Publics and "Social Action"

More Than Mere Semantics

This section discusses what is meant by social action and “publics” and argues that Dewey’s definition of “publics,” while at times congruent with our contemporary ideas, challenges us to draw better distinctions between multiple publics. In discussing current usages of the terms “publics” and “social action,” this section clarifies definitions and locates how publics and social action were defined in the articulation of my project.

Citizens, Netizens, and Overlapping Publics

In “How Democratic Can We Get?” Irene Ward (1997) claims that Jurgen Habermas is of interest to “rhetoricians and composition scholars because he connects discursive practices to the creation, maintenance and transformation of public democratic practices and in doing so has devised both a discourse ethics and a general theory of communicative action” (p. 365-6). Many successful attempts have been made to transfer Habermasian models to our field (Crick 2010; Chambers, 1996; Aber, 1991; Trimbur, 1989; Wells, 1996) and overall Habermas’ conceptualization of public as a primarily “discursive domain” (Weisser, 1999, p.58) serves as a productive model for our field. Yet, while Ward sees potential in using Habermasian models in our exploring of the Internet as a bourgeois public space, she poses questions that, even as they approach fifteen years in age, still require an appropriate response:

Will the Internet actually allow more and better citizen participation in democracy? Will citizens need facility with Internet discourse in order to influence public issues? Or will we foster the illusion that students are engaging in public discourse when in fact they are not? (Ward, 1997, p.366)

While it seems as though our field has adequately addressed the first two questions, the third question is in my mind a real matter of concern. When “public” is evoked in our field, it can be a rather indeterminate term that usually refers to the concept of the “public sphere” and not any actual sites. For Marilyn Cooper and Kenneth Bruffee, writing is a form of social action. For Joseph Harris (1996), “public” writing serves as a useful metaphor for the writing classroom; for Bruce Herzberg (1994), “public writing” takes on more service learning connotations through “real applications” for student writing. Public writing, though, as Weisser asserts, is far from just writing an editorial: public writing “entails being able to make your voice heard on an issue that directly confronts or influences you” (p.94).
      Over the years, and as Ward’s questions became increasingly more pertinent, engagement in the digital public has also been termed “social action” (Benson and Reyman, 2009) or a “new form of social practice” (Davies and Merchant, 2007). This has been driven largely by Henry Jenkins et al.’s (2006) resoundingly influential white paper and the notion that the Internet is  a participatory culture, with one of its key characteristics being “civic engagement.” The notion that digital forms of participation constitute “social action” is evidenced in Carolyn R. Miller and Dawn Shepherd’s (2005) webtext, in which they commit to using the phrase “social action” without qualifying it, perpetuating the belief that writing online is a form of social action. As such, articulations of “civic engagement” or public pedagogies count digital participation as “social action,” in large part because students are engaging in “less-private” forms of writing. Because writing is construed as a form of social action and because digital spaces are considered, rightfully so, “public,” the broad term of “civic engagement” encompasses both face-to-face and digital public interactions and exchanges.
      While I will not go so far so say that digital civic pedagogies are fostering the illusion Ward cautioned, I contend that there does need to be a more nuanced way to think of “publics” that require “social action” as it relates specifically to blogging. I argue that bigger distinctions need to be made between the two “forms” of action, considering the sheer amount of blog posts that go unnoticed. Middlebrook (2010), in his articulation of professionalized blogging begins to get at this:

Pertaining to the role that the internet plays in the construction of contemporary identities, Charles Ess (2005) argues that computer-mediated communication has caused neither a McLuhanesque “electronic global village” (p. 162), nor "its complete absence in the celebrated postmodern fragmentation and decentering" (p. 166). Rather the outcome is an agglomeration of what Ess refers to as “partial publics,” a concept derived from Jurgen Habermas’ notion of Teilöffentlichkeiten (p. 163); included among these partial publics, according to Ess (2005), are scholarly and professional bodies, many of which conduct their web-based interlocutions through blogs. Yet Susan Herring and her co-authors (2005) question the interlocking dynamism of the blogosphere, for their research indicates that while there is an “A-list” of blogs to whom many link, refer to, and comment on, “a majority of blogs link sparsely or not at all to other blogs […], suggesting that the blogosphere is partially interconnected and sporadically conversational” (p. 1), with most blogs a kind of “long tail.”

