Since its founding, in 1988, Public Culture has become a premier outlet for research on cultural globalization, cosmopolitanism, transnational politics, the public sphere, and the circulation of new cultural forms. By 2001 incoming editor Elizabeth Povinelli could write, without exaggeration, that the journal’s innovative interpretations of modernity at large had become “the tacit assumptions of most studies of public cultural phenomena." In 2006 Claudio Lomnitz could use his inaugural editorial statement to quite legitimately report that “the journal, in short, gave shape, form, and verve to an entire field.” Naturally, the first question for the new editorial group of Public Culture is, what next? Or, more specifically, what can a new generation of cultural scholars contribute to the legacy of this publication and to the field it helped establish?
One simple way is to focus our critical attention on cultural problems that have emerged or become more pressing since the late Carol Breckenridge and Arjun Appadurai founded the journal. After all, in 1988 hardly anyone used the Internet or mobile telephones. The Berlin Wall and the twin towers of the World Trade Center were still standing. The Soviet Union and the apartheid regime in South Africa were still intact. Iran and Iraq were at war with each other, and the Soviet army was winding down its campaign in Afghanistan. Not until that summer did NASA scientist James Hansen warn the US Congress that “greenhouse warming” could have a major impact on the earth’s climate. There was no way to know how prescient he was.
Today the most urgent cultural question for our species may be whether and how we can change our relationship to the environment — and I call this a cultural question because engineers and policy makers cannot effect this change on their own, nor can they operate without doing their own cultural work. How will states, corporations, and citizens on different continents, with divergent trajectories and distinctive histories, change their modes of production and patterns of consumption to sustain human life on this planet? How will they manage the struggles over basic resources, such as food, potable water, and durable shelter, and the related security threats that now appear to be inevitable consequences of climate change? Who or what will persuade global leaders that the way we live now is unsustainable? Will it happen before it’s too late?
Climate change is only one of our contemporary crises. We also inhabit a world in which militarism has penetrated into the cultural fabric, leading historically open and democratic nations to compromise and even violate their founding principles and turning “security” into a key problem of our time. The US war on terror, which has no clear goal or foreseeable end point, has underwritten repressive and violent activities around the globe while contributing to a debt crisis in the federal government and creating rampant insecurity at home. In Israel, fear of terrorist violence led the government to build a snaking fence around the territories, locking out Palestinians but walling in itself. Where will this mounting anxiety take us? How will different states or communities “do” security, and what will such projects require citizens to give or give up?
In recent years, and especially since the world’s wealthiest nations bailed out major financial firms during the Great Recession, citizens throughout the Western world have been forced to give up many of the social protections they had secured, through well-organized political efforts, from the welfare state. In exchange, they are increasingly subjected to the rule of the market, which — as insecure workers in the global South have long known — can be callous during times of prosperity and punitive during downturns. For most of the world’s population, the market is not unlike the climate: beyond our control and yet determinative of our individual and collective fate. The economic disasters born of corruption, rampant deregulation, and high-risk speculation have generated considerable populist hostility toward banks and other financial institutions, as well as toward lax regulators. The Occupy Wall Street movement has tapped into widespread concerns about the failures of neoliberalism and generated new interest in other forms of governance, but we still lack forums for genuine public debate about alternative forms of social organization. Public Culture should be a place where we are critical but can also go beyond critique, a space where we join together to imagine more just and sustainable futures.
One domain in which new forms of social organization are quickly emerging is the media, and Public Culture will continue to feature extensive ethnographic reporting and searching analysis of this dynamic cultural space. We are in the midst of a communications revolution whose outcome is by no means certain. Today information is everywhere, but so too is our attention. There’s a global competition for eyeballs, and entertainment reigns. Social media give us new ways to share, connect, and cooperate, but they also give corporations new ways to track our behaviors and interests and give governments new tools for cracking down on dissent. A rising generation of cultural consumers believes that information should circulate freely, but no one knows who will pay for professional journalism or whether the world’s great newspapers can evolve to survive the digital age. There are new infrastructures for making cultural objects public and for making all varieties of publics newly visible. Although the battles to shape these infrastructures are often removed from the world of scholarly production, their consequences — for our work and for cultural debate more generally — can be profound.
Today an abundance of smart and serious research on all of these topics is being done by scholars of culture in a variety of disciplines. Too often, however, this research is published in arcane language that communicates to a narrow set of specialists but not to a broader public, or even to intellectuals in other fields who are exploring similar themes. In recent years, mounting frustration with such highly specialized forms of academic production in the social sciences and humanities has led to calls for more rigorous, publicly engaged scholarship in anthropology, communications, cultural studies, history, literature, political science, and sociology. But we lack a venue that welcomes important contributions on cultural questions from all of these fields, a place where strong writing and clear argumentation are recognized as craft virtues, where the public dissemination of specialized research is an overriding goal. Public Culture aims to fill that void.
