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Abstract

As conceptual models of the public sphere have moved toward multiplicity, “counterpublic” has emerged as a critical term to signify that some publics develop not simply as one among a constellation of discursive entities, but as explicitly articulated alternatives to wider publics that exclude the interests of potential participants. This essay attempts to forestall potential reductionism in future counterpublic theory by considering through 3 “ominous examples” how the “counter” in counter-publics may be reduced to persons, places, or topics. Instead, this essay seeks to orient critical attention to the discursive quality of counterpublics. It argues that the ways in which counterpublics set themselves against wider publics may be most productively explored by attending to the recognition and articulation of exclusion through alternative discourse norms and practices.
Robert
Asen
Communication
Theory
Ten:
Four
November
2000
Pages
424-446
Seeking the “Counter” in
Counterpublics
As
conceptual models
of
the public sphere have moved toward multi-
plicity, “counterpublic” has emerged
as
a critical term to signify that
some publics develop not simply as one among
a
constellation of discur-
sive entities, but as explicitly articulated alternatives to wider publics
that exclude the interests
of
potential participants. This essay attempts
to forestall potential reductionism in future counterpu blic theory
by
con-
sidering through
3
“ominous examples” how the “counter”
in
counter-
publics
may
be reduced to persons, places,
or
topics. Instead, this essay
seeks to orient critical attention to the discursive quality of counterpublics.
It argues that the
ways
in which counterpublics set themselves against
wider publics
may
be most productively explored by attending to the
recognition and articulation of exclusion through alternative discourse
norms and practices.
Recent theorizing in the interdisciplinary study of the public sphere has
pushed the literature in the direction
of
multiplicity. Scholars have re-
jected in large measure the bourgeois notion
of
a singular, overarching
public sphere into which all citizens potentially enter as private persons
who form a public that, acting in an advisory capacity, debates the ac-
tivities
of
the state (see Habermas, 1962/1989, 1974).
In
her oft-cited
critique, Nancy Fraser
(
1992) discerns an underlying assumption struc-
turing this bourgeois public that regards the circumscription of public
deliberation to a single, encompassing arena as “a positive and desirable
state
of
affairs, whereas the proliferation of a multiplicity
of
publics
represents a departure from, rather than an advance toward, democ-
racy” (p. 122). Scholars have reversed this conceptual ordering. Seyla
Benhabib (1996) rejects the notion
of
a singular, overarching public sphere
in favor
of
a “plurality
of
modes
of
association” that constitute a me-
dium of mutually interlocking and overlapping networks of opinion for-
mation and dissemination. Charles Taylor (1995) proposes a model of
“nested public spheres” in which smaller public spheres nested within
larger ones feed into the agenda of a national public sphere. Jane
Copyright
0
2000
International Communication Association
424
“Counter”
in
Counterpublics
Mansbridge
(1
996)
envisions persons oscillating between “protected
enclaves”
to
explore ideas in an environment of mutual encouragement
and broader surroundings
to
test ideas against the reigning reality. Gerard
Hauser
(1998, 1999)
describes the public sphere as a “reticulate struc-
ture” in which discursive practices form a lattice of spaces with bound-
aries
of
variable permeability.
This movement toward multiplicity has been spurred by recognition
of
social complexity and sociocultural diversity.
A
single, overarching
public sphere ignores or denies social complexity insofar
as
it
invokes a
notion of publicity as contemporaneous face-to-face encounters among
all citizens potentially affected by issues under consideration. Attempts
to
simulate such wide-scale communal presence through nationwide elec-
tronic town meetings confront substantial logistical obstacles and stumble
on grounds of economic stratification (Barber,
1997).
Moreover, these
electronic “agoras” threaten to eclipse the deliberative functioning
of
the public sphere and reduce citizen participation to registering unreflected
preferences through a vast telecommunications network (Schudson,
1992;
Fishkin,
1995).
A
singular public sphere also suppresses sociocultural
diversity in constituting an arena inimical to difference.
As
Foucault
(1980),
among others, has argued, norms always already operative in
discursive encounters implicate relations
of
power. Thus, the often-im-
plicit norms regulating discourse in any one sphere at one time are likely
to
advantage some participants and to disadvantage others. Iris Young
notes that participatory norms are “powerful silencers or evaluators
of
speech in many actual speaking situations where culturally differenti-
ated and socially unequal groups live together”
(1996,
p.
124).
If
hy-
postatized in a singular public sphere, these norms link
up
with similarly
reified, already established notions
of
the common good to function as
complementary exclusionary mechanisms that restrict discursive engage-
ment and undermine the interests
of
oppressed groups. In this way, ac-
tual exclusions belied the claims of open access and debate that legiti-
mated the historical bourgeois public sphere.
Counterpublics emerge
as
a kind of public within a public sphere con-
ceived as a multiplicity. They illuminate the differential power relations
among diverse publics of
a
multiple public sphere. Counterpublics sig-
nal that some publics develop not simply as one among a constellation
of
discursive entities, but
as
explicitly articulated alternatives
to
wider
publics that exclude the interests
of
potential participants. Counterpublics
in turn reconnect with the communicative
flows
of a multiple public
sphere. Counterpublic theory discloses relations
of
power that obliquely
inform public discourse and, at the same time, reveals that participants
in the public sphere still engage in potentially emancipatory affirmative
practice with the hope that power may be reconfigured. Such disclosure
425
Communication
Theory
and revelation indicate the utility of “counterpublic” as a critical term.
Serving in conceptual models and criticism of discourse in the public
sphere, the term foregrounds contest among publics, exclusions in the
discursive practices of publics, and attempts
by
some publics to over-
come these exclusions. Counterpublic signals critical awareness that
participants in the public sphere sometimes join with others and set them-
selves against wider publics and their discursive exclusions. That some
publics articulate a counter status to others intimates that engagement
among publics sometimes involves struggle and that counterpublics en-
counter resistance in their efforts to reconfigure the discursive practices
of wider publics. These qualities
of
discourse in a public sphere and
relations among publics may be deemphasized or left unattended
if
crit-
ics and theorists cease using counter as a prefix to describe some publics
in a multiple public sphere.
Yet, the important contributions of work in counterpublic theory leave
unanswered (and, for that matter, unasked) a significant question: What
is counter about counterpublics? Reformulations of the bourgeois pub-
lic sphere highlight the interactions and permeations of publics in a
multiple public sphere, but only allude to the qualities
of
their differen-
tial relations. Counterpublics have been studied in various contexts,
but
these insightful investigations have tended
to
focus on discourse within
a counterpublic (see, e.g., Maguire
&
Mohtar,
1994;
Gregory,
1995).
