Why Public Culture?
Marguerite S. Shaffer
This book began as part of an extended reflection about the current status of American studies. The process of redesigning the curriculum for the American studies major at Miami University and developing an introductory American studies survey forced me and my colleagues to ask fundamental questions about the field: specifically, what could American studies offer to students and scholars confronting a politically polarized, increasingly privatized, corporate, global culture? For me these are deeply personal questions about my responsibility and identity as an American studies scholar. In developing and teaching the introduction to American studies, I have struggled to promote both cultural competency and cultural agency. Similarly, in thinking about the curriculum for the major, I have wondered how to move students from detached cultural analysis to active cultural engagement. And as a scholar, I have questioned the insularity and public relevance of purely academic work. I have pondered how to integrate cultural critique with culture change—cultural analysis with cultural agency. Ultimately, these questions are about public culture.
Literary critic Terry Eagleton, in his recent book After Theory, begins with the pronouncement: "The golden age of cultural theory is long past." Eagleton traces the development of postmodern theory from the 1960s through the 1990s, detailing a shift from a politically engaged, intellectual commitment to egalitarian social change to an increasingly insular, elitist, academic focus on subaltern subjectivity. Although his critique is aimed broadly at the humanities, specifically cultural studies and literary criticism, it is also suggestive for the field of American studies. At a time when globalization has dramatically expanded the power and reach of multinational corporations, and the war on terror and ideological and political polarization challenge the core principles of participatory democracy in the United States, American studies can benefit from a reconsideration of its organizing topics, themes, and questions. The concept of public culture presented here serves to reframe the work of American studies. Specifically, public culture has the potential to shift the focus of the field beyond its current interest in issues of difference and identity toward new and varied concepts of belonging, collective life, and community as they are played out in multiple forms within a diverse and increasingly global culture.
In The Human Condition, political philosopher Hannah Arendt provides a powerful metaphor for this concept of public culture. She writes, "To live together in the world means essentially that a world of things is between those who have it in common, as a table is located between those who sit around it; the world, like every in-between, relates and separates men at the same time. The public realm, as the common world, gathers us together and yet prevents our falling over each other, so to speak." This image of a table that connects diverse individuals in a shared endeavor elegantly encapsulates the very complicated intersections between individuals and diverse communities as they come together in the public realm. Arendt explains, "Only where things can be seen by many in a variety of aspects without changing their identity, so that those who are gathered around them know they see sameness in utter diversity, can worldly reality truly and reliably appear." In many ways, Arendt's "famous table around which people gather in public life" inspired this volume and the idea of public culture it seeks to promote. What Arendt calls the public realm and others have called the public sphere, or public work, is particularly relevant to and offers a range of possibilities for the field of American studies and its ongoing effort to examine and understand American culture.
American studies scholars have long considered public questions, as evidenced by the field's originating focus on issues of national identity or its history of interest in the idea of a "usable past." The field also has an established tradition of scholarship based in activism and issues of social justice. However, in the past decades as American studies scholars have moved beyond a problematic Cold War interest in American character, national identity, and American exceptionalism, and shifted toward cultural studies and ethnic studies, the field has retreated from any formal or acknowledged examination of shared public culture in the United States.
That said, "the public" has recently provided a galvanizing theme within the field. Michael Frisch, in his presidential address to the American studies Association in October of 2000, identified four core trajectories that have defined American studies: (1) interdisciplinarity; (2) the discourse of nation; (3) multiculturalism (including ethnicity, race, class, and gender); and (4) engagement, praxis, and activism. Contrary to the established conceptualization of American studies, which centers on a linear history that began with what Frisch called "a national project informed by a limited literary-historical interdisciplinarity" and then evolved into a more multidisciplinary multiculturalism informed by cultural studies and transnationalism, he argued that the history of the field is much more multivalent and prismatic. His assessment suggests that interdisciplinarity, national identity, and multiculturalism have come to be recognized as the dominant narratives of American studies. But he went on to argue the case for the significance of praxis, which he described as "a scholarship with the intellectual capacity to both describe and engage the world more usefully."
In 2001, following the September 11 attacks, then ASA president and ethnic studies scholar George Sanchez followed Frisch's lead, calling for increased public engagement in the field. Building on the conference theme of crossing borders, he noted, "I am now constantly reminded that one of the most significant borders to cross is the one that separates the academic community from the wider public." He went on to conclude, "The issue of preparing students for a multitude of possible interventions in public discourse should be a priority for us in American studies."
