Hugs, Handshakes, and Theory:
The Civil Sphere Working Group First Meeting
Bernadette Nadya Jaworsky
The complexities and paradoxes of the civil sphere vis-à-vis the other spheres of social life continue to be unpacked by scholars around the globe. The application of CST in different contexts has yielded a number of volumes:
- Solidarity, Justice and Incorporation: Thinking Through the Civil Sphere (edited by Peter Kivisto and Giuseppe Sciortino, Oxford UP, 2015),
- The Civil Sphere in Latin America (edited by Carlo Tognato and J.C. Alexander, Cambridge UP, 2018),
- The Civil Sphere in East Asia (edited by Jeffrey C. Alexander, David A. Palmer, Sunwoong Park and Agnes Shuk-mei Ku, Cambridge UP, 2019),
- Breaching the Civil Order (edited by Jeffrey C. Alexander, Trevor Stack and Farhad Khosrokhavar, Cambridge UP, 2019),
- The Nordic Civil Sphere (edited by Jeffrey C. Alexander, Anna Lund and Andrea Voyer, Polity, 2020), and
- Populism and the Civil Sphere, (edited by J. C. Alexander, Peter Kivisto and Giuseppe Sciortino, Polity, 2021).
Giuseppe Sciortino opened the meeting in Trento with a light-hearted talk about “lessons” he had learned in his engagement with Alexander and CST, including the dangers of theorizing while drinking. Alexander offered a brief historical journey through the evolution of CST, from his Marxist musings about civil society in the 1960s, to the lack of suitable existing theories to explain Watergate in the 1970s, and his time teaching in China just before the events at Tiananmen Square in 1989. After reading the considerable work coming out in the early 1990s on civil society, Alexander felt that something crucial was missing. It would be almost 15 years and nearly 800 pages later that CST came together in a systematic and comprehensive opus published in 2006.
The conceptual and geographical scope of the 22 presentations at the meeting in Trento was exceptionally broad. Fiona Greenland talked about “satellite semiotics” in relation to a case in the International Criminal Court, while Nelson Arteaga Botello illuminated the “semantics of violence” in Mexico and Jessie Dong examined the “performative power” of cinema as a communicative institution. The civil sphere in Serbia was the topic for Ivana Spasic to explore the threshold of a “breaking point” in the country’s fragile democracy, and Elisabeth Becker Topkara spoke of an “uncivil sphere.” The workings of phenomena such as social class, hip-hop, cultural trauma, journalism, and visuality were brought into conversation with CST, building institutional and disciplinary bridges.
Notwithstanding the range and breadth of the individual presentations, the panels were unified by thematic concerns: Past, Memories and Myths in Civil Repair; Violence and Cultural Failures in Unstable Civil Spheres; Making Bridges: Extending Civil Sphere Theory; The Power of Images; Civil Performance and Social Interaction; Communication and Media in the Civil Sphere; and Pains of Incorporation and Pleasures of Exclusion. The shared intellectual concerns of those present made for a rapt audience, with hardly anyone stepping out of their seats.
The capstone experience of the meeting was a magnificent, five-course meal at the restaurant, Cà dei Gobi, sponsored by Alexander. The buoyancy and satisfaction with the entire conference experience was evident, and, ultimately, there were no farewells, just promises to meet in two years to again share hugs, handshakes, and theory. The Second Meeting will be organized by Elisabeth Becker Topkara in Heidelberg, Germany in 2023.
The Civil Sphere Working Group has also announced its Coordinating Committee: Jeffrey Alexander, Bernadette Nadya Jaworsky, Giuseppe Sciortino, Peter Kivisto, Anna Lund, Maria Luengo Cruz, and Celso Villegas. The group has just unveiled its brand-new website: https://www.cstnetwork.org/. Please visit the website to become a member. Dues, which pay for the site hosting and maintenance, are just $19 annually, and $9 for students.
NOTE: The first meeting of the Civil Sphere Working Group was supported by a generous gift from the John Templeton Foundation, and by academic partners in the Department of Sociology & Social Research at the University of Trento (Action, Culture, Meaning and Experience Research Unit, (https://acme.soc.unitn.it/) and the Center for Cultural Sociology at Yale University (https://ccs.yale.edu/).
Radicalism and the Civil Sphere:
A Symposium on Breaching the Civil Order
Last year, 2020, saw the publication of the volume Breaching the Civil Order: Radicalism and the Civil Sphere, edited by Jeffrey Alexander, Trevor Stack and Farad Khosrokhavar. It appeared at a time when many “radical” movements were, and are, breaching global civil spheres, the latter conceptualized as “ . . . a solidary sphere, in which a certain kind of universalizing community comes to be culturally defined and to some degree institutionally enforced...it is exhibited and sustained by public opinion, deep cultural codes, distinctive organizations . . and such historically specific interactional practices as civility, criticism, and mutual respect” (Alexander 2006:31).
