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Uploaded by : Lauren Pearson | 05/18/09

Graffiti: The language of the Proletarian Public Sphere

In her exceptional forward to Oscar Negt and Alexander Kluge’s Public Sphere and Experience: Toward an Analysis of the Bourgeois and Proletarian Public Sphere, Miriam Hansen links the German 1970s, the decade when the book was first published in Germany, to the 1990s, the decade when it was first translated and published in English, in an attempt to contemporize the material for the English speaking reader. She praises the 1992 edition as one of the first publications to rejoin the fractured political and cultural Left since their spilt as a result of the formation of identity and sexual politics, multicultural and post-colonial studies. After reading Hansen’s forward and beginning the first chapters of Public Sphere and Experience, any reader would remember her initial words: “How dated is it? How German is it?”

Oscar Negt and Alexander Kluge met at the Frankfurt School in Germany during the time of the student revolt and the crisis “between Critical Theory and social practice” (Negt was an assistant to Jurgen Habermas and Kluge was a disciple of Theodor Adorno). While both were successful in their respective professions, they had one core commonality: the problem with an articulated social experience in the heavily debated public sphere. Public Sphere and Experience both “assumes and revises” Habermas’ groundbreaking Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. To paraphrase Hansen, Habermas grounds two key notions about the public sphere in his work. The first is being the reconstruction of the public sphere as a historical category, linked to both the eighteenth century bourgeois society and liberal capitalism. Secondly, his work clearly defined the public sphere as a fourth and separate category outside of the traditional spheres of the state, the marketplace and the family. Negt and Kluge depart from this model through the differentiation of the public sphere as an unstable diverse meeting place of political and economic constituencies. In other words, they deny that the public sphere is a singular (homogenous) and stable entity, and instead define the public sphere as an “aggregation of phenomena that have quite different characters and origins” Defining the public sphere are heterogeneous, they in turn create another mode of experience defined as the proletarian public sphere or counter public sphere. In short, the proletarian public sphere acts in polar opposition to the traditional bourgeois public sphere by the very fact that “the question of what constitutes a counterpublic cannot be answered in any singular, foundational manner but is a manner of relationality, of conjectural shifts and alliances, of making connections with other publics and other types of publicity…to identify points of contiguity, of overlap, among diverse and disparate counterpublic projects”. Hansen continues, “While Habermas' notion of public life is predicated on formal conditions of communication (free association, equal participation, deliberation, polite argument), Negt and Kluge emphasize questions of constituency, concrete needs, interests, conflicts, protests and power”. The counter public sphere is thus the ‘counter concept’ to the bourgeois and industrial forms of publicity, created during the rips and fissures of history, as alternative, autonomous spheres of experience. “Their concerns overlapped in the question of how social experience is articulated, by which mechanisms and media, in whose interest and to what effect a social horizon of experience is constituted.” While the public sphere of production relies on the media to produce a form of experience (TV, Press, visual and non-visual information), the proletarian public sphere relies on a use-value, when social experience uses itself within itself. The proletarian public sphere is a site where people can come with their personal experiences and make sense of them by relating to others who have their own experiences. What is most striking is that the idea of the proletarian public sphere and experience is founded on an individual’s subjectivity, how the ‘public’ formed through its relationship with the ‘public’. In short, it allows for the individualization of the proletarian while still being connected to the larger public sphere. The proletarian public sphere ‘is the only form of expression that links members of society to one another by integrating their developing social characteristic”.

How then is this relevant to the German 1970s? Hansen cites the fractured historical legacy in Germany during the 1970s, a decade she describes as ‘disjunctioned’. She cites many events that contributed to this growing disjunction, most notably the death of Theodor Adorno, the collapse of the student movement, the very public death of a well-known terrorist organization, a growing women’s movement and the ‘discovery of the political in the personal’. These groups were straining the seams of the bourgeois public sphere that simply could not accommodate these strikingly different groups. By conceptualizing a counter public sphere, Public Sphere and Experience allowed for a “conceptual framework through which a number of diverse movements could identify and generalize their concern” outside of an orthodox Marxist reading.

