what is a public?

Gregory asked at WQGTDWI What is public?, and I answered. He prompted me to post it as a new post, so I did here, but I thought I’d go ahead and post it here as well, before I get on a bus for Seattle.

Are you familiar with the work of Nancy Fraser? She discusses the word public and it’s multiple meanings. Michael Warner, who also does queer theory, does as well.

Fraser has four definitions of public: 1) related to the state, 2) accessible to everyone, 3) concerning everyone, and 4) having to do with the common good. Warner has three definitions: 1) “a kind of social totality,” 2) a concrete audience, like at a theatre or public speech, and 3) the kind of public that comes together in relation to a text.

Warner focuses on the last one in “Publics and Counterpublics.” Latour, too, focuses on the notion of a public being created by a text, if I understand what I’ve been told about him correctly.

So, I think when we ask what kind of public we are addressing as public intellectuals, I’d say at least 4:
1. The classroom (a space that is both public and private)
2. Our colleagues/the discipline (through texts, such as our talk at 4C’s, our blogs, and in journal articles)
3. The general public, if accessible, though perhaps that isn’t possible except in the most watered down sense. I’m imagining articles for magazines, blogging, etc.
4. Counterpublics, or those publics that are set as alternatives to the mainstream (though our discipline is also a counterpublic, as Warner argues). I’m thinking here, though, of queer publics.

Arguably, though, a job of a public intellectual is not just to speak to publics, but to help foster public spaces so that others can speak. At least, that’s my belief, especially after reading Christian Weissner’s book Moving Beyond Academic Discourse and the work of Herbert Marcuse.

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One Response to what is a public?

  1. sara jameson says:

    Getting students to understand about various publics and about the concept of public intellectual is key to our class about argument in the public realm. For example, we want them to learn the concept of the public – the readership – the audience – of the New York Times, which is not at all the same public for the Barometer, OSU’s daily student newspaper. Students were amazed to follow opinions and editorials and to discover that many readers left comments or “spoke back” to the writer. This helps advance our “entering the conversation” concept not only for the ongoing issue but also for information literacy – the Web 2.0 aspect of producers as well as consumers of ideas in public.

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