JOSH'S KEYWORD PROJECT

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Public

Americans almost universally come to the public by way of love. Little boys and girls spend a good portion of their childhood taunting older siblings, cousins and rascal adults for smacking lips within earshot. Axiomatic discourses of love would have us all make our maiden voyage into the public hand-in-hand with our high school sweat heart, braving hostile hallways teeming with sour-faced friends and fierce suitors-to-be, waiting for the other Trapper Keeper to drop. By most accounts, such public displays of affection PDA imprint a reference to the public that is distinctly performative and spatial; acting out and cleaving social relationships that in turn map out the accessibility to and the obligations of affection(s) through the pathways of desire, difference and power. Thus, from the very beginning, ‘public life,’ this milieu of relationships, is peopled by claim jumpers on the one hand who seek to reopen emotional territory previously accessible to them, or at least imagined as unrestricted, and homesteaders who have begun to fence in their intimate estate.

We inherit a public domain that evokes a landscape traversed by this politics of affection. When contrasted to the antipodal intimacy of the private, public affect manifests as the loose ties of association. Richard Sennet, in the “Fall of Public Man” follows the taproot of public life to the wells of res publica, the ritualized formalities and associations between Roman citizens that lie beyond the strong bonds of family (Sennett 1974: 3). But like PDA in the bleacher-stands and on the village green, where the once thought of as close allegiances between friends – made by watching competitive ball and in chorus at holiday sing songs – appear hollow to the quick kisses and nestled bodies of puppy-love romances, so to does the richness of public give way to the depth of private moments. “As the Roman’s public life became bloodless, he sought in private a new focus for his emotional energies, a new principle of commitment and belief” (1974: 3). And as children holding popsicles in the presence of pie, we seek what we cannot have.

Desire troubles public insofar as it denudes it of its imagined intimacies. Best friends, for example, only realize their emotional glass is half full when in the company of a sweat heart. It is this difference, or rather in the presence of difference that desire for more closeness bubbles up, and summer coming-of-age blockbusters that exploit this emotional rawness fan out across movie theatres throughout suburban America. This emptying out of and desiring for more emotionality in which PDA set into motion is precisely the work of publicity, the act of ‘making public.’ Investigating the role of modern advertisements within modern media, John Berger hits the public nail on the head in “Ways of Seeing,” by positioning publicity as social relations. Berger further contextualizes the current milieu within the consumer culture to which capitalism has thrust out over the emotional landscape (Berger 1972: 129-155). Publicity has the effect, much like the lonely third wheel at the homecoming game, of hammering in the principal lesson of contemporary public life: “you are what you have” (1972: 139), or more soberly, what are you if you don’t have?

Proprietorship colors in this gulf between the haves and have-nots particularly in the context of contemporary global capitalism. The commons, for example, is understood as sites of collective ownership and is fiercely defended against selfish incursions. Such materiality constellates public within an old zodiac of citizenship, community, country, national, and private. However, in the post-modern age of virtual reality, we understand this public domain to be what Mike Davis calls ‘hyperspace’ that fuses architecture and image (Davis 1987: 67). While coastlines, forests, and rivers once constituted the commons through the industrial age, the hyperspaces of contemporary urban life eclipse the old pantheon with their sexy cousins: affect, (hyper)narratives, performance, sex, and power. That said, to think in terms of citizen, community, country, and people with private lives have been elided; they are endangered species. We are no longer accountable to what we say in public; we are accountable to what we image in public. Recalling Benjamin Barber’s idea of ‘publicness’ (Barber 1984: 123), the realm of action, the realm of we governed by the very real public consequences of individual action, what emerges as part of the net publica is a virtual power, a policing of ‘that couple’ who make forays into the public domain without regard to the emotional sutures they inevitable break, like so many cobwebs strung across the sidewalk. Indeed, being able to deploy modern virtual technologies such as social networking sites like Facebook and YouTube brings the idea of accountability, one of the oldest associations of public, into the hyperspacial world. All this has shifted our perceived public responsibilities from voting in political elections to voting in personality quizzes. The very idea of the ‘public profile’ isn’t about the relationships you have, it is about the relationships you imag[in]e you have.

