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

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

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Act I


Scene I: Jen, 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?

Jen: Hey, 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, 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. 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. Also, public library. Of or relating to nations generally 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 assistance: provided to those in need from 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; not restricted to the private use of a particular person or group.... Well?

Trina: Nice definition, Jen, but what's relevant here?

Salena: I was thinking about public in a more contextual sense. Let's keep going with our discourse, alright guys?

Myrella: What I find really interesting in relation to the concept of public is that our constitution was actually founded on principles that control the 'public.' The Federalist papers in early US history argued for certain principles to be used in formulating the purpose and meaning of the constitution. The 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. One of the ideas is that the US should NOT be a direct democracy, and this idea prevailed and is still at the basis of our government today. A direct democracy would be too dangerous to individual rights because majority interest groups would rule and exclude other interest groups from democracy. A Republic, a Representative government, was necessary to prevent the majority from gaining too much power.

Trina: Too much power, ha!

Jen: Yeah, ha! I'm not an anarchist...I do believe in a Representative government, just not the one we have now. I feel that if there wasn't one, certain minority groups and civil rights would be in danger. But I guess that's happening anyway.

Myrella: Yeah...so, the representative government's purpose is to limit the power of the public. They're there to protect the interests of everyone in order to maintain equality. This is founded on the belief that the public can't be trusted with power. Obviously, members of government are people with special interests just like anybody else. So if they get to decide the best interests of the public, then they have the power to shape public interests into private. I think that this is really the basic problem of many institutions that deem themselves "public" institutions. How has this history shaped our present definition of public?

Jen: And if the public would be more engaged, like Putnam suggests in Bowling Alone, the government, which is actually us---"the people"---would have the power to truly represent ourselves.

Trina: I don't feel 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'm a private person, exempt from my concept of the public; still I'm describing an abstract concept of the “other” as public or my experience as observer participant in the public realm. At work, people we serve are the public. When I leave, I'm treated by organizations as 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 current understanding of how things are as how they should be. Is everyone part of a "greater public"? Are the denizens of marginal populations included when one thinks of public?

Myrella I don't have an answer, but this reminds me of another concept brought up by Foucault called Governmentality, described as organized practices, both psychological and legal, implemented by government in order to produce citizens that fulfill the interests of government. It is a theoretical term used to explore the influence of government upon the public. 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: Hang on, I want to finish this 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 'greater' public. This includes everyone, rather than the shadowy concept of a 'Joe Public.' Who or what are the public? Does Ien Ang’s hairdresser really stand in for the “general public”? If so, how large is the general public, if it doesn't include everyone--what are its boundaries or exclusions? As 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?

Jen: Yeah...individual is not public, private is not public. They're 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.

Jen: Shift happens! (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. This brings to mind a radio program I listen to [RadioLab.http://blogs.wnyc.org/radiolab/2008/07/15/emergence/]. In one episode called Emergence, Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich speak with Deborah Gordon, Professor of Biology at Stanford. Professor Gordon comments on her 20 years of studying ants: "It's because such mindless individuals collectively can do so much that I am interested in ants. I think about what the colony is doing and then I try to think how it would work." She concludes that you have to ignore the individual because "individually they are totally incompetent; as colonies they do great things." Abumrad describes it: "It's kind of a constant whiplash--you zoom in, stupid; you zoom out, smart--and somewhere between the zooming in and zooming out a bizarre intelligence appears almost like a phantom." It's strange to consider how this may work in our own species. Ants have farms, they make gardens, they have wars with generals and take slaves, nurse their young and take on massive public work projects. The question posed by Abumrad then is, "How do so many very stupid creatures with no boss add up to be so smart?" Human beings are far from stupid and yet as a group sometimes we do awful things. Like the Philadelphia community I spoke of in the mid-term[1]. The mob-mentality of the group of white men that attacked the black woman as she was walking with two young members of her family is a perfect example of how stupid humans can be in a group, publicly. But in that same community other parts of the public decided to work together on creating murals that expressed a common good. How is it that humans who make up a specific public can do good things in one instance and very awful things in another? And what does it mean that ants seem to be able to cooperate at a seemingly higher scale?

