Anders Ekström

Thinking publics, building society: Revisiting the history of the public realm

The overall purpose of this project is to revisit the history of the public realm. The project consists of two parts. The first is thouroughly empirical and develops an original perspective on modern public space through a history of media sociality in the long 19th century. The other is more tentative, theoretical and future-looking, and aims to contribute a structural and historical analysis of the radical displacement of public spheres, values and institutions in post-1989 Europe. The application concerns one year of funding for 1) finalizing a major research monograph entitled Exhibitionary Media: Publics Beyond Representation; and 2) writing an essay on three levels of historical change in post 1989-Europe and how they have conditioned anti-public ideas and current and emerging forms of anti-institutional activism. Taken together, these two international publications will build on and synthesize two major strands of my research: one that is concerned with the history of media and public spaces in emerging modern societies, and especially the 19th century, and another focusing on the balancing of group identities, communities and shared institutions in contemporary Europe. The project includes research visits at the University of Oslo (fall 2021) and the University of Cambridge (spring 2022).
Final report
The aim of this project has primarily been to complete two synthesizing works on the public realm during the long 19th century as well as the changing meaning of publicness in Europe in the post-Cold War period and in the present. The first is a research monograph with the preliminary title "Exhibitionary Media: Publics Beyond Representation" which, based on previous articles, develops a novel historical and theoretical approach to the formation of publicness as a history of media sociality. The empirical basis consists primarily of studies of 19th-century exhibitions in a broad media-historical perspective, with particular focus on issues of physical interaction, sensory formation and educational discourses. The originality of this work lies partly in the fact that it brings together perspectives from several different research fields - media history, audience research, cultural history and public sphere theory - partly in that it develops a longer historical perspective on what the project theorizes in terms of media sociality, focusing on the formation of publics between media and audiences through physical and embodied interaction. The RJ Sabbatical grant has made it possible to collect, revise, edit and in one case translate the previous works and articles that form the basis of the manuscript for the book. It will be published open access with an international academic publisher. Publication is expected to take place in 2024.

The second part of the project, with the aim of developing a historicizing and at the same time forward-looking analysis of changing notions of publicness in post-1989 Europe, was originally intended to be summarized in an essay or journal article. During the course of the project, however, this study has grown considerably and will instead be presented in two short book publications. The first is tentatively titled "Thinking Publics, Building Society: Defining a European Era." It is a historical and theoretical account of the constitution of publicness from the first half of the 19th century and onwards, which argues that the concept of publicness developed in six overlapping clusters of meaning and through different phases of more or less active articulation and criticism. In this comparative historical perspective, the last three or four decades stand out as an era that was shaped by policies of neglect in relation to public institutions as well as increasingly violent forms of anti-public activism in both Europe and the US. The project argues that this development can be understood as the accumulated outcome of three independent and yet mutually reinforcing processes of structural change in post-Cold War Europe and beyond: i) an accelerating process of social, economic, cultural and geographical differentiation, ii) an increased influence of anti-institutional and economic-determinist forms of liberalism, and iii) the emergence of monopolizing infrastructures of communication that were designed to facilitate group-oriented and identity-based forms of belonging.

The project has also resulted in a series of shorter essays, lectures and popular presentations where these themes are developed in a contemporary and less theoretical context. Some of these texts have been collected in a book manuscript for publication in Swedish with the preliminary title "Till offentlighetens försvar: Kunskap och demokrati i ett nytt sekel" ("In defence of the public domain: Knowledge and democracy in a new century"). The manuscript is currently under assessment and publication will probably take place in the fall of 2023. The intention of this work has been partly to summarize and spread knowledge about the project's findings, partly to provide historical context for forward-looking discussions about the historical potential of the public domain as a pervasive institutional and democratic infrastructure in modern and late-modern societies. Together, these two books develop a coherent understanding of the history of publicness in three different time frames, relating the displacement of public values and institutions in contemporary societies to changing conditions for publicness in the last four decades as well as the history of the formation of publicness in the 1830s and 1840s.

An important further development of this part of the project has been a series of essays and articles about the relationship between knowledge and publicness in contemporary society, reflecting on recent and ongoing discussions about post-truth, research and activism, polarization, and the crisis of democracy. This has resulted in articles that discuss university and research policies more specifically, but also broader issues of the relationship between knowledge and public policies in an institutional and historical perspective. The result of this work has been incorporated into the project's book publications, but was also published in scholarly articles, book chapters, newspaper articles and essays for a wider readership.

The RJ Sabbatical grant also made it possible to complete other publications which in several cases deal with adjacent themes. The publication list therefore also includes a selection of other publications that were completed during the project period. The major publications from the project, especially the books on Exhibitionary Media and Thinking Publics, Building Society, will be published open access.

The overall purpose of this project has primarily been to complete and synthesize research that has been prepared over a longer period of time. It has therefore not been a goal to develop new research ideas and initiatives within these particular areas. However, research stays within the framework of the RJ Sabbatical project, mainly in Oslo, Bergen and Cambridge, have strongly contributed to the development of new projects and collaborations in other research areas. These collaborations continue after the RJ Sabbatical on several levels, both through individual commitments, multi-year research projects, and institutional collaboration.
Grant administrator
Uppsala University
Reference number
SEK 1,486,000
RJ Sabbatical
History of Ideas