Emergent Publics?

croftI gave a talk week ago or so at a conference on New Perspectives on the Problems of the Public, at the University of Westminster. I presented a version of a paper titled ‘Theorising Emergent Publics’, soon to be published I hope, and which is an attempt to say out loud some of the things I learnt through my involvement on the ESRC Emergent Publics project that Nick Mahony, Janet Newman and myself ‘convened’ a few years back now. The paper tries to think through the problem of making use of concepts like the public sphere, or public space, public-whatever, which are inherently normative but which have an empirical reference, and to do so in a non-reductive, not-backward-looking way. The term ‘emergent’ is meant to flag this problem of thinking about how to use normative concepts as they are meant to be used – evaluatively – in relation to ‘new’ formations of public life which don’t conform to established models of what public life is and should be.

Last time I talked about this theme, at an event in Ottawa, I came away having realised that the issue of ‘attention’ really deserved, well, more attention in discussions of publicness (that’s one paper I still haven’t written up…). This time, someone asked me what the ‘emergent’ bit meant in the title of the paper. Good question! It’s taken 6 years for anyone to ask that one. This is a dimension of the Emergent Publics project that we never really developed, it’s true (I have collected an awful lot of things to read on this topic…. Another unwritten paper). The thing about ‘emergent’ or ‘emergence’ is that it’s not just a smart word for saying ‘new things’, although it is that too. That’s what the question was getting at, I think (obviously, at the time, I blagged my way around the difficult question). Without consulting that pile of paper I mentioned, here is my first-cut at the different strands of thought that one might invoke to think through what the relevance of ‘emergent’ might be in talking about ‘emergent publics’ (actually, the Understanding Society blog by Daniel Little has a set of discussions on this topic and its relevance to social theory which is probably the best place to start):

–       One obvious reference point is Raymond Williams’ account of dominant, residual and emergent cultural formations. This is most useful as a descriptive framework, as a kind of starting point for mapping out relationships and assessing the relative powers of different practices.

–       Next, depending on your age and inclination, perhaps we should mention critical realism, a field in which the idea of ’emergent properties’ is particularly important. In terms of public things, what this sense, derived of course from a wider set of debates across science and the humanities, points towards is the sense that ‘publics’ arise from conditions to which they are irreducibly linked but also to which they cannot be reduced. I have in the past discussed this sort of idea with reference to the motif of the parasite, drawn from deconstruction, suggesting that publicness is inherently parasitical, or supplementary if you prefer. I’m not sure that this idea has caught on.

–       The notion of ‘emergence’ in social theory, whatever usage you alight upon, is always referencing the ‘proper’ sense of this idea drawn from physics, biology, and strands of philosophy of mind, particularly around ‘the hard problem’ of consciousness. Whereas in social theory, emergence is a really cool thing to invoke, I think it’s fair to say that in these fields it’s a much more contested idea – important certainly, but far from having the stable, established authority that social science wants the idea of emergence to carry.

–       Never mind, let’s keep going, because then there is perhaps currently the most sexy version of emergence-talk, associated with William Connolly and other versions of Spinoza-inflected vitalist styles of political theory. Connolly’s account of affect, pluralism, neuropolitics and such things cashes out in a discussion of ‘emergent causality’, which sounds like a great idea – the idea that events have conditions, certainly, but that you can’t quite anticipate how any set of given conditions will generate new forms. Now, not only might this not be so distinctive as one might think if you’re old/clunky enough to remember the hey-day of critical realism, but worse, or is it better, yes, it’s better, Connolly seems not to have noticed that his own account of emergent causality is pretty much identical to what Louis Althusser and his friends once called ‘structural causality’. Of course, ‘structural’ causality sounds a little bit deterministic, but it’s actually all about how structures rub up against each other and generate entirely surprising events, like the Russian revolution happening in, oh, Russia – that wasn’t meant to happen, was it? (somewhere along the way, if you’re following, this chain of associations might remind you, or help you see for the first time, or notice what was obvious, that structuralism as a tradition invented the analysis of ‘contingency’ – post-structuralism might, then, be just a footnote to that tradition). Anyway, anyway, by the time one has spotted the ‘overdetermined’ and ‘contradictory’ family resemblances between the ideas of emergence in Althusser, Connolly, Deleuze and anyone else who thinks it’s really obvious what Spinoza was really on about, then you will have arrived at the realization that ‘emergence’ is perhaps not able to do all the work you might want it to do. Emergence is often invoked against the idea of ‘linear causality’ in this sort of work, an idea which is really just a useful straw figure.

–     And then there is Hayek. Oops. The idea that markets are best thought of as ‘spontaneous orders’, which Hayek didn’t invent but did refine and then popularise in a particular way, has been picked up and taken seriously by, for example, Andrew Sayer (remember the critical realist interest in ideas of emergence), and more recently by Warren Magnusson.

There might be other strands I haven’t thought of (I’m writing this off the top of my head). But ending with Hayek is fun, isn’t it? It underlines the degree to which thinking about the ‘emergent’ bit of emergent publics should really have two dimensions to it: the normative/evaluative puzzle, certainly, but also the sense in which publicness is not something best thought of by analogy to our received ideas about construction and/or contingency. One of the things I have noticed about discussions of publicness in my ongoing ethnography of academic understandings of public value over the last few years is a constant temptation to infer a particular lesson from the observation that publics, public spheres, public spaces are not natural, but variable, constructed, assembled: it is routinely assumed that this means that publics, if they are not naturally given, must be actively made, for good or ill; and that by extension, of course, that ‘we’ should be involved in making them better, in better ways.

So, dare I say that Hayek might be really important to theorising the politics of public formation? Maybe that just means that, at the very least, using the vocabulary of ‘emergence’ in relation to publicness should lead us to be more attentive to the hubris that easily attaches itself to discussions of this topic, in which we all too easily find that other people are not virtuous enough but then console ourselves in imagining that our role as academics is to help them be better versions of themselves.


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