Perhaps such neglect is not surprising, for public itself is a polysemous
term that denotes something accessible, relevant, or known to all. Still,
scholars ought to seek the counter in counterpublics because multiplic-
ity
has come
to
typify theorizing about the public sphere and counter-
public has emerged as a critical term in this theorizing. Moreover, pur-
suing this question directly may forestall reductionism in future scholar-
ship. Reductionism is likely
to
stem from explicitly fixing or implicitly
relying on persons, places,
or
topics as necessary markers
of
counterpublic
status. That
is,
though counterpublics emerge in constellations of these
three elements, reductionism manifests
if
theorists and critics regard a
particular person, place, or topic as necessarily defining the limits of a
counterpublic.
All
three potential reductions portend unfortunate con-
sequences for studies
of
a multiple public sphere.
Directly seeking the counter in counterpublics may itself lead
to
re-
ductionism insofar as the effort produces a binary opposition of counter
and public.’ This outcome would commit in bifurcated form errors ex-
cavated in the bourgeois public sphere: a binary opposition of counter
and public would replace a putatively undifferentiated bourgeois public
with a single “main~tream” public and its corollary counterpublic. This
danger may be averted by emphasizing manifold relations among mul-
tiple publics, some of which may articulate an explicitly counter status.
426
“Counter”
in
Counterpublics
More pressing is the perspective that may be gained by disclosing pos-
sible sites of reductionism in future scholarship by making problematic
assumptions explicit. Descriptively, seeking the counter in counterpublics
permits critics and theorists to consider how well we convey in our work
the texture, dynamism, and multidirectionality of public discourse in
moments of social dialogue and episodes of controversy, debate, and
contestation. Prescriptively, this pursuit may lead to conceptual models
that anticipate the overcoming
of
exclusions
in
the “actually existing”
public sphere by bringing into clearer view aspects
of
public discourse
informed by the differential relations of interlocutors in the public sphere.
In this essay,
I
argue that public sphere scholars ought to seek the
counter of counterpublics in participants’ recognition of exclusion from
wider public spheres and its articulation through alternative discourse
practices and norms. After a brief explication
of
the dialectical move-
ment
of
counterpublics amid the multiple publics of the public sphere,
this essay develops through two main sections. The first cautions against
reductionism that fixes or relies on counter as necessarily constituted in
particular persons, places, or topics.
In
amplifying this caution,
I
offer
examples
of
how reductionism along these lines might occur. My ex-
amples add a further dimension to the possible pitfalls already men-
tioned by exhibiting, in turn, a potential problem of reading, criticism,
and theory. Thus, the examples
of
persons, places, and topics also serve
as varied instances
of
how reductionism might proceed through mis-
reading, critical valorization, and theoretical blindness. The second main
section attempts
to
orient our critical vocabulary and to draw
multidisciplinary attention to the communicative processes
of
recogni-
tion and articulation
of
exclusion and resolve
to
overcome
it.
Focusing
not on exclusion per se but
on
the recognition of exclusion avoids essen-
tialist understandings
of
difference and situates counter as a constructed
relationship. This perspective calls attention to the collectives that emerge
through recognition-collectives that emerge in
our
multiple everyday
identifications and affiliations and through coalitions and assertions of
identity that acknowledge dilemmas
of
difference. The aim of this sec-
ond section, then, is not
to
undo current theorizing but to build upon
and orient counterpublic theory. The conception
of
counter proposed in
this essay seeks
to
account for social complexity and sociocultural diver-
sity that have motivated movement toward multiplicity in public sphere
studies.
Emergence
of
Counterpublics
Critical attention to counterpublics has emerged in efforts
to
rethink the
bourgeois public sphere more inclusively without abandoning its prom-
Communication
Theory
ise
of
a critical publicity. In this respect, Fraser holds that
“no
attempt to
understand the limits
of
actually existing late-capitalist democracy can
succeed without in some way or another making use of [Habermas’s
early conception of the public sphere explicated in
Structural Transfor-
mation]”
(1992, p.
111).
Fraser and Rita Felski (1989) have been promi-
nent proponents of counterpublic theory. Their explications of counter-
publics and counterpublic spheres have introduced the terms to many
and have informed explorations of engagements of counter with public.
Fraser argues that the need for counterpublics arises from the ways in
which social inequalities in stratified societies can “infect” deliberation
even
in
the absence of formal exclusions. The historical bourgeois pub-
lic sphere required from participants a bracketing of status inequalities.
This requirement called upon participants to address each other as
if
they were social and economic peers. Fraser counters that inequalities
should be unbracketed in public discourse and thematized as topics
of
deliberation. Thematization, however, does not insulate discursive are-
nas from the distorting effects of social inequalities. Deliberative pro-
cesses in public spheres tend to advantage dominant groups and to disad-
vantage subordinate groups.
In
this context, Fraser advocates
counterpublics
so
that members
of
subordinated groups may engage
in communicative processes beyond the supervision of dominant
groups.
Fraser defines counterpublics as “parallel discursive arenas where
members of subordinated social groups invent and circulate counter-
discourses to formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities,
interests, and needs” (1992, p. 123). Counterpublics respond
to
the ex-
clusions of dominant publics and, in the process, help
to
expand discur-
sive space. They manifest a publicist orientation and aspire to wider
circulation
of
counterdiscourses. Counterpublics have a dual character:
“On the one hand, they function as spaces
of
withdrawal and
regroupment; on the other hand, they function as bases and training
grounds for agitational activities directed toward wider publics” (p. 124).
Fraser explains that emancipatory potential resides in the dialectic be-
tween these two functions. Through wider engagement, counterpublics
may offset-but not overcome entirely-discursive privilege.
Felski describes counterpublic spheres as critical oppositional social
forces that assert distinctiveness against the homogenizing, critically
denuding tendencies of the “global megaculture
of
modern mass com-
munication as a debased pseudopublic sphere” (1989, p.
166).
Counter-
public spheres articulate oppositional needs and values not addressed by
this global megaculture. Felski situates counterpublic spheres as mul-
tiple and heterogeneous social forces that do not converge to form a
single, coordinated revolutionary movement. The emancipatory projects
428
“Counter”
in
Counterpublics
of
counterpublic spheres do not appeal to an ideal of universality (as did
the historical bourgeois public sphere) but, rather, advance affirmations
of specificity in relation to gender, race, sexuality, ethnicity, and other
axes of difference.
Appeals
to
difference constitute a “partial or counter-public sphere”
(Felski,
1989,
p.
167).
Partiality enables the formation
of
a common
identity among participants in a counterpublic sphere. This common
identity unites participants beyond their individual differences. Partici-
pation in counterpublic spheres relies not
on
an acceptance
of
a “clearly
delineated theoretical framework, but
on
a more general sense of com-
monality in the experience
of
oppression” (p.
167).
Felski holds that
“the experience
of
discrimination, oppression, and cultural dislocation
provides the impetus for the development
of
a self-consciously opposi-
tional identity” (p.
167).
Partiality, however, does not signal separatism.
Counterpublic spheres maintain their public character by directing their
arguments outward to society as a whole.
