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Public Culture 14.1 (2002) 49-90

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Publics and Counterpublics

Michael Warner

This essay has a public. If you are reading (or hearing) this, you are part of its public. So first let me say: Welcome. Of course, you might stop reading (or leave the room), and someone else might start (or enter). Would the public of this essay therefore be different? Would it ever be possible to know anything about the public to which, I hope, you still belong?

What is a public? It is a curiously obscure question, considering that few things have been more important in the development of modernity. Publics have become an essential fact of the social landscape, and yet it would tax our understanding to say exactly what they are. Several senses of the noun public tend to be intermixed in usage. People do not always distinguish between the public and a public, although in some contexts this difference can matter a great deal.

The public is a kind of social totality. Its most common sense is that of the people in general. It might be the people organized as the nation, the commonwealth, the city, the state, or some other community. It might be very general, as in Christendom or humanity. But in each case the public, as a people, is thought to include everyone within the field in question. This sense of totality is brought out in speaking of the public, even though to speak of a national public implies that others exist; there must be as many publics as polities, but whenever one is addressed as the public, the others are assumed not to matter. [End Page 49]

A public can also be a second thing: a concrete audience, a crowd witnessing itself in visible space, as with a theatrical public. Such a public also has a sense of totality, bounded by the event or by the shared physical space. A performer on stage knows where her public is, how big it is, where its boundaries are, and what the time of its common existence is. A crowd at a sports event, a concert, or a riot might be a bit blurrier around the edges, but still knows itself by knowing where and when it is assembled in common visibility and common action.

I will return to both of these senses, but what I mainly want to clarify in this essay is a third sense of public: the kind of public that comes into being only in relation to texts and their circulation--like the public of this essay. (Nice to have you with us, still.) The distinctions among these three senses are not always sharp and are not simply the difference between oral and written contexts. When an essay is read aloud as a lecture at a university, for example, the concrete audience of hearers understands itself as standing in for a more indefinite audience of readers. And often, when a form of discourse is not addressing an institutional or subcultural audience, such as members of a profession, its audience can understand itself not just as a public but as the public. In such cases, different senses of audience and circulation are in play at once. Examples like this suggest that it is worth understanding the distinctions better, if only because the transpositions among them can have important social effects.

The idea of a public, as distinct from both the public and any bounded audience, has become part of the common repertoire of modern culture. Everyone intuitively understands how it works. On reflection, however, its rules can seem rather odd. I would like to bring some of our intuitive understanding into the open in order to speculate about the history of the form and the role it plays in constructing our social world.

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.

A kind of chicken...