V. Huber u.a. (Hg.): Global Publics. Their Power and their Limits, 1870-1990

Global Publics. Their Power and their Limits, 1870-1990

Huber, Valeska; Osterhammel, Jürgen
Studies of the German Historical Institute, London
423 S.
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Betto van Waarden, Unit for Media History, Lund University

While scholars acknowledge the importance of the public in the politics-media-public triad, it usually gets short shrift in practice. Archives and sources privilege institutional elites, not their publics. This discrepancy is exacerbated by method: historians are trained in qualitative in-depth interpretations of a limited number of such elite sources rather than broad analyses of large publics – let alone on a global scale. Yet the power of the public has expanded in modern history, and cannot be ignored if we want to understand political and media actors. Building on scholarly turns towards reception and the global in recent decades, Valeska Huber and Jürgen Osterhammel historicize the construction of such publics on the global stage. Their timely edited volume, replete with rich ideas, combines conceptual development, methodological reflections, and exemplary case studies to set a bold research agenda on global publics.

Based on a 2015 international conference at the German Historical Institute London, the volume comprises an extended introduction and three parts on staging, mobilizing, and conceptualizing global publics. Topics include female audiences in Asian port cities, the Parliament of the World’s Religions and Vivekananda, Japanese drug trade, reimaging China through sport, human rights in Eastern Europe and Latin America, and UNESCO World Heritage. Among the wealth of insights, common themes emerge. Exploring historical and sociological conceptions of the public, the volume departs from Habermas’s ‘public sphere’, focused on (national) political systems with concrete decisionmakers, to argue rather for a ‘polymorphism’ of ‘global publics’. Huber and Osterhammel offer a broad definition: ‘A global public is a very large group, dispersed transnationally and, mostly, transcontinentally. Its members are, as a general rule, unknown to each other, but share a common focus of attention’ (pp. 16-17). This flexible term captures the multiplicity of interacting and asymmetrical publics operating on a global level. These global publics did not arise organically, but were shaped and structured by political and commercial actors operating on the basis of diverse political, economic, and personal logics. Communication infrastructures and media figured centrally in this process, as discussed in depth in chapters on the press, theatre, and film. While a global public, notably as representative of ‘humanity’ and a court of world opinion, possessed moral authority that states feared, its actual power was limited. Publics were often imagined rather than organized and could not interfere with the sovereignty of states, which might pretend to follow world public opinion while ignoring it in practice. Focusing on the formation of global publics between the communication revolution in the late nineteenth century and the advent of the Internet age a century later, the authors emphasize that global publics are not only an empirical but a normative concept that scholarship co-constructs.

Given the impossibility of engaging with the book’s plethora of ideas on publics, I focus here on conceptualization, periodization, and methodology. ‘Global publics’ may further fragment a conceptual toolkit already abundant with terms such as ‘world society’, ‘cosmopolitan community’, ‘global public conscience’, ‘colonial public sphere’, and ‘global civil society’ - the use of which in literature trumps that of ‘global publics’ Heidi Tworek shows in her chapter (p. 317). Yet the concept’s utility lies in its universalism, the relevance of which will only increase in an ever more interconnected world analyzable through big data. But this inclusivity is partly sacrificed to the subdivision into a plurality of sub publics. While this subdivision is empirically persuasive, could the conceptual appeal and relevance of a singular global public not partially be salvaged? The authors acknowledge that a ‘truly global public’ (p. 2) may have emerged since the 1990s and that a global audience witnessed 9/11 (p. 18), but perhaps we should not give up too quickly on explaining earlier historical phenomena through this prism of a singular global public. Perhaps we could distinguish between a plurality of ‘domain publics’, focused on ongoing social, cultural, and political processes, and a singular ‘event public’ witnessing intermittent global (media) events.

