Public Seminar

I have just noticed, being a bit slow, a new on-line writing initiative, Public Seminar: I came across it checking out the latest from Jeff Goldfarb’s Deliberately Considered. Better late, etc. The editorial board includes people such as Nancy Fraser, Eli Zaretsky, and Simon Critchley. Best of all, it promises not just lots of interesting writing, but it also has an Index. A brilliant innovation for our digital age (please note, Bruno Latour). Here’s the pitch:

Confronting fundamental problems of the human condition and pressing problems of the day, using the broad resources of social research, we seek to provoke critical and informed discussion by any means necessary.

We use short form posts and long form essays, audio and video reports and discussions, and links to provocative materials of critical public interest anywhere we can find them. We are committed to creating a distinctive intellectual community, suspicious of clichés, informed by diverse experiences, theoretically heterodox, politically plural, worldly.

We work in the tradition of critical scholarship and public engagement of the original New School for Social Research (1919) and its University in Exile (1933). We seek to open the discussion of experts to broader publics, in the United States, and crucially far beyond, in the tradition of Charles Beard, John Dewey, Thorstein Veblen, Emil Lederer, Max Wertheimer, Frieda Wunderlich, Hans Speier, Leo Strauss and Hannah Arendt.

Public Seminar is an extension of The New School’s legendary “General Seminar,” founded by the original exile scholars. Through it, we are constituting a public seminar for the 21st century.

Introducing Human Geographies

IHGI have just received my copy of the new, 3rd edition of Introducing Human Geographies, “the leading guide to Human Geography for undergraduate students”. Technically, not published ’til 2014, but perhaps available in the better bookshops in time for Christmas. In the second edition, published in 2005, I wrote a chapter under the Issues sub-section with the title ‘Who cares?‘. This time, I have a chapter in the Horizons sub-section on ‘How to think about public space‘. This chapter is actually the first published piece in which I attempt to outline some of my own thinking about publicness that came out of an ESRC project on the theme of Emergent Publics which finished a while ago now…. I’m not sure an undergraduate textbook is necessarily the best place to try to articulate the fuzzy research agenda that I thought might have ’emerged’ from that project, but I suppose it might be a good way of catching the next generation early. Only time will tell.

Arts of the Political by Ash Amin and Nigel Thrift: Review

A&TMy review of Ash Amin and Nigel Thrift’s Arts of the Political: New Openings for the Left has just been published on Antipode’s online Book Review page.  There is also a (shorter) review of the same book by Fred Inglis in the Times Higher. And the Mobilizing Ideas blog had a post about it a while ago too, in case you missed it (and are interested in these things).

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.

Public action: making things visible or catching the attention?

I’ve been meaning to write down some thoughts provoked in particular by the workshop on Security and its Publics that I attended in Ottawa back in September, but other things have been in the way – including another workshop on Rethinking the Public, this time in Bloemfontein, which partly confirmed some of these thoughts even though it wasn’t limited to the security theme.  

Both events confirmed for me that there seems to be an almost automatic tendency for discussions of publicness to devolve into discussions of ‘the Public’, as if the main thing at stake was the status of a sociological entity, equivalent to a group, or a people, or a nation. Thought of like this, of course, ‘the Public’ is always either found wanting (not interested enough in the things they should be), or is being misled. This tendency to think of publicness in terms of a substantive subject is, perhaps, only compounded by the current interest in insisting that publics need to be theorised as ‘material’ or ‘materialised’. This just threatens to compound the problem of thinking of publicness in overly substantive terms, rather than as a weird, queer, perhaps magical quality that requires an account of action not substances.  

The Ottawa workshop included academics, activists, and artists (here is a reflection from Kate Milberry, one of the other participants) – the emphasis intellectually was shaped very much by critical security studies and IR: papers about drone strikes, the militarisation of the policing of protest, creeping surveillance of everyday life, that sort of thing. I presented a paper around the hunch that much of the critical analysis of security and ‘securitization’ has conceptual trouble imagining practices of policing, surveillance, war even, as ever possibly being pursued for legitimately public ends. The problem is conceptual in so far as it follows from an investment in certain sorts of theory which aren’t very good at thinking about the public mediums of action, not least of violent action – dark readings of Foucault, credulous readings of Agamben, that sort of thing.

There seem to be two senses of publicness operating in lots of this work – an implicit ideal of transparency and openness, which operates as the benchmark against which any and all practices of security are always already rendered suspect; and a sense of public space as a communicative milieu of a certain sort, either for ideological interpellation or affective contagion, through which fear and anxiety is routinely circulated. If you combine these two, then you get to the point where security practices are always counter to public values, because they are meant to operate out of the open, they are hidden, surreptitious, secretive, invisible, and yet brilliantly effective for all of that.

