Magazine article Artforum International

The Year in Climate Controversy

Magazine article Artforum International

The Year in Climate Controversy

Article excerpt

WHEN WALTER LIPPMANN (1889-1974) wrote his masterpiece The Phantom Public eighty-five years ago, he vividly demonstrated that democratic ideals were at risk. The reason lay in what we would now call globalization, a geopolitical shift that was already rendering old procedures of local and even national government obsolete. According to Lippmann, there could be no such thing as an "omniscient citizen," that great hope of traditional democratic theory: No individual could possibly be fully informed of all the issues he--at the time, it was still very much a "he"--was supposed to tackle. And even if citizens could be well informed, they could do nothing more than meddle from the outside in the complex affairs of those who were in charge. Globalization made impossible the very idea of democratic action, of the people taking their affairs into their own hands, as had been imagined before by the Continental tradition from Rousseau to Marx to Hegel. The enlightened, unified, and active public faithfully represented by its government was simply out of reach.

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Lippmann, however, was no reactionary. If the public was a phantom, this ghost had to be conjured, because there remained no alternative to democracy. Hence the paradox that Lippmann summarized in this stunning and famous passage about the great disputes of the day "between nations, between sectional interests, between classes, between town and country, between churches" (1):

  Yet it is controversies of this kind, the hardest controversies to
  disentangle, that the public is called in to judge. Where the facts
  are most obscure, where precedents are lacking, where novelty and
  confusion pervade everything, the public in all its unfitness is
  compelled to make its most important decisions. The hardest problems
  are those which institutions cannot handle. They are the public's
  problems. (2)

Let us now fast-forward to 2009-10 and pick up one of the problems that the phantom public must consider: the controversy over the anthropic origin of "climate weirding," or global warming, or any of the other popular monikers this phenomenon has been given. Indeed, if we look at the way the issue of climate change was staged in Copenhagen at COP15, last winter's United Nations Climate Change Conference, during which little agreement or progress was achieved, we may measure just how much the situation has deteriorated since the inter-war period.

Lippmann could not have anticipated that the scale of globalization would expand to such a vast degree that it would encompass the entire earth's climate. The poor citizens who were already lost in the aftermath of the Great War are now utterly puzzled by the consequences of actions that they cannot track--and that nevertheless reverberate over the whole planet.

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But what Lippmann could not have foreseen either was the breakdown of the instruments of communication that are the only means for the public ("in all its unfitness," remember) to read the "coarse signs" in a controversy--to parse information and to detect bias, so as to avoid partisanship and restore some kind of modus vivendi. The prototypical newspaper that Lippmann had described in great detail in his earlier book Public Opinion (1922) has now been replaced by a maelstrom of confusing media outlets--none of which can be said to simplify the detection of partisanship by the spectral public. Lost in the problem, the public is now also lost in the media addressing the problem.

And of course, there is no single institution able to cover, oversee, dominate, manage, handle, or simply trace an issue of such shape and scope. …

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