Open Spaces and the Public Sphere

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While watching C-SPAN’s coverage of the public Congressional debate over healthcare (very entertaining if not instructive), I found that a friend has been writing about Habermas’s concept of the ‘public sphere’: Slawkenbergius’s Tales.

To be more precise, he elucidates on the mistranslation of ‘Öffentlichkeit’ in the 1962 work Habilitationsschrift, Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit into English as ‘public sphere’.  The term, as used by Heidegger, was often translated into English as ‘publicity’ or ‘publicness’.

“The actually important text was Thomas Burger’s 1989 translation of the book, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. (As my advisor pointed out to me, the highly misleading rendering of the abstract noun Öffentlichkeit as the slightly less abstract but more "spatialized" public sphere may have been the source of all the present trouble.) Because the translation arrived at a point in time when issues of space, popular culture, material culture, and print media were at the forefront of historiographical innovation, the spatialized rendering fit very nicely with just about everyone’s research project. That’s when the hegemony of the "public sphere" began. ”

The mention of ‘space’ in Slawkenbergius’s discourse (he’ll wince at that word – read his blog entry to find out why) reminded me of the origins of the Open Space movement.

For those unfamiliar with it, open spaces are a way of loosely organizing meetings that is currently popular at software conferences and user groups.  The tenets of an open space follows, vis-a-vis Wikipedia:

  • Whoever comes is the right people [sic]: this alerts the participants that attendees of a session class as "right" simply because they care to attend
  • Whatever happens is the only thing that could have: this tells the attendees to pay attention to events of the moment, instead of worrying about what could possibly happen
  • Whenever it starts is the right time: clarifies the lack of any given schedule or structure and emphasizes creativity and innovation
  • When it’s over, it’s over: encourages the participants not to waste time, but to move on to something else when the fruitful discussion ends
  • The Law of Two Feet: If at any time during our time together you find yourself in any situation where you are neither learning nor contributing, use your two feet. Go to some other place where you may learn and contribute.
  • The open spaces I’ve encountered at software conferences have tended to be one man on a soapbox or several men staring at their navels.  But I digress.

    The notion of an Open Space was formulated by Harrison Owen in the early 1980’s (about the same time Habermas was achieving recognition in America) as a way to recreate the water-cooler conversation.  It is intended to be a space where people come without agendas simply to talk.  The goal of an open space, in its barest form, is to create an atmosphere where ‘talk’, of whatever sort, is generated.

    For me, this has an affinity with Jürgen Habermas’s notion of an ‘Ideal Speech Situation’, which is an idealized community where everyone comes together in a democratic manner and simply talks in order to come to agreement by consensus about the ‘Truth’ – with the postmodern correction that ‘Truth’ is not a metaphysical concept but merely this – a consensus.

    This should come with a warning, however, since in Heidegger’s use of Öffentlichkeit, public sphere | open space | publicness is not a good thing.  Publicness is characteristic of a false way of being that turns each of us (Dasein) into a sort of ‘they’ (Das Man) – the ‘they’ we talk about when we say “they say x” or “they are doing it this way this year.”  According to Heidegger – and take this with a grain of salt since he was a Nazi for a time, after all, and was himself rather untrustworthy – in Being and Time:

    The ‘they’ has its own ways in which to be …

    Thus the particular Dasein in its everydayness is disburdened by the ‘they’.  Not only that; by thus disburdening it of its Being, the ‘they’ accommodates Dasein … if Dasein has any tendency to take things easily and make them easy.  And because the ‘they’ constantly accommodates the particular Dasein by disburdening it of its Being, the ‘they’ retains and enhances its stubborn dominion.

    Everyone is the other, and no one is himself.

    3 thoughts on “Open Spaces and the Public Sphere”

    1. Hey, thanks for the nod! I’m not sure about the Heideggerian connection, though. I’ve always read Habermas as using "Offentlichkeit" in that way specifically to tweak Heidegger, who has a much more negative attitude towards it. (Habermas could never forgive Heidegger for being a Nazi and never apologizing for it.)

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