From Publics to Counterpublics

An excerpt from a work-in-progress article titled “From Publics to Counterpublics—Design Politics of Participation”*

Design scholarship frequently concerns itself with the question of publics. However, in wider social theory there is a significant body of literature that critiques the notion of publics that is not sufficiently dealt with in design theory so far.

For instance, “counterpublic” theory elaborates the problematics of ethnicity, race, labour and gender (c/f Tweedle, 1986; Warner, 2014; Fraser, 1990; Felski, 1989) in response to the ‘hegemonic’ (Fraser, 1990) Habermasian notion of publics. Whilst, the breadth of design work engages with Pragmatist understandings of publics (i.e. Dewey), to proceed without engaging with elaborations on these ideas forecloses parallel debates in social theory on questions of gender, race, ethnicity and labour, inter alia, erstwhile articulated in response to the idea of “the public”.

For instance, while Le Dantec (2016) acknowledges the critical response to a singular articulation of the public developed by critical social theorists such as Warner (2014), he nonetheless prefers to articulate his work through the Deweyan idea of publics, on the basis of Dewey’s conception of publics as always “in formation”. Whilst this may have affinity with Mouffe’s substantive critique of liberalism, (as assuming to exist that which is yet to come into being), Mouffe also speaks of the “agonistic public sphere” (2007) as defined by hegemony. Otherwise, critical responses not yet dealt with include the idea of the “subaltern counterpublic”,

“parallel discursive arenas where members of subordinated social groups invent and circulate counterdiscourses, which in turn permit them to formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests, and needs” (Fraser, 1990, p. 67).

This raises questions about the overall conceptualisation of publics as established so far in design theory. A special issue curated by Hansson et al., (2018) brings together important questions around affect and the role/positionality of the designer, but as yet, the challenges between publics and the notion of hegemonic publics seems to warrant greater consideration. Kiem (2013) outlines similar concerns with an inability to “circumscribe the political” in Di Salvo’s (2013) work on “adversarial design”. (As an aside, a re-reading of Di Salvo’s thesis points to a potentially interesting line of inquiry through autonomism, contra Mouffe).

A central claim of Mouffe’s work is that firstly—and the principal concept dealt with in design thus far—radical democracy needs to adequately account for difference through the concept of agonistic pluralism, and social movements need to be equipped with appropriate and contextual strategies to challenge hegemonic social structures. Dewey’s articulation of the political is understood as “microsociological” (ie small group/individual) (Whipple, 2005), a qualitatively different understanding of the political than that which is necessary to develop a conception of a counterpublic.

Indeed, in the literature on publics, “counter” is the vehicle through which collective action is constituted and is representative of the issues people who are structurally disadvantaged and/or oppressed face and therein constitutes the space of this difference, ie the political. Indeed, it is through the “counter” that collective action forms as this is the space where “recognition of exclusion” happens (Butlin et al., 1987), ie a social space defined through exclusion (a counterpublic) comes to exist outside and in “discursive opposition” (Fraser, 1990) to a hegemonic public.

*Prendeville, S., Gerrard, V., Syperek, P., From Publics to Counterpublics—Design Politics of Participation. (Forthcoming)

Butlin, J., Adger, N., & Browne, N. (1987). Seeking the “Counter” in Counterpublics. Communication Theory.

DiSalvo, C. (2012). Adversarial Design. MIT Press.

Felski, R (1989). Beyond Feminist Aesthetics: Feminist Literature and Social Change. Cambridge, Harvard University Press.

Fraser, N. (1990). Rethinking the Public Sphere : A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy Published by : Duke University Press Stable URL : http://www.jstor.com/stable/466240 Democracy ’ Rethinking the Public Sphere : A Contr. Social Text, 26(25), 56–80.

Hansson, K., Forlano, L., Choi, J. H. J., Disalvo, C., Pargman, T. C., Bardzell, S., … Joshi, S. (2018). Provocation, conflict, and appropriation: The role of the designer in making publics. Design Issues, 34(4), 3–7. https://doi.org/10.1162/desi_a_00506

Kiem, M. (2013). If political design changed anything they’d make it illegal: A review essay of Carl DiSalvo, Adversarial Design. Design Philosophy Papers, 11(1), 31-38(8). https://doi.org/http://dx.doi.org/10.2752/089279313X13968799816038

Le Dantec, C. (2016). Designing Publics. MIT Press.

Mouffe, C. (2007). Which Public Sphere for a Democratic Society? Theoria, 49(99), 55–65. https://doi.org/10.3167/004058102782485448

Tweedle, J. (1986). A Black Counterpublic?: Economic Earthquakes, Racial Agenda(s), and Black Politics. Public Culture, 17(6), 195–223. https://doi.org/10.1080/00064246.1986.11414436

Warner, M. (2014). Publics and Counter-Publics (4th Editio). Cambridge Massachusetts: Zone Books.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s