Publics and Academics

This week’s readings all deal in some dimension with the relationship between the academy and the public.  In short, all of them advocate for a new (or a return to, depending) collaboration between the work done in universities and colleges and issues relevant to communities in which these schools are located.

John Seely Brown, Ann Pendleton-Jullian, and Richard Adler, “From Engagment to Ecotone”: this piece studies the place of the 21st century land grant university, specifically looking at North Carolina.  The authors argue that a partnership between the academy and local businesses—a partnership in which they actually share space—leads to innovation and collaboration and moves the university back in line with the original charter of a land grant school.

Jeremy Cohen, “A Laboratory for Public Scholarship and Democracy”: as an introduction to a special issue of New Directions for Teaching and Learning, this article sets up the arguments for connecting public work with scholarship that appear in later articles.  Specifically, Cohen argues that there is a difference between public scholarship and service, and he concludes that there is a constitutional mandate for education, and education of a certain kind.

Rosa A. Eberly, “Rhetorics of Public Scholarship”: Building on the arguments of Habermas and Arendt, Eberly’s article argues that the university needs “a curriculum of consequence that connects learning to the common problems of shared democracy.”

Lakshman Yapa, “Public Scholarship in the Postmodern University”:  This article uses postmodern theory in its epistemological sense to argue against metanarratives.  Further, Yapa believes that structural ways of understanding the world create some of the problems that they would combat, even as they rob individuals of agency.

Joshua Gunn & John Louis Lucaites, “The Contest of Faculties: On Discerning the Politics of Social Engagement in the Academy”: These two communications professors explore the perceived divide between the civil, the political, and the public.  As other authors in this week’s readings, they argue the benefits of doing public scholarship, yet they also trace the shortcomings of the academy in counting such public work as legitimate scholarship.  They argue that such engaged scholarship is unavoidably political, and they invite more discussion on ways of quantifying engaged scholarship.

Questions for discussion:

On some level, all of these articles (with the possible exception of the “Ecotone” one) argue that one of the main goals of the academy should be to shore up democracy.  True?

If so, what kind of democracy should the university be strengthening?  (i.e. A popular democracy?  A Constitutional democracy?  Local, direct democracy?)

One of the topics that many of our discussions have danced around is interdisciplinarity.  Jacoby’s idea of a public intellectual seems to necessitate a blending of disciplines; Fish’s article is more skeptical of such work.  Several of the articles for this week (particularly Cohen) view interdisciplinarity positively.  Should we?

I’m interested in reading these articles against Flemming’s argument that there is something gained by having the classroom as a space carved out from a larger public.  How do Flemming’s thoughts change how we read these pieces?

The Centennial Campus at North Carolina is an interesting case study.  How do we feel about such blending of the university with business?  How benefits?  Is something lost in such collaboration?

Most of the scholars we read this week cite Dewey, who is basing his theories of American pragmatism (and education more broadly) partially on Enlightenment models of thought.  If we are building a university for the 21st century, does it make sense to use 18th century philosophy as a guide?  What might be left off the table with such an approach?


Notes on Stephen Schneider’s You Can’t Chain an Idea

These excerpts from Stephen Schneider’s You Can’t Chain an Idea provide a strong, detailed analysis of the rhetorical functions of the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee. Functioning as a residential adult education center, the school worked with southern laborers, farmers, African Americans, and civil rights activists to educate the community with the goal of furthering the plight of workers and the civil rights movement. Specifically, Schneider argues, the Highlander school used four programs—labor drama, labor journalism, music, and citizenship education—to promote social change. This is why he writes of Highlander as being a halfway house for social movements: the school is not in itself a social movement, but rather it serves as a space in which social movements can be furthered, or at least take a nice nap.

Important to Schneider’s study is the concept of frames, which (according to sociologists Snow, Benford, and Zald) are “interpretive schemata that allow individuals to organize, respond to, and transform experience.” These frames help structure beliefs and allow paths of agency: in short, they work towards forming collective identity.

