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The Keenan essay really helped me clarify the McQuire essay that we read two weeks ago. In our discussion during section that week, we repeatedly found ourselves struggling to define “public space.” From the course of our discussion, it seemed that we were mostly referring to public space in the traditional sense of boulevards, parks, and avenues. Under this definition, as McQuire points out, public space has largely failed to live up to its potential, as many people have retreated to suburbs, and public expression has become an activity many people feel is reserved for politicians and celebrities. McQuire seems to think that new media, particularly public television screens and digital art installations can help us reclaim the public spaces that people abandoned in favor of the individuation of the suburbs. But perhaps, following Keenan, we need to think deeper about what, exactly, we mean by public space. McQuire’s idea of relational space – “the temporary position occupied by each subject in relation to numerous others” – points in the right direction, but still leaves us focused on place rather than experience. On the other hand consider Keenan’s understanding of public space:

The “public sphere” cannot simply be a street or a square, someplace where I go to become an object or instead heroically to reassert my subjectivity… If it is anywhere, the public is “in” me, but it is all that is not me in me, not reducible to or containable within “me,” all that tears me from myself, opens me to the ways I differ from myself and exposes me to that alterity of others. (132-133).

Thus, for Keenan, the public sphere can be generally understood as the experience of being under the glare of publicity, an experience that is often uncomfortable. Keenan goes on to critique all of this talk about the supposed decline of the public sphere, saying that these writings “in fact respond to, if in the mode of misrecognition, something about the public – that it is not here. The public sphere is structurally elsewhere, neither lost or in need of recovery or rebuilding but defined by its resistance of being made present.”

I find Keenan’s analysis very intriguing, and it leaves me with lots of questions. I wonder if perhaps Keenan frames the public sphere in overly paranoid/pessimistic terms. For example, he does says that in public you are a “hostage,” and that the light of the public “opens me not by freeing me but by exposing me, to all that is different and beyond me.” On the contrary, when most people write about the public sphere they tend to frame it as a good thing, a thing to be desired. Is there a way to take Keenan’s definition and think about the public sphere in more hopeful terms?

On a related note, if anybody has an hour to burn, I highly recommend watching Walter Ruttman’s classic, Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis. In some ways, it is about the public sphere in the traditional sense of streets, train stations, and cafes. But following Keenan I think this film can also be viewed as an attempt to capture the energy, feeling, and experience of public life. I find myself wondering: how would one make a Symphony of a Metropolis today, say in New York City? What kinds of images, moments, and interactions would convey this same energy? How many of these moments would involve actual interactions between people in the classic sense of meeting on the street?

I also really enjoyed our readings about Internet justice this week, in both the Dibbell and the Coleman pieces. Both articles really underlined to me the importance of affect and contagion in cyberspace. Anonymous, it seems, operates according to a peculiar logic of contagion and affect, where individual events with strong emotional power provoke a reaction that spreads like wildfire among a loose coalition of Internet activists. Meanwhile, in the Dibbell piece, we learned how a verbal assault in a MUD can have a strong affective impact on the target of the abuse, an impact that is even felt by the body itself, for example in the form of tears. How does this change the way we view free speech on the Internet? If the Internet operates largely through affect and contagion, should we understand the Internet as a place of rational democracy or mob mentality?