From Publics to Counterpublics

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 (foremostly through Dewey), to proceed without engaging with elaborations on these ideas forecloses parallel debates on critical questions 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”.

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 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. 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.

In our forthcoming paper we unpack the implications of these distinctions for design theory and practice concerned with co-designing communities. Following Marilyn Strathern, it matters what concepts you use to think new concepts with, meaning that the concepts we use reinstate themselves, or enact epistemic negations.

*From Prendeville, S., Carlton-Parada, A., Gerrard, V., Syperek, P., From Publics to Counterpublics—Design Politics of Participation. (Forthcoming). Proceedings of Participatory Design Conference 2022. Newcastle 19th Aug – 1st Sept ’22.

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 : 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.

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).

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

Mouffe, C. (2007). Which Public Sphere for a Democratic Society? Theoria, 49(99), 55–65.

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

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

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