The work done at Highlander was most effective when it designed its programs around areas that already had cultural resonance: to wit, drama, certain kinds of journalism, and music. This makes perfect sense to me, as a meet-students-where-they-are style of pedagogy has long been a staple of my classroom. However, as Schneider notes, the work done by the Highlander school was not political neutral: there was a definite agenda to the program. And while as a leftist, I generally find the program and its political agenda agreeable, I can see how the school could raise questions of cultural appropriation. To put it differently, at what point does it become less a case of meeting students where they are, using elements from their culture to further the students’ own positions and more a case of cultural hijacking for one’s own political purpose?

To be clear, I don’t think this is the case with Highlander, and there isn’t to my eye anything unethical about their programs. But I can see instances in which a people’s culture is appropriated and used as an instructive tool in ways that work against that people’s best interests. On an unrelated note, I’m also interested in the way the physical space of the Highlander school affected its success in teaching folks to agitate. Specifically, some of the effects of the Highlander program that Schneider outlines—the development of collective action frames, the movement from those frames to direct action, the use of education itself as an agency for social change—are similar to some of the goals of the Occupy movement. That is, the Highlander school organizes, educates, and agitates through local community, and Occupy aims for the same. Yet without a permanent physical space within which to perform this work, the rhetorical functions of Occupy are markedly different than Highlander.


Notes on Russell Jacoby’s The Last Intellectuals

Jacoby’s The Last Intellectuals is written in a very accessible style. This is largely by design, as Jacoby wishes to perform the kind of public intellectual work that he argues is largely missing from the post-World War II generation. Indeed, this thesis, represented in the title, and the act of tracing the disappearance of public intellectuals occupies much of the book.

Jacoby paints in broad strokes, but the portrayal of the missing American public intellectual is largely convincing. As the author argues, economic conditions (the financial failing and subsequent disappearance of the small press, the inability of the public intellectual to sustain herself outside of the academy) and structural conditions (the disappearance of urban bohemia due to gentrification and flight to the suburbs) have resulted in public intellectuals being contained almost exclusively in the academy. The result of this institutionalization of the intellectual is a retreat from the public sphere: with intellectuals firmly entrenched in the silo of their specific discipline, intellectual discourse that might have reflected upon the public sphere became more and more detached from concerns outside the academy.

There’s a line at the end of the chapter on “New York, Jewish, and Other Intellectuals” that stood out to me. Jacoby paraphrases a point from Harold Rosenberg, who believed that intellectuals did not disappear as much as change their manifestation. That is, they assume disguises and show up in other places, other media, even after having been consigned to the historical dustbin (111).

This point, 50 years later, seems somewhat prophetic, as one could argue that the definitions of what counts as a public intellectual have changed out of necessity. Hell, the definition of what constitutes public has changed as well. I can think of several figures (such as Judith Butler, Cornell West, Noam Chomsky, Christopher Hitchens) who perform intellectual work publicly. Yet then again, when I read the writing of these thinkers (or even hear them speaking), it is clear that many of them are still assuming an academic audience.


Chasing Democracy: Occupy Lexington’s Use of Public and Private Urban Space

There has been a considerable amount of attention paid in the past six months to the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations/protests/encampments. In particular, many writers have focused on the process of decision making that takes place at occasionally heavily populated general assembly meetings, often giving much consideration to the at times ragged, slow process of communicating via specialized hand signals and “the human microphone.” The reasons for such a mode of communication are varied, partially having to do with material circumstances—such as the ban on megaphones at many occupy encampments—and partially to do with the radically democratic nature of the general assemblies: while ideally occupations reach a uniform consensus, offering a unified program, more often than not they reach some kind of compromise amongst differing viewpoints and factions.

This method of conducting a general assembly can be viewed as a seeming paradox. Even though one of the Occupy movement’s most powerful slogans is “We are the 99%,” a slogan that for many foregrounds solidarity and oneness, the movement is often criticized for being amorphous, for not having set demands standard across each encampment. Nevertheless, as I will argue, one of the movement’s major strengths has been its refusal to be pigeonholed, to be defined by one static cause or demographic.

In my paper, I will look at the way in which the Occupation movement more closely enacts Danielle Allen’s conception of “wholeness,” as opposed to “oneness.” I will also zero in on a specific Occupy group—the one in Lexington, Kentucky—to show how public discourse at general assemblies can differ vastly from that of the best known Occupy encampment at Zuccotti Park. These encampments function as a kind of critical public sphere, each with its own particular issues and modes of discourse, but all seem to share this goal of wholeness and shared sacrifice.


Arendt Discussion Questions

Let’s start by defining some terms germane to Arendt’s work. Vita active. Labor. Work. Action. Public. Private. Social. Political.

I want to look at the passage concerning the location of freedom on page 31. Like Calhoun (?), Arendt associates freedom with the public sphere and the political realm. How does this compare/contrast with other writers’ we have read thus far?

Where is subjectivity located for Arendt?

One passage that caught my eye was the bit on 52 in which Arendt writes that “the public realm may be great, [but] it cannot harbor the irrelevant.” I’d like to spend some time unpacking this phrase. What is meant by irrelevant here? Who decides?

Arendt consistently asserts that it is plurality that enables action, that it is because the world is made up of diverse individuals that the world is called into being. Does this ring true?

Labor for Arendt is a very private thing. On one hand, this makes sense; what goes into sustaining me is by definition not what goes into sustaining you. But on the other hand, I wonder if this is a reasonable distinction. That is, are we bound in a network of mutuality, even on the very basic level of self-production?


Notes on Pezzullo’s Toxic Tourism

In addition to having the coolest name of any author we’ve read this semester, Phaedra Pezzullo has written one of my favorite books we’ve read and discussed.  It’s not that I always find myself agreeing with her, but rather I find the upfront, all-cards-on-the-table political approach of Pezzullo’s writing refreshing.

The main focus of her argument, as the book’s title indicates, is a type of tourism called toxic tourism, a kind of environmental justice activism that puts tourists in direct contact with the places and faces affected by pollution.  The author argues that these tours can “serve as embodied rhetorics of resistance aimed at mobilizing public sentiment and dissent against material and symbolic toxic patterns” (3).

As such a definition indicates, a large part of Pezzullo’s work intersects with theory of performance studies.  In particular, following other performance studies scholars such as Dwight Conquergood, Pezzullo consistently argues throughout the work that there is a certain knowledge one gathers from embodied participation that really cannot be achieved any other way.  It’s not that one cannot experience affect or be moved to political action without embodied performativity:  On the contrary, one chapter examines the effects of the North American Free Trade Agreement on Mexico-US border towns, and is based not on a tour in which Pezzullo participated but on a documentary produced by the Sierra Club.  Pezzullo does an impressive job of analyzing the affective responses invoked by the video that could not be produced any other way, even as she notes the embodied performative elements that could not be reproduced in a documentary.

One point that interested me in the text was the way Pezzullo embraces radical political positions yet espouses neo-liberal solutions to problems.  For example, she takes many of the trends within National Breast Cancer Awareness Month to task for focusing on early detection and treating symptoms of breast cancer rather than going to the root of the problem and addressing underlying causes of the cancer.  This is the radical question that needs to be asked: Is it possible we do more harm than good by treating symptoms rather than root causes? –and Pezzullo levels this question thoughtfully, admirably.  Yet in other instances, the use of toxic tourism as an embodied, political activism—as counterhegemonic as it might be—seems reactionary neo-liberal reformism.  That is, we educate individuals who then may or may not decide on their own to change their actions in a way that has an impact on the issue.  Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m all for this kind of reformism, and I honestly believe in the cumulative historical impact of generating such discourse—if I didn’t, I wouldn’t teach.  But even within myself I feel the conflict that appears now and again in Toxic Tourism—can you use the master’s tools to take down the master’s house?


