Warner, Public Counterpublics

Warner Public Counterpublic (Introduction, Chapters I, & II) (159 pages)


What is a public? How does it work? “The argument, as developed in the title essay, is that the notion of a public enables a reflexivity in the circulation of texts among strangers who become, by virtue of their reflexively circulating discourse, a social entity” (11-12). Public involves strangers who create social bonds through their interaction through discourse—its circulation of common genres or utterances constitute encounters among strangers. Put simply, the formation of a public is textual and by nature of its textuality, it should be understood rhetorically.

Understanding public as textual offers certain implications in how we understand public—for instance, we can consider its intertextuality: “Publics are essentially intertextual, frameworks for understanding texts against an organized background of circulation of other texts, all interwoven not just by citational features but by the incorporation of a reflexive circulatory field in the mode of address and consumption” (16). Here, Warner alludes to the importance of genres in publics: genres, being intertextual or involving a network of other texts, structure our interactions with strangers. we define ourselves and the public we hope to speak to through the media and genres we employ which themselves mediate our social realities: “To address a public or to think of oneself as belonging to a public is to be a certain kind of person, to inhabit a certain kind of social world, to have at one’s disposal certain media and genres, to be motivated by a certain normative horizon, and to speak within a certain language ideology” (10).
However, he also notes that we can also consider, given a new media landscape, a visual metaphor to understand publics: “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” (16).

Observing a public involves the interaction between the general and particular: “The idea of a public has a metacultural dimension; it gives form to a tension between general and particular that makes it difficult to analyze from either perspective alone” (11). “Much of the process, however, necessarily remains invisible to consciousness and to reflective agency. The making of a public requires conditions that range from the very general—such as the organization of media, ideologies of reading, institutions of circulation, text genres—to the particular rhetorical texts” (14). An aspect of public involves the interaction between the general and particular, as noted: as he mentions later, single texts certainly don’t constitute public, but the collection of them. We can observe a public through how a particular text is part or comprises wider, general systems of discourse.


“The idea of a public is motivating, not simply instrumental. It is constitutive of a social imaginary” (12).


Public and Private

Warner considers the idea of public within the ways we discuss public and private. He begins to chart out some of the ways we think about this distinction, for instance, thinking of them in terms of spatial distinction (outside is public, inside particular rooms are private). But he also points to social contexts: “kinds of feelings and genres of language” (27). For instance, he points to Catharine Beecher’s criticism of Francis Wright’s public appearances in public forums (being a spectacle for male desire and intimacy) as also points out that Beecher’s writing was also profoundly public, yet sanctioned in a particular genre/mode/medium of writing. However, Warner points out that the distinction is nonetheless messy: “because the contexts overalp, most things are private in one sense and public in another” (30).

As these confrontations between Beecher and Wright indicate, the public and private distinction has been a relevant point of discussion for feminist theory. Warner takes up the question of the phrase “the personal is the political.” We can understand this phrase in a number of approaches, but the personal, here, is tied to the private where the political is tied to the public. He points to one feminist theorist who believes that private and personal is a myth that feminism seeks to “explode:” the private is the public for those for whom the personal is the political. In this sense, there is no private, either normatively or empirically” (33). In other words, she is speaking of abortion as a private decision that is publically and politically decided: as such, this should be a public right.

In another sense, “the personal is the political” could point to the ways that political questions of gender and gender roles are implicated in the private, domestic way of living. And finally, in another sense, “the personal is political” could point to how politics should be focused on the particular, personal lives of individuals.

But Warner considers yet another sense. Specifically, he considers the way public is really composed of private persons “exercising rational-critical discourse in relation to the state and power” (47). Pointing to Habermas, a contributing factor of considering public in this many—as made up of private individuals, is the reading public: the rise of literacy texts such as newspapers, novels, and other private forms of print began to emerge in order to develop a realm of civil society. “The public in this new sense, in short, was no longer opposed to the private. It was private” (47).

