Imagine how powerless
people would feel if their commonality and participation were
simply defined by pre-given frameworks, by institutions and laws,
as in other social contexts they are through kinship. What would
the world look like if all ways of being public were more like
applying for a driver’s license or subscribing to a professional
group - if, that is, formally organized mediations replaced the selforganized
public as the image of belonging and common activity?
Such is the image of totalitarianism: non-kin society organized by
bureaucracy and law.
Without a faith, justified or not, in self-organized
publics, organically linked to our activity in their very existence,
capable ofbeing addressed, and capable of action, we would
be nothing but the peasants of capital - which, of course, we might
be, and some of us more than others.
The result can b e a kind of political depressiveness, a
blockage in activity and optimism, a disintegration of politics
toward isolation, frustration, anomie, forgetfulness.
The self-organized nature of the
public does not mean that it is always spontaneous or organically
expressive of individuals’ wishes. In fact, although the premise of
self-organizing discourse is necessary to the peculiar cultural artifact that we call a public, it is contradicted both by material limits
- means of production and distribution, the physical textual
objects, social conditions of access - and by internal ones, including
the need to presuppose forms of intelligibility already in place,
as well as the social closure entailed by any selection of genre, idiolect,
style, address, and so on.
I will return to these constraints
For the moment, I want to emphasize that they are
made to seem arbitrary because of the performativity of public
address and the self-organization implied by the idea of a public.
interaction is framed by a social relationship.
A public is a relation among strangers.
to a public incorporates that tendency of writing or speech as a
condition of possibility.
A public, however, unites strangers through participation
alone, at least in theory. Strangers come into relationship by its
means, though the resulting social relationship might be peculiarly
indirect and unspecifiable.
address of public speech is both personal and impersonal. Public speech can have great urgency and intimate import. Yet we know that it was addressed not exactly to us but to the stranger we were until the moment we happened to be addressed by it.
The benefit in this practice is that it gives a
general social relevance to private thought and life.
is understood as having resonance with others, and immediately
so. But this is only true to the extent that the trace of our
strangerhood remains present in our understanding of ourselves
as the addressee.
A public is constituted through mere attention.
Because a public exists only by virtue of address, it must predicate
some degree of attention, however notional, from its members.
The cognitive quality of that attention is less important than
the mere fact of active uptake. Attention is the principal sorting
category by which members and nonmembers are discriminated.
If you are reading this, or hearing it or seeing it or present for it,
you are part of this public.
It is even possible
for us to understand someone sleeping through a ballet performance
as a member of that ballet’s public, because most contemporary
ballet performances are organized as voluntary events,
open to anyone willing to attend or, in most cases, to pay to
attend. The act of attention involved in showing up is enough to
create an addressable public. Some kind of active uptake, however
somnolent, is indispensable.
Publics, by contrast, lacking any
institutional being, commence with the moment of attention,
must continually predicate renewed attention, and cease to exist
when attention is no longer predicated. They are virtual entities,
not voluntary associations. Because their threshold of belonging
is an active uptake, however, they can be understood within the
conceptual framework of civil society; that is, as having a free,
voluntary, and active membership.
A public is the social space created by the reflexive circulation of
a public is understood to be an ongoing space of encounter
for discourse. Not texts themselves create publics, but the concatenation
of texts through time.
Anything that addresses a public is meant to undergo circulation.
This helps us to understand why print, and the organization
of markets for print, were historically so central in the development
of the public sphere.