Publics

All information included in this page can be found in Michael Wagner's essay "Publics and Counterpublics"

This wiki has a public. This page has a public. By reading this, or hearing this, one becomes part of its public.

The concept of being modern and living in a modern world would be a far more abstract and difficult to understand had it not been for publics. They are an essential fact of our social landscape because like wikis they focus on cooperation, development, and sharing, and though it is difficult to distinguish between the public and a public, it is important for the differences can matter a great deal depending on the context.

According to Wagner, the public is a kind of social totality. It is of the people, and it is general. It is the people organized in some such body. Perhaps as the nation, the city, the state, or some other community such as Christendom or humanity. Whether broad or narrow, in each case, the public is thought to include everyone within the body.

Secondly, there is the idea of a public which has a concrete audience, or a group witnessing itself to something, such as a theatre public. The audience in this sense is bounded, and in a much greater sense, targeted.

The third sense of public is what Wagner describes, and what most befits the nature of a wiki. It is the kind of public that comes into being only in relation to text and the text's circulation, like the text of this page, and how it functions as a public. Wagner outlines the rules of what constitutes this third notion of public. A definition that is distinct from both the public, from any bounded audience, and that has played a massive role in the development of our modern culture.

1. Self-organized
A public is rooted in discourse and it exists by virtue of being addressed. The reality of a public is reliant on its ability to enable the discourse which gives it existence. A public is as much hypothetical as it is practical. It is also partial considering there could be an infinite number of publics with the social totality.

This third definition of public is text-based. A text can be picked up at anytime, anywhere, and by otherwise unrelated people. It has no limited audience in this sense, and because of this, it is now possible to imagine such an encompassing public. A public as an entity that embraces all the users of that text, whoever they might be.

2. Relation among strangers
Within the notion of public, writing and speech are done so as a condition of possibility. They are oriented to the indefinite strangers comprising the public. No one can foresee who will read this page for sure, and no one can know who these people will be. Within a public, and in terms of the texts that are addressed to the public, everyone becomes a stranger.

This is because publics orient us to strangers in a new way. Within the context of public, strangers are no longer people-whom-one-does-not-know-yet; rather, it can be said that an environment of strangerhood is the necessary premise, the necessary medium of creating the commonality amongst us all. Together, every one of us, as strangers.

3. Address is both personal and impersonal
When reading this wiki as a public, one must recognize what they are reading as addressed to them and as addressed to strangers. In a speech, the use of "Hey, you!" would ignite a moment of recognition as oneself as the person addressed. However, although one is part of the audience being addressed, they are not the sole target audience. This recognition is imaginary identification, because in actuality, the entire public is being addressed, the indefinite others. It is both personal and impersonal.

Another way to understand this would be to alter the context to say a police officer who says "Hey, you!" This would be recognized as addressing a specific person, not a public. All the other people on the street who were not the subject are bystanders, not addressees. The act of singling us out does not do so on the basis of our concrete, individual identity, but by virtue of our participation in the discourse alone, and therefore in common with strangers.

4. Constituted through mere attention
A public exists only by virtue of address, so it is integral that attention will be given to it by its members. The attention doesn't even have to be thorough; it does not depend on quality, only that is occurs at all. What is most important is the mere fact of active uptake. Attention is the only means through which non-members of a public can be discriminated. For example, if one reads this page, they become a part of the public, but one who has not, is not a member. Their attention has not been given. For any public, attention is indispensable. The existence of it is contingent on its members' activity.

5. The social space created by the reflexive circulation of discourse
In order to understand this idea, one must move beyond thinking about a speech event involving only speaker and addressee. This is because that thinking is very limiting to the idea of a public because no single voice nor text can create a public. This is because a public requires reflexivity. A public needs to be understood as an ongoing space of encounter for discourse. For it is not the texts themselves that create publics, but the succession and transformations of texts over time. It is only when a texts allows a response to be made, can it be a text that addresses a public. Anything that addresses a public is meant to undergo circulation.

6. Act historically according to the temporality of their circulation
Although they require the ability to be circulated, the rhythm of circulation, or the rate that this occurs is also important. The ongoing discussion matters, and unfortunately not all circulation occurs at the same rate, leaving those with longer rhythms and more time in-between to make action harder to imagine. The more punctual and abbreviated the circulation, the better off a public will be.

Publics have an ongoing life. They are not simply just published and done. That defeats the entire idea of a public, and could not be recognized as one for a public is dependent on the rate its texts circulate, change, gain further representation, and how they both broaden and narrow over time and with more discourse.
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