Debate as a cultural technique: From disputations to conflicts on social media

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A depiction of the Leipzig Debate (German: Leipziger Disputation) from the 1860s

A depiction of the Leipzig Debate (German: Leipziger Disputation) from the 1860s. © Wikimedia Commons

Are we living in a world of lies, as the Süddeutsche Zeitung recently complained in a commentary on Donald Trump’s political communication? Anyone taking a look at social media could indeed be left with this impression in view of the verbal excesses, the emotional comments or the denials of scientifically proven facts to be found there. A new research initiative on the part of the Humanities and the Social Sciences at Münster University is taking a look at these developments. Besides the current consequences of digitalization, the researchers are focusing on bygone ages. They are examining developments both in European and non-European societies, for example in Arab-speaking countries or in Africa. "Cultures of Debate and Media in Transition" is the name of the project, which the Rectorate is funding as a "Topical Program".

The issues cover a wide spectrum: from the development of academic and public debating practices in the pre-modern period, the dialogue undertaken by Arab journals with its readers in the 19th century, to the role of modern art in questioning existing norms and thus sparking public debates. "It’s not possible to speak of a homogeneous type of public or debating culture," says Dr. Barbara Winckler from the Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies, one of those responsible for drawing up the application for funding. There are also, she says, parallel publics or "subdivisions of publics". The project is devoted primarily to the "how" of discussions, in connection with what they trigger in society.

One example which art historian Prof. Ursula Frohne gives is Joseph Beuys’ "Office of Direct Democracy". "Beuys held debates in this office with visitors to the ’documenta 5’ exhibition in Kassel. This was a way of getting democratic processes going by using artistic means." Today, this sort of extension of the concept of ’art’ - and debate as a format - is, says Frohne, more than ever an issue in art.

Sometimes, what is new is not only seen as a welcome change or as progress, but first of all as a danger. With every new media-related technology, critics have always feared a devaluation of existing media and communication practices: printing, for example, would replace manuscripts, radio might stop people from reading, video clips quickly edited together on the internet could destroy the art of the cinema. Poppycock, says Winckler: "There have always been various media existing side by side."

In this respect, it is on the dynamic interactions between new and existing media that the focus needs to be. This sort of communication studies and media studies perspective is also advocated by co-applicant and communications specialist Prof. Annie Waldherr, who now works at the University of Vienna.

"When we ask what influences the processes taking place in a changing media landscape have on the social and cultural fundamentals of debates, this always has a self-reflexive dimension," says Dr. Philip Hoffmann-Rehnitz. He points to current discussions on the change in debating cultures at universities. In science, too, he says, all sorts of supposed dangers are seen for open exchange as a result of the intrusion by new media formats. Before they began with the research itself, the researchers involved thought about definitions. "We made a proposal to define the debate as a specific cultural technique," he explained. This includes, in equal measure, reciprocity (i.e. the mutual nature of exchanges), the role of arguments, and respect for other people involved in a debate, he adds.

The University of Münster’s "Topical Programs" are designed to initiate longer-term research. One argument in favour of further funding for "Cultures of Debate and Media in Transition" is, in the eyes of those involved in the initiative, its marked interdisciplinarity. One important thing is the search for new forms and ways of exchanging views and ideas between the different subjects in the Humanities and the Social Sciences. So far, over 20 researchers are involved from four faculties from Münster and other universities in Germany and abroad, including Brazil and Israel - with representatives from the fields of Theology, Communication Science, Sociology, Political Science, Ethnology, History and Literary Studies. In addition, there are external collaborations, for example with the LWL Museum of Art and Culture in Münster. The subject of the research - in particular its audio and visual aspects - is well-suited to dialogue with the public, as well as public events.

Barbara Winckler points out the role of the graffiti which, during the Arab Spring or the most recent protests in Lebanon, was repeatedly written over and painted over. "There were many references in it to western popular culture, for example the image of the joker." She also looks at present-day literature. "Societies often don’t conduct post-war debates openly," she says. "In political debate in Lebanon, for example, no real appraisal of the civil war there ever took place. Instead, it was literature and art that took on the task."

The project can build on existing structures at the University of Münster, in particular on the smartNETWORK. In this interdisciplinary merger of the Graduate Schools in the Humanities and the Social Sciences, some of those involved have already researched into "Publics and Debating Cultures", and the conference proceedings will be published this year as a book with the same name. The initiators of the project are convinced that their research subject could easily be put on show in a public exhibition. In particular, of course, there is one thing which they would be delighted at: lively debates with visitors.

Brigitte Heeke

Translation: Ken Ashton

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