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Communication Monographs
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Opening up the spaces of public dissension


G. Thomas Goodnight
a a

Professor of Communication Studies, Northwestern University, Available online: 02 Jun 2009

To cite this article: G. Thomas Goodnight (1997): Opening up the spaces of public dissension, Communication Monographs, 64:3, 270-275 To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03637759709376420

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Responses to Phillips: A Forum

he September 1996 issue of Communication Monographs carried an article by Kendall Phillips, in which he cited work by Gerard A. Hauser and G. Thomas Goodnight. Upon reading the article, both felt that Professor Phillips represented many of their ideas differently from how they themselves view them. As a result, the editor invited each to respond to the Phillips piece, in part, to set the record straight and also to continue the dialogue on some of the larger issues raised. G. Thomas Goodnight is Professor of Communication Studies at Northwestern University. Gerard A. Hauser is Professor and Chair in the Department of Communication at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

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Opening Up "The Spaces of Public Dissension"


G. Thomas Goodnight

his essay takes up Kendall Phillips's invitation to consider dissent seriously. To be clear, I do not intend to claim dissent has not been undervalued or that new models of publics should not be innovated. Nevertheless, there are good reasons to resist any effort to conceptualize studies in the public sphere in binary categories. First among these is the recognition that gestures of consent and dissent are contingent inventions spun from human conditions of uncertainty. Differences that make a difference sometimes emerge from rhetorical engagements because, and in spite, of attributed consensus. So, too, one cannot be certain that any conversation, or even a few words, is not blooming into something entirely differentas people who find themselves as poets, mystics, artists, revolutionaries and others discover from time to time. Rhetorical theories and public practices emerge, I am persuaded, from many such inter-contesting and inter-connecting gestures articulated among varied perspectives across alternative relationships in changing temporal contexts. To read publics, not in the mix, match, and multiplicity of symbolic activities, but through the frame-frozen binaries of con(dis)sensus is likely to diminish learning from rhetorical models by overdetermining presumption and by masking risks encountered in enactments of public discourses, discussions, and performances. These points will be illustrated by examining how Phillips' own polemical reading is constructed and by assessing the risks of demonizing what he represents as consensus models of the public sphere. "Public Spaces" can be read, justifiably, as a polemic, that is, as a rhetorical performance that simplifies differences, exaggerates claims, and hardens divisions in the interests of effect. No one in the speech field has actually written that rhetoric or public argument is regulated by "openness, common issues, impartiality, intersubjectivity, and rationality" (p. 233)-certainly not Kenneth Burke, whose contextual commitments valued novelty, change, and "perspective by incongruity." Whatever their technical or aesthetic affiliations, twentieth-century rhetorics have been developed dialectically, near to experiences of upheaval and shot through with spaces for
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contingency. It takes much work to make rhetorical theory and criticism over to look like neo-Kantian regulative principles. Nor do I take it that the differences among generations of rhetorical theories and critical practices can be represented fairly by the views of Huser and me. Similarly, reduction of differences among public sphere scholars, among interest specific disciplinary audiences, and among diverse practices of public institutions and social movements suggests that the essay is more a persuasive experiment in academic reconfiguration than a balanced reconstruction. The experiment unfolds a Cold War-like hard division between good/difference/ philosophy (other than Habermas) and evil/the public sphere/speech communication (other than Phillips). While such an equation models one way to configure the public sphere, I will dissent seriously from this totalizing structure by opening up to appraisal the tactics necessary to invent the scenario. Resistance begins by showing how the claim to reveal "the limitations intrinsic to current conceptions of the public sphere" (p. 237) actually reads the "diverse concerns and viewpoints" (p. 232) of a long-standing philosophical debate so as to split apart key facets of discussion. The essay proceeds to identify further tactics of reading-disqualification, erasure, and compression-that attempt to cross-apply the modified philosophical models to rhetorical constructions of the public. In the end, it argued that while Phillips's polemic does present one way of configuring the public sphere, it also poses some significant, undisclosed risks. "Spaces" represents philosophical discussions of the public sphere as if the views of Jrgen Habermas have reigned long unopposed. Yet Arthur Strum (1994) in assembling a lengthy bibliography on the ffentlichkeit controversy notes that the discussion has included "work employing radically different theoretical languages, and [has been] constituted by sometimes sharply divergent structuring propositions" (p. 162). In fact, while influential, Habermas's immanent critique was opposed by Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge, scholars who as early as 1972 developed the notion of a "counterpublic" as a site filled with struggle, protest, fantasy, and opposition against bourgeois public spheres of production and communication practice. Their work helped spark European movements, such as "nonacademic research projects on everyday life in the History Workshops, the revival of the gay and lesbian movement, or environmentalist and antinuclear campaigns (leading to the formation of the Green party)" (Hansen, 1993, p. xix). Since Negt and Kluge, philosophers have discussed ways to extend counterpublics outside of proletarian projects. When Calhoun's seminarians met in 1989, they were working with an already contested argument and, for the most part, took up the task of moving beyond the polarities of idealization and negation. "Spaces" nouses half the discussion. Thomas McCarthy (1992) is captioned as observing that since needs are relative to cultural values, there is no impartial or neutral standpoint in the public sphere. Phillips treats this as a problem of "commensuration" and assures the reader that the public sphere must be a place that "subjugate[s] the interests and values of participants to some other system of interests and values" (p. 241). What McCarthy actually was saying is that one can acknowledge differences in interpretation of needs and the common good among "consociates" and still pursue common interests in avoiding violence, coercion, and manipulation through "compromise, consent, accommodation, and the like" (p. 67). Similarly, Phillips says that Seyla Benhabib (1992) believes the "boundary ignores

