MLA Presidential Forum: The Public Humanities in Vulnerable Times

I am pleased to welcome you to the fourth and final panel in the Presidential Forum, on public humanities, which is, as the program states, a panel on the public face of the humanities.Ordinarily, considerations of the public humanities move very quickly to debates about the humanities: What do we mean by the humanities? Where is it to be found or relocated? How can it be sustained? Is there a crisis in the humanities? Can that crisis, if it exists, be ameliorated or even redirected by making the practice of the humanities more public? Perhaps a crisis does not really exist, or does not exist at the scale or with the significance that is being alleged in some quarters. If so, how can the language and practice of the humanities make its appearance before the public more robust so that the public does not take home the wrong idea?

You will recognize this problematic as fundamental. But the invitation here is to a somewhat different discussion. It is to shift the attention away from crisis per se and see what it might mean to face the public with the rich and much-needed resources of our institutions and organizations.

My own analysis suggests that there now is an equal if not greater crisis than that of the humanities, that of the public itself. If so, it is not advisable to do public humanities unless we have some idea of what we mean by the public and of how the humanities plays an important role in its formation.

A brief story. I am proud that I, along with my colleague Matthew Jacobson, have created a thriving new graduate program at Yale University, Public Humanities. Four or five years ago, when we first began, I had a disturbing conversation with one of the graduate students in my seminar. When asked to cite a practice of the public humanities, this student said that he practiced the public humanities because he blogged about United States literary and cultural productions. As clarification, he patiently described what he put on the blog. When I pushed further about why this was public engagement, the answer was abrupt: because the blog was on the Internet. Something was public because it reached a lot of people by means of social media.

This reasoning is false. The Internet is not a public utility; it is a wholly owned, quite material, and closely managed corporate and governmental entity. If the public sphere is the digital sphere, but the digital sphere is not owned or controlled by the public, what makes it a public sphere? What makes digital humanities projects public humanities projects under such conditions?

It is certainly true that new forms of sociality have appeared and that many of us spend increasing amounts of time together communicating and acting in virtual space. The potent possibilities of user-generated content, the stimulating correlations of big data, the affective adhesion of Facebook, and the activism of citizen journalism on Twitter are well known to us and have been amply theorized, from the utopian-sharing economy of Yochai Benkler to the dystopia of Jodi Dean’s communicative capitalism. However, as the Edward Snowden revelations have suggested, our accumulating loss of private information to the corporations that own these channels and the government that regulates them will not necessarily secure for us a public good if we do not first know how to define either the public or its worth.

When my conversation with the graduate student occurred, I had just returned from teaching for a semester at Peking University. This question of a public Internet was very sharp to me because I had just directly experienced a government’s periodic shutdown of Web sites, like turning a faucet off and on. The ability to divert or interrupt the flow of information was evidently less apparent at that time in the United States, but since then the Mubarak government in Egypt experimented in this way and sealed its demise, and cell phone service in the United States has also been turned off—for instance, in BART stations in 2011. Currently a controversy is brewing about data encryption on new cell phones. We are beginning to focus.

Other struggles and contradictions are more apparent now. Consider the question of public access to knowledge. It was highlighted by the death of Aaron Swartz, who was reeling from the force of prosecution for downloading JSTOR files placed behind a pay wall that prevented public access. Consider the question of net neutrality, which we could lose. This loss would profoundly exacerbate the digital divide.

Consider the huge, racially disproportionate prison population that exists in the United States and the enormous number of African American ex-offenders who, even after paying their debt to society, lose many of the privileges of citizenship. In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander has written eloquently about the constriction of voting, access to employment, public housing, loans for education, and the ability to join in peaceful political protest. If you are out of prison and on parole and take part in a public demonstration and the police come to break up the demonstration and arrest you, you go back to prison. The exercise of free speech is thereby rendered unsafe for exactly the population that has a great deal to tell us about how our public sphere is constituted. Moreover, consider the simultaneous constriction of free speech that is burgeoning on the Web as people lose employment because of non-job-related political protest on social media. The social fissures of the real public sphere are migrating rapidly to the virtual one, necessitating a closer review of each.

It is my very strong belief that the humanities has enormous power to critique and ameliorate these current inequities. But if we have not produced a robust definition of the public, we will not know what cultural work the public humanities can do. The terms and definitions inherited from the European Enlightenment are insufficient. As a historian of photography and visual culture, I know that the digital revolution has broadened public access to the archives and images of cultural memory and has broadened personal expression. Digitally mediated images can deepen people’s grasp of the past as well as enrich art and understanding in the present. At the same time, digital images have atomized, reshaped, and reconstituted traditional modes and shared locations of viewing. As with photography, so with the humanities in general: the pixel and the bit have left no foundational identity or location, including that of the public, unturned. The problem is that we have to face this fact about the public before we can face the public.

Is the public something that is always present? Or is it constituted only under certain conditions? What are the requirements for the—or a—public to appear? to thrive? to survive?

What shape does the public take? Is the public a sphere? a commons? a multitude? a neighborhood? a nation? the globe? What determines the relations between the communal and the commercial?

Who composes this public? Citizens? What about those many among us who are undocumented, who have no citizenship papers? Does the term the public include or exclude them? What is different and what has remained the same about the power of the public since the founding of our (re)public? What role does a counterpublic play? When the public is empowered or powerless, cui bono?

Today we have a distinguished and accomplished group of panelists, each of whom has a long engagement with the humanities and with the question of facing the public. As chair, I have asked them to share not only their experience with the public humanities but also the concepts of the public with which they are working. I hope that this panel will stimulate discussion in the Q&A and afterward. The opportunity here is for “attunement,” as Marianne Hirsch emphasized in her presidential address last night, the opportunity to listen closely and then to respond.

Works Cited

Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: New, 2012. Print.

Benkler, Yochai. The Penguin and the Leviathan: How Cooperation Triumphs over Self-Interest. New York: Random, 2011. Print.

Dean, Jodi. “Communicative Capitalism: Circulation and the Foreclosure of Politics.” Cultural Politics 1.1 (2005): 51–74. Print.

Laura Wexler is professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies and of American studies at Yale University. A version of this paper was presented at the 2014 MLA convention in Chicago.


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