Communication Theory Robert Asen Ten: Four November 2000 Seeking the “Counter” in Counterpublics Pages 424-446 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 counterpu blic theory by considering through 3 “ominous examples” how the “counter” in counterpublics 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 m a y 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 rejected 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 activities of the state (see Habermas, 1962/1989, 1974). In her oft-cited critique, Nancy Fraser ( 1992) discerns an underlying assumption structuring 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, democracy” (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 medium of mutually interlocking and overlapping networks of opinion formation 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 (1996) 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 structure” in which discursive practices form a lattice of spaces with boundaries 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 electronic 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-implicit 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 differentiated and socially unequal groups live together” (1996, p. 124). If hypostatized 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 engagement and undermine the interests of oppressed groups. In this way, actual exclusions belied the claims of open access and debate that legitimated the historical bourgeois public sphere. Counterpublics emerge as a kind of public within a public sphere conceived as a multiplicity. They illuminate the differential power relations among diverse publics of a multiple public sphere. Counterpublics signal 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 overcome these exclusions. Counterpublic signals critical awareness that participants in the public sphere sometimes join with others and set themselves 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 encounter resistance in their efforts t o 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 critics 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 public sphere highlight the interactions and permeations of publics in a multiple public sphere, but only allude to the qualities of their differential 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 multiplicity has come to typify theorizing about the public sphere and counterpublic has emerged as a critical term in this theorizing. Moreover, pursuing this question directly may forestall reductionism in future scholarship. 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 consequences for studies of a multiple public sphere. Directly seeking the counter in counterpublics may itself lead to reductionism insofar as the effort produces a binary opposition of counter and public.’ This outcome would commit in bifurcated form errors excavated 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 multiple 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 possible 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 movement 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 examples add a further dimension to the possible pitfalls already mentioned 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 misreading, critical valorization, and theoretical blindness. The second main section attempts to orient o u r critical vocabulary and t o draw multidisciplinary attention to the communicative processes of recognition and articulation of exclusion and resolve to overcome it. Focusing not on exclusion per se but on the recognition of exclusion avoids essentialist 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 second 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 diversity 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 Transformation]” (1992, p. 111).Fraser and Rita Felski (1989)have been prominent proponents of counterpublic theory. Their explications of counterpublics 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 public 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 arenas from the distorting effects of social inequalities. Deliberative processes in public spheres tend to advantage dominant groups and to disadvantage 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 counterdiscourses to formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests, and needs” (1992, p. 123). Counterpublics respond to the exclusions of dominant publics and, in the process, help to expand discursive space. They manifest a publicist orientation and aspire to wider circulation of counterdiscourses. Counterpublics have a dual character: “ O n 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 between 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 communication as a debased pseudopublic sphere” (1989, p. 166). Counterpublic spheres articulate oppositional needs and values not addressed by this global megaculture. Felski situates counterpublic spheres as multiple 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. Participation in counterpublic spheres relies not on an acceptance of a “clearly delineated theoretical framework, but on a more general sense of commonality 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 oppositional 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).2Felski 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 reveal 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 functioning 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 conseq
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