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American Quarterly 56.1 (2004) 171-181
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How Publics Matter:
A Handbook for Alternative World-Making
University of Pennsylvania
Publics and Counterpublics. By Michael Warner. New York: Zone Books, 2002. 334 pages. $30.00 (cloth).
At a time when "we the people" are daily defined by the political administration and its mass media as one national family of believers in freedom who must secure their private lives from foreign elements of terror (each of whom, the president promises, will be destroyed one by one), and when public dissent from this administration's offenses is treated as either anti-American sentiment (of potentially enemy-combatant status) or merely personal opinion (every American has a right to one, after all), Michael Warner's Publics and Counterpublics couldn't be more welcome or more useful.
Warner's collection of essays brings into discursive visibility a conception of the public that has for too long functioned as the invisible background of American social life. Everywhere and nowhere, this public subtends the liberal subject of modern capitalism as the privatized site of citizenship and sexuality. Insisting that "we the people" not take this public for granted as universal, singular, or simply empirical, Warner goes to great lengths to elaborate the constructedness of even the most entrenched public spheres. Far more than a demystification, however, his work establishes an alternative theory of publics as absolutely central to queer studies, literary criticism, cultural studies, and social theory more generally. As the precondition to all forms of social and national belonging, and the subject of an infinite range of [End Page 171] print and visual cultural address, publics are a necessary part of democratic life, crucial both to self-understanding and the politics of social space. Publics are imagined entities with very real consequences; they are profoundly multiple in practice, and they are always products of social struggle. While a public's meanings are by definition conditional and contextual, much of the power of the modern public comes from its intelligibility across cultural, political, and economic landscapes of everyday living. The fact that any public operates as a generalizable practical fiction—"kind of engine of translatability, putting down new roots wherever it goes," in Warner's words—can be troubling when one version of the public sphere dominates at the expense of other, more publicly accessible public cultures, but it can also signal opportunity (11). For if publics are not merely reflective of pregiven social forms, but rather constitutive of sociality itself, then there are no better tools for generating new social forms.
This refreshingly utopian impulse frames each of Warner's chapters. Half of them previously published and spanning more than a decade, they work together and apart to explore why and how publics matter to individual and social life, to imagine how they might matter otherwise, and to meditate upon what it means to study publics in the first place. Bridging queer theory, public-sphere criticism, literary criticism, and cultural history, Publics and Counterpublics is a profoundly interdisciplinary inquiry that impressively balances its breadth with precision and focus. From the temperance movement to contemporary intellectual publics, from early nineteenth-century African-American performance culture to the public sexual culture of New York City's Times Square, Warner employs what he calls "a flexible methodology for the analysis of publics" (15). A professor of English at Rutgers University and author of The Letters of the Republic: Publication and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century America (1990) and The Trouble With Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life (1999), among others, Warner is throughout these essays committed to the study of textuality and print culture in the broadest sense. As he attends to the specific historical and social frameworks for the production and circulation of texts, he interrogates more generally the conditions of intelligibility of dominant formations and counterformations of many different kinds of publics. In so doing, he raises pressing questions for contemporary critical theories and politics of identity, sexuality, and the public sphere inside and outside the academy. [End Page 172]