Within the framework of Alexander’s Civil Sphere Theory (CST), and working to refine it, the diverse chapters in this volume address the issues of radicalism as political action and how radical movements may expand or threaten the civil sphere. At a session held at the Social Science History Association annual meeting in Philadelphia on November 11, 2021, three critics – Robin Wagner-Pacifici, Chad Goldberg, and Aliza Luft – offered their assessment of the volume, followed by Jeffrey Alexander’s response and discussion.
Presented here are the highlights.
Breaching the Civil Sphere
Robin Wagner-Pacifici (New School for Social Research)
As I read this book on radicalism and the civil sphere in the immediate aftermath of the January 6th insurrection, it was easy to see the breaches rather than the solidarity of the civil sphere. Civil sphere theory’s (CST) “optimistic bias” (Heins and Unrau, Chapter 6), combined with specificity of positive norms and valences such as civility and mutual respect, crash into such breaching, violent actions in the service of retrogressive and regressive causes and aspirations – the uncivil sphere. How to make sense of it?
In contrast to the definition of the civil sphere from Alexander’s paradigm setting book (above and 2006: 31), in this collection we find rioters, rebels, revolutionaries, looters, and insurrectionists engaging in “modes of political action usually condemned” including both violent and ludic action. By historically and culturally situating and contextualizing the many groups and individual actors under examination, the authors make progress on the very question of what constitutes the political and what are its relations with the civil sphere. They argue that breaches and wedges can open the civil sphere up or constrict it. How do we judge? Certain themes loom large.
First, the issue of violence – how to account for it and how to judge it? Violence can be tolerated, even understandable, argue some authors - but is it justified? There are mixed reports: Mexican cartels are a legitimate target of violence, notes Stack in chapter 1, finding “violent disobedience” such as the self-defense movement in Michoacan, 2013-14. But violence has definite limits. Khosrokhavar (Chapter 4) writes: “radical Islamist movement[s’]...strength has always been limited to their heroic capacity to die for their ideas rather than opening up new vistas for togetherness...” (p. 109). Finally, violence can sometimes seem to not really be violence. Tanaka-Gutiez (Chapter 8) poses a counter-narrative: the 2011 English riots were an “act of solidarity by the socially marginalized who lacked access to structures of civil inclusion” (p. 211).
Another theme is of action or inaction on the part of governments and other authorities: There is exercise of power versus non-exercise of power, refusals and banning, lack of journalistic coverage, lack of intervention, printing or not printing controversial images or texts. On the responsiveness side of the binary, Stack notes that the San Andres Peace Accords in Mexico provide an example of the government's “Performance of openness, making violence harder to justify” (Chapter 1: 33).” On the side of withholding a response, Tognato writes about how the university Chancellor Mockus in Colombia “short circuited such performative response by...contending with the militant camp in the dramatis persona of the weak” (Chapter 2: 53). Tanaka-Gutiez describes state authorities doing nothing: “Two police cars are now on fire and the police have just stood there and not done a thing” (Chapter 8: 219). In Chapter 5, Luengo and Ihlebaek discuss the role of the media in reporting and framing actions and reproducing, or not, texts and images, such as those of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons.
A third theme develops consequentially diverse ways of hearkening back to the past, with different implications about expanding or contracting civility. On expansion, Stack suggests that the “Zapatistas appealed to the Mexican Constitution in justifying their rebellion – drawing on a long tradition of Latin American constitutionalist rebels – including the article empowering the people to take power against tyranny” (p. 35). On civil sphere contraction, the editors note that “Regressive radical movements push back against such wedging efforts in order to more tightly bind civil sphere ideals to both the qualities of the founders and already existing or, often previously existing arrangements in noncivil spheres, such as politics and the market” (Introduction: 6).
The final theme I’ve identified is that of the ability and/or tendency of radical groups to change tactics, assumptions, and practices. Khosrokhavar in his chapter on the Arab Revolutions and Jihadism in Europe writes that the mutation over time of the Neo-secularist group, Tamarrod, from the uncivil sphere to the ambivalent civil sphere and back again suggests that groups can change in expansive or retractive directions.
So, forms and practices are important but they are not determinative. Context, situational parameters, and judgment matters. If CST has an optimistic bias, it means that we need to be explicit about our criteria for what political practices can be deemed civil or anti-civil, and self-conscious about our methods of judging whether they are met in any given case before including them in the realm of the civil sphere. Cooke’s characterization of civil disobedience strikes me as singularly relevant: civil disobedience has a “commitment to the normativity of the democratic project – to the general norms of equality, inclusion, inter-connectedness, and self-determining agency that defines it” (Chapter 9: 235)
What Does it Mean to be Radical?
