Public Life of Ideas Project

The Public Life of Ideas Project resulted in the publication of the book (Babel Unbound: Rage, Reason and Rethinking Public Life, for Wits University Press) that investigates how public engagement takes place today, a time in which old ways of mediating collective life – through dialogue and debate – seem to have collapsed.  All over the world, dialogue seems impossible across partisan politics and religious divides. Many societies appear to have lost the capacity to solve problems through talk, whether confronting local problems or global issues, such as climate change and nuclear proliferation.

In this book, we ask how ideas about mediating collective life emerge, gather force, become potent, enforce or challenge the status quo, hibernate, disappear or get routed. We look at how this has happened historically, and how it happens today. We draw primarily on insights and materials from of South Africa - where these processes are especially sharply etched - for their capacity to speak to global developments.

The book shows the ways in which certain key institutions and processes both facilitate and corral public discussion. These structures – parliaments, media, debating forums, societal institutions – have historically been a major force in democratic societies, often overshadowing a wide range of disparate and sometimes chaotic processes that seek to engage with collective life and societal issues. However, the book goes beyond a focus on such normative processes of deliberation to map and theorise the myriad forms of engagement in public life well outside the formal spaces of deliberation. In doing so, the book explains why traditional ways of mediating collective challenges no longer have the same purchase as they once did, and argues for the importance of understanding and theorising the wider landscape of public engagement.

Researchers met at the APC workshop in November 2016 to present drafts of potential chapters for the book.

The workshop papers, along with further invited papers, were revised for publication in Babel Unbound.

The book grows out of the work of the Constitution of Public Intellectual Life Research Project (based at the University of the Witwatersrand from 2004 – 2007) Concerned with notions of publicness, and the limits of the concepts of the public sphere, publics and counterpublic, that project supported the theorisation of publicness in terms of an ongoing, dynamic space of encounter with discourse, understanding that such discourse need not occur through dialogue between co-present interlocutors, but may unfold in diverse media-scapes, journals and, increasingly, in visual forms.  The work of the Project is featured in the two-part symposium, Exceeding Public Spheres – Social Dynamics, 35(2), 2009 & 36(1), 2010, and in a special edition of Equid Novi 32(3), 2011.] For more on the predecessor Constitution of Public Intellectual Life Project click here.