Salena I find this question 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 is happening all over. 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: That intersectionality of temporal and spatial in Jen's example is amazing and a critical point. Public art seems problematic in that funded public art usually does not represent ideologies counter to the patronage of the funders, including taxpayers--otherwise known as the general public. At the same time and sometimes same place (even overlaid), 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, schools were sponsored by churches for the express purpose of teaching religious beliefs to children. Those who did not agree with the particular religious teachings simply founded their own schools. And now 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 educational system?

Myrella: This comes back to my comment about governmentality. Because if most of the population has in fact conformed to the governmental idea of how education ought to be, then it would be a difficult process to change that so it includes other forms of education--reserved almost entirely for private education--which not everyone has access to. Public institutions don't seem to be a place where plurality is accepted. However, at least with education there is the possibility of private education. Many other "public" (makes quotation marks with her fingers) institutions, such as the Public Justice system, offer no alternatives to governmental authority. The US Department of Justice's mission is to defend the interests of the US and to ensure fair and impartial administration of justice for all but because it is a system that ignores plurality it ends up coercing citizens through a narrow procedure that disproportionately penalizes poor people and minorities, while it claims to be defending the interests of "all Americans." Those same Americans have no say in the process of what actually constitutes a "fair and and impartial administration of justice for all." The Department of Justice reinforces this by claiming that the the way in which citizens can "take part in the justice process" is simply by "accepting the disposition of the system as just or reasonable". So, there is no Public in public justice.

Trina: We have woven an entangled web...starting with public and exploring related issues and relevant keywords...we could spend our remaining research years on just this alone. (Sighs.) Well, now that we've looked at issues related to who is and isn't public, who is represented and who is silenced, and who currently holds the power when we think of public, what would we say is our role as cultural workers? Viewpoints obviously vary even on common ground. The more we try to define points, the more we find it's counterproductive and dogmatic. I guess what's relevant to public is how we want to treat our concept. How do we determine praxis, and how do we determine efficacy?

Myrella: Well, I think that we should think about what Trina said earlier. We should consider how the word public is institutionalized. As I mentioned before, I think that public interests are being shaped into private interests by those in power and it seems like this is being maintained through exclusion. Only certain "communities" have influence in what constitutes the definition of public. Anyone who opposes or who is outside of the "public" interest is silenced. I think that it's our responsibility as Cultural Studies practitioners to work towards a definition of public that includes everyone, but that is also influenced by all of the public on an equal level. I think that achieving this, though, would require policy change that increases public access to power and information as well as an increase in public engagement.

Jen: In terms of our word "public" and the above examples, we have a responsibility to know our audience, or public. As we all have different audiences/communities/publics whom we want to empower, we have to ask ourselves what obstacles that particular public faces and if that community even wants our input. We have to be critically aware of our own position within that community and defend our connections to them in a sense. I think what happened in Philadelphia is a good example of two very different public groups that came together and collaborated on a project that produced not only art that everyone appreciates, but a more inclusive public community. I would say our role as cultural workers is to constantly ask questions about the public we are hoping to serve and listening to their answers as well as critiquing our own position in relation.

Trina: I'll agree with that. I think we should also be a voice, or at least provide a forum or act as a conduit for those who are often silenced. We can do this in our praxis rather than oratory. Speaking of which...wait a second...we still have an Act II.

Myrella: Well, haven't we covered....

Salena (interrupting): No, wait!

Jen: Yeah, but we have to go outside for that....


They exit. End Act I, Scene I




Act II

Public Art - Public Act

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Public Display of Affection - Public Indecency

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Public Domain - Public Education

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Public Enemy - Public Performance

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Public Opinion - Public Interest - Public Policy

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Public Property - Public Space

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Public Institution - Public Welfare

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Private – Community – Culture

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