Endemic, then, to public is the performative space in which the common connections between people that sustain and influence allegiances, however negotiated, are acted out. This public hyperspace in which the ‘ties that bind’ suture each to the other is carried forward today in the attributive usages of the term. A public holiday, for instance, is almost a metonym for barbeque, a chance to catch up with hyper-friends and hyper-neighbors not next door, but across town if not across country. Public holidays thus become a time and space – or a collapsing of time and space – to retie loose, virtual lashings. What is interesting, as with PDA, is that this performativity walks a fine line. One the one hand, it requires a high level of rehearsed interactions between neighbors. On the other hand, too much performance and affection will land you in the hyperspace dog house. Such a public gaffe then runs the risk of devaluing or de-meaning affection. Not much has to be said about the interpretation of the authenticity of public displays of affection except that with it we come full circle as would the Roman legion from the frontiers of the empire: in the pool of affection, the shallow end is public and the deep end is private.

We see this qualitative reading of public particularly in the contrasts between the public and private sectors; you go public only if you couldn’t hack the corporate rigor. However, in the face of such public devaluing, the 2008 global meltdown of private finance has triggered a new understanding of the value of ‘the public’ insofar as it is the only beacon that can guide our way out of the private’s mess. This renaissance of public life so to speak is dramatically being built through this deep reflection of what the public can and cannot do and by asking crucial questions, the least of which is: how will the public be better off after the bailout? What emerges then is a new dialogue about where this new pax publicana should take ‘us’ once the fog lifts. Moreover, citizens and politicians alike are imagining what in fact the public – however globally understood – should ‘have’ after the siege. In no uncertain terms, this opens up a great project that lies at the conjunctures of public life: rethinking public goods in the age of globalization.

As witnessed through our current economic crisis, our global economic cowboys have been riding roughshod through global capital markets leaving borderless public ‘bads’ in their wake. A bad mortgage in Wallingford can cause a liquidity tidal wave in Wakayama. However, we are with haste learning our lesson of borrowing, buying and lending without the mechanism of collective-action. As the specter of global depression looms large, we have been given the space to ask and indeed demand what Inge Kaul calls global public goods, “Global public goods are public goods whose benefits reach across borders, generations and populations groups” (Kaul 2000). Moreover, global public goods first pass the ‘public goods’ test: non-excludable and non-rival. To put it in Kaul’s terms, public goods begin where a piece of cake leaves off, such as street signs, which everyone can enjoy.

Understanding the complexities of crafting a transnational system for a still international world, Kaul also offers the idea of global coordinated (as opposed to collective) action, a meeting ground between competing sovereignties. To Suss out what a global publicness would look like would then open up the right space to examine inequalities in light of global public goods, the obvious being the internet, free market regimes, and so on. However, what is most compelling is the idea that “equity is itself a global public good.” A political project on this scale is monumental not because it puts meat on the bones of universal humanity. Rather, it forces us ‘on the ground’ to reexamine equity within the local context such that we may offer it up as part and parcel of this coordinated global effort. Moreover, it would require us to develop the proper mechanism(s) to hold the growing repository of such global public goods such that pass access and equity muster. In a way, it offers communities the opportunity to suture themselves to globalization in positive ways, as receivers of assets and not just groups that abdicate their equity. Thus embracing globalization overlaid with these new discourses of public goods brings us to the edge of the latest last frontier: global economic and social justice.

References

Barber, Benjamin. Strong Democracy: Participatory Politics for a New Age (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984)

Berger, John. Ways of Seeing (London: Penguin Books, 1972)

Kaul, Inge. “Global Public Goods: A way to blance the world’s books” in Le Monde diplomatique (http://modediplo.com/2000/06/15publicgood, June 15, 2000)

Sennet, Richard. The Fall of Public Man (New York: Norton & Company, 1974)