Book Review: Global Publics: Their Power and Their Limits, 1870-1990

By Christoph Streb

In light of recent phenomena of global communication like #MeToo, Fridays for Future, and the proliferating conspiracy theories about the Coronavirus pandemic, this book on the history of global publics obviously is very timely. Spanning the period between the late 19th and the late 20th century, Global Publics consists of twelve individual case studies. Despite their considerable thematic diversity, all chapters include more general reflections. Three, by Heidi J. S. Tworek on digitised newspapers as sources for global publics, Tobias Werron on the logic of international rankings, and Aleida Assmann on transnational memory culture, are even primarily theoretical or methodological undertakings. It is, however, the substantial 60-page introduction by the two editors Valeska Huber and Jürgen Osterhammel that most clearly elucidates the general purpose of this volume: to introduce the category of “global publics” and discuss its potential gain for global historical research. The following review, accordingly, does not consider each essay in detail but rather focuses directly on this conceptual agenda.

Engaging with the Habermasian tradition

Global Publics connects global histories of communication with research on the public sphere. The introduction and several essays explicitly discuss Jürgen Habermas’ 1962 Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit, a book analysing the emergence of an egalitarian sphere of rational debate in 18th century Europe and its supposed decline with 19th- and 20th-century mass culture. During the 1990s and 2000s, a belated enthusiastic reception of this account among historians was combined with substantial criticism. Present developments in political communication have raised further doubt that publics can operate as a vehicle of democratisation (as Habermas believed despite the pessimistic second part of his book).

Against this backdrop, the volume under review emphasises that, in 2020, any dealing with the notion of the public must necessarily be more attentive to market forces and emotions, selectivity and exclusion. Huber and Osterhammel define global publics soberly as empirical phenomena of communication: “A global public is a very large group, dispersed transnationally and, mostly, transcontinentally. Its members are, as a general rule, unknown to each other, but share a common focus of attention.” (16-17) Yet the editors agree with Habermas insofar as the formation of publics was often related to normative claims. In the case of global publics, these consisted of visions of a unified world polity as well as appeals to the values of a global citizenry. To handle this normative dimension, the introduction helpfully distinguishes between the never realised aspiration to create a “global public sphere” in the Habermasian understanding and the empirical reality of “global publics” in the plural (11-16). The global perspective, thus, is particularly useful to analyse the gap between normative aims and the reality of communication.

The essays in Global Publics also emphasise a further element that Habermas and his readers among historians have often neglected: the role of distance. Evidently, global publics could not be face-to-face assemblies: based on the expansion of communication infrastructures like the telegraph network since the mid-19th century, they brought together far distant individuals, exposing them simultaneously to the same impulse. Werron’s suggestion to speak of “imagined publics,” however, becomes slippery when insinuating that publics are a fiction and thus fundamentally different from other abstractions. Rather, studying global publics is useful precisely because they illustrate the importance of distance in communicational practice. Publics, as illustrated for instance in Simone M. Müller’s essay on the New York Herald in the late 19th century and Xu Guoqi’s contribution on the Chinese government’s self-presentation through sports, are seldom based on symmetrical dialogue between equal participants; rather, they are necessarily based on quasi-monological addresses to the many that involve only indirect feedback. What Habermas considered a sign of decline here appears as an inevitable consequence as soon as publics become distant audiences.

The distinctive character of global publics

Such insights are applicable to other forms of publics and reach further back in history. Yet the volume also sheds light on the particular nature of global publics. A first distinctive quality the book points out is their heavily fragmented nature. While the Habermasian public sphere had been conceived as a uniform entity, global publics not only came in the plural,[1] but were also internally fragmented. In her contribution, Assmann puts it thus: “While machines and numbers push technology and therefore tend to produce global homogeneity, human languages push cultures, narratives, practices, and life-worlds, maintaining and celebrating difference.” (369) As global publics covered a large space, those who appealed to them faced the problem of integrating difference. The same stimulus, information or appeal tended to diversify and disintegrate alongside national and cultural barriers.

Several essays offer concrete examples of this fragmentation of global publics. Su Lin Lewis’ article on the construction of “modern” femininity by early 20th century Asian women and Christopher B. Balme’s contribution on global theatre publics illustrate that the experiences and expectations of recipients often resulted in a substantial re-contextualisation of a given message. They show that global publics were fragmented in themselves – and sometimes to the point that it can be questioned whether they still focussed on the “same” topic at all: if women’s magazines or Shakespeare were the same in England and in colonial India. Gordon M. Winder’s contribution about cinema publics in the 1930s even complicates things further. The seemingly global commodity of film was in fact distributed rather unequally based on political interests and a particular commercial logic. The resulting geography is perplexing. Spectators were exposed to a globally available medium, cinema, but the individual films were distributed in very heterogeneous patterns. Can we still speak of a global cinema public when most spectators could expect that the film they were watching was shown at a variety of different places, but accompanied by a completely different set of other films?

Here, I would have been curious to read more about contemporary interpretations of this fragmented reality of global communication, particularly from a colonial or post-colonial perspective. How, for instance, was the word “public” itself translated and used in different contexts during the period of observation? Andrea Rehling’s sophisticated essay on the UNESCO world heritage program shows one example of a reflexive encounter with fragmentation. The experience of diverse global publics, she argues, brought the UNESCO to further accentuate an agenda of “unity in cultural diversity.” This attempt at diversification, however, backfired when “self-declared representatives of cultures” (287) publicly attacked the world heritage programme as a Western project. Fragmented communication, thus, could eventually bring contemporaries to challenge universal norms.

