Telos 170 (Spring 2015): Security and Liberalism

When Edward Snowden, on June 9, 2013, revealed his identity in a video interview posted on the website of the Guardian, he invoked the intellectual framework of liberalism in order to explain why he had leaked a massive trove of secret documents about the spying and data collection practices of the National Security Administration (NSA) and its partner agencies. Having regularly witnessed the legal abuses of the NSA as a technical assistant for the CIA and, subsequently, as an employee of the defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, Snowden explained that “over time [the] awareness of wrongdoing builds up and you feel compelled to talk about it . . . until eventually you realize that these things need to be determined by the public, not by somebody who’s simply hired by the government.”

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Representing the People in a Republic: Perspectives on the First Plebeian Secession

I opened this conference by referring to the medical metaphor within which we have framed the question of democracy in order to point toward two paths for understanding this metaphor and to plead for the practice of both medicine and politics, not as mechanical sciences but as healing arts. In the following paper I would like to provide an example of the kind of artistic practice I have in mind by looking at two case histories of revolutionary movements from below, one success and one failure. What I would like to show in both cases is that the path to success lies in understanding the problem of democracy, first, as a problem of metaphor and thus of representation in the aesthetic sense and, second, as a problem that involves intervention in a developing metaphorical dynamic.

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Rebellious and Responsible: On Rowan Williams’s Faith in the Public Sphere

This is the last of three papers delivered at a seminar on religion and politics that was organized with Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury, on the occasion of his recent book Faith in the Public Square. The seminar was held at Radboud University in December 2013. The first paper, by Martijn de Koning, appears here, and the second paper, by Chantal Bax, appears here.

It has been a real pleasure to read Rowan Williams’s book Faith in the Public Sphere, not the least because of one of the first statements in the introduction: “Archbishops grow resilient and sometimes even rebellious” in the face of all possible forms of critique archbishops can expect to receive when commenting public issues. A rebellious archbishop—what more can the reader wish? An archbishop willing to take the risk of “blundering into unforeseen complexities” when trying to find the connecting points between various public questions with religious faith. No blundering as far as I can tell, but a risk, yes, there is always a risk when talking about Faith in the Public Sphere, or having faith, being faithful, in the public sphere. This is not only a risky undertaking for an archbishop, but probably for every modern believer since the days of Ignatius and Calvin, who realizes that there is a tension between good civil behavior and raising one’s voice of conscience. Hence, that there is a fundamental tension between faith and the public sphere in modernity—a tension that cannot be resolved, but should actually be regarded to be constitutive and constructive for both faith and the public sphere itself. Having read the book, it seems to me that Williams has set himself the task of showing how constructive this tension can be.

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The Public Intellectual as Survivor

Katharina Gerstenberger’s “The Public Intellectual as Survivor: The Cases of Josef Haslinger and Kathrin Röggla” appears in Telos 159 (Summer 2012). Read the full version online at the Telos Online website, or purchase a print copy of the issue here.

The article contrasts recent works by the Austrian writers Josef Haslinger and Kathrin Röggla, both of whom have made names for themselves as political and cultural commentators, about their respective experiences of the 2004 tsunami in Thailand and the 9/11 attacks in New York City. Titled Phi Phi Island (2007), Haslinger’s narrative is a personal yet highly self-reflective account of his survival. His overarching concern is the coincidence of survival and the challenge this poses to his self-identity as an engaged author who believes his work to be politically meaningful. Röggla, whose life, unlike Haslinger’s, was not in immediate danger, chronicles the unfolding public response to the attacks through comments she collected from a variety of interlocutors in New York City as well as from television. The division between the public and the private, which for Haslinger remains central, becomes obsolete in Röggla’s really ground zero (2001). Her expressed inability to transform her experience into a coherent narrative is symptomatic of her fragmented text. In the end, both authors must acknowledge that surviving a catastrophe is an assault on private as well as public subject positions, forcing them to rethink from where and how cultural critique can be launched.

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Offensive Art and the Public Sphere: A Discussion with Brad Prager

Brad Prager’s article “Offending the Public: Handke, Herzog, Hypnosis” appears in Telos 159 (Summer 2012). Read the full version online at the Telos Online website, or purchase a print copy of the issue here.

Wes Tirey: Can you tell us about how your article explores the question of the “public sphere”?

Brad Prager: My essay was intended as an indirect engagement with questions concerning the public sphere. It offers a perspective on the work of author-artists Werner Herzog and Peter Handke, and I’ve chosen the term “author-artist” despite the fact that Herzog is, of course, best known as a film director. I’d like, at least in this contribution to Telos, to view this early part of Herzog’s career a little bit differently and see him as also a product of German art and literature of the 1970s, a time and place in which authors tended to be politically engaged, but also simultaneously influenced by German Modernism and discourses of aesthetic autonomy. Those two elements interact in an interesting way in the 1970s, and something like Herzog’s Even Dwarfs Started Small, which deals with revolution, is quite Modernist and can almost be described as avant-garde. It is a good example of how those tendencies come together. In the background of the essay is Peter Sloterdijk’s Critique of Cynical Reason, which was an influential and provocative book. Central to the piece is the question: how can an artist critique the public’s engagement with art, or how do you turn art into something critical and politically incisive, when it is immediately subject to appropriation, and may already have a cynical position built into it? Handke was trying to reshape the stage with his innovative plays, Kaspar and Offending the Audience. The latter of the two gives the essay its title; I’m toying with the sound of the term “Offensive Aesthetics,” advocated here, and Öffentlichkeit, the German term meaning “public sphere.”

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Media and Architecture at the Birth of the Public Sphere

Daniel Purdy’s “Media and Architecture at the Birth of the Public Sphere” appears in Telos 159 (Summer 2012). Read the full version online at the Telos Online website, or purchase a print copy of the issue here.

This article examines the policy discussion surrounding the concept of “the European city.” This innocuous phrase has become a source of considerable concern among urban planners, architects, and sociologists because “the European city” is consistently described as under siege by the economics of globalization and new media technology. At stake is an idealized experience of urbanity that is closely associated with the history of European civilization, the emergence of liberal democracy, personal freedoms, and the market economy as a localized exchange that could be regulated by the state. Despite these modern connotations, the ideal type of this European city is medieval, wherein well-preserved historic buildings are aligned along irregular streets open only to pedestrians. The type of building that today is considered typical of the European city predates the Enlightenment and most certainly has little in common with industrialization.

The notion of the “European city” has a two-faced relation to globalization: on the one hand, the many economic, political and cultural relations that join cities together into the European market system constitute one of the large-scale networks of the global economy that historians can trace back to the height of the Middle Ages; on the other, the term is invoked today in order to draw a boundary and insist on a distinction so as to preserve a quality that is considered fundamentally European. This distinctly urban character is associated with public spaces that foster democratic institutions. Since the Middle Ages, the argument runs, European cities have been designed to preserve openly accessible forums for democratic politics and capitalist exchange. The preservation of European democracy is therefore often correlated with the maintenance of these urban places. I argue that the successful use of urban centers for politics and exchanges always also depends on the existence of small isolated spaces cut off from the general population. For urban public spaces to accomplish their political and economic ends, they have always required their antithesis, the exclusive private room. Nowhere is this juxtaposition more important than in the Enlightenment institution of the public sphere.

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