Exploring the Public Sphere in a Performative Context

This panel will explore the public sphere in different performative contexts. The panel is included within the framework of the “Philosophy and Performance Working Group.” The panel participants will moderate the panel in rotation exploring their own role in the creation of a public sphere at the conference.

The panelists (in alphabetical order) are:

Professor Chris Balme, LMU Munich, Germany

Extrusions: Reconfiguring the public sphere in contemporary performance

The public sphere is normally defined as a discursive arena, where, in ideal terms, interlocutors can enter and interact without coercion or interference. It is, in Habermasian terms, the precondition for a democratic polity. While theatre has in its history sometimes been used to provide a space for such exchange – as an arena for political protest or as a venue for more subtle opposition in totalitarian regimes – today its public sphere has become more specialized. The theatrical public sphere in democratic societies with publicly supported institutions can be defined primarily as a place of aesthetic debate purveyed via arts pages in newspapers or specialist magazine programmes on radio and television (if they exist at all). Leaving aside the occasional scandal, the theatrical public sphere tends to be hermetically of and in itself. But this may be changing. There are numerous small-scale performance groups that operate primarily in the public sphere utilizing a variety of media. But how are the major publicly funded houses reacting to this challenge? In this paper I want to focus on one such response and its wider ramifications. In 2006 the Munich Kammerspiele institututed a new programme entitled Bunnyhill in which a whole series of performance projects in one of Munich’s ‘deprived suburbs’ were carried out. While theatrical ‘social work’ is not of itself unusual, its integration into the repertoire of one of the leading municipal theatres in the German-speaking world was. The subsequent response to this project was significant, leading even to the implementation of a federally funded programme to encourage similar projects in other cities. My analysis will examine how such projects/performances function by extruding into in the public sphere and thereby extend the institutional reach of otherwise tendentially hermetic institutions.

Professor Janelle Reinelt, University of Warwick, UK

Re-thinking the Public Sphere for a Global Age

Many challenges confront the notion of a public sphere as it was first articulated as a democratic space of discourse defined in opposition to the state (Habermas) or, in a reformulation of Nancy Fraser’s, as ‘a theater in modern societies in which political participation is enacted through the medium of talk’. Two contemporary questions that pertain especially to performance are 1) is there such a thing as a transnational public sphere? and 2) Is the medium of talk the medium of such a sphere?

For performance scholars, the necessity of developing a methodological approach to international comparative analysis of the concept of the public sphere seems important because performance is itself arguably a more ubiquitous medium than ‘talk’ in the contemporary moment of global and mediatized communication. However, the problems of understanding what the key components are of such a public sphere and also of the relationship between global and local versions of a/the public raise considerable doubt about any possible political efficacy claimed in its name.
This paper takes up the major debates about the public sphere—whether it is necessary to associate it with rational discourse and if so, whether this makes it an elite and exclusive concept; whether performance’s embodied practices through gestural and image vocabularies enhance the possibilities for effective public engagement and the formation of new publics and counter-publics, or removes the critical vocabulary of ‘reason’ and ‘debate’ necessary for it to function; whether globalized media blocks or enhances the communicative circuits of political engagement needed to sustain democratic praxis.

While mainly a theoretical exploration of these issues, the paper will conclude with a number of performance examples drawn from widely divergent contexts to illustrate its conclusions.

Professor Freddie Rokem, University of Tel Aviv, Israel

The Crises of Representation in the Public Sphere

My point of departure is that Habermas in his book The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere defines the public sphere as a field in constant crisis and unresolved power-relations. On the basis of this observation I want to suggest an approach for examining the public sphere on the basis of a threefold understanding of "representation": parliamentary representation, legal representation and aesthetic (artistic) representation. I want to examine how and where they converge and where they are contesting each other. These issues are also vaguely implied by Habermas. I will finally briefly outline and examine the relationships of the aesthetic representation to the two other forms of representation in fields that are based on the notion of urgency as a response of the artist to the state of exception or emergency that exists in the public sphere. The notion of urgency can be seen as a possible strategy for the artist to enter the public sphere.

Annalisa Sachi, PhD., University of Bologna, Italy

A public space for ghosts

The Hamburg scholar Aby Warburg (1866-1929) is well known for having set up a library that since its foundation has served as a private collection and as an institution for public education. He called it "Kultur-wissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg" (and in 1933 the library was moved from Germany to London to escape the Nazi regime. Then, in 1944 it was incorporated in the University of London.). For most of Warburg’s life the library was housed in his private dwelling, although it was accessible for the public and increasingly used by the scholarly community.
This semi-public space, or public space for a particular community, hosts Warburg’s collection of thousands of volumes, and, in its original space in Hamburg, it “staged” the panels of his lifelong project, Mnemosyne (as one can see in the image below), the Atlas that should recapitulate his “Nameless Science”.


Mnemosyne was conceived as a gigantic condenser for gathering energy currents that continue to animate Europe’s memory in the form of its ‘ghosts’. By gazing upon this atlas of images which he saw as movements frozen at the moment of their greatest intensity, the “good European” would become conscious of the problematic nature of his own cultural tradition, perhaps succeeding thereby in “educating himself and in healing his own schizophrenia.”
According to Warburg, images possess tremendous energy, with the potential to make man regress or guide him on his path to knowledge. Mnemosyne, as the History of Art more generally, has been enigmatically described by Warburg as “a ghost story for truly adult people.” Thus, according to Warburg’s idea, the Library was the public space in which a particular community could share this “ghost story”.

My paper will analyze the “gift” of Warburg (the public space, the books, the images of Mnemosyne) as the founder of a particular community. This gift, I propose, has the particular quality of the Latin “munus” from which, according to the Italian philosopher Roberto Esposito (Communitas. The Origin and Destiny of Community, Stanford UP, 2009) the Community (cum-munus) originates. At its (missing) origin, communitas is constructed, according to Esposito, around a phantasmatic gift that members of a community cannot keep for themselves, as the ghosts imagined by Warburg.
In conclusion I would like to show how this journey around ghosts experienced by a particular community in a public space is closely related to the public’s experience while attending some kind of theatrical performances, like the Romeo Castellucci’s “Tragedia Endogonidia” (Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio).

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