In
this way, they serve a dual
function. Referencing the feminist counterpublic sphere, Felski explains
that, “internally,
it
generates a gender-specific identity grounded in a
consciousness of community and solidarity among women; externally,
it
seeks
to
convince society as a whole
of
the validity
of
feminist claims”
(p.
168).2
Felski regards the outward extension of feminist discourse as
a necessary corollary
of
its claims to represent a catalyst
of
social and
cultural change.
Though they employ different modes of counter-counterpublic and
counterpublic sphere respectively-Fraser and Felski’s formulations re-
veal important similarities. Both focus
on
subordinated or oppressed
persons and groups as likely constituents of counterpublic arenas.
Both
highlight counterpublics’ dual function of withdrawal and reentry into
the wider communicative flows
of
the public sphere. This dual function-
ing underscores the publicist as opposed to isolationist orientation
of
counterpublics. Fraser
(
1992)
addresses this issue directly. Opposing a
separatist reading
of
counterpublics, she asserts that “insofar as these
arenas are publics, they are by definition not enclaves, which is not to
deny that they are often involuntarily enclaved” (p.
124).
In
engaging
publicity, counterpublics affirm
a
belief in the transformative power of
discourse. Their publicist orientation suggests that the consequences
of
exclusion-suppression
of
identities, interests, and needs-can be over-
come. Yet,
both
Fraser and Felski recognize struggle and contest among
publics. The effort to publicize alternative interpretations of identities,
interests, and needs is not a unidirectional process of wider and wider
circulation. These alternative interpretations enter into the turbulent flow
of
discourse as counterpublics seek wider engagement. The dialectical
movement
of
counterpublics and their struggles with wider publics over
429
Communication
Theory
discursive circulation intimate the fluidity of counter and the limitations
of
fixing counter in persons, places, or topics.
Potential Reductions
of
Counter to Persons,
Places, and Topics
In
this section, I consider potential reductions
of
counter to persons,
places, and topics to forestall such reductions in future counterpublic
theory and criticism.
In
exploring how these reductions might unfold,
I
simultaneously consider how reading, criticism, and theory may be im-
plicated in reductive moves, as my examples successively demonstrate
potential problems arising from these three modes of inquiry. However,
my layering of this conceptual dimension onto potential paths
of
reduc-
tionism should not be taken
to
indicate a series
of
couplings, as if reduc-
tions to people occur only
in
misreadings, reductions
to
places only by
critical valorization, and reductions to topics only through theoretical
blindness. Reductions to people, for instance, may proceed by reading,
criticism, or theory. However, the aims
of
this section do not call for
such exhaustive schematization, as the three potential paths of reduc-
tionism that follow may best be regarded
as
“ominous examples” rather
than as efforts
to
survey widespread developments in scholarly litera-
ture.
As
these comments suggest, my purpose is not to offer a typology
of
alternative discourse forms. The cautionary tales told here are re-
counted for their analytic and heuristic value. The point cannot be over-
emphasized that counterpublics as discursive entities emerge in a
mul-
tiple public sphere through constellations of persons, places, and topics.
Moreover, my outlining
of
three potential paths of reductionism ought
not foreclose investigatior, of people, places, and topics as elements of
critical analysis.
Before attending to a potential reduction of counter to people, it is
important to affirm the value
of
studying the advocates who engage one
another in the “actually existing” public sphere, especially those who
act as participants in counterpublics. Focusing critical attention
on
per-
sons
excluded from or disadvantaged in wider public spheres illumi-
nates the experiences and struggles of individuals and groups harmed by
putatively disinterested rules
of
discourse and deliberation. Such harm
has not been suffered randomly. One need only be reminded of the
struggle
for
civil rights in the United States to recognize that certain
individuals and groups historically have been more likely to be excluded
from or disadvantaged in public forums than others. In this respect,
critics have faulted Jurgen Habermas’s widely known history of the bour-
geois public sphere,
The
Structural Transformation
of
the
Public
Sphere
(1962/1989),
for neglecting the exclusion of women and laborers (see,
430
“Counter”
in
Counterpublics
e.g., Eley, 1992; Landes, 1988). Critics argue that women’s exclusion
from the historical bourgeois public sphere was constitutive in that bour-
geois notions of reason and universality arose in contrast
to
the subjuga-
tion of women in the domestic sphere (Pateman, 1988). In more recent
reflections
on
his earlier work, Habermas (1992, p. 428) concedes that
women’s exclusion structured the historical bourgeois public sphere by
determining its relationship
to
the private sphere in a gender-specific
fashion.
Yet, seeking the counter of counterpublics in persons undermines the
public quality
of
counterpublics. If counter and “group” are coexten-
sive, then counterpublics transfigure into enclaves-not involuntarily
through discursive struggle among publics informed by relations
of
power,
but at the moment of critical identification. My example for this poten-
tial path of reduction comes from a surprising source: the work
of
Nancy
Fraser. Her description
of
counterpublics admits at least
two
possible
readings, each with decidedly different conceptual consequences. The
first reading asserts a view
of
counterpublics as social, discursive entities
that may not be reduced
to
the identity
of
their participants. Indeed,
Fraser’s definition of counterpublics, quoted in the previous section
of
this essay, begins by describing them as “parallel discursive arenas”
(
1992,
p. 123). A focus on discourse appears at various moments in her essay,
perhaps most explicitly as she recounts the conflictive historical rela-
tionship between bourgeois publics and other publics. She notes that
“virtually from the beginning, counterpublics contested the exclusion-
ary norms
of
the bourgeois public, elaborating alternative styles of PO-
litical behavior and alternative norms
of
public speech” (1992,
P.
116).
This focus on discourse persists as Fraser elucidates the emancipatory
potential and the widespread benefits counterpublics offer the public
sphere generally. Namely, they may assist in expanding discursive space
for all participants in the public sphere. When they respond to the exclu-
sions
of
dominant publics, counterpublics may contribute to discursive
expansion because “in principle, assumptions that were previously exempt
from contestation will now have to be publicly argued out” (1992, p. 124).
Another reading may be gleaned from Fraser’s (1992) work, however,
a reading that locates the counter of counterpublics in the subordinated
status of participants. In this reading, dominant groups battle subordi-
nate groups in opposing publics and counterpublics. This reading emerges
as Fraser asks, “What institutional arrangements will best help narrow
the gap in participatory parity between dominant and subordinate
groups?” (p. 122). Here, the impression arises that counterpublics may
be institutionally secured measures for the greater participation
of
sub-
ordinated groups. This impression sharpens as Fraser holds that the de-
liberative processes
of
unequal societies tend
to
“operate to the advan-
43
1
Communication
Theory
tage of dominant groups and to the disadvantage of subordinates” (pp.
122-123). Counterpublics appear in these societies as a needed remedy.
