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Civil Society and Multiple Publics

Civil Society and Multiple Publics

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Published by Iolanda Vasile

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Published by: Iolanda Vasile on Feb 03, 2010
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Civil Society and thePredicament of Multiple Publics
Vivek Bhandari
n a newspaper article published recently, Neera Chandhoke, someone who has writtenextensively on the subject o civil society, lamented the emergence o “global civil society organizations.”
The organizations, she pointed out, frst became dramatically visible at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 when about fteen hundred o them had assembled to collec-tively chart out the world’s uture on matters ranging rom environmental reorm to humanrights. By 1995, this sector o nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), advocacy groups, andsocial activists had reached enormous proportions, as thirty-fve thousand o them descendedon the Fourth World Conerence on Women in Beijing. In the article, Chandhoke argues that ar rom signaling the advent o a new global civil society in which the organizations providean alternative to a nation-state-centric global order and the exploitative global economy, thenewly emerging consensus reects a moral vision determined predominantly by powerulnations in the West. Her doubts on the subject have as much to do with the neoliberal ideo-logical consensus emerging at these meetings as with the growing valorization o 
 orms o civil society organizations at the expense o many others.Given the validity o such concerns, especially as they pertain to the postcolonial world,there is a pressing need to move the dialogue urther. In the period ollowing the collapse o the Soviet Union, it is true that considerable eorts are being devoted to rejuvenating institu-tions o civil society. A concept that was largely moribund when models o state-led modern-ization dominated both Marxist and liberal conceptions o social change and development,it has made a dramatic comeback and is slowly beginning to percolate into a number o disci-plinary arenas. Ongoing discussions approach it rom a range o vantage points, inormed by shiting views on the nature o modernization, the growth o new social movements, and thediscourse o rights. In these debates, new ormulations on the nature o statehood and citizen-ship are necessitating a reevaluation o the meanings o civil society. With a backward glanceat this literature, this essay attempts to identiy the parameters o civil society in countries that  were once colonized by addressing a very specifc question: In what ways has the emergenceo nation-statehood and modern notions o subjectivity shaped the relationship between civilsociety and public culture in postcolonial societies? By ocusing on developments in India,the essay argues that an understanding o the discursive felds and practices normatively associated with civil society and the public sphere in Western liberal thought, while useul, isinadequate or explaining various orms o participatory politics, and indeed the nature o “political society” itsel, in postcolonial contexts where the historical relationship between the
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1. Neera Chandhoke, “Civil Society Hijacked,”
, January 16,2002.
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    V    i   v   e    k    B    h   a   n    d   a   r    i    C    i   v    i    l    S   o   c    i   e    t   y   a   n    d    M   u    l    t    i   p    l   e    “    P   u    b    l    i   c   s    ”
state and society (a alse duality in itsel) hasbeen one o stark inequality. The essay arguesthat the peculiar circumstances o colonial rulein India created a ractured, stratifed publicculture in which a normative bourgeois publicsphere coexists with multiple “subaltern coun-terpublics.” Although colonial orms o knowl-edge sought to discipline the socioculturallandscape in the Raj rom the mid-nineteenthcentury onward, the coexistence o multiplepublics demonstrates that numerous constitu-encies resisted, indeed subverted, such reorder-ing. Over time, this has had a proound eect on the way people in India understand theirrole as citizens and, in turn, their relationship with existing institutions o civil society.
Locating the “Public”
In the voluminous scholarship on the subject,the origins o civil society are generally attrib-uted to G. W. F. Hegel’s nineteenth-century theoretical ormulations.
More recently, therevival o the study o civil society, it is otensuggested, is the outcome o debates in EasternEurope and the English translation o JürgenHabermas’s
The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere 
Partly because o the prominenceo Habermas’s ormulations on the “publicsphere” and modern institutions in general,the concept o civil society has been particularly important to political philosophers, who havebeen its primary explorers in recent times.