One of the things that crystallised for me at this workshop is the degree to which critical invocations of ‘public’ values often presume that publicness is all about visibility – hence the sense that securitization is problematic for public values because it is presumed that it is a process all about secreting things, hiding them away (I think there might be fundamental differences in how ‘security’ is thought in IR/critical security studies when compared, say, to fields working on ‘biosecurity’ and related topics – this is partly disciplinary, no doubt, but also something to do with different ways of reading Foucault and Foucault-sourced notions such as governmentality, biopolitics, and, well, security). I’m not sure I’m convinced that security practices and discourses should be thought of as presumptively illegitimate, undemocratic, or suspect just because they may involve some element of secrecy (which they may or may not anyway). Is secrecy necessarily opposed to the public values of democracy? Always?

The sense that securitization is at odds with democratic values begs some questions. What public values, for example, are at stake in processes of securitization? (Protection, order, etc – these are public values after all). Again, there is an interesting difference here with work on biosecurities, which does seem able to articulate security practices with thinking about publicness in a non-reductive way. More broadly, I came away thinking that the visibility/invisibility frame really isn’t a very helpful way of thinking about processes of public formation at all. It might even be an index of not thinking very hard about what the politics of public formation.

There seems to be an assumption in critical analysis of security that if only it were possible to make more widely visible various types of terrible thing – drone strikes, human rights abuses, unauthorised interrogation techniques, militarized policing – then ‘the public’ would naturally object. The analysis of security and its publics in this register of visibility sustains some standard critical gestures – critique is all about making things visible, uncovering hidden away things, perhaps bearing witness. The visual register tends to take for granted that ‘the public’ would and should, under the right circumstances, be horrified by the same things that upset the critic – it is assumed that the harms and wrongs of some practices should be self-evident, and this means this sort of critical analysis ends up coming close to always blaming ‘the Public’ for their indifference.

The two papers at the Ottawa workshop that seemed to stretch almost to breaking point the visual register in which security and its publics is theorised were, it turns out, both by geographers – Jennifer Hyndman talking about refugee camps in East Africa, and Alison Mountz talking about the use of islands as the location for off-shore detention centres by the US, UK and Australian governments. In both cases, there isn’t anything ‘invisible’ about the practices or places at issue – you can’t hide a refugee camp, they are in plain sight. Hyndman talked around the theme of ‘apprehending’, in terms of a kind of double, ambivalent political and epistemological sense of laying hold of and/or seizing, but also of learning about (I’m probably doing the argument an injustice). Likewise, Mountz framed her analysis in terms of drawing attention, distraction, things ignored, not just visibility and invisibility.

Apprehension and attention seem much more useful, conceptually, as more than mere figures of speech, than the metaphorics of visibility and invisibly for understandings processes of public formation. In particular, attention is a much better theme through which to hold in tension the sense of the public as a kind of sociological entity and the sense of publicness as involving some abstraction from more immediate social relations. It helps to pinpoint how ‘making things public’ might be less about making things visible, or seeing things, and more about noticing, paying attention, or being distracted, or indeed, attending to and caring.

The reason I like the idea of thinking of public formation in relation to notions of attention and attending is because, of course, there is an economy of attention that is a little more subtle than that suggested by visibility versus invisibly. Attention is a key concept in the economics of information and in some strands of media theory too. The general point is that attention is a scarce resource – you can’t pay attention to everything all at once; attention is, further, selective, and partial. And it’s often really hard work to get people to pay attention. Attention might be a much better theme around which to pursue a concern with the ‘materiality’ of public formation – for example, going back to the theme of security, it might be the case that some issues, some scenes and sights, resist attention almost by their very nature – including the horrors of violence and torture. It might be much more difficult to build sustained attention around some issues than others, because of the ‘aesthetic’ qualities of those issues.

I also think attention might be a fun way to get at what seems to me to a fundamental division within contemporary academic work on ‘public’ things. Lots of this work tends to think of publicness primarily as a communicative practice, in either deliberative-legitimatory ways or agonistic-oppositional ways. This work finds it really difficult to acknowledge that ‘public’ is also a name given to certain sorts of institutionalised, bureaucratic configurations – the public sector, public transport, that sort of thing. But public agencies, charged with delivering material goods and services, might also be thought of in terms of the analytics and economics of attention – in a sense, they are organised practices for sharing, distributing and providing attention, even of aggregating attention – for paying attention to some in the name of others, of delegating the responsibilities of attending. Giving attention, attending to the needs of ‘the public’, is what these agencies do. In principle.

Anyway, somewhere here, around the notion of attention, I think there might be a way of thinking about the family resemblances that connect different paradigms of public life – more communicative ones with more organisational ones.

And I think attention also challenges the terms of criticism through which public formation is discussed. The critique of securitization in terms of visibility and invisibility either overestimates the obvious normative pay-off of making things visible, or it ends up having to invest too much hope in the same rationalities of affective contagion that it takes as its object of critique in the first place. Issues may or may not rise to public attention, on the other hand, because of something about the issue that resists or repels attention; or lack of attention might be sociologically structured – people have other things to do, other things to pay attention to, other concerns to attend to. And above all, this all suggests paying more attention to the hard work involved in attracting and maintaining attention, as well as in distracting attention – harder than exposing things, or just hiding them away.

I wonder if it would be possible to imagine an account of public formation which does entirely without a visual vocabulary? This vocabulary gets in the way of thinking about the sorts of action involved in public practices, the sorts of action involved in noticing, caring, attending.