Dear Paul, (Part 3)
Further thoughts on publishing as public action and poetic world-making.
Here’s the conclusion of my long conversation-letter with my friend Paul Soulellis. In it I consider publics, counterpublics and the undercommons, and how reading and publishing together are acts of poetic world-making.
If you missed them, you can catch up to Part 1 and Part 2.
It is my feeling that many of us are writing slow letters like this, even if only in our heads. Invisible and imaginary conversations are crisscrossing the space between us. Maybe we can find a way to make more of these conversations visible and shared.
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Michael Warner doesn’t stop at the rather neutral idea of ‘publics.’ He invokes political philosopher Nancy Fraser’s term: ‘counterpublics.’ The way Warner understands it, a counterpublic isn’t just another public or a ‘subpublic.’ A counterpublic stands against the dominant public sphere and actively seeks to change it.
In their widely circulated essay “The University and the Undercommons: Seven Theses,” Fred Moten and Stefano Harney offered the word ‘undercommons’ to describe a new kind of relationship to institutions, particularly the institution of the university. Members of the undercommons, subversive intellectuals, resist the professionalism and upward mobility of the institution, instead acting, sometimes criminally, to take resources and knowledge from the university and distribute them to those below and those outside its walls.
Moten and Harney say:
After all, the subversive intellectual came under false pretenses, with bad documents, out of love. Her labor is as necessary as it is unwelcome. The university needs what she bears but cannot bear what she brings. And on top of all that, she disappears. She disappears into the underground, the downlow lowdown maroon community of the university, into the Undercommons of Enlightenment, where the work gets done, where the work gets subverted, where the revolution is still black, still strong.
The undercommons is a counterpublic, in this case a one where the revolution is still black and strong.
Publishing as Public Action
Paul, I’m thinking aloud in these notes, in this letter, animated by the question, can we expand our idea of ‘making public’ and of public action? In that expansion, can we create more tools, more ways of acting and being in the world? Can these ways of acting and being help create the world we want to live in—a more just and flourishing world?
By expanding our definitions, can we also bring to light previously unrecognized forms of public action, widening the circle of who we recognize as public actors? Could this create broader coalitions of care, regeneration, and world-making?
Recognizing publishing as a form of public action is one such expansion. Publishing touches on the potential for reaching out to strangers (people we don’t yet know) and at the same time connects with the intimate theater of private thought. Writing, printing, dispersion, and circulation occur in the public sphere, but reading, thinking and feeling take place in what we usually think of as the private. This linking of public and private, of reach and intimacy, holds the possibility of understanding how change happens (in a person, in a society), and how to effect that change.
What is thrilling about the idea of publishing as ‘making public’ is that it opens the idea of publication to all the related forms of appearing in public, from street actions and demonstrations to exhibitions and performances. What is thrilling about the idea of a book (or pamphlet, poster, post) creating a public is the feeling that what was once privately thought and written can not only broadcast, but can also convene and collect.
Reading Your Way into Public
With a book in hand, reading appears to be a largely solitary endeavor. The voice of the author sounds inside the mind of the reader whose conversation with the text goes unheard by anyone else. Because that conversation is silent, we can easily forget that two or more people are speaking to each other (more, because in the reader’s mind are also other texts and other authors who naturally join in the discussion). Reading is a kind of magic trick, it is thought turned into speech and then whispered into the mind’s ear. Within the reader the voice of the text sometimes feels like the voice of another person, someone you can argue or agree with, and sometimes it feels like the voice of the self.
The voice of a text can sometimes become the voice of a group or a community, but it is not often felt so. Audible speaking, as in oratory or address, more readily causes people present together in space to feel themselves as a group with common interests. Hence the rally with its string of speeches at the protest demonstration. Hence the speeches of politicians. What is audible to one is audible to all. Listening environments (oratories, classrooms, concerts, rituals) are spaces of communion, spaces where a community comes to know itself. The written word functions differently. All of its sound occurs within the mind of the reader. The communing that takes place occurs between reader and writer, it is a more intimate (dyadic) relationship of conversation, argument, teaching, even love. Two voices go back and forth, the voice of the text and the reader’s own voice in response.
Reading is a kind of virtual reality, the reader absorbed in to the world created by the writer, collaborating with the writer in creating images, sounds, and smells. A room full of readers is a quiet room where worlds abound. How then, can we say that this clearly private, apparently solitary activity is in some sense also public? That the act of attention by the reader is part of the creation of a public or of many publics? Perhaps this seems like an academic question, but I would argue that it is a practical and urgent one. How does an individual, or a small group, come into conversation with people they don’t personally know?
In writing, and then publishing—making public, making a public—a person’s thoughts and expressions cross the threshold from a private world to a shared one; they enter Arendt’s ‘space of appearance.’ Reading (and watching, looking, hearing, etc.) is the reverse crossing of that threshold, where what is circulating publicly becomes available to enter and alter the private world of the self.
If all texts are acts of world-making
When Michael Warner says “A public is poetic world making,” how literally should we take him? What worlds is he imagining and creating as he reads, as he writes, as he publishes?
Public discourse says not only: “Let a public exist,” but: “Let it have this character, speak this way, see the world in this way.” It then goes out in search of confirmation that such a public exists, with greater or lesser success—success being further attempts to cite, circulate, and realize the world-understanding it articulates. Run it up the flagpole, and see who salutes. Put on a show, and see who shows up.
To be a ‘public action’ the content of what you are publishing or writing does not need to be overtly political. Publics can be convened by fictions, by poetry, by meandering texts that communicate as much by their way of being (their style) as by what they explicitly say. In these manners or styles, texts invite some people in and discourage others. They express possibilities of belonging, but also exclusion.
When the reader reads, they make their own text from the sequence of words they are reading. A text isn’t just more-or-less what the writer intended. Instead, it is a collaboration with the reader, a thousand collaborations with a thousand readers. If there’s a world that I can glimpse as I am writing, there are new worlds you are seeing as you read.
Paul, you are continuously creating new worlds for me. And you, reader—you friend or you stranger, you who have read this far—are you convened or gathered by this text? What is the public we are forming together? What world is it that we are making? If we make our worlds with our style of speaking as much as with any argument or assertion, what is the flavor of the world you see as you read this?
And for myself, I see that I begin from a space that my friends have made for me, gathered in by you and by Michael, by Beth (who doesn’t appear in this version of the story, but who carried me along to that bed in 2008), by Hannah, by Fred and Stefano, by Éduard. Some of these are friends I know intimately, others are those who have befriended me by gathering me in, by calling, and by my own responding. These texts offer fellowship, they offer choir.
And there we leave it for now. Write back any time.
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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.
And thanks, as well, to Michael Warner for the ongoing inspiration of his book, Publics and Counterpublics, as well as his hospitality on election night in 2008.