This issue goes to press at a moment of extreme economic volatility. While some Latin American nations are booming, experts are beginning to warn that the bubble might burst. In Europe, Greece and Portugal are teetering on the edge of financial ruin. Spain is in a deep depression, with unemployment approaching 25 percent and youth unemployment above 50 percent. The media report that individual Europeans are committing “economic suicide,” taking their own lives, sometimes quite publicly, because of their financial demise.
The economist Paul Krugman accuses the European Union of committing economic suicide at a regional level, because its leaders insist on fiscal austerity in suffering nations that will not recover without more expansionary monetary and fiscal policies.
In the United States, the state of the market may well determine the fate of the presidential candidates, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, and therefore of the nation’s immediate future. At the moment, the stock market is booming but the labor market and real estate market remain sluggish. Although the official unemployment rate is down to 8 percent, it’s far higher among African Americans and young people. The relatively high price of oil has substantially increased the cost of living for everyone. Economic insecurity is rampant, social inequality is rising, and few believe that better days are coming soon.
During the past year, however, the Occupy Wall Street movement has sparked new political debates about the status of markets in the United States and, to a lesser extent, internationally as well. In his Forum essay, Nicholas Mirzoeff explains how his participation in the Occupy movement has affected his scholarship, teaching, and political views. He believes that higher education is at an inflection point and that faculty could shape the course of change by fighting to make universities — from the college to the classroom levels — more open and democratic places.
Andrew Lakoff takes up a different set of considerations about democratic participation in his Forum essay, on the controversy over whether scientists should continue doing research that involves manufacturing potentially deadly and highly contagious strains of H5N1, or avian influenza. In this case, concerns that the virus could be taken outside the laboratory led scientists to voluntarily enter a sixty-day moratorium on their research. Through a close reading of the debate over how to handle the “mutant H5N1” virus, Lakoff identifies three distinctive publics that scientists and policy makers conjured: a “dangerous” public of those who would purposely use the virus to do harm, a “vulnerable” public that needs to be protected, and an “ignorant” public whose “unfounded” beliefs about the dangers of scientific research are said to threaten progress and compromise public health.
The photography for this issue comes from China. Three years ago, photographer Philipp Scholz Rittermann began traveling down the Grand Canal, a 2,000-year- old waterway that cuts through the flatlands of eastern China. Along the way, he captured the constant entangling of urban life and agriculture, housekeeping and heavy industry. His pictures are large and extraordinarily beautiful. But, as Carol McCusker’s accompanying essay explains, they also help us glimpse the ways public and private, personal and corporate, overlap in eastern China today. They represent the best of a new, sociologically astute kind of landscape photography, the kind we will continue to publish in Public Culture.
Next we feature E. Valentine Daniel’s conversation with Ann Laura Stoler, whose work — including an essay in our recent issue on racial France — is well known to the journal’s readers. Here Stoler discusses her intellectual trajectory, from her early use of Marx for understanding colonial exploitation in Sumatra to the powerful “sense of recognition” and “uncontainable excitement” she felt when reading Michel Foucault’s texts for her work on race, sexuality, and colonial rule. She also shares observations from experiences outside her key field sites, from Long Island to Palestinian refugee camps in the West Bank. The issue ends with Julia Elyachar’s interview with Timothy Mitchell, whose recent book, Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil, is the summation of a long project on the history of energy, the politics of nature, the theory of democracy, and the role of the Middle East in the modern world.
The sources of our collective beliefs about the economy are the subject of “Imagining the Market,” a photo-essay by Paul Crosthwaite, Peter Knight, and Nicky Marsh. The authors explore how image makers represented financial markets in three significant historical moments: the South Sea Bubble of 1720; the turn of the twentieth century, when bankers, governments, and economists pushed to place finance on a more rational, scientific, and technical foundation; and the era, circa 1973, that gave rise to the contemporary moment of “hyperfinancialized” capitalism.
At the core of this issue is a set of three essays on a theme that the new editorial group plans to revisit: the social life of media in material spaces. Within less than a single lifetime, electronic media have become ubiquitous. Not only do many of us labor at computer screens day in, day out — we also watch videos on the backs of car seats, turn to stadium JumboTrons to catch instant replays, and travel everywhere with our handheld phones. Under these conditions, a new kind of media studies is emerging. In earlier decades, scholars often studied radio and film and television as if the technologies behind them made them simply stand-alone devices. Now a growing number of scholars are analyzing individual media as elements in complex cultural ensembles, assemblages that also include buildings, automobiles, and multiple media technologies.
In this issue of Public Culture, we’re proud to present the work of three scholars who are helping create this new kind of analysis. The first, Chandra Mukerji, is a cultural sociologist who has long studied the public life of ancien régime France. As she reveals in her essay here, the gardens of Versailles served as a simultaneously material and signifying space for the orienting of political loyalties. In that sense, her article reminds us that the landscape itself has long been used as a medium. Cultural historian Lynn Spigel’s account of a high-modern storage cabinet in turn reveals the ways that the seemingly mundane details of designing and furnishing a Cold War – era house have set the terms on which we are now integrating computers into our lives. Finally, Erica Robles-Anderson, who studies the ways media technologies transform space, visits one of the most influential megachurches in America, the Crystal Cathedral. There she shows how a Dutch Protestant denomination with deep roots in Calvinism transformed a drive-in movie theater into a towering chapel of glass and steel, hung with giant video screens, and so helped give rise to a style of congregation that now dominates much of American religion.
Together, these essays invite us to rethink the relationship between media technologies and the material world. At a moment of extraordinary technological change, when all eyes are turned to the digital future, they return us to the past. And as they do, they remind us that media technologies have never been mere platforms from which to deliver messages, but have always been part and parcel of the architecture of our lives.