Were deliberation
in
unequal societies
to
proceed in a singular public
sphere, “members
of
subordinated groups would have no arenas for
deliberation among themselves about their needs, objectives, and strate-
gies. They would have
no
venues in which
to
undertake communicative
processes that were not, as it were, under the supervision of dominant
groups” (p. 123). Under these circumstances, subordinate groups would
be “less able than otherwise
to
articulate and defend their interests in
the comprehensive public sphere” (p. 123). In this second reading, the
alternative quality
of
counterpublics emerges crucially from their popu-
lation by members
of
subordinated groups.
Critiques of identity politics undermine efforts
to
identify any par-
ticular group as a counterpublic, insofar as the identification necessarily
arises from the common identity of the participants. Though she wishes
to employ difference as a resource for public discourse, Iris Young (1997)
argues that identity-based conceptions founder against the dilemmas of
difference. She maintains that these conceptions
of
group difference in-
voke an essentialism that coagulates fluid social relations by construct-
ing rigid inside-outside distinctions among groups. Such conceptions
imply that all members of
a
group have the same interests and agree
on
strategies
to
promote their interests. Further,
Young
asserts that iden-
tity-based conceptions of group difference deny differentiation within
and across groups. She explains that “everyone relates
to
a plurality
of
social groups; every social group has other social groups cutting across
it”
(1997, p. 388). This does not mean that identity is irrelevant to
counterpublics.
To
be sure, social inequality
is
pervasive and adversely
affects the lives of citizens simply because others perceive them as be-
longing to a particular group. Such belonging, however, which oftentimes
cannot be disavowed, is by itself an insufficient and sometimes unneces-
sary marker of counterpublic status.
A
reductive reading fixed
on
group
identity compounds this problem by foreclosing emancipatory possibili-
ties: It reifies an often-imposed group identity and denies diverse coali-
tion building as a source of counterpublic participation. These potential
consequences recommend a reading
of
counterpublics that emphasizes
discursive engagement within and across publics.
A
second possible path of reduction consists in viewing particular
places as necessarily counter. Possible reductionism, however, does not
diminish the value
of
studying the varied forums in which the public
sphere manifests. Inquiry into these forums offers
to
further studies in
the public sphere in two important ways. First, these investigations may
illuminate changing historical conditions that invite the expression of
alternative perspectives. Second, such attention may bring into sharp
432
“Counter”
in
Counterpublics
relief the unstated rules that operate in a particular, wider forum at a
particular historical moment
to
disadvantage some potential participants.
Yet seeking the counter of counterpublics in particular places risks fix-
ing them as productive of only one kind of discourse. Though some
forums may be more receptive more often than others to the expression
of alternative perspectives, any forum at a particular moment may host
a variety of discourses. Moreover, viewing particular fora as necessarily
counter discounts the possibility that discursive engagement may dis-
rupt operative norms and engender counterdiscourses in ostensibly wider
public spheres. My example
of
this second possible reduction concerns a
specific case
of
critical valorization. In this instance, critical apprecia-
tion of a cultural artifact-the television talk show-extends beyond an
appreciation of the artifact in its historical context to assert the claim
that the site
of
the television talk show (indeed, the television studio
itself) necessarily produces counterdiscourse.
Lauding a new cultural formation, Paolo Carpignano, Robin Ander-
son,
Stanley Aronowitz, and William DiFazio
(1993)
view the television
talk show
as
a site of critical oppositional discourse. Carpignano et al.
argue against a view that attributes a decline in politics to its descent
into spectacle. They insist that spectacle has always informed politics,
but that political elites have maintained their prominence by enforcing a
structural separation between themselves as message sources and the
public as docile audience members. Carpignano et al. welcome what
they regard as a crisis in the spectacle form itself that undermines the
separation between performance and audience and calls into question
“the very structure of the separation between production and consump-
tion of cultural products” (p.
96).
Outlining a typology of publics on television, Carpignano et al.
(1993)
discern empowerment in the public
of
the television talk show. In this
role, the public casts
off
its status as passive witness and gains full recog-
nition as protagonist. The talk show enacts a public rite of hospitality
that links participants together through conversation. It invites audi-
ence members
to
participate in a communal event. The television frame
of
the talk show presents a spatial orientation not confined to the visual
space of the camera but occupied by the physical space of the show.
Editing strives
to
reveal rather than narrate the place of the television
studio. Developments in the talk show format have augmented the shared
presence of the genre by situating the public “literally on center stage.”
Though the audience-as-public does not appear in a “starring role,” the
“show is constructed around the audience” (p.
111).
The studio audi-
ence participates in writing the show’s script.
The talk show produces a new kind of common sense as a product of
an electronically defined common place that serves as a public. The talk
433
Communication
Theory
show format eschews the structure
of
formal debate. It offers “not a
balance of viewpoints but a serial association of testimonials”
(Carpignano et al., 1993, p.
115).
The electronic space of the television
talk show enables
the empowerment
of
an
alternative discursive practice. These discourses do not have
to
conform
to
the dictates
of
civility
or
the general interest. They can be expressed for what
they are: particular, regional, one-sided, and for that reason politically alive. (p.
116)
Carpignano et al. hold that the commotion created by the talk show
format does not indicate a trivializing of intellectual discourse. They
retort that “what is expressed is not a refusal of knowledge but of exper-
tise” (p.
117).
The common sense of the television talk show rejects the
authority of the expert and replaces this authority with the narratives of
lived experience.
Carpignano et al.’s (1993) celebration
of
the television talk show as a
site for alternative discourse practice neglects the ambiguities of any dis-
course venue. Common sense, which they contrast with elite knowl-
edge, is an important practical knowledge that may spur ameliorative
social action, but common sense also may serve as a source of racism,
xenophobia, and other prejudices. Moreover, Carpignano et al.’s
unnuanced defense of television talk shows elides discursive justifica-
tion and recognition of diverse views among participants. Referencing a
show denounced by some for its Rabelaisian themes, they celebrate its
audience contributions as “simply asserted, commonsense, based on their
own experience” (p.
11
8).
This endorsement of simple assertion situates
audience participation as deeply authentic discourse and relieves par-
ticipants of any obligation to explain their views to others with regard
for others’ interests and experiences.
As
Lisa McLaughlin (1993) notes,
in valorizing the television talk show, Carpignano et al. ignore the ways
in which these sites recreate the unequal conditions of the bourgeois
public sphere by, for example, enacting a machismo that represents the
exclusion of women as an expression
of
working-class interest. She holds
that Carpignano et al.’s approach fails to account for the tendency
of
a
representational apparatus to inscribe dominant discourses alongside
alternative ones. In this respect, Carpignano et al. dismiss potentially
disempowering tendencies of the television talk show. They insist that
the authority structure of the talk show embodied in the host “is not
different from that
of
any informal group”
(p.
114). Carpignano et al. en-
gage in reductionism by valorizing the talk show format as a realization,
enacted in the place of the television studio,
of
the electronic medium’s
capacity for dissolving distinctions between producers and consumers.
