Inquisitive person: What exactly is ‘Public Texts’?
At the beginning of the year, I wasn’t exactly sure how to answer that question. So, like anyone faced by a question they can’t really answer, I improvised by basically defining each word to the inquirer. Just recently, I was asked this question again; however, this time I am a little more prepared. As I have discovered, my initial answer wasn’t too far from correct. “Public” can be defined in numerous way. ‘The public’ refers to, of course, the general public – average everyday folk, consumers, ‘the people,’ and/or essentially anyone grouped into the social landscape within a nation, a society, a space or a place. ‘The public’ is relatively ambiguous compared to ‘a public.’ I refer here to Michael Warner, who explains the term in his book, Publics and Counterpublics. Warner defines ‘a public’ as,
a concrete audience, a crowd witnessing itself in visible space, as with a theatrical public. Such a public also has a sense of totality, bounded by the event or by the shared physical space. A performer on stage knows where her public is, how big it is, where its boundaries are, and what the time of its common existence is. A crowd at a sports event, a concert, or a riot might be a bit blurrier around the edges, but still knows itself by knowing where and when it is assembled in common visibility and common action (Warner, Publics and Counterpublics).
‘A public’ comes off as a more concrete thing. It is defined by space, time, and/or a context that is more narrowly defined than ‘the public.’
Now the ‘texts’ part. I’m going to attempt this without meaning to offend any scholar with issues regarding this term. ‘Text’ is defined in regards to an object’s ability to be read and understood. For instance, a city or urban environment can be a text if its architecture, planning, and/or aesthetics are considered. A text can be a book (the obvious one), a painting, a film, or a theatrical production. Street performances? A text. Food menus? A text. Lighting composition in a dance performance? A text.
So, I’ll finally give the full term a shot. The ‘Public Texts’ program looks at how publics create, circulate, and interact with texts. It is a broad term that allows for dissecting in classes. So far, in our classes we have delved into evolution of print culture in the West and throughout the world (I state the West first because that is how we navigated the course – don’t throw postcolonialism at me, since we talked about how our methodologies reflected that too); the development of the ‘bourgeois public sphere’ in the West (I flinch a little at memories of Habermas); the creation of nationhood and nationalism; queer publics (or is it counterpublics?); punk subculture and other musical subcultures; disease publics; and the birth of mass culture in the twentieth century. Individually, our class has looked at topics ranging from the publics of Shakespeare’s later texts; how e-text sales compare to print text sales on the market; the place of the indie book store in a consumerist society; the past and present place of YA fiction; and digital pedagogy compared to the use of print books in the classroom (to name of few of our eclectic ideas).
We’ve covered a lot of ground over the past six month and there is still some left. It seems like our program is quite a universe of ideas, or potential ideas. One thing is for sure, the program requires grads to be innovative. Far from merely using skills you (hopefully) picked up while in your B.A., the Public Text program requires interaction with many different disciplines, while taking a literary or cultural approach towards the texts you study. Theory meets practice, as seen in some of the projects which look at editorial theory and publishing. The program seems job-directed – an investment – but also provides the groundwork for potential future studies in an array of fields stemming from the humanities to the arts and social science.
So, for anyone who asks what “Public Texts” is (!), just repeat the above. Or copy and paste it and send it to them. They will never ask again.
Another thing is also for sure: ‘Public Text’ is quite a deceiving title. So innocent. I can’t talk about that part of the program 😉