As Hansen explores the German 1970’s she simultaneously links the American 1990’s with similar movements of uprising and fracturing. She focuses on the political eruptions that occurred in America, the explosion of the AIDS activist movement and formation of identify politics and multicultural studies. She draws particular attention to the American ‘culture-wars’, where Federal funding was severely cut to the arts in the early part of the decade, as a result of the implementation of a hierarchy in the culture sphere defined by Congressional leaders. The point in focusing on the relationship between the 1970s and the 1990s, beyond why Negt and Kluge’s book is persistently relevant in shaping our notions of the ‘public’, is that both of these key decades founded a collective resistance to the ruling bodies and persist in influencing forms of contemporary resistance. Hansen quotes Kluge at the onset of her forward, “the public sphere is the site where struggles are decided by other means than war” ; this paper will attempt to visualize these struggles on the walls and streets of everyday life, as a language for the proletarian public sphere.

A language for the Proletarian Public Sphere

What is most striking about the counter public sphere is that “historical fissures-crisis, war, capitulation, revolution, counterrevolution – denote concrete constellations of social forces within which a proletarian public sphere develops”. In essence, from the rips and tears in the fabric of history, a new language emerges – a language of resistance. If a language is resisting the larger ruling body, its distribution must be subversive and underground. In essence, graffiti can be thought of as a physical manifestation of this desire for a language for the proletarian public sphere.

Before this idea is expanded, it is necessary to ground graffiti as a counter-language that would aid the counter-movement. To return to Negt and Kluge’s book, they first describe language as part of the social hierarchy that constraints and exerts control “in a purely technical manner”. They link this to the relationship between the public and private, how one becomes social, and how our experiences form. These experiences are linked to the modes of production that we find in the mass media system, the system that sets the standard for the commodity production. “These patterns are mistaken for and interpreted as products of the collective will, as is the actual relationships, which have only been acquired retroactively, were based on this will". They analyze this social hierarchy more complexly in the section titled “Language Barriers” where the German educational system is conceptualized as a mechanism for social exclusion, one where upper class children are more capable to communicate in ‘high German’ and therefore able to advance socially, while the working class children use language as simply a means to interact within their own social structure. Thus the children “are subjected to this mechanism [of exclusion] without them being able to comprehend it”. In turn, the working class children participate in a coded language, one which concretes their social status. Outside the educational system, the worker uses language not through an abstract intellectualism but through a system of associations, where language is more of a ‘tactile’ system, a way to confirm “objects and other people”. Using language as a non-abstract, non-theoretical, tactile tool allows the worker to function in the everyday, but excludes him vernacularly from official functions such as union or community meetings, court appearances and the like.

Language and vocabulary are visited again towards the end of the book in the section “Vocabulary and Proletarian Public Sphere”. Negt and Kluge discuss the Chinese Cultural Revolutionary writer, Lin Piao, who said that language and vocabulary should be “toughened and improved by revolutionary practice”. First, language should incorporate words created in the mass public, as the language of the everyday, not the language reflected in the educational system. Secondly, language should integrate words taken from the party, “e.g., alienation, system of exploitation, in accordance with the law, oppression, exchange, consiciouness, investigation”, to expand on the richness of language that is realized in the everyday, that then reflects a social totality. “This process, a permanent expansion of language, corresponds to a public sphere whose main object is the masses’ appropriation of their own prehistory”. Therefore, the very language that excludes and alienates the worker in the bourgeois public sphere aids and enhances the worker/revolutionary in the proletarian public sphere. In other words, the coded language that the proletarian child uses in school, is the same language that the proletarian uses in his everyday, which is thus incorporated into the language during times of revolution (crisis, fissures, rips in history) that expand the richness of the official language. While this analysis is grounded in the vernacular, we must associate the ‘everyday language’ appropriated during times of revolution and crisis, to include a visual manifestation.

Technically defined, graffiti is a set of drawings or writings that is typically spray painted, scratched or drawn on any public wall, surface or place. Defined by governmental organizations, graffiti creates an atmosphere of neglect and decay, which in turn promotes and encourages criminal activity. In the culture spheres, graffiti is considered an art form by those who practice, study and admire it. Graffiti consists of a set of codes, inclusive of ‘tags’, or artist’s pseudonyms. Graffiti alerts groups to territorial boundaries, social codes and practices. It incorporates popular images and slogans just as much as their images, phrases, graphics and colors filter back into popular culture. In essence, graffiti is a complex language, filled with an even more complex system of codes, names and practices, all part of a particular counter public, representative of their respective time and place.