434
“Counter”
in
Counterpublics
A
third possible path of reduction lies in topics, but here too it is
important to affirm the value of studying how topics enter and circulate
within the public sphere. Focusing on the topics that counterpublics have
injected into wider public agendas reveals transformations in collective
understandings
of
public and private as well as of the common good.
Topics mark movement and engagement and signal the processes through
which transformations occur. Moreover, attention
to
topics discloses a
historical record of concerns and interests of persons on the margins.
Such attention may discbse various regimes of marginalization. Yet seek-
ing the counter of counterpublics in particular topics commits errors
paralleling a priori distinctions
of
public and private (this time through
an opposition of counter and public) that have functioned historically to
exclude from public life the needs and interests
of
some groups. That is,
fixing a topic as necessarily counter functions
to
marginalize interests in
a way similar
to
that by which a “rhetoric of privacy” (Fraser, 1992,
p. 131) has functioned historically
to
exclude the interests of women
and laborers. Further, this sort
of
reduction ascribes a unidirectionality-
from margin to center-to public discourse that discounts how topics
may emerge as concerns
of
counterpublics only after discursive engage-
ment with wider publics. Engagement may engender the articulation of
previously unknown or unrealized interests and issues.
To
illustrate a
potential topical reduction,
I
evoke as an example the political philoso-
phy of liberalism and attempts to accommodate diversity in a liberal
public sphere.
A
principal concern of liberal political philosophy is the question of
legitimacy, that is, how citizens may justify to one another the install-
ment
of
a political regime and the exercise of power, which entails some
coercion. The question of political legitimacy is especially acute in con-
temporary diverse societies, for citizens hold varied and often compet-
ing visions of the good life. A liberal model
of
the public sphere re-
sponds
to
this situation by positing a principle of neutrality: In legitima-
tion discourses, citizens ought not
to
advance reasons that assert the
superiority
of
one particular conception of the good over another. Neu-
trality imposes a moral duty of civility upon citizens that obligates them
to
conduct their discussions through areas of agreement (Rawls, 1993/
1996). Theorists have offered different renderings
of
neutrality. Bruce
Ackerman posits a “supreme pragmatic imperative”
by
which citizens
must be willing
to
engage in dialogue about their views of the good with
other citizens whose views may differ. When citizens in dialogue dis-
cover disagreements regarding dimensions of moral truth, they ought to
pursue a path of “conversational restraint.” Keeping to this path pre-
scribes that
435
Communication
Theory
we should simply say
nothing at all
about this disagreement and put the moral ideals
that divide
us
off
the conversational agenda
of
the liberal state. In restraining ourselves
in this way, we need not lose the chance to talk
to
one another about
our
deepest moral
disagreements in countless other, more private, contexts.
(1989,
p.
17)
Rawls approaches the principle of neutrality through the idea of public
reason. The content of public reason consists
of
a political conception of
justice that identifies and assigns special priority to basic rights, liber-
ties, and opportunities. The method of public reason entails rules of
inquiry that identify principles of reason and standards of evidence in
accordance with which citizens determine
if
substantive principles apply
and which laws and policies may best satisfy these principles. Public
reason applies to matters
of
constitutional essentials and basic justice.
Legitimacy requires that on these fundamental questions citizens explain
to
one another how the laws and policies they favor may be supported
by the values of public reason. Rawls (1993/1996) instructs that “in
making these justifications we are to appeal only to presently accepted
general beliefs and forms of reasoning found in common sense, and the
methods and conclusions
of
science when these are not controversial”
(p. 224). Citizens may not appeal to nonpublic reason, which precludes
appeals to comprehensive religious or philosophical doctrines, or “to
what we as individuals or members of associations see as the whole
truth” (p. 225). Though citizens hold diverse comprehensive views, they
are able to reason together through an overlapping consensus of beliefs
and values.
A
major limitation
of
the liberal model is that
it
assumes a priori
distinctions of public and private, understood respectively as questions
of justice and visions
of
the good. Public and private are not fixed, con-
tent-specific categories that structure the public sphere prior
to
discourse.
Boundaries between “public” and “private” are drawn through discourse
even as previously held views
of
each shape the conditions of their emer-
gence. Public deliberation, in important respects, consists of challenging
and redefining accepted notions of the common good. For counterpublics,
redefinition is especially important. Benhabib
(
1992) maintains that “all
struggles against oppression in the modern world begin by redefining
what had previously been considered ‘private,’ non-public and non-po-
litical issues as matters of public concern, as issues of justice, as sites of
power which need discursive legitimation” (p.
100;
see also Cohen, 1988).
Fixing an already established ordering of public and private often ad-
vantages those in power by silencing the concerns of excluded persons
and groups.
Liberalism’s defenders attempt
to
counter this disabling potential
consequence by admitting the overlap in public and nonpublic reason as
436
“Counter”
in
Counterpublics
well as shifts in conceptions
of
public and private.
In
this admission the
indistinct figure
of
a possible liberal counterpublic emerges, but any such
entity seems plagued by the liberal commitment
to
neutrality.
In
the
introduction to the paperback edition of
Political Liberalism,
Rawls
(1993/1996) reformulates his idea of public reason
to
permit the
expression
of
reasonable comprehensive doctrines at any time “provided
that in due course public reasons, given by a reasonable political
conception, are presented sufficient
to
support whatever the
comprehensive doctrines are introduced
to
support” (pp. li-lii). Others
insist that public reason is not inconsistent with shifts in understandings
of public and private. Evan Charney (1998) contends that “when matters
once viewed as ‘private’ come to be seen as proper objects
of
legislation,
such legislation is itself generally justified in terms
of
public-political
values” (p. 99). Problems persist in these acknowledgments. Both
responses are silent
on
the question of how public values themselves
undergo transformation. Public and private still appear as discrete and
unitary categories. What is missing in each response is a recognition of
process, of discursive engagement and struggle among participants in
the public sphere.
A
considerably more fluid model
of
topical shifts has
been developed by G. Thomas Goodnight (1982,1987), who elucidates
how argumentative practices and grounds construct topics as personal,
technical, and public as well as enact shifts in understanding among
these argument spheres.
In
contrast to the theorists cited above,
Goodnight focuses
on
the communicative qualities of public spheres.
Recognition
of
Exclusions and Articulation
of
Resolve
I
have outlined herein possible paths of reductionism in counterpublic
theory and criticism.
In
this section,
I
discuss how reductionism might
be avoided by focusing critical attention on the discursive norms and
practices through which participants in the public sphere articulate
recognized exclusions. My position is not that discursive norms and
practices are the only qualities
of
counterpublics susceptible
to
scholarly
inquiry. Nor do
I
wish to provide an ontological basis for counterpublics.
Rather, my references support the position that critical attention is most
productively focused
on
the discursive qualities
of
counterpublics when
considering how they set themselves against wider publics or, as my
illustration at the end
of
this section demonstrates, the state.
