From Public Sphere to Public Screen: Democracy, Activism, and the Lessons of Seattle

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Critical Studies Media



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The WTO protests in Seattle witnessed the emergence of an international citizens’ movement for democratic globalization. With the tactical exploitation of television, the internet, and other technologies, Seattle also witnessed the enactment of forms of activism adapted to a wired society. In the wake of Seattle, this essay introduces the “public screen” as a necessary supplement to the metaphor of the public sphere for understanding today’s political scene. While a public sphere orientation inevitably finds contemporary discourse wanting, viewing such discourse through the prism of the public screen provokes a consideration of new forms of participatory democracy. In comparison to the public sphere’s privileging of rationality, embodied conversations, consensus, and civility, the public screen highlights dissemination, images, hypermediacy, publicity, distraction, and dissent. Using the Seattle WTO protests as a case study and focusing on the dynamic of violence and the media, we argue that the public screen accounts for technological and cultural changes while enabling a charting of the new conditions for rhetoric, politics, and activism

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