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Philosophy and Rhetoric 35.4 (2002) 345-367

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Imagining in the Public Sphere

Robert Asen

Contemporary public sphere scholarship has been motivated significantly by a concern to overcome historical and conceptual exclusions in public spheres. Recent theory and criticism has investigated direct and indirect exclusions. Direct exclusions expressly prevent the participation of particular individuals and groups in public discussions and debates. Prohibitions against women speaking in public, for example, have served historically to inhibit women's participation in various forums (see, e.g., Landes 1998). Indirect exclusions function tacitly through discursive norms and practices that prescribe particular ways of interacting in public forums. Indirect exclusions compel participants to conform to established modes of discourse that effectively negate the perspectives and contributions of previously directly excluded individuals and groups. Calls for "objective" and "dispassionate" debate, for instance, sometimes have restricted public agendas by portraying culturally specific forms of address as universally practiced (see, e.g., Warner 1993). Indirect exclusions may regulate discourse in various forums even when direct exclusions have been counteracted. Scholarship seeking to overcome these exclusions has proceeded on two levels. On one level, scholars have recounted the efforts of excluded persons to participate in public life despite restrictions by developing alternative modes of publicity (see, e.g., Ryan 1990; Zaeske 2002). On a second level, theorists have proposed more inclusive conceptual models of the public sphere that may overcome historical exclusions of the bourgeois public sphere while retaining a commitment to critical publicity (see, e.g., Asen 1999; Benhabib 1996; Hauser 1999; Mouffe 2000).

Practicing democratic discourse fairly and justly depends indispensably on enabling inclusion. Proponents of deliberative democracy argue that political legitimacy arises from processes of inclusive public debate. Seyla Benhabib asserts that "legitimacy in complex societies must be [End Page 345] thought to result from the free and unconstrained public deliberation of all about matters of common concern" (1996, 68). Others regard inclusive public discourse as crucial for the formation of affirmative individual and collective identities. Craig Calhoun faults bourgeois notions of publicity for treating "identity formation as essentially private and prior to participation in the idealized public sphere of rational-critical discourse" (1993, 274). Identity formation entails mutual recognition among members of diverse cultures, yet theorists have observed that truncated discursive processes may inhibit mutual recognition. Charles Taylor writes that practicing a politics of recognition requires an openness toward other cultures—a presumption of value tested through sustained engagement so that "what we have formerly taken for granted as the background to valuation can be situated as one possibility alongside the background of the formerly unfamiliar culture" (1994, 67). Inclusiveness is also important for individuals and groups seeking to advance self-fashioned interpretations of their interests and needs against interpretations imposed by others. Nancy Fraser explains that self-fashioning is necessary because in public debates and controversies "who gets to establish authoritative thick definitions of people's needs is itself a political stake" (1989, 164).

Although inclusion is indispensable, exclusion is never total. Sometimes, people force their way into public forums and agendas. For example, participation by activists in discussions of AIDS research and treatment often has been limited by researchers' assertions of expert privilege in investigating scientific matters. Valeria Fabj and Matthew J. Sobnosky (1995) detail how AIDS activists have responded by engaging in discursive acts of redefinition and translation to gain entry into previously circumscribed forums. At other times, people surreptitiously access public arenas. Prison writing is one way that those officially banished from public view nevertheless continue to participate in oppositional discourses and movements. Gerard A. Hauser (2001) considers how dissident Adam Michnik remained a vibrant voice in Polish civil society through his writings even after his imprisonment in the 1980s by an authoritarian regime. At still other times, typically excluded people may be invited to participate in public discussions. Members of the AIDS activist group ACT UP occasionally have testified in the traditional setting of the congressional committee hearing as invited witnesses. Daniel C. Brouwer (2001) maintains that politically sympathetic committee chairs facilitated ACT UP's "official" appearances before members of Congress. Whether invited or...


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