Stranger/Public: Like a Light Switch?

“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…To inhabit public discourse is to perform this transition continually, and to some extent it remains present to consciousness.” (Warner: 57-58)

In Warner’s conception, there seems to be an almost instantaneous switch from stranger to public; when we are addressed by speech and we are at least somewhat attentive to it, we are no longer a stranger. I wonder how this might function for “public” programs—do we just need to imagine ourselves as an attendee of an event to be part of its public, do we need to attend, do we need to attentively engage in its proceedings?

Warner is focused on text and literary studies, so thinking about events where direct contact is important to hailing the public might be out of his purview, but he did allow me to think of organizers of events as “authors” and what this implies about institutions’ relationship with their “readers.”

Barrett pushes us to think about space and visuality, building on Habermas’s notion of the literary public sphere: “Public space is both abstract and material, conceptual and concrete” (148). But I was curious what Barrett would say about when or if we transition from strangers to public and at what point deeper relationships are formed in public spaces. Is it the sort of instantaneous switch that Warner imagines or a deeper, more sustained engagement?

Publics as Elective

I found Michael Warner’s characterization of public participation as elective to be especially compelling. He suggests that when we refer to “the public,” we are really referring to a group of people with the potential to join publics. This implies that the constellation of services, organizations, and resources we think of as belonging to the public—public libraries, public schools, public information—are limited to those who actively join or seek them out.

Warner thus redirects our attention to the factors that circumscribe any given public (which includes all kinds of things, such as class, politics, culture, mobility, and time). Attending to these factors opens the possibility for people who seek to share public services to go beyond simply granting the public access to actually widening the publics they serve.

I wonder though, if Warner would support this kind of rethinking. Warner suggests that the most authentic publics are “self-organizing.” He writes, “Externally organized frameworks of activity, such as voting, are and are perceived to be a poor substitute.” If that is the case, is a library-going public—welcomed and marketed to by a government staff—as strong, in Warner’s terms, as the people who frequent a neighborhood Little Free Library?

Should the goal for institutions like museums and universities be to facilitate self-organizing publics? How is that possible?

Public is a four-letter word (if you only count the first four letters [don’t worry about it])

Reading through Michael Warner’s Publics and Counterpublics, I don’t know if I believe in such a thing as a ‘public’ anymore. His description of ‘public’ by virtue of joint attention to me sounds more like a collection of individual experiences, which are experienced separately and internally, not in some collective sense as is presumed by the term ‘public.’ Maybe this impersonal experience of the same thing without an accompanying sense of community or togetherness is what he means by ‘public.’ However, defining the public this way seems disjointed and dissolved to the point of uselessness. What does it mean to address ‘the public’ if your addressees remain distant and anonymous? Why would you waste your time initiating a discourse if you do not also create an invested/engaged community?

At one point last semester when I was doing my Methods project, Susan asked me who my public was. She thought I should direct my efforts at Brown students but I wanted to try to reach “further” than that. The public was what I was going for since it was a ‘public’ program. But there’s a problem there that’s really only become obvious to me now. Brown would be an easier target because it is a community not a public. It’s self-organized in a way, but it’s also institutional, which is a no-no for Warner’s interpretation of publicness. I can promote an event within a community, within several communities even, but addressing “the public” is like addressing no one. (At least given my interpretation of Warner’s interpretation.)

But yet, people came to my cold call to no one (a.k.a. my Methods project directed at ‘the public’). Not a lot, but some, Brown and non-Brown alike. I like to think that by virtue of coming together, experiencing something in unison, this amorphous and anonymous ‘public’ ephemerally became a community. Strangers that became less strange, as Warner might put it. I wonder if it may be more productive in the Public Humanities to talk about community building (even if the community only lasts as long as an exhibit) rather than simply “addressing the public.” I don’t want to be anonymous or impersonal and I don’t want my work to be either. I’d rather people’s internal perception of what I do (professionally or otherwise) draw them into a shared narrative rather than alienate them as a member of an unseen, disconnected ‘public.’

On Cultural Centers and Cognitive Dissonance

When I worked for a Mexican-American cultural center in Los Angeles, the administration was quick to delineate that the center was not a museum. Initially, this distinction was lost on me. I thought, “Okay, so there is no permanent collection–but we have exhibits, educational programming, public events, etc. Practically speaking, we are a museum.” After reading Jennifer Barrett’s Museums and the Public Sphere, I was reminded why the distinction between museums and cultural centers matters—and that cultural (or community) centers may hold particular promise for the future of the public humanities.

