Universität KonstanzExzellenzcluster: Kulturelle Grundlagen von Integration

The Public Sphere and Representation

Guiding topic of the academic year 2017/2018

A group of fellows will be invited to the Institute for Advanced Studies who are working on the relationship between the public sphere and representation. The attention of the fellows will be devoted particularly to the political and social consequences evidenced by changed medial structures and accelerated global experience of transformations in the processes of social self-understanding. The work on the corresponding questions can create the preconditions for the establishment of a theoretical foundation for the understanding of this process at the Institute of Advanced Study.

The conceptual combination of “the public sphere and representation” relates two essential and problematic dimensions of contemporary processes of self-understanding, whose correlation requires new clarification if we are to understand why the grammar of our culture has undergone fundamental change. No matter whether the talk is about “scattered,” “fragmented,” “new” or increasingly “isolated” public spheres – in all cases the findings agree that the media, forms and objects of social communication are subject to an accelerated change which naturally affects the possibilities and the spectrum of political representation.

Independently of the innumerable interpretations and predictions which these changes have engendered in recent times it can be said that new problem constellations and changed dependencies are becoming apparent in the phenomena themselves, which must first be grasped. In regard to the cultural processes of the self-understanding of societies the accelerated change fundamentally affects the preconditions and conditions under which binding communication is organized in our present time.

1. The digital world – modification of communicative forms

To put it pointedly and ideal-typically, it is evident that the increasing uncertainty in regard to the range, resources and claims of public statements is subject to pressure from three tendencies which are in part mutually reinforcing and in part mutually exclusive. On the one hand the pace, structuring and synchronization of digital information cultures leads, first of all, to a modification of communicative forms.

The requirements of presentness and immediacy seem to counteract the development, duration and claims of representative statements, especially in democratic societies, by means of continuous actualization of interpretative patterns, the simultaneousness of commentary and the minimization of the time slot for possible ways of reacting: they thwart the consideration of historical depth of focus and local conditions. On the other hand, the promise of permanent documentation of individual action in the “social media” precisely lies, secondly, in permitting an unobstructed view of society and its communication and enabling operationalizations which are emancipated from power hierarchies, advocacy relationships and the representational relationships of representative orders. (Brown/Marsden 2013).

2. Flexibilization of operational procedures

The flexibilization of operational procedures for the mobilization of collective opinion formation leads to a new ideal of organic adaptation. It seems to render dispensable the transmission losses which occur within every information chain and translation process on which the representative claims in democratic societies rely. The generation and justification of recommendations for action and decision-taking reasons are based instead on the statistic evaluation of permanent streams of data. (Floridi 2015).

Their validity is guaranteed by the ever-growing density of indicators and the independent adaptive capabilities of algorithmic selection procedures; it thus has recourse to mathematical competencies (for a critical standpoint see Rottenburg/Merry/Park/Mugler 2015). Political representation in the classical sense must seem both suspect and biased in comparison with the universal rationality of quantified decision-making processes. (Porter 1995); the representative public sphere as the site of the delegated negotiation of political orientations loses thereby its legitimation. The paradigm of digitality and the reemergence of evolutionary arguments in the interpretation of historical, political and social problem complexes thus seem to correspond in a way which must be more closely and precisely determined.

3. Actualization of populist patterns of representation

Thirdly, the actualization of populist patterns of representation must ultimately be seen in this context. Populist currents rely on immediacy and presence; they increasingly organize themselves in sealed off forums of mutual understanding and confirmation in the “social media” and propagate forms of direct democracy which regard politics as the implementation of those moral assumptions and convictions on which the mutual understanding in the forums is based.

The time seems to have come, therefore, for a more precise determination of the changes to which the relationship between “the public sphere and representation” is subjected. The standpoint of cultural and social-scientific perspectives on society must be included in this process. It must take into account not only the shifting of the coordinates to which the justification of public claims, particularly in the field of politics, has recourse , but also the historicization of the preconditions and conditions under which the image of society it projects permits plausible connections.

In other words, the determination of the relationship between “the public sphere and representation” must include the position and the possibilities of the humanities in its calculations . To this extent the task will consist in working out, on the basis of the relationship between “the public sphere and representation”, the precise correlation of those social, institutional and medial parameters which make up the new grammar of our culture.


Dr. Svenia Schneider-Wulf
phone +49 7531 36304-15
e-mail svenia.schneider[at]uni-konstanz.de

Dr. Michael Neumann
e-mail michael.neumann[at]uni-konstanz.de