Public Modalities

Public Modalities

by Daniel C. Brouwer

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This book explores the ways that scholars, journalists, politicians, and citizens conceive of “the public” or “public life,” and how those entities are defined and invented. For decades, scholars have used the metaphors of spheres, systems, webs, or networks to talk about, describe, and map various practices. This volume proposes a new


This book explores the ways that scholars, journalists, politicians, and citizens conceive of “the public” or “public life,” and how those entities are defined and invented. For decades, scholars have used the metaphors of spheres, systems, webs, or networks to talk about, describe, and map various practices. This volume proposes a new metaphor—modalities—to suggest that publics are forever in flux, and much more fluid and dynamic than the static models of systems or spheres would indicate—especially in the digital age, where various publics rapidly evolve and dissipate.
Contributors to the volume—employing approaches from the fields of communication studies, English, sociology, psychology, and history—explore a broad range of texts and artifacts that give rise to publics, and discuss what they reveal about conceptualizations of social space. By focusing on process in public engagement, these scholars highlight questions of how people advance their interests and identities, and how they adapt to situational constraints.
Bringing together scholars in rhetorical, cultural, and media studies, this collection of new case studies illustrates a modalities approach to the study of publics. These case studies explore the implications of different ways of forming publics, including alternative means of expression (protests, culture jamming); the intersection of politics and consumerism (how people express their identities and interests through their consumer behavior); and online engagement (blogs as increasingly important public fora). In doing so, they raise important questions of access, community, and political efficacy.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“The quality of the scholarship in this book is terrific. . . .[It] has the sort of unified vision a good scholarly volume requires, much like Brouwer and Asen’s earlier counterpublics volume, which, to my mind, has become a classic in rhetorical studies.” —James Arnt Aune, author of Rhetoric and Marxism and Selling the Free Market: The Rhetoric of Economic Correctness

“This book features the work of some genuinely creative and brilliant scholars. . . [It] will indeed make a significant contribution to the field. . . . There is no other work like [it] available to those of us who think, write, and teach about publics and their manifestations in society today.” —Dana L. Cloud, author of Control and Consolation in American Politics and Culture: Rhetorics of Therapy

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University of Alabama Press
Publication date:
Albma Rhetoric Cult & Soc Crit Series
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Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

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Public Modalities

Rhetoric, Culture, Media, and the Shape of Public Life


Copyright © 2010 The University of Alabama Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8173-1693-8

Chapter One

Pragmatist Publicity W.E.B. Du Bois and the New Negro Movement Eric King Watts

W.E.B. Du Bois may have been seated comfortably in his high-back leather chair in the offices of The Crisis as he perused the morning mail in August 1925, but he must have felt like the captain of a ship trying to put down a full-scale mutiny. After enjoying the rank of "prime mover" of the Negro Renaissance and navigating the NAACP's journal onto uncharted racial waters, Du Bois was hit full in the face by an insurgency from within his organization and was being out-maneuvered by rival imprimaturs of the budding black arts. A year earlier, Mary White Ovington and Joel Spingarn, long-time NAACP board members, produced a study of the editorial and financial strength of The Crisis. The motive and timing of the study rankled the editor greatly, for Ovington and Spingarn had been trying to get their prickly friend to be more responsive to the views of the trustees with little success. Now, however, they were armed with evidence that The Crisis was weakening. Their report was scathing: subscriptions were down by nearly 50 percent from all-time highs, the editorial direction seemed muddled, and much of the reporting was redundant. But the real dagger thrust at Du Bois was the opinion that the National Urban League's upstart journal, Opportunity, had offered to date the finest intellectual assessment of black artistry of any "'colored magazine.'"

