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  • After the Public Turn: Composition, Counterpublics, and the Citizen Bricoleur by Frank Farmer
  • Jason Luther
After the Public Turn: Composition, Counterpublics, and the Citizen Bricoleur
Frank Farmer
Boulder: Utah State UP, 2013. 180pp.

As College English’s recent special issue on the social turn can attest, English studies in general and composition studies in particular have often embraced the epochal language of “the turn” to gauge its self-efficacy, often hinging on the mission of its determined publics and/or the liberal mission of the university. It is in this context that Frank Farmer’s book, After the Public Turn: Composition, Counterpublics, and the Citizen Bricoleur, is welcome, as it attempts to put these turns into perspective by splicing the concept of counterpublics into our understanding of two publics often evoked in composition studies: one cultural and ad hoc, one disciplinary and institutional.

In the introduction, Farmer begins by helpfully historicizing these various turns, winnowing in on the turn toward the public, which he explicates via Mathieu, Welch, Flower, Long, and others, while at the same time reminding us that this turn “encompasses a variety of concerns—pedagogical, institutional, disciplinary, and cultural” (24). Yet, for all of the public turn’s complexity, Farmer argues that “definitional ambiguity” and traditional attachments to public sphere theory have led us to largely ignore counterpublics, a term he traces from Negt and Kluge to Nancy Fraser, the latter proposes that they exist in order to circulate counter-discourses that permit oppositional identities (16). Farmer also spends a significant portion of the introduction with Michael Warner’s Publics and Counterpublics, which challenges Habermas and Fraser’s ideas that counterpublics and its discourses must be deliberative. Importantly for composition studies, Warner proposes that counterpublic discourse can be affective, expressive and otherwise, non-rational. This should interest composition studies, says Farmer, because it opens up our students and ourselves to alternative, bottom-up versions of citizenship, democratic participation, and public engagement—understandings that include an array of discourses, forms and sites [End Page 92] for social change and rebuke the impulse to look to canonized public intellectuals, politicians, and social policy experts.

Chapter one is the first of two chapters on cultural publics and centers on zine culture, specifically anarchist and punk zines. Farmer’s method is theoretical and historical in this chapter, using deCerteau, Levi-Strauss, and Hebdige to help explore the term bricolage, or “the artful ‘making do’ of the ‘handyman’ who, using only those materials and tools readily available to him, constructs new objects out of worn ones, who imagines new uses for what has been cast aside, discarded” (31). Farmer argues that because the practice of bricolage is “simultaneously resistant and constructive” it is useful for reimagining democracy through the citizen bricoleur, “an intellectual activist of the unsung sort, thoroughly committed to, and implicated in, the task of understanding how publics are made, unmade, remade, and better made, often from little more than the discarded scraps of earlier attempts—constructions that, for whatever reason, are no longer legitimate or serviceable” (36). Punk zine authors embody this citizen, since its culture articulates an explicit DIY ethos, the terms of which are laid out by Farmer at the end of the chapter. Such an ethic denies print’s exclusivity and assigns making from remnant materials, rather than the consumption of new ones, the constitutive feature of its discourse. In this way, zine culture is able to “transform ordinary consumption into an alternative kind of production” (53).

Chapter two pushes this idea further by reintroducing zines as an exemplary cultural public, “a social formation, established primarily through texts, whose constructed identity functions, in some measure, to oppose and critique the accepted norms of the society in which it emerges” (56). He borrows heavily from Warner in this chapter as he looks to zines as cultural publics to demonstrate the kind of “poetic world-making” through reflexive circulation inherent to the counterpublics Warner observes in his work. That is, Farmer uses zines as “the quintessential example” (66) of a way to show how citizen bricoleurs can use various forms—as opposed to the content-driven arenas of deliberative rhetoric or rational-critical debate—to contest...


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