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PUBLICS AND COUNTERPUBLICS: A SUMMARY

“Publics and Counterpublics” written by Michael Warner is the author’s attempt to not only intimate us with the kinds of publics that exist, but also establish certain fundamental features that characterize a public. Through his essay, the author informs his readers of the existence of three kinds of publics, mainly ‘the public’ which refers to the general population at large, ‘a public’ which refers to a set of people who have gathered for a specific cause by virtue of which they share a common space which may cultivate a sense of togetherness and the third kind which comes into being by virtue of interacting with the same text. The line between the three, however, is often blurry which is why it is important to assign certain features to the third kind of public which may set it apart from ‘the public’.

The first characteristic is that ‘a public’ is always self-organized. It comes into existence for the purpose of being addressed. One might say that the very fact that someone is giving an addressal presupposes the existence of an audience which contradicts the earlier idea of an audience coming into existence by virtue of being addressed. Knowing how nuanced this is, the author tries to explain this circularity through the hen chicken analogy. ‘A public’ which is organized around audio/visual texts is part of ‘the larger public’ which is why there can be infinite number of publics within the larger social structure. Strangers that constitute a public share an element of commonality-they are bound by the same text. Public opinion helps them interact with the text and form an indefinite audience.

A public is independent of the State or any other pre-existing institutions, and by virtue of being self-organized is capable of taking action. This self-organization through discourse helps in cultivating a sense of belonging, and a lack of it leads to feelings of powerlessness and frustration. Discourse like public speeches operate on two levels-they are personal because they address one’s participation in discourse and impersonal because they also address a larger body of strangers. What is expected of these strangers that constitute a public is attention, however limited, since it is the foundation of a public-a voluntary, virtual entity that dies out due to lack of participation. The interconnectedness and circulation of texts through time gives rise to a public since it facilitates discourse. This public then acts within the constraints of temporality of circulation of the text that shapes it which is why a text, to have public, must continue to be circulated. One important aspect of public discourse is that it should present the world it operates in through different lenses.

A public that doesn’t ascribe to the dominant opinion is called counterpublic. Counterpublic discourse differs from ordinary discourse in terms of modes of address, among many others and assumes that ordinary people wouldn’t like to be a part of it. Participation in such a public shapes member’ identities but entering such a discourse is not without risk.