Return to Syllabus   Dr. Andrew Wood
Office: HGH 210; phone: (408) 924-5378

DeLuca, M., & Peeples, J. (2002). From public sphere to public screen: Democracy, activism, and the "violence" of Seattle. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 19(2), 125-151.

Note: These comments are not designed to "summarize" the reading. Rather, they are available to highlight key ideas that will emerge in our classroom discussion. As always, it's best to read the original text to gain full value from the course.

In their essay, DeLuca and Peeples examine the WTO Seattle protests as a means to compare the notions of public sphere and "public screen." The authors begin their analysis with an overview of what they perceive as the increasing "colonization" of corporations into almost all aspects of public life (p. 126). In contrast, protesters turn to mass media to stage alternative image events. Their use of the public screen offers room for optimism. After all, "[v]iewing contemporary public discourse through the prism of the public screen provokes a consideration of the emergence of new forms of participatory democracy" (p. 127). From this introduction, the authors turn to a theoretical overview of the public sphere in order to set up their shift to public screen.

As we've discussed previously, the public sphere is a term articulated by Jürgen Habermas [also see Wahl-Jorgensen]. As DeLuca and Peeples explain, "the public sphere denotes a social space wherein private citizens gather as a public body with the rights of assembly, association, and expression in order to form public opinion" (p. 128). Moreover, “The public sphere assumes open access, the bracketing of social inequalities, rational discussion, focus on common issues, face-to-face conversation as the privileged medium, and the ability to achieve consensus” (p. 128). Sadly, according to the authors, Habermas states that the public sphere has been largely replaced by mass-market consumerism. Even so, many scholars cling to visions of the Athenian agora or the New England village square, idolizing Habermas’s vision of the public sphere that may never have existed.

DeLuca and Peeples depart from these nostalgic longings to propose that dissemination, not dialogue, reflects the dominant communication practice of contemporary life: “[T]he fondness for bodily presence and face-to-face conversations ignores the social and technological transformations of the 20th century that have constructed an altogether different cultural context, a techno-epistemic break [from] . . . deeply problematic notions: consensus, openness, dialogue, rationality, and civility/decorum” (p. 131). Here, DeLuca and Peeples advocate that we study the public screen, presuming that new media call for new metaphors. To this term, the authors propose two lenses: remediation and hypermediacy.

In the context of this essay, remediation refers “the representation [and refashioning] of one medium in another” (citing Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, p. 132) [see also Tripp]. In addition, hypermediacy refers to the phenomenon in which media do not reveal the world but rather display other mediated images. From these terms, the authors claim that, “there is no real public, but, rather . . . the public is the product of publicity, of pictures” (p. 133). It could hardly be otherwise when television seems to privilege the exact opposite qualities that are celebrated by Habermas’s writing: “images over words, emotions over rationality, speed over reflection, distraction over deliberation, slogans over arguments, the glance over the gaze, appearance over truth, the present over the past” (p. 133). In this environment, on this public screen, varied groups seek to construct spectacles designed to garner attention and pose their visions of the world: “Critique through spectacle, not critique versus spectacle” (p. 134). Thus, even vast corporations must vie against small-scale activists when images form the currency of the public screen.

This screen, of course, contains plenty of distraction - as it must, lest we seek too much contemplation of the rush of images that engulfs us all. Here, DeLuca and Peeples cite Walter Benjamin whose work on the flâneur offers much to this conversation. The authors write, “Benjamin is suggesting that the focused gaze has been displaced by the distracted look of the optical unconscious, the glance of habit, which is tactile in the sense that one is not an observer gazing from a critical distance, but an actor immersed in a sea of imagery, a self pressed upon by the play of images and driven to distraction to survive” (p. 135). [Here, one might consider the shopping mall gaze as an example]. At this point, DeLuca and Peeples turn their focus to the WTO protest of Seattle.

Initially, DeLuca and Peeples concentrate on the role of violence during the WTO protest. In this way, they seek to examine “an instructive example of the productive possibilities of violence on today’s public screen” (p. 138). Here, images such as attacks on local Starbucks coffee shops - more than thoughtful quotations from earnest activists - drew the attention of news producers. The authors add an analysis of how newspaper “screens” reproduced the kind of action-imagery found on television screens. Instead of showing delegates engaged in cerebral diplomacy, most images concentrated on violent acts. And, of course, where there was no violence in forthcoming meetings, television and newspaper coverage fell. Moreover, the issues raised by the more media-genic protests appears to have impacted the political and economic debates beyond the media screen. To DeLuca and Peeples, the message is clear: “Yes, violence is disturbing. But for people excluded by governmental structures and corporate power, symbolic protest violence is an effective way to make it onto the public screen and speak truth to that power” (p. 144). The authors add: “We must consider image events, then, as visual philosophical-rhetorical fragments, mind bombs that expand the universe of thinkable thoughts” (p. 144). DeLuca and Peeples conclude with a reminder that this kind of research need not be hung up on ethical questions of what is right or wrong. To them, the real question is: what works in this new world?

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