Proceeding not from exclusion but the recognition of exclusion situ-
ates counter as a constructed relationship. Foregrounding its construc-
tion offers some critical resistance against explicitly fixing or implicitly
relying
on
particular persons, places, or topics as necessary markers of
counter status. Framing relations this way evokes an early exploration
437
Communication
Theory
of the public, John Dewey’s
The
Public
and
Its
Problems,
first published
in 1927. Dewey did not discern the public as a pregiven object grounded
in the aggregated physical bodies of citizens. Rather, Dewey regarded
the public as an emergent body formed through the perception of indi-
rect consequences
of
human actions and the recognition by affected per-
sons of common interest. The public organized as a state to protect
its
interests. Dewey defined the state as “the organization of the public
effected through officials for the protection of the interests shared by its
members” (1927A9.54, p. 33). Yet, the organization of the public as a
state established political institutions that persisted
of
their own mo-
mentum and prevented the re-formation
of
publics and their reorganiza-
tion in new forms of state. For this reason,
“to
form itself, the public has
to break existing political forms” (p. 31). Of course, Dewey worried
that contemporary society suffered the problem of a public in eclipse.
He attributed this condition in large measure to the challenges of “the
machine age,” which “has
so
enormously expanded, multiplied, intensi-
fied and complicated the scope of the indirect consequences, [has] formed
such immense and consolidated unions in action, on an impersonal rather
than a community basis, that the resultant public cannot identify and
distinguish itself” (p.
126).
Dewey’s worry persists in the observations
of present-day commentators who warn of the public’s decline amid
increasing social complexity. The significance of Dewey’s public for this
essay, however, is its emergent quality.
As
a critical term, then, counterpublic signifies the collectives that
emerge in the recognition of various exclusions from wider publics of
potential participants, discourse topics, and speaking styles and the re-
solve that builds to overcome these exclusions. The advantage of a focus
on recognition appears when one compares this concept of “emergent
collectives” to the subordinate groups that appear in the second, reduc-
tionist reading of Fraser’s
(1
992) description of counterpublics. At first
sight, this comparison seems superfluous, for Fraser offers a retort to
reductionist readers when she identifies “subordinate social groups” as
the participants in the “parallel discursive arenas” of counterpublics (p.
123). The “social” in “subordinate social groups,” however, may be too
easily elided and its constructed character obfuscated. Moreover,
“SO-
cial” is no guarantee of recognition, as reification may mask social rela-
tions as natural. Emergent collectives
fit
less comfortably in a concep-
tion based on essential group identity.
In contrast to subordinated groups, the concept of emergent collec-
tives does not invoke essential identities or the physical bodies of par-
ticipants in
a
counterpublic. This concept takes into account that not all
members of a subordinated group may be aware
of
exclusions (espe-
cially in cases
of
unstated rules that disadvantage participants in public
438
“Counter”
in
Counterpublics
deliberation) or committed to overcoming exclusions. Some ostensible
members
of
a subordinated group may have attained positions
of
privi-
lege in relation to their cohorts. Other people may dissociate their inter-
ests from their identity. Black conservatives, for instance, respond
to
accusations of betrayal by insisting that their identity does not deter-
mine their political views. For various reasons, not all members
of
a
historically excluded group may affiliate with counterpublics. Addition-
ally, emergent collectives are not necessarily composed
of
persons ex-
cluded from wider public spheres. This quality facilitates critical atten-
tion to coalitions built across difference. Further, emergent collectives
account for the circumstance that people may participate in multiple
and potentially conflicting publics and counterpublics. Individuals are
not always constituents
of
counterpublics. The associates with whom
participants form counterpublics in regard
to
one episode or contro-
versy may confront them as antagonists on other issues at other mo-
ments. Felski
(1989)
describes the adjudication
of
difference as a linger-
ing tension for counterpublic assertions of identity. For example, women’s
consciousness of membership in an oppressed group “is often attained
by a suppression
of
other forms
of
difference, an erasure felt most pain-
fully by those whose unequal status and particular needs are suppressed
by the fiction of a unifying identity”
(p.
168).
The concept of emergent
collectives permits appreciation
of
affirmative and potentially
emancipatory formations of identity that acknowledge the dilemmas
of
difference.
The articulation
of
exclusion informing the discourse of counterpublics
enables the thematization
of
functioning yet unstated norms and prac-
tices regulating discourse in wider public spheres. The discourse
of
these
wider public spheres may engender processes of reification: The norms
and practices that sustain such discourse may be viewed by participants
(if reflected upon at all) as natural restrictions. Habermas
(196211989,
p.
56)
explains that the historical bourgeois public sphere perpetuated a
fundamental conflation
of
bourgeois and
homme:
The bourgeoisie in
their role as property owners saw themselves standing in for humanity
pure and. simple. The bourgeoisie countenanced the equation
of
these
two identities by presupposing that social and economic conditions
of-
fered excluded others an opportunity to attain an autonomous (i.e., prop-
ertied and educated) standing. Bourgeois ideology situated the bourgeoisie
as best able
to
advance the interests
of
the “public.” This ideology sup-
posed that “only they [property owners] had private interests-ach his
own-which automatically converged into the common interest in the
preservation
of
civil society as a private sphere” (p. 87). Critical atten-
tion
to
the articulation
of
exclusion may reveal how counterpublics con-
trast bourgeois self-satisfaction by taking up exclusion and the practices
439
Communication
Theory
that sustain
it
as explicit themes
of
discourse or imagine themselves ex-
plicitly as alternative collectives. Counterpublics may self-reflexively set
themselves against some other, wider public.
In
her discussion
of
counterpublics, for example, Fraser references the efforts of participants
to respond to the neglect
of
women’s interests in wider public spheres by
inventing such terms as “sexual harassment” and “the double shift” and
struggling to circulate this discourse among wider publics.
In
setting
themselves against wider publics, participants in counterpublics specify
the substance of their relations to these publics.
This process of explicitly setting oneself against another recalls schol-
arly work
on
the power of discourse
to
constitute its audiences (see
McGee, 1975). In an exploration of the processes through which dis-
course asserts an oppositional public, Maurice Charland (1987) consid-
ers the constitutive rhetoric
of
the
peuple
que‘be‘cois.
For Charland, the
actions of the
Que‘becois
to gain independence from Canada reveal the
existence
of
social subjects as rhetorical effects.
To
assert the rhetorical
construction
of
a
peuple
and its boundaries, however, is not to deny
material consequences for those who identify with the
peuple.
Charland
describes “the ideological trick
of
such a rhetoric” as presenting “that
which is most rhetorical, the existence of a
peuple,
or of a subject, as
extrarhetorical” (p.
137).
He employs Althusser’s notion
of
interpella-
tion to explain the power of a constitutive rhetoric: “acknowledgment
of an address entails an acceptance of an imputed self-understanding
which can form the basis for an appeal” (p. 138).
