Image in the public sphere

The novel and new literary forms such as journalism are critical cultural artefacts in surfacing new, open and transformative behaviours in this population. However, as Pollyanna Ruiz notes in “Manufacturing Dissent: Visual Metaphors in Community Narratives” (Ruiz 2009),  written and spoken word is privileged in Habermas’ representation of the public sphere. This leaves little room for visual communicative forms. In what could be considered a consequence of the Enlightenment suspicion of the image. Of this Barbara Stafford notes: “In order for text-based theories, systems and methods to become autonomous referents, divorced from the sensory sphere above which they floated, the matter and manner of vision had to be demoted to intellectual nullity” (Stafford 1996). The bias against the image continued in the early public sphere, and has only recently been reconsidered. According to Ruiz, Habermas now accepts, albeit grudgingly, the inclusion of “Self-regulated, horizontally interlinked, inclusive, and more or less discourse-resembling communicative processes” (Habermas, qtd Ruiz 2009).

The role of the image, as a discourse-resembling communicative action, is of critical importance to the discussion around the place of communication design in the public sphere. I look at this more closely later in this article.

Within the concept of the public sphere we also need to look at the constituent social organisations that go to make it up. The Public, in the sense of a mass grouping of people who are described by something external to themselves, like a nation or geography, is closely aligned to the public sphere. Michael Warner, in “Publics and Counterpublics”, terms the public a ‘social totality’ (Warner 2002). In other words, other than the place in which this public exists, or the state (nation) that contains it, there are no boundaries. The public includes all peoples within its gamut, regardless of status. And the association is imposed rather than freely formed. If you are born into or enter a nation state you are automatically a member of the public.

This implies that the public is comprised of strangers. People who share some experiences, but are not connected socially. This is a pre-condition for modernity to evolve. For it to function as a socially organizing ecology, modernity requires the free flow of ideas, and the mobility of its members, unconstrained by dominant or conflicting meta-narratives. It is, by its nature, inclusive of other social organizing entities, but once one overwhelms it, it would cease to exist. [?]