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Public Culture

An interdisciplinary journal of transnational cultural studies

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Editor’s Letter

Eric Klinenberg

This issue revisits core themes for Public Culture: time and space, cities and citizenship, truth and justice. The contributors—some familiar, some published here for the first time—argue that there’s an urgency to these issues today, an immediacy born of political action around economic restructuring, urban rescaling, and the unequal incorporation of people and nations in the emerging global order.

In the Forum, Guy Standing, who recently published a remarkable book about the rise of the global precariat, calls for a new politics to address the inequality over control of time. “Throughout history,” he writes, “class struggle has been about the redistribution of the assets that are vital to the good life of the era, largely defined in terms set by the dominant social formation.” Time, he claims, is a crucial but underappreciated and poorly theorized asset. Globalization and the communications revolution have broken down the temporal structures that organized life in industrial capitalism. Today we scramble to manage what Standing calls “tertiary time,” the experience of being perpetually bombarded with demands for our attention, energy, and labor—and the challenge is overwhelming. Stress, anxiety, attention deficit disorder: these, Standing says, are among the most painful challenges of the new temporal regime. Human dignity requires more than just employment, he concludes. We need a movement that promotes play, public culture, and leisure, and we should recognize that these are productive activities as well.

In a short response piece, Andrew Ross traces the recent history of political action to change the course of capitalist development and highlights how aggressively states have repressed these movements. Ross shares Standing’s concerns about the inequities of time, and he is particularly concerned about the plight of young Americans who are financing the higher education system by accumulating private debt. For them, the struggle over time is becoming a fight to recapture control of their own futures. The issue is both imminent and immediate.

The urgency of remaking the present and future is powerfully illustrated in the photo-essay we feature here, a selection from Wayne Lawrence’s series on Zuccotti Park. Lawrence is one of the most exciting portrait artists working today. His images of Occupy Wall Street protestors reveal not only the sincerity of their collective action but also the way the encampment let people experiment with collaborative democracy and with new ways of expressing their individual identities. Taken together, the pictures suggest the ways individual identity-work underlies the particular expressive mode of the Occupy campaign. They show how a movement, and the worlds it makes possible, liberate people to be who they are or what they want to be.

Issues of freedom and truth are at the center of the new essay by Didier Fassin, who here expands his pathbreaking work on humanitarianism in politics and medicine. His essay about the precariousness of truth considers how the meaning of political asylum is established through international debates, national laws, and the processing of concrete cases, as well as how the status of truth claims is evaluated when asylum seekers provide “facts” about their situation.

Interrogating the production of facts has been a central part of the great historian Thomas Laqueur’s scholarship, and in his interview with Seth Koven, Laqueur explores the sources of his interests. The child of European Jews who fled to Turkey before the Holocaust, Laqueur spent most of his childhood in a religious Christian community in West Virginia and later wrote a dissertation (and first book) on how working-class groups in England used religious schools for their own class-based projects. Laqueur’s turn to the history of the body—birth, sex, medicine, and death—is inspired by an attempt to develop what he calls an “ethics of the flesh.” But here he also shows how it grew out of a network in Berkeley, of friends (Natalie Zemon Davis, Peter Brown, Catherine Gallagher, Stephen Greenblatt, and Laqueur’s wife, Carla Hesse) and institutions (Representations, the Townsend Center for the Humanities), whose shared curiosity about how we make meaning inspired a new kind of multidisciplinary work.

Curiosity about recent changes in the scale and structure of cities motivates the set of three articles at the center of this issue. The first is a programmatic essay, “Theses on Urbanization,” in which Neil Brenner proposes a series of hypotheses for remaking urban theory in an age of generalized urbanism. The second, “Water Wars in Mumbai,” by Stephen Graham, Renu Desai, and Colin McFarlane, is a field report on the battle for basic resources and human dignity in a rapidly developing metropolis. The third, “No Contest: Participatory Technologies and the Transformation of Urban Authority,” by Michael McQuarrie, is a fine-grained account of how urban elites convert participatory practices that were once tools of democratization into tools of domination.

Questions about the nature of domination are at the heart of the political theorist Partha Chatterjee’s scholarship, and in his conversation with Manu Goswami, Chatterjee explains how subaltern studies turned the study of the colonies—“something that was purely an object of analysis”—into “a field with its own apparatuses of thinking.” He also describes his recent return to international politics, marked by the publication of The Black Hole of Empire, and his concerns about the kinds of large-scale comparisons that are ubiquitous in contemporary social science. “A great deal of comparison in comparative politics, for instance, uses empirical data that are not strictly comparable,” Chatterjee argues. “Things are made, rather than found, comparable. All too often this does violence to one’s findings. My own inclination would be to be a little more modest about how much we can generalize.”

In most other respects, however, Chatterjee and the contributors to this issue are bold and ambitious. We’re excited to share their work with you.


About the Journal

Public Culture is a reviewed interdisciplinary journal of cultural studies, published three times a year in Fall, Winter, and Spring for the Institute for Public Knowledge by Duke University Press. The journal's full archives are available online at

© Copyright 2006–2009 Public Culture and Duke University Press. All Rights Reserved.

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