Chad Alan Goldberg (University of Wisconsin–Madison)
The “main question” that Breaching the Civil Order poses “concerns what it means for actions to be considered radical or revolutionary, as opposed … to reformist or restorative” (p. 271). Yet what may be most useful in Civil Sphere Theory (CST) is how it helps us to think beyond this dichotomy.
One way to conceptualize radicalism is in terms of the means used to effect social change. Breaching the Civil Order focuses on “modes of political action” that “disrupt, confront, and subvert political order” (p. 1). However, CST suggests that disruption alone cannot force the civil incorporation of out-groups. Favorable discursive representation and effective civil translation are needed to generate solidarity with out-groups, which is necessary for regulatory intervention and civil repair. This outcome is never guaranteed. But Anne Kane (Chapter 7) shows the importance of interpretive struggles, even in a hard case like Northern Ireland where—because of a highly distorted civil sphere and deadly violence—CST seems least likely to apply.
Alternatively, we can define radicalism in terms of ends. Does radicalism aim to achieve the most inclusive civil sphere possible? That definition leaves out the radical right and its “complex relationship with the civil sphere” (p. 146). Perhaps the most radical challenge to the civil sphere comes from rejectionist movements to withdraw from it. Breaching the Civil Order usefully clarifies different varieties of rejectionism (pp. 4-5, 274-75). As several contributors suggest, rejectionism may lead to the fracturing of the civil sphere or the creation of counterpublic spheres, but this is not sufficient for civil repair (Alexander 2006: 277).
Maeve Cooke (Chapter 9) thinks the term civil repair has “reformist connotations”; she prefers the term civil regeneration (pp. 235, 239). I demur because régénération was used in connection with the civil emancipation of Jews; it implied that Jews (and, by extension, other out-groups) needed to be remade and improved. Surely this is not what Cooke has in mind, though she does argue that ethical self-transformation or conversion (a term laden with Christian connotations) is a prerequisite for “radical transformations in the civil sphere” (pp. 240, 242-43, 246, 253). This linkage of social change to individual conversion has deep historical roots in evangelical Protestantism (Young 2007).
In contrast to Cooke’s language, it seems to me that the term civil repair has affinities with the Jewish messianic tradition. “Jewish messianism embodies two tendencies that are at once intimately linked and contradictory: a restorative current focusing on the reestablishment of a past ideal state, … and a utopian current which aspires to a radically new future.” The concept of תיקון עולם (repair of the world) is “the supreme expression of this duality” (Löwy  2017: 16). The concept of civil repair captures and expresses an analogous duality in CST, which pursues the utopian aspirations of civil society through immanent critique. In this way, it points beyond the rigid dichotomy of reform and revolution.
Radical According to Whom?
Aliza Luft (University of California-Los Angeles)
Breaching the Civil Order is a welcome collection that advances civil sphere theory by looking to the people and powers that challenge it and the circumstances under which change is welcomed, tolerated, or besmirched and violently rejected. I was particularly taken with Heins and Unrau’s chapter on Pegida, a far-right anti-Islam movement in Germany. These authors issue a much-needed corrective to the idea of radicals as external “breachers” of civility: radicalism does not only target the civil sphere from outside, it can contaminate the civil sphere from within. Internal breachers who manipulate existing cultural codes of civility may be uniquely threatening, by my logic, because their positions within the civil sphere endow them with the legitimacy and resources to make their claims heard. Even minority factions can, when powerfully positioned inside the civil sphere, garner outsized attention and spur debate rather than dismissal. They simply need credible connections to others with power to not ostracize but engage them.
With this fruitful adaptation, the authors have sparked the reader’s idea of radicalism. Today, in the U.S., the far-right is promoting a civil society based on “mutual values and feelings of universalism, justice, and equity” (Kane 173, this volume) specific to the cultural codes of White Christian Nationalists (cf. Whitehead & Perry 2020) rhetorically presented as under threat from a “woke mob” that has revealed themselves as internal radicals. Importantly, the majority of Americans do not actually support views associated with Christian Nationalism, yet its preachers’ continued access to communicative and regulatory institutions—a result of their status within the civil sphere—allows them to powerfully shape conversations about civility.
This has real, material consequences, reinforcing the practical power of White Christian Nationalists by leading people to think their views are acceptable and at least minimally civil, deserving of a place at the political decision-making table.
