Michael Warner on Publics and Counterpublics

In the title chapter from Publics and Counterpublics, queer theorist and literary scholar Michael Warner offers us a different rubric for understanding social resistance from what we have discussed so far in our class. (For an excellent general discussion on the thesis of his work, listen to this CBC podcast.) During today’s make-up class, 5 students and I discussed how his concepts differ from the Marxist subversion and resistance as described in the readings by Attali and Williams. For those of you who could not attend today’s make-up class, here are some ideas to consider as you approach his work on your own.

  • The chapter is divided into 7 main points about publics and counterpublics: 1) a public is self-organized; 2) a public is a relation among strangers; 3) the address of public speech is both personal and impersonal; 4) a public is constituted through mere attention; 5) a public is the social space created by the reflexive circulation of discourse; 6) publics act historically according to the temporality of their circulation; 7) a public is poetic world making. The last section is pivotal because that is where he offers up some details about how counterpublics work (starting on page 115).
  • Warner spends quite a bit of space describing the differences between different types of attention, circulation and discourse. In particular, he focuses on how personal correspondence, lyric poetry, gossip and sermons are not addressed to “publics” but rather depend on different engagement between social actors. What are the limits of this perspective? How is contemporary social media pushing at the boundaries of public and private?
  • Often the music of counterpublics is not immediately interpreted as such by the dominant public. What are some examples that you can name where artists have relied upon the coding and slipperiness between these categories? Do these artists depend on a certain illegibility?
  • How is this perspective on publics and social interactions informed by Warner’s background as a queer theorist? How is it informed by his emphasis in literary studies?

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