EssaysIn DepthMedia & Publics

Overhearing in the Public Sphere

1. Overhearing, intruding, my interview & Goffman

I was once invited to speak at a conference in Sigtuna, near Uppsala, in Sweden. The conference dealt with religious sociology and a few clerics were present. One of them was a famous Danish Imam, Abu Laban. He had ignited what came to be known as the Danish scandal of the Mohammed Cartoons (Favret-Saada 2007). I had exchanged a few words with him and was being interviewed by a Swedish newspaper. Abu Laban was seated nearby. In fact, he listened to the interview. Sometimes he nodded. Sometimes he smiled. I could hardly object to his presence without being rude. But then, the Imam started answering the questions that were put to me.

Although I do not remember how I reacted, what happened on that day illustrated a fundamental distinction established by Erving Goffman, between the “ratified” listeners of a verbal exchange and those who just happen to be there.

Being present and technically able to hear everything that is said does not make you a partner in a conversation. Unless “ratified” as a listener, you are just “overhearing.” An implicit protocol expects overhearers not to listen, since listening would amount to a form of eavesdropping. As to intervening, it clearly establishes that you have been overhearing and constitutes an additional transgression. Intervening takes overhearing one step further. It is, and was in the case of the Imam and me, an intrusion.

I believe that Goffman’s distinction between ratified participants and overhearers can be transposed on a larger scale, concerning those conversations societies hold with themselves under the name of “public sphere.”

2. Destabilized public spheres

Our vision of the public sphere is predicated on the implicit model of a conversation between a given nation- state and the corresponding civil society, with central media connecting centers and peripheries. This geography of centers and peripheries has been submitted to many waves of destabilization. After having been structured for a long time in national terms and dominated by central television organizations, public spheres have grown in a number of directions, most of which involve a post-national dimension. Three such directions are particularly significant.

First, mega television networks offer world audiences vantage points that are, in fact, nationally or regionally inflected (Al Jazeera, BBC World, TV5 Monde, CNN International etc.), but aim at publics much larger than nations. In this case the model of national television is relativized from above. It is challenged by supranational television.

A second challenge emanates from the new media. Digital public spheres subvert national space through decentered interactions often described in terms of rhizomes, networks or capillarity. In this case, the national model is relativized from below.

A third challenge comes from television broadcasts that cater to immigrant populations and help in constructing or reconstructing spectral communities, disappeared nations, forgotten empires, actual diasporas. These “transnational” televisions broadcast their programs across national borders. The national model is challenged here by the multiplicity of centers catering to the same peripheries. It is challenged sideways (Dayan 2009). Together these three challenges have resulted in a profoundly transformed situation.

The displays offered in the mediated public sphere were meant to be part of a conversation between state and civil society. The partners of this conversation keep changing. Some partners disappear. New ones emerge. Digital media allow debates within civil society. Simultaneously, the combination of supranational and transnational media is no longer addressing what Goffman would call a “ratified” partner (Goffman I981).

A concerned public was cast in the role of that “ratified” partner. But what circulates today on television screens is available to publics that are not concerned at all. These publics belong to countless societies. They cannot possibly be the “ratified” partners of all the conversations they routinely witness. In such a context, world spectators willy-nilly occupy a position that used to be that of eavesdroppers. New media configurations have placed them in a position of overhearing the deliberations of others.

This does not mean that public spheres are no longer providing an arena for debate. In fact one could speak of two spheres imbricated in each other. The first is the classical public sphere, the site of a conversation of a society with itself, the site of a critical interaction between civil society and the state. The second is incredibly larger. But is it devoted to any conversation at all? Would I be correct in characterizing it as a public sphere of overhearing? Of eavesdropping? Of spectacle?

 3. Breaking into a public sphere, Putin speaks to the French

Take the case of Gerard Depardieu. He is a famous actor who belongs to the small group of the very rich Frenchmen whom the present government expects to pay 75% of their income in taxes. Depardieu could escape this enormous taxation by doing what other French millionaires do: fleeing to England, Belgium, or Switzerland. But Depardieu does not simply wish to escape taxation. He wants to protest it. In an open letter to President Hollande, he announced his decision of returning his French passport. This theatrical gesture is very much in line with some of his most famous parts (“Jean Valjean,” “Cyrano de Bergerac”). An expert at bravado antics, Depardieu recently urinated in public when denied access to an aircraft’s toilet. Returning his passport is a gesture meant to influence the French public opinion.

But Depardieu is “overheard.” Russian President Putin has scores to settle with the French government (support given to the Syrian opposition; visa requirements for Russian nationals; protests after his violent silencing of the “Pussy Riot” singers). Putin grants Depardieu a Russian passport, which he ceremonially hands over to the actor during a much-publicized encounter in Sochi on January 7th, 2013. Putin’s gesture is of course meant to impress the Russian public sphere. But it is also directed towards the French public sphere. In other terms: A French debate is overheard by a foreign politician, and this foreign politician invites himself into the debate.

Knowledge gathered by “overhearing” a national conversation is used by an outsider to break into that conversation. Terrorist leaders excel at this. Bin Laden made a point of addressing the American nation over the head of its leaders, and the attacks on Madrid’s Atocha station took place just before the Spanish national elections. As in the case of my Swedish interview, uninvited participants are forcing their way into an ongoing conversation. They are not ratified participants. Do they need to be?

