Salena, Trina, Myrella and Jennifer's final mapping of the keyword "public"

From Keywords for American Cultural Studies
Jump to: navigation, search

The Unwashed Masses, or 'Public' --A Play in Two Acts

300px


Act I

Scene I: Jennifer, Myrella, Salena, and Trina are sitting in a 'public' library. They are earnestly discussing their work as cultural studies knowledge producers.

Salena: So, I've been thinking about keywords. There's a lot that still could be said. More to the point of what I want to discuss today, what about the word public?

Jennifer: It's on my mind, too. And if you have a minute, I can tell you. The Oxford English Dictionary says public is, in general, and in most of the senses, the opposite of private, open to general observation, view, or knowledge; existing, performed, or carried out without concealment, so that all may see or hear. Of a person: that acts or performs in public. Of a book, piece of writing, etc.: in print, 'published' esp. in 'to make public.' Easily seen, conspicuous, prominent. Of a person: in the public eye; prominent, well-known. Of or relating to the people as a whole; that belongs to, affects, or concerns the community or the nation. Recorded earliest in public good. With reference to the older British universities: belonging to, authorized by, or acting for the university as a whole (as opposed to a constituent college or an individual member); open or common to all members of a university. In some compounds the term ‘public’ has given way to ‘university’ (as university lecturer), or to special designations (as examination schools). Also, public library. Of or relating to the nations generally, or European, Christian, or civilized nations, as a single community; international. Of or belonging to the human race as a whole. Authorized by, serving, or representing, the community; carried out or made on behalf of the community by the government or State. Of financial or other assistance: provided to those in need out of public funds by the community or the State. Open or available to all members of a community, or all who are legally or properly qualified (as by payment); not restricted to the private use of a particular person or group; provided by local or central government for the community and supported by rates or taxes....Does that speak to your thoughts?

Trina: Nice textbook definition, Jen, but what's the relevant history?

Salena: I appreciate the information, but I was thinking about public in a more relevant sense. Let's keep going with our discourse, okay, you guys?

Myrella: What I find really interesting is that our constitution was actually founded on principles that control the 'public.' The Federalist papers mostly written by James Madison were a series arguing for certain guiding principles to be used in formulating the purpose and meaning of the constitution. Madison's main argument was for a strong central government that could protect the public from special interest groups with motives contrary to the rights of others. Federalist Paper 10 is the one most widely recognized for its influence. One of the guiding arguments of that paper is the idea that the United States should NOT be a direct democracy, and this idea prevailed and is still at the basis of our government today. Madison felt that a direct democracy would be too dangerous to individual rights because majority interest groups would rule and thus other interest groups would be excluded from democracy. So he decided that a Republic, a Representative government, was necessary to prevent the majority from gaining too much power.

Trina: Ha!

Jennifer: Yeah, ha!

Myrella: Yeah...so anyway, the representative federal government's purpose is actually to limit the power of the public. They are there to protect the interests of everyone in order to maintain equality. All of this is founded on the belief that the public can't be trusted with power. However it has become evident that members of government are people with special interests just like anybody else. So if they are the ones who get to decide the best interests of the public, then they have the power to shape public interest into private interests. And I think that this is really the basic problem with so many institutions that deem themselves "public" institutions. What are some modern day examples of this?

Trina: One thing that is interesting to me is trying to describe public when I never feel like I'm part of a public, even though I'm assumed as such. Public policy affects me invisibly, and I feel invisible to whomever is instituting policy. I feel that I'm in essence a private person, sort of exempt from my own concept of the public, but still I am describing either an abstract concept of the “other” as public or my experience being an observer participant in the public realm. When I'm at work, people we serve are the public. When I leave, I am now treated by organizations as part of the general public. When am I private, when am I public? Re-reading Stuart Hall’s Theoretical Legacies, I wonder ...how do private issues translate to public issues? I think about the dangers Gramsci considers -– what is conveniently referred to as 'public opinion' being closely linked to political hegemony. He says, “When hegemony works best the public begins to look at dominant ways of seeing the world as simply common sense.” The public...reflects their understanding of how things are as how they should be. Does this apply to the entire public sphere? Is everyone part of a greater public? So for instance, are the denizens of a marginal population, such as a tent city or refugee camp, included in the definition when one thinks of public?

Myrella So I don't have an answer to that question but this reminds me of another concept brought up by Foucault called Governmentality, which Foucault described as the organized practices, both psychological and legal, implemented by government in order to produce citizens that fulfill the interests of government. In other words, it is a theoretical term used to explore the influence of government upon the public. So all of us are affected by governmentality and if the majority of us identify with it (subconsciously) then it would be true that public opinion is in fact political hegemony. A scary thought.

Trina (snappishly): That was a rhetorical question.

Salena: Let's not get snappish, this isn't blackboard!

Trina: So hang on a sec, I want to finish this line of thought. The responsibility of the cultural studies worker is to transmit ideas and knowledge to those who do not belong to the 'intellectual class' or to the 'great' public maybe even. This to me includes everyone, rather than the shadowy concept of a 'middle America' or 'Joe Public.' Who or what are the public? Does Ien Ang’s hairdresser really stand in for the “general public”? If so, how big is the general public, if it doesn't include everyone. As is the case with most keywords, it seems easier to describe a framework that defines what public is not--the concrete frame then defines the concept--than to capture a clear definition. We need to consider what does a definition do -– how is it institutionalized?

Jennifer: Oh yeah...individual is not public, private is not public. They are connected, though. But aren't there public individuals? what is the relationship between the individual and the public in this situation? And isn't the public made up of individuals? I guess that is when you start getting the "special interest" groups that Myrella was talking about.

Salena: Well it seems that the term community has replaced public. I wonder why this shift has happened and how it affects who is included and excluded.

Jennifer: Shift happens! (They all laugh.) Think about community as a softer, gentler version of the more authoritarian public. It sounds more nurturing but it may be even more excluding since a community includes ideas about bonds. I also believe that communities are public, but they are smaller groups with individual interests.

Salena: I find this question really fascinating. I know that public art has become a way to bring the private to the public, to provoke and question the status quo, to fight existing power structures and to intermingle "content, context and controversy," as Harriet F. Senie and Sally Webster explain in their book on public art. And as Judy Baca states, "art is a tool for social change and self-transformation, capable of fostering civic dialogue in the most uncivil places." We find evidence that this creating of dialogue and social change is happening in the academy as well. New forms of museums are emerging from this collaboratory approach, such as the Wing Luke Asian Museum. That being said, public art has also been utilized for exclusionary practices, such as the propaganda used by Nazis representing the Jews. We need to remain very critical in talking about how the public is being used, for whom, to whom and by whom.

Trina: Public art seems problematic in that funded public art cannot represent ideologies counter to the patronage of the funders, including taxpayers--otherwise known as the general public. Unintentional public art, such as graffiti, often represents dissent. And if there is a message embedded in the art, it privileges only those who can decode it, right? This is another way to reproduce the existing power structure and justify exclusions. Nevertheless, public art does serve in some way.

Salena: This idea of being both progressive and exclusionary reminds me of the concept of public education. In early US history, small schools grew in the 1600s, sponsored by regional churches for the express purpose of the transmission of religious beliefs to school-age children. Those who did not agree with the particular religious teachings simply founded their own schools. At the same time, adult literacy programs have been a radical form of teaching/learning, like Freire’s pedagogy of the oppressed. How can we think of the use of public in education throughout history and how can we open this up for the future of the education system?

(more to add in here but i wanted to see how it looked with a concluding framework.)

They exit. End Act I, Scene I