Monday, June 29, 2009

Why Study Public Life?

When contemplating ways to improve Rhetoric and Public Life (both my COMM 149 course and, I admit it, the applied practices of civic engagement in a broader way), I often reflect on a perennial question that arises in conversations stretching back to the first time I ran this class back in 2000: Why? Why should we take a class like this? I always enjoy that conversation, through I'm never entirely satisfied with my efforts to respond to the implications of the query.

Given the rhetorical focus of my class, my responses often focus on the role of communication in the construction, contestation, and revision of public life. Yet that latter term, "public life," itself merits closer explication. Starting from there, one necessarily returns to rhetoric (and performance, to an extent). Yet beginning with the standpoint of public life rather than rhetoric might be more useful for students.

For that reason, I've attempted to lay out some tentative components of public life that animate my class (and my personal thinking about the topic). With some obvious exceptions, these bullet points are not beholden to any particular theorist or existing framework, though I am undoubtedly borrowing from a large number of thinkers who have investigated public life with much more precision and complexity than I have been able to muster thus far. Here they are, with some semblance of order but no rigidity of placement. Thoughts? Observations? Recommendations? Let me know.

• Public life is a sphere of human interaction that expands and contracts through time. It is where people work together to make sense of the world and accomplish what appears to be meaningful. People outside of that sphere matter in an existential sense, but their ideas are generally not admitted to the realm of public deliberation.

• Public life is mostly composed of seemingly ephemeral utterances, images, texts, and performances. More than great speeches or formal documents (such as proclamations and laws), public life resides in the things most people take for granted. Public life reflects the practices and the performances of the everyday - even as it provides a means to critique the status quo.

• Public life is a consensual hallucination (here, explicitly borrowing from William Gibson). We all accept a sufficient overlap of meanings between disparate texts to make shared sense of the world. While it may appear that we all simply read the same signs individually, we need each other to interpret the whole in some coherent way.

• Public life is a consequence of choices we forget that we made. Beyond broad historical forces and ideological narratives, public life includes people, sometimes working anonymously, to construct the raw materials from which all truths emerge. Thereafter, we recreate those decisions through our actions and performances.

• Public life is malleable. No matter how fixed our circumstances may appear and no matter how powerless we may feel, all persons occupying the public sphere possess the ability to affect the world we've built. More importantly, anything built can be unbuilt if we choose to make it so. Most importantly, the separation of a person or group from public life can be unbuilt through persuasion (as opposed to coercion).

• Public life is never merely consumed, despite many appearances to the contrary. It must also be produced and performed.

So, why this class? Certainly not to remember and regurgitate my half-baked bullet points. No, this class works (not always, but often enough) when it inspires us to consider the ways in which public life might be expanded to include more voices, just as we seek to understand why so few people now seem to meaningfully participate in shared deliberation. This opportunity - this challenge - lies at the heart of so many personal and professional endeavors; it seems to deserve at least one class.

Ultimately, I approach this topic from the perspective of a person trained in the liberal arts tradition to value efforts that integrate seemingly unrelated (or, to some, unnecessary) functions of public life: visual arts, literature, poetry, philosophy, and related investigations, into a consequential and useful framework for interpreting the world that otherwise may seem intractable (or to use the youthful epithet, "so random").

Random zigging and zagging, the sense that our individual choices are somehow unrelated to the lives of others, has helped produce so many of today's struggles, so much of today's suffering. How else can we understand the contemporary onslaught of individual discourtesies and public policies that reflect nothing but the conveniences of the moment? Integrating the parts into a whole - not just now but with a sense of past and future - is undeniably useful, now more than ever.

That's why we have a class called "Rhetoric and Public Life."

No comments: