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differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 13.1 (2002) 128-156

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A Semiprivate Room

Ellen Rooney

I am not inside anything.
I'm not outside it, either.

(Riley 6)


Joan Scott titled the 2000 conference where the papers collected in this issue of differences were initially presented together "Feminism and the Shifting Boundaries of Public and Private." The work of the participants repeatedly stressed the uneven, wavering, mutable quality of those boundaries, the phantasmatic nature of our obsessive reinvestments in their regularity and regeneration, and the uncanny power that the binary public/private has to make things of interest simply disappear, as Judith Butler observed. The semiprivate room is one such lost site: though it insistently emerges in multiple forms, it repeatedly slips out of view as the powerful opposition of private to public is reinscribed. The semiprivate figures neither an inside, nor an outside, but the conscious practice of drawing boundaries in a field neither the private nor the public can anticipate or guarantee. 1

the semiprivate room

The classroom is a semiprivate room. As such, it is a site of the peculiar intimacies and coercions, the self-revelations and decisive [End Page 128] constraints, that characterize a space neither public nor private, both exclusionary (perhaps even exclusive) and impersonal. As a workspace, the classroom necessarily entails a relation to the unfamiliar, the asyet-unknown, the potentially difficult. Its very existence testifies that common sense is not enough and that ordinary language is what we speak at home. In other words, the semiprivate room is one site of the disciplines. As a form—and every discipline is first of all a form of discourse—it figures critical discourse in a mode that does not participate in the celebratory invocations of information, access, and speed (quantity) that so dominate our historical moment. While we congratulate ourselves for our mastery of "information technologies," the semiprivate room persists as another scene.

I propose that we adopt the semiprivate as a figure of critique that exposes the enabling presuppositions of our commonplace under-standing of public discourse and defamiliarizes powerful myths concerning its limits and its modes. As a trope, the semiprivate room enables us to rethink our understanding of the work of rhetoric in our so-called "public" discourses and to reconfigure the relations among reading, rhetoric, interpretation, and argument in the field of political discussion "proper." Such a reconfiguration may of necessity involve a disciplinary clash, one that perhaps can be read as a contentious revision of the suspiciously smooth transition Habermas narrates in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere when he recounts the shift from a literary public sphere to a political one (43-56). But it is part of the burden of my argument that the conflict among disciplines is a powerful and productive effect of their semiprivate practices, one that we should not seek to rationalize away or to distribute definitively across the boundary that opposes public to private.

My essay will seek rather to displace the public/private opposition by elaborating the figure of the semiprivate as a unique location, one that is not graspable simply as a combination of or compromise among elements drawn from the familiar spheres of public and private. Ultimately, I want to suggest that the discursive practice proper to the semiprivate room can figure the collective discourse of the public sphere and serve as a critical resource for rethinking the practices of civil society. Insofar as the possibility of critical exchange is an essential component of any public sphere, however it is defined, the practice of a contemporary critical "publicity" may itself derive from the semiprivate: a field of acknowledged exclusions rather than porous flows, a site that we know [End Page 129] not primarily as a set of protocols or rules, or as a content or datum, but as a form of rhetoric and a mode of address. Such a proposition obviously involves a certain impropriety in the face of commonplaces about what a public discourse ought to be. It entails, for example, a reevaluation of the problematic of...


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pp. 128-156
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Archived 2004
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