Bruno Latour at the Changing Dynamics of Public Controversies Conference

“Is Walter Lippmann’s Phantom Public be more visible on the web?” – that was Latour’s title and opening question.

– – – rough summary on the basis of my notes, no guarantees! – – –

The starting point was a quote from page 129 of this book: “can simple criteria be formulated which will show the bystander where to align himself in complex affairs?”. It is premised on Lippmann’s basic definition of ‘the public’ as ‘bystanders’, those disinterested citizens normally outside the world of public affairs who can be mobilized around an issue or an actor when every other mean of decision-making breaks down.

As Latour pointed out, this minimalist and pragmatic understanding of the public is in stark contrast to more demanding and substantialist understandings like the ‘unattainable ideals’ of his time that Lippmann criticized, and like the ones that reign in much communications research, drawn from the work of Jurgen Habermas, Nancy Fraser, Seyla Benhabib, and others vetted to a tradition of critical theorizing.

Latour turned from Lippmann’s idea of an occasional public that could materialize to deal with issues when everything else has failed to the question of how this public (or such publics) can be mobilized. Mentioning the work of some of his collaborators, like Noortje Marres, Richard Rogers, and Tommaso Venturini, he pointed out the importance of the issues that publics form around, the tools and networks such assemblages rely on, and the controversies that they constitute.

He argued that from a democratic point of view, one should explore the opportunities for building new tools of assemblage that would facilitate publics–not in the substantial sense of rich, reason-based, deliberation, but in the minimalist sense of interventions by bystanders aligning themselves to resolve situations that has ground to a halt. He argued that such publics need quick knowledge, and easy tools, to make their mark on the world of affairs. He underlined the potentials of new technologies in this area.

At the end, Latour offered his own, expanded and elaborated, contemporary version of the Lippmann sentence that he started with: “can we reuse digital technologies to help bystanders navigate through controversial datascapes and align themselves when a public is needed in the last instance without meddling?” And offered a qualified ‘yes’ as an answer.

– – -sources – – –

previous incarnations of parts of the argument are available here (text) and here (youtube).

– – – discussion – – –

several points came up during the lively discussion of Latour’s presentation. Since this is, to repeat, a rough summary, I am not going to attribute my confused notes to individual participants, or to myself, for that matter.

One point made by several people was that Lippmann’s central concern was information and alignment of an otherwise passive public, and that many new information and communication technologies have made the distinction between passive bystanders and active participants seems less clear, and perhaps less stark–we all leave data shadows that are fed back into algorithms that help define what appear in search results et al, and the barriers for producing and sharing content, either publicly (on websites) or privately (via email etc) are arguably lower than ever. So is Lippmann’s vocabulary really what we should reach for now, at this moment, where we might all be if not exactly activists, at least a little active?

Other people took issue with the reactive view of the public that Lippmann offers as a practical ideal (the public as reacting “in the last instance”), and suggests that pro-active activists in many cases have successfully mobilized the public against the state through social movements like the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, feminism, and gay rights–and that this should be not only analytically recognized, but also considered a good thing. We may not wait, as Lippmann suggested, till things have broken down, before we consider what role the public can play in politics. And many of the people who will try to mobilize the public, phantom or nor, certainly won’t wait, and won’t agree on when things have broken down.

Finally, a lot of people balked at the basic idea of a project that Latour is pursuing with Tommaso Venturini, Noortje Marres, and others, that puts issues at the center of attempts to understand public controversies today–some said that the social and technological workings of new communication technologies makes the network, and specifically the network of trust, the organizing principle of debate–rather than the issues that dominated the bandwith-poor mass media-dominated public.


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