We know about the proliferating demands faced by higher education researchers to collaborate, co-produce and publicly engage; we also know these demands exist in tension with unprecedented pressures on researchers to compete. We know about the proliferation of engagement techniques and technologies of communication which are becoming ever more publicly accessible; and, we also know that theoretical understandings of ‘the public’ are becoming ever more diverse and divergent. What we perhaps know less about is the myriad of ways that engagers and those being engaged are being positioned in this complicated contemporary environment; and, the different ways engagers and those being engaged are currently working to negotiate positions in response.
More specifically, we still don’t yet know enough about how familiar and relatively established ways of understanding ‘the public’ and ‘public engagement’ are being unsettled and re-made in this context; or about the new forms of publicness that may be emerging as a result.
Public engagement, in this context, should perhaps be seen as being as much about the challenge of engaging collectively with the contradictions of the current moment, as it is a technical process of communication/mediation, in the more established sense. Maybe there is also a need to become less obsessed with generating clear public positions; and, with the associated idea that this might somehow miraculously work to inform or mobilize small or larger-scale public interest or support. The split forms of subjectivity and identification being produced, inhabited and negotiated by engagers and publics during this time of multiplying crises should perhaps be seen as the starting point for public conversations, rather than be seen as an obstacle that needs to be cleared away in advance.
There are reasons we may feel nostalgic about ‘the public’, ‘the public sector’ and even the ‘mass’ public relations techniques of thirty years ago. But there are also reasons why we need to give much wider consideration to other possible imaginaries, ways of being and mediating publics. Such alternatives ways of being public are already competing with more familiar repertoires in the contemporary conjuncture, with this adding to the atmosphere of crisis and contestation over contemporary concerns. We need to better understand how new divisions of public resources, public labour and more plural, less exclusive and more creative ways of being public are already competing with more established formats, formations and repertoires. We also need to know more about the new forms of public infrastructure that will be needed to support these emerging processes of public making and experimentation and how they are being used to prop up or publicly critique their development.
As competition over what it means to be public intensifies (against and in relation to intensifying marketization and proliferating crises), we therefore perhaps need to expect that the contradictions, tensions and forms of splitting that accompany these processes will also endure. I can’t see any sign that being public is going to be getting any easier any time soon.