Following-on from my last post, I thought it may be useful to say a few more words about how it may be possible to make more of the vast and fast-emerging literature on the topic of the public. And, more specifically, about one way that some of this literature might be used to help actual or prospective engagers respond to the growing weight of contemporary demand for public engagement.
I’ll flag up two issues in this post: one relates directly to the literature and the other relates to why the responsibilities for public engagement and for mediating the publics of public engagement need to be more evenly shared, co-produced (or co-created) between engagers and the engaged.
When it comes to approaching the literature, it is necessary to underline once again that this body of work offers a rich stock of ideas, debates and resources for actual or prospective engagers. This is despite it not giving engagers a univocal or uncontested set of guidelines regarding how the public can be understood, what the public is, could or should be, or how it needs to be addressed or engaged.
Recognising this leads to a situation in which engagers now face an increasingly heavy weight of responsibility for thinking and making decisions about which ideas (or combination of ideas) of the public they will draw on and make use of when it comes to them planning and organizing engagement in their own settings. In turn, this means that engagers are now required to negotiate how they can most effectively work, not as a ‘conduit’, but rather as an active mediator (and even co-creator) of publics. So it is to this issue, of how engagers can negotiate this role as public mediators, and to the issue of what resources they can use to help them do this that I’ll briefly turn in what remains of this post.
I want to suggest once again that non-essentialist resources and approaches (see previous post) provide the most valuable starting point for engagers in the current context. This is because, rather than attempting to pre-define any one particular idea of the public, non-essentialist ideas and approaches can instead help the engager open out space to think about how ideas of the public are already circulating in a given situation and therefore how publics might emerge in and through processes of public mediation. I am thinking here about experimental forms of engagement and about how ideas and ways of being public can potentially be produced, or co-created, in and through the relations of call and response. In contemporary settings in which ideas and versions of the public are typically multiple, moving and unsettled, the challenge engagers face is to respond to and act in the midst of these settings and ongoing developments. When normative or calculative models of the public are used to frame and provide the starting points for processes of public engagement, then the weight of responsibility for realizing what the public in public engagement means (or should mean) falls disproportionately on the engager. I’m interested in exploring how this weight of responsibility, for constituting, mediating and convening publics, might be more evenly distributed and shared. And, how, in turn, this could help engagers respond to the demands and possibilities of contemporary engagement situations.
I’ve recently been drafting an academic paper in which I’ve been exploring some of these ideas and associated possibilities for experimentation in more detail. Part of what this paper does is reflect on the research and piloting work that’s been happening in the context of the Creating Publics project. I’ll be presenting a version of this paper, which I’ve provisionally titled ‘The weight of public engagement’, as part of a panel I’m convening on ‘The emergent politics of public mediation’ at the Science in Public conference on 23 July at The University of Nottingham. I’d certainly welcome the chance to discuss any of this work in progress, either at the Science in Public conference, or via this blog.