Unbounded Publics: Transgressive Public Spheres, Zapatismo, and Political Theory

CPAA September 2008 Alumni Newsletter
by Amy Karlicker

Richard Gilman-Opalsky“This is an excellent piece of research, and, to my mind, an interesting, normative political proposal as well. Gilman-Opalsky has a solid understanding of his sources, is fair in his criticisms, and has an original approach in trying to go beyond them. He brings together contemporary political concerns and theory in quite a convincing way. I am personally quite persuaded by his attempt to overcome the sway of more abstract varieties of currently fashionable cosmopolitanism, that negative results of which have for example contributed to the present near catastrophic situation of the world (via liberal imperialism).”—Andrew Arato, Dorothy Hart Hirshon Professor of Political and Social Theory, The New School for Social Research

This book is about the public sphere and the various ways it has been theorized as a driving mechanism for social and political change. Public spheres are the places where people come together to actively engage in new ideas and arguments, where collective interests and a collective political will are formed, and where social movements and rebellions get their start. Conventionally, the public sphere has been understood nationally—as a body made up of citizens who gather in particular places and times and who speak to the governments that claim to represent them. But increasingly, in light of debates about globalization, theorists are considering the political possibilities for transnational public spheres. The public sphere is generally discussed in either a national or transnational context. Unbounded Publics argues that there has been and can be a different kind of sphere, a transgressive public sphere, one that exists in both contexts at once.

Power, politics, and people do not always abide by imagined or legally enforced boundaries. Throughout history, various publics have struggled to hold sway—to wield political influence—and often, these public spheres have been simultaneously national and transnational in important ways. The most self-consciously transgressive public spheres have been formed by structurally disadvantaged people—by those excluded from participation, by those with unstable or partial citizenship, and by those who are neglected or marginalized. Gilman-Opalsky’s guiding illustration of the transgressive public sphere in the book is found in the case of the Mexican Zapatistas.

This book is a valuable resource for those interested in political theories of the public sphere, globalization, cosmopolitanism, social movements, and political identity. Moreover, the author argues for a vital new way to think about, discuss, and participate in public spheres today. Without transgressive public spheres, Gilman-Opalsky contends, institutions that function both within and beyond national boundaries grow increasingly unaccountable and elude the democratic steering of the people.

Richard Gilman-Opalsky is assistant professor of political philosophy at the University of Illinois at Springfield