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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The Aesthetics of Civil Society

I Heart ART, Mesh Hats © dawnfx | motownreviewofart.blogspot.com

University of Illinois Chicago political scientist Kelly LeRoux (who got her PhD at Wayne State University here in the D) and co-author Anna Bernadska recently published a study, funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, that shows a positive correlation between participation in the arts and engagement with civil society. They analyzed more than 2700 respondents to the 2002 General Social Survey, conducted biannually by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago and generally considered one of the primary sources of data on American social trends. Their analysis found that people who have direct or indirect involvement with the arts are more likely to also have direct participation in three dimensions of civil society: engagement in civic activities, social tolerance, and other-regarding (i.e., altruistic) behavior. These results hold true even when factoring in demographic variables for age, race, and education.

Most studies on the social impact of the arts address economics and related externalities such as improved educational outcomes and general community well being. (See, for example, the work of Ann Markusen of the Project on Regional and Industrial Economics at the University of Minnesota summarized in my blog post here.) The study by LeRoux and Bernadska is different in that it empiricially investigates ties between the arts and citizenship. Instead of seeking a market rationale for arts patronage, the authors stress the benefits for civic virtue. The study is also noteworthy because rather than looking at the direct impact of community and other arts projects, such as mural painting, theatrical productions, and the like, it takes an audience-studies approach more typically associated with media and communications analysis.

It’s important to note that the authors demonstrate correlation not causation. In statistics, correlation establishes the dependence of certain variables on one another, which is useful in predictive modeling. But the relationship, either positive (the more of one variable, the more of the other) or negative (the more of one variable, the less of the other), doesn’t necessarily mean that the one is specifically the cause of the . . .

Read more: The Aesthetics of Civil Society

Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Presumed Innocence

DSK's apartment on 153 Franklin St, New York City © 2011 Patsw | Wikimedia Commons

In France, is Dominique Strauss-Kahn “presumed innocent” until proven guilty? In fact, he is presumed guilty until proven innocent. Or worse, he is presumed guilty, until confirmed guilty since the French media usually expect courts to confirm their own “enlightened” judgment and can be extraordinarily vindictive when they don’t. Thus, a petition signed by thousands of journalists “condemning” the court that condemned the national French TV Channel Antenne II for broadcasting unsubstantiated allegations. This post is about the media treatment of the presumption of innocence.

Consider a driver who deliberately speeds and runs over a policeman in front of a crowd of witnesses in order to avoid being checked at a road block. The driver is described in the news as the “presumed” author of the policeman’s coma. The word “presumed” here is a language automatism, an adornment, a legal curlicue. There is not a shadow of a doubt that this driver‘s car hit the policeman. No matter how grotesque, the word “presumed” tends to be repeated in such situations “ad nauseaum.”

With DSK, we are in a situation where the presumption of innocence matters because the facts are not established. Despite various forms of lip service, this presumption is resolutely trampled. In a recent talk show about the Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair, stand-up comedian Michel Boujenah expressed uneasiness about the fact that most of the journalists around him started from the premise that DSK was guilty. He reminded them that DSK had to be considered innocent until proven guilty. “Yes, yes,” said the journalists. Then they went on with their debate. To them, the presumption of innocence was an annoying contrivance, something akin to the presence of a vocal anti-racist at certain dinner parties; a presence that proves annoying since it prevents guests from cracking race jokes. The stand-up comedian reiterated his remark. He was definitely spoiling the fun. “OK,” replied one journalist, just add an “if” to everything I say. Just put my words in the conditional!” Then he resumed the discussion as if the guilt of DSK was beyond any doubt.

Ferry’s bomb

Such a contempt for the presumption of innocence serves as a background for a “public-sphere-bomb” that has just been thrown in the ongoing debate about Dominique Strauss-Kahn by the philosopher and former Minister of Education Luc Ferry.

In another talk-show watched by millions, Luc Ferry denounced a . . .

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Belaboring the Representation of History in Maine

“History of Maine Labor” by Judy Taylor © Judy Taylor

Over the last weekend in March, a mural depicting Maine’s labor history was removed from the lobby of that state’s Department of Labor building and put into storage at an undisclosed location by order of first-term Governor Paul LePage (R). Along with banishing the mural, LePage directed the renaming of several conference rooms, currently honoring prominent labor figures, to give them a more “neutral” connotation. The governor’s decision was based on complaints he reportedly received, including one asserting the mural constitutes propaganda akin to that of “communist North Korea, where they use these murals to brainwash the masses.”

In a written statement on her website, Judy Taylor, the artist who created the work, notes: “The purpose of the mural is historical, the artistic intent to honor.” This doesn’t necessarily preclude it from being propaganda, but it does beg the question as to what it all means.

The 36-foot long “History of Maine Labor” mural comprises 11 vignettes, starting with scenes from the nineteenth century when workers learned their trades as indentured apprentices, child labor was common, and young women were sent from home to toil in local textile mills. Other panels depict milestones such as the first state Labor Day in 1884 and the inauguration of the private ballot in 1891. While the figures are generally represented as character types, there is one noteworthy portrait, Maine native Frances Perkins, the first woman US Cabinet-level appointee and Labor Secretary under FDR. The mural cycle concludes on a somewhat uncertain note with the failed strike against International Paper begun in June 1987 in Jay, Maine, and a group of workers looking tentatively into the future as the last two panels. The mural was created over the period 2007-8 under the auspices of the Maine Arts Commission, which held an open competition to . . .

Read more: Belaboring the Representation of History in Maine