The Condition of Becoming Public
Translated by Aileen Derieg
familiar as the term "public" may seem to
us as a central category of political modernism, reaching
a precise understanding of it raises a number of difficulties.
These difficulties already become apparent in the question
of the translation of the German word "Öffentlichkeit",
the characteristic political-social meaning of which
was established in the late 18th century as a translation
of the French "publicité": In English (and
the case is similar for French), the German "Öffentlichkeit"
is translated in certain contexts as "public"
or "publicity"; however, where "Öffentlichkeit"
stands for a general category of social organization,
"public sphere" or "public space"
is usually preferred. While this indicates a certain
ambiguity in the German term, it also expresses a problem:
translating "Öffentlichkeit" as "public
sphere" causes a level of meaning to vanish that
is nonetheless central to the modern idea of the public
- specifically that "Öffentlichkeit" not only
refers to a category
in political modernism, but most of all a principle
of social organization. This means that it is not simply
a given "sphere" (or plurality of spheres)
- regardless of how it is organized - of modern societies,
but rather a central mode of their organization and constitution.
is this problem, the question of the social constitution
of "publicness" or "publicity" (Öffentlichkeit)
that I would like to take as the starting point for
the present essay. It should be noted that this is not
solely a matter of reconstructing the meaning of "publicity"
as a principle of social organization, but rather also
of calling attention to the conditions of a certain
disappearance of this meaning of "publicity".
This disappearance is also symptomatically evident in
that the English word "publicity" (like the
French "publicité"), to which the meaning
of a principle of social organization is certainly attributed
in contexts of political theory, has been largely overlaid
in everyday language with meanings that refer to the
areas of advertising, marketing or media attention industries.
of this kind suggest interweavings that are difficult
to decipher between the "ideal history" of
the theoretical concept of publicity and the "real history" of the development,
interspersed with crises, of those structures, in which "publicity" has respectively been concretely
effective or endangered or perverted as a principle
of social organization. An entire history of the modern
era could be written against this twofold background
starting from a history of the principle of "publicity".
At the provisional end of this history there is a series
of characteristic phenomena, which would in turn newly
justify speaking of a crisis of publicity: from the
barricaded new camp structures à la Guantanamo Bay to
the "remote" sweat shops of the so-called
"Third World" cut off from the major flows
of information; from the transfer of political decision-making
processes from parliaments to transnational organizations
determined by corporate interests, all the way to systematically
blotting out and distorting contexts of migrant experience
while simultaneously integrating the labor force of
migrants in the economic apparatuses of production.
of these phenomena bear witness not only to a "lack"
of publicity, but even more so, as Oskar Negt and Alexander
Kluge noted as early as 1972, to how "non-legitimizable
factual circumstances [...] [yield to] produced non-publicity";
and "produced non-publicity", which I will
return to, is nothing other than the modern name for
the dimension of political agency that was the actual
political counter-model to the modern principle of publicity
before the invention of the bourgeois opposition between
"public" and "private": namely the
It is therefore not a coincidence that it is precisely
the aforementioned phenomena of crisis that have led
in recent years to growing protest and a number of new
political practices and organization forms. It remains
to be investigated, however, how these new practices
and organization forms relate to the idea and reality
of publicity in particular. For it is difficult to avoid
the impression sometimes that this relationship - particularly
as a critical
relationship to publicity, but one that simultaneously
relies on a kind of "ideal" publicity as a
principle of political transformation - is marked by
an ambivalence that was also already diagnosed by Negt
and Kluge: "Alternating between an idealizing and
critical view of publicity does not lead to a dialectical,
but rather to an ambivalent result: publicity sometimes
seems to be something that can be used, at other times
something that one has no use for."
In order to overcome this kind of ambivalence (which, like every ambivalence, is manifested often enough in disorientation), it is necessary, according to Negt and Kluge, "to investigate the identical mechanisms of the ideal history and the history of the decay of publicity ". Some of the elements of an investigation of this kind are to be addressed in the following.
