Media Darkness

Reflections on Public Space, Light and Conflict

There is an unshakable belief in the idea that what defines the mass media is that they produce or constitute, in all their different ways, a public. So while there is agreement on the fact that not every public sphere is a communication medium, many people tend to think that every communication medium constitutes a public sphere - the most recent and prominent candidate being, of course, the Internet. But is this claim as to the public quality of all media, hegemonic as it may be today, really tenable?

Media (in) Darkness

Media (in) Darkness

Media (in) Darkness

Media (in) Darkness

A most simple test will immediately disprove such fantasy: Try and enter your main national television station. In most cases you will not even make it into the lobby. Another test: Try and publish your opinion on a certain political issue in a major (or not so major) national (or not so national) newspaper. In the case of the television station you will experience a significant likelihood of failure, unless you are Rupert Murdoch. Otherwise you will be lucky if they let you pass on to their car park. And in the case of the national newspaper you may not fare any better, unless your name is Jürgen Habermas. If the public sphere is characterised by universal access, and what sense would it make if it wasn't, how can it ever be justified to credit a broadcasting company or a mainstream newspaper with the qualifier 'public'? So the mere fact that something is called a 'medium' does not provide sufficient reason to conclude that it will also constitute or produce something of the order of a public sphere.

The light of conflict

For Arendt, the public sphere is a space of appearance. Whoever enters the public exposes him/herself and appears in front of others. By crossing the border, by stepping out of the realm of the private and entering, in one of Arendt's typical formulations, the light of the public one becomes visible. While the private is a dark space or 'twilight' space, the public is a bright and radiant space. Yet by becoming visible one also becomes vulnerable. Public self-display implies risks - there is no guarantee that one will not be blinded by the light of the public. Politics is a risky enterprise and the stepping out of private invisibility requires courage. Of course, Arendt worries about the very collapse of the differentiation between public and private in modernity. Historically it was the emergence of society that resulted in the blurring of the border between the 'shadowy' private and the 'shining' public, and in some of Arendt?s more pessimistic moments it seems that nowadays universal twilight has befallen not only the private but also society as a whole, for where the border between the private and the public is not operative anymore all things are painted grey-in-grey: "The emergence of society - the rise of housekeeping, its activities, problems and organizational devices - from the shadowy interior of the household into the light of the public sphere, has not only blurred the old borderline between private and political, it has also changed almost beyond recognition the meaning of the two terms and their significance for the life of the individual and the citizen."[1]. While in ancient Greece people had to cross the gulf between their household and the public, thus 'rising' into the realm of politics, and while in the medieval ages such gulf at least persisted in the (non-political) 'tension between the darkness of everyday life and the grandiose splendour attending everything sacred'[2], it is only with modernity and the rise of society that this gulf has disappeared and light and darkness intermingle.