Full-length articles based on original research will remain the core of Public Culture, and short, timely essays will continue to run at the front of each issue, in a section that we call the Forum. But, with this issue, we are also introducing new features: Public Culture Interviews will be in-depth discussions with contemporary thinkers who have influenced and inspired us. Typically, we are familiar only with scholarly labor’s final results, published books and articles or occasional lectures. We are all interested in what goes into this final product, which is often the result of many years spent grappling with empirical materials, posing new questions, interpreting existing scholarship, and conversing with colleagues.
Our conversations will call attention to the backstage of intellectual practice. How do scholars search for and identify compelling problems? How do they find their way into and out of complex and difficult material? How do they conceive of their audiences and of their relation to existing disciplines? How do they engage different publics? How do they remain self-critical, open to updating their knowledge, even changing perspectives and ideas? Public Culture Interviews will be open-ended explorations of how intellectual creativity works. We want them to provide insight into each particular subject’s way of working and, in so doing, give us all a chance to reflect on our craft.
This is, of course, not the only form of observation we will promote here. Public Culture has always had a strong commitment to images. We’ve won a national award for our design. And we’ve published innovative, hard-to-find work by artists from around the globe. Such a strong commitment to visual culture might seem strange — after all, readers today find themselves surrounded by pictures. Newspapers and websites stream endless visions of athletes leaping, politicians weeping, and heroic soldiers and civilians struggling to survive wars and famines. The naturalistic imagery of journalism and advertising has become inescapable. It’s tempting to forgo the visual entirely and to offer the journal as a refuge from the widespread assault on our eyes. Yet we believe that we can present a kind of work that helps readers see beyond these stereotypes.
In the future, as in the past, we will publish analytic images — that is, pictures that help us glimpse the cultural patterns, social structures, and transformations of nature underlying contemporary life. They will include photographs by artists, journalists, and scholars but also images of artworks, film stills, and video footage on our website. These images will surprise not only by revealing times and places rarely seen but also by modeling ways of using our eyes to register deep changes in the social and natural landscape. They will, in short, be pictures to think with.
Visual culture will feature prominently on our website, www.publicculture.org. But the signature feature of our online offerings will be Public Books, which extends the reach of Public Culture by giving scholars a venue for discussing significant books (fiction and nonfiction) in wide-ranging essays that address issues of broad concern. We care about books because they offer something unique to public discussions: extended argumentation and insight grounded in robust, original research. And we care about book reviews because, at their best, they offer analytic perspective and model exemplary forms of productive critical engagement.
Public Books will be published online because we want to take advantage of the Internet’s many technological capacities. First, it allows us to give important new books the critical attention they deserve in a timely way — rather than one or two or even three years after they are released, as is so often the case with scholarly book reviews. Second, it allows us to include a range of critical perspectives — beginning with the reviewer, of course, but also expanding to integrate other reviewers and the author, should the review essay provoke a larger debate. Third, the Internet allows us to add short, stimulating features to our book coverage, such as interviews and conversations with authors; field notes from ethnographic projects and from literary scenes around the world; updates from conferences, book festivals, and exhibits; reports from the disciplines on new work that should interest readers from other fields; and brief, summary reviews that we will publish frequently in the Public Books blog. Finally, publishing Public Books online lets us develop it organically, according to how you make use of it. We look forward to seeing you there.
For now, we invite you into our first issue, volume 24, number 1. It begins with two Forum essays about recent controversies involving politics, academic institutions, and publicly engaged intellectuals. The first, by Craig Calhoun, explores what we can learn from revelations, reported in early 2011, that a number of elite universities and high-profile scholars were effectively doing paid public relations work — and in some cases even lobbying — on behalf of Muammar Qaddafi’s authoritarian regime. “The premise of building relations with Libya wasn’t all wrong,” Calhoun argues. “But it is remarkable that not a single one of the academics who visited Libya during the Qaddafi thaw focused on (or even argued for) more serious study of Libya. All seemed to think that their abstract theories of how democracy, cosmopolitanism, or soft power worked were adequate on their own.”
