In-Depth Analysis

On Un-publics: Former Publics, Future Publics, Almost Publics, Observers and Genealogies

The Diversity of “Non-Publics”: Former Publics, Future Publics

Publics are far from constituting a monolithic ensemble, an obedient army marching in good order. The nature of their concerns allows defining at least three types of publics. First there are political publics, which could be called following Dewey’s model “issue driven” publics. Political publics are flanked on one side by taste publics or aesthetic publics, which are oriented towards “texts” or “performances.” They are flanked on the other side, by recognition seeking publics for whom the dimension of visibility tends to be a major goal (Dayan 2005, Ehrenberg 2008). “Recognition seeking publics” (such as those of soccer or popular music) use their involvement with games or performances in order to endow themselves with visible identities. They can easily turn into political publics

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.

Of course, the three types of publics outlined above are ideal types. We know they often overlap in reality. But, besides overlapping or “ morphing ” into each other, they share an important dimension. Publics have careers. They have biographies. They go through different stages, including birth, growth, fatigue, aging, death, and some -times resuscitation. Let us first address moments and ways in which publics fade, disappear, and become “non publics.”

A Matter of Life and Death

First of all, publics can die a natural death. They can become “non publics” because what brought them into life no longer exists or no longer attracts their attention. But we should also consider other, much less consensual possibilities: termination or suicide.

Publics can disappear because they have been made invisible. Sometimes there is no public to observe because a given public was denied visibility. The media who could have served as midwives turned abortionists. Potential publics went down the drain of unrealized destinies. They became “non publics” because they are made invisible, because they were terminated.

Publics can also disappear because they stopped being visible on their own; because they chose to become invisible. Instead of opting for Hirschman’s “voice” they faked “ loyalty.” They turned into “marrano” publics. They were not made invisible by others. Like Harry Potter, they chose to wear a mantle of invisibility (Dayan, 2005, Noelle Neuman I989). They were intimidated.

Most of the “non publics” discussed here tend to be publics that used to exist and exist no longer. But the temporality of  “non publics ” also includes “not yet publics,” publics that exist potentially, linger in the limbos waiting to be born. Such publics –like Sleeping Beauty – seem to be awaiting the prince charming (be it a text or an event or a conjuncture). Are they passively waiting for the kiss of life?

No. Goldfarb shows that these publics-in-the-making are far from being amorphous or idle. They not only rehearse their parts, but already enact them in improvised venues: around kitchen tables, in cinematheques, in bookstores or experimental theaters. Waiting for a chance to step on the public stage, they strike the observer by their degree of readiness. The Politics of Small Things allowed them to survive and invent substitutes to a healthy public sphere (Goldfarb 2006).

But there is yet another form of “non public.” This is what we call an “ audience.“ Such a statement calls of course for some explanation.

Full Publics, Almost Publics and Non Publics: The Question of Audiences

Publics in general can be defined in terms of the social production of shared attention. The focus of collective attention generates a variety of attentive, reactive or responsive, “bodies,” such as publics, audiences, witnesses, activists, bystanders and many others. Among such “bodies” two deserve special attention, since, in many ways, they are constructed as antonyms. “Publics“ and “audiences ” enact different roles in the economy of social attention. They also differ in relation to the autonomous or heteronomous nature of their visibility.

Publics are generally conceived as mere providers of attention, as responding bodies, as willing or unwilling resources from which seekers of collective attention will be able to help themselves. Yet publics are not always mere providers of attention. Some publics are themselves calling for attention and trying to control it. They are architects of attention, organizing the attention of other publics (towards the issues they promote).

Many publics have thus something in common with “active minorities” à la Moscovici. They purposefully act as “opinion leaders” on a large scale. Like the media, and before the media, they are providers of visibility, agents of deliberate “monstration“ (Dayan 2009). These are ”full” publics. In comparison to these full publics, audiences, no matter how active, are still confined to the reception end of communicative processes.

The question of attention is linked to the question of visibility. “Full“ publics not only offer attention, they require attention. They need other publics watching them perform. They are eager to be watched. They strike a pose. Their performance may be polemic or consensual. It cannot be invisible. Such publics must “go public” or they stop being publics. Not so for audiences. Audiences often remain invisible until various research strategies quantify, qualify, materialize, their attention. For audiences to become visible, one often needs the goggles of various methodologies (Dayan 2005).