Notes: the Public Turn in Rhetoric and Writing Studies

Notes on David Jolliffe’s “The Community Literacy Advocacy Project: Civic Revival through Rhetorical Activity in Rural Arkansas”

This article documents some of the work that Jolliffe has been doing since being appointed to the Brown Chair in English Literacy at the University of Arkansas in 2005.  The main focus is the Community Literacy Advocacy Project that the author helped facilitate in Augusta, Arkansas, a city in decline in the delta region of western Arkansas.  The idea behind the project was simple enough: by celebrating reading and writing, the town of Augusta could build community pride as well as help create opportunity for residents.  Jolliffe writes that the goal was to “bring students, parents, government officials, church leaders, business owners, and not-for-profit workers together…to emphasize the roles that reading and writing play in the 21st century” (274).  The project seems to have been successful, and while it could be a while before the material benefits of the project are quantifiable, Jolliffe argues that such projects can be analyzed using a hybrid of three different approaches: a classical Aristotelian approach that analyzes the persuasive argument presented; an approach based on the work of David Procter, who argues that discourse patterns create a sense of shared community; and Eleanor Long’s five-element “point of comparison model,” in which tropes and contexts work together to call a “local public” into being.

–It is interesting in this model how Jolliffe pulls together multiple publics into a larger public sphere built around the concept of literacy.  Jolliffe acknowledges some potential ideological tensions within this model, but bracketing that issue for a moment, I’m interested in the way promoting literacy in this way might produce a metalanguage.  That is, might blending of rhetorical traditions from the realm of work, religion, and education produce a new literacy?  A new way of navigating the public sphere?


Notes on David Fleming’s “Finding a Place for School in Rhetoric’s Public Turn”

In this essay, Fleming argues that some curricula might have thrown the proverbial baby out with the bathwater in an attempt to make their writing instruction more public.  To put it differently, he focuses much of the essay on examining what might be lost when teachers insist that all major projects have a component that immediately connects with the world outside the classroom.  Specifically, the two things he argues that schools traditionally do well are teach facts and abstract theories.  In the end, Fleming argues that writing instruction should be Janus-faced and promote the best of both worlds, giving students practical, public writing experience while still doing what schools do best.

–Connections to WRD’s C&C curriculum.


Some Early Themes and Questions

In many ways I’m still getting my bearings within the academic dialogues centered on publics.  That disclaimer stated, here are some of the themes that have interested me thus far in the seminar:

  • the overlap of public & private
  • the (re)constitution of citizenship
  • public discourse
  • agency


Questions I’m considering:

  • Does the dichotomy in discourse between public/private spheres make the symbiotic relationship between the two more difficult to see?  That is, is there something in the way we discuss public and private as separate realms that hides the way the two are imbricated?  If so, does this occlusion obstruct meaningful change (however that might be defined) in the public sphere?
  • Are there multiple public spheres (or even multiple publics) through/in which social movements communicate?  Since that seems likely, how do multiple publics (or multiple public spheres) interact to create a collective identity within a movement?

Notes on Danielle S. Allen’s Talking to Stranger: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown V. Board of Education

One of the first (if not the first) pieces of canonized literature that ever really worked for me on a personal level was Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” a long poem that the poet kept revising for most of his life.  I was in high school when I first read it, and admittedly one of the things that first endeared the poem to me was its unapologetic celebration of sexuality.  But equally intriguing to me upon subsequent reads was the way that Whitman at times reverses one of the unofficial mottoes of the United States: rather than simply reenacting the traditional E pluribus Unum in his verse, Whitman stands it on its head, making himself out of many.  Indeed, the poem opens with the famous lines, “I celebrate myself; / And what I assume you shall assume; / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”  These lines don’t just set the stage for the follow poem—a song of himself, remember—but it allows the individual to stand metonymically for the entire nation: inside of one, many.