Given that museums have not historically been able to (or perhaps desired to) fully separate themselves from their bourgeois origins in an age dominated by colonialism and empiricism, figuring out ways to divest museums of classist power through “the new museology” (280) might be less feasible than perhaps putting more money toward existing cultural centers. This is not meant to suggest that cultural centers are a panacea: after all, they are influenced by (and suffer similar philosophical and material concerns as) museums. However, I think that by decentering fine art as the focus and highlighting sociopolitical themes more deliberately, cultural centers function even more effectively as “space[s] where people can interact” (25) and have meaningful conversations about the humanities; particularly because they are generally grounded in a local cultural and historical context.

From a psychological perspective, I am interested in exploring the cognitive dissonance that might be experienced by people in the modern museum profession given the conflicts at the heart of the history of museums; particularly as it could be felt by museum professionals of different backgrounds with regard to class, race, and ethnicity. As a Chicana, whenever I spend time in museums and arts non-profits, as much as I feel out of place, I feel aware of the privileges that enabled me to get into the space in the first place. This awareness makes me feel lucky and grateful, but also angry because the lack of POC representation in the profession is reprehensible. As a now-middle-class person raised by a single teenage mother on public assistance, the cultural cachet of the profession is as unfamiliar as it is seductive. Barrett references Bourdieu several times and refers to his life as “being derived from a divided habitus” (210). I would be curious to explore this division further in a class discussion.

Works Cited
Barrett, Jennifer. Museums and the Public Sphere. Somerset: Wiley, 2011. Ebook Library. Web. 06 Feb. 2017.

Innovative public humanities project we should all be aware of!!

Though it’s not on the syllabus, everyone should borrow and read Funeral for a Home. It beautifully chronicles a compassionate, impactful, and incredibly well researched public humanities project that I think we can all learn a lot from. Plus, the book itself is a precious little thing full of memorabilia from the project (pieces of wall paper, pressed flowers, newspaper clippings, etc.). It’s exhilarating to explore but sadly, this scrapbook-like quality inevitably limits the number of copies available, making it difficult to acquire. If you’re going to read it, which you should, borrow it this semester.

As a quick preview, Funeral for a Home is a project that co-opts the scheduled demolition of a 146-year-old row house in Mantua. By throwing the house a funeral—complete with a eulogy, gospel choir, garlands, and a dump truck painted like a coffin—Temple Contemporary Tyler School of Art was able to make an artwork that impacted an entire neighborhood and expose a marginalized history of housing that mirrors dying neighborhoods around the country. In their words, the Mantua row house “becomes every house,” creating a nationally pressing conversation out of a cathartic, community-building experience.

As many of you know, I’m all about whimsy and organic, communal forms of understanding (like mourning or celebration). As a result, I place a lot of value on examples of public humanities projects that break free from the institutional context that can often read as sterile, objective, boring, or not part of in “real life.” Funeral for a Home is one of the best examples I have seen in that it’s simultaneously whimsical, informative, and a call to action. This kind of practice should be on all of our radars.

Public Humanities: Accountable to Whom?

Although Gregory Jay’s article, “The Engaged Humanities”, looks to the future of public humanities while Mary Mullen’s “Public Humanities’ (Victorian) Culture Problem” looks to systemic issues of the past, in essence I found they both argued a similar point: the need to reexamine the relationship between public humanities and the public. Is the public humanities department an extension of the university —an institution of the state that shapes public culture along authorized institutional culture—or is it on equal footing with the public, receptive to its co-authority and unique designs? In other words, to whom are the public humanities accountable: the public or the institution? While both contend with these questions, Mullen criticizes Jay for “uphold[ing] the university’s traditional institutional authority” despite his call for reforms of the public humanities. Yet, in my opinion, Jay is not proposing maintaining the “university’s traditional institutional authority”, but emphasizing the need to re-situate public humanities within the confines of the university and the public. Does Mullen’s criticism stem from the belief that the connection between public humanities and the university should be severed? If not, how do the public humanities gain independence from the universities they are beholden to?