On the day that the Occupy camp outside of St. Paul’s cathedral in the City of London is dismantled and its occupants evicted, it may seem a rather odd time to say something about the imagery that has been used on this blog to animate the Creating Publics project (I’m referring here to the somewhat ambiguous black and white photo showing a crowd of bowler and more fancy hat wearing people that appears under the banner headline at the top of this blog). The un-cropped version of this image appears on the Creating Publics project homepage on CCIG website’s, but it was found as a result of some searching on the Flickr Creative Commons website before Christmas 2011. The idea at the time was to find a photo that could be freely used to help visually describe something about this project.
The image (which is actually a copy of one that exists in hard copy form in the Library of Congress archive) is of the women’s suffrage activist Emmeline Pankhurst who is pictured assembling a public/audience/crowd in Wall Street in New York on 27 November 1911.
Almost exactly one hundred years after this image was captured, in 2011, the Occupy movement and its protestors took up their own place in (a park adjacent to) Wall Street followed by countless other people who occupied (physical and virtual) spaces around the world.
In some respects at least, the discourses and tactics deployed by Occupy resonate with some of those used by Pankhurst and the other women’s suffrage activists all that time ago. Both movements operated by working to convene publics that were present-and-future and injustice-and-justice-oriented entities. Each of these movements also, at least according to the criteria of many of the prevailing contemporary commentators, had a political agenda that was both overly “unrealistic” and overly “radical”.
In the context of Creating Publics, this image was chosen because of the way it helps call up a set of long-standing issues about how academic social science does its public work. This being the work of tracing, remembering, spotting, interpreting and intervening in the fragile processes through which future and justice-oriented publics are formed, interacted with and reformed over time.
Put more strongly, one way of reading this image is by locating it in the context of todays news and associated contemporary public and academic debates and thereby seeing it as one that summons social scientists to ‘occupy’ a place in ongoing and emerging processes of public formation.
Many social scientists In CCIG and beyond are of course already committed to actively participating in precisely these kinds of debates and to experimenting with new, contextually responsive, approaches to academic and public practice. On one level, the Creating Publics project therefore simply provides a platform to further discuss and elaborate some of these on-going and still emerging advances to public engagement theory and practice. Rather than lodging any kind of claim about the “radicality” of the Creating Publics project this image is therefore being used here simply to re-animate issues that are already ‘live’ in UK and international debates about publicness, emerging publics and public engagement in/with social science research.
Occupying public engagement is therefore offered here as an idea that simply underscores the need to continue to talk collectively about the problems and possibilities of collaboration, conversation and public engagement, especially in the context of the present – confusing, contradictory but also not yet settled – conjuncture. Given the contemporary multiplication of public crises; the myriad of forms of political experimentation that are appearing in response; and, the increasing proliferation of public and academic fears and hopes for the future also circulating at this time, there now seems to be – more than ever – an opening for social movements, governments, universities and social science faculties to underwrite investigative and experimental processes of this kind. Whether an ‘occupation’ of the public engagement agenda can actually take place or be effective, only time will tell.