Counterpublics and the State.
Given the rapid publication of scholarship on "counterpublics" within the past decade or so, one wonders how scholarly history might have been different had the theorization of counterpublics actually preceded the theorization of the public sphere itself.
Robert Asen and Daniel C Brouwer's edited anthology is a timely collection of tightly-crafted essays concerning contemporary scholarship on counterpublics, which they define as oppositional groups that were historically excluded from the dominant modes of discourse and power. The articles use case studies of counterpublic discourse as fulcrums for theorizing the counterpublic sphere. Case studies work well to demonstrate the need for and to justify theoretical innovation within counterpublic sphere theory; moreover, such an approach draws together scholarship from both rhetorical studies and argumentation studies.
The book is organized into two sections, the first providing case studies about counter-publics formed in response to tension and conflict and the second focusing on contemporary cyberculture as an example of counter-publics and on globalization.
Besides introducing the essays that appear in the book, Asen and Brouwer's chapter reviews the history of public sphere scholarship as it relates to scholarship on counterpublics and provides a critical assessment of counterpublic studies, while retaining a conceptual commitment to the importance and usefulness of theorizing counterpublics in relation to the public sphere.
Gerard Hauser's chapter begins the section of essays on tension and conflict by theorizing the relationship between public sphere as a site for healthy public debate and the counterpublic sphere as a site for resistance. Through a detailed case study of Adam Michnik's letter from prison in Poland during the early 1980s, Hauser demonstrates how Michnik's address is exemplary of counterpublic sphere discourse. In particular, he argues that Michnik's discourse provided an alternative to that of the public sphere and called for the transfer of power from the state to the broader society.
Eric Doxtader studies counterpublic theory through a careful review of Nancy Fraser's work. He suggests that Fraser's conceptualization of counterpublics remains within a liberal humanist vein and that subaltern counterpublics sometimes replicate certain problems associated with publics. His analysis of what was called the "Kairos document," a 1985 document written by a group of theologians challenging the South African government's definition of reconciliation, demonstrates how the state appropriated the logics of religion and shows how reconciliatory discourses that work on the relationship between the state and civil society can effect common respect.
Daniel Brouwer's essay is the first of three case studies focusing on the U.S. domestic context. He examines ACT UP's participation in a series of congressional hearings about the AIDS pandemic and views the hearings as sites where "weak" publics gain access to "procedural" and hence "strong" publics. The hearings become a forum for ACT UP's self-representation and a context in which a critique of institutions can be enacted.
Catherine Squires studies the relationship between the Black press and government from 1917-1945. Her chapter focuses on the role the Black press plays in expanding ideas of Black publics within the dominant public sphere as well as within marginalized public spaces. Ultimately, Squires suggests that the Black press during this period participated in what she calls an "integrative marginalization," where elites within marginal spaces acquire some access to dominant spheres but such access does not become more widely available to members of marginalized groups.
Robert Asen's essay examines discourse emerging after newspaper articles in the San Jose Mercury News during the mid-1990s alleged that the CIA was involved in funneling crack cocaine into the inner city as a means to help fund U.S. military involvement in Nicaragua during the 1980s. Since the issue was largely ignored in the popular press, Asen focuses his attention on community discourse and on the way the state undermines and affirms that community discourse.
The second section of the book addresses new communication technologies (NCTs) and globalization. In her article, Catherine Palczewski assesses the democratic potential of the Web, specifically focusing on the use of cyberspace as a location for the political struggles of marginalized and subordinated counterpublics. While she suggests that cyberspace is currently undemocratic, she sees potentials for interaction. Beyond seeing cyberspace functionally as a means to a political end, she recognizes the importance of how cyberspace participates in the construction of the state. For her, the potential to create new definitions and terms is key to the democratic future of the Web.
Todd McDorman explores NCTs in order to assess their ability to facilitate activism by counterpublic groups, specifically looking at the right-to-die movement and the very particular way activism is enhanced through NCT communication. While not alone a solution for counterpublic activists, McDorman suggests that NCTs provide unique communication possibilities that can extend activist goals and efforts.
Marie Mater explores the role of NCTs in United Nations deliberations at various conferences. Mater shows how NCTs have grown historically over time to provide NGOs with a role in deliberations. While she acknowledges the limitations of NCTs, she also suggests such limitations can be overcome.
To conclude the book, Dana Cloud challenges globalization and social movement theories that ignore the basic effects of capitalism, draw attention away from those effects, or downplay them. Additionally, through a case study of the student-, worker-, and urban poor-led 1998 Indonesian Revolution that led to the upending of the thirty-two year reign of Thojib Suharto, Cloud suggests that widespread political movements consisting of broader publics seeking a complete redistribution of wealth continue to make political sense.
All of the essays in this collection, as a whole, point to the need for further theorization and analysis of counterpublic sphere discourse. Each addresses important contemporary social issues and each attempts to theorize a critical aspect of contemporary counterpublic sphere theory.
While the essays are responsive to today's social exigencies, and while each helps to move debate about public spheres and counterpublic spheres along, and while both the case studies and theories are welcome shifts in focus for the fields of rhetorical studies and argumentation studies, at points the specific language of counterpublic sphere theory may draw attention away from other important research associated with the discursive relationship between dominant and non-dominant publics, for example. At other times, the terms used in counterpublic sphere theory may tend to inhibit more widespread interest in the counterpublic sphere project. Because of the need to cite and then remain conversant with the lineage of public sphere and then counterpublic sphere theory, this collection of essays largely ignores such important figures as, for example, W.E.B. DuBois, Emma Goldman, Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau, Chantal Mouffe, and even Louis Althusser. The question becomes: do we need to turn to Habermas and Fraser simply because they used and in many ways defined the key terms of the debate? And, in emphasizing their work, are we not preventing ourselves from consulting others whose ideas directly inform our conceptualization of the relationship between marginalized and dominant discourses?
Certainly, language should not stand in the way between counterpublic sphere theorists and readers interested more generally in oppositional and mainstream rhetoric and politics. Yet, terms that evoke power differences such as "strong" and "weak" publics, terms with particularized meaning within theoretical scholarship used here more broadly such as "subaltern," and terms such as "oscillation" (which simply means when ideas and information of oppositional publics become more mainstream) tend to limit a larger potential readership. Counterpublic sphere theory, then, may have a tendency to appear isolating, part of an internal conversation within rhetorical and argumentation studies, and hence not for outsiders.
These comments notwithstanding, this collection of essays is an admirable attempt to shift the larger conversation away from the public sphere arena, the emphasis of which has dominated much rhetorical and argument scholarship over the last few decades, and toward a focus on counterpublics. Such a move is laudable and suggests real potential for a thoroughgoing reconceptualization of rhetoric and argumentation studies, fields that should always have had oppositional discourse as a centerpiece.
KENT A. ONO
University of Illinois
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|Author:||Ono, Kent A.|
|Publication:||Argumentation and Advocacy|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2003|
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