The notion of “a” public or “the” public seems fairly straightforward. In defining the noun “public,” contemporary dictionaries generally refer to three often overlapping yet contrasting constituencies: the people or the community as a whole; a group of people sharing a common interest; and the fans or admirers of a famous person. However, students of humanistic and social science disciplines such as cultural studies, communications studies, and political science know that what seems to be common sense in the vernacular becomes problematic when they attempt to calibrate and consider “public” with a precision greater than that of dictionaries or informal conversations.
With Michael Warner’s Publics and Counterpublics, the growing discourse on what constitutes a public (and counterpublic) takes a giant step forward in a provocative collection of eight thematically linked essays that draw upon the author’s wide-ranging and cross-disciplinary knowledge. Indeed, while calling on his expertise as a professor of English at Rutgers University, Warner amplifies his provocative theme with insightful historical analyses, telling case studies, and critical reflections derived from the comparatively new intellectual traditions of public-sphere theory and queer theory.
Publics and Counterpublics addresses a central question: What is a public? Separately and together, the book’s essays function to show how this seemingly simple question, especially as it pertains to modern media and politics, opens up a variety of readings which can help one to better understand and appreciate everything from movies to the modern world. Although the notion of “public” is generally taken for granted, Warner, by problematizing the most basic assumptions about the noun, compels a consideration of the idea of a public as a culturally derived form, a kind of utilitarian construct central to the comprehension of and ability to navigate the contemporary world.
Publics, according to Warner, exist by virtue of their imagining, but since publics are practical fictions, they cannot be pointed to, counted, or looked in the eye. Nonetheless, they have become an essentially naturalized and central part of the social landscape, a dynamic and therefore unstable terrain that has been increasingly rocked by the upheavals of the revolution in digital communications. If one doubts this proposition, Warner asks his readers to consider how many activities in this media- saturated environment are not in some way oriented to publics. Texts—whether the morning paper, a television or radio program, a movie, book, or billboard—share in common the quest for winning a public. In the process of hailing people, grabbing their ears (and/or eyes), the drumbeat of these omnipresent and insistent solicitations says in one way or another, “Hello, public! Drop what you’re doing, and pay attention!”
Warner’s theorizing is often brilliant. It is also dense and punctuated with references that, for nonspecialist readers, will be difficult to reference. For example, in his introduction, Warner states:
Publics are essentially intertextual, frameworks for understanding texts against an organized background of the circulation of other texts, all interwoven not just by citational references but by the incorporation of a reflexive circulatory field in the mode of address and consumption. And that circulation, though made reflexive by means of textuality, is more than textual—especially now, in the twenty-first century, when the texts of public circulation are very often visual or at any rate no longer mediated by the codex format.
Publics and Counterpublics, it should be clear, is a book written by a scholar for fellow scholars, in particular, for those academics conversant in the various argots of contemporary cultural studies including queer studies, gender studies, postcolonial studies, postmodernism, poststructuralism, critical theory, reader-response theory, reception theory, deconstruction, new historicism, and rhetoric. Indeed, Warner’s eponymously titled chapter, “Publics and Counterpublics,” first published in the academic journal Public Culture and republished in a somewhat abbreviated form in the Quarterly Journal of Speech, is used in the latter as a springboard for three critical commentaries on...
(The entire section is 1782 words.)