Keyword: Sphere of Public Imagination

A number of scholars (Bogues 2006; Daniels 2010; Hawkins 2010) have argued that the imagination is a critical, and often overlooked, element in understanding such geopolitical realities and the way “publics” produce and process such realities.

In a recent essay on “geographical imagination,” for example, Stephen Daniels (2011) argues that, in western thought, imagination is granted a “mercurial presence” and is associated with creativity and inventiveness on the one hand while it is also marginalised as the site of illusion on the other. He writes:

The place and status of imagination is shaped by the position and pressure of an array of contrapuntal concepts such as reason, experience, reality, objectivity, morality and materiality; the imagination has conventionally taken up a location somewhere between the domains of the factual and fictional, the subjective and objective, the real and representational. (Daniels 2011: 182)

For Daniels attention to imaginative processes enlarges both the metaphorical and methodological capacity of cultural analysis. He writes that the idea and practice of “geographical imagination” has, firstly, “the metaphorical capacity to refigure a larger conceptual field, to bring material and mental worlds into closer conjunction, to connect the mythical and the mundane” (Daniels 2011: 182). And secondly, as a method, it denotes:

specific techniques of knowledge, often forms of visual media and image-making, or overarching, theoretical modes of comprehension and experience. In this bigger picture imagination is a way of encompassing the condition of both the known world and the horizons of possible worlds. (Daniels 2011: 183)

I take imagination as the best metaphor and method to describe the complex processes of contemporary geopolitical-media-culture [1] and the way its cluster of ideas and images are signposted for public consideration, assent and resistance. These “modes of comprehension” constitute the processes within what I am calling spheres of public imagination. Significantly this concept is a way of seeking to go beyond the standard idea of “the public sphere” (Habermass 1989), which has been one of the key ways that sociologists and media scholars have explained the circulation of political ideas in public life. Unlike the imaginative sphere, that Daniels describes, which seeks to bring the “mythical and the mundane” into conversation and to map the shape of both “known and possible worlds,” the Habermasian public sphere is envisioned as one shaped exclusively by “critical judgement of a public making use of its reason” (Habermas 1989: 24). Habermas makes specific note that his German use of “rasonnement” includes both the idea of polemical reason and of “malcontent griping” (Habermas 1989: 27). This rightly emphasises that the public sphere is a site of struggle, however it also points to the narrowly polemical and oppositional version of reason that the Habermassian concept deploys. [2]

DeLucca and Peeples (2002) also contend that a notion of the “public sphere” that finds its key metaphor in the voice or the vocalisation of dialogue is outmoded in the age of visual culture. They suggest that it has been superseded by the “public screen”. This shift in metaphor is important, they argue, not just because it reflects the dominance of screen media but because it moves our understanding of public political processes forward. It delineates a move away from a necessarily nostalgic idea of public life dominated by the idea of the voices of rational dialogue to one that emphasises the power and the hypermediacy of the image and the conscious and unconscious public work of the imagination. Unlike many critics (Boorstin 1961; Postman 1985; Blumler & Gurevitch, 1995) who describe a similar shift in public discourse – to image culture and tabloidization – DeLucca and Peeples hold that the dynamics of the “public screen” and its multiplying image events/effects are not necessarily negatives for political participation and cultural change, rather the public screen “entails different forms of intelligence and knowledge” (2002:136).

John Ellis’s analysis of television gives further insight into the ways that screen culture produces these “different forms of intelligence and knowledge.” His analysis of television culture can be applied more broadly to what DeLucca and Peeples call the public screen and what I am calling the spheres of public imagination. He argues that television as a whole – from current affairs to soap opera to reality shows – is a primary cultural mechanism that allows us to “work through” the various contradictory fragments that come to us initially as “news”.

Indeed, television can be seen as a vast mechanism for processing the raw data of news reality into more narrativized, explained forms. This can be likened to the process of ‘working-through’ described by psychoanalysis, a process whereby material is not so much processed into a finished product as continually worried over until it is exhausted. Television attempts to define, tries out explanations, creates narratives, talks over, makes intelligible, tries to marginalize, harnesses speculation, tries to make fit and, very occasionally, anathematizes…..Television does not provide any overall explanation; nor does it necessarily ignore or trivialize. Television itself, just like its soap operas, comes to no conclusions. Its process of working-through is more complex and inconclusive than that. (1999:55)

In an analysis of changing forms of news Michael Schudson (2002) contrasts Habermas’ (1989) theory of the public sphere and its concentration on the development of a “free domain of reasoned public discourse” with that of Benedict Anderson’s (1991) “imagined communities,” which exist as “objects of orientation and affiliation.” While he credits the Habermassian model with a critical place in media studies, he argues Anderson’s framework is more productive for future research.

Anderson’s work potentially promotes a much more expansive reading of news than Habermas inspires, a recognition that news is not only raw material for rational public discourse but also the public consideration of particular images of self, community and nation. It implies that the study of news should be kin to other studies of the literary or artistic products of human imagination more than to studies in democratic theory. (Schudson 2002:484)

I conceive of the spheres of public imagination as a set of processes and sites which bring together the two sides of Schudson’s framework: the democratic work of journalism and political discourse as well as a broader range of creative and affective elements within popular culture. The spheres of public imagination are sites where the raw material of news and of other media and artistic productions work together to produce “images of self, community and nation”.

[1] I use the terms geopolitical, media and culture as individual descriptive terms at different points in this thesis, but I also use the hyphenated phrase geopolitical-media-culture as a way of signalling the broad systemic context in which my arguments take place. It is meant to be indicative of an interconnected web of cultural and symbolic systems operative in contemporary life rather than a full or inclusive descriptor. I could for example have chosen an array of terms to connect: geopolitical-media-entertainment-religious-techno-culture might for example have been a fuller capture of the diverse areas of concern in this thesis but for the purpose of readability I have chosen the shorter phrase as the stand-in nomenclature for this larger hybrid.

[2] Habermas is not oblivious to the imaginative or cultural sphere. Part of the process of “structural transformation” that he describes is the gradual emergence of a public around museums, concert halls and libraries, as art and music began to take on a life independent from the royal courts. (Habermas 1989: 38-43). But his concern with culture is instrumental and institutional, as a precondition for his essential argument about a public sphere constituted by private individuals coming together in public to exercise their critical reason on matters of common concern. This spirited debate that he describes as having arisen in the newly formed coffee houses, salons or other public spaces of the eighteenth century may be a result of the emergence and the evolution of an independent cultural public sphere, and may involve a discussion of these works of art, but the dynamics of reasoned public discussion is his central idea. He pays no attention to the affective dynamics of art itself and its potential to form public identities, communities and powerful ideas outside or parallel to the dialogue of critical reason. The Habermasian idea of the rational public sphere has been critiqued from a range of perspectives including, its over-reliance on reason, its conception of only a single public rather than multiple publics and counter-publics, and its elision of gender and class (cf Calhoun 1993 for the best collection of critical essays).