Temporally, the authors connect global publics to the ‘first wave of globalization’ that started in the late nineteenth century. What happens to the argument if we question, as historians of earlier periods do, whether this was indeed only the first globalization? The theatre celebrity culture discussed by Christopher Balme dates to the eighteenth century, and the transnational memories described by Aleida Assmann also resulted from, for instance, the Napoleonic Wars. Abolitionism, a central example in Huber and Osterhammel’s Introduction, largely predates the focus of the book’s argument. Yet unhinging global publics from the long twentieth century strengthens rather than weakens this argument: the relevance of global publics surpasses modern history and thus constitutes a broader contribution to the discipline than the authors give themselves credit for. The argument’s dependence on a twentieth-century globalization is also problematic internally. Gordon Winder mentions the period of ‘de-globalization’ between 1914-1945 in passing (p. 141), but presumably this retraction into national spaces affected the global nature of publics in significant ways. The main argument rests on the global communication infrastructure that emerged around 1900, but this infrastructure collapsed at the start of the Great War and would only reach a similar level of transnationalism again in the 1970s. A tension to be explored here is how the World Wars constituted historical events that affected a worldwide public while simultaneously destroying the infrastructural conditions for shaping such a public.

Methodologically, the book inspires follow-up research. While it appears plausible that there were multiple rather than a single global public - the straw man position that many of the volume’s authors skilfully argue against – the next question for investigation is how these different publics interconnected. Also, generally the publics discussed implicitly fit within a civil society model - they are moderately politicised - but what about the two extremes of a ‘global political public’ and a ‘global non-political public’? International elite newspapers such as the London Times reached global publics that were small but powerful. In defining publics, Huber and Osterhammel distinguish between organized activist ‘associations’ and non-organized passive ‘audiences’ (pp. 16-18), but what about non-organized activist publics composed of individual elite decisionmakers? Politicians were not only the senders but also the receivers of global political communication. Conversely, if we loosen the political dimension, much larger global publics come into view. While the editors briefly mention ‘popular culture’ (p. 3) and global sports and cultural competitions (pp. 26-27), and Xu Guoqi discusses the Olympics and World Cup in relation to China, the elephant in the room remains (largely non-competitive) global entertainment. The vast majority of media content that the vast majority of people consumed was entertainment, even in Goebbels’s Nazi Germany. In contrast to global political publics, these global non-political publics held little formal power but had strength in numbers. Besides hidden political messages, this entertainment may have served indirect political functions. Entertainment could politically pacify or homogenize a global public.

The setup to study global publics deserves attention as well. For the exploratory aim it sets itself, this volume succeeds with a smorgasbord of topics. However, the conclusion that multiple limited publics existed consequently appears as a natural outcome of the traditional historical approach of researchers each investigating a different individual case study. If we want to investigate the true breadth of global publics, and allow for the discovery of a single global public surrounding certain historical events, global historians in the future may need to collaborate in teams in a more ‘symmetrical’ manner like social scientists. They could study a specific global public synchronically and diachronically in a systematic manner rather than different global publics in different time periods. This volume shows that religion, drug trade, sports, human rights, and heritage played roles in the formation of global publics, but how did religion or human rights shape a public truly around the globe and through time – a question impossible to answer for an individual researcher alone?

To provide a sense of what global publics research may look like in practice, I will highlight three individual contributions. Simone Müller sets the scene excellently with her study of how media tycoon James Gordon Bennett Jr. shaped a global public through his proprietorship of the New York Herald. Warning against studying newspapers that are digitized but were read by few people like the New York Times, she focuses on the newspaper that had the highest circulation in the world in the middle of the nineteenth century. By the century’s end, Bennett’s New York Herald expounded a more global vision than William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal, Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, and Adolph Ochs’s New York Times. Bennett achieved this globalism by, unlike these competitors, combining worldwide news gathering and dissemination with the ownership of a global communication infrastructure in the form of his Commercial Cable Company. This globalism was reflected in Bennett’s operation: he ran the New York Herald, along with the Paris Herald (and briefly a London edition) and Evening Telegram, from his Paris home through headquarters in New York, Paris, and London. Based on ‘Bennett’s unresponsiveness towards his readership’, Müller concludes that ‘the Herald’s global perspective was Bennett’s and not that of its readers’ (p. 90). However, if we want to know if readers shared the global perspective of their newspaper, scholars on global publics will subsequently have to incorporate reception research using sources from these readers themselves.