There is no point here in discussing whether or not Arendt's account is correct historically or whether the picture she paints of ancient democracy lives up to historical reality. What counts for our purpose only is the very model of the public sphere she delineates. And in Arendt, the public sphere is modelled upon an arena or theatre stage. As for actors on a stage, visibility is something joyful and yet it takes courage to expose oneself. In the case of acting as well as in the case of politics you may encounter stage fright, and as soon as you enter that stage, the most brutal spot-light will immediately fall on you. But what is the source of this light? Why is public visibility a risky thing? Arendt's answer is the following: The public realm is characterised by 'a fiercely agonal spirit', by some sort of constant low level conflict, 'where everybody had constantly to distinguish himself from all others'. [3] At the source of light we discover conflict: agonism.
Yet for Arendt this agonism, even as it was shared with others, was something purely individualistic: 'it was the only place where men could show who they really and inexchangeably were' [4]. Such agonism of the individual is not compatible with our own idea of politics as something intrinsically collective. Thus, Laclau and Mouffe's notion of antagonism is much more appropriate if we want to describe how politics works in reality: and it in fact works through a conflictual construction of a we versus a them. The identity of a given collectivity can only be established via the latter's delimitation vis-a-vis a constitutive outside. Arendt does agree that people act together, that they act in concert, but she underrates the extent to which they act against other people in order to come together and to establish their own collective in the first place. So in a first step it makes sense to establish antagonism as the defining criterion of the public realm rather than agonism. What both terms share, though, is the element of conflict. Yet antagonism sheds a much harsher conflictual light onto things than agonism, which, at least for Arendt, has more to do with individual grandeur than with the non-individual construction of collective identities. So one could even hold that antagonism is the more original or primordial category from which agonism is derived. (Agonism, on the other hand, would then be nothing other than a secondary and sublimated form of antagonism.) Hence, antagonism is the inescapable condition of politics. What follows from this condition is the rather non-Arendtian conclusion that there is no such thing as a politics without exclusion or enmity.
However, if every acting-in-concert is always, at one and the same time, an acting-in-conflict, this emphasis on the conflictual dimension of politics does not imply that every political act must necessarily lead to some sort of riot or civil war. On the contrary, today's political theorists - such as Chantal Mouffe, Norberto Bobbio, William Connolly, or Ulrich Dubiel - tend to maintain to some extent the differentiation between antagonism and agonism as the difference, in Mouffe's words, between enemy and adversary. [5] Agonism in their view can be seen as an already domesticated form of antagonism. Here it is precisely the binding force of conflict - the bond of conflict - which must be emphasised: As soon as I realise that my own identity depends on that which is negated (my enemy), that it is constituted by way of such negation in the first place, a minimal symbolic bond of recognition might emerge as a product of reflection: The enemy (to be destroyed) turns into an adversary (to be partially accepted). Not necessarily of course, as there will always remain a second option: I can always seek to renounce the bond, cut through it, and destroy the enemy. This would constitute the authoritarian or totalitarian solution. It can justifiably be called totalitarian, not because of the deplorable fate of the enemy, but because of a deeper, a structural reason - the reason being that, together with the enemy, the bond and thus conflict as such disappears. What results is a society without any conflict, and isn't this precisely the ideal of totalitarianism?
Before turning to the question of how to make Arendt's claims operative with respect to our own contemporary predicament, I would like to add one general observation. It is of course possible to criticise Arendt from the viewpoint of the slogan 'the personal is political'. And it is certainly true that the 'much harsher light' of the political (the public sphere) ontologically precedes the dark space of the private. Yet for the same reason the latter is never entirely darkened. Rather it is, as Arendt sometimes has it, a 'twilight space' for there will always be some rays of public light falling through its windows. Arendt: 'Since our feeling for reality depends utterly upon appearance and therefore upon the existence of a public realm into which things can appear out of the darkness of sheltered existence, even the twilight which illuminates our private and intimate lives is ultimately derived from the much harsher light of the public realm.' [6] If we want to translate (and thus transmute) this account into our own vocabulary we could say that the political - the realm of agonistic conflict - will never be completely erased from the world of 'the private' and the social since it lies at the latter's very roots. Insofar as all social relations are based on contingent political decisions in the past, these political roots may be reactivated at any time. [7] So the light of former antagonisms shines through the temporarily pacified sediments of the social. There is always the potential of a clear and brutal ray of light disrupting the chiaroscuro of the private.
The twilight of the Bazaar
Now, as we have defined the public as the very sphere from which the light of conflicts radiates, we must return to our current situation where we will come to the conclusion that we live in rather 'Dark Times'. Not because history unfolds towards ultimate catastrophe, but simply because the light of conflict flickers. What is the source of this 'flickering'? The reason for the flickering can be traced back to two seemingly opposing tendencies: On the one hand, what one has to confront today is the social tendency of banning conflictual forms of acting from the public altogether. There remains an unshakable believe in 'expertocracy' and corporatist forms of hidden interest negotiations as opposed to conflictual, public debate. On the other hand, we witness the rise of political forces that seek to turn the adversary back into an enemy. We are speaking here of the populist ultra-right as the historical actor that took up the task of re-introducing conflict into the public sphere - but this time not as democratically mediated agonism but as pure antagonism. Before turning to the first aspect, the aspect of 'expertocracy' and neo-corporatism, let us discuss the current phenomenon of the ultra-right. [8]