Calhoun cautions against the kinds of morally charged finger-pointing that could reduce this story to matters of individual judgment or choice. Instead, he situates the global entanglements of US and British institutions in the emerging status and political economy of the academic field, in which the pursuit of money and prestige threatens to distort the agendas of research, education, and scholarly debate. Universities, after all, remain brokers of symbolic honor, but their conduct in the world could undermine their standing. Calhoun concludes on a cautionary note, reminding academic leaders that “neither receiving funding nor building a strong academic relationship can be perfectly neutral; it will change the university involved and should be approached with attention to making sure that change is for the good.”
The second Forum essay, by Tom Medvetz, assesses the meaning of a more parochial scandal: the “Cronon affair,” in which a member of the Wisconsin Republican Party used the state’s Open Documents Law to demand access to letters that contained the names of certain Republicans. The letters were in University of Wisconsin history professor William Cronon’s e-mail account after Cronon blogged about Governor Scott Walker’s crackdown on public employees. Medvetz, author of the forthcoming The Rise of Think Tanks in America: Merchants of Policy and Power (University of Chicago Press), interprets the political crackdown on Cronon, “not as indicating a pervasive threat to academic freedom per se, but as an object lesson in the marginality and ineffectiveness of intellectuals in American public debate.”
The first full article, by Fred Turner, offers a new interpretation of what is perhaps the most viewed exhibition of photography ever assembled: Edward Steichen’s The Family of Man, which opened in 1955 at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art and was viewed by some 7.5 million people during the decade it traveled the world. Turner, a historian of media who is working on a book about American political culture in the 1940s and 1950s, challenges recent critics who have condemned the show for mythologizing America and denying the nation’s legacy of racial violence and class division. Turner acknowledges both the exhibition’s middlebrow aesthetics and the brutality of racial, sexual, and political repression in 1950s America. But he urges us to focus on the way its design — a mix of images, in different sizes, displayed at different heights and angles — created “a three-dimensional arena in which visitors could practice acts of mutual recognition, choice, and empathy — the core perceptual and affective skills on which democracy depended.”
While Turner insists that the design for The Family of Man promoted an antiauthoritarian political sensibility, he is hardly advocating its ideological agenda. Instead, he sees in it a more subtle, emergent form of political and social control: a society in which citizens must submit to a systems-oriented, highly mediated order, one that will simultaneously celebrate and constrain their freedom.
Following the Turner essay is our first Public Culture Interview: Mary Poovey, in conversation with senior editor Caitlin Zaloom. Poovey, the Samuel Rudin University Professor in the Humanities and a professor of English at New York University, is a scholar of nineteenth-century British literature, history, and culture, but her two most recent books — Genres of the Credit Economy (2008) and A History of the Modern Fact (1998) — have influenced scholars throughout the humanities and social sciences. She is currently engaged in a collaborative project on the history of financial modeling, and her research partner is not a research professor but a financial professional who spent twenty years on Wall Street. In this wide-ranging interview, Poovey discusses her early training in literary theory, her techniques for finding unusual archives and for writing across conventional disciplinary divisions, her enthusiasm for collaboration, and her appreciation for what she calls the “only live drama on television,” sports.
We next feature a set of four articles — by Ananya Roy, Julia Elyachar, Peter Redfield, and Vincanne Adams — on the theme “Poverty Markets: The New Politics of Development and Humanitarianism.” The section, which was organized by Roy, examines how entrepreneurial organizations and financial firms have found ways to profit from the economic activity of the world’s poorest (or, to use Roy’s phrase, “bottom billion”) people. The articles, Roy writes, explore those “zones of intimacy where poverty is encountered through volunteerism, philanthropy, and other acts of (neo)liberal benevolence” and take us from Africa to India and post- Katrina New Orleans. Collectively, these articles document the resilience of the market as a social institution, even after free market fundamentalism led so much of the world into financial peril. They also ask us to consider alternatives, which are dauntingly difficult to imagine in an age where welfare states and nonprofit philanthropies have lost so much of their credibility and even humanitarianism looks impure.
The issue ends with another interview, this one with Ian Hacking, who held the chair of Philosophy and History of Scientific Concepts at the Collège de France. Hacking has spent much of his career on large projects: one, which he calls “making up people,” is about the interaction between classifications of people and people themselves; another, which he calls “styles of scientific reasoning,” assesses how we think about nature and how we might learn to change the ways we think; and a third, a history of mathematics that, Hacking says, has “festered” since he “started with [it] as a lad,” has been the subject of his recent public lectures and is nearly ready for publication. Here, in conversation with senior editor Andrew Lakoff, Hacking explains how he became interested in the way probabilities came to dominate the modern world; how and why he keeps up with current scientific literatures; how his work has been received in his home field, philosophy; and how he has engaged with readers beyond it.