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"What Is the Pakistani Public?" Conference

Conference organized by
Aamir R. Mufti (UCLA), Sadia Abbas (Rutgers)
December 26-28, 2012

Co-sponsored by AIPS, Lahore University of Management Sciences, and US Embassy, Islamabad

"The public sphere” is an important concept of social theory and has become indispensible for our understanding of the transition to modern forms of culture, state, and society. Coined by the German sociologist Jürgen Habermas half a century ago, the concept allowed scholars to explain the institutional settings, the ideological and cultural contents, and the class and gender structure of the rise of “the public” in Western Europe during the great historical transition of the eighteenth-century. It is also a European word that is commonly used in the Pakistani languages? The symposium will address the possibility of thinking about and representing “the public” in the midst of the historical transition that is contemporary Pakistan. How exactly should we understand this transition and the discourse around the public that it produces? How do we fruitfully distinguish it from the European trajectories that scholars in the West take to be normative forms of modernization? The participants—who include scholars from several disciplines (literary criticism, political science, anthropology, sociology, art history, architecture and urban planning), artists, cultural activists, and writers of both English and Urdu—will bring the diverse perspectives of their disciplines and practices to the discussion.

There is no intellectual agenda for the content of the presentations and discussions. But it seems to us that three broad areas of concern are relevant here. The first is the dynamics of socioeconomic class in the constitution of the public sphere. Tied everywhere to the emergence of a middle class, in postcolonial societies like Pakistan the public sphere is especially defined by inequality of access and control. A generation of Indian scholars has spoken of this extreme form of class inequality as “subalternity” in order to distinguish it from class structure in Western Europe. In a whole range of questions concerned with public life in Pakistan today—from women’s rights, to the role of religion and the situation of minorities—the fissure of class runs like a visible seam through the debates and discussions. The second focus will be on the varieties of aesthetic practice that populate Pakistan’s vibrant cultural life in the present moment, from literature in English, Urdu and the other Pakistani languages to music and the visual arts. The recent years of political and social crisis in Pakistan have also been a time of remarkable creative achievement across all these media and forms, with writers, musicians, and artists acquiring success in international cultural circles as much as inside Pakistan. How do we understand the public lives of this diverse aesthetic production and what do we imagine its publics to be? Is the vast mediascape that has emerged in Pakistan in recent years a hindrance or a help to this creative life? The third focus will be on public spheres beyond the nation-state itself. Various publics within Pakistan may be said to belong from time to time, and according to temporary and contingent logics, to the subcontinental, diasporic, Islamic, and even cricketing public spheres. We need to attempt to highlight and analyze how these three sets of issues intersect with each other in the constitution and transformation of a “public” in contemporary Pakistan.

Final Program for the Conference

Final Report from the Conference