Reign of Appearances

Mention the “public,” and you’re liable to be greeted with lamentation and hand-wringing. Citizenship isn’t what it used to be. No one participates in public events any more. Once upon a time, we were active citizens. Now we bowl alone and we participate in public life only as passive spectators. Democracy is dying, if it’s not already dead.

Ari Adut’s Reign of Appearances argues, bracingly, that the lamentation and hand-wringing is misplaced. It arises from a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of “publicity.”

In an early pointed formulation: “The public sphere is the realm of appearances – not citizenship. Its central event is spectacle – not dialogue. Marked by an asymmetry between the few who act and the many who watch, and subjecting all its contents to visibility, the public sphere can undermine liberal democracy, law, and morality. Inauthenticity, superficiality, and objectification are the very essence of the public sphere.”

The public sphere isn’t essentially a deliberative space. Deliberation, serious conversation, more often takes place in private. Rather, “What makes the public sphere (a town square, the New York Times editorial page, or a television show) public is that its contents are open to general sensory access. In effect, the public sphere is simply any space where we are visible. What characterizes it is not what exists or happens in it: all sorts of things exist and happen in it, not just enlightened debate. A public is not a body of citizens acting, talking, deliberating about the common good. It is a rather more prosaic, pedestrian entity: an audience, a collection of silent spectators faced with the same spectacle.”

On Adut’s view, the public sphere isn’t an egalitarian institution but the opposite. It is characterized by “a steep hierarchy of attention, marked by an ineradicable asymmetry between the few who act and the multitude who watch.” In his view, “the main event of the public sphere is spectacle, which is fundamentally something visual, inegalitarian, and asymmetrical.”

Contrary to theorists like Jurgen Habermas, public dialogue isn’t the main activity that takes place in public. More strong, Adut argues that “public dialogue” is a “contradiction in terms.” As soon as a dialogue takes place in public – which means, as soon as a dialogue has an audience – it morphs into something else. It “will inevitably mutate into a spectacle.”

What makes a space public is “general access,” the openness of the space to some access from others. Adut enumerates three forms of access: “physical, representational, and sensory.” Much of our access to public spaces is sensory – we read words on a screen or page, watch a broadcast, listen to the radio. We aren’t in the same place with other spectators, but we know they are (or may be) out there. We know that we’re hearing, reading, seeing things that others are hearing, reading, and seeing too.

Once the point is made, it’s fairly obvious. A town meeting is the ideal of public space. But what proportion of attendees actually speak at a town meeting? Even if everyone speaks, will everyone speak at equal length? And while one is speaking, the rest become an audience; if they don’t, the town meetings turns cacophonous. A newspaper’s “Letters to the Editor” are public, theoretically open to all; but what percentage of people ever get a letter published?

A million-woman march on DC is a public event, with many participants. But only a handful speak, and the number of spectators (people watching news programs, for instance) dwarfs the number of participants. Besides, the whole point of the million-woman march is to catch the attention of a bigger public, far beyond the participants. It is, in short, a spectacle.

You’re thinking: Ahh, but what about the internet? Everyone has an audience. Adut has beat you there: Theoretically, anyone can write a blog, tweet, post on Youtube, and so gain an audience. But how many blogs are read? How many people have more than a handful of followers on Twitter or Youtube or Instagram? The unread blogger is doing something that is potentially public; but do we really want to say it’s public activity if no one knows about it?

Adut writes: “Most of those on Twitter have fewer than 10 followers; a very tiny few like celebrities have millions of them. Those you follow on Twitter typically don’t follow you back. It is a rare tweet that obtains a response or a retweet. Few people get any attention at all.”

Once we get this straight, once we understand the character of public space, we can recognize that much of what we think of as the pathology of public space is instead inherent in it. Adut says, “widely lamented maladies of the contemporary public sphere – lack of participation, spectacle, inauthenticity, and objectification – constitute the very nature of the phenomenon.”

“Objectification,” for instance, is bad in personal relations; we treat others as means not ends. But public space necessarily objectifies, since it involves a person, a discourse, an exchange, a march, morphing into spectacle: “objectification is . . . the process through which the other becomes a distant spectacle we don’t, we can’t interact with.” For most of us, President Trump is an image on a screen, or words in a Tweet. We don’t relate subject-to-subject; because he is a public figure, he is objectified.

As a site for spectacle, public space is a “site of semiotic activity.” Hence Adut’s title: Public space exists under the “reign of appearances.” As he says, “Even when one reveals quite a bit of oneself in public, one still cannot but remain an appearance. And to the extent that they are the real or possible objects of the gaze of others, appearances gain a certain facticity.”

He sees nothing to lament here. This is just the way public spaces work.

Adut isn’t pollyannish about our public sphere. He knows we have problems. But we can’t really understand the disease unless we have a sense of what a healthy organism looks like. Once we get a clear idea of what the public sphere is and isn’t, we’re better positioned to evaluate our own public spaces.

Most fundamentally, Adut traces “the fateful effects that publicity has on information, meaning, people, politics, law, and morality.” He wants to show his readers that participation in the public sphere isn’t necessarily a boon to democracy or liberalism, and may undermine it.

Thus, for instance, public debate isn’t necessarily an aid to peace. Because it is a spectacle, it tends to become agonistic: “since the public realm is the space of appearances, competition for distinction, if not for sheer fame, is at its very core.”

Thus, “it is difficult to find interesting and consequential public events, discursive or otherwise, that don’t feature disruptiveness, ad hominem attacks, malice. It is a rare – and usually boring – debate, one that solely involves issues.” As Adut sees it, “public debate almost always induces grandstanding, if not in reality then in perception, which then instigates moral assaults on the grandstanding of the grandstanders.” Public debate tends to sharpen and widen differences, because the aim is to present a spectacle to an audience.

Adut also wants to moderate our expectations about what public life can do for us. Political opinions aren’t usually formed in public debate, since few participate. They may be formed as we spectate at public events. More often, we form opinions in private zones of trust and confidentiality. As he puts it, “What many seek in it – reciprocity, dialogue, authenticity, and intersubjectivity – can only truly, without denaturalization, survive in the confidential cocoon of the private sphere. Some citizenship takes place in public – but not its single most important act, which is voting.”

Adut worries that our expectations about public space have an implicitly totalitarian tendency. Free societies, he argues, are societies that leave people free to engage or not engage with the public world of politics, free to express themselves politically in that most “sacred” of private zones, the voting booth.

Those who advocate for participation in public life as a solution to the diseases of democracy are prescribing more of the disease. The “hallmark of liberal society is . . . the right given to citizens to not engage with political matters in public, and the liberty to peacefully lead private lives free as much as possible from societal and governmental surveillance and interference.”

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