Theoretical Preview

The choice of Habermas was the result of a long process of reflection on my own art practice. Many years ago I was inspired by accounts of the Cargo Cults of Polynesia.[1] These cultures had made an imaginative response to the arrival of the white man, imitating Western forms such as cricket or airports to attract Western wealth or 'cargo'. As we know, the spread of white culture across the world has been highly dominative and destructive of indigenous cultures. It seemed that the people who adopted 'Cargo' strategies had enough flexibility in their traditional cultures to invent rituals of adaptation to these radical changes and that these new rituals and artworks helped them to survive momentous changes. Other societies, which were more rigidly bound to tradition, were often wiped out. To an artist in England who was interested in interventionist public art and social change, the Cargo Cults offered an inspiration.[2]

My main theoretical insight from this was that culture, in some of its most useful forms, acted as a set of discourses which could both evaluate changing conditions and re-evaluate persistent problems, and at the same time provide rituals or processes of adaptation.[3] It was not just individual artworks that were important but the socio-cultural processes within which they occurred.

The other powerful influence in coming to my choice of interpretative framework was that democracy seemed to be the most important and hopeful world trend. Our mass media seems unable to predict or represent this trend which, time after time, seems to surprise us. In the 1970s we had no sense from our daily newspapers that Soviet sponsored state communism in Poland could end. Then, seemingly out of the blue Solidarnosc arose, ten million strong and overturned everyone's expectations, producing an amazingly peaceful transition from totalitarianism to democracy.[4] The end of Apartheid in South Africa had a similar effect. Reading the media one was convinced apartheid would not change 'in one's lifetime'. Suddenly apartheid was breathtakingly consigned to the dustbin of history - again without widespread bloodshed and in a relatively short space of time.[5] How does such a widespread action become current, gain legitimacy and achieve such widespread co-ordination of action?

Prior to the American Revolution and the subsequent French Revolution, democracy as we understand it today existed nowhere. Now there are democratic states on every continent and region. This tendency towards democracy is one of the central narratives of modernity.[6] The question is, did the processes I was involved with, often working with groups of other politically motivated artists, contribute to a wider democratising process? Did our activity contribute creative perspectives to the future choices available to humanity?

I had recently studied Michel Foucault's ideas on power and discourse, and Pierre Bourdieu's theories of cultural capital and taste. I then read some lesser-known philosophers of the American tradition, like Richard Shusterman. Shusterman was one of the few philosophers offering a defense of popular culture on the grounds of aesthetics.[7] This process led me to Jurgen Habermas' theories of communication, which had had little attention from art or cultural theorists.[8] A possible reason is that the form of his arguments, their literary style, does not provide the creative stimulation provided by such theorists as Deleuze and Guattari.[9] However, Habermas' project seemed to be most relevant to my concerns. His theory also looked more thorough, comprehensive and coherent than anything comparable.

Habermas had been thinking about how we form kinds of rational consensus that provide a secure base for democracy and at the same time expand our conception of democracy from the very limited power sharing that is achieved by a defining praxis focused on voting and representation.

The Theory of Communicative Action (TCA) was first published in Germany in two volumes in 1981. This theory is profoundly hopeful - it recognises the knowledge and communicative competencies that reside in ordinary discourses - the task of theory is to give these implicit knowledges and processes of communication a theoretical exegesis which would allow them to become centre staged in our politics. He argues that the potential for transcendent rationality resides in the validity base of everyday speech, rather than just in literary discourses and from here we see that his epistemic goals are profoundly democratic.[10]

How can processes of cultural production, whether Cargo rituals or Exploding Cinema, be shown to be central to the formation and legitimation of collective thinking that must underpin a more inclusive concept of democracy?



[1] I was first inspired by the Cargo Cults through the work of Julia Blackburn in 1979. See Blackburn's, The White Men: The first response of aboriginal peoples to the white man, (Orbis 1979). This led me to the seminal book by Peter Worsley, The Trumpet Shall Sound: A study of 'Cargo' cults in Melanesia,  (Mackibbon & Kee 1968 orig. 1957)

"As social tensions build up... action of any kind is a relief. At one level this relief is gained through the performance of large-scale social tasks such as gardening or building Cargo houses...  Catharsis is gained from the actions of motor behaviour which spread throughout the community as if by contagion." (Worsley 1957 p249)


[2] Some of my own work attempted a contemporary version of such rituals of adaptation. See 'Emigration Ritual' in Hull Time Based Art's book, Out of Time Edited by Andrea Phillips, (HTBA 1997 section 01:16/7)


[3] Discourse usually refers to the kind of written and published exchanges that constitute formal Western Knowledge. See: Sara Mills' Discourse (Routledge 1997), for a concise summary. Here I am extending its use to include non-verbal cultural communications and a wider definition of knowledge. See: Peter Worsley's Knowledges (Profile Books 1997)


[4] I was involved in the London Solidarnosc 'Solidarity Campaign' in the early Eighties. See: For Our Freedom and Yours: a history of the Polish Solidarity Campaign of Great Britain 1980 - 1994, ed. Giles Hart (Polish Solidarity Campaign London 1995). For the background to Solidarnosc see: Peter Raina, Political Opposition in Poland, 1954 - 1977 (Poets and Painters Press London 1978). For an on-the-spot account see, The Strike in Gdansk, edited and translated by Andrzej Tymowski (Don't Hold Back Press USA 1981)


[5] Nelson Mandela's Long Walk to Freedom, (Little, Brown & Co London 1994)


[6] Anthony Arblaster's Democracy second edition (O.U.P. 1996 p6)


[7] Richard Shusterman, Pragmatic Aesthetics: living beauty, rethinking Art, (Blackwell 1992)


[8] My early literature searches (1997) revealed that although the theories of Habermas were taken up in research in the areas of Education and Politics few papers or thesii were appearing that applied his thinking to culture and the Arts.


[9] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari are known for two monumental and labyrinthine works: Anti Oedipus: capitalism and schizophrenia, (Viking 1977) and A Thousand Plateaus, (Univ. of Minnesota 1987 orig. 1980)


[10] In his recent major work, Between Facts and Norms: contributions to a discourse theory of law and democracy (Polity Press 1996), he tests these basic theories against existing legislative frameworks.