The morning of August 3 promised no relief for the beleaguered editor. A letter from one of the more prominent black judges of the literature contest sponsored by The Crisis, respected novelist Charles W. Chesnutt, raised the hotly contested issue of how and when blackness should be a topic in African American literature. After dutifully spelling out for Du Bois the key elements in good storytelling-theme, plot, language style, and reader impact-Chesnutt stressed that "the most important of all is the effect upon the reader." Since a good story must "ring true" by exhibiting fidelity to the reader, the submission entitled "Three Dogs and a Rabbit" failed to persuade the late-Victorian writer of its sincerity due to the revelation of a "race motive" that violated "dramatic necessity." Chesnutt's critique sharpened its focus: "The story would have been, from any standpoint but that of a colored reader, equally dramatic and effective without that disclosure. So the story is not convincing." Du Bois would have surely bristled at the core presumption underlying this opinion; that the standpoint of the "colored" reader should not be used to shape aesthetic practices like writing; that the colored standpoint signals distortion of and deviation from the "truth." The question of when and where blackness enters is answered, according to Chesnutt, by appealing to objectivity-a universal audience. For everyone knows, Chesnutt continued to lecture Du Bois, that Negro dialect, while wonderfully funny and popular, is "merely mispronunciation ... a local corruption of good English."

Chesnutt's opinion was hardly peculiar. William Stanley Braithwaite, a black educator and critic and a frequent contributor to The Crisis, "refused to write political propaganda and generally avoided the theme of race." It was not from the colored reader that these black intellectuals sought approval. From their perspective, the colored reader needed to be taught how to transcend "racial motives" even when, as Chesnutt himself demonstrated in one of his most widely read books, Conjure Woman, the black writer writes about colored characters. The key to understanding Chesnutt's remonstration lies in the commonplace perspective on "dramatic necessity." The phrase invokes the logic of analytic aesthetics, which seeks to uncover the a priori conditions regarding the achievement of beauty. Reflecting the grasp of Kantian aesthetics, the reader must experience pleasure from the storytelling through disinterested engagement-by attaining a state of mind where the cognitive faculties can enjoy free play, can be released from any particular use-value or moral purpose while contemplating the aesthetic object. To Chesnutt, then, the necessary conditions for the free play of the reader's imagination were foreclosed by the introduction of a racial motive-a motive that presumably constrains rather than liberates.

Du Bois had long ago dedicated himself to promoting just this kind of racial motive. To him, the colored reader was not merely an audience, a group of subscribers to The Crisis; the colored reader stood for the "problem" of the color line as well as the project necessary for its remedy. The colored reader made up the "thinking Negro," the black folk who could be pulled together to spearhead the fight for civil rights and social justice. The colored readers were neither passive nor disinterested; their standpoint was situated in time and space, where vague memories of African genius could be cultivated and ushered through to the present and to Harlem. The colored reader, therefore, could be moved from sharing common feelings about racial oppression to sharing common specific interests about social change through collective action. This consciousness raising required strategic rhetorical invention and modes of publicity; and, as we will see later, Du Bois believed he could not count on folks like Chesnutt or Braithwaite to perform this sort of race labor. In this chapter, I examine Du Bois's attempt to produce an African American public by imagining a pragmatist aesthetics as a conceptual schema for New Negro artistic works. Du Bois makes critical appropriations and alterations to American pragmatic philosophy in order to theorize black aesthetic experiences and practices. To Du Bois, the value of black art lies in its capacity to transform the basic character of black life and American civic culture. In order to bring about such a transformation, Du Bois sought to grasp, shape, and channel the aesthetic practices of the New Negro movement as public modalities for the constitution of black voice.

In so doing, Du Bois anticipates the problems of publicity that occupy his contemporaries like John Dewey. American pragmatism displays a nostalgic imagination regarding the Great Community, a vibrant organism capable of democratic governance of just relations among diverse people and groups. By reading Du Bois beside Dewey, I intend to address the American pragmatic "evasion" of African American intellectualism. As Du Bois's rhetoric generates black publicity, we may better apprehend how he treats black aesthetic practices as constitutive of the artful communication for which Dewey longs to reanimate the Great Community. Also, by putting Du Bois in dialogue with Dewey, we may appreciate another echo of Du Bois's voice-the endowment that is achieved when we mediate across time and space Dewey's acknowledgment of Du Bois. I first provide a discussion of pragmatist aesthetics, paying particular attention to the relations among aesthetic experience, aesthetic practice, and the potential for publicity. Pragmatism asserts that aesthetic experiences stimulate one's senses toward one's environment, provoking new forms of understanding one's relations with others. Aesthetic experiences may also inspire novel aesthetic practices-conceived as communicative-that alert persons to the character of their shared interests, constituting publics. I will demonstrate how Du Bois argues that New Negro artistry should be generative of black aesthetic experiences of racial strife and African cultural memory. Du Bois exploits the pragmatist's yearning for forms of naturalism by reinterpreting primitivism as a modern and ancient source of aesthetic experiences and practices. Black pragmatist aesthetics mediates "savagery" as a public modality. In closing, I will contemplate the constraints on black voice and publicity introduced and modified by Du Bois's rhetoric.