Since the xenophobic Freedom Party was allowed by its coalition partner, the conservative People's Party to enter Austrian government in 2000, conservatives all over Europe, with the exception of France, have started to form coalitions (sometimes short-lived, sometimes enduring) with the ultra-right. To name only a few cases: in 2001 Berlusconi, Fini and Bossi returned to power in Italy, and the conservatives in Denmark came into power with the support of the ultra-right People's Party. In 2002 Jean-Marie Le Pen made it into the second round of the French presidential elections, and in Portugal conservatives built a coalition with the right-wing Parti Popular, while the Dutch coalition between conservatives and Pim Fortuyn's list was rather short-lived. But what preceded these spectacular inroads of xenophobic and racist movements on the governmental level was their electoral success and relative popularity all over Europe. In fact, their rise - which was accompanied by the dissolution of social-democratic hegemony - took place on the very background of post-war corporatist (or post-fordist) compromise. By the latter one has to understand the specific regime of conflict and interest handling that developed in Europe after the war. Basically it is characterised by a three-partite compromise between the interests of state, labour and capital. Open public conflict is effectively banned by the institutionalised forms of bargaining between these forces.
So there seems to be an intrinsic relation between the rise of forces that seek to 'destroy' their enemies - migrants, asylum seekers, minorities, political opponents - and the institutionalised exclusion of conflict from the public sphere. In Chantal Mouffe's words:
Too much emphasis on consensus, together with aversion towards confrontations, leads to apathy and to disaffection with political participation. Worse still, it may backfire with the result being an explosion of antagonisms unmanageable by the democratic process. This is why a vibrant democratic life requires real debates about possible alternatives. In other words while consensus is indeed necessary, it must be accompanied by dissent. [9]
With the ultra-right, antagonism returns with a vengeance. But when antagonism is radicalised, the bond constituted by the relation of conflict disintegrates. Thus, an entirely pacified (or 'totalitarian') society emerges which is - paradoxically - precisely the ideal of those on the right who try to re-introduce antagonism into the field.
I will call the neo-corporatist logic of bargaining which serves as the historical precondition for the return of antagonism the logic of the Bazaar. [10] Obviously, the Bazaar is not a private place nor is it a public place in the radical sense. It is a deficient form of public in which private (=non-common) interests are asserted through non-public means. In contradistinction to a certain version of the agora, the Bazaar does not emerge in the plural and conflictual clash between conflicting opinions. And in contradistinction to a certain version of the forum, divergent interests are not negotiated in foro but remain hidden or secret even. So the Bazaar is a non-public public. Its essence does not revolve around the conflictual debate of the common good (respectively of different versions of the common good), but it is to be found in the bargaining over private advantages. It is not a space for politics but for 'special-interest politics'. Yet the Bazaar is not necessarily entirely non-public. There might be a conflictual element, and thus a potential for conflict, even in an activity like bargaining. So the Bazaar constitutes a twilight zone, the traditional meeting place for interest and pressure groups where they can negotiate their deals in relative obscurity. It is never central, as it always seeks the escape the full light of the public. It is always hiding, somewhat displaced and adjacent to the forum as a space of visibility.
Therefore we should not be surprised that nowadays one has to locate topographically the Bazaar in two places which bear in their name their adjacent position with respect to both the centre of power and the centre of visibility: the 'antechamber' and the 'back room'. The antechamber is the room in front of the office where decisions are to be made. It is the room you enter before getting access to the power centre. It is the place where you would hang around waiting for the minister or whoever is to leave his office - which is precisely the moment when you have to capture his attention, convince or pressurise him (sometimes her) while he is rushing to his next appointment. No wonder that the natural place for lobbying is the lobby. (The German verb 'antichambrieren' captures this activity of lobbying very well.) The other natural place is of course the 'back room'. Being adjacent to power as well, it remains hidden from public scrutiny, even more so than the antechamber. Every capital, including supra-national capitals like Brussels, is full of back rooms. And it is imperative for them to function that they remain obscured from public scrutiny - from the light of the public. Of course, a backroom must not always remain the place where shady deals are negotiated, it can turn into the place of a political conspiracy. Yet, as long as such conspiracy remains in darkness - and it is the very nature of a conspiracy that it cannot take place in foro - the back room will remain precisely this, a back room, not a forum.
These reflections might lead us back to Kant's notion of publicity (Publizität). In this notion we may discover, after accessibility and conflictuality, a third criterion (which may turn out in the end as perhaps only another aspect of conflictuality) for the public sphere. Following Kant - and simultaneously up-dating Kant - we hold that one can speak about 'the public' only when decisions are reached openly. In other words, decision mechanisms as well as the result of decisions must be transparent and visible. However, in as far as decisions result from conflictual debate rather than secret bargaining, this criterion implies that wherever there is visibility there is conflict. And finally, a fourth criterion - apart from accessibility, conflictuality and publicity (or visibility) - has emerged from our reflections on the Bazaar: the moment of the common. To frame it within the vocabulary of traditional political theory: Public conflict must revolve around a common good, not around private interest. In neo-corporatist arrangements this aspect remains frequently obscured as corporatist interests - the interests of certain social groups - are taken for granted and accepted as legitimate. Therefore, neo-corporatism is an entirely a-political form of bargaining. For Antonio Gramsci, on the other hand, politics only occurs if corporatist particularism is broken and narrow self-interest universalised into a common project. Without a universal or common element, no politics. But precisely because it remains unclear, under modern conditions, what the common good should look like, precisely because we do not have any substantial idea anymore about the common good (i.e. how a 'good life' should be lived, how a 'well-ordered' society should be organised, etc.), there will necessarily be competing attempts to define it. There will be conflict over the common good.
Media Darkness