In
the case
of
the
peuple
que‘be‘cois,
Charland examines a 1979 Quebec government white
paper that outlined a proposal for Quebec sovereignty while in eco-
nomic alliance with Canada. The white paper reached back into history
to recount a narrative that identified contemporary citizens with the
original French settlers of the province as a transcendent collective sub-
ject. The white paper unfolded a narrative
of
historical struggle for self-
determination repeatedly frustrated by British power and subjugation
of the
peuple.
However, the white paper told a story that remained un-
finished: “Within the context of contemporary attempts to secure
Quebec’s independence, the White Paper offers a condensed historical
narrative
of
the
peuple
que‘be‘cois
as teleogically moving towards eman-
cipation” (1987, p. 144).
Evoking work
on
constitutive rhetoric as a critical backdrop, my ref-
erences to exclusion as articulated through discursive practices and norms
call attention to the discursive constitution
of
counterpublics and, more
generally, the public sphere. In his recent work, Habermas (1992/1996,
pp. 308-314, 360-366; 1992, pp. 442-452) presents a model of a mul-
tiple public sphere as the social space generated in the communicative
action of widely diversified and relatively autonomous public spheres.
440
“Counter”
in
Counterpublics
Habermas notes that persons engaged in communicative action “encoun-
ter each other in a
situation
they at the same time constitute with their
cooperatively negotiated interpretations.” Interlocutors’ reciprocal at-
tribution of individual integrity and freedom proceeds in a “linguisti-
cally constituted space.”
As
a fluid realm, “this space stands open, in
principle, for potential dialogue partners who are present as bystanders
or could come on the scene and join those present” (p.
361).
Counterpublic spheres, then, signify the social spaces generated in ar-
ticulations
of
recognition and resolve. Habermas, however, ascribes an
enduring quality to abstracted forms
of
larger publics. My formulation
resists attempts to envision public and counterpublic spheres as entities
that sustain themselves beyond particular discursive engagements. Re-
garding a counterpublic as continually active beyond the discursive en-
gagement of its participants risks reducing the concept
to
these
nondiscursive activities. As a dispersed ephemeral phenomenon, the public
sphere manifests in moments
of
social dialogue and discursive engage-
ment among and across constructed boundaries
of
social, cultural, and
political affiliation. Though particular political arrangements may be
more hospitable
to
the emergence of publics and counterpublics than
others (see Schudson,
1994),
the public sphere cannot be institutionally
secured in any particular governmental chamber or public medium. The
multiplicity of the public sphere frustrates efforts
to
provide
it
a
nondiscursive substance or to locate
it
in particular institutions. Along
these lines, Benhabib
(1992)
holds that “there may be as many publics
as there are controversial debates about the validity of norms” (p.
10.5).
The movement toward multiplicity in models
of
the public sphere recog-
nizes simultaneity, permeability, overlap, diverse affiliation, partiality,
and contestation among publics and between publics and counterpublics.
Manifest in engagement with wider publics, the resolve of counter-
publics to overcome exclusion emphasizes their dialectical movement in
the public sphere. Both Fraser and Felski highlight the dual functioning
of counterpu blics in their formulations. Engagement of counterpublic
discourse with larger audiences constitutes counterpublicity-an activ-
ity akin to “going public.” Resolve
to
overcome exclusions does not
indicate a teleology toward recovery of a single, overarching public sphere.
The structural inequalities that impact public discourse are far from
having been overcome, and the absence of formal exclusions in wider
public spheres does not necessarily eradicate varying advantage. Even
if
one could imagine a genuinely egalitarian society, recognition of socio-
cultural diversity calls for multiplicity. As Fraser
(1992)
observes, re-
stricting deliberation in an egalitarian but diverse society
to
a single,
encompassing sphere “would be tantamount to filtering diverse rhetori-
cal and stylistic norms through a single, overarching lens” (p.
126).
441
Communication
Theory
Moreover, discursive contestation undermines teleological aspirations.
Counterpublic gains are not permanent. Their successes may be partial
and subsequently undone. Just as counterpublics seek wider circulation
of discourse,
so
too may wider publics attempt to contain
counterdiscourses. Fraser invokes this possibility in her caution that
counterpublics are not enclaves but they may be enclaved involuntarily.
Emergent publics cannot articulate all possible perspectives in public
debates without asserting a dubious discursive totality that presumes
knowledge of the needs and interests of others prior to discursive en-
gagement. Exclusion thus appears as a recurrent feature
of
public dis-
course, in that new formations
of
publics engender new exclusions.
A brief illustration completes my explication of a discursive orienta-
tion for investigating how counterpublics set themselves against wider
publics. My example is drawn from the consistently contentious realm
of
U.S.
welfare policy debate. Specifically,
I
reference testimony given to
the Senate Finance Committee regarding provisions of the 1988 Family
Support Act. The Act codified
a
mid-1980s welfare reform consensus
that mandated work requirements for some adult Aid to Families with
Dependent Children
(
AFDC) recipients while offering support services
such as job training, day care, and transitional medical care to these
recipients.
I
consider the testimony of Margaret Prescod, who, accom-
panied
by
a few members of her organization, represented Black Women
for Wages for Housework. Prescod’s name did not appear
on
the sched-
uled witness list, but she announced her presence after the statements of
a group of witnesses:
Senator Moynihan,
I
would like to,
if
possible, register a protest on behalf of women all
across the country. We feel that this is legislation that will affect women,
for
the most
part, and women who are housewives, women who are
on
welfare.
And
women have
not had adequate time to testify.
(Welfare,
1987,
p.
44)
Noting her objection, Moynihan, the Finance Committee chair, permit-
ted Prescod
to
speak after the scheduled witnesses had completed their
testimony. Her intervention is especially instructive, given the claims of
this essay, for her testimony and the counterpublic
it
manifests resists
reliance on a particular person, place, or topic as a necessary marker of
counter status. Prescod, the person, explicitly complicated labels and
identities that might categorize her or the persons she represented. The
place, a congressional committee hearing room, hardly stands out as a
supportive site for counterdiscourse. The place is illustrative as well for
exemplifying an important point, but
one
that has not been discussed
directly in this essay: Besides wider publics, counterpublics may engage
442
“Counter”
in
Counterpublics
the state as
i
desired audience. The topic, welfare reform, is one with a
long history of marginalizing its subjects, especially as welfare policy
discourse has regularly impugned the character
of
poor persons. Yet, in
these ostensibly unfavorable conditions, one encounters the discursive
articulations about which
I
have written.
Having called attention
to
the exclusionary qualities of the hearings
in requesting to testify, Prescod explained at the beginning of her testi-
mony that the members
of
her organization represent an alternative per-
spective-a counterdiscourse-to the testimony heard by the Finance
Committee
so
far. She instructed the committee that “we are a different
kind
of
expert than you have heard from
so
far. We are expert in caring
for people, in keeping our communities going through volunteer work’’
(Welfare,
1987,
p.