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difference in the experiences of males and females" (p. 239), and so distinctions between private and public make for nought but subjugation. What Benhabib actually concludes is this: "The discourse model [of the public sphere] is the only one that is compatible both with the general social trends of our societies and with the emancipatory aspirations of new social movements, like the woman's movement" (p. 95). To her, Habermas provides the principles of "egalitarian reciprocity" requisite to critique existing social customs. Her recommendation is to develop a critical model suitable to feminist needs to deal with bureaucracy, not scrap the public sphere (p. 94). Nancy Fraser (1992) is quoted on the issue of the inability to bracket status differentials in deliberation, but the following is not referenced: "this irony does not fatally compromise the discourse of publicity; that discourse can be, indeed has been differently deployed in different circumstances and contexts." Fraser's recommendation is to recognize nonliberal, nonbourgeois, competing public spheres as a corrective to idealizing bourgeois practices, and for this she acknowledges Habermas's thesis as an "indispensable resource" in "theorizing the limits of democracy in late-capitalist societies" (p. 109). Thus, Fraser's own conclusion is a light year from Phillips's stingy reference ("It may be possible to rehabilitate some notion of the public sphere" [p. 245] dirough multiple publics). Finally, Peter Uwe Hohendahl (1992) is read as warning against what is called "boundary maintenance." While Hohendahl did say he favors more "fluid" connections, what he was actually arguing was that moral theory alone is insufficient to understand publics because such spaces include local customs and cultural performances "where problems of identity and difference have been articulated" and reshape politics. Thus, Hohendahl finds in the public sphere space for innovation which "Spaces" claims to be highly unlikely, if not impossible, due to decorum requirements. Of course, not all philosophers work to repair the public sphere. However, it is abundantly clear that Phillips's scenario denies conceptual access to a philosophical debate that has matured to the point of asking how common cause is negotiated, social customs changed, multiple publics brought into being, and identities transformed in politically productive ways across alternative constructions of the public sphere. These questions have not been unaddressed in speech communication-even in advance of the post-Cold War discussion in philosophy-though "Spaces" would make it seem so. At this juncture, I exchange examining breadth of views in contemporary philosophical debate for exploring in detail how work I joined in the early 1980s becomes read. Phillips's treatment of my own work is a category error that confuses the more limited project featured at the opening of the 1982 essay, recovering deliberative argument as requisite for citizen participation in democratic public institutions, with the wider construction of discourse spheres, which was developed from tensions among alternative rhetorics of identification (1982, pp. 216-217), and later on featured as contexts brought into being and transformed through "rhetorical argument" (1987, p. 430). In both essays, it was noted that spheres were contexts of contestable and contested choices and risks alterable over time. The recovery of deliberation was based on norms that I offered as "my own" assessment of a discourse art and on a recovery project I argued to be needed "at this time" in relation to burgeoning technologies. None of this is acknowledged. Rather much

