The Public Sphere: Nuclear-Freeze Posters in a Commodity Culture

By Nielsen, Elizabeth | Monthly Review, June 1988 | Go to article overview

The Public Sphere: Nuclear-Freeze Posters in a Commodity Culture


Nielsen, Elizabeth, Monthly Review


THE PUBLIC SPHERE: NUCLEAR-FREEZE POSTERS IN A COMMODITY CULTURE by ELIZABETH NIELSEN

The nuclear-freeze movement has produced thousands of posters that have the potential to heighten the consciousness of people throughout the world about the threatening disaster of nuclear war. Most of those discussed in this essay were collected for an exhibition in 1984 by the Ritter Art Gallery of Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton, Florida. The more than 300 anti-nuclear-weapons posters exhibited -- chosen from over 600 collected throughout the United States, Western Europe, Japan, Australia, the Soviet Union, and other countries -- represented the mass political participation of millions of people. In this gallery setting, these posters provoked some compelling questions:(1) Why had most of the people visiting the gallery never seen any of them before? What function did they serve in the public sphere? This article addresses these questions by providing a critical framework for analyzing the role of political posters in a commercially dominated society through the "public sphere" theories of Benjamin Barber and Susan Sontag. In a larger sense, these posters are just one example of the problem of commercialized mass media in the public sphere.

(1)The exhibit caused everything from tears to a sarcastic newspaper article. As people left the gallery, they wrote in the register: "Should be required viewing for everyone." "Should be circulated all over the world." "Awesome." "I am moved to tears." Some people, however, felt that this worldwide collection of peace posters was just so much "anti-American crap." One couple was so outraged that they demanded that the page with their names on it be torn out of the register.

Background of Freeze Posters

The posters discussed here were designed and printed after the freeze movement officially began in 1980 -- 1981 following the election of President Reagan.(2) Presently there are more than 6,000 national, state, and local freeze groups in the United States that have as an objective, stated or unstated, the promotion of a change in global consciousness.(3) The posters in this collection reflect the diversity of perspectives brought to bear on this critical issue which, like a vortex, attracts thousands of organized groups of artists, musicians, clergy, cowboys, physicians, lawyers, teachers, students, union members housewives, and others. These antinuclear posters aim to promote moral outrage; to raise, expand, and alter consciousness on a global scale; to educate the public; to reinforce an ideology; to announce events (rallies, speeches, convocations, historical anniversaries such as Hiroshima, etc.); to terrify; to evoke pathos; to delegitimate political authority; and to organize people for collective action.

(2)Randall Forsberg is generally credited with coining the phrase "nuclear-freeze movement" in the early 1980s. Although people have protested nuclear weapons since their usage in 1945, the peace movement, as we know it today, dates from the election of President Reagan. According to the Gallup Report, January 1983/Report No. 208: In November 1982, 71 percent favored, 20 percent opposed, and 9 percent had no opinion on "an agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union for an immediate, verifiable freeze on the testing, production, and deployment of nuclear weapons."

(3)Many of these groups are listed in the American Peace Directory 1986, published by the Institute for Defense and Disarmament Studies, headed by Randall Forsberg.

Some of the posters focus on the particular weapons system, like the Trident submarine. Others, linking the arms race to political and sexual aggression, promote feelings of solidarity with Third World countries or solidarity among women: still others approach the nuclear-weapons problem through economic issues, arguing that we must "pay twice" for increasingly sophisticated weapons systems: once to the defense contractors, and later to cover the social costs of failing to meet people's basic needs.

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