So, this blog has been loosely tied to the idea of ‘publics’ since its inception. I’m not sure how obvious that has been, but yeah, that has been the underlying theme. I’ve been thinking a lot about publics lately, especially in relation to this blog. Here is a summary of my thoughts:
- The definition of public is important.
- Trying to define a public has opened up a new conceptual space for me.
- I lean heavily towards Michael Warner’s definition of publics. First, Warner distinguishes between the public and a public, with the former being “a kind of social totality” (65) that might refer to “the people organized as the nation, the commonwealth, the city, the state, or some other community” (65). I think that definition of the public would be familiar to most people. As for the concept of a public, that’s a lot more interesting. Warner’s definition of a public alludes to Benedict Anderson’s “imagined communities,” without the nationalist focus.
- It helps me to differentiate a public from an audience by thinking that a public is both notional and empirical, whereas an audience is only empirical (Warner 67). For me, an audience needs to be physically present, so it makes sense that most writers write for a public rather than an audience, as publics are much more diffuse.
- Publics can be small and publics can be large.
- My graduate class constitutes a small public, or at least it did when we were mostly strangers. On the opposite end, lately I’ve been considering politics and large, diffuse international publics. For instance, what are the ramifications when a state’s leadership consciously performs for both a national public and an international one, in the interest of, say, encouraging foreign aid and investment? What kind of state or nation does that international public create? And to what extent do all domestic politics serve an international public? I wish I had answers to all these questions. I’ve been mulling them over in relation to V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River, which I’ve analyzed previously in terms of surveillance, performance, and the politics of authoritarianism. I will say that a state acting in the service of an international public can promote either stability or instability depending on the circumstances.
- Changing publics can change the meaning of the message.
- Jeet Heer provides a great example when he compares genuine black conservatism that derives from the black community and is internally directed with black conservatism co-opted by whites and directed to a majority white audience. The former represents the uplifting ethics of black self-reliance and self-help, while the latter usually amounts to a defence of the racist status quo.
- This blog has a public
- I wasn’t sure if it was possible for an anonymous blog to have a public, but then I referred back to Warner, who writes that a public is a self-organized space of discourse and “exists by virtue of being addressed” (67). If that is true, that publics exist only on the receiving end of discourse, then I suppose this blog does have a (very small) public. After all, WordPress statistics tell me that, on average, ten or so new viewers stumble across this blog every week. I wonder, though, how strong a writer’s connection with a public can be if she or he remains anonymous; I would argue that the connection would remain very weak, which negates a lot of the writer’s influence.
- Being a public intellectual is hard.
- With its anonymous nature and tiny public, this blog does not constitute any real attempt on my part at being a public intellectual. Nonetheless, I do believe I have become more intellectual by virtue of writing the blog, and that’s still half the battle of becoming a public intellectual, right?
- Imagining your public and gearing your writing towards it can be really, really tasking. I always have a public in mind when I write. I mostly imagine my public as made up of other politically perplexed university students, but who knows whether my blog would actually be of interest to such people? I have gained a new respect for public intellectuals because I now have a small sense of the sheer anxiety public production can generate. I am in favour of more academics being public intellectuals, but I’m not sure that would ever be for me.
Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London-New York: Verso, 1983.
Naipaul, V.S. A Bend in the River. New York: Random House, Inc., 1989. Print.
Seder, Sam. “How to Make It in Conservative America (If You Aren’t White) (w/ Jeet Heer).” YouTube. 23 Feb. 2015. Web. 07 Apr. 2016.
Warner, Michael. Publics and Counterpublics. New York: Zone, 2002.