Thus, if we use public as a generic term, and if we choose visibility as the relevant criterion, one can speak of two sorts of publics. The first sort, “full” publics, is performing out in the open. It is a collective whose nature requires the dimension of visibility. In appropriating a famous Barthes’ phrase, one could speak of “obvious“ publics. No matter how intellectually active, the second sort (“audiences”) is not publicly performing. Its habitat is the private sphere. In public terms, audiences remains invisible, unless they are made visible, materialized, conjured up as in a séance that would use statistics instead of a Ouija board. In reference to Barthes (I970) I would define “audiences” as “obtuse” publics (Dayan 2005).

Of course, one should not forget that “obvious publics“ and less obvious ones are often composed of the same people. Publics easily become audiences and vice versa. They are not separated by some conceptual iron curtain. If separated, they are separated in Goffmanian fashion. They are separated by a stage curtain; the curtain that separates public performance (“full” publics) from non performance (“almost publics”, “audiences”) (Dayan 2005). In the political domain, “audiences” become “publics” when their concern for an issue prevails over their engagement with the narrative that raised it and triggers public commitment. I suggest that it is this “coming out” in public that constitutes an audience into a full public. And of course, the same “full” public can revert to the status of a mere audience, whenever unconcerned by the issue at hand.

Audiences have been described here as “almost publics,” “obtuse publics” or “non performing publics.” Audiences seem to provide us with an interesting example of “non publics.” Yet it seems more constructive to describe them as another form of public. After all, in many languages, “public” is a generic word, covering all sorts of social bodies that provide collective attention, including what is generally understood by “audience” (Dayan 2005, Livingstone 2005).

A Genealogical View of Publics: Personae Fictae, Discursive Beings, Observable Realities

Speaking of “non-publics” presupposes of course an ontology of publics. Publics are at once discursive constructions and social realities. Must we choose?

For Schlegel, “public“ was not a thing but a thought, a postulate, “like church.” A similar awareness of possible reification is expressed by literary historian Hélène Merlin (Merlin I994), for whom the public is a “persona ficta,” a fictive being. Of course church- or, more precisely, the unity of church- is indeed a postulate. But any sociologist would point out that church is also an organized body, a political power, and an economic institution. Ambivalence concerning the reality of publics, or as it was put recently; “the real world of audiences” lingers to this day (Hartley I988, Sorlin I992).

Yet, following Hartley’s insight, it seems clear that – simultaneously, or at different times – publics do belong in Popper’s three universes: 1.) Publics are notions, ideations, or – as Schegel puts it – “postulates;” 2.) Publics also offer specific registers of action and specific kinds of subjective experiences; 3.) Publics finally constitute sociological realities that one can observe, visit or measure. Thus we might view publics as a process combining both (1) a persona ficta; (2) the enactment of that fiction; (3) resulting in an observable form of sociation. What this sequence suggests is the essential role played by the “persona ficta,” the “imagined public, “ when it comes to generating actual publics (Dayan 2005).

A public is a collective subject that emerges in response to certain fictions. Thus, as John Peters remarked a-propos Habermas’ 18th century, publics emerge through reading and discussing newspapers, where the notion of “public” is being discussed (Peters 1993). Observable realities are born from intellectual constructions. A given “persona ficta” serves as a model for an observable sociation. What is suggested here is that the observable realities differ, because the constructions that begot them also differ.

In the situation described by Peters, “public” belongs to the category of collective subjects that are imagined in the first person, by a “we.“ “Public” is then one example, among many, of “imagined communities,” the most famous of which is of course the “nation“ (Nothing surprising in this, since Anderson‘s “nations” are essentially institutionalizations of reading publics). But publics are not always imagined in the first person. Only “obvious“ publics result from autonomous processes of imagination.

In the case of other publics, imagination relies on heteronomous processes. The adopted fiction is often created by outside observers. No less than autonomous processes, heteronomous ones lead to observable realities. But they do not lead to the same realities. Different sorts of “publics” can indeed be referred to the professional bodies that produced them and to the professional or lay uses they allow.

Thus the audiences of quantitative research could be described as the result of a demographic imagination. They are the version of publics that demographers construct. Similarly, meaning-making audiences could be described as semioticians’ publics. They are produced by reception scholars either for academic purposes (extending to the speech of readers a know-how gained in the analysis of texts) or for ideological purposes (rebutting Adorno’s “great divide” and redeeming the” popular”).

Both result in observable facts. Yet a demographer’s audience and a semiotician’s audience are quite different from each other. An empirical object that consists in being counted is not the same as one that consists in being listened to. When demographers look at publics, they see age groups or classes. When semioticians look at publics, they see interpretive communities.

A last point concerning the type of public so far described as “obvious” or as “autonomous.“ It seems to be produced by the members of the public themselves, and, up to a point, it is. But of course this sort of public is also modeled by the narratives of journalism, since, beyond the publishing of polls, a large part of the journalistic production consists in what one could call “publi-graphy,“ the chronicling of publics. In a way – whether political or cultural – autonomous publics are only autonomous up to a point. They are also children of journalistic imagination.

What this genealogical analysis means is that different varieties of publics are born in the eyes of their observers. It is therefore essential to closely watch those who watch publics. Who is interested in publics? The question of “who? “ translates into the question of “why?” Why should this or that “persona ficta” be conceived at all? What purposes does it serve? Publics often start their careers as a glint in the eye of social observers.


This text represents my attempt at summarizing a few former essays on Publics. These essays are listed in the bibliography.


* Barthes, Roland (I97O ). “ le Troisième Sens. Réflexion sur quelques photogrammes d’ Eisenstein “. Cahiers du du Cinéma. Juillet I97O

* Callon, M. ( 2002 ) “ Lay scientists and Medical Publics “ Oral communication. * Autour de la notion de Public. Symposium “ Connaissance et Culture”. Université de Paris X Nanterre.. Dec 2, 2002

* Dayan, D ( I992 ) ” Les Mystéres de la Réception. ” Le Débat. n° I7. Paris Gallimard I44: I62

* Dayan, D ( I998 ) “ Le Double Corps du Spectateur : Vers une définition processuelle de la notion de public, Serge Proulx. ed Accusé de Réception.: Le Téléspectateur construit par les Sciences Sociales. Québec, Presses de l’université de Laval

* Dayan, D ( 2001) “ The Peculiar Public of Television “. Media, Culture & Society. London, Sage, vol 23, N° 6 November 2001.743-765

* D ayan, D (2005) “Paying Attention to Attention : Audiences, Publics, Thresholds & Genealogies “. Media practice” 6.1

* Dayan, D (2005) “Mothers, Midwives and Abortionists “ In Sonia Livingstone, ed. Audiences and Publics, London, Intellect press.

° Dayan, D, E Katz & Mario Mesquita (2003) Televisao, Publicos. Coimbra

* Dayan,D & E Katz (2011) Preface to Luckerhoff,J.and D. Jacobi Looking for Non-Publics. Montreal, Quebec University Press ””

* Fiske, J. ( I992 ) “Audiencing : A cultural studies approach to watching television, “.Poetics : 2I (I992) 345 – 359.

* Goldfarb, Jeffrey C. (2006) The Politics of Small Things. Chicago, University of Chicago Press

* Goffman, E.( I959) The Presentation of Self in Everyday life. Garden City, NY- Doubleday.

* Hartley, J. ( I987) “Invisible Fictions, Paedocracy, Pleasure,” Textual Practice, I : 2, I21-138

* Hartley, J. ( I988) “The Real World of Audiences,” Critical Studies in Mass Communications, Sept I998. 234-:238

* Ikegami,Eiko ( 2000 ) “A Sociological Theory of Publics: Identity and Culture as Emergent Properties in Networks,” Social research 67B

* Merlin, Heléne (1994) Public et litterature en france au XVII° siécle. Paris, les Belles lettres,

* Noelle -Neuman, E. (I984) The Spiral of Silence. Public opinion, Our Social Skin, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

* Peters, John Durham ( I993 ) “Distrust of Representation: Habermas and the Public Sphere”. Media, culture and Society. I5, 4

* Schudson, Michael (I997) “Why Conversation is not the Soul of Democracy, “ Critical Studies in Mass Communication, I4(4): 297-3O9

* Sorlin, P ( I992 ) “ le Mirage du Public “ Revue d’Histoire Moderne et contemporaine 39-I992 : 86-IO2

  • Andrew Perrin

    This is an interesting and useful analysis, but I think you underestimate the public character of audience-ness. Physical audiences (e.g., in a performance hall) construct performances in myriad ways and help establish the genre and content of the performance. Similarly audiences constituted through technical means (recorded music, electronic media, etc.) show elements of publicness (Oeffentlichkeit) constituted precisely through their common engagement with the content and the medium, as scholars as diverse as Adorno, Benedict Anderson, and Michael Warner have demonstrated.