Inhis work on a theory o “communicative action,”Habermas makes a clear distinction betweenthe “lieworld” and the “system”— a distinctionthat indicates a radical rupture between thesignifcance o everyday interaction and inter-actions made possible by institutions and orga-nizations. The latter, according to Habermas,serve as the locus o the modern public sphereand, in turn, the associational lie that ani-mates civil society. As Ashutosh Varshney putsit, or Habermas, everyday interaction makeslie, but organized interaction makes history.
 The emergence o new histories o the popu-lar struggles o women, peasants, workers, andminorities—those not ormally admitted to thepublic sphere in much o nineteenth-century Europe and America—suggests the historicalinadequacy o Habermas’s distinction. Indeed,in his more recent positions, Habermas has allbut dropped the radical distinction he drewearlier,
and, as Varshney points outs, i moreorganized and institutional civic sites are not available generally or to some specifc groups,street-corner activity can now be viewed as aserious civic orm as well.
How do these ormulations apply to India?Christopher Pinney points out that the Haber-masian conception o orthodox politics is prob-lematic and peculiarly unsatisactory or thestudy o public culture in the Indian subconti-nent. The context or Habermas’s conceptual-ization is the outcome o a particular Europeanhistory in which a public sphere emerges to rou-tinize certain orms o communicative agency,debate, and resolution. In Pinney’s concisesynopsis, Habermas’s public sphere “blossoms within a cognitivized chronotope (archetypi-cally the coee house where one could read anddiscuss
The Tatler 
) within which a certain modelo cerebral rationality is privileged. The culturalagency that Habermas embodies in this ormo politics is linguistically overdetermined andis grounded in a notional dyadic interchangebetween two discoursing (and immobily seated)men.”
He goes on to point out that the theory o political culture that emerges rom such con-straints is “structured by two absences, whichlimit its powers o elucidation: the absence o any consideration o the bodies that producethese elocutions and o the perormative ele-ment in these encounters” (19).Recent writings on the subject o public
2. For an intellectual history of the concept, seeAdam Seligman,
The Idea of Civil Society 
(Princeton,NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992).3. Jürgen Habermas,
The Structural Transformationof the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into the Category of Bourgeois Society 
, trans. Thomas Burger and Fred-eric Lawrence (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989). Fora rich collection of essays on Habermas’s formula-tion, see Craig Calhoun, ed.,
Habermas and the Public Sphere
(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992).4. See, e.g., Jean Cohen and Andrew Arato,
Civil Soci-ety and Political Theory 
(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press,1992); Charles Taylor, “Modes of Civil Society,”
Public Culture
3, no. 1 (1990); and Michael Walzer, “The Con-cept of Civil Society,” in
Towards a Global Civil Soci-ety 
, ed. M. Walzer (Providence, RI: Berghahn Books,1998), 41–68.5. Ashutosh Varshney,
Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life:Hindus and Muslims in India
(New Haven, CT: YaleUniversity Press, 2002), 45.6. Jürgen Habermas, “Further Reflections on thePublic Sphere,” in Calhoun,
Habermas and the Public Sphere
, 421–61.7. Varshney,
Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life
, 41.8. Christopher Pinney, “Introduction: Public, Popular,and Other Cultures,” in
Pleasure and the Nation: TheHistory, Politics, and Consumption of Public Culture inIndia
, ed. Rachel Dwyer and Christopher Pinney (NewDelhi: Oxford University Press, 2001), 18–19.
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  C o m p a r a  t  i  v e   S  t u d  i e s  o  f   S o u  t  h  A s  i a,  A  f r  i c a  a n d   t  h e   M  i d d  l e   E a s  t
culture in India have tried to fll these absences.Most o them are inextricably linked to newmedia and varieties o print culture, withinlarger discussions on the nature o national-ism. This research inds that the circulationo images and texts and the prolieration o cultural ows are o long standing in India (2)and have acilitated a rich culture o oppositionagainst dominant institutions. Stuart Hall hasin act suggested that the
viable defnitiono popular culture positions it “in a continuingtension (relationship, inuence, antagonism)to the dominant culture.”
