Public Culture is in the midst of a transition. The journal’s home has moved to the Institute for Public Knowledge at New York University.We have a new editorial collective, composed mainly of emerging leaders in anthropology, history, media studies, political science, sociology, and urban studies. We’ve introduced new features on the Public Culture website, including “Public Books,” a major initiative designed to promote debates around “big idea” books that deserve more timely and extensive critical attention than they get in traditional scholarly journals. And, as I’ll explain in the next issue — the first that the new editorial team will assemble in full — we will soon make some important substantive and stylistic changes in the journal, all intended to widen the reach and increase the accessibility of the work we publish, and to directly address questions about what it means to do publicly engaged scholarship today.
That said, I think most Public Culture readers will find many continuities in the forthcoming volumes of the journal. We will continue to publish imaginative social theory, vivid ethnographic writing, and visual investigations of all kinds. We will maintain the journal’s commitment to reporting and reflecting current research on the cultural transformations associated with cities, media, and consumption; the cultural flows that draw cities, societies, and states into larger transnational relationships and global political economies; and globalization. We will expand our thematic coverage by inviting critical assessments of important contemporary issues, such as climate change, crises, militarism and empire, the politics of information, the power of markets, and the future of the public sphere. These topics were not named in the Public Culture mission statement that we inherited, but they have long appeared in the journal, and incorporating them more explicitly will merely formalize the way that Public Culture has evolved.
This issue, assembled in the late winter and early spring of 2011, opens with a series of Doxa essays on political culture in the age of the Internet. The first, by Brian T. Edwards, is a field note from Cairo, written a month after Hosni Mubarak’s resignation and examining the challenge of sustaining attention to the local meanings of cultural texts during an intellectual moment when questions about the circulation of ideas and images dominate scholarly and journalistic debates. The second, by Ramesh Srinivasan and Adam Fish, uses ethnological research on recent political uprisings to identify key sites and new problems for scholarship on the relationship between social movements and social media. Srinivasan and Fish call for more analysis of the evolving dynamic between technologically savvy state actors that track Internet activity for repressive purposes and activists who are improvising new ways of circumventing these practices. This is precisely what we find in Gabriella Coleman’s essay on Anonymous and Wikileaks, in which she explores the diverse (if mainly liberal) political commitments and sociotechnical projects that shape hacker practice. Coleman’s research — and the rise of hacker politics more generally — raises difficult questions about the future of “the public” and “the private” in the political field. We will surely revisit this topic.
The issue then features “The Ghost in the Financial Machine,” by Public Culture cofounder Arjun Appadurai. Here Appadurai makes an explicit break from, and challenge to, prominent scholarship on finance that focuses on the performativity of economic devices. More specifically, he asks why a small group of (now quite wealthy) skeptics refused to follow the wisdom of the crowd that inflated the market in the mid-2000s and proposes that the “uncertainty imaginary,” which is motivated by skepticism about the forecasting systems of financial professionals but also by an experientially gained “feel for the game,” led some speculators to bet on the downside of the market. The essay aims to do more than simply analyze short-sellers. Its agenda is to restore attention to the “spirit” of the market, as it was conceived by Marcel Mauss and Max Weber, and to illustrate how an “animistic” account of contemporary finance can advance understanding of economic action in even the most rationalized sites of exchange.
Gökçe Günel’s photo-essay of a decidedly closed consumer ecology — Dubai’s Ibn Battuta Mall — introduces a series of essays on the production and global circulation of politically charged cultural objects. In “Cultural Globalization and the US Civil Rights Movement,” Steve Spence argues that in the early 1960s cultural globalization altered local politics in Birmingham, Alabama, and played an unappreciated role in the dramatic desegregation of the city’s downtown. In “Consumption for the Common Good?,” Jennifer Wenzel shows how three recent documentary films can be read as commodity biographies that trace international networks linking (mostly Third World) producers and (mostly First World) consumers. In “The Sublime Frequencies of New Old Media,” David Novak traces the ways that world music enthusiasts in North America use the Internet to search for and redistribute “authentic” music, showing — to bring it all back home — that circulation has no end.