Such a notion is partially what Whitman is getting at when he writes in the penultimate section of the poem “I am large—I contain multitudes,” and by making himself (or the speaker, if you’d prefer) the dominant metaphor of the poem, he allows for a heterogeneous conception of the nation that nevertheless represents wholeness.  In short, one of the main concepts with Whitman wrestles in the poem is the same as the major narrative thread of Allen’s Talking to Strangers: how can a democracy function in a way that accurately represents a populace as a whole instead of a unanimous, imaginary “one.”

But whereas Whitman traces democratic processes through reflection on his experiences as a journalist in New England and as a nurse during the Civil War, Allen examines such processes through her concept of “reconstitution.”  By reconstitution she means the public and ideological process through which individuals and ultimately social groups are conditioned and taught to behave in the public sphere (Althusser’s ideological state apparatus and repressive state apparatus are interesting to think about in this context).  These public behavioral norms are just as much a part of the democratic process as codified documents such as the Constitution (hence the emphasis on reconstitution).  The seminal reconstituting event that Allen returns to throughout the book is desegregation occurring after the 1954 Supreme Court ruling, Brown v. Board of Education.

Through a convincing, thoughtful rhetorical analysis of several images from desegregation events of 1957 in Little Rock, Arkansas, Allen argues that desegregation exposed the fiction of “oneness”—as opposed to “wholeness”—that still hinders the democratic process today.  The problem with oneness as a concept, for Allen, is that it hides the sacrifice and acquiescence that minorities in American democracy are forced to bear the lion’s share of.  Oneness also encourages individuals to put their trust in state institutions rather than in other individual in the public sphere.

Allen’s solutions: reciprocity through friendship and equitable self-interest (see chapter 9 in particular).

I’m interested in hearing how the group responds to Allen’s solutions, particular because I’m still parsing it myself.  Further, Allen points to many shortcomings of liberal democracy, yet it is not clear that the changes in our conceptions of citizenship she advocates are not rife with the same shortcomings.


Notes on Lauren Berlant Part 2: Now with a side of Stewart and an savory Warner sauce.

“Affect, Noise, Silence, Protest”

This essay is based on a talk Berlant delivered at the ICA conference in Chicago in 2009 and is one of the more challenging pieces for me from this week’s set of essays.  Part of my difficulty with the piece might arise from the fact that it is part of a larger body of work—the plenary talk it is based on for one, Berlant’s decades-spanning scholarship for another—but an equal part of my struggle here might be due to the way affect is discussed therein.  I’m gonna take it slow with this one.

The essay opens with an anecdote about former President Bush (the second one) and an off-handed remark he once mixaphorically made about wanting to “go over the heads of the filter and speak directly to the people.”  The filter in this remark is the media, the 24-hour news cycle that reduces the public to “a historical situation whose contours it does not know.”  As a result, the filter/media is reactionary, always at a moment of an un-nameable crisis.

After one has gotten around “the filter,” what is left is a series of affective structures.  Here’s where things get wonky for me.  Berlant writes “the affective structure of the situation is therefore anxious and the political emotions attached to it veer wildly away from recognition of the enigma that is clearly there towards explanations that make sense, the kind of satisfying sense that enables optimism for enduring.”  When we discussed this quotation in class, I interpreted incorrectly, I think, as a statement that the affective structure did just the opposite—that it led publics away from explanations that make sense, replacing such unifying, clarifying narratives with a state of flux between various affective situations.   It sounded like a passable definition of post modernism in my first reading, but now I’m not sure.

This affective response to perpetual crisis, Berlant later writes, leads us to desire alternative filters that would help us produce a more “livable and intimate sociality.”  This same desire can be read as the desire for the political.