4. Is it absurd to speak of overhearing and intruding?

“No,” says Habermas’ disciple Jean Marc Ferry (Ferry I989). Concerning ourselves with events that are likely to have no impact on our lives could illustrate the philosophical norm of a rational, impartial and potentially infinite public, a public that is large enough to encompass the whole of humanity. Why should a “public” sphere stop being public as soon as one crosses the boundaries of a nation state?

The notion of ‘public’ is part and parcel of the definition of a public sphere. Note that the public in question in no way limits itself to one nations’ electoral body. It rather includes all those who are susceptible of receiving and understanding messages that are circulated throughout the world. Virtually, this public amounts to the whole of humanity … One could describe the public sphere as the medium in which Humanity offers itself in spectacle to itself.

And Ferry adds:

This means that the ‘social public sphere‘ in no way conforms to the national borders of each civil society … It is not merely the site of a communication between each society and itself, but rather the site where different societies communicate with each other.

Ferrys point consists in reiterating a philosophical postulate. The public of the public sphere encompasses the whole of humanity. This is true if one sees the global public sphere as embodiment of universalism. Yet the reality seems more prosaic. Of course civil societies that are politically “contained within the confines of nation states,” can “easily penetrate each other.” Is such interpenetration a sign of universalism? Is it devoid of antagonism between nations or groups of nations? Does it involve the sense of a common good? Is Putin’s splashy gesture a contribution to a debate? Or is it just a blow? Is the universal public invoked by Ferry gathered around a boxing ring?

5. Is it equally absurd to speak of spectacle?

Once again Ferry disagrees. When he describes the public sphere as “the medium in which humanity offers itself in spectacle to itself,” he adds:

The word ‘spectacle’ might … lead to a misunderstanding. The public sphere is not to be reduced to a mere spectacle, be it of images or words. It also calls on discourse, on commentary, on discussion. It aims for a ‘rational’ purpose of elucidation.

Ferry sees the supranational public sphere as one that promotes ‘rational’ elucidation. I would suggest that speaking of spectacle is the result of no misunderstanding. Of course, some events have international consequences. Some societies are so central that whatever happens in their midst might influence all other societies. Yet there are cases in which chances of a local event having relevance to the life of other societies are indeed very slim. Why then would the media of these other societies report on this event? When the media invites you to look at “the life of others,” are they always performing a ‘rational’ exercise?

Strictly speaking their reporting is not a matter of overhearing, since the media explicitly calls for your attention as a member of a given society. Yet if this attention leads to no relevant debate, wouldn’t it be correct to define the display that calls for it as a spectacle?

Boltanski notes that those you see taking part in distant events are routinely cast as victims, perpetrators, saviors, rescuers (Boltanski 1999). In this way, the watched world becomes a succession of moral fables. Watching them is justified in the name of information (the “public’s right to know”), but also in terms of a moral endeavor (each fable provides a villain). The main issue at hand is not: Why should I watch this?’ (Does it concern me?). But: Who is the villain? A Manichean grammar transforms a public sphere of “overhearing” into a “moral” public sphere; one which does not call for debate, but for applause or booing. Is applauding or booing a matter of rational elucidation?

Remember WikiLeaks? WikiLeaks celebrated itself as a victory of democratic transparency, a tribute to the “public’s right to know.” But what was made visible was often unsubstantial. The exchanges revealed in the divulged diplomatic cables were moderately “devious.” Like most conversations, they were based on trust and confidentiality, and thus vulnerable to exposure (Brooks, 2010). Many of the alleged scandals involved no more than the dubious thrill of eavesdropping on someone else’s conversation. Without much to condemn, “surveillance” was simply another name for bad manners. Yet WikiLeaks was promising a spectacle of moral turpitude. Is the accumulation of such spectacles the instrument of “elucidation” that Ferry describes? Or is it an instrument of obfuscation?

I admire Ferry and like the type of public sphere he advocates. But saying it is desirable is not the same as saying it exists. For the time being the choice seems one between the Charybdis of overhearing and the Scylla of spectacle. The question is: With what sorts of media could we bring Ferry’s desirable public sphere into existence?

6. Robert Merton and butterflies

The exploitation of overhearing by determined intruders, as well as its “mise–en scene” by those who want to present it as an ethical endeavor are conspicuous, yet less important than the phenomenon of overhearing itself. I would like to conclude on one last point.

By reaching unexpected viewers and listeners, any conversation in any public sphere is doomed to entail consequences that are not only unintended (what the French callperverse effects”), but also unpredictable (what we now know as “butterfly effects”). “Overhearing” is no longer one of those quirky objects that met Goffman’s insatiable curiosity. Whether it is exploited by the virtuous or the ruthless, it has become a structuring factor in the interaction of public spheres. Merton’s study of unintended consequences was prophetic.



Goffman , E. (1981). Footing. In Forms of Talk. Phila, U of Pennsylvania Press, pp. 124-159

– Ferry, JM. « les Transformations de la publicité politique ») in Ferry, Dayan & Wolton, eds. le Nouvel Espace Public. Hermes 4 I989 ; I5 :27

–Favret Saada, Jeanne (2007) Comment provoquer une crise mondiale avec 12 petits dessins. Paris. Les Prairies Ordinaires

–Dayan, Daniel (2009). « Sharing and Showing: Television and monstration »The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science , September 2009 vol. 625 no. 1 19-31

–Brooks David (2010) « The Fragile Community » The NY Times

–Boltanski, Luc (1999) Distant Suffering, N Y – Cambridge University Press

Daniel Dayan

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