The Formalism of the Classical Principle of Publicity (as Formulated by Kant)
has often been noted that one of the central problems
of the classical modern concept of publicity is found
in its formalism. It is not only that this formalism,
with Kant for instance, leads to a consolidation and
rigidifying of the "material" designations
that are tacitly implicit in the concept of publicity
- particularly those designations that determine the
exclusion of certain social groups (women, those without
property, etc.) from public life; it also fosters the
possibility of an instrumentalization and appropriation
of existing structures of publicity, thus perverting
the political meaning of "publicity" by subordinating
its formal claim to generality - to including the general
public in political discussions - to "private",
in other words particular interests. Precisely in its
formal universalistic claim, "publicity" thus
proves to be a perfect instrument of hegemonization,
i.e. the universalization of the particular for the
purpose of imposing and maintaining certain power relationships.
It was in this that O. Negt and A. Kluge saw the failure
of the bourgeois principle of publicity. On the one
hand, what was a strict self-purpose for Kant, turned
out to be a means in the practice of bourgeois society,
and on the other hand, it is precisely in this instrumental
real history of the principle of publicity that the
"inner violence" of its formulation as an
ideal concept becomes evident – namely, that "the
main battle must be carried out against all particularities",
which primarily means: against the materiality of the
social situation on which publicity is ultimately based.
order to understand the meaning and significance of
the statement, let us call to mind the essential elements
of the classical principle of publicity as formulated
by Kant: First of all, it is important to emphasize
that Kant did not speak of a principle
of publicity (Publizität)
in conjunction with a "public sphere" or "public
reasoning", but rather in conjunction with public
law, which was to establish and guarantee the "harmony
between politics and morality".
The principle of publicity as the principle of public
law consists, briefly, in that "every legal claim"
must be "capable of publicity" in order to
guarantee this harmony between politics and morality.
For justice (as a moral category) can "only be
conceived as publicly known" ["öffentlich kundbar": literally "publicly announceable"];
this is negatively evident in that a maxim relating
to the rights of other people, which "must be kept
secret if it is to succeed", would "inevitably
[excite] universal opposition to my project", and
this opposition can be "due only to the injustice
with which the maxim threatens everyone".
In positive terms, this means that agency must be based
on maxims, "which stand in need of publicity" in order to suffice the "proper task
of politics", namely to "accord with the public's
universal end, happiness".
of the most interesting elements of this Kantian formulation
of the principle of public law undoubtedly consists
in the way in which the aforementioned motif of the
secret comes up in it, specifically in a twofold mental
figure: first of all, the secret is mentioned, as we
have seen, where the illegitimacy of maxims is proved
in general by the fact that they must be kept secret
so as not to evoke "universal opposition".
The "secret", which was considered a "clearly
acknowledged and necessary dimension of political agency"
until into the 18th century, is thus fundamentally discredited
– in keeping with the bourgeois-liberal tendencies of
the era – as a political category, and "publicity"
is established as the central legitimization for political
agency. It seems that a clear dividing line exists,
separating publicity and thus the lawful/just on the
one side (both terms coincide in Kant's writing, since
it is a matter of a "transcendental" idea
of law, i.e. one that is independent from all empirical
conditions) from the secret and thus unlawful/unjust
on the other.
afterward, though, where Kant discusses the consequences
that are to be drawn from the principle of publicity
for state law, the secret comes up a second time, and
here the way it relates to justice proves to be more
than ambiguous. The issue is the question of the lawfulness
of deposing the tyrant, and Kant states expressly: "The
rights of the people are injured; no injustice befalls
the tyrant when he is deposed. There can be no doubt
on this point."
Nevertheless, Kant concludes from the "the transcendental
principle of the publicity of public law" that
every "rebellion" is fundamentally illegitimate
with exactly the same argument that he used before –
namely that the maxims of the rebellion must necessarily
be kept secret, otherwise its purpose will be made impossible.
In relation to the unjustly acting "chief of state",
however, it is interesting that he reduces this argument
solely to the question of the maintenance of power;
in fact, the tyrant "can openly say that he will
punish every rebellion with the death of the ringleaders,
however much they may believe that he was the first
to overstep the basic law".
Kant, who himself began his considerations, as we have
seen, with a discussion of the injured rights of the
people, thus accepts a consequential problem that thwarts
his entire thesis of the "principle of publicity"
as guarantee for the harmony of politics and morality:
here the publicity of the legal claim does not at all
ensure the justice of its maxims, but rather only the
"irresistible [supreme] power"
(unwiderstehliche Obergewalt), which is the sole foundation of the
"capability of publicity" in the case of the
situation of a possible rebellion. In other words, should
an unjust chief of state provoke "universal opposition"
against his unjust maxims, he finds himself in the right
again at the point where he crushes this rebellion:
thus the principle of publicity does not guarantee the
justice of the law here, but rather the unconditionality
with which it prevails and is maintained – specifically
even in the extreme case of its absolute injustice.
