Introduction to “On Un-publics”

To skip this introduction and go directly to Daniel Dayan’s In-Depth Analysis, “On Un-publics: Former Publics, Future Publics, Almost Publics, Observers and Genealogies,” click here.

In today’s “in depth” post, Daniel Dayan examines publics in depth, from different analytic viewpoints, drawing upon the insights of a broad range of thinkers. Dayan considers what comes before and after “publics,” the diversity of types of publics, their relationships, their life histories, how their projects are realized, or not, how they are related to audiences. He analyzes the way publics perform and show, how they watch and are watched. It is an elegant and challenging rumination, valuable, because it clarifies how thinkers who often don’t seem to understand each other are actually talking to each other in a serious way. And I should add that the study of publics is especially important to me because it is my field, and Daniel and I have been talking about it for a long time. This piece advances the conversation.

I was struck by a number of telling observations, one particularly hits close to my intellectual home, related to my research on Polish theater, and my colleague, Eiko Ikegami’s studies of “linked poetry,” in her book Bonds of Civility.

“Aesthetic publics (the reading publics of literature, the active publics of theater, the connoisseur publics of music and the arts) have always been singled out as exemplary by theorists of the public sphere, and by Habermas in particular. Yet, despite this ostensible privilege, aesthetic publics have been often ignored, or analyzed as mere training grounds for political publics. ‘Salons’ were first celebrated, and then turned into antechambers to the streets. Interestingly the publics, which tend to be best studied, are political publics. Aesthetic publics have been often neglected. This is why approaches that pay aesthetic publics more than a lip service, approaches such as those of Goldfarb (2006) or Ikegami (2000) are so important.”

Ikegami and I examine the relationship between art and politics through the analysis of publics. Dayan approves. He notes that aesthetic publics have been an important topic over the years, and wonders why they have been celebrated, but then are reduced to being a means to an end, aesthetics on the road to politics. He notes that this is unsatisfactory, but really doesn’t explain why this has happened. Is it just an accident of intellectual history? He suggests that it is more than this, but doesn’t explain. I think a primary reason may be that from the point of view of publics the relationship between aesthetics and politics is often counter-intuitive, and it requires closer attention to cultural form, and the social relations surrounding such form, than analysts are willing or able to invest.

Ikegami focuses on how aesthetics create networks of relationships that are distance from the official hierarchies, Alternative social relationships are possible because they are not political in the official sense, but exactly because of this, they challenge official hierarchies. I noted a similar paradox in my study of alternative theater in Poland. A key to the persistence of the autonomy of theatrical works, and their political impact, was their focus on the artistic form of theater. I once noted that the political impact of theater was established by keeping politics out of the theater, as I put it, bringing politics in, by keeping it out.

A couple of years ago, I invited Eiko Ikegami to attend my class on the sociology of publics, when we were studying her book. Dayan joined us. It was the highpoint of the seminar. Here Dayan continues our discussion, pushing it forward, opening it to a broader public, as he explains the significance of such a move. I will publish at least one further Dayan post on this theme next week (I am hoping there will be another soon after), and I will respond more fully in due course.

To read Daniel Dayan’s In-Depth Analysis, “On Un-publics: Former Publics, Future Publics, Almost Publics, Observers and Genealogies,” click here.