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Conversation with Maria Pia Lara

Maria Pia Lara develops a new approach to public sphere theory and a novel understanding of the history of the feminist struggle in this bold, groundbreaking work. When dominated groups create publicly-oriented social movements, she argues, they seek to frame their demands in compelling narrative forms. Through these new tales, they can become, for the first time, active subjects in their own stories.


In making her argument, Lara examines a very wide range of women's narratives: autobiographies of eighteenth-century salonnières, the novels of Jane Austen, the writings of contemporary women activists, and the portrayal of women in television and film. Taking stock of contemporary feminist writings in social science, history, literature, jurisprudence, and philosophy, she suggests that they can be viewed not only as empirical accounts of injustice but also as cultural narratives. Lara contends that these narratives have transformed the individual identities of women even as they have expanded universal moral claims in a revolutionary way.


"Maria Pia Lara imaginatively and creatively appropriates and reweaves motifs from the thinking of Habermas, Arendt, Ricoeur, and a variety of feminist writers in order to develop a highly original perspective on critical feminism. This outstanding contribution to a critical feminist outlook is based on her sensitivity to the role of fiction, biography, and autobiography in the construction of women's identities. The total effect is to add vivid concreteness and aesthetic sensitivity to a new direction in feminist critical theory."--Richard J. Bernstein, New School for Social Research




FH: Could you remember the time when you started to think about public spheres as social imaginaries?


Maria Pia Lara: Yes, I think I started working on this around 1994. It was, when I was first in Berlin doing a sabbatical at the Free University of Berlin. I was writing the book that is called "Moral Textures" and that's when I started working on the public sphere.


FH: You mentioned public spheres and you mentioned before narrativity, could you explain this more in detail?


Maria Pia Lara: Oh, narrativity. Yes, well, the idea is that, my book, that is called "Moral Textures" deals with how women build up first their claims about becoming persons and being persons through the aesthetic sphere, by writing novels, and things related much more to autobiographies and by reading other peoples' biographies, and what I tried to explain is how, not only the process of writing the biographies, but also of reading and engaging in and trying to learn from the examples of other people's lives. This projected into a new sort of possibilities for building up identities. And so the book was really about the construction, circulation, interaction, and development of a whole trend about identities and moral identities in particular, which later became the models of feminist theories.


- Yeah, and if you work now on authority, um what is the line between your work on authority and...



Maria Pia Lara: OK, so let's say I've always been interested in the public sphere. So this is one central theme of my work. But what happened here is that I was in New York when the towers, the two towers fell. I was doing a sabbatical there, and like the rest of the people who saw the events close, from as close angle, I suppose I became immediately worried about several different kinds of problems. The idea of secular reason, the idea of of modern secular ways of thinking about certain problems, like religion et cetera, so I .. but I didn't do much. I wrote an article, like most of the people, on, you know, just like the theme of how the towers had an impact, but it wasn't like a theoretical work on the problem of whatever the cultures, or the communication of cultures. It remained in my mind. And that's when I started worrying, or being concerned about the idea of authority and since then I, you know, I had it like a permanent thing that I wanted to work at some point and I guess that after I finished the book that I had completed last year on evil, that has nothing to do with the metaphysical, but it's about how cruelty between humans et cetera, it's called "Narrating Evil". When I finished that book I decided that maybe I could now begin because of some time, and some maturity, trying to find something between the idea of authority and some normative proposal that I wanted to - develop, to create. That's how I started doing it.


- Richard Bernstein mentioned the mentality of positive freedom now, what do you think ...could you..?



Maria Pia Lara: Well here I have of course, as he understood very well, the idea that Hannah Arendt had with the idea of freedom. I think the interesting thing of her concept of authority is that first of all, she thought that the most interesting thing that humans, we humans have is a capacity to initiate any action, and this has to do with freedom. So whenever she thought of some sort of possibilities of relating to the political world which she was so interested in building up, of course she had the idea that freedom should play a big - a vital part as should action. I mean she was all against the Marxist view that there were other things primary to the idea of coming to the world. But she would conceive to disclosing yourself, becoming public, gathering with others to discuss matters that we all care for, and all these things are related in part to her two ideas of action and freedom and then... Why is it, let's say, a positive view of freedom? It's a positive view of freedom because instead of making an argument against negative freedom, against rights, or anything like that, she was much more interested in the possibility of thinking how freedom would be reassured by the idea of plurality. So when she - She thought there was possibility of a dialogue with people. She thought that through certain kind of actions you get authority, like whenever people get together, she would say, and act in concert, then there is some capacity to move on, or, you know, to do something important... That's what she thought authority was all about, but it's a very different way of thinking about authority than the previous views that, you know, relative first, the idea of the state, submitting the will of the all to something like obedience. She thought more on a positive way. Like if people are also creators of their own rules, their own laws, why shouldn't they, you know, feel completely interested in following them. This is one thing. And the second thing is the idea of mutual promises and forgiveness. Forgiveness, because she thinks that nobody can really predict exactly how that action is going to turn out to be, like so you know, it might - you might commit mistakes, and of course politically, we are all bound to commit them, but the capacity to ask for forgiveness and to make a promise, would mean to interact with others in this way.


FH: Could you tell me more how you describe public spheres? or what is your understand of public spheres?



Maria Pia Lara: Well much like institutional spaces, created for communication, deliberation, citation, circulation of ideas and arguments between people and preserving also the possibility of exchange, all kinds of opinions, through these institutional places. It's it's rather than a very um complicated... It's not that complicated but what happens is that the more - lets say, the - that we learn of this new possibilities of developing a post-modern ideas of public sphere, the less, let's say material, or the less resemblance they have to the old Greek idea of what they were, because they were public forums where people gathered together. Here I think that you don't really need to be with the other, but think with the other, I mean, communicate with the other, right? It could be through e-mail. It could be through different ways. So it's like, as you heard me saying, it's a lot of virtual space has nothing to do now with a material space.


FH: just sort of imaginary space?



Maria Pia Lara: Yeah, well of course now what it seems to me the most interesting thing is that we now need to create much more new ways of designing channels of - in which this post-modern public sphere could bring about certain kinds of new possibilities. And some of them are being built, of course, you know. I have read a lot of things about how people now in the exchange of e-mails are a lot more truthful than when the e-mail didn't exist. One reason for this is that everything you write stays there on a file. So you know, if you said anything, the other person can just go back to to look at the file and say - well she said she was going to do this and... There are very interesting ways, and not all of them negative, some of them very interesting in the sense of developing new ways of communication and relationships between people that I really feel, yeah - that I really feel we still have to even think of them in terms of imagination, in terms of providing new ways of conceiving them.