It is obvious that we come up against the problem of sovereignty here, a fundamental contradiction between sovereignty and the principle of public law, or in other words, the discrepancy between law and justice that Walter Benjamin radically formulated: "Law making is power making, and to that extent, an immediate manifestation of violence." (Kant himself also seems to concede this implicitly, in that he denies the deposed chief of state a right to a "revolt for his restoration" in the case of a successful rebellion.) At this point, however, I would like to pursue a different direction of questioning that directly relates to the problem of publicity. A pertinent suggestion in this respect is provided by Hannah Arendt, who writes about Kant's rejection of rebellion: "For Kant the alternative to an existing government is not revolution, but rather the coup d'état. And unlike a revolution, a coup d'état must, in fact, be prepared secretly, whereas revolutionary groups or parties were always concerned with publicizing their goals and winning significant portions of the population for them." Kant's condemnation of the revolt is thus based on a "misunderstanding", and this misunderstanding ultimately applies to his concept of publicity itself, to the extent that "publicity" is not a contradiction to revolutionary action, but is, on the contrary, inseparably linked to it.
The Material Condition of Publicity and the Micropolitics of Becoming Public
the second, more famous formulation of a concept of
"publicity" that we find in Kant's work, namely
in his "Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?",
we basically find the traces of the problem thus addressed:
here "publicity" functions as a principle
of political-social change, which is to promote the
process of the enlightenment – this time not in terms
of public law, but rather in relation to "public
reasoning" or the "public use of reason",
which must remain free and unconstrained (unlike the
"private", which "may quite often be
very narrowly restricted", specifically in matters
that affect "the interests of the commonwealth",
"so that [some members of the commonwealth] may,
by an artificial common agreement, be employed by the
government for public ends").
At this point, I will dispense with an analysis of the
problems and ambivalences of this text, in order to
turn immediately to the question that is crucial here:
Going beyond Kant, how does that which is behind Kant's
concept of the "public use of reason" as a
principle of political-social transformation relate
to the concept of "publicity" as a principle
of public law, which is to guarantee the justice of
political legal claims, but which can become an instrument
of legitimizing the absolute maintenance of power at
the same time?
the example of Kant's condemnation of rebellion we have
seen that it is specifically the transcendentality of
the principle of publicity – the abstraction from all
concrete legal content and from concrete social circumstances
– which leads to "public law" being contaminated
internally, so to speak, by injustice. In other words:
whereas the principle of publicity is fundamentally
directed to the possibility of "universal"
agreement by excluding injustice, the extreme possibility
of "universal" exclusion flares up at its
other end – namely at the point where the "capability
of publicity" is due to nothing other than the
dominant "superior power" and which potentially
marks the revolutionary situation. For this reason,
particularly with Kant, the concept of publicity is
located at the boundary between an existing legal
order on the one hand and a political activity on the
other; paradoxically, because the relationship of this
political activity to an existing order is fundamentally
problematic: it cannot be completely regulated by this
order nor even represented by it, for which reason it
is in a virtual conflict with it and possibly threatens
Agamben has recently
very clearly pointed out the aporias that inevitably
result from this kind of activity for every legal system,
specifically in conjunction with the discussions about
the adoption of a constitutional article establishing
the right or even the duty of resistance against violations
of fundamental freedoms and rights on the part of the
public state power. (Agamben refers here to the pertinent
debates in Italy and Germany after 1945; whereas an
article of this kind was not adopted in Italy in the
end, Article 20  of the current constitution of the
Federal Republic of Germany does, in fact, include a
certain right to resistance against any attempt to eliminate
the "constitutional order".) The problem with
a constitutional article of this kind is, in short,
that it would posit the constitution "as an absolutely
inviolable and totalizing value".