64).
She characterized the emphasis on paid employ-
ment as deceptive, for this requirement identified mothers as nonworkers:
It
is said again and again that women should be working, that we must earn our way. We
don’t hear as much being discussed that women are already working, that homemaking
and child rearing is a full-time job, that those
of
us in waged jobs are doing the double
shift, and that workfare would in fact be
a
second job for welfare mothers.
(p.
65)
Prescod challenged the diagnosis of dependency in poor persons that
informed the hearings. Welfare dependency did not name a disabling
physical or mental condition, but a social hierarchy that positioned some
recipients of government benefits as independent (e.g., retirees) and oth-
ers as dependent. Prescod contended that “our unwaged work helps keep
this country going. We are not dependent on the state; the state is depen-
dent
on
us,
as
a matter of fact” (p.
65).
She explained women’s entry
into the paid labor force as a matter of necessity and desire: necessity to
recover family incomes lost as earning power has declined, and desire to
attain the dignity society has reserved for paid workers. She concluded
her testimony by exhorting policy makers
to
recognize in their reforms
the contributions women make
to
society outside the market economy.
This brief recounting demonstrates the usefulness
of
a critical focus
on articulations of recognition and resolve by counterpublic participants.
Prescod engages welfare policy makers in this manner quite explicitly.
She bases her appeal for a hearing
on
the exclusive composition of the
committee’s witness list. She describes her perspective as contrary to the
expertise offered by the officially prescribed witnesses, and she attempts
to
undermine key values and hierarchies, which in this instance operate
as discourse norms and practices, guiding the hearings and welfare re-
form debates generally. Prescod’s intervention embodies the hope
of
counterpublic participants that power may be reconfigured.
443
Communication
Theory
Conclusion
In the movement toward multiplicity in public sphere studies, scholars
have conceptualized counterpublics in order
to
disclose relations of power
that obliquely inform public discourse and to reveal potentially
emancipatory practice that participants nevertheless undertake, hopeful
that they may reconfigure power by reformulating discourse.
To
further
this project, I have sought the “counter” in counterpublics. My aim has
been to forestall potential reductionism in future scholarship by explaining
how it might proceed through fixing or relying on particular persons,
places, or topics as necessary markers of counter status. In the process, I
have demonstrated how reductions may occur in reading, criticism, and
theory. I also have sought
to
orient scholarship
to
the communicative
qualities of counterpublics,
to
the articulation
of
alternative standing in
setting oneself and one’s associates against another. Proceeding in this
manner draws critical attention to emergent collectives constituted nei-
ther necessarily nor exclusively by actually or potentially excluded in-
dividuals, but formed by participants who recognize exclusions in wider
public spheres and resolve to join together to overcome these exclusions.
If this essay offers reasons for approaching counterpublics as discur-
sive entities, then an appropriate concluding point may be to situate my
discussion of the articulation of recognition and resolve within ongoing
debates in the field of communication regarding the status of the public
sphere. To be sure, interest in the public sphere from scholars in a range
of fields has grown recently, arising in significant measure from the 1989
English publication
of
Habermas’s
Structural Transformation.
As
Goodnight and Hingstman
(
1997) explain, this interdisciplinary inter-
est has developed into an important line of inquiry. Debates in commu-
nication have been lively and, at times, fiery. These qualities were dis-
played recently in the publication of and responses
to
an article by Kendall
Phillips
(1
996) purporting
to
discern a universal and debilitating reli-
ance on consensus in public sphere theory. Yet, if a contribution of
Phillips’s essay is to remind scholars of the value of dissent, then Phillips
errs in setting dissent against a singular, consensual public sphere.
As
G.
Thomas Goodnight, whom Phillips regards as a prominent protagonist
in a consensual public sphere, notes, “gestures of consent and dissent
are contingent inventions spun from human conditions of uncertainty.
Differences that make a difference sometimes emerge from rhetorical
engagements because, and in spite
of,
attributed
CO~S~~SUS”
(1997, p.
270). Goodnight’s response
is
included here not to inaugurate a new line
of inquiry in the concluding paragraph of this essay, but to underscore
my cautions against fixing relationships among publics and spheres.
Consent versus dissent, public versus counter-fixing these terms as bi-
nary oppositions restricts theory and criticism. The movement toward
444
“Counter”
in
Counterpublics
multiplicity in public sphere theory belies such binaries. Theorists and
critics would do well
to
seek out relations among publics, counterpublics,
and spheres as advocates in the “actually existing” public sphere con-
struct these relationships through discursive engagement.
Robert Asen is an assistant professor in the Communication Arts Department at the University
of
Wisconsin, Madison.
Author
The possibiliry of conceptual reductionism constitutes one horn
of
a dilemma confronting theo-
rists seeking the counter in counterpublics: Drawing scholarly attention to qualities
of
counterpublic
discourse risks reducing such discourse to these qualities, yet advancing a conceptual definition
that highlights
no
qualities in particular risks conflating counterpublics with other publics in a
multiple public sphere. This essay highlights participants’ recognition and articulation of exclusion
from wider public spheres in order both to retain the critical purchase
of
existing work in
counterpublic theory and to appreciate the multiform emergence of publics that set themselves
against others.
Notes
Felski employs the term “feminism,” which Fraser cites similarly, to signify both a collection of
ideas and beliefs and a coordinated movement to enact social change. References
to
the latter
broach the question
of
the relationship between counterpublics and social movements. Though this
line
of
inquiry is important, it is beyond the scope of this essay. For an engaging exploration
of
this
relationship, see Palczewski (in press).
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446
... Counterpublics can challenge this dominant knowledge (Fabregat & Kperogi, 2019), bring to light the nature of power relations among diverse publics, and offer possibilities for the expression of counternarratives by marginalized communities (Asen, 2000). As Fraser (1990) notes, "virtually from their beginning, counterpublics contested the exclusionary norms of the bourgeois public" (p. ...
... In these discursive communities, an emergent counterpublic was created where Puerto Rico is discussed in opposition to the way it was presented by Trump. In this context, counterpublics offer alternative perspectives to the dominant frames of issues (Leung & Lee, 2014) and allow marginalized voices to be heard, which disrupt the habitual power dynamics of socially asymmetrical societies (Asen, 2000). In response to RQ 3, our research also shows that algorithmic Twitter-mediated counterpower can be contaminated and effectively challenged by the hegemonic discourses it seeks to undermine. ...
... Nur durch die Existenz mehrerer Öffentlichkeiten -so die Autorin -ist die idealistische Vorstellung einer partizipatorischen, gleichberechtigten Gesellschaft möglich. Asen (2000) setzt an Frasers Ausführungen an und betont die Komplexität des Gegenöffentlichkeitsbegriffes. Der Autor streicht heraus, dass die Annahme einer Öffentlichkeit der sozialen Komplexität nicht gerecht wird. ...
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