Counterpublic: “discussion within such a public is understood to contravene the rules obtaining in the world at large, being structured by alternative dispositions or protocols, making different assumptions about what can be said or what goes without saying. This kind of public is, in affect, a counterpublic: it maintains at osme level, conscious or not , an awareness of its subordinate job”


Publics and Counterpublics

Warner points to a set of rules that describe publics:

  1. A public is self-organized

“A public is a space of discourse organized by nothing other than discourse itself. It is autotelic; it exists only as the end for which books are published, shows broadcast, Web sites posted, speeches delivered, opinions produced. It exists by virtue of being addressed…the circularity is essential to the phenomenon” (67; emphasis his). Such a claim points to the both the necessary participation of individuals to form publics and thus, the agency that Warner claims is involved in such participation (by the very nature of the participation). In other words, Warner distinguishes between something like a state or bureaucratic systems that defines people within the system, a public involves something more: “a public is never just a congeries of people, never just the sum of persons who happen to exists. It must first of all have some way of organizing itself as a body and of being addressed in discourse. And not just any way of defining the totality will do. It must be organized by something other than the state” (68). “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…Such is the image of totalitarianism: non-kin society organized by bureaucracy and law. Everyone’s position, function, and capacity for action are specified for her by administration” (69).

The defining quality of participation for public—“belonging to a public seems to require at least minimal participation” (71)—makes the question of how we quantify a public difficult. Public polling, for instance, seeks to define sets of people without observing discourse: “it is an elaborate apparatus designed to characterize a public as social fact independent of any discursive address or circulation” (71).

  1. A public is a relation among strangers

“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 unspecified” (75). As Warner writes, the indirect and unspecified relationship built through participation through discourse is what constitutes a social imaginary.

  1. The address of public speech is both personal and impersonal

Because we are always oriented to strangers in public, we must think about how discourse—public speech, for instance—should be taken as both (1) addressed to us and (2) addressed to strangers.     This second feature is what distinguishes public discourse from priate, personal discourse: “the appeal to strangers in the circulating of public address thus helps us to distinguish public discourse from forms that address particular persons in their singularity” (85). He points to, for example, valentines or voice mails. However, he continues to note the ways in which we consider medium when crafting public messages: “to address a public, we don’t go around saying the same thing to all these people. We say it in a venue of indefinite address and hope that people will find themselves in it” (86).

  1. A public is constituted through mere attention

            “Because a public exists only be virtue of address, it must predicate some degree of attention, however notional, from its members” (87).

  1. A public is the social space created by the reflexive circulation of discourse

“No single text can create a public. Nor can a single voice, a single genre, even a single medium. All are insufficient to create the kind of reflexivity that we call a public, since 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. Only when a previously exisiting discourse can be supposed, and when a responding discourse can be postulated, can a text address a public.

“Between the discourse that comes before and the discourse that comes after one must postulate some kind of link. And the link has a social character; it is not mere consecutiveness in time but an interaction” (90).

Warner points to a few features of public that have to do with discourse: for example, he points to the importance of genre, particulary the way genres are comprised of multiple circulating texts. However, as he also notes, its not the texts themselves, but also how the texts interact with one another rhetorically. “the interactive relation in public discourse goes beyond the scale of conversation or discussion to encompoass a multigeneric lifeworld organized not just by a relational axis of utterance and response but by potentially infinite axes of citation and characterization. Anything that addresses a public is meant to undergo circulation” (91).

Furthermore, Warner also notes the way that publics form around regular and puncture circulation, such as newspapers, that go under expected “rhythms that are widely known and relied on” (94). As such, “circulation organizes time and vice versa” (94).

  1. Publics act historically to the temporality of their circulation

“Publics have an ongoing life: one doesn’t publish to them once for all (as one does, say, to a scholarly archive). It’s the way texts circulate, and become the basis for further representations, that convinces us that publics have activity and duration. A text, to have a public, must continue to circulate through time, and because this can be confirmed through an intertextual environment of citation and implication, all publics are intertextual, even intergeneric” (97; emphasis mine). In a way, some texts work as a kind of shibboleth or, what some companies call, “talk value”: “interplay between the reflexivity of publics (the talk) and the reflexivity of capital (the value)” (101). Or, in other words, some phrases or words or discourse operate as a valuable piece of discourse to be circulated and spread within a public milieu.

Moreover, access to public discourse does not simply rely upon the discourse itself, but the pre-existing forms and channels of circulation. “It appears to be open to indefinite strangers but in fact selects participants by criteria of shared social space (though not necessarily territorial space), habitus, topical concerns, intergeneric references, and circulating intelligible forms (including idiolects or speech genres). These criteria inevitably have positive content,. They enable confidence that the discourse will circulate along a real path, but they limit the extension of that path” (106).

  1. A public is poetic world making






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