While there has been no shortage of reflections on digital humanities in recent years – historians are schooled in critical reflection rather than methodological experimentation – Heidi Tworek masterfully moves beyond digital evangelism and scepticism to offer a pragmatic way forward. Practicing what she preaches, she starts with a digital literature review that reveals that the term ‘global public’ has been discussed most in health sciences, followed by political science and to lesser extents law and history. She highlights successful ways in which historians can study such publics, noting for example the Republic of Letters Project, Viral Texts Project, and her own research on German news circulation in the American press which countered the idea that British but not German propaganda was successful abroad during WWI. Tworek distinguishes between ‘digitized’ (made digital) and ‘digital’ (text searchable) sources, and warns that uneven digitization skews research results, with interpretations relying disproportionally on the high-quality digitized newspapers of notably Utah, Australia, and New Zealand. Source asymmetry is not new, but gains an additional dimension in what she calls a ‘double politics’: ‘the politics of the sources themselves and the politics of their digitization’ (p. 335). We could even term it a ‘triple politics’, as the difference between public and exorbitantly expensive commercial databases that she mentions also constitutes a politics of access to digitized material. Tworek argues for a digital approach that stays close to the historiography, and for seeing digital history as a tool rather than an identity or field that should be embraced or rejected. For researching the large scale of global publics, including the born digital sources from the 1990s onwards, digital history will be indispensable. I might add that the next steps are integrating the study of the distribution of information with that of its contents and effects, a research endeavour so great that it also necessitates the aid of digital methods; and integrating digital and analog analyses, which have become increasingly divorced by a division of labour in the historical discipline. Throughout her work, Tworek has successfully argued for moving beyond content analyses of newspapers to study the (politicized) communication system, notably news agencies, which shaped that content. Yet recent research on disinformation shows that repetition breeds familiarity and trust in information, even when its falsehood and propagandistic origins are exposed. Put provocatively: if the content rather than its origin determines its effect, then does the source of the information matter? I think it does, but we need to combine digital and hermeneutic analyses of origin, content, and effect to understand how.

Besides Tworek’s methodological operationalization of global publics research, Tobias Werron offers a conceptual operationalization from a sociological perspective. Werron asserts that global publics, broadly defined as the recipients of public discourse, are imagined within a context of international rankings. States compete in fields such as politics, economics, and sports for the ‘soft’ goals of attention and legitimacy in the form of ‘modernity prestige’. ‘Universalized third parties’ such as NGOs, journalists, and academics rank these competitors for global publics, which ‘scarcify’ the attention they give state competitors. Yet behind the front stage of this competition, actors may ‘decouple’ from competitive pressures on the backstage by pretending to compete while continuing business as usual (e.g. signing but ignoring a human rights declaration). This global competition started in the late nineteenth century, with the creation of a global communication infrastructure, global media system, and global time management that synchronized experiences for an international public. Werron’s thesis on international competition is original, and raises the question if global publics also result from its opposite: international collaboration? When I worked at the European Commission, I was surprised how much EU member states cared about the ‘score cards’ the Commission produced and their eagerness to publicize their achievements to an international public. Yet member states seemed similarly motivated to publicly showcase their successful cooperation, particularly vis-à-vis nationalist movements internationally. The annual United Nations General Assembly is perhaps the most publicized global collaboration, and the UNESCO World Heritage Committee analysed insightfully by Andrea Rehling is another example. Werron puts nation-states centre stage again after scholarship decentred them. However, if we place intergovernmental organizations and NGOs, which he categorizes as record-keeping universalized third parties, at the centre stage, the picture changes.

I could not do justice here to the manifold merits and nuances of this fascinating volume, which has set the stage for a new field of research on global publics both conceptually and methodologically. It constitutes an instant classic for specialists and students in political history, media history, and global history. My main critique is positive: at times the authors are too defensive in justifying their approach when its widespread applicability and relevance speak for themselves. In legitimizing his case study on China, Xu Guoqi resorts to claiming a Chinese exceptionalism in its blending of politics and sports before a global public. This exceptionalism is questionable and obscures rather than aids the strength of his argument, which lies in demonstrating a phenomenon that transcended the Chinese context. Even though the last three chapters constitute a de facto outlook on further research, the volume could have used a conclusion to tie the contributions together. The reader is left without a clear take-away message, though that in itself seems the take-away message: there is not a singular concept or method for understanding a global public, but modern history has been defined by a myriad of global publics and their power and limits. The research agenda is set; now it is up to other researchers to embrace it. They would do well to prioritize reception, moving beyond elites’ construction and imagination of global publics and the distribution of media content to listen to the voices of publics themselves in the global politics-media-public triad.

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