Public / Private

October 1995 to July 1996

Poject with Thomas Locher and Peter Zimmermann

In his recently published analysis of development trends in Europe, Asia and America, the well-known MIT economist Lester C. Thurow concludes that, with regard to the relationship between public and private in the West, there is a threat of a return to medieval conditions: “In our societies, the private is increasingly displacing the public, as it once did in the Dark Ages. 1) If this assessment seems perhaps truncated or too apocalyptic, it is not because a global trend has not been correctly grasped, but because the dichotomy of public-private has a spectrum of connotations that is only partially covered in the terminology of the liberal theory of the public sphere. In this frame of reference, the public-private divide is usually conceptualized homologously to oppositions such as state vs. society, politics vs. economics, coercion vs. freedom, or political vs. social. Thurow’s approach, moreover, still closely identifies the private with the economic and with property. His diagnosis of an expansion of the private unprecedented in modern history therefore essentially relates to the advance (more indirectly than directly) of libertarian and market radical notions of social organization supported by private electronic mass media. In a globally stagnant capitalism today, radical rhetorics of privacy are being pushed, aiming at the dismantling of the welfare state or at the apology of consumerism, and attempting to exclude certain domains and topics from public discourses via their economization and technologization.

At odds with the liberal dichotomizations of public-private and their postulates of a strict separation of these spheres are the differentiations of public-domestic, public-personal, public-secret, or public-intimate, some of which were already emphasized in Greek philosophy, but later especially in Romanticism (2. e. Rousseau, Hegel). 2) Recent discourse around the public and the private in this frame of reference has revolved primarily around the implications of the oldest of these dichotomies, namely the sharp separation of public and domestic spheres, and the patriarchal interpretation usually associated with it, which suspends notions of individual privacy in favor of the collective privacy of the family (“family autonomy”). The rhetoric of privacy in this case, as Nancy Fraser has argued, amounts primarily to excluding certain domains and issues from public discourse via personalization and/or familiarization, such as issues of gendered division of labor or intrafamilial dominance, control, and violence. 3) If one also takes such differentiations of public-private as a basis, then, in view of the “politicization of the personal” that can be observed, the global development trends do not simply present themselves as linear displacements of the public by the private, but as more complex and contradictory processes, in the context of which the boundaries are also partly shifted in favor of the public.

  • 1) Lester C. Thurow, The Future of Capitalism. How Today’s Economic Forces Shape Tomorrow’s World. New York 1996, p.246.

  • 2) See Will Kymlicka, Contemporary Political Philosophy. Oxford 1995, p.247ff.

  • 3) cf. Nancy Fraser, Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy. In: Craig Calhoun (ed.), Habermas and the Public Sphere. Cambridge, Mass. / London I 992, pp. 109- 143.

“Public / Private” is the first joint exhibition project by Thomas Locher and Peter Zimmermann (Cologne). It came about at the invitation of the Kunstraum of the University of Lüneburg.

The project was prepared at the university together with the artists in interdisciplinary seminars on the problem of the “structural change of the public sphere”. Visual material from mass media / culture industry or text material from the discourse of various scientific disciplines was collected, analyzed and digitally processed in a division of labor. In contrast to the traditional modernist understanding of art, Howard Becker understands the production of art as a form of “collective action”. In this sense, the entire course of the production was characterized by close cooperation between the artists and students or lecturers from the disciplines of art, sociology and computer science.

The results of this cooperation, which lasted several months, are now being presented in an exhibition at the Kunstraum. Dynamic image-text material is projected into the exhibition space with the help of digital technology. Aspects of the theoretical discourse, which was taken up in all its ideological and analytical complexity, are processed on posters and flyers that will also circulate in the so-called “public space”.

Publication: Beatrice von Bismarck, Thomas Locher, Diethelm Stoller, Ulf Wuggenig, Peter Zimmermann (eds.): Öffentlich / Privat. Lüneburg: Kunstraum, 1998.

Supported by the Niedersächsische Lottostiftung, Hannover.