The essay culminates in Berlant’s concept of “ambient citizenship,” which she defines as “a style appropriate to the impasse of the present that can only be encountered as degenerating, excitable, and delivered by chaotic external forces, without being, exactly, open.”  Ambient citizenship, “moves around recursively in an environment gathering things up, changing the relation between what the sense collect and the constitution of political imaginaries and practices.”  Okay.  This here at the end does sound like a post modern pastiche.


“Sex in Public” by Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner

Berlant and Warner open their article by clarifying that they are interested in a very particular aspect of sex—the way it is “mediated by publics” (547).  The main publics that they argue mediate sex are heteronormative ones, and ideology and world view they argue is paradoxically ever-present but invisible (see discussion on 552: “heterosexuality is not a thing”).  These publics privatize the sexual act (and intimacy) which, the authors argue, is itself public (see the first subheading, “There is nothing more public than privacy”).  Their ultimate goal with the article then is to promote “the radical aspirations of queer culture building” (548).  Removing heteronormative conceptions of sex that are based on the couple and the family, Berlant and Warner write, can open up a broad range of possibilities for reimagining (and realizing) “identity, intelligibility, publics, culture and sex” (548).  Thus, the essay presents a kind of utopian speculation for ways in which intimate publics (counterpublics?) can offer non-hegemonic models of resistance to / liberation from the status quo.

Something that jumped out at me in this essay is the authors’ points on the way the logic of capital functions according to its heteronormative underpinnings.  One example they cite is that of the rezoning of counterpublic sexual commerce to a low-traffic area in New York.  In order to move these businesses and maintain heteronormative hegemony, the city government must regulate capital through zoning laws, which would seem antithetical to capitalist, dominant culture ideology (that is, it works against free market principles).  Nevertheless, such regulation of capital by the government works in the interest of the status quo in the long run by reinforcing heteronormativity, an act that excludes the political & social upheaval that might accompany a homosexual counterpublic gaining enough critical mass to become influential.  This argument from Berlant and Warner rings true to me, as it has historically been the case that government regulation works in the interest of capital, often keeping competing interests from cannibalizing themselves.


“The Perfectly Ordinary Life” by Kathleen Stewart

I’ll start these notes with the easy gesture of saying I liked Stewart’s essay.  It has a vitality and creative verve to it that is absent from much scholarship, and it is clear that she has taken a Barthian approach to her topic.  That is, she presents an accumulation of anecdotes and examples that suggest, rather than argue.  (It’s worth noting that she even uses Barthes’s terminology at one point, when she writes that  “rather than seek an explanation for things presumed to be known, [she will] propose a form of cultural and political critique that side steps and drifts.”  These could be marching orders straight out of The Pleasure of the Text.)  That being said, I can see why many in academe would take issue with such a project because of its amorphous style.  To wit, the author is replicating on the level of form what she is exploring in content (if I can separate the two), and I can see that ruffling a few feathers or seeming intellectually thin in some discourse circles. I do not count myself among those circles, even if I find myself at times perplexed by Stewart’s writing.

It’s difficult to summarize Stewart’s project in this essay because she deals with affective discourse/structures in the say way that we as people encounter them: as a series of shifting events and contexts.  On the first page, Stewart claims to be interested in what she calls “emergent vitalities” and “radical singularities” that are hard to pin down because “they are not the kind of things you can get your hands on, or wrap your mind around, but things that have to be literally tracked across seemingly disparate domains of bodies, discourses, laws, loves, and labors.”  As such, the areas of affect Stewart explores are “moving targets” that do not fall into any preconceived, familiar category: race, class, ideology, gender, etc.

What I can suss out from Stewarts piece is the concept that the public and private cannot be separated in any definitive, essential way.  This point is what she gets at when she argues that the public and private have “gotten their wires crossed” and “public specters have grown intimate.”  Stewart also seems to note (like Berlant in the “Affect, Noise” piece) that there is something just beyond the edge of articulation that is happening at this point in history.