K ulturwissenschaftliches Institut für Europaforschung
Marie Fabiunke (Mai 2004)
Europe as a public sphere of communication
This conference has the title "European semiospheres". I want to invite you to think Europe as a public sphere of communication as an example of a European semiosphere.
Geographers are unable to define Europe, historians cannot tell us since when Europe exists. But we definitely know that Europe does exist. How can we discern Europe? In what terms can we describe it?
My proposition is to describe Europe in terms of communication.
Europe was historically and is today a dense network of transnational and border-crossing communication. With different motivations and various interests people in this part of the world have been communicating with each other on political, economic, intellectual and cultural matters. Communicating, Europeans have developed ideas and thoughts about Europe - "lŽEurope pensée"- and by communicating this space became an experienced Europe "lŽEurope vécuee" and therefore a space in a like matter intellectual, imaginary and real.
What are the characteristics of a public sphere?
The public sphere is a cultural and social space of common experience and of communicative encounters. It is limited by the private and by the secret sphere - such as in politics or economics for example. Of course, these limits are always relative to the given context.
Despite the fact that there exists a plurality of communication spheres according to the most different interests and functions of communication, they share the same one comprehensive public sphere as an abstract three-dimensional extent of communication in space and time.
What functions does a public sphere assume?
A political public sphere is eminent for a democratic political system. Ideally, it opens a space for free access to information and the possible formation of political opinions and thus the space for public opinions to be built and to be expressed.
The public sphere is a space of self-notification and self-observation of a society that allows social constructions of reality, the consolidation and/ or modification of a societiesŽ values.
Furthermore this sphere exposes a scope for poetic expression and for cultural exchange, in which cultural identities are being created and shaped.
Does a European public sphere exist?
This question has recently performed quite a successful career, both in the scientific community and in the mass media.
But if we understand Europe as a public sphere of communication in the described plurality of meanings we do not have to ask whether or a European public sphere does exist but we have to ask why and how situations of a European public sphere developed and how they can be described and interpreted.
From which perspective can we systematically approach European public sphere?
I want to propose the perspective of communication studies. As public communications is the key research-object, the point of view of this academic discipline seems convenient to approach the question of a European public sphere of communication.
In this perspective we consider the public communication process as the theoretical starting point. According to this we have to focus the aspects of this process - the communicators, the messages, the media, the recipients and the effects triggered -directly or indirectly- by public communication.
But this communication does not take place in vacuum; it must be read in its context of space and time. The public sphere is not a given or static factor, but it is a space that is shaped by permanent definitions, negotiations and interpretations.
Both, the communication process and its context - in their reciprocal interactions- form the characteristics of each situation of public communication.
With this approach we can now face the question of a European public sphere.
How can we describe and interpret European situations of public communication?
To find out about the nature of a European public sphere we can consider historical situations of European public communication and line out their characteristics:
Scenarios of Europeanized public communication commonly built upon a connected transnational network of communication-structures. Sometimes the given structures of mass communication such as the national were integrated in this European network, but in most cases, these scenarios have created new structures and original media, parallel or even against the prevailing media-system.
Moments of European public communication were -and are still today- mainly triggered by political and social events or periods of fundamental change and are hence incidental. Important events could intensify transnational communication or give the necessary impulse to provoke border-crossing communication-processes.
Moreover, a European public sphere often appeared as an authority to be consulted for moral and political claims. On the occasion of international crisis, persons and communities from outside Europe addressed their demands to a European public in order to cause attention in favour of their issues and to provoke a mutual European concern. On the other hand, a European public sphere served as a forum for Europeans themselves to express their values and interests. A European public sphere is thus as recipient and forum for situations of public communication.
After these brief reflections about the traits of the public sphere we can consequently see that situations of a mutually thought and experienced European sphere of public communication only existed in occurrence of distinctive circumstances. Therefore these situations usually soon disappeared in favour of the re-domination of national structures of public communication.
But although the occasions of public communication in a European dimension did not last, we can see these scenarios as an indication for a potential European public sphere and its possible mobilisation.
A European public sphere is at the same time expression, sharing part, constituting factor and interpretation of an idea and an experience of Europe.
So if we want to approach Europe, we have to take a closer look both at the different expressions of Europe in public communication and at the dynamics of communication processes - via mass media- on a European level.
The analysis and interpretation of Europe's communicative realizations opens a perspective to describe and to think Europe - as a space to be defined in terms of communication.