I’ve had a thought for a while now, a question: could there be a form of slow correspondence that takes place in public, an exchange of letters that are at once personal (addressed to a particular person), and at the same time convene a wider group of readers into a conversation? Here is the beginning of one such letter, written to my friend Paul Soulellis, a very slow answer to a letter he wrote as the foreword to my book.
If anyone reading this discovers a desire to write back, to write in, (and I hope you do) this could be the start of a wider network of letters and ideas, correspondents and friendships.
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Dear Paul, I’ve been thinking of you.
On my trips upstate this fall, I was listening to Jack Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure in the car, finally catching up to a book you had been talking about a few years ago. I remember the panel you organized where I briefly shared the stage with Jack: Jack was a bit withering about my invocation of Sappho (he saw Sappho as outdated and and outmoded, too retro-lesbian rather than queer). I was all admiration despite that, though I admit I didn’t start reading the book right away. In the same way, I spent this fall reading and re-reading Michael Warner’s Publics and Counterpublics which you had been talking and writing about around that same time.
All this has gotten me thinking about the way books circulate between friends, even as also they they circulate farther. What I’ve been entranced by is the idea of Warner’s (and yours) that books, publications, make publics. I’ve been considering what a ‘public’ is, and the way in which it is composed of both friends and strangers.
I’m writing to you like this because I’ve realized that all my thinking on the subject has been permeated by yours—at every turn I find myself in conversation with something you’ve written, said, or pointed to. And I’m writing to you also because you wrote the foreword to my book as a letter, and I haven’t yet written back.
Dear reader, Hello.
Dear reader, even though I began by writing to one person, to one friend—Paul Soulellis—I realize you are also reading this. Reading over my shoulder, perhaps, or Paul’s. Somehow you found your way to this letter, this essay, and are part of this conversation.
Reader, I’m wondering: are you a stranger, or are you a friend? Or are you a stranger who might become a friend? I’m wondering because, as I told Paul, I’m thinking of the ways in which essays, books, or texts (like this one) convene people. I’m thinking of how they move from hand to hand and eye to eye, how they have been said to form ‘publics.’ how strangers and friends intertwine in these publics.
It was Paul who sent me to Michael Warner’s essay “Publics and Counterpublics”. Warner beings: “This essay has a public. If you are reading (or hearing) this, you are part of its public. So first let me say: Welcome.”
I echo: welcome.
What is a Public?
We get the word ‘public”’ from the Romans. The Latin publius comes from a fusion of the word for ‘people’ (populus) and the word for ‘adult’ (pubes). Right away you can get a sense of Roman political life.
Our more contemporary notions of what is public concern both what is visible and open, and what is common to all. Hannah Arendt, in The Human Condition, defines public in two ways:
The term “public” signifies two closely interrelated but not altogether identical phenomena: It means, first, that everything that appears in public can be seen and heard by everybody and has the widest possible publicity. For us, appearance—something that is being seen and heard by others as well as by ourselves—constitutes reality. […] Second, the term “public” signifies the world itself, in so far as it is common to all of us and distinguished from our privately owned place in it.
For Arendt, the public is the common space in which we appear to each other. It is this ‘space of appearance’ where we can affect one another, where our individual thoughts and actions can become public thoughts and actions, and in so doing shape our collective life.
In “Publics and Counterpublics,” Michael Warner distinguishes between ‘the public’ (a large and general group) and the more specific life of ‘a public’ or multiple ‘publics.’
Of the former, Warner says: “The public is a kind of social totality. Its most common sense is that of the people in general.” We often think of national publics—for instance, the American public—when the President addresses the nation, it is this public who listens.
Warner also notes that publics can also be those who are present at a specific event:
A public can also be a second thing: 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.
This kind of public is known to itself by its live presence.
Those these are important senses of ‘public,’ but there is another sense that Warner explores in his essay: “the kind of public that comes into being only in relation to texts and their circulation—like the public of this essay.” This is the public I’m most curious about.
This kind of public has several characteristics; Warner offers these ideas:
- A public is self-organized.
- A public is a relation among strangers.
- A public is constituted through mere attention.
- A public is the social space created by the reflective circulation of discourse.
- Publics act historically according to the temporality of their circulation.
- A public is poetic world-making.
All of these are evocative, but the first three work together to create a definition. The kind of public that Warner sees as being convened by publications is a self-organized relation among strangers, constituted by the act of attention people give to those publications. In giving attention to Warner’s essay, I become part of its public. In reading these words now, you become part of this public we are creating here together.
What shall we do with this public we are making?
The way Warner describes it, the publics created by texts can have effects (or agency) because they are a kind of conversation, one that takes place at a particular tempo (Warner prefers the word ‘discourse’ to conversation, pointing out that the world in which texts circulate is much wider than what we imagine as a dyadic conversation between two people—personally I think of ‘conversation’ as including multiple voices). The tempo of academic publication and discussion is quite slow—each book (or even each paper) might be years in the making and then further years in the process of publication, and then it takes more time for readers to find their way to the book, for them to take it in and respond with their own writings and publications.
This slow tempo of conversation or discourse is also the tempo of this essay. I’m writing back to Paul after years of thinking with him. Ideas circulate inside the self as well as between people and it may take a long time for a response to form.
Newspapers follow a different, daily tempo. The rhythm of social media is even faster. I watch the shockwaves of current events pass through Twitter, generating multiple fracturing publics in their wake. All this is what Warner means by “publics act historically according to the temporality of their circulation.” These differing time-scales of circulation cause different kinds of responses (and different kinds of publics) to come into being.
Also key is the final element of Warner’s list: “A public is poetic world making.” I’ll be exploring this in the next parts of this letter.
—to be continued next week.
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Paul Soulellis is an artist and educator based in Providence, RI. His practice includes teaching, writing, and experimental publishing, with a focus on queer methodologies and network culture. He is the founder of Queer.Archive.Work, an independent 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that supports artists, writers, and activists with access to space, tools, and other resources for queer publishing. He is also Department Head and Associate Professor of Graphic Design at Rhode Island School of Design.
I’m struck by the idea of a relation among strangers. I’ve never thought about having a relationship with all the people I don’t know who are reading the same text as me. So the possibility of finding out Who They Are is exciting but worrying. A bit like finding you have close DNA matches on one of those family tree websites.
For a chunk of my life I used to convene reading groups for The Reader Organisation in the UK. The sessions were very structured, because were trying to corral people into using the stories or poems - ‘using’ in something very like the sense in The Uses of Art. Stories or poems read aloud, to keep it experiential, literary analysis not particularly valued. I guess it was a way of creating a temporary public.
Your idea of a network sounds so much freer, there’s a sort of light, glancing, feeling about it. The slow tempo seems good too!
I love this.
Open ended hellos to all.
Like aloha means both hello and goodbye.
I look forward to stepping up and submitting a public letter, to all, being redundant.