Doing Public Things

DorsLast week I attended a workshop organised by CCIG’s publics research programme and the Creating Publics project (I was only able to attend one day of the three because of an outbreak of chicken-pox at home). The workshop was in part a moment in a collaborative project on Making Publics across time and space between some OU social science researchers and a humanities-based network based at McGill that has been behind the Making Publics project (MAP for short). There is a great set of CBC radio programmes that grew out of that project, covering a wide historical sweep of issues related to public formation.

The discussions at the workshop clarified for me the importance of thinking about the  grammar of conceptualizations of publicness. I have tried to write a little about this, in a paper submitted last month and a chapter that I have just got back for proof-reading, so it was on my mind already.

Everyone seems to agree that one should adopt a plural register when approaching public questions – that it is right and proper to talk about publics rather than the public. But I wonder whether it makes much difference if one pluralises the public, rather say than pluralising the public sphere or public space. Speaking of publics in the plural might not make much difference in so far as attention remains focussed on overly substantialised images of publics as more or less sociolgical group-like entities.

The default to thinking in terms of plural publics, thought of as a straightforward synonym for the conceptual issues raised by ideas such as the public sphere or public space, is associated with successive moves which emphasise the ‘constructed’ qualities of publics: publics are made, assembled, performed, or enacted, depending on one’s particular theoretical inclinations. All of these ideas tend to leave in place the strong impression that there is some sort of animating subject doing the making or assembling, and/or that the product of the assembling or enacting is also best thought of as some sort of collective subject. Something has been lost along the way: the sense of publicness as a subjectless process, to paraphrase old uncle Habermas. After all, ‘the public sphere’ might be a quite clunky translation of a concept that was not meant only to name an institutional form, but also, perhaps more importantly, to name a certain sort of action – acting publicly and acting in public understood as a distinctive  mode or medium of social organisation (see here and here for a neat summary of the continuing subtlety,  shall we say, of Habermas’ account of ‘the public sphere’ and the vicissitudes of its transition, indicating some of the reasons why fixating on publics might not be the advance it is sometimes assumed to be).

This is where the grammar of theories of publicness becomes important:

– If one talks in terms of making, enacting, or assembling publics, then the modalities of action are already presupposed (and the most important thing always seems to be the constructed qualities of publics, with slightly different inflections, as if publics were ever thought of as naturally occurring kinds). This type of formulation makes publicness the subject of a process that is not, strictly speaking, specifically public per se – I think perhaps only performativity has a genealogy that brings it up close to the distinctive problems of public action, in a way that assemblage, or enactment, for example do not quite share – these latter might be too comfortable in their assumptions about the sociality of collective action as distinct from its publicity.

– If, on the other hand, one talks of making things public – making science public, for example – then the emphasis is more squarely on publicness as a type of action. And this is where the fun starts – this action might be about sharing, or exposing, or making transparent or accountable or equally accessible….

My point, I suppose, is that one can either apply certain concepts of action derived from more or less proximate fields to understand the formation of publics; or, one can think a little more about the distinctively public qualities of certain types of action. I think the latter task is probably more difficult. The ‘politics’ of asserting that publics are performed, or enacted, or assembled tends to be relatively predictable and two-dimensional (since publics are made in contingent circumstances, they can be re-made, that sort of thing). The stake in theorising about distinctively public types of action is, I think, less satisfying: it requires thinking about power relations in more than two dimensions, in terms of the reconfiguration of plural public values – of openness, transparency, sharing, accessibility  and so on – rather than in terms of dualisms between public and private, universal and particular, natural or contingent, however ‘paradoxical’ those dualisms can be made to appear.

So my mid-year resolution is to try not to talk about publics at all, while trying to be more precise in usage when talking about public spheres, public spaces, and the types of action associated with processes and mediums of publicness.


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