Rehling’s essay also hints at another, more overtly political limit of global publics: their involvement with national institutions and the absence of a true institutional equivalent at the world level. Not only did communication continue to be largely controlled by states, global publics also lacked, as the editors stress, “an institutional referent that would be roughly analogous to the modern nation state” (15) – another reason why they hesitate to applicate Habermas’ notion of the public sphere to the global level. When a global public was mobilised for political purposes, it was far from clear who the responsible political institutions actually were and why they should care.

Certainly, several essays illustrate that turning to global publics could be a chance for political activists to successfully address an audience on another scale and bring in new political actors. Steffen Rimner analyses how the Japanese drug trade became a political issue in the early 20th century when insider information was leaked to the international Chinese press; Sophie-Jung H. Kim demonstrates how the Bengali monk Vivekananda’s spectacular performance during the Parliament of the World’s Religions of 1893 unexpectedly turned Hinduism into the news of the day; Robert Brier convincingly shows how national political struggles in 1980s’ Poland and Chile became human rights issues when activists turned to global publics, thus transforming both scale and content of the debate; and Werron’s contribution highlights the role of international competition among nation states. Yet precisely the variety of concerned political institutions, all operating on different scales, could also result in misunderstandings, powerlessness, or disputes over authority.

Conceiving global communication: publics and networks

With its focus on individual case studies, Global Publics aims at conceptual discussion rather than definition. In this spirit, the volume considers a broad variety of phenomena as global publics. This variety is not only inevitable to some extent, but also thought-provoking. Still, a slightly less inclusive understanding of what is a global public, along with an explicit concern for what is not, might have been helpful to further clarify the analytical language of global communication.

A case in point is that “public” and “network” are often employed interchangeably. It is certainly correct to emphasise that global publics were built upon expanding communication networks. Yet publics, rather than forming just another type of network, were frequently constructed to overcome networks by moving on to another communicational logic. Sociologist John B. Thompson helpfully opposes one-to-one interaction between distant individuals (by letters, telegrams or e-mails) to one-to-many quasi-interaction with a distant audience (using print, television or websites).[2] This basic distinction illustrates that networks generally rely on closed sequences of communication, whereas publics involve an additional act to make a message accessible to many: publication. Taking publication into account seems particularly important with regard to the empirical question of access to global communication. The essays in this volume justly underline that global publics were not accessible to everybody alike as audience, let alone as speakers. It is crucial to point out, however, that creating publics was often a way to increase accessibility by transcending relatively closed networks, opening up communication to commercial and political mass behaviour.

The distinction between publics and networks can also be of more general relevance for an ongoing debate among global historians about their implicit normative presuppositions.[3] Huber and Osterhammel stress the limits of publics in order to avoid an overly simplistic interpretation of globalisation, characterised by “gradual integration into one vast planetary arena for the free exchange of views and ideas” (11). Yet the question arises whether the language of the public is actually the best venue for this necessary critique. Is not global historians’ “home-grown” language of networks, flows and circulations the more obvious problem in this regard? 

These remarks underline that Global Publics is successful in stimulating conceptual discussion. Overall, the contributions make a strong case for using the notion of “global publics.” Scholars working in the Habermasian tradition might be interested above all in Huber’s and Osterhammel’s introduction. Global historians may also want to turn to the essays: they present global publics as fractured and fragile, shaped by power structures and market forces, and only loosely coupled with visions of a global community or world citizenship. In particular, a focus on global publics seems to provide fresh perspectives for studying transnational forms of political mobilisation.


[1] Consider for plurality: Michael Warner: Publics and Counterpublics, New York: Zone Books, 2002; Daniel Cefaï: “La construction des problèmes publics. Définitions de situations dans des arènes publiques”, Réseaux, 1996, vol. 14, nᵒ 75, p. 43‑66.

[2] John B. Thompson: The Media and Modernity: A Social Theory of the Media, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1995.

[3] Osterhammel himself has recently contributed to this debate in a short essay published together with Stefanie Gänger, “Denkpause für die Globalgeschichte”, Merkur, 2020, vol. 74, N° 855, p. 79-86.


Contributions:

  1. Introduction: Global Publics, Valeska Huber and Jürgen Osterhammel
  2. Media Tycoons and their Global Public: The Case of Gordon Bennett and the New York Herald, Simone M. Müller
  3. “The Local Life of the World”: Theatre Publics in the Age of Empire, Christopher B. Balme
  4. Reaching the Global Public: Going International in a Difficult Market for Film, 1935-1936, Gordon M. Winder
  5. Asian Women and Global Publics: Interaction, Information, and the City, c.1900-1940, Su Lin Lewis
  6. An International Event and its Multiple Global Publics: The Parliament of the World’s Religions (Chicago, 1893) and Vivekananda, Sophie-Jung H. Kim
  7. From the Leak to the League: The Japanese Drug Trade, Global Public Opinion, and Accountability, 1915-1919, Steffen Rimner
  8. Re-Imaging China through Sport’s Global Public, Xu Guoqi
  9. The Court of World Opinion: Eastern Europe and Latin America in the Late Modern Global Public of Human Rights, Robert Brier
  10. UNESCO World Heritage and Global Publics between “Mankind”, Global Minds, and World Opinion, Andrea Rehling
  11. Digital History and Global Publics, Heidi J. S. Tworek
  12. Global Publics as Catalysts of Global Competition: A Sociological View, Tobias Werron
  13. Global Publics: Remembering and Forgetting, Aleida Assmann

Christoph Streb: Book Review: Global Publics: Their Power and Their Limits, 1870-1990, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 14.01.2021, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/26235.


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