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Show me your publics, and I’ll show you mine

Reading the title chapter of Michael Warner’s 2002 collection of essays Publics and Counterpublics, I am struck by how the book resonates with my work with the Transmission Project. It has helped me think through and beyond the rhetoric I encounter every day.

Professionals in the field speak endlessly of “community-engagement,” “community feedback,” and/or “community opinion.” Recently these terms have been popping up in my research of online vote-for-me contests and in online forums that claim to capture “community opinion” by allowing users to comment on various topics or ideas for change. How these sites describe community action coincides with Warner’s explanation of the normative ways we ascribe agency to a public, an otherwise abstract space for the circulation of ideas:

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, and so on. Publics can do exactly these things. And nothing else. Publics – unlike mobs or crowds – are 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, and so on – also find no counterparts in public agency” (123).

Community participation as imagined in many online spaces resembles Warner’s understanding of publics as essentially readerly – able to act only in ways one would act in relation to a text. Innovative as such online tools are, they still render community agency as an interpretive and analytical function and not as specifically collective practice or group action. The Transmission Project has argued on behalf of more expansive definitions of public and media that include as broad as possible a range of approaches of group participation and communication. An open-ended definition is central to the Project’s understanding of how media can transform people’s lived experience.

In a similar attempt to make room for new imaginings of public life, Warner offers the notion of a counterpublic, which he defines as, “a scene where a dominated group aspires to re-create itself as a public and in doing so finds itself in conflict not only with the dominant social group but with the norms that constitute the dominant culture as a public” (112). Organizations hosting Digital Arts Service Corps members serve people of color, immigrant groups, women, and youth, all of whom could be described as being subject to oppression. However, members’ pre-existing identities or their oppositional stance toward power do not define them as a counterpublic. (More important is how participation in a public shapes or transforms identity.) Rather, Warner suggests, counterpublics are “counter” to the extent that they offer alternative ways of participating in public life. His example of 18th century She-Romps are characterized not by their female membership, but by how these clubs of rowdy women rejected conventions of public politeness and modesty. Counterpublics imagine their terms of membership differently from conventional notions of participation in public life.

Taken from the Center for Social Media, one of my favorite quotations that the Transmission Project has used and reused effectively imagines publics as emerging by way of something other than the act of readerly discourse:

People come in as participants in a media project and leave recognizing themselves as members of a public — a group of people commonly affected by an issue. They have found each other and exchanged information on an issue in which they all see themselves as having a stake.

Creating media plays a generative role here beyond conveying the opinions of the creators. The way I read this statement, the newly-formed public does not preexist its members’ participation in an act of co-creation. Rather, participation in creation serves as the condition of membership for the new public. Similarly, the participants’ common stake in an issue did not previously define them as individuals. Membership has transformed their identities. In this example, collective creation of media supersedes private reading as the action that defines the public as such. In this regard, it borrows from models of popular education in which instruction is not delivered down to students who then produce individual responses. Instead, learners share lessons with each other. Because it offers a non-normative vision of participation in public life, the excerpt serves for me as an allegory of transformative public media.

To what extent do the community media projects your organization runs coincide with Warner’s concept of counterpublics? As community media movements build steam, I hope we continue to think critically about how we imagine participation and forge new forms of engaging in public life. Until then, let the She-Romps romp!

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