Compare this to the swift reprisals of the powerful toward social movements representing the values and interests of those less privileged in the civil sphere—for instance, the accusations of “incivility” and “disruption” of the Black Lives Matter movement and its claims to greater recognition, material resources, and political access. To be clear, 2020’s protests constituted the largest and broadest movement in American history. But the backlash has been quick, and support for BLM continues to decline. Coupled with the recent acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse, this says a great deal about the orientation of the civil sphere—about its inherent and uncivil inequalities. It also makes it clear that activists kept from their own seat at the table continue to face difficult choices about how to use their limited resources: Should they aim for greater recognition in the civil sphere using the rules and tools of the dominant in order to make change from within, or attempt to organize toward its next iteration by pushing for radical change from without? The question itself is divisive, a breach among potential breachers, that protects the power structures in place.
In this thought-provoking volume, I see a challenge to my discipline to work through old assumptions by incorporating new perspectives. To sit with the concept of radicalism—of what is necessary to breach the civil order—is to inevitably question the fundamental “we” inherent in forming, bounding, and defining civility. This is a question for theory and practice alike, and by engaging the chapters in this volume, we gain a clearer view of the obstacles, cultural and structural, to civil equality in our discipline and beyond.
To Be Truly Radical is to Make Hope Possible
Jeffrey C. Alexander (Yale University)
The subtitle of Breaching the Civil Order, “Radicalism and the Civil Sphere,” is a provocation. Are radicalism and the civil sphere meant to be antithetical, as Robin Wagner-Pacifici seems subtly to suggest in her reference to my original statement of civil sphere theory (CST) in 2006? The subtitle unsubtly shouts back, “no, not at all!”
Radicalism is, not the exception, but the rule for societies with relatively independent civil spheres. Why? Because criticism -- via continuous discursive judgment, erupting social movement, or episodic societalization -- is immanent to the civil sphere’s very construction. Extant norms and institutions declare what the “actually existing civil sphere” is in a particular time and place. But the civil sphere is not only a social fact; it is a utopian ideal of solidarity, one that tightly intertwines hopes for individual autonomy and mutual obligation.
Such universalizing ideals can never be fully realized when they are institutionalized as practices in real civil societies. Institutionalization brings the abstract discourse of civil society down to earth, allowing some freedoms to some actors and encouraging some mutual obligations to some others. Yet, in the very process of making the universal concrete, institutionalization compromises the heady promises of the civil sphere, narrowing and restricting practices that comprise it in the here and now. Institutionalizing the civil sphere creates, in other words, painful strains and endemic dissatisfactions, which is what makes radical efforts to breach (existing) civil order, not only legitimate, but obligatory.
CST is neither order nor conflict theory. The civil sphere is always restless. The relative autonomy of its idealizing discourse means that extant social arrangements are never more than conditionally legitimate, which means, as Aliza Luft rightly suggests, that CST conceptualizes conflict, not as outré, but as part of the civil sphere’s DNA. As Robin and Chad Goldberg both observe, radicalism is not a matter of the means of conflict being violent instead of discursive or the ends of conflict being communist or conservative. Radicalism is a mirror that seeks to compel civil core groups to look at themselves, to dislodge the ideal from the currently existing, to wedge open the compromise formations of actually existing civil spheres to allow civil repair.
A radical movement wins if it can garner performative power, convincing citizen-audiences that it embodies civil ideals more felicitously than its opposition. As both Goldberg and Luft appreciate, Anne Kane (Chapter 7) counter-intuitively demonstrates how the Provisional IRA achieved fusion by framing its violence as civil. Militant but not violent, Black Lives Matter was also powerfully affecting, “construct[ing] public opinion and collective mobilizations around cultural codes of blackness as civil and the police as anticivil” (Ostertag Chapter 3: 72); in contrast, and here I must disagree with Luft, the violence on January 6th, 2021, generated appreciably more civil backlash than identification.
CST is not optimistic, theorizing the dark side of civil sphere dynamics, not only the light (Alexander 2013). But it is hopeful. In contrast with the despairing discourse that animates most modern social theory, CST insists also on conceptualizing civil repair. As Raymond Williams once remarked, “To be truly radical is to make hope possible, rather than despair convincing.” This is the epigraph to our volume.
Alexander, Jeffrey C. 2006. The Civil Sphere. New York: Oxford University Press.
Alexander 2013. The Dark Side of Modernity. Cambridge, UK: Polity.
Alexander, Jeffrey C.; Trevor Stack; and Farhad Khosrokhavar, eds. 2020. Breaching the Civil Order: Radicalism and the Civil Sphere. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Lowy, Michael. (1988) 2017. Redemption and Utopia: Jewish Libertarian Thought in Central Europe. Trans. Hope Heaney. New York: Verso.
Young, Michael P. 2007. Bearing Witness Against Sin: The Evangelical Birth of the American Social Movement. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.