Such a position iscongruent with the model o “subalternity” that has emerged in the pioneering work o Ranajit Guha. Within South Asianist historiography,the emergence o subaltern studies paralleledthe recognition that there were undamen-tal problems with colonialist historiography.Guha’s pioneering ormulation sought to rectiy  what he perceived as the historical discipline’sblindness to mass politics by highlighting theIndian bourgeoisie’s ailure to “speak or thenation.”
Subaltern culture works against dominant groups by using a plethora o eclecticsigns and strategies o resistance in a search orautonomy.
In this context, Arjun Appaduraiand Carol Breckenridge’s claim that public cul-ture is an ally o subaltern studies, extendingthat perspective to India considered as a “post-colony,” makes sense.
Their model o publicculture defnes it as a “zone o contestation.” Intheir remarkably rich interpretation, the term
is not a “neutral or arbitrary substitute orall these existing alternatives [popular, mass,olk, consumer, national, or middle class].”Instead, Appadurai and Breckenridge use theterm
 public culture 
to “escape these by now con- ventional hierarchies [like ‘high’ and ‘low’ cul-ture] to generate an approach which is open tothe cultural nuances o cosmopolitanism and o the modern in India.”
This use o the term
gains addi-tional support rom revisionist historiography o the public sphere. Commenting on this schol-arship, Nancy Fraser argues that scholars like Joan Landes and Geo Eley demonstrate thedegree to which Habermas’s account idealizesthe liberal public sphere because he ails tostudy “other, nonliberal, nonbourgeois, compet-ing public spheres.”
These scholars argue that,despite Habermas’s claims about the accessibil-ity o the public domain, the “ofcial” publicsphere rested on, indeed was importantly con-stituted by, a number o signifcant exclusions.Fraser points out that or Landes, the key axiso exclusion is gender; she argues that the ethoso the new republican public sphere in France was constructed in deliberate opposition tothat o a more woman-riendly salon culturethat the republicans stigmatized as “artifcial,”“eeminate,” and “aristocratic” (113–14). Con-sequently, a new, austere style o public speechand behavior was promoted, a style deemed“rational,” “virtuous,” and “manly” (113). Tak-ing Landes’s argument urther, Eley demon-strates the degree to which exclusionary opera-tions were essential to maintaining the liberalpublic sphere in countries like England, France,and Germany, where gender exclusions werelinked to other exclusions rooted in processeso class ormation. In these situations, he claimsthat “the soil that nourished the liberal publicsphere was ‘civil society,’ the emerging new con-geries o voluntary associations.”
As JacquelineUrla puts it, mechanisms o exclusion appliedmost orceully to those citizens who “did not or will not speak the language o civil society.”
Clearly a number o the discussions hingeon the question o whether or not the groupsparticipating in public discourse are in act act-ing autonomously. In his eorts to ormulatea more nuanced and textured view o “publicsand counterpublics” in the wake o the insight-
9. Stuart Hall, “Notes on Deconstructing the ‘Popu-lar,’” in
Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader 
,ed. John Storey (New York: Prentice Hall, 1997), 462(emphasis added).10. Ranajit Guha,
Dominance without Hegemony:History and Power in Colonial India
(Cambridge, MA:Harvard University Press, 1997), xii.11. Ibid.12. Arjun Appadurai and Carol Breckenridge, “WhyPublic Culture?”
Public Culture
1 (1988): 4.13. Ibid., 6.14. See Nancy Fraser, “Rethinking the Public Sphere,”in Calhoun,
Habermas and the Public Sphere
, 115.15. Ibid., 114. For Eley’s detailed discussion, see Geoff Eley, “Nations, Publics, and Political Cultures: PlacingHabermas in the Nineteenth Century,” in Calhoun,
Habermas and the Public Sphere
, 289–339.16. Jacqueline Urla, “Outlaw Language: CreatingAlternative Public Spheres in Basque Free Radio,” in
The Politics of Culture in the Shadow of Capital 
, ed.Lisa Lowe and David Lloyd (Durham, NC: Duke Uni-versity Press, 1997), 280.

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