waves of destabilization. After having been structured for a long time in national terms and dominated by central television organizations, public spheres have grown in a number of directions, most of which involve a post-national dimension. Three such directions are particularly significant.

First, mega television networks offer world audiences vantage points . . .

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