Dr. Frances Stracey, in her article “Situationist Radical Subjectivity and Photo-Graffiti” published in Photography and Literature in the Twentieth Century in 2005, explores the ‘radical subjectivity’ found in Situationist graffiti during the time of the student uprising in Paris 1968. As the Situationist’s ideas and motivations are founded in the Frankfurt School’s teachings on reification and commodity fetishism, I believe a valid jump can be established from Germany and Negt and Kluge’s book, to 1968 France shortly before Public Sphere and Experience was published. While Stracey’s article focuses on the importance of the actual photographs of the May 1968 graffiti, her discussion on the Situationists and their use of graffiti in the Sorbonne and around Paris during the student uprising is important to address here. To start, one must look at Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle where in 1967 he perceived that society faced “a reification of all social relations (including communication) under capitalist conditions of production, hereby all that was once directly lived had been reduced to its abstract representation. From this perspective, language, understood as a living moment of creative communication, had all but been killed by its reduction to the quantitative and cold exchange of blunt formulas or ready-made information”. In other words, language that emerges from reified social relations is, in Negt and Kluge’s terms, part of the bourgeois public that alienates the proletarian through the language barriers that were built to exclude. Stracey writes that “it was this sense of graffiti as a trace of an outsider that the Situationists championed and interpreted as an attempt to re-territorialize public space from below, on behalf of the marginal and excluded”. The Situationist graffiti, acting as a reterritorialization of public space, could be interpreted as a new language that emerged from the crisis of the student uprising. Thus it is part of the counter public sphere, which in turn is the visual manifestation of the ‘everyday language’ appropriated during times of revolution and crisis. The ‘outsider’ is the one outside of the traditional public sphere (the bourgeois public sphere) that solidifies this new language on the walls and streets in order to incorporate the new revolutionary vocabulary into the vernacular.

The Situationists used a method called ultra-detournement, an expansion of the Letterist’s method of detournement, which was “a strategic form of everyday intervention and reterrortialized, graffiti was also exemplary of ultra-detournement…now extended to operate in everyday social life, where for example the meaning of bodily gestures, words, clothing or architecture, would all be subjected to a playful reappropriation and subversive overturning”. Therefore even words that were once part of the bourgeois vernacular could be reappropriated in the act of graffiti, subverted and thus practiced in the counter public sphere. As the structure of language is appropriated in the proletarian public sphere, graffiti can serve at once to both subvert established vocabulary and to incorporate new words that appear in the proletarian ‘coded’ language.

During the student uprising in May 1968, the Situationists inscribed on the walls of the Sorbonne and other State building slogans such as Vivre sans temps mort - jouir sans entraves (Live without boredom - enjoy without chains) or Soyons cruels! (Be cruel!) or most famously ne travaillez jamais (never work!) attributed to Debord himself. Those not part of the uprising during 1968 would have read the graffiti and perhaps equate the visual writings on public walls to delinquency and the meanings of the words to laziness and cruelty. On the other hand, those individuals that were part of the collective counter public sphere could have read those same slogans on the walls of the buildings they infiltrated and would collectively understand the coded words of resistance and revolution. The graffiti of 1968 is particular to the student uprising in Paris, for it encapsulated 1) the sentiment of both the worker and student protestors, 2) the influence of the Situationists during the uprising and 3) the reterritorialization of particular University buildings, from official state educational system to an enclave for revolutionaries. While these slogans could be used in other counter culture movements later on, they would be appropriations of the originals, lacking the momentary power they held in 1968.

