[iDC] "recursive publics"

Gabriella Coleman biella at nyu.edu
Fri Jul 10 11:15:37 UTC 2009

Interesting discussion about publics and geeks so I thought I would jump 
in with a  few thoughts and questions that I have been meaning to ask Chris.

I agree with Chris that the geek public is a critical one: it is not 
hinged to questions of Justice, but does concern itself with issues 
related to what is right for technology, which as been at the basis for 
a series of important transformations within the field of IP law and a 
few other tech fields. Individually geeks come in pretty much every 
political stripe, from anarchist to conservative though it seems that a 
core in North American and Northern Europe, England are more liberal (in 
the Mill, Dewey sense not the  classic liberal or neoliberal variety 
thought you can find them too) and collectively or as a cultural 
practice, I tend to see this field as a liberal critique within 
liberalism, in particular neoliberalism. Certainly may not be enough of 
a politics but there is some interesting political work being done.

What I find interesting about the recursive public is how it brings into 
stark relief an insight about publics posed by Michael Warner, in 
particular, the tension between universality and particularity, which 
makes publics struggle with their own conditions of existence.  A public 
as defined by Warner is an anonymously relational, imaginary space for 
the circulation of discourse.  While a public clearly enunciates a 
formal script of universal accessibility, it also beholds an implicit 
subtext that functions to elaborate as he says, “a particular culture, 
its embodied way of life”. And while the tentacles of its discursive 
address are oriented toward any stranger, these modes of address are 
nonetheless textured by group-specific cultural, literary, ethical, and 
political conventions, and thus in practice only consistently reach a 
limited number of people. It is for this reason Slashdot is 
understandable to a literate, educated public. Anyone can read, comment, 
listen, and care but in the end of the day only a fraction of people 
will really care, again due to the fact that the liberal subject does 
not really exist.  That is what I find, at times, so ironic about geeks: 
they bring into cultural being certain variants of liberalism (here i am 
thinking of Stuart Hall's excellent essay on the topic) and yet also 
point to how we are molded, intensely, by our everyday work and labor, 
thus pointing to the fallacy of the liberal subject as most traditional 
liberal theory formulates it.

Recursive publics, like all publics are bound and limited by what/who 
they will appeal to, which is certainly true for the geeks Chris writes 
about. But in the last five years, this public has been able to garner 
the attention of many more. It has exceeded the geek subject, catching 
in its net folks that don't directly tinker with technology but have 
come to care for the same issues geeks have (Free Culture is a good 
example of this). There many reasons for this, but one is that I think 
sometimes for folks, they were attracted to participating in a realm of 
politics that seemed to make an impact, however narrow.

During fieldwork, one anarchist geek, working to throw a monkey wrench 
in the cogs of capital, once phrased his enjoyment of working with Free 
Software as "It is nice to be on the winning side somtimes" which he 
elaborated in terms of fulfillment: that working on stuff that lots of 
people use, that is having an impact, and that is well known helps keep 
his political motor running. Still super committed to his anarchist and 
lefty ways, he still found a magnetism--a strong one--working within 
this recurive public, for the reasons Chris has elaborated on.

Another point is that while knowing about tech is necessary, tweaking 
with tech is not requisite for participation in this public, at least as 
I ethnographically understand it. My question for Chris, and this came 
out in both my undergrad and grad class when we taught your book: is 
what is the status of those who don't tinker? Is this a distinction that 
we should bother to make?

I also wondered why, given you drew on Warner's work, why you did not 
frame this recursive public as a counterpublic as counterpublics as 
defined by Warner exist in ethical or political tension with dominant 
values. Maybe it is just implicit, but thought I would throw this out there.


Gabriella Coleman, Assistant Professor
Department of Media, Culture, & Communication
New York University
239 Greene St, 7th floor
NY NY 10003

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