Feminism, the Public and the Private

By Joan B. Landes | Go to book overview
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Sex, Lies, and the Public Sphere: Reflections on the Confirmation of Clarence Thomas

Nancy Fraser

The making of mainstream public opinion is mainly a routinized affair, the business of pundits as opposed to lay citizens. Occasionally, however, something happens that explodes the circuits of professional opinion-making-as-usual and calls forth widespread and intense public debate. In such moments, something approximating mass participation crystallizes, and for a brief instant, at least, we sense the possibility of a robust political public sphere. Yet the experience is characteristically mixed. Intimations of democracy are laced with demagoguery and exclusion, which the bright light of hyperpublicity casts into sharp relief. These moments can accordingly have great diagnostic value. They make starkly visible the structures of inequality and practices of power that deform public-opinion-making in ordinary times, less obtrusively but more systematically.1

One such moment was the 1991 struggle over the confirmation of Clarence Thomas as an associate justice of the US Supreme Court. Combining flashes of democratic participation with practices of strategic containment, this struggle raised in a dramatic and pointed way key questions about the nature of contemporary publicity. It was not simply a battle for public opinion within an already constituted public sphere. What was at stake was, on the contrary, the very meaning and boundaries of publicity. The way the struggle unfolded, moreover, depended at every point on who had the power to draw the line between the public and the private. As a result, the ' Clarence Thomas affair' exposed crucial

First published in Critical Inquiry, 18 (Spring 1992),595-612. This is a revised version which appeared as chapter 4 in Nancy Fraser, Justice Interruptus: Rethinking Key Concepts of a Postsocialist Age (Routledge, 1997). Copyright Routledge, Inc. ( 1997). Reprinted by permission.


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