Another example of the formation of a counter public sphere from 1968 is from the former nation of Czechoslovakia. In the spring of 1968, the county’s Communist Party took over the media outlets from the Soviet block. Freedom of speech acts were passed as well as economic and political reforms. This time became known as the “Prague Spring”. In August of that same year, the Soviet army invaded and occupied Prague. The citizenry formed a civilian resistance that held up for eight months under the Soviet occupation. As the civilian resistance had no arms, no money nor military training, they used revolutionary tactics: throwing rocks, graffiti the city walls and staging human roadblocks. Within days of the invasion, the civilian resistance painted over all the city’s street signs and destroyed all the official maps of the city. This act of graffiti deterritorialized the city from the occupiers back into the hands of the citizens. Only those who knew the city streets could maneuver, leaving the army and tanks to wander aimlessly throughout the city for days. This act cemented the language of the counter public sphere during the time of resistance as the painted signs remained on the city wall throughout the occupation. This allowed the language to persist, to reach more members of the resistance, and became a sub-language that the occupiers could not comprehend, which in turn became the everyday language during the occupation.

While there are many examples of graffiti as a sub-cultural language resisting occupying forces, it is important to return to Germany and look at the pre-1989 Berlin Wall. One hundred miles of the western side of the Berlin Wall was, one point, nearly covered with layers of graffiti. This graffiti manifested in many forms, political slogans, graphic and decorative pieces, frustrated pleas to tear down the wall and individual statements from different artists. (At certain locations such as Potsdamerplatz, Checkpoint Charlie, Brandenburg Tor, the graffiti changed the Berlin Wall from a somber emblem of division to a subversive tourist attraction.) Interestingly, the ‘liberated’ Berlin and the West Berlin Wall was the site of graffiti, while Communist Berlin and the East Berlin Wall, was separated from the people by the notorious ‘no man’s land’, the strip of land between the wall and guard towers. In the divided Berlin, both cities sought to form an identity. “The characteristic mixture of mass and void, history and destruction, the coexistence of historical form and radically altered reality exists nowhere else as it does in Berlin…the island like-situation of West Berlin seemed to provoke questions of identity” . This search for an identity manifested visually on the wall. Phrases calling for “no more wars…no more walls” or “This is but one alter in the church of hate” or “LIVE KUNST” or simply ‘Together". As an island-city, West Berlin was the most-western city in the world surrounded by Communism. Thus their location provided their identity more than other governing factor. The slogans of peace and togetherness were manifestations of their location in the world, for what their location represented. In East Berlin, while the Wall itself was restricted, there were other locations where artists and dissidents could infiltrate and settle. Most notably these were abandon buildings in the Mitte district. These building soon began to be consumed with graffiti on the inside walls. While it is difficult to find photographs of pre-1989 ‘graffiti-buildings’, the inside walls were literally covered inch by inch, in similar fashion to the Western Berlin Wall. The frustrated writings and images found inside these old buildings are clustered so tightly, that legible slogans and images are hard to distinguish. While on the outside of the graffiti buildings, many dissentients were watched by the Stasi, the East Berlin Secret Police, inside these buildings they were able to breach the traditional codes of conduct, and participate in the counter public sphere ‘everyday’ language that linked them all together.

This paper hoped to articulate that graffiti could be a visual manifestation of a resistance defined as a counter public sphere. Whether it be in a liberated West Berlin searching for an identity, a closed East Berlin escaping their reality, protests, deterritorialized state buildings or vandalized street signs, graffiti encapsulates cultural shifts before they branch into the mainstream political or social arenas. Graffiti on the walls and streets of everyday life is a language for the proletarian public sphere.


Chan, Paul. “Fearless Symmetry” in Artforum. March (2007): 260-261.

Negt, Oskar and Kluge, Alexander. Public Sphere and Experience: Towards and Analysis of the Bourgeois and Proletarian Public Sphere. trans. P. Labanyi, J. Daniel, and A. Oksiloff. Forward by Miriam Hansen (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press: 1993).

Neumeyer, Fritz and Rogier, Francesca. “OMA's Berlin: The Polemic Island in the City” in Assemblage, No. 11. (1990): 36-53.

Stracey, Frances. “Situationist Radical Subjectivity and Photo-Graffiti” in Photography and Literature in the Twentieth Century. eds. D. Cunningham, A. Fisher and S. Mays (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Press: 2005).

The Berlin Wall: Representations and Perspectives (Studies in Modern German Literature. Ed.
P. Schuere, M. Keune, and P. Jenkins (New York: Peter Lang Publishing: 1996).

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