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February 11, 2008

what publics do

In Publics and Counterpublics, the influential cultural critic Michael Warner writes,

All of the verbs for public agency are verbs for private reading, transposed upward to the aggregate of readers. Readers may scrutinize, ask, reject, opine, decide, judge, etc. Publics can do exactly these things. And nothing else. Publics, unlike mobs or crowds, remain incapable of any activity that cannot be expressed through such a verb. Activities of reading that do not fit the ideology of reading as silent, private, replicable decoding, curling up, mumbling, fantasizing, gesticulating, ventriloquizing, writing marginalia, etc. also find no place in public agency.

One one hand, Warner is right (and brilliantly astute) about the meaning of the word "public" in a certain literature, one in which the German theorist Jürgen Habermas plays a leading role. In this literature, the democratic public assesses, judges, opines, etc. All of this highly cognitive and verbal activity is much like reading--as we teach students to read in our schools and colleges. (It is not like reading in church, or reading a love letter.)

On the other hand, this whole literature misses functions of a democratic people that Tocqueville, Dewey, and many important current thinkers have emphasized (sometimes using the noun "public"). These functions cannot be performed by solitary readers, nor by the "mobs or crowds" mentioned by Warner. They include:

I find the notion of "the public" as a body of judicious observers completely implausible, both politically and psychologically. What would motivate people to serve as detached "readers" of public issues? Why would powerful institutions honor their opinions, once they had gone to the trouble of forming them? And how would they obtain knowledge of issues if they never did any public work?

[Disclaimer: I have not yet read Publics and Counterpublics. I came across the passage quoted above in a fine article by Warner entitled "Uncritical Reading," where he quotes his own book. A major theme of "Uncritical Reading" is the narrowness of our assumptions about how to read, e.g., our rule that one should always interpret passages in the context of whole books. Nevertheless, I must and shall read Publics and Counterpublics to grasp the whole argument.]

February 11, 2008 8:25 PM | category: deliberation | Comments


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