In the titular essay of Publics and Counterpublics, Michael Warner identifies the seven key components to his notion of what constitutes a public. While Warner wrote and published his work at a time when one could “merely offer [the] topic [of the Internet] for speculation” (Warner 97), and thus devoted little attention to examining the function of online communities and their interactions, other scholars have since co-opted his seven “rules” (67), applying them to the “discursive,” virtual publics (68) that now populate the World Wide Web. Today, I am presumptuously including myself among the ranks of these eminent others (based solely on my purpose for writing this post, not on my credentials, I am not that presumptuous) to ponder the question: Can the Don’t Panic! blog be considered a public?
Over the course of “Publics and Counterpublics,” Warner states that:
1. “A public is self-organized” (67)
For Warner, this means that a public is not formally created by the state or other institutions, but comes into existence “independently” (68) and organizes itself “through discourse rather than through an external framework” (70).
The question is then, does Don’t Panic! meet this condition?
Well, while one could ostensibly argue that the blog is not “self-organized” (67) due to its ties to the “framework” (70) of the university, (
cruelly shattering the entire premise of my post in the process, I might add), I think it is fair to say that Don’t Panic! retains a sense of “self-organized” independence given that Alex and I are largely free to post what we like, and our “text-based” content (67) does provide a discourse. Moreover, as Warner concedes, “the self-organized nature of the public does not mean that it is always spontaneous or organically expressive of individuals’ wishes” (72), and “the premise of self-organizing […] is contradicted both by material limits […] and by internal ones, including […] the social closure entailed by any selection of genre, idiolect, style, address, and so on” (72-73), meaning that a public doesn’t necessarily need to be divorced from all “cultural forms (72) in order to be considered “self-organized” (72) as all publics and their “addresses have some social basis” (73).
So, let’s give the first premise a check, a slightly dubious check, but a check nonetheless.
2. “A public is a relation among strangers” (74)
An easy point to tick off, I would say. Although my previous post might have made light of the fact that readers of this blog were likely familiar to me, Don’t Panic! is accessible to anyone with an Internet connection, and its content is directed to innumerable others “who are identified primarily through their participation in the discourse and who therefore cannot be known in advance” (74).
3. “The address of public speech is both personal and impersonal (76)
Another fairly straightforward condition that I believe that this blog easily fulfills. In his essay, Warner writes that: “Public speech must be taken in two ways: as addressed to us and as addressed to strangers […] we might recognize ourselves as addressees, but its is equally important that we remember that the speech was addressed to indefinite others” (77). I realize that my conversational prowess and artfully convivial tone might have convinced you otherwise, but indeed, the “you” in this post and in others is not really an “actual person” (86), but multiple people who happen to “find themselves” addressed in the “discourse” of these posts (86).
4. “A public is constituted through mere attention” (87)
The fourth premise is likely the one that most defines the Don’t Panic public, or any public for that matter. According to Warner, “a public exists only by virtue of address, it must predicate some degree of attention, however, notional from its members” (87). Publics are only born when people start paying attention to them and recognize themselves as the “sorts of people” (93) addressed in their discourse. They demand constant “attention” (88) and “cease to exist” (88) at the very moment “when attention is no longer predicated” (88). Just imagine, what would happen if no one was reading this blog? Well, for one, my ego would likely take a big hit, but more importantly, Don’t Panic! wouldn’t be getting the “attention” that it not only “craves,” but also needs in order to subsist as a public (89). Try to think of the blog as being a bit like Tinker Bell, only we don’t need your applause so much as we need your “willingness to process [our] passing appeal” (89) …or your page hits.
5. “A public is the social space created by the reflexive circulation of discourse” (90)
In other words, “no texts themselves create publics, but the [series of interconnected] texts through time. Only when a previously existing discourse can be supposed, and when a responding discourse can be postulated, can a text address a public” (90). In Warner’s view, “anything that addresses a public is meant to undergo circulation” (91) as it is through the “punctual circulation” of “discourse” that publics come into being (95). People must have the opportunity to engage with “discourse” (94), and “discourse” must be allowed “to move in different directions” (95).
How do we apply this premise to Don’t Panic!?
Like all publics, the blog’s existence centres on a “discourse” that is circulated to the public at fairly regular “rhythms” (97). Readers of the site interact in the “discourse” by commenting on posts and participating in its re-circulation. Furthermore, as many of the posts are connected or respond to other “texts” and “discourses” (90), the blog also has the element of intertextuality that Warner postulates as one of the requirements of a public (91).
6. “Publics act historically according to the temporality of their circulation (96)
This is where it starts to get a little more complicated. Warner’s whole reason for discounting the Internet and its role in facilitating the creation of publics is that: “Web discourse has very little of the citational field that would allow us to speak of it as discourse unfolding through time” (97). He posits that the Internet’s lack of “punctual rhythms may make it very difficult to connect localized acts of reading to the modes of agency in the social imaginary of modernity” (98). To put it more plainly, the fact that the Internet allows discourse to circulate “continuous[ly]” rather than “punctual[ly]” (98), and the difficulty in knowing “how recently [something] was posted or revised, or how long it will continue to be posted” (97-98) pose a challenge for Warner as he believes that “a public can only act within the temporality of the circulation that gives it existence” (96).
While it can’t be denied that the wide uptake of the Internet has dramatically changed how “discourse” is circulated, improvements in online archiving have somewhat undermined Warner’s speculation about whether “developments in technology will be assimilable to the temporal framework of public discourse” (98). Moreover, similarly to more ‘conventional’ forms of “discourse,” blog-based “discourses” like Don’t Panic! are also disseminated over time, rather than all at “once,” with each new post contributing to the “activity,” “duration” and “ongoing life” of its public (97).
Another tentative check.
7. “A public is poetic world making” (114)
That is, any “speech or performance addressed to a public [tries] to specify in advance, in countless highly condensed ways, the life world of its circulation […] Public discourse says not only ‘Let a public exist’ but ‘Let it have this character, speak this way, see the world in this way’” (114). In the case of Don’t Panic!, the public for this blog has essentially been decided by the content of our posts or by our “discourse” (114). While most anyone can have access to the blog, it is not everyone who belongs to its public as the materials discussed on this site, the types of address used, the “idioms, stylistic markers, […] and so on” (114) are not necessarily applicable or relevant to all individuals.
That brings our final tally to: seven out of seven. Well, there you have it, we fit the bill! Or, as Warner would say, “this [blog] has a public. If you are reading (or hearing) this, you are part of its public. […] Welcome” (65).
Warner, Michael. Publics and Counterpublics. Brooklyn, NY: Zone Books, 2002. Print.