Social Theory Forum X, Boston, MA


Counter Programming The Public Sphere

Originally conceived as a place where private individuals come together to discuss issues of the state, Jürgen Habermas’ public sphere is made up of reasoned citizens, concerned with the decisions made by the ruling polity. Requiring a suspended judgement regarding inequalities of status, the existence of a single, unified sphere, the exclusion of all private discourse, and a clear distinction between civil society and the state, this vision of a place for representative democracy has taken on many critics since its introduction by Habermas in 1962. Nancy Fraser, in particular, argues that it was not simply unrealized, rather it was an unrealistic ideal altogether. In her 1990 essay, “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy,” Fraser presents a comprehensive criticism of the idealism of Habermas’ original theory. By challenging his main assumptions, she eventually points out the need for an updated, “post-bourgeois” conception of the public sphere.

This progression from an idealized, unified place for discourse into a a space for “sub-altern” expression of discourses counter to the majority ideals can be seen in an exploration of contemporary social movement information design. Stemming from a field predicated on the communication of “truth” or “fact,” information design has a long history as a tool used to present scientific data in a consumable, easily understandable fashion. And considering information design’s ability to quickly handle large amounts of data, it is logical that commercial designers are looking to the field today as a way to improve corporate communication. But as social movements adopt this technique to convey the points-of-view of movement actors or the meaning behind action itself, understanding what qualifies some social movement information designs as more successful than others becomes problematic. Indeed, an exploration of the information graphics produced for and about the Occupy movement proves difficult, even in simply seeking out a comprehensive collection of the graphics. If one is to take Nancy Fraser to heart, however, and seek a place for a variety of points of view, then this multiplicity in styles and graphics producers provides for a healthy discourse.

The type of visual literacy required to consume these information graphics, however, is not one of understanding how to read graphs or data-visualizations. Rather, gaining insight into the motives and background of the information designer should be emphasized—something inherently missing from an interpretation of the sterility and data-centricity of information design (especially as opposed to, say, social movement poster design, characterized by explicit emotional expression). Breaking through the normative assumptions surrounding information design requires a curriculum which forces a reconsideration of the values of data-centric design—one which the philosopher Villem Flusser might call a “counter program” of information design. In this curriculum, the tools and techniques themselves would be used to speculate on and illustrate the dangers in not considering the motives and beliefs behind the producer. In doing so, a counter-programming of the idealized notion of information design would free the next generation of consumers from the tyranny of the “truth” of this data-centric discipline.