Toward a Pragmatist Aesthetics

John Dewey, in Art as Experience, responds to a form of bodily suffering brought about by existing in the machine age. The rise of the factory as the engine of the industrial revolution helped to create wealth and leisure for the owners of capital while dominating the everyday work life of labor. It is easy to see why Dewey would be concerned about how mechanical reproduction would affect the working body; one goes about one's day regimented by the tempo of automatic processes. The muscles in the arms, legs, and back stretch and strain in time with the cadence of making of things seen only in fragments. The assembly line nearly perfected the orchestration of human collective movement, training the worker to do the same series of behaviors over and over as fast or as slow as automation dictated. Dewey laments three forms of separation produced, along with all those commercial objects, in the machine age: the imagination from the body, the worker from the overall means of production, and everyday life from aesthetic experience. Although this description of self-alienation is of the laborer's life, we shall see that virtually everyone in the modern era endures "esthetic hunger."

At the heart of pragmatism is naturalism, which "is dedicated to rooting aesthetics in the natural needs, constitution, and activities of the human organism." The human body requires interaction with its environment and with other creatures to survive and thrive. As living beings, our bodies mediate our surroundings: we process nourishments; we encounter heat and cold and adjust to each; we measure the distance between objects with our eyes and hands; we hear the buzz of bees and the song of birds; and we flee in fear of beasts and delight at the sight of children playing. Human life itself is made up of these encounters with our times and spaces, and death marks our departure from them. "Here in germ are balance and harmony attained through rhythm. Equilibrium comes about not mechanically and inertly but out of, and because of, tension." Communion and confrontation define the porous membrane between us and everything else, and the mediation that occurs (always already occurring) is constitutive of change that comes momentarily to rest and then changes again. This transaction, this passage between states of being, marks our experience of our humanity. Essential to this experience are the emotions that are stirred, awakened, and coordinated by the body's construal of the encounter. Dewey explains the relational character of affect in this manner: "But, in fact, an emotion is to or from or about something objective, whether in fact or in idea. An emotion is implicated in a situation, the issue of which is in suspense and in which the self that is moved in the emotion is vitally concerned." What we sometimes obliquely refer to as "normal" life is experience. But this reference occludes an important insight. Dewey bemoans the fact that the normal in the machine age is regimented and routinized; the normal is the same as always and, thus, experience risks becoming a programmed joylessness.

In Weberian terms, this over-rationalization of social life is accompanied by various forms of segmentation that deceive us into feeling that unhappiness is normal. In this apportionment, religion loses spirituality, education misplaces imagination, and government forgets the people. Artists, too, are victimized. Once integrated into the social life of the community, artists now are separated out. Pushed aside by mass production of fetishized objects, they produce art for the sake of personal expression. Moreover, in order to be noticed, artists "often feel obliged to exaggerate their separateness to the point of eccentricity." These individualistic works of art become identified with prized personal possessions of art collectors and museum curators, further discoloring normal life. Once fooled into believing that it takes high-minded leisure to appreciate art works in order to be brought back to life, we accept the premise that the ordinary citizen should not expect to enjoy aesthetic experiences-that one's mundane state of affairs is inevitable, perhaps even right. Still, we crave and seek stimulation, turning to "the cheap and the vulgar." In this fashion, Dewey asserts, high art is believed to foster aesthetic experiences, while popular culture is considered to be mere entertainment. Importantly, as Richard Shusterman notes, this misunderstanding about the nature of aesthetic experience dampens the capacity of so-called low art to be transformative: "The idea of art and the aesthetic as a separate realm distinguished by its freedom, imagination, and pleasure has as its underlying correlative the dismal assumption that ordinary life is necessarily one of joyless, unimaginative coercion." We have arrived at Dewey's central concern: to make aesthetic experiences more readily available to normal people. If "art would be richer and more satisfying to more people," aesthetic experiences might provide the "impulsion" for folks to dream otherwise. But what does a pragmatist really mean by aesthetic experience?