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labor is expended to fit my work to Phillips's thesis through reading tactics of disqualification, erasure, and compression. "Spaces" disqualifies all statements at odds with its aims. The 1982 essay says explicitly that "all arguments arise in uncertainty" and that even the most secure cultural premises can be disestablished or rendered suspect by altered material conditions or discursive context (p. 215). Against this backdrop, no argument could be located in a permanent standing of majority or minority opinion; rather, all argument is identified as partaking both "in the creative resolution and the resolute creation of uncertainty" (p. 215). Of course, this means that neither consensual or dissensual norms are privileged since arguments emerge "in concert with or in opposition to ongoing activity in the personal, technical, and public spheres" (p. 215). Again: "an arguer can accept the sanctioned, widely used bundle of rules, claims procedures and evidence to wage a dispute. Or, the arguer can inveigh against any or all of these 'customs' in order to bring forth a new variety of understanding" (p. 217). A new variety may be found by the one or among the many, but the result is to bring forth "different kinds . . . of disagreement" (1982, p. 221), not unanimity of opinion. Unsurprisingly, then, one finds that the public sphere essays critique dominant views of rationality, not support them; specify claims to openness to be a site of controversy, not a safe presupposition; identify "partisanship," not neutrality, as the signature of public discourse; acknowledge boundaries to be sites of contest, not places for mindless maintenance work, and so on. Not all opposing statements are merely disqualified. Two passages are actually cited. In the first, a line is quoted where I identify discourse context as "differences'^!] among how people are "invited to channel doubts" (1982, p. 216). Undaunted, Phillips claims here that I develop the spheres notion to explain how contexts contain discourse that define subjects discussed and decision making criteria-this in spite of the fact that the 1982 essay says explicitly that the theory is NOT "the foundation of a taxonomical scheme" because any argument artifact "can be taken to be grounded in any one of the spheres or a combinatory relationship" and the attributed grounds or imputed relationships revised through argument (p. 220)! In the second cited passage, tactics of reading are expanded from disqualification to erasure. Mainly to prove that all public sphere theories must be built on an "intersubjective" model of communication, a passage is quoted. My sentence reads: "Public discourse seeks out and fashions common temporal experience and structures that enable public action and sustain public forbearance" (1987, p. 431). Phillips concocts three versions of this passage. Not one is accurate. Two leave out the term "temporal" as a qualifier of the kind of experience that publics evoke, a common time although persons have different relationships to the moment. The same two depluralize "structures" and make the claim appear to be a compound universal with experience [i.e., "Goodnight (1987) wishes to see the 'fashioning of common experience and structure'" (Phillips, p. 241; see also, p. 236)]. What "structures" was referring to were collaboratively sequenced events, like elections or wars. The last reference leaves out "experience" and "forbearance" altogether and decks my version of the public out as simply interested in "common structures" (Phillips, p. 243). Had Phillips actually been concerned with intersubjectivity, he might have turned to the first page of the 1987 article where a direct request is made to suspend the search for a unified field theory of communication in order to

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"approach human communication as the problem of one who must say something to some other" (Goodnight, 1987, p. 428). But this is a statement that also opposes the preferred reading; so it, too, gets dropped. One reason that it so difficult to find support for a binary reading is that "Spaces" is trying to compress a three-term rhetorical relationship among personal, technical, and public contexts to fit popular philosophical critiques of the two-term, deontological concepts public/private. The cross-application does not work very well. The 1982/87 essays argue explicitly that the public is a conventional construction, not an essential category-an "ambivalent" site (specifically with gender issues), not a privileged one. Contexts are said to layer linguistically, not divide off by social structure. Public discourse is characterized most fundamentally by controversy, not consensus, and so is shown to give rise to on-going struggles over practice with constitutive stakes. These essays acknowledge that any characterization of a sphere is "necessarily incomplete," not determined by "essential characteristics" (as is claimed without warrant). Of course, my own sketches are but part of a productive line of critical work by scholars in speech communication who have pursued and debated the transformative risks of rhetorical theory and practicewell in advance of the post-Cold War academy's rethinking the public sphere. In sum, "Spaces" achieves its polemical ends through a binaried reading that overstates contemporary philosophical doubts about rehabilitating the public sphere and understates the innovative qualities of rhetorical criticism developed in speech communication. However, this is not to say that the work is without genuine resonance. Phillips does assemble an explosive version of how speech communication will be dealt with by those who see Berlin walls everywhere still standing or by those who wish to ride the still-surging tides of skepticism and egalitarian virtue emblematic of late 1980s popular movements. Perhaps it is the case that postwar publics will always benefit more from celebrating moments of determined skepticism than from facing new deliberative tasks. Perhaps not. The point is that "Spaces" chokes off choice by requiring presumption be put on the side of a theory or practice simply because it is fronted as anti-majoritarian while requiring that all democratic publics be indifferently effaced. The risks of this politics of reading are not negligible. Because such a strategy must answer everywhere and always to a demanding skepticism, it can scarcely imagine affirmative public activities, learn from episodes of productive change, engage democratic practices, compare relative merits among discourse practices, or expand possibilities of hopeeven among dissenting publics. Because it defers commitments to alternate models and paradigms, such a politics forces binaried readings of rhetoric and the public sphere-either modern (consensus) or postmodern (dissent). Its promise of recognition for innovation (or a third way) must remain either an empty category or a self-aborting claim. As a result, "Space's" strategy risks gratuitous negation in particular cases and fails to even disclose, much less warrant, its criteria for exchanging some exclusions with others. Only Phillips's own tactics of reading, impart a clear notion of his compass of an acceptable practice. If studies in the public sphere in the early 1980s can be said to have exhibited concerns with the threats of technical reason and affirmed routes of citizen action, then studies since 1989 can be said to be more critical and emphasize struggles with plurality, difference, and identity. "Spaces" contributes to public sphere studies by modeling the reading tactics necessary to put these projects at odds and in compet-

