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Settees, Serenades and Public Spheres, David Barnes

The other week I gave a lecture (the subject of which is not the subject of this blog) at the Universettee. As its name suggests, the Universettee is interested in shifting the seat of learning from the academy to the home – university to universettee. It’s a university of the comfy chair, and takes place in various people’s houses and flats around London. Lecturers are not paid, and neither are those who host the lectures.

Later on in the same week, I attended a concert. We arrived at a house in Hackney, deposited our coats on top of the bed as we would at a party, and were serenaded with Dvorak, Brahms and Schuman in a downstairs room. Interval drinks and nibbles were informal. Again, the event was free. Both evenings had the feel of a party, and involved the free and easy exchange of thoughts and culture in a homely setting.

It seems to me that these groups, events and projects are forming a new kind of public space – or, perhaps, are drawing our attention to the potential of the public space. For the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas the ‘public sphere’ could be a space for the radical renewing of democracy. Free from the atmosphere of oppression and coercion or the pressures of the bourgeois market, the ‘public sphere’ might be an exciting clamour of voices and ideas.
Perhaps – and only perhaps, because I teach in a university and see their essential value – the removing of the pressured culture of the academy can renew a practical and impassioned curiosity. Perhaps the ability to see a concert outside of its normal context – a context that to some extent is historically conditioned and not absolute – allows listeners to truly grapple with the music.

In other words, there may sometimes be a weight of expectation and rarification that hangs in the air of university halls, concert auditoriums, art galleries and the like. This isn’t a call for dumbing down, nor for a kind of hideous mercantilising of all cultural activity, as Peter Mandelson seems intent on pursuing. His proposals to tie university funding to some sort of basic economic performance indicator will kill scholarship, which thrives on the obscure.

What I am saying is that grand spaces – big institutional public spaces – sometimes terrify or oppress. We don’t want to and shouldn’t get rid of these spaces. But sometimes, just sometimes, shifting the centre of gravity can re-energise our engagement with ‘culture’.  Bringing the ‘public sphere’ into the private space once in a while may just enable us to re-evaluate the place and role of ‘culture’ in contemporary Britain.


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