When we speak of aesthetics broadly, we refer to a philosophy of sense-making that occurs through our organic experience of our surroundings. Alan Goldman calls the resultant understanding "sensuous knowledge." The intellect is critically engaged here as well. We ask ourselves, What does this feeling mean? How is it different from previous affects? And what should I do now? These questions, however, do not fully amount to inquiries into aesthetic experience as a special kind of experience because they characterize our daily, unavoidable negotiations with life. As noted before, we must ask them in order to survive, to get along with others. There is a notable difference between asking these sorts of questions robotically-like we may do at large gatherings when we are met with a faceless crowd with which we must interact-and doing so with enthusiasm. The former is unenergetic and, perhaps, insincere. It may be performed through the instigation of previous manners and mechanisms; we pay attention, but it is a dull sort of consideration. We learn from these questions, but they do not offer aesthetic value because they do not awaken us to the possibilities for living and being outside of the scope of behaviors and attitudes routinely recalled by the faceless crowd. They do not pull us intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally toward new ground. What is required is a unified response that literally changes our perception of the faceless crowd into a sparkling vision of fascinating faces. In a sense, we must (for a short time) surrender our balance: "The live being recurrently loses and reestablishes equilibrium with his surroundings. The moment of passage from disturbance into harmony is that of intensest life." Richard Shusterman describes an aesthetic experience as a temporary disjuncture in time and space that "invigorates and vitalizes us, thus aiding our achievement of whatever further ends we pursue." American pragmatism owes much to the historicism and holism of Hegelian dialectics, a debt implicated in Shusterman's continued account: "Aesthetic experience is differentiated not by its unique possession of a particular element but by its consummate and zestful integration of all the elements of ordinary experience." Standing idly in the midst of the faceless crowd, what happens to bring about such an intense interest in faces?

Aesthetic experiences can be provoked from within and from without: a raspy voice when one expects velvet; a soft kiss on the cheek when a firm handshake is the norm; a strong guttural laugh that breaks through the white noise of hushed conversations. Or, the shade on an idea recedes to reveal cognition more clearly as one looks upon a political campaign button worn on a colleague's lapel. In any event, Dewey asserts that this happening "stirs up a store of attitudes and meanings derived from prior experience. As they are aroused into activity they become conscious thoughts and emotions, emotionalized images. To be set on fire by a thought or scene is to be inspired." Inspiration, like heat applied to any object, excites the being through and through. Once inspired, one cannot sit still. "Yet what is evoked is not just quantitative, or just more energy, but is qualitative, a transformation of energy into thoughtful action, through assimilation of meanings from the background of past experiences." In skillful hands, an aesthetic experience can become an aesthetic practice that "reaches out tentacles for that which is cognate, for things that feed it and carry it to completion." Indeed, pragmatist aesthetics insists that aesthetic experiences find meaningful expression. Inspiration sets off aesthetic experiences, but they are achieved "because they are shared." A personal transformation can become a collective one under the right circumstances and with the right expression. This is, of course, why Plato feared poetics and disparaged rhetoric. And since pragmatism seeks to level the kind of distinctions erected by Platonism, "Art's role (like philosophy) is not to criticize reality but to change it; and little change can be effected if art remains a cloistered domain." Far from sequestering art, Dewey seeks for aesthetic experiences to inhabit everyday life so as to revitalize the psychical and material conditions obliged for a Public.


Excerpted from Public Modalities Copyright © 2010 by The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Daniel C. Brouwer is Associate Professor of Human Communication at Arizona State University and coeditor of Counterpublics and the State.
Robert Asen is Associate Professor in Communication Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, coeditor of Counterpublics and the State, and author of Visions of Poverty: Welfare Policy and Political Imagination.

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