This would ultimately – especially in the case of an
injustice for which the state power itself is responsible
– legally standardize resistance. In this kind of situation,
though, how and by whom could it be determined, whether
certain actions correspond to the "right to resistance"
or even the "duty to resistance" (so that
its omission would consequently be punishable)? The
problem of a right to resistance thus finally proves
to be the – paradoxical – question of the "juridical
significance of a sphere of action inherently outside
the scope of the juridical" and thus suggests the
question of the existence of this kind of "sphere
of human action that completely eludes law".
is specifically in this sphere that we must consequently
ground the question of the potentials of social and
political transformation of "public" agency
– whether this involves the extreme case of a "universal
exclusion" or the systematic marginalization of
certain groups of society. What is at stake in a grounding
of this kind, in terms of the question of the political
significance of "publicity", is not only the
lack of "media" representation of marginalized
social contexts due to dominant discourses and publicity
structures, but rather – and this is the reason for
taking recourse to Kant – the collapse of the possibility
of political-juridical representation itself in the
sphere of public law. Consequently, the relevant forms
of political agency are not only to be measured by how
far they are able to penetrate into existing structures
of media and institutional representation, but rather
by the extent to which they succeed in opening up a
space of political-social articulation at all on this
side of the collapse of political-juridical representation.
In short, it is a matter of becoming-public,
that does not simply consist of the transition from
a "not-being-public" to a "being-public"
(from invisibility to visibility, from non-representation
to representation), but rather of opening up a collectivity
in the in-between spaces of representation, which inter-venes
– literally – in public life as a social becoming.
we have here, so to speak, is a structural dimension
of the "secret", a way in which the secret
necessarily haunts the era of public law that thought
it had overcome this: as the non-representability of
certain social contexts and forms of existence, in which
new political subjects and spheres of action are constituted
on this side of representation. Those who think this
is abstract or metaphorical should call to mind the
so-called "clandestines": to which situation
does the designation "clandestine" refer today,
since it has been related to the form of existence of
the sans-papiers? What is the secret of the clandestines?
First of all, it consists of nothing other than their
existence itself. However, there is no other reason
for the "secrecy" of clandestine existence
than the break predominating between the social fact
of new migration movements (or the concomitant processes
of social recomposition) and the nation-state systems
of public law. Clandestinity forms a kind of "underground"
with no surface, or rather: an underground that is identical
– as its reverse side – with the surface itself and
from which there is, for this very reason, no political
escape within the framework of nation-state legal orders.
how could the possibility of political transformation
be imagined, the possibility of a becoming-public in
this kind of underground? A possibility of this kind
can be as little understood against the background of
a classical-formalist concept of "public"
and "publicity" as through the simple (often
no less formalistic) reference to the existence of a
plurality of "publics". "Publicity"
indicates first and foremost, as it can be read from
the real development of the bourgeois public, to an
occurrence of constitution, a form of social organization
that derives its precondition from a certain historical-social
context of power. What is organized as "public
life" is thus nothing other than the context of social experience
and articulation itself, which is built on this context
internal violence of this context of experience and
articulation is not founded simply in a formal exclusion,
but rather in that it cannot be experienced as
a context – specifically because it is based on certain
power relationships – equally by all. The ultimate consequence
of the exclusion from public life is that it attacks
experience itself as
social experience and, in some cases, as individual
experience, which is founded in the social context but
cannot be conveyed with it. As O. Negt and A. Kluge
have shown for the proletarian life context, the social
experience of marginalized groups is thus always linked
with an "obstruction"
of experience. This obstruction is an atomization and
fragmentation that blurs, distorts or extinguishes the
social character of experience – and it can range all
the way to individual traumatization.
What is obstructed is thus not initially articulation,
but rather the possibility of a social experience itself,
on the basis of which a new political subject can be
constituted. The connection between a becoming-public
and the possibility of political transformation is thus
conversely not solely to be seen in making political
aims public and winning significant portions of the
population for them, as H. Arendt noted for the revolutionary
situation. Nor can political work, especially if it
relates to contexts of extreme marginalization such
as the clandestine life context, simply be based on
some "authentic" immediacy of the experience
of those affected. Its perspective is found instead
in translating individual, multiply broken experiences
into a specific social
context of experience and articulation: in turning "the
life context itself into the object of production"
at the intersections of rejection, where the "violence
of the context"
produces subjectivities that it simultaneously separates
do I call this "publicity"? Because – beyond
the ambivalence between an ideal concept and the real
perversion of publicity and on this side of the idea
of a perfect representation of the social by public
law – it repeats the constitutive meaning of publicity,
its forms of exchange and its production of knowledge
and potentials for action, and binds them to real processes
of social becoming. It is in this, not in the industries
of attention and not in the reflection or self-reflection
of alternative "scenes", that the political
and micropolitical criterium for publicity as a social
principle of organization is found.
