Oct 6, 2017

summoning a public

Lisa Brawley recently pointed me to Corey Robin’s 2016 essay, How Intellectuals Create a Public. I can’t believe I didn’t see it before now, because it names something so vital about writing for a non-specialist reader. Robin says it’s not merely a choice between esoteric language versus lay speech, as though a writer merely hopes to bring a fully formed complex idea “to the people.” It’s never as one-way as that. It’s that there are some ideas for which there’s not yet an established public, and that a book written outside its core expert audience seeks precisely to summon that public.

“Publics, as John Dewey argued, never simply exist; they are always created. Created out of groups of people who are made and mangled by the actions of other people. Capital acts upon labor, subjugating men and women at work, making them miserable at home. Those workers are not yet a public. But when someone says — someone writes — “Workers of the world, unite!,” they become a public that is willing and able to act upon its shared situation. It is in the writing of such words, the naming of such names — “Workers of the world” or “We, the People,” even “The Problem That Has No Name” — that a public is summoned into being. In the act of writing for a public, intellectuals create the public for which they write.

This is why the debate over jargon versus plain language is, in this context, misplaced. The underlying assumption of that debate is that the public is simply there, waiting to be addressed. The academic philosopher with his notorious inaccessibility — say, Adorno — obviously has no wish to address the public; the essayist with his demotic presence and proficiency — say, Hazlitt — obviously does. Yet both Adorno and Hazlitt spoke to audiences that did not exist but which they hoped would come into being.”

Right! And I want to say that the act of summoning is different from that of conjuring—that is, it’s possible to imagine some reader that you hope to teach by popularizing a set of ideas that have been hidden behind a veil of unnecessary complexity. But to summon might be something else: a posture of invitation and a deliberate linking of old ideas to people who perhaps only now have use for them, made plain by the orchestration of a writer in a book at the right time. This is reassuring for a first-time writer like me, and it’s an affirmation once again that a writer actively writes to think, not merely transmit some thinking.