Postmodernism and the Public Sphere: Implications for an Historical Ethnography

Essay Excerpt

The term modem or "bourgeois" public sphere refers generally to those institutions open to the public and to those practices, which any member of the public may engage in, that are characteristic of modern societies - it refers, thus, to museums, theaters, libraries, galleries, schools, and universities; cafés, stores, stock exchanges (and, in general, markets); courts, legislatures, town halls; the print and, more recently, electronic media. The distinctive feature of the public sphere is that any member of the public enters, in principle, on equal terms and that communication and deliberation take place. Analyses of how the de jure equality is realized in practice - of the development of institutions, of the gendered definition and social construction of the public and of public opinion - are engaging an increasing number of researchers and offering new perspectives on some old, knotty historical problems. This has gone on to some degree, independent of the developing discourse about "postmodernism"; and the aim here is to bring together the two concepts of "postmodernism" and the "public sphere" in a revealing way. Here are the main points of the exposition:(1) The notion of the public sphere makes possible an ethnography of metaphysics that situates its current troubles within social practices of the modern era. (2) It allows a more precise definition of "Man" as a kind of self that is capable of reading and evaluating modem published texts. (3) Resituating man and metaphysics in this way, in turn, points toward new possibilities for larger, unitary views of historical development - for "metanarratives" and ethnographic texts less ethnocentric, but every bit as ambitious, as those of the past.(4) At the same time, the notion of the public sphere can only aid in this way if it is itself revised in the light of the critique of selfhood that has been offered by thinkers like Lacan, Foucault,and Derrida. This critique, in turn, points toward a new relation between the self and the subject matter of research. (Reddy, 136)

About the Author

Dr. Reddy is a Professor at Duke University. He received all of his degrees for the University of Chicago, finishing there in 1974; after a year at the School of Social Science of the Institute for Advanced Study, and a post-doc in the Department of Psychology and Social Relations at Harvard, he came to Duke in 1977. He has been awarded, among others, Guggenheim and Fulbright Fellowships, brief visiting fellowships at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris, and fellowship years at the National Humanities Center and the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford, California.

His teaching responsibilities include European history, French history from the eighteenth century to the present, cultural theory (especially the joint methodological interests of historians and anthropologists). His research in the past has dealt with such issues as the social history of industrialization, comparative social history of the modern era, the history of emotions and gender identities in France since 1750, theories of culture, and theories of emotions.

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