The present essay is inscribed between two points of reference, which guide the course of argumentation but without being explicitly discussed: on the one hand it follows from an earlier article on the relationships between the concepts of world and public against the background of discussion on globalization and globalization criticism, taking up some of the central theses of this earlier text again and pursuing them further (S. Nowotny, "World Wide World. Gibt es eine Welt des Antiglobalismus?", in: G. Raunig [Ed.], Transversal. Kunst und Globalisierungskritik, Vienna: Turia + Kant 2003, 37-52, or "World Wide World. Is There a World of Anti-Globalism: www.eipcp.net/transversal/0303/nowotny/en). On the other hand, the following reflections can also be read as an attempt to understand the "location" where the political practice of the Universal Embassy is situated (cf. the article by T. Wibault in this issue) from a certain perspective and by means of theory; this is not intended to provide this practice with its own "explanation", but instead to test some of the important theses of political theory with it.
O. Negt / A. Kluge, Öffentlichkeit und Erfahrung. Zur Organisationsanalyse von bürgerlicher und proletarischer Öffentlichkeit, Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp 1972, 38.
Cf. L. Hölscher, Öffentlichkeit und Geheimnis. Eine begriffsgeschichtliche Untersuchung zur Entstehung der Öffentlichkeit in der frühen Neuzeit, Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta 1979.
O. Negt / A. Kluge, op.cit., 20.
Cf. op.cit., 32.
Cf. I. Kant, Zum ewigen Frieden, "Anhang II: Von der Einhelligkeit der Politik mit der Moral nach dem transzendentalen Begriffe des öffentlichen Rechts" (1795), in: Werke Bd. 9, Darmstadt: Wiss. Buchges. 1983, 244–251.
The quotations in Englisch are taken from: Appendix II: Of The Harmony Which The Transcendental Concept of Public Right Establishes Between Morality and Politics, <http://www.constitution.org/kant/append2.htm>, but additional comments are included in brackets where this translation does not clearly convey the original German text in the sense of the author's intentions (translator's note).
Cf. ibid., 250.
L. Hölscher, op.cit., 7.
I. Kant, op.cit., 245.
W. Benjamin, "Zur Kritik der Gewalt", in: Gesammelte Schriften Vol. II 1, Franfurt am Main, Suhrkamp 1991, 198. (Engl. translation: Benjamin, Walter. "The Critique of Violence." Reflections. Shocken Books, 1986.)
H. Arendt, Das Urteilen. Texte zu Kants politischer Philosophie, Munich: Piper 1998, 82.
I. Kant, „Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung?“, in: Werke Bd. 9, 51–61. (Engl. translation: I. Kant: An Answer to the Question: "What is Enlightenment"? <http://eserver.org/philosophy/what-is-enlightenment.txt>)
Cf. G. Agamben, État d’exception. Homo Sacer II, 1, Paris: Seuil 2003, 24 ff.
ibid., 25 and 26.
On the concept of "social experience" cf. O. Negt / A. Kluge, Öffentlichkeit und Erfahrung.
ibid., 26 and elsewhere; the factory worker constrained to a certain scope of movement, as analyzed by Negt/Kluge, may serve as an example for this kind of obstruction, as the context of the experience of the business is already closed to him. (cf. ibid., 61).
In this respect, in relation to the clandestine life context, I refer again to the text by T. Wibault in this issue and to some témoignages ("witness accounts", "testimonials"), which can be found on the Universal Embassy web site (http://www.universal-embassy.be/). The practice of témoignages conducted by the Universal Embassy, testimonials of the experiences of the sans-papiers that are often difficult to articulate, which aims – in connection with elements of a political analysis – to make the social context of the sans-papiers existence comprehensible, seems to me to be an important form to counteract this "obstruction".
O. Negt / A. Kluge, Öffentlichkeit und Erfahrung, 28.
Cf. O. Negt / A. Kluge, Geschichte und Eigensinn 3: Gewalt des Zusammenhangs, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp 1993.