Extending from this dialogue, the essays in this volume are a call to consider the public realm, to examine public discourse, and to define or conceptualize public culture. I use the term "public culture" to blend the distinctly cultural work of American studies with some of the more focused examinations of civic engagement. The organizing concept of public culture articulated in this book is grounded in the political theory of Hannah Arendt and John Dewey and also informed by the work of a handful of other scholars, including Harry C. Boyte, Clifford Geertz, Jürgen Habermas, Stuart Hall, and Michael Warner, who are all interested, in one form or another, in the public and the process of creating shared meaning. Drawing from this body of work, "public culture" refers to the process of negotiating shared meaning among a diverse group of individuals. As Dewey explains, publics emerge when "the consequences of conversation extend beyond the two directly concerned," expanding out to "affect the welfare of many others." This strand of political theory offers at least some alternative to postmodern theory, which effectively denies the possibilities of public culture in a society bounded by hegemonic forces struggling for power over all forms of cultural production, representation, and signification. As Terry Eagleton has pointed out, cultural theory in its current state actively promotes "the absence of memories of collective, and effective, political action." From the perspective of current cultural theory, "Human history is now for the most part both post-collectivist and post-individualist," according to Eagleton. He concludes, "if this feels like a vacuum, it may also present an opportunity. We need to imagine new forms of belonging, which in our kind of world are bound to be multiple rather than monolithic." All of the essays in this book, in one form or another, draw on the concept of public culture to explore these issues of collective identity and social belonging, cultural agency and cultural change.
This book grew out of a conference held at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio in March 2003, entitled "The Transformation of Public Culture: Assessing the Politics of Diversity, Democracy, and Community in the United States, 1890 to the Present." The idea for the conference emerged from a larger reassessment of the American studies Program at Miami under the auspices of an NEH Humanities Focus Grant in 2002-3. The driving intellectual question that had inspired our curricular reexamination focused on a central tension in American studies that existed between acknowledging and understanding the diversity of American culture and defining a collective identity for American culture. We began with a broad question: How, if at all, do the diverse peoples and groups in the United States come together to create a set of shared values, common experiences, and a shared public culture?
Our premise was that despite significant differences, Americans do come together in public to discuss, to negotiate, to debate, and to protest common values, issues, and concerns. Through this process, people form and reform collective identities and shared public cultures, though provisionally and temporally. Specifically, we sought to address issues of multiculturalism, the formation of social identities, the creation of community, and the construction of collective public identities as they have intersected in contested and complementary ways in localized and national cultures in the United States.
Although curricular interests provided the impetus for the NEH project, I was also interested in recent scholarly work addressing issues of public culture as they had evolved in the United States over the past century. I invited a group of interdisciplinary scholars from a range of fields that intersected with American studies—mass communication, cultural and social history, urban sociology, urban studies, ethnic studies, cultural studies, and American studies—to share their ideas about public culture. Specifically, I asked participants to explore the period from 1890 to the present: a historical moment notable for the rise of widespread democratic movements, the emergence of a corporate urban-industrial consumer culture, the expanding dissemination and influence of mass media, the increasing ethnic and racial diversity of communities throughout the United States, the decline of traditional political action and notions of republican citizenship. Focusing on four defining themes—public action, public image, public space, and public identity—I hoped to generate a conversation about the shifting structure and vocabulary of public identity and public interaction. Who and what constitute the public or publics? How is public action played out in a modern, corporate, bureaucratic society? Where is the public realm in an increasingly privatized culture? And how is public identity fashioned and represented in a diverse, fragmented, mass-mediated society? Participants were invited to explore these broad questions through their specific research.
Although none of these scholars distinctly identified public culture as the central focus of his or her work, they all acknowledged that conceptions of the public underlay their research. Some scholars, such as Mary Ryan, who has written about the history of civic engagement and participatory democracy, and Ed Linenthal, who has examined issues of public memory and commemoration, have been much more explicit in claiming the public as an overarching concept in their work. Others, such as Suzanne Smith, who has written about popular culture and the construction of racial identity, and Catherine Gudis, who has examined the development of the commercial strip, felt less certain about the centrality of public culture in their work. However, the conversation that ensued was inspiring, offering a range of perspectives on how publics are formed, imagined, positioned, and defined. The essays here reflect the collective thoughts that emerged on the topic and serve as an invitation to further explore and expand the concept of public culture.
The essays also speak to the implicit tensions within American studies between the originating focus on shared national culture and the current interest in social and cultural identity and issues of race, class, gender, and ethnicity. American studies scholarship grows out of these dual and sometimes competing traditions. On the one hand, American studies scholarship from the post World War II period originated in questions about the common experiences and ideas that defined and shaped a shared culture in the United States. On the other hand, a revisionist trend that has dominated the field since the 1970s has focused on issues of diversity of peoples and experiences—the multiplicity of cultures that interact with each other in the United States and the underlying debate and conflict between cultures that challenge the notion of a unified U.S. culture. For the last three decades, American studies scholars have been debating these opposing views of consensus and conflict, probing this issue of shared culture in the United States. In recent years, theories of multiculturalism and hegemony have become the norm, so that even studies of national culture look at the constructed and exclusionary process of defining a shared national identity.
