The Difference Publics Make

by Howard Fisher

When teaching students to anticipate how their work might circulate in the world, writing instructors understand the importance of posing questions about rhetorical ethos: who uses the writing and how the social positions of readers will shape their needs, expectations, and reliability judgements. However, in the workshop I co-led with Mckenzie Bergan earlier this semester, I argued that this approach risks being reductive. Such identity-based constructions of audience as “first-generation college students” or “people of color” sidestep the indirect and sometimes messy ways that writing moves in the world. 

The concept of publics has helped me grapple with the ways culture mediates the circulation of discourse. I find Michael Warner’s 2005 book Publics and Counterpublics particularly useful because Warner acknowledges publics’ difference from other social identities while holding onto the truth in our commonsense understanding that audience is usefully defined by patterns in material social relations. Drawing on a Marxist sociological tradition, Warner defines publics as constraining social facts that emerge from the mediated, ongoing exchange of discourse. In this view, publics can be defined as limits on the intelligibility and usability of language and the embodied habits that allow people to interact under such constraints. They comprise generic codes, specialized disciplinary idioms, and temporalities of circulation, among other limiting factors. Because they are defined by patterns in attention, uptake, and circulation, and not social belonging, publics tend toward a social open-endedness. 

And yet public membership can inflect or modify social identity and vice-versa. Discourses can mark participants in ways that become materially important, especially when rules of decorum or legal codes dictate when and where a discourse may circulate, such as is the case with discourses of race or sexuality in schools today. Although they unfold in discursive and imaginary space and time, publics can nonetheless become embodied in decisive moments when becoming the subject of a public discourse entails social stigma. Conversely, a public’s boundaries are redrawn in relation to social space when a participant speaks or writes in a way that marks the discourse, breaking the illusion of a universal, disembodied subject of public life. This is the case when language users employ vernacular or slang that grounds circulation with respect to a particular time, place, or social group. 

What does all of this mean for students learning to write? To write effectively, and in a way that anticipates the decisive role of circulation in making meaning, students need to learn not only to speak to the kinds of people they already know exist in the world, but also readers who possess the habits that allow them to participate in a public. To get there, students need the encouragement to focus on the tension between, on the one hand, who their audience is and how their social identities may shape their wants, reading habits, and expectations and, on the other hand, how participation in a discourse public might cut across social identity. In this respect, a concern for publics centers the concerns of writers: what student wants their audience to do and how this might require readers to first understand themselves differently. 

My practice of introducing publics into my teaching on circulation prioritizes the following: 

  • Focus on problem-solving. I start a circulation project by inviting students to think about audience in connection with a problem in the life of their audience’s lived community. I ask them to conduct field research about the life of the community that will be their audience. This primes students to consider the status quo and what would need to change for the problem to be resolved. 
  • Make time to consider genre and temporality of medium. In addition to crafting a carefully-worded message, students will need to align the medium of the message’s transmission with the constraints of a public that includes members of the writer’s target audience. Part of students’ early fieldwork involves interviewing people in their selected communities about where people go for information. Later in a project’s timeline, I often have students compose a plan for their textual object’s circulation that accounts for time, manner, and place of distribution. 
  • Foreground emotion work as a link between public discourse and social action. I want students to understand that their writing can apply pressure to people’s self-understandings via the way readers view themselves as members of a public, and that this shift in self-understanding can be a gateway to action. However, people don’t necessarily experience such shifts in the center of the self as logically coherent. Rather, they can experience it emotionally, as an altered or intensified feeling about people, things, and events outside themselves. I aim to give students examples of writers and creators who do emotion work that erodes the constraints on emotion within a public discourse to link participation in that discourse to political action. 
  • Hang out in the prototyping phase longer. Through conferencing around early versions of an artifact, I challenge students to refine the links they are making between the textual artifact, the artifact’s generic features, the rhetorical aim, and the constraints of public circulation. Ultimately, students do not in fact circulate their work beyond the class. This is often necessary for practical reasons, such as lack of resources to create materials for mass distribution. But it also encourages students to think big and removes lack of resources as a barrier to conceiving a closer match between the artifact and its imagined path through the world. Although this also means students will not encounter their audiences in my class, it also brackets the anxiety some students might feel when sharing their work with a broader audience. Several instructors in the workshop noted this as another common challenge to teaching circulation.