Can we collaborate with a ‘public’ and other questions about the public sphere

When considering the question of ‘the public’ that both Barrett and Warner dissect, I wondered about what these definitions meant for the possibility of genuine collaboration in public humanities. By Warner’s interpretation a public is very much separate from the sort of official organization a collaboration would require. Public is also defined very much in a receptive mode in Warner’s text, where the public receives and consumes discourse, or text that can be written, visual, or aural. If the public humanities, at its best, represents collaboration between institutions or organizations and the public (or perhaps even more radically, the production of humanities by a non-institutional public) this sort of definition of public, which is allergic to formal organization, seems to disqualify almost all forms of collaborative projects that might make use of varying sources of expertise.

Another question that arose from this week’s reading for me was the question of spatiality and the public. Warner’s definition of the public seems to intentionally lack roots in the physical world, instead existing in time but not space and remaining necessarily immeasurable. In Museum and the Public Sphere by Jennifer Barrett, the museum is a physical space that she describes as aiming (with and without success) to serve the public. This grounding in public space, and the very idea of public space in the physical realm seems to some degree at odds with Warner’s conception which holds limitlessness amorphousness as paramount to its definition. Both of these readings in conversation push me to question the benefits and deficits of a physically defined public, which by necessity limit the potential definition of ‘public’ for which the humanities produced can serve. In the digital age and with crowd-sourced cultural production the importance of physical public space seems perhaps less vital as a stage for public humanities but perhaps still serves a role in cultivating an audience—although both Warner and Barrett seem to dismiss the ‘audience’ as a less desirable and non-synonymous phenomena compared to the ‘public.’

 

Michael Warner, “Publics and Counterpublics,” Public Culture 14, no. 1 (2002): 49–90.

Jennifer Barrett, Museums and the Public Sphere (2011).

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