The essays in this volume both add to and expand from these theoretical positions. Each essay addresses the question of how disparate Americans have come together to negotiate shared meaning. Some of the essays detail the ways in which shared meaning is circumscribed by hegemonic forces, drawing attention to the limitations of public culture; others explore the negotiations of civic engagement and the construction of collective memories, highlighting the possibilities of public culture. Together, all of the essays implicitly and explicitly build and expand on Arendt's notion that "being seen and being heard by others derive their significance from the fact that everybody sees and hears from a different position. This is the meaning of public life."
This volume is not meant to be a comprehensive overview of public culture as it has evolved in the United States. While the essays touch on a number of key issues related to the larger theme of public culture—the evolution of public action, public memory and commemoration, corporate sponsorship and mass-mediated public discourse, the market place and privatized public space, and the construction of public identity—many key topics and issues have been left out. There is no essay that overtly addresses political engagement, nor is there anything about public work. The volume also does not provide a formalized definition of public culture. Rather, it uses the concept of public culture to open up discussion and new possibilities for thinking about American studies and its responsibility to help understand, foster, and sustain a diverse and democratic culture in the United States. Finally, the volume does not seek to retheorize the idea of the public, but it does seek to examine and draw attention to the ways in which diverse groups and individuals have come together to discuss, debate, negotiate, create, claim, and control shared public meaning and discourse. I use the phrase "public culture" because I believe it best reflects this process as just that, an ongoing process, rather than an end in and of itself, or a tangible entity, or a concrete, identifiable thing.
The essays that follow shed light on the complicated and conflicted process of negotiating new forms of belonging in a diverse society. Divided into five sections—public culture, public action, public image, public space, and public identity—the volume provides a series of scholarly snapshots that highlight public culture as a process, taking very different stances on issues of agency, hegemony, democracy, and identity.
In "What Is Public Culture? Agency and Contested Meaning in American Culture," Mary Kupiec Cayton surveys the various theories of the public, situating the concept of public culture in the larger framework of cultural theory. This essay provides a broad theoretical overview of the concept of public culture.
Part I, "Public Action," examines how Americans have come together in public, looking specifically at civic engagement, collective memory, and public sentiment. In particular, the essays draw attention to the ways in which diverse individuals have acted in public in an attempt to achieve some common understanding. They reveal how social divisions and power differentials get played out in conflicting public actions and contested public meanings. Mary Ryan focuses on the Los Angeles Plaza to explore how the public has come together in collective action from the eighteenth century to the present. Edward Linenthal examines three sites of public commemoration in Oklahoma—the Washita Battlefield National Historic Site, the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, and Tulsa, Oklahoma, the site of the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. John Bodnar traces shifting public sentiment about World War II and how the memory of the war has been used to unify the American public.
Part II, "Public Image," examines the way in which the public has been imagined in the context of a modern, media driven, consumer culture. Specifically, the essays consider how mass marketing and mass media have recast the public as consumers, as audience, as spectators, and as voyeurs. In doing so, they raise questions about cultural agency and public engagement in a society that increasingly revolves around entertainment, advertising, consumption, spectacle, and image. Susan Strasser focuses on early medicine shows and the marketing of patent medicine to explore the history of commercial sponsorship and the construction of a buying public. Lynn Spigel analyzes the television response to 9/11 to assess the role of television in defining citizenship. And Wendy Chun examines the issue of cyberporn, exploring the ways in which the internet has publicized private life.
Part III, "Public Space," focuses on the tensions between public space and the marketplace, exploring the public view, the social space of shopping, and privatized public space. The essays included here explore the ways in which mobility, commercialization, incorporation, and privatization have redefined traditional notions of place and how individuals shape, claim, and understand public spaces. Catherine Gudis focuses on the development of the public road during early twentieth century, detailing the battle over outdoor advertising and control of the roadside landscape. Sharon Zukin explores the shifting social spaces of shopping and the role they play in shaping public identity. Hal Rothman examines the privatization of public space in Las Vegas.
Part IV, "Public Identity," considers the social, cultural, and political production of public identities. Specifically, the essays examine issues of transnational identity, the intersections of race, entrepreneurship, and civic agency, and the construction of civic identity. They reveal how public identities are constantly negotiated and renegotiated in a diverse and conflicted culture. Suzanne Smith traces the history of African American undertakers, highlighting their role as professional, social, and political entrepreneurs. Rachel Buff applies the idea of denizenship to examine the public position of Latino immigrants in Toledo, Ohio. Mary Frederickson examines the role of museums as public institutions that sought to define and promote specific visions of civic identity in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Finally, in the epilogue Sheila Croucher considers these essays in the context of the larger debate about civic engagement in the United States and the possibilities for civic revitalization in an increasingly globalized culture. Her analysis points to the larger issues at stake in considering public culture: issues of democracy, diversity, identity, community, citizenship, and belonging in "a postmodern, possibly postnational, world."
Although these essays range over a broad array of disparate topics, together I hope they bring the concept of public culture to the forefront of American studies scholarship.