So far, we have discovered four criteria of the public: accessibility, conflictuality, visibility and commonality. I have hinted at the possibility that conflictuality is primary to all other criteria, but as there is not enough space to develop the argument I would like to leave it at this hint and instead return to the role of the media. To what extent do the media live up to these criteria? In the case of mass media, the criterion of accessibility is not met. From this perspective, they would not even qualify as 'restricted' public spaces, as access is not restricted but nearly entirely barred. The voicing of political opinions is virtually impossible, except within the neatly delimitated and censured space of the letter-to-the-editor. While for some there might be the possibility to appear on afternoon talk-shows, they will have to pay for this with their own private exhibitionism. This is less a matter of access than a matter of exhibition and self-exhibition - the only opportunity for the most subaltern social groups to receive, for some minutes, a minimal degree of public attention and recognition. Even as it might sound harsh, I suspect that the talk-show space, rather than being modelled upon the public space or even the Bazaar, is actually modelled upon the Zoo, and should perhaps be analysed from a post-colonial perspective as distant offshoot of those spectacles of the past where 'exotic savages' were exhibited to a European audience. [11]
Talk shows might also serve as a good example for the fact that conflictuality is factually excluded even where it seems to be celebrated. The debates that unfold - between guests and audience for instance - are only seemingly conflictual. In actual fact they stage a carefully rehearsed, ritualised, and eternally repeated melodrama. Real conflict, however, cannot be executed according to the script book or the 'success formula' of a certain television format. What is even more discomforting however is that the same must be said about political debates in the mass media. They also follow the script-book and are staged according to rules rehearsed a thousand times before. One will always invite, for instance, a representative of the left and a representative of the right, so that the medium itself appears as an ideologically neutral arbitrator, yet in some mysterious way an 'invisible hand' always takes care that the one on the right is always significantly more to the right than the one on the left is to the left. A closer look will always easily disprove the neutrality claim of the 'script' and disclose the conflict between the opponents as a staged and asymmetric one. [12] If the light of the public is associated with conflict, then the media are a rather dark place.
The third criterion of visibility or publicity (in the Kantian sense) links up with the first of accessibility: one has to get access in order to become visible. Yet publicity means more: It refers to the visibility of those corporate interests and decision-making procedures which otherwise would remain hidden. It is obvious, from this perspective, that one of the functions of the mass media is precisely to keep them hidden. Let's take the example of television news: What is presented to us as political information is a never-ending sequence of handshakes between heads of states, prime ministers and other politicians. The apogee of this sort of information is always the so-called 'family photograph' at supra-national meetings of the EU or the G8. We cannot see anything else than the mere existence of politicians - something we would take for granted even if we couldn't see them - but we are never allowed to throw a glance at those 'back rooms' where the actual negotiations take place and decisions are made. One might suspect that this is so because the aspect of commonality, our fourth criterion, is absent from these sort of negotiations to the extent that they are based on corporate, particularist interests, rather than the common good.
Again, by 'common good' I do not understand something inherently chivalrous. To abstract from one's own particular interest is not a 'good deed' in the Christian sense of selflessness. It constitutes the very logic of politics: in order to hegemonise a certain terrain, a given particular force must universalise itself; it must take other forces on board and, for the same reason, has to leave some of its own ideological baggage behind. The common good is but another name for this empty universality which is always - and only temporarily - incarnated by certain particular alliances. What today's mass media do, contrary to their name, is to split up every mass into its individual components. Political struggles are presented as private problems. Let us once more take the example of the talk show. What a more critical observer would detect there as forms of subordination and suppression along the axes of race, class and gender, is presented to us as a mere divergence of private opinion or as a question of individual lifestyle. For instance, one of the usual talk show-topics may read: 'My lazy husband does not even try to get a job'. Even if the underlying problem of unemployment is addressed in the discussion (in most cases it won't be), it will be individualised rather than universalised. Thus, a problem which should be of concern to the commonality, is presented as a private one. Therefore the media -as ideological apparatuses - tend to fulfil the very function of ideology (independent of the content of given ideologies): the function of depoliticisation. As long as all conflicts will be ideologically reduced to problems of the individual, the corporate and the private, they will not be universalised into a collective will. So by denying conflicts a space of appearance, and by effectively ruling out dissent and opposition, the mass media in fact depoliticise the public. If public space is a space of light, the media produce a space of darkness.
It should be obvious that all four criteria are not bound to specific places within the social topography. Certainly they are not bound to the mass media, but we will not find not a single place that is a priori public since conflict may emerge everywhere in society. Everything in society can turn into a source and a space for conflict: even a shopping mall, even the media, and, what an extravagant idea, even the parliament. The most darkened 'back room' can turn into a public space as soon as it opens its doors, letting the light of conflict shining in. However, if the public is a procedural phenomenon which is not bound to a specific place and can emerge (and disappear) wherever conflicts are openly staged, how can we stabilise it? How is permanence possible, how can we institutionally stabilise something which, by definition, dislocated all institutional stabilisations? Is there something like an institutionalised public? This is precisely what the media pretend to be, yet as we have seen, they do not live up to their pretense. The only answer can be that one has to clearly see and accept this paradox as a constitutive paradox. The public sphere does not care about questions of institutional allocation, wherever it emerges we will encounter the dissolution of institutional and topographical certainties. Thus, the public space is less a category of space than it is a category of time - understood as that which disturbs and dislocates space. [13] Nevertheless we will always have to provide institutional preconditions for its emergence - even as there can be no guarantee that it will ever emerge. It is important that preconditions are established that allow for, or at least are favourable to accessibility, conflictuality, visibility and commonality - which is what counter-media usually try to do (from samizdat to pirate radios, community TV). Nevertheless, the public space will always remain an impossible space. A space where something is supposed to be stabilised that by its very nature undermines all stability.


1 Hannah Arendt: The Human Condition, 2nd edition, Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1998, p.38.

2 Hannah Arendt, op.cit., p.34.

3 Hannah Arendt, op.cit., p.41.

4 Hannah Arendt, op.cit., p.41.

5 For this reason it is apparent that Mouffe is rather on the side of the Schmittian version of the political than on the side of the Arendtion, as it was Schmitt who first introduced the difference between enemy and adversary.

6 Hannah Arendt, op.cit., p.51.

7 For the dialectics between social sedimentation and political reactivation see Ernesto Laclau: New Reflections on the Revolution of Our Time, London and New York: Verso 1990.

8 For a much more extensive account see Oliver Marchart: "Austrifying Europe: Ultra-Right Populism and the New Culture of Resistance," in Cultural Studies 16(6) 2002, pp.809-819, together with Oliver Marchart: ?The ?fourth way? of the ultra right: Austia, Europe, and the end of neo-corporatism, Capital & Class 73, 2000, pp.7-14.

9 Chantal Mouffe: "The radical centre: A politics without adversary," in Soundings 9, 1998, p.14.

10 I must underline that the metaphor of ?Bazaar? should not be understood in any culturalist sense, that is, as a phenomenon specific to certain cultures. What I subsume under this header is, strictly speaking, a certain logic of political communication which is 'universal'.

11 Even as subalternity in the case of European talks shows is a matter of class rather than race - notwithstanding however the racist treatment of migratory identity.

12 Some of these mechanisms were described by Bourdieu in his book on television. Pierre Bourdieu: Über das Fernsehen, Frankfurt 1998.

13 See Oliver Marchart: "Art, space and the public sphere(s). Some basic observations on the difficult relation of public art, urbanism and political theory" in: Andreas Lechner and Petra Maier (eds.): stadtmotiv, Vienna: Edition Selene 1999, pp.96-156.

Oliver Marchart, PhD, is a political and cultural theorist and works at the Media Studies Department of the University of Basel.