The Habermasian notion of “partial publics” of which Ess describes contributes to the criticism of blogs as disconnected journals lacking linkage to others and thus oftentimes lacking an entirely “public experience.” Indeed, though, this “partially public” possibility is an obstacle to overcome as writing instructors in order that we give students the most interactive and “social” experience possible. This practice, taking place within the concept of “overlapping publics,” has been used by Warner (2002), Marks (2008), and boyd (2008), and is a “useful construct when attempting to describe distributed interactions inculcated in participatory learning environments” (McNely, et al., 2010). McNely, et al. (2010) continue:

[Overlapping publics] connotes the complexity of digital communication, where individuals are situated at any moment within multiple, overlapping, public social structures that may both circumscribe and foster rhetorical agency.  Boundary objects—“artifacts or ideas that are shared but understood differently by multiple communities” (Morville, 2005, p. 119)—may act as pivots for social interaction among differing publics in participatory learning environments.  More importantly, boundary objects’ appropriation and reuse can provide opportunities for exploring the complexities of digital publics. Interactions around boundary objects such as blog posts are marked by a kind of conflation and collision of different perspectives.  These conflations and collisions of varying perspectives may facilitate opportunities for new meaning-making.

Clay Shirky (2008) affirms that enabling participatory educational experiences using social media is “ridiculously easy”; the issue rests in being able to create meaningful contact and interactions between multiple publics. In this case, the challenge is being able to enact meaningful interactions between the local community and digital literacy tools used to create online publics.

Deweyan Publics

Crick (2010, p. 62) discusses the fact that Dewey was very cognizant that there were many “publics.” While Dewey did define the public rather broadly, he did acknowledge that “publics” were groups of individuals who are were concerned with regulating their consequences through communicative means. Dewey did show signs of lamenting the vast number of publics that did exist, indicating that the life of the modern citizen was fragmented; however as Asen (2003) has shown, this should not be interpreted as a call for a return to a single, monolithic “public,” as the Greeks spoke of it. Rather, it should be noted as an argument that “the publics [do] not interact enough.” Instead of invoking a Habermasian focus on the creation and maintenance of the public sphere, Dewey focuses on the interaction between distinct publics, caused mainly by the fragmentation of modern societies (Crick, 2010, p. 62). Dewey avoids the tendency to universalize publics and as such can serve as a productive framework upon which to theorize the interaction, indeed the potential “overlapping” digital and community publics.
      “Public” as a concept and reality is much more complex in our contemporary digital culture. There are divided understandings about what “publics” means, but there are clear distinctions between public and the evolving digital public, which is continually increasing towards a more universalized audience. Our textual and pedagogical engagement in these digital “publics” has led some to speak of an increasing “participatory culture” (Jenkins, et al., 2006) in which students “engage.” The problem is that participation in these digital publics oftentimes, if not most of the time, have no connection to the localized community other than the users’ physical location within it. I am not arguing that these two publics are separate or that they don’t inform each other or even share common ends. But, in literature that informs our field, I feel as though these two publics do not interact enough. How can these concepts help expand our thinking through the use of blogs in the writing classroom? How can Dewey’s understand of multiple publics draw more explicit connections between how technology can contribute to civic engagement pedagogies?
      It is not the act of entering into community encounters that is radical, but rather it is doing so under the guidance of a new paradigm and subsequently using that experience to challenge the typical rhetorical exigence of digital writing tools – this is what can bring about radical change in students and their writing.

Phyllis M. Ryder (2008) shares what this form of pedagogy might look like by outlining her work with a local DC non-profit organization, taking up her own call that study of public rhetoric needs to be done by closely with local organizations, groups, and/or communities and with the assumption that the “public” is ultimately a site of struggle between multiple and even conflicting groups or “publics.”