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tion. Ironically, publics of the year 2000 are likely to be challenged by questions of both technology and identity. As the last of Cold War culture thaws and fresh controversies grow, thinking in dichotomies and deferrals should gradually relax its hold on the critical imaginary. To open up spaces for dissension, it is not necessary for speech communication to embrace, in order to dissolve, the logic of a cold time by going back to the future. The paths of innovation lead elsewhere. References
Benhabib, S. (1992). Models of the public sphere: Hannah Arendt, the liberal tradition, and Jrgen Habermas. In C. Calhoun (Ed.), Habermas and the public sphere (pp. 73-98). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Fraser, N. (1992). Rethinking the public sphere: A contribution to the critique of actually existing democracy. In C. Calhoun (Ed.), Habermas and the public sphere (pp. 109-142). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Goodnight, G.T. (1982). The personal, technical, and public spheres of argument: A speculative inquiry into the art of public deliberation. Journal of the American Forensics Association, 18, 214-227. Goodnight, G.T. (1987). Public discourse. Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 4, 428-431. Hansen, M. (1993). Foreword. In O. Negt & A. Kluge. Public sphere and experience, (P. Labanyi, J. Daniel, & A. Oksiloff, Trans.) Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Hohendahl, P.U. (1992). The public sphere: Models and boundaries. In C. Calhoun (Ed.), Habermas and the public sphere (pp. 99-108). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. McCarthy, T. (1992). Practical discourse: On the relation of morality to politics. In C. Calhoun (Ed.), Habermas and the public sphere (pp. 51-72). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Phillips, K.R. (1996). The spaces of public dissension: Reconsidering the public sphere. Communication Monographs, 63, 232-248. Strum, A. (1994). A bibliography of the concept of ffentlichkeit. New German Critique, 64, 161-202.

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On Publics and Public Spheres: A Response to Phillips


Gerard A. Hauser
endall Phillips (1996) recently has argued that theories of the public sphere conceptualize discourse on public problems in ways that, in some form, hold consensus as a normative value. He objects that, as such, the concept of the public sphere at least devalues, if not demonizes, the role of dissensus and dissenters. He then develops a critique of specific presuppositions he alleges are basic to public sphere theory. Insofar as Phillips has identified conditions that, were they to obtain, would foreclose the possibility of dissent as a valued part of the dialogue on public problems, his defense of dissensus has value. However, I do not believe those who have been writing about the public sphere make the specific presuppositions he alleges, or at least not in the form he has cast them, nor has he accurately rendered the underlying assumptions in my own thinking, as I hope to make evident. Specifically, Phillips charges me with advancing a theory of the public sphere that positions consensus as its ruling norm. I am uncertain of the precise meaning Phillips attaches to consensus. However, if, as I suspect, he means narrowly to suggest that achieving agreement among the active members of society is the central criterion for understanding and critiquing a public sphere, then he has erred in attributing that view to me. Both by implication and direct argument, I have contended just the opposite (Hauser, 1985,1987,1988,1989,1992a, 1992b, 1994a, 1994b, 1995). More generally with respect to my own position and the current discussion, Phillips's