July 15 Reading Response – Nancy Fraser: Transnationalizing the Public Sphere

Nancy Fraser: Transnationalizing the Public Sphere

Nancy Fraser’s article addresses public sphere theory within a transnational context, in which Westphalian concepts of nation, she contests, are no longer appropriate. She argues that Habermas’ public sphere theory operates from the assumption of a Westphalian nation state, bounded by a very particular set of national functions and arenas. After first making her case for this argument, by highlighting key areas in Habermas’ writing that take the Westphalian state as a given, she moves on to discussing the ways in which these same assumptions are no longer fully applicable within the increasingly transnational world scene.

The problem which this creates, according to Fraser, is centered around ideas of legitimacy and efficacy in regards to transnational publics. She asks how either of these aspects of publicity can be determined when the public in question does not constitute a political citizenry within a bounded state. In other words, if a public does not correspond to a specific political body which it can affect or be affected by, through its public discourse, then how can the public sphere in which it operates be looked at critically?

Fraser does not claim to have an answer to this problem, but she does lay out a potential strategy for arriving at one, broken down into two main goals. The first is to expand the discourse surrounding issues of inclusivity within the public sphere. Included in this is abandoning national citizenship as the go-to standard by which a person is thought to be affected by a particular political or economic issue. The second goal is the development of new methods for dispensing powers traditionally held by nation states. It is on this second point that she emphasizes the current lack of any clear answers.

Fraser clearly (and by my own estimation accurately) isolates the core difficulties in adapting public sphere theory to the transnational arena. However, there were two areas in which I felt the article was lacking. Firstly, and most importantly, she does not sufficiently problematize the standards by which public efficacy is determined, but instead merely spells out the difficulty which transnational publics have in attaining those standards. Despite the basis of the article being the insufficiency of Westphalian ideals and assumptions in a discussion of the transnational sphere, she does not question that the shaping of political policy (in the formal, bureaucratic/legal sense) and economic policy, (in the corporate/national currency sense) are the only legitimate outcomes for an efficacious public. By calling only for the powers traditionally held by states to be dispensed in new ways, rather than reevaluated, she is accepting these powers as the only ones which hold true value. In essence, this confirms the Westphalian standard, rather than negates it.

The second, less serious issue which I had with Fraser’s article, is that it did not attempt to distinguish between different types of transnationality. Globalization is not at all the same thing as Internationalism, which is in turn completely different from the transnational trends brought about through the internet. There are numerous social groupings/movements, all distinct, which fall under the blanket term of transnationality. While Fraser may feel that the same difficulties in breaking out from the Westphalian model extend to each of them, it seems as though making this point clear would have been useful to the discussion she raises.

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One comment

  1. Aleks

    Richard – thanks for this succinct and clear overview of Fraser’s layered argument. The critiques that you raise are all important ones: the limitations of efficacy as a barometer, the ambiguity around the concept of transnationalism, as well as some of the circularity within Fraser’s argument. Some other problematic aspects we can get to today centre around questions of accessibility, utopianism, and of course form, which will help us navigate back to artistic practice and the case of biennales.

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