Publics and Counterpublics — from Dewey to Shirky, Fraser and Warner

Class readings this week reminded me of how media culture and media-making are interpreted differently, depending upon which ‘bubble’ you’re in. As a former practitioner and someone who spent a lot of time teaching, thinking about and putting energy into professional practice curricula, the ideas about media use and production that come from those who never went through that professional training gauntlet are often quite surprising. For instance, I enjoyed revisiting Nancy Fraser’s and Michael Warner’s contemporary ideas about ‘publics’. But it was a smaller reading focused on John Dewey’s elevation of technology to a tool of inquiry that caught my attention (and heart).

I found the life of the journalist to be a life of learning – the production itself a sort of afterthought to what was fundamentally a selfish act of ‘being there’. The camera and the editing suite were tools and techniques, and often the formats I had to follow were more efficiently delivered if my reporting was hammered out in a formulaic manner. But the good part was being in the field and having the license to ask questions when the natural impulse is to mind your own business.

Doing journalism, in my view, wasn’t much of a stretch from doing ethnography or history or other, more scholarly endeavours as an act of inquiry itself (save for the lit search). When the tools to produce media democratized through digitization, here came everybody (apologies to Shirky). Here came public(s) we hadn’t seen or heard much from before. We’re asking in class what that has meant for democratic society. But there are some big assumptions embedded within that question about the conditions of media practice in the old ‘mainstream